Review: The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

 

Title: The Last Guests

Author: J.P. Pomare

Published: 30th July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

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My Thoughts:

Hugely impressed by In The Clearing, I’ve been looking forward to reading J.P. Pomare’s newest release, The Last Guests.

Set in New Zealand, The Last Guests is told primarily from the perspective of Lina, a paramedic married to Cain, an ex-SAS soldier turned personal trainer. Though their five year marriage has had its up and downs, stressed by PTSD, a gambling addiction, infertility and the resulting debt, the couple remain committed to each other, and their plan for a family. When friends of the pair, who aware of their financial struggle, suggest Lina rent out the home she inherited from her grandparents at Lake Tarawera through the short-stay accomodation site WeStay, Cain is enthusiastic about the idea. Lina is less so, the house is to eventually be their family home and she’s uncomfortable with the risks of opening it up to strangers, but let’s herself be persuaded. She relaxes when the first few guests come and go without incident, but Lina is about to discover the real threat to their future comes from closer to home.

The Last Guests is probably one of the more unpredictable thrillers I’ve read in a while. Though not quite flawless, convincingly led in one direction, I almost developed whiplash as the plot twisted and turned offering more than one surprise as Pomare unraveled the secrets held by his characters.

Lina is particularly vulnerable as her secret threatens to surface, and her anxiety is palpable as she attempts to stop it from happening. I liked the complexity of her character, Lina may initially be judged harshly and she doesn’t make the wisest of choices, but there isn’t any malice in her, so I was invested in her fate.

One of the elements I think Pomare excels at is creating an atmosphere of anticipation that ebbs and flows from uncertainty and unease to dread and shock. In part this stems from the way he turns the intimate and ordinary into provocation and a threat.

This novel is certainly guaranteed to make you think twice about booking a short-stay rental in a private home. There are known risks in using services like AirBNB, Stayz and FlipKey, most often they are fairly benign -the accommodation may not live up to its description, or the host may try to extort extra charges, but there have been incidences where guests have learned of hidden cameras, not just in spaces like the living room and kitchen, but also in private areas, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. In The Last Guests Lina discovers not only have such camera’s been secreted into her lake house without her knowledge, which is creepy enough, but the feed is one of thousands being live streamed to a site that offers paying subscribers a voyeuristic window into the lives of unsuspecting people.

Tense, thrilling and compelling, The Last Guests is another stunning novel from Pomare.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Gun To The Head by Keith Banks

 

Title: Gun To The Head: My life as a tactical cop. The impact. The aftermath.

Author: Keith Banks

Published: 20th July 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

 

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Gun To The Head follows on from Drugs, Guns and Lies by former Queensland police officer, Keith Banks, detailing his years of service in the Queensland Police Force during the 1980’s.

Banks offers readers personal insight into policing during a period that can probably be best described as transitional. In the 1980’s the Queensland police force was exposed as a hotbed of corruption, which had little tolerance for officers who played it straight. After several years serving as an undercover operative in the Drug Squad, Banks was forced out when he declined an invitation to participate in a corrupt enterprise.

Transferring to the Criminal Investigation Branch as a Detective Senior Constable, Banks enjoyed the work but found himself missing the adrenaline rush of his former position and leapt at the chance to become a member of the part-time  Emergency Squad, which eventually morphed into the full-time Tactical Response Group.

Keith Banks (left) and Steve Grant at Cunungra Training Camp 1986 (courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

Banks played a role in some of Queensland’s most high-profile operations, including the hunt for notorious bank robber, Russell ‘Maddog’ Cox, and the MLC Siege, where Banks personally convinced the would-be bomber to surrender, but everyday he and his team put their lives on the line to apprehend violent criminals. Banks insights into the groups daily operations are fascinating, it’s often intense, thankless work that requires a huge commitment and courage. The public generally only hear of such incidents when something goes wrong, as it did when Senior Constable Peter Kidd was shot to death by an armed robber who had escaped from prison, during a raid to recapture him. I knew vaguely of the case but it was very impactful to hear it from Banks first hand viewpoint and I was horrified to learn of the role bureaucratic interference had in the tragedy.

Emergency Squad training exercise at Cunungra 1986 (Keith Banks is on the left). Courtesy Allen & Unwin


Banks, who was a team leader in the raid, was dogged by undiagnosed PTSD after the death of Kidd. Banks is honest about his increasing struggles with alcohol, anxiety, guilt and anger in its wake. I really felt for him, and was appalled by the lack of support available from the force not just after a tragic incident like this, but also in other instances, such as re-entry from undercover work. I certainly hope the situation is much improved now. Sadly it cost Banks his first marriage, his police career, and very nearly his life.

