Review: The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey

Title: The Satapur Moonstone {Purveen Mistry #2}

Author: Sujata Massey

Published: April 28th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2020, courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

As the only female solicitor in India, Purveen Mistry is uniquely placed to arbitrate a dispute between the mother and grandmother of the Satapur crown prince in The Satapur Moonstone, the second book in Sujata Massey’s engaging historical mystery series.

Temporarily acting as an agent of the British Raj, Purveen is tasked with traveling to the remote Satara mountains, southeast of Bombay, to make recommendations for the maharaja-to-be’s educational future. Purveen hopes to broker peace between the Dowager Maharani who insists that her grandson is to be educated within the palace as his brother and father were before him, and the prince’s mother who wants him to be educated in England, but the situation becomes more complicated when Maharani Mirabai confides she is concerned for her son’s safety.

Purveen has a knack for finding herself in the middle of intrigue, and in The Satapur Moonstone she quickly comes to agree that the life of the crown prince is at risk from someone in the palace. The mystery itself works well, and while it does build to an intense conclusion where Purveen finds her own life is at risk, I felt the pacing was off, with a very slow start.

Purveen is definitely out of her comfort zone – in the middle of the jungle, in the company of the local agent, Colin Sandringham, and among the acrimonious atmosphere of the palace – though she generally proves to be as dutiful and capable as ever, and I did think that perhaps at times she made some decisions that weren’t really in character. I found her unexpected connection with Colin to be quite intriguing and I’ll be interested to see if Massey builds on that in subsequent books.

As in A Murder at Malabar Hill, I found the social, political and cultural details of life in 1920’s India fascinating. The setting is a major strength of the novel, with the Satapur palace, made up of old and new and divided between the Maharini’s, reflecting the struggle of India between tradition and modernity, under British rule.

I enjoyed The Satapur Moonstone as much as I did Massey’s first book. Purveen is an appealing character, and the unique period and culture enrich the well-crafted storytelling. I hope the series continues.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Also reviewed at Book’d Out by Sujata Massey

 

Review: The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat

 

Title: The Viennese Girl

Author: Jenny Lecoat

Published: April 28th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read April 2020, courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat is inspired by the true story of Hedwig Bercu-Goldberg, a young Jewish woman who escaped the Nazi forces in Vienna, only to find herself trapped on Jersey, a small island in the English Channel, during the German occupation in 1940.

Hedy understands all too well the threat the Nazi’s presence poses to Jersey’s residents, and as a Jew, is desperate to escape their notice. Terrified and angry as conditions on the island worsen, she is forced to volunteer as a translator for the enemy, but uses the opportunity to wage a secret rebellion.

I wasn’t sure about Hedy to begin with, I didn’t like the way she took out her fears on her best friend or his sweet girlfriend, Dorothea, even though I was sympathetic to her anxiety. However I did like that Lecoat avoided characterising her as a saint, and as the story progressed I admired Hedy’s courage, her strength of character, and her resilience.

And while we are currently in the middle of a pandemic and are asked to remain at home, I can’t imagine how Hedy bore eighteen months hiding in Dory’s house sleeping in the attic, or under the floorboards knowing that should she be found it would mean death for herself and everyone she cares about.

The romance between Hedy and German Lieutenant Kurt Neumann is captivating, given as star-crossed lovers they literally risk certain death should they be discovered. Knowing that the story reflects the true circumstances of the couple definitely intensifies the emotion, and I think Lecoat’s portrayal of their relationship was well developed.

I actually would have liked for Lecoat to have taken more care to develop the character of Dorothea though. I didn’t feel as if I understood Dory, nor the relationship she and Hedy had, and I think that was a missed opportunity to add another layer of depth to the story.

Lecoat’s descriptions of the island during Nazi occupation do paint a vivid portrait, especially as she writes about the infrastructure the German’s built, and the deprivations the residents suffered as the soldiers appropriated their goods, livestock and food, leaving the populace to starve.

Despite the grim circumstances in which the novel is set, The Viennese Girl is a tale of hope, love and redemption. A well written and engaging piece of historical fiction.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin     RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Beautiful Mother by Katherine Scholes

Title: The Beautiful Mother

Author: Katherine Scholes

Published: March 31st 2020, Viking

Read: April 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Au

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My Thoughts:

Set in Tanzania during the 1970’s The Beautiful Mother by Katherine Scholes centre’s around archaeologist Essie, who has lived at the Magadi Research Camp since her marriage to fellow archaeologist Ian Lawrence, five years earlier. The Camp, first founded by Ian’s father, and still home to his mother, Julia, has been the source of a number of valuable finds, but with no recent significant discoveries, funds are beginning to dry up. The situation is already tense as the Lawrence’s attempt to secure a new patron to continue their search for Homo Erectus, so when Essie inexplicably returns from a scouting trip with an orphaned Hadza infant whom she is to take care of for four months, the future of the Camp is threatened.

