Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

 

Title: The Woman in the Library

Author: Sulari Gentill

Published: 7th June 2022, Poisoned Pen Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Poisoned Pen Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Metafiction is a rare narrative technique, and often difficult to execute successfully, but The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill does so with ease, offering a clever and compelling mystery novel.

In this story within a story (within a story), Australian author Hannah Tigone is writing a murder mystery, inspired in part by her correspondence with American aspiring author and fan, Leo Johnson. In Hannah’s developing manuscript, Australian author Winifred ‘Freddie’ Kincaid, is in Massachusetts on a writers’ scholarship, when she becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that takes place in the Boston Public Library. As Hannah completes each chapter, Leo provides feedback via emails, the tone of which grow more imperious, and disturbing, as the story develops in ways he doesn’t like.

As Freddie, along with psychology student Marigold, law student Whit, and published author Cain whom she meets when a scream disturbs the quiet of the Boston Public Library Reading Room, tries to solve the murder of a young journalist, it’s testament to Gentill’s skill that I was invested in the story, and often forgot it’s place in the novel’s structure, in fact I occasionally resented the reminder when disrupted by Leo’s missives. With its air of a ‘locked room’ mystery, I was deftly led astray by Gentill’s misdirects, and found myself eager to discover who, how, and why the murder was committed.

I feel I have to mention the adroit way in which Gentill navigated the world events of 2019/2020, the years in which this book was set, with the CoVid pandemic, the BLM protests in the US, and the fires that ravaged the Eastern coast of Australia, all acknowledged in interesting ways.

Ingenious and intriguing, The Woman in the Library is a terrific read.

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Review: Wildflower by Monique Mulligan

 

Title: Wildflower

Author: Monique Mulligan

Published: 8th March 2022, Pilyara Press

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

 

Wildflower is a thoughtful and poignant story by Australian author Monique Mulligan.

In this dual timeline novel, the narrative shifts between that of ten year old Jane Kelly over a six week period during the summer of 1979, and the first person perspective of an anonymous woman 20 years later. Both narratives thoughtfully address the issue of domestic violence -the behaviours and attitudes that contribute to it, and its tragic legacy.

The school holidays have just begun for Jane. She’s glad to be able to escape the daily bullying at school inflicted by Mary Evans, but despairing at spending the summer alone, so when Acacia Miller moves in next door, Jane is determined they will be best friends. To her delight, the two girls are almost immediately inseparable but Jane doesn’t understand why there are questions Acacia refuses to answer, or why she’s never invited to play inside her friends home.

In the latter timeline, related from a first person perspective, an anxious and bruised woman makes the decision to leave her abusive husband and, with nowhere else to go, finds herself at a womens’ shelter. As the woman struggles to rebuild her life from the welcome safety of the refuge, she reflects on the circumstances that has led to her situation, confronting a legacy of violence.

Mulligan writes with insight and clarity about the complex subject of domestic violence. She presents it from the perspectives of several individuals including victims, survivors, and observers with compassion and sensitivity. She also explores the social, cultural and various situational contexts that contribute both directly and indirectly to the problem, like traditional attitudes about gender roles, and alcohol/drug use.

A stand out for me is Mulligan’s portrayal of her characters, particularly her child characters who think, speak and act appropriately for their varying ages, something few authors are able to do well. I thought Jane was a wonderful narrator, while bright and curious, her youthful innocence underscores the poignancy of events.

I also thought it was clever of the author to use the anonymity of the adult narrator to add another layer of suspense to the story. I did not guess her identity until it was revealed, and I liked the way it tied into the main narrative.

Moving and powerful, Wildflower is an engaging story crafted with care.

++++++++

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

++++++++

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Review: Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

 

Title: Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Author: Benjamin Stevenson

Published: March 2002, Michael Joseph

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

You cannot possibly read the brief prologue to Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson and not be immediately intrigued by the promise of this quirky murder mystery that breaks all the rules.

“Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.”