Raw, thrilling and often dark but not humourless, Banks presents as personable and truthful. Gun to the Head is a compelling memoir exposing life behind the blue line.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: When You Are Mine By Michael Robotham

 

Title: When You Are Mine

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: 1st July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Michael Robotham draws from recent news headlines to create a timely, gripping crime fiction novel dealing with domestic violence, toxic relationships, obsession, and police corruption in When You Are Mine.

Called to a complaint of domestic violence, London police constable Philomena (Phil) McCarthy is unimpressed when the abuser, who claims he is detective, threatens her career will be finished, and then takes a swing at her. Though his mistress, who Phil is surprised to recognise, refuses to press charges, she follows protocol and arrests him, only to be reprimanded by her superiors for her poor judgement in arresting a decorated officer, and then suspended. Phil is both disappointed and angered by the cover-up, and despite being ordered to leave it alone, she digs a little deeper into the Detective Goodall’s history, and learns that Tempe is not his only victim.

I’m always impressed that Robotham demonstrates such astute insight into his female characters. Determined and principled, with a touch of youthful righteous idealism and naivety, Phil sincerely wants to do good as a police officer, and has worked hard for the right to do so. Unfortunately her motives will always be considered suspect because her father, from whom she is estranged, is linked to organised crime. This means she is especially vulnerable when she refuses to accept the official line.

In refusing to back down, Phil risks not only her career, but her safety, especially when she offers support to both Tempe and Goodall’s family. As recently as last month, a Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner stated that domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers was at epidemic levels, and victims report a culture of minimisation and coverups. I thought Robotham very effectively showed how intensely vulnerable women, and children, in that position can be. Goodall is not about to simply let go, but then neither is Phil.

There’s a twist in the tale as Tempe, grateful to Phil for her help, tries to repay her. She offers to help with Phil’s impending wedding to her firefighter husband, Henry, then she begins to take care of the everyday tasks Phil, intent on helping Alison Goodall, doesn’t have time for. I really liked how Robotham subtly developed this thread which presents some of the biggest surprises.

Robotham is an accomplished author who knows how to hook his readers and keep them interested not only with a fast pace and the twists expected of the genre, but also characters that are dynamic and interesting. When You Are Mine is a exciting and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Others by Mark Brandi

 

Title: The Others

Author: Mark Brandi

Published: 30th June 2021, Hachette

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Others is a haunting coming-of-age novel from award-winning Australian author Mark Brandi.

On his eleventh birthday Jacob’s father gifts him a diary, encouraging his son to write about their life on an isolated farm in rural Tasmania. The boy writes of the sheep they tend, the goats they hunt and eat, the drought that destroys their crops, the foxes that lurk in the hills. Of his dead mother, whom he misses but can’t remember, of the whites of his father’s eyes, of the questions he has about ‘the town’, the plague, and the Others.

Jacob’s voice is captivating, Brandi pitches it perfectly to project the curiosity and innocence of a young boy whose understanding and experience of the world is limited to what his father tells him, supplemented by a dictionary, an incomplete encyclopaedia, and a faded Women’s Weekly magazine.

Jacob is reluctant to ask his father too many questions, wary of his father’s temper or alternatively afraid that the ‘soft eyes’ will return, which means his dad may not talk or move for days. There are subtle clues for the reader that what Jacob’s father tells him about life outside the farm may not be true, small details that the boy doesn’t recognise as incongruous. Tension builds as Jacob’s curiosity grows, and he secretively begins defying his father’s edict to remain within the confines of the farm. Brandi conjures dread and anxiety as a confrontation, either between Jacob and his father or Jacob and the ‘others’, seems inevitable.

The writing is spare, yet evocative, I was clearly able to visualise the farm and it’s immediate surrounds. Some of the graphic scenes in the novel have more impact because the description is so stark. Unexpectedly, the story is also enhanced by small sketches, drawn by Jacob in his diary.

Powerful and unsettling, The Others is a gripping novel with an ending that left my heart pounding.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Still by Matt Nable

 

Title: Still

Author: Matt Nable

Published: May 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“They killed him because he saw.”

 

Still is an atmospheric noir crime fiction novel from Australian Matt Nable, a former professional rugby league footballer turned film and television broadcaster/actor, and novelist.

Set in Darwin in 1963, Nable exposes a barely civilised, nascent city plagued by racism, violence and corruption. It’s mid summer, the tropical weather alternates between searing and brooding, as oppressive and threatening as the work it takes to survive in the Territory.