Scholes explores a number of themes in The Beautiful Mother. One of the most significant examines universal questions about motherhood as Essie cares for the baby girl she names Mara. It’s a joy to be part of her journey as she opens her heart to Mara, and gains new perspective about who she is and what she wants.

Essie’s relationship with Mara also allows the author to delve into the dynamics of marriage and family as the infant’s presence drives a wedge between Essie, Ian, and Julia. The baby stirs up repressed feelings about the loss of Julia’s youngest son who disappeared as a toddler at Magadi, and Ian resents the changes Mara effects in his previously pliant wife.

Also of importance in the novel is the author’s exploration of home and belonging. This is particularly shown through the character of Essie’s assistant, Simon, who is torn between his perception of himself as a ‘modern’ Tanzanian, and his birthright as as a member of the Hadza.

Scholes descriptions of the Tanzanian landscape are breathtakingly vivid from the red rocky desert plains of Magadi to the majesty of Ol Doinyo Lengai, an ever grumbling volcano, and the lake, a nesting ground for a flock of flamingos. I found it easy to visualise the layout of the Camp, it’s work tables cluttered with tools and specimens, and the careful grids of the nearby the dig sites. The people too are easy to imagine from Mara’s bright eyes, to the African Camp workers, and the women of the nearby Maasai village.

A well told, evocative novel The Beautiful Mother is sure to engage both interest and emotion.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

Title: Gulliver’s Wife

Author: Lauren Chater

Published: April 1st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Au

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My Thoughts:

Gulliver’s Wife is an inventive tale that imagines the life of Mary Gulliver, the wife of Lemuel Gulliver whose fictional adventures are authored by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

Lauren Chater opens her story in London during the year of 1702. With her husband lost at sea and declared deceased, Mary Gulliver has fought hard to keep body and soul together. Left with crippling debts run up by her feckless husband and two young children to raise, it has taken her three years of hard work as a midwife in Wapping to rescue her family from penury, but all that is cruelly jeopardised when her husband unexpectedly returns. Clearly ill, restless and raving about little people, Mary can only hope that when her husband recovers his health, he will be a better man than the one who left. But it soon becomes clear that Lemuel has bought nothing but trouble home with him.

“Only yesterday she was a widow of independent means. Now she is some monstrous hybrid, a creature who has tasted freedom and knows too well how things might be otherwise.”

Life three centuries ago was challenging for women, and in Gulliver’s Wife, Chater explores the myriad of ways in women‘s agency was curtailed by men. As a wife Mary is beholden to her husband and his selfish and abusive treatment, but as a widow Mary had discovered a modicum of independence. Luckier than most, her work as a midwife provides her with respectability and income, but Mary is still at the mercy of men – to permit her to ply her trade, to educate her son, even to see her home safely at night. With her husband’s return, Mary is powerless as his behaviour threatens to destroy her reputation, their tenuous financial stability, and even their daughter’s future.

Mary attempts to hide the worst of her husband’s behaviour from their daughter Bess, a headstrong, naive girl who was crushed by her adored father’s reported death, and is thrilled by his return. Bess compares her mother’s ordered life unfavourably to her father’s adventures, failing to understand the realities of a woman’s lot in the early 18th century. Chater’s exploration of the fraught relationship between mother and daughter, as Bess rebels and Mary tries to protect her without wholly disillusioning her, is relatable even now.

The risks Bess take are even more frightening for Mary as a violent, serial rapist is stalking the lanes of Wapping, illustrating yet another way in which men assert control over women, as it is the women who are forced to change their behaviour to accomodate the rapist, and his victims who are ruined in men’s eyes.

All this oppression tends to make Gulliver’s Wife a rather bleak read, though it does end with a note of hope.

Rich in historical detail, offering vivid description, and complex characterisation, Gulliver’s Wife is an engrossing, literary read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster

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Review: The Lost Jewels by Kirsty Manning

Title: The Lost Jewels

Author: Kirsty Manning

Published : March 31st 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

In The Lost Jewels, author Kirsty Manning weaves a fictional narrative around the mystery of the ‘Cheapside Hoard’, a large cache of expensive jewellery unearthed during construction in a London street in 1912.