Though Ernest Cunningham self publishes ‘how-to’ books for crime fiction writers, he can offer no special insight when a stranger is found murdered during a high country snowstorm in the midst of the Cunningham family reunion. However when the sole police officer who responds to the report arrests Ernie’s brother, Michael, whose release from prison for killing a man is the celebratory reason for the gathering, his mother insists he clears Michael’s name. After all, Ernie is the reason Michael went to jail in the first place.

“Call me a reliable narrator. Everything I tell you will be the truth, or, at least, the truth as I knew it to be at the time that I thought I knew it. Hold me to that.”

Related by Ernest in the first person while writing a book in the aftermath of events, the storyline is roughly chronological, though with necessary digressions to explain the family dynamic, and with unnecessary, but often amusing appeals, directed towards the reader, and his editor. Ernie’s conversational tone is delightfully at odds with the escalating drama as death follows death, presumably at the hands of a serial killer with a distinct and unpleasant MO.

“Look, we’re not a family of psychopaths. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some are just unfortunate.”

Family reunions are rarely free of conflict but the Cunningham’s are besieged by it. Ernie is currently person non grata, having testified against his brother in the trial that jailed Michael for three years to the great disappointment of his mother. Ernie’s wife is attending the gathering as his brother’s girlfriend, while Michael’s wife is in attendance hoping to win her husband back. Ernie’s stepsister seems particularly annoyed with everyone, while his Aunt Katherine is demanding everyone sticks to her carefully planned colour coded schedule. And of course, people are dying.

“Ronald Knox’s ’10 Commandments of Detective Fiction’, 1929”

More akin to the classics, Stevenson cleverly subverts many of the expected conventions of mystery fiction, for example, though there is a locked room element to one of the deaths, the door is not actually locked, and he even foretells each murder, including page references in the prologue. Yet there are plenty of surprises, and importantly the pace never drags.

“Family is not whose blood runs in your veins, it’s who you’d spill it for.”

A creative and compelling whodunnit perfect for today’s jaded mystery readers, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone is witty, entertaining and ingenious.

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Review: When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

 

Title: When We Fall

Author: Aoife Clifford

Published: 2nd March 2022, Ultimo Press

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Ultimo Press

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My Thoughts:

 

When We Fall is an atmospheric suspense novel from Australian author Aoife Clifford.

When Alex Tillerson discovers the lower leg of a young women washed up on a beach in the small community of Merritt on Australia’s southern coast, she is both repulsed and intrigued. Identified as belonging to Maxine McFarlane, a local teacher and artist, the police chief seems too eager to declare her death a tragic accident, and Alex is perturbed by the irregularities in his investigation.

A barrister, who is visiting Merritt to convince her mother to move into an assisted living facility due to the onset of dementia, Alex feels compelled to do some investigating of her own, and learns of a connection between the dead woman and the unsolved murder of a teenage girl, Bella, a year earlier. The suggestion that a missing painting holds the answers seems credible when the woman organising a memorial art exhibition is beaten to death, but Alex refuses to be intimidated, determined to unmask a killer. Red herrings abound as Alex examines the actions of the Senior Sergeant ‘King’ Kelly, a handsome local doctor, Bella’s aggressive step-father, and the incongruous presence of a tech mogul. I was proved wrong in my early guess at the motivation and perpetrator, and clever plotting ensured I was surprised by some of the twists.

There are links to issues such as climate change, environmental activism, unemployment, addiction, forced adoption, and prejudice in When We Fell. The title of the novel relates to the story in several ways including a local museum exhibition, the experiences of Alex’s mother as a ‘fallen woman’, and Bella’s wings, a homemade affectation the girl wore everywhere which went missing on her death.

Clifford’s writing is articulate and expressive, with vivid description. The pace is taut, and the suspense is enhanced by the towns claustrophobic environs. A disused lighthouse undergoing rehabilitation looms ominously over the town symbolising the fallacy of safe harbour, and the secrets shrouded in darkness ashore.