When Senior Constable Ned Potter finds the body of a man beaten and shot twice in the marshland of Darwin’s outskirts, he resents being told to stand down by his venal boss, Senior Sergeant Riley, who promptly declares the the death a suicide. Ned is quietly furious but resigned to doing nothing until he stumbles upon the bodies of another two men buried in a shallow grave. They too have been beaten and shot, and yet again Riley, this time backed by the Mayor, presents Ned with a fair accompli. But this time Ned can’t let it go.

Ned is a well-realised, complex character. Nable portrays a man wrestling with conscience, caught between what he knows is right and the risk of consequences, not only to his career, which he expects, but to his wife and newborn daughter. Burning silently at the injustice, he punishes himself for his perceived lack of control and courage, drinks excessively, not sure whether he is trying to forget his principles, or his fear.

Meanwhile, on her way home from visiting her father in his nursing home, Charlotte Clark finds a bleeding, broken man who begs her to hide him. Charlotte sets him up at her father’s empty property, instinctively concealing the man from her firefighter husband, who shares a cosy relationship with Senior Sergeant Riley.

For Charlotte, caring for the badly injured Michael is not only the right thing to do, despite society’s prevailing derogatory view, supported by her husband, of Australian aboriginals, but also provides her with a sense of control in a life where effectively she has none. Charlotte is a women representative of the era, a restless housewife with no practical means of escape from an unhappy marriage. The consequences of being discovered are dire not only for her, given the propensity for violence of her husband, but also for Michael, whose life is at risk.

The stakes are high for just about every character in Still, and with lives, and livelihoods, under threat the tension rarely wavers. While I do think the pacing was perhaps a little slow, my only real complaint with the novel relates to the timeline. There is a lack of immediacy in the resolution, which was necessary for one specific element of the plot, but I feel it didn’t work particularly well overall, and resulted in the conclusion losing some of its impact.

Nevertheless, Still has a lot to recommend it. I found it to be a compelling novel – superbly atmospheric, with nuanced characters and a strong mystery.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia 

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Review: The Nancy’s by R.W.R. McDonald

 

Title: The Nancy’s {The Nancy’s #1}

Author: R.W.R McDonald

Published:3rd June 2019, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

I’ll be honest, as a preteen I much preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew but I would leap at the chance to join The Nancy’s who feature in this delightful debut from New Zealand-born Australian author R.W.R McDonald.

Eleven year old Tippy Chan lives in a tiny town in South Otago. Her mother, Helen, a nurse at a local hospital, has won a two week cruise and so Tippy’s Uncle Pike, and his boyfriend Devon, have flown in from Sydney to look after her. It’s been a difficult year for Tippy after the death of her beloved father, and Tippy is a little anxious about her mother’s absence, increasingly so when first one of her best friend’s is badly injured in a fall from the town’s single lane bridge, and then her teacher’s naked headless body is discovered nearby. Tippy, a fan of the Nancy Drew mystery series, has the idea to investigate both incidents, a pursuit Pike and Devon indulge with a murder board written on a living room window in permanent texta, a mantra (Everyone’s a suspect), and matching t-shirts designed by Devon (after several attempts).

Calling themselves The Nancy’s, the three rely on their charm, insider’s knowledge (Pike grew up in Riverstone) of the town and its residents, and a little luck to try and solve the mystery but investigating a murder isn’t quite as easy as Nancy Drew makes it seem. The closer they get to finding the truth, the less Tippy is sure she really wants to know. I’m not sure how I feel about the mystery element of the novel, I thought the manner of death and the behaviour of the killer was unnecessarily outlandish, and it wasn’t as strong overall as I expected it to be, though it was satisfyingly resolved.

Whatever weakness there may be in the plot, I adored the main cast of The Nancy’s. Tippy is a delightful narrator – bright and quick, but still appropriately childish. She admires Nancy Drew for a number of reasons, so it’s no surprise she wants to emulate her. Still grieving the sudden loss of her father, the investigation is a way for her to gain some control over her life, and the things that scare her.

Uncle Pike, who looks like Santa Claus, only with tattoos, and Devon, described as Ken wearing Barbie, are outrageous characters with larger than life personalities. Irreverent, with a penchant for drink, swearing and innuendo, they are not really appropriate guardians for a child, but are warm, supportive, and fun which is exactly what Tippy needs. I found them absolutely hilarious, though I recognise their potential to offend.