The ‘present day’ timeline introduces Kate Kirby, an American historian who specialises in investigating the provenance of jewellery. Offered a rare opportunity to view the jewels discovered in Cheapside, the story follows Kate from the United States to England, India, France and then back as she attempts to trace the origins of a handful of pieces of the collection, during which she discovers a link between one of the pieces and her own family history.

Entwined with Kate’s journey, are two historical timelines, one of which reveals the story of Kate’s great grandmother, Essie Murphy, and her connection to the found jewellery set during the early 1900’s, and another set at two different points in the 1600’s which reveals the origin of one particular piece of a jewellery, a diamond champlevé enamel ring.

I found I appreciated the story of The Lost Jewels more after I googled the ‘Cheapside Hoard’ and was better able to understand what a remarkable find the jewels were. Manning’s speculations about the origin of the Hoard through her fiction read as credible and interesting, though to this date the truth remains a mystery, and likely always will.

Essie’s story as a young woman struggling to survive and raise her siblings was of the most interesting to me. I thought the author’s portrayal of daily life in urban London for its poorest citizens was accurate, and I had empathy for the Murphy family, particularly Essie, and her sister Gertie, who experienced such hardship and tragedy so young.

I liked Kate well enough. I thought Manning communicated her passion for her work well, I don’t particularly care for jewellery but this novel did prompt me to think about the story’s custom pieces could reveal. There is a touch of romance that is developed between Kate and Australian photographer, Marcus, but it was kept fairly low key.

Well written and researched, I found the The Lost Jewels to be a pleasantly engaging read, of family, secrets, love, loss, and new beginnings.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin. RRP AUD $32.99

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Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

Title: Code Name Hélène

Author: Ariel Lawhon

Published: March 31st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Read: March 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon is an exciting and absorbing novel of historical fiction based on the extraordinary wartime experiences of Nancy Wake.

The story unfolds from Nancy’s first person perspective over two timelines. The first, beginning in 1936, focuses on her life in Paris as a journalist, as a newlywed, and as a people and document smuggler known as Lucienne Carlier, which earns her the moniker of ‘The White Mouse’ with a bounty of five million francs in her head. The second timeline reveals her incredible role with the Maquis in southern France as a British Special Operations Executive where she is known as Madam André, code name Hélène, and leads a Resistance force of thousands during the last months of World War II.

Lawhon takes only minor liberties with the facts to tell Nancy’s amazing story whose courageous actions earned her a dozen wartime medals from four countries. Nancy, who died in 2011 aged 98, was an intelligent, attractive, and feisty woman who wore Victory Red lipstick as armour and a cyanide pill on her cuff. She could drink like a fish, and swear like a sailor, or sip cocktails and make polite conversation in a spine revealing cocktail dress. She was a friend, a smuggler, a wife, a spy, a fighter, a leader, she was, and remains, a hero.

All but one of the major characters in Code Name Hélène were real people, from Nancy’s contacts in the Resistance, to her beloved husband. She married wealthy industrialist Henri Fiocca just before Germany invaded France but they were soon separated when he was sent to the border to fight and again, when shortly after his return, Nancy’s actions attracted the attention of the Gestapo and she was forced to flee Paris. Their relationship is a significant and moving element of the novel.

I was completely caught up in Code Name Hélène from its first pages. I thought it very well paced as it moved between timelines, both of which built a sense of anticipatory tension, though there is more outright action during Nancy’s tenure with the Maquis.

Code Name Hélène is not just a story of adventure and romance, but also one of friendship, courage, tragedy, and hope. Until now I’ve known nothing of Nancy Wake, but I have every intention of tracking down a copy of her autobiography to learn more. Nancy Wake was an extraordinary woman, and Lawhon has written an extraordinary story which honours her.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Cedar Tree by Nicole Alexander

Title: The Cedar Tree

Author: Nicole Alexander

Published: March 2020, Bantam

Read: March 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Cedar Tree is a compelling generational saga by Nicole Alexander.

“She supposed that all of them were branded, in some way. By parents and lovers, siblings and friends, even husbands and wives. And some cuts went far deeper than others.”

In 1864 cousins, Brandon and Sean O’Riain, are accused of murder and, forced to flee Ireland or be hanged, they emigrate to Australia. There they find work as cedar cutters in Richmond Valley, northern NSW, but while Brandon looks towards the future, Sean can’t let go of the past.