Immersive with an intriguing, well-crafted mystery, I found When We Fall to be an engrossing read.

++++++++

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Review: Impossible by Sarah Lotz

 

Title: Impossible

Author: Sarah Lotz

Published: 17th March 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: March 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

I fell in love with Impossible (also published as Impossible Us) by Sarah Lotz a sublime romance with a fantastical twist.

When Nick sends an angry email to a late-paying client that is erroneously delivered to Bee’s inbox, her witty response and his sincere apology leads to daily exchanges, that quickly shift in tone from cautious and friendly to candid and flirty. Meeting in person is the obvious next step, but though they both claim to be waiting under the clock at Euston Station they can’t seem to find one another. While Bee assumes that her best friend, Leila, is right and she’s been had, Nick realises that something strange is happening…something impossible.

Unfolding through the email exchanges and first person narratives of Nick and Bee, Impossible offers a heartfelt romance thwarted by rules of physics. I don’t want to attempt a clumsy explanation of how this happens because you deserve to be drawn into their unconventional love story, and convinced by Lotz that the impossible is possible.

This is a book that appeals directly to the romantic at heart with numerous direct and oblique references to film and literary classics such as The Lake House, You’ve Got Mail, Sliding Doors, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train, with a little David Bowie thrown in as a bonus, but nevertheless the plot feels creative and fresh. More serious issues are touched on too though including infidelity, suicide, domestic violence, and environmental harm.

I was entertained by the witty banter between Bee and Nick, and Lotz develops their chemistry with ease. Both protagonists are older than you might expect, Bee, a fashion designer with her own small business repurposing wedding gowns, is in her early to mid thirties, while Nick, a largely unsuccessful author, is forty-five. Credibly portrayed with a mix of strengths and flaws, they are appealing characters that I found easy to invest in.

Though quite different in tone and theme to her last book, Missing Person, Lotz’s flair for original storytelling, dynamic characterisation, and expressive writing remains compelling.

Witty, poignant, surprising and absorbing, I recommend you embrace the Impossible.

+++++++

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Review: The Very Last List of Vivian Walker by Megan Albany

 

Title: The Very Last List of Vivian Walker

Author: Megan Albany

Published: 9th February 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Hachette

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My Thoughts:

 

“I have lived averagely, loved tepidly and managed to sometimes get the washing on the line before it started to smell from having been forgotten in the machine. These are not major achievements, yet I am attached to all of them.”

 

In The Very Last List of Vivian Walker by Megan Albany, Vivian Walker hasn’t got time to contemplate the meaning of life, she’s dying, and she has stuff to do.

Always one for lists, Vivian puts pen to paper, * Clean the fridge *Declutter the playroom *Get my tax up to date…. If she has time she’ll consider her husband’s additions: *Have sex Make love *Go for long walks in the countryside, though she’ll make the effort for her 8 year old son’s: *Play handball with Mum *Build a robot *Have a sleepover.

Emptying the fridge completely allows Vivian to check off the first item on her list, upping her morphine means she can still beat Ethan in a game of handball, she even agrees to a short walk in the park with Clinton, but the list keeps growing, and time is running out.

“…dying happens moment by moment, so there is still plenty of time to be irritated, provoked, frustrated, angry, resentful and really, really annoyed by the people who will miss you most when you are dead and gone.”

Dying characters, particularly relatively young ones, always seem to have bestowed upon them a mantle of bravery, wisdom and grace, but Albany counters that tradition with her cynical, abrasive, and short-tempered protagonist. Vivian still yells at her son when he tracks sand inside, continues to call out her husband’s (many) failings, and refuses to be the first to break in the latest petty argument with her sister. She’s not particularly likeable most of the time to be honest but she has a wicked, if also cutting, sense of humour and I mostly found her blunt, practical manner refreshing. I could relate to her passion for lists, and her concern about her husband’s capability for picking up the mental load of life admin and parenting after she’s gone. There are also moments when Vivian is kind, and she isn’t devoid of insights or regrets, though they have limited impact on how she continues to live. Details of a very difficult childhood also go some way to redeeming her, so does having earned the loyalty of her outrageous best friend, Marsha.