There is variety in the supporting characters from elderly neighbours Mr and Mrs Brown and their granddaughter Melanie, an unctuous real estate agent, and a toothy tv presenter (who is also Pike’s ex-boyfriend), to a hard nosed journalist, a closeted policeman, and Tippy’s other best friend, Sam, and his family. The tiny community of Riverstone allows McDonald to explore the ironies of small town life, particularly as Pike and Devon make over goth girl Melanie to enter the annual beauty contest.

A murder mystery laced with mirth, The Nancy’s is a witty, warm, and wildly entertaining novel. I can’t wait to read about The Nancy’s next adventure in McDonald’s Nancy Business.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Flash Jim by Kel Richards

 

Title: Flash Jim: The Astonishing Story of the Convict Fraudster Who Wrote Australia’s First Dictionary

Author: Kel Richards

Published: 5th May 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Though English has been considered the language of our country since it was invaded/colonised by the British in 1788, did you know that legally Australia has no official language? Neither did I! While our language today continues to adhere to the conventions of British English with regards to spelling and grammar, from very early on, Australian English began to develop its own unique quirks.

Slang, also known as flash and cant, was a term originally used to refer to the language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and so it’s no surprise that it thrived in Australia, and took on a life of its own as British, Irish, and Scottish convicts mixed in the British penal colony.

In 1812 an opportunistic convict, James Hardy Vaux, heard the grumblings of the colony’s police and magistrates who were at a loss to understand much of the slang used among criminals, and always eager to press any advantage, presented his supervisor with ‘A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language’ – Australia’s very first dictionary. Included as an Appendix in Flash Jim, browsing through the dictionary proves fascinating, revealing words and phrases both strange and familiar.

The bulk of Kel Richards Flash Jim however is a biography of James Vaux, drawing on several sources, mainly the man’s own published memoirs, ‘Memoirs of The First Thirty-Two Years of the Life Of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported, For The Second Time, And For Life, To New South Wales. Written By Himself.’

Flash Jim reveals a man who was an extraordinary character. Though born into a family able to provide him a good education and entry into a comfortable profession, James took his first step into a life of crime by embezzling from his employer at aged fourteen. Over the next few years, never satisfied with wages earned as a clerk, James indulged in a number of illegal activities from confidence scams to pick pocketing, with reasonable success, that is until inevitably, his luck ran out. Not that even being sentenced to transportation to New Holland on three separate occasions, seemed to deter his criminal impulses. Vaux, who used a number of aliases over his lifetime, seemed to have possessed an uncanny charm which often saw him turn even the most dire of circumstances to his advantage. I was absolutely fascinated by him, and his antics, marvelling at his ego and nerve, though as Richards regularly reminds us, Vaux’s own words can hardly be trusted.

It’s unclear just how much of Richards own creativity informs the retelling he has crafted, though I imagine he has taken some liberties. I thought it read well, though personally I would have preferred for the author to have found a way to integrate the story of the dictionary more fully into the narrative of Vaux’s biography.

James Hardy Vaux is the sort of incorrigible, dissolute character that Australians delight in claiming as part of our convict past so I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of him before now, particularly given his twin achievements as the writer of Australia’s first dictionary, and the first true-crime memoir. I expect Flash Jim will be enjoyed by readers interested in Australian colonial history, the etymology of Australian English, or just a bang up yarn.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Vanished by James Delargy


Title: Vanished

Author: James Delargy

Published: 5th May 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

+++++++

My Thoughts:

“A family was missing. They had been in the town and then they weren’t. What they were even doing therein the first place wasn’t yet known. No one should have been there. No one had for close to fifty years.”

James Delargy has followed his impressive debut novel, 55, with another compelling thriller set in Australia’s unforgiving outback, Vanished.

Tasked to investigate the disappearance of the Maguire family, Lorcan, his wife Naiyana, and their six year old son, Dylan, from Kallayee, an abandoned town on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, Major Case Squad Detective Emmaline Taylor is puzzled by what she finds left behind – a home on the brink of collapse, its contents ransacked; blood smears, though not enough to suggest a fatality; a tunnel littered with chocolate bar wrappers, a dead end, like all their leads seem to be, until she finds a body being savaged by a pack of dingo’s on the outskirts of town.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, shifting between before and after their disappearance, it soon becomes apparent that the Maguires left Perth to set up home in the remote West Australian ghost town not in the spirit of adventure, but because they had few alternatives available to them.

Though the Maguire’s tell themselves they are in Kallayee to become closer as a  family, the cracks in their marriage are obvious. They lie to themselves as much as they lie to each other and eventually neither Lorcan nor Naiyana are particularly sympathetic or even likeable. If not for the presence of Dylan I’m not sure I’d care much what happened to them. I liked Emmaline a lot though, she’s smart, determined and interesting.