In 1949, Stella O’Riain, recently widowed, arrives at her brother-in- law’s cane sugar farm in the Richmond Valley where she has agreed to care for his injured wife in return for bed and board. Here, Stella hopes to find answers that will explain her husband’s obsession with their former home, Kirooma Station in the far west of NSW, that ultimately lead to his death.

Exploring the themes of family, duty, faith, and freedom, the narrative of The Cedar Tree unfolds primarily from the perspectives of Brandon O’Riain and Stella O’Riain, alternating between timelines until it reaches the point the two characters intersect.

I was quickly caught up in the conflicts between the O’Riain cousins as Brandon’s repeated attempts to protect his cousin from Sean’s own selfish and reckless behaviour backfires, eventually leading to an accident that results in a deep rift between them. Unwilling to accept responsibility for his own actions, Sean nurtures a grudge so strong it blights the lives of his sons, Harry and Joe.

I found Stella to be a sympathetic character as a naive young woman who finds herself out of her depth on an isolated property with an inattentive husband. His death, and the death of her child, leaves her desperate to understand the choices Joe O’Riain made, but for which his estranged brother, Harry, purports to have no answers. As the two timelines converge however Stella finally learns some of the secrets that provides her with explanation she craves, and reveals her own.

With a strong sense of place, interesting historical detail, and compelling characterisation, The Cedar Tree is a well-written, absorbing tale sure to engage and entertain.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Also by Nicole Alexander on Book’d Out

Review: The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks

 


Title: The Darkest Shore

Author: Karen Brooks

Published: February 24th 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks is a compelling, fascinating, and disturbing historical fiction novel inspired by true events.

“Twas the sea and its siren call and the men to whom they cleaved that made sisters of all the fishwives, regardless of who their mothers were, where they hailed from, and whether their husbands, fathers or brothers were alive or dead.”

The story begins on Hogmanay (New Years Eve) 1703 as Sorcha McIntyre returns home to Pittenweem, a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland, after a fraught few months spent with her sister in St. Andrews. Despite a rude homecoming, Sorcha is happy to be back amongst her close friends, the fishwives of the ‘Weem, and quickly resettles into the rhythm of village life.

“He would put his mind to how to tame Sorcha McIntyre. Her and the rest of the fishwives.”

It’s not long however until the local minister, Patrick Cowper, who considers the independence of the fishwives and in particular Sorcha, an affront to God, takes advantage of an ill young man to turn the community against the women with accusations of witchcraft.

“All of them are wicked, wicked women, every last one of them.”

Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, (quotes from which chapter introductions are drawn), Brooks seamlessly blends historical detail with informed imagination to create a spellbinding story that explores the true events that occurred in Pittenweem, where seven women (and one man) were imprisoned and tortured after being accused of witchcraft.

While the true motives of the minister who led the persecution of the ‘Pittenweem Witches’ are unknown, Brooks offers an explanation that certainly seems plausible. Her portrayal of Cowper feels authentic (and frighteningly familiar) as he manipulates the Word of God to satisfy his lust for power and control, and to deflect his own personal shortcomings.

Sorcha is a young woman who has defied custom by circumstance. Both her parents are dead, her eldest brother is presumed to have been killed overseas while soldiering, and having been recently widowed, she is the sole owner of a large fishing vessel. The combination of her financial independence, her beauty, and her refusal to heed his demand that she remarry, are in part what infuriates Cowper and makes her a target of his rage.

Though Sorcha is a wholly fictional character, the other women (and one man) who also stand accused as witches in The Darkest Shore were once real people. Brooks breathes life into these tragic figures in a manner that I think honours the strength and dignity with which they seem to have faced Cowper’s vendetta in order to have survived it. The harrowing experiences of the accused, particularly at the hands of ‘The Pricker’ during their imprisonment, and the cruel fate that befell two of them, made for uncomfortable reading at times, more so when you are reminded that there is truth in their suffering.

While there are many dark and troubling events depicted in the novel, there are also inspiring and heartening moments as the fishwives refuse to surrender hope, supporting and comforting one another as best they can through their prolonged ordeal. There is even a touch of romance when Sorcha finds a champion, and love, with an army Captain, and the ending (though Brooks admits it deviates from the official facts) is eminently satisfying.

Beautifully written, with authentic characterisation and vivid description, I found The Darkest Shore to be a captivating, even if sometimes confronting, read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins

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Review: The Light After the War by Anita Abriel

Title: The Light After the War

Author: Anita Abriel

Published: February 1st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Au

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My Thoughts:

World War II fiction tends to focus on the wartime experiences of German or French Jews, and most often takes place in France, Germany, or the UK. The Light After the War by Anita Abriel has an interesting difference, in that it is set over about two years immediately post war with two main characters who are Hungarian Jews, and primarily takes place in Italy, and later, Venezuela.