While I was regularly amused by Vivian’s witty observations, and sharp assessments, the gallows humour and cynicism might be quite confronting for some.  So too may be the realisation that dying may not be a mystical, profound process, but rather a mundane one. Albany doesn’t shy away from the realities of Vivian’s deteriorating physical condition either, and there are no stunning epiphanies or miracles in her last moments, she’s just gone.

“She really wanted to be a good woman, a good friend, a good wife and a good mum. I think she always felt she fell short of perfect, but she was still more than enough…”

Hilarious, provocative and moving, I found The Very Last List of Vivian Walker to be a fabulous read.

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Available to purchase from Hachette Australia

Review: The Islands by Emily Brugman

 

Title: The Islands

Author: Emily Brugman

Published: 1st February 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

“A wreck. That was what they called it, when they washed up like that. A wreck of shearwaters. To travel so far, thought Onni, and all for nothing.”

Emily Brugman’s debut, The Islands, is a beautifully told, poignant tale of loss, migration and belonging. Unfolding over several decades, beginning in the late 1950’s, it relates the events in the lives of the Saari family, revealing key moments of adversity and growth, tragedy and joy.

Set largely amongst the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Western Australia, Finnish immigrants, Onni Saari and and his wife Alva, join the tiny seasonal cray fishing community on Little Rat Island after Onni’s brother is lost at sea.

Onni works hard to provide for his family, though always wary of meeting the same fate as his brother.

Alva easily takes to life on the island, she enjoys making their small corrugated iron hut a home, helping her husband when needed, and the friendship of the crayfisher’s wives, all of them Finns, but never learns to swim.

To Hilda, Little Rat is home, but when she is five, she and Alva are forced to spend most of each year in Geraldton so that Hilda can attend school. It’s a difficult transition for them both, and when, citing injury, Onni sells the fishing lease in 1975, and moves the family to NSW, their dreams of returning to the Islands are shattered.

Flashbacks reveal the Finnish childhoods of Onni and Alva, marred by war and struggle, desirous of security and prosperity.

Enhanced by snippets of Finnish poems and songs, Brugman shares the unique culture of the Finnish immigrants, drawing on her own family’s background.

The author explores the interconnectedness of the Island community, no one is unaffected by another. She also touches on the xenophobia of mid century Australia, and the awkwardness sometimes experienced by the children caught between cultural expectations.

Brugman weaves the history of the cray fishing industry and the varying landmasses that make up the Abrolhos Islands archipelago, which includes the tragic story of the Batavia shipwreck, artfully into the story.

The prose is lyrical, yet uncomplicated, effortlessly evoking character and landscape.

Descriptions of the Islands and the ocean that surrounds them, both terribly beautiful and terribly dangerous, are entrancing.

Eloquent, meditative and atmospheric, The Islands is a captivating novel.

+++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD $29.99

Review: Wild Dogs by Michael Trant

 

Title: Wild Dogs

Author: Michael Trant

Published: 1st February 2022, Bantam Australia 

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Wild Dogs is an exciting and gripping crime thriller from author Michael Trant.

Dingo trapper Gabe Ahearn is somewhere he shouldn’t be in the Western Australian outback when he stumbles across a pair of thugs looming over two Afghan men pleading for their lives at gunpoint. Gabe is the first to declare he is not a good man, but he can’t simply stand by and watch a cold blooded execution and intervenes, saving one man’s life. Amin is grateful but frantic, the victim of a human trafficking ring, his wife and son are still in danger and he needs to rescue them before his captors figure out he is still alive.

I enjoyed the fast pace and thrilling action of this story that sees Gabe and Amin pitted against a violent group involved in people smuggling and drug running. With Amin insisting police have been paid off to look the other way, the pair have no real choice but to take matters into their own hands, picking up two unexpected allies in the form of a young nurse, and a First Nations teen along the way. There are lots of tense moments as the the group are attacked and hunted by a ruthless hired killer, and quite the body count by the breathtaking, dramatic conclusion.