Best friends Vera and Edith are barely seventeen when they escape during transport to Auschwitz from Budapest, and find refuge in a small Austrian village for the duration of the war. Eventually the girls make their way to Naples, where Edith, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, finds work as a seamstress, and Vera is employed by the American embassy as a secretary, and falls in love with her boss, Captain Anton Wight. When Vera’s relationship abruptly ends, the friends are fortuitously offered the opportunity to emigrate to America, but denied entry, they settle in Caracas where they hope to forge a new life for themselves.

I was intrigued by the inspiration for this novel, the main characters of The Light Before the War are based on (and even named for) members of Abriel’s own family. Her mother, Vera Frankel, and best friend, Edith, really did escape a train carrying them to Auschwitz, how closely subsequent events mirror their experiences isn’t entirely clear though Abriel confirms some key incidents (one which in particular shocked me) are true in notes found at the end of the novel.

I was surprised to learn that Venezuela granted asylum to Jews fleeing the Nazi regime and the deprivations of the post-war period. I wasn’t aware of that fact, and was interested to later discover that at its peak the country hosted a community of around 65,000 Jews, (though recent political strife has reduced those numbers considerably).

Unfortunately, despite finding elements of the story fascinating, I found the prose itself rather flat, and the pace largely monotonous, in part I think because of the past-tense narrative used in both the ‘present day’ storyline and the flashbacks. Though I dislike the phrase, I also thought there was far more ‘telling than showing’, and a lack of emotional depth. Resilience is all well and good, but the girls never really seem to be afraid, or even more than mildly anxious, with any obstacles they were faced with too easily overcome.

I’m glad that Abriel was able to share her family’s story, her mother’s survival in such circumstances is a triumph. Though The Light After the War wasn’t as engaging as I hoped for, I agree with the author that tales like these ensure the Holocaust will never be forgotten, and never be repeated.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Riptides by Kirsten Alexander

Title: Riptides

Author: Kirsten Alexander

Published: February 4th 2020, Bantam

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Au

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Riptides by Kirsten Alexander begins with the most compelling first chapter I’ve read in a long a while.

“I wake when Abby shouts. She reaches across me and grabs the steering wheel. A car horn brays. White beams flare at us and then pitch to the right. For an instant, a rump of blue metal shines in our headlights.”

Siblings Abby and Charlie are driving to their father’s farm in rural Queensland when a moment of inexcusable negligence results in a young, heavily pregnant driver being forced off the road and into a tree. Shocked when they realise the woman is dead, and too scared of the repercussions for reporting the incident, Abby and Charlie drive away, vowing to pretend it never happened. Perhaps that would have been possible, but then they learn the dead woman, Skye, was not only the mother of a five year old boy now left in the clutches of her abusive ex-boyfriend, she was also their father’s fiancée, and the child she was carrying their half-sibling. Forced to bear witness to the consequences of their act, Abbey and Charlie begin to feel like they are drowning.

Set largely in Brisbane over a period of four months during the mid 1970’s, Alexander firmly establishes a sense of time and place. The city floods, and then bakes in the summer heat, police corruption is rife under a Premier who heaps scorn on ‘feminists, fags, and foreigners’ while privately profiting off shady land deals. Nobody thinks twice about driving after having a few, or more, drinks.

The narrative of Riptides alternates between that of Abby and Charlie. While both in their early to mid twenties, the brother and sister lead very different lives, allowing Alexander to represent the soiciocultural schism of the era. Charlie leads a carefree existence in Bali, running a noodle bar with friends in between surfing, drinking, and partying. Abby, married to an investigative television reporter, is a suburban, stay-at-home mother of their three children, though she dreams of being a lawyer. The characters are well rounded and nuanced as they deal not only with the aftermath of the accident, but also the fallout of the stress on their relationships.

Alexander effectively builds tension as the truth about the incident nears the surface, though I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed by several too-neat coincidences and connections that drove the plot.

Though Riptides is categorised as crime fiction, it is a multilayered novel examining several themes. I appreciated Alexander’s thoughtful exploration of the moral questions regarding Charlie’s and Abby’s decisions. In the main however, the book centers around family and relationships, particularly exploring how far those bonds can stretch before they snap.

A well written and thought-provoking novel, Riptides is sure to sweep you away.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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