Gabe is a great character, as a ‘dogger’ he generally leads a solitary life, travelling throughout the WA outback in pursuit of dingos threatening station livestock. He is a man who has certainly made some mistakes in his life, and his reasons for helping Amin aren’t exactly altruistic, but has a core of decency, and I thought Trant portrayed this dichotomy well. Resourceful and canny, he proves to be a very useful ally, and I really liked the bond that developed between Gabe and Amin, despite their differences.

Trant also ably represents Amin and his plight. Seeking refuge from a tyrannical regime who would kill them, Amin and his family are exploited by the men whom they paid to get them to safety. Though he takes no pleasure in the violence, Amin is willing to do what ever it takes to rescue his wife and son. I found him to be a sympathetic character, portrayed with sensitivity and realism.

Along with the issues of human trafficking and the status of refugees, Wild Dogs also explores dingo culling practices, prejudices, outback policing, dry community policies, and the challenges of traversing, and living in, such a remote environment. Vivid description evokes the dry vast landscape, and its outposts of humanity with an authenticity borne of the author’s familiarity.

A gritty, hectic, thrill ride through the Australian desert, Wild Dogs is a wildly entertaining read.

+++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Review: Murder Most Fancy by Kellie McCourt

 

Title: Murder Most Fancy {Indigo #2}

Author: Kellie McCourt

Published: 5th January 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read January 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Murder Most Fancy by Kellie McCourt is the second enormously entertaining novel to feature the improbably named Sydney heiress Indigo-Daisy-Violet-Amber Hasluck-Royce-Jones-Bombberg, and her personal assistant, Esmeralda.

Mystery, humour, action and romance blend to create this thoroughly enjoyable, lighthearted caper. Indigo is still recovering from the events of Heiress on Fire, where she was accused of murdering her husband and his mistress, when she stumbles upon, quite literally, the body of a poorly dressed, unkempt man who is assumed to be homeless by the police, in her grandmother’s garden. Her philanthropic neighbour Dame Elizabeth Holly wants the man to have a proper burial and so tasks Indigo and her PA, Esmeralda, with identifying the stranger. Indigo has no idea where to start until her grandmother asks that the pair discretely inquire as to the whereabouts of Dame Holly’s paramour, Max Weller, whom seems to have disappeared, and suspects that the anonymous body, and the Dame’s missing lover is one and the same. I thought the mystery surrounding the identity of the dead man was well plotted, leading the duo from Sydney to Palm Beach to the Northern Territory to solve it, while making some surprising discoveries along the way.

Indigo, a billionaire socialite, and Esmeralda, a statuesque parolee, are an unusual partnership, though Esmeralda is technically Indigo’s personal assistant she’s not at all subservient. The two are more like friends than employer/employee, and their banter made me laugh. Esmeralda is definitely the brains of the pair, with the street and tech savvy Indigo lacks, but Indigo’s near unlimited funds prove just as useful as often as not. I was actually prepared to dislike Indigo because I’m generally not fond of uber-wealthy characters, and though Indigo is a bit of a flake who cares far too much for shoes and has a ridiculous habit of fainting under stress, I actually found her endearing, though I preferred Esmeralda and her feisty attitude.

The search to identify the dead man isn’t the only trouble the women have to contend with as odd anonymous notes arrive, Indigo’s sleazy former teenage sweetheart and shady brother-in-law make surprise appearances, and it becomes clear someone is trying to kill Esmeralda. Luckily they have some help from a conscientious forensic pathologist, and Indigo’s very attractive love interest, Detective Searing. I liked the additional interest these threads, and characters, added to the story.

Loaded with laugh out loud moments, a well crafted plot and appealing characters, Murder Most Fancy is a delight to escape into, and McCourt has found herself a new fan.

+++++++++

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