Clever plotting ensures there are several possibilities, from the benign to the ominous, that may explain the family’s disappearance. Even though we are privy to information Emmaline is not, Delargy doesn’t share everything with the reader, subtly undermining what we think we know, allowing for surprising twists.

Short chapters ensure a good pace, and the author effectively builds the suspense in both timelines. The desolate, broken landscape creates a claustrophobic, hostile backdrop to the story that adds to the tension.

Vanished is a gripping, atmospheric thriller with an unexpected but satisfying conclusion.

++++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis

 

Title: The Rose Daughter {Supernatural Sisters #7}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 13th April 2021, Piatkus

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

+++++++

My Thoughts:

The Rose Daughter is the seventh book in the Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series from award-winning Australian author, Maria Lewis, but don’t be afraid to jump right in, it works perfectly well as a stand-alone. Just be prepared as you’ll want to add the rest of the series on your TBR list as I did.

The daughter of a forbidden union between an earth elemental and a selkie, Dreckly Jones was born the prisoner of the Trieze, raised by her father in a cell buried under a hill in Scotland. Since her escape she has largely heeded her father’s advice -to be careful; to hide who she is; to not be a hero. For the last eight years or so, she has made her home on a boat in Sydney Harbour, shucking oysters at the Fish Markets when she’s not putting her artistic skills to work forging identification papers for those in need.

Though she looks as if she is in her early 40’s, Dreckly is more than a century older, and the narrative alternates between her past and present. Dreckly is an appealing, well-crafted character. I liked her wit, and found her to be smart and resourceful, though not without her flaws. As a sprite, her ability gives her powerful control over air which she wields in unusual ways.

I was intrigued by her backstory, which has Dreckly travelling the world from Scotland to Hollywood, from behind enemy lines in wartime France to Africa, where she finds family, adventure and love. The ‘past’ narrative skilfully builds Dreckly’s character so that the decisions she makes in the present, make sense.

In the present, there are rumours that the Trieze, who govern the supernatural world, are abducting other supernaturals. Mindful of her past experiences, and her promises to her father, Dreckly battles with her conscience when she is asked for her help. Lewis builds the tension as the Trieze’s nefarious plans are revealed, and provides exciting action when the supernaturals take a stand.

I liked the world in which the story is set with an interesting mix of supernaturals who live alongside, but hidden, from most of humanity. Lewis succinctly explains the history and politics, and while it’s obvious there are links to story and characters from previous books, they don’t have any notable impact on this story.

Offering interesting characters, exciting action, and romance, I found The Rose Daughter to be an entertaining read. I’m delighted to have discovered Maria Lewis and I hope to be introduced to the other ‘sisters’ before the next book in the series is released.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

 


Title: Second First Impressions

Author: Sally Thorne

Published: 13th April 2021, William Morrow Paperbacks

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

Second First Impressions is a charming romantic comedy from USA Today bestselling, Australian author, Sally Thorne.

Ruthie Midona is twenty-five years old but is more at ease among her fellow residents at the Providence Luxury Retirement Village, where she has lived and worked for six years, than among her peers. When her boss takes a vacation, leaving Ruthie in charge, she is determined to prove herself worthy of the responsibility. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the too-personal questions of the young and pretty temp, Melanie, or the attentions of the property owner’s vainglorious son, Teddy, who on their first meeting mistook her for an elderly woman, but both are determined to impress Ruthie with the need to lighten up and live a little.

It’s a case of opposites attract for the staid, straight-laced Ruthie and the carefree, charismatic Teddy. I enjoyed the chemistry between them as their inevitable romantic relationship developed, providing moments of both tenderness and passion. Their connection sparks change in one another, but I like that Thorne is clear that the changes they want to make are in pursuit of their own life goals, not about pleasing the other.

Ruthie has been stuck in a rut ever since a shadowy incident in her past. Encouraged by Melanie and her Sasaki Method* (*patent pending), Ruthie recognises she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The friendship that forms between the two women is lovely, and important to Ruthie’s personal growth.

Teddy has his own issues that he needs to deal with, including a rocky relationship with his father and older-half sister. His goal is to earn enough money to buy into a tattoo business, but commitment is something he’s been avoiding for much of his life.

The cheeky, imperious Parloni ‘sisters’ are a wonderful addition to the story. Aged 91 and 89 respectively, Renata and Agatha are enjoying growing old disgracefully, and delight in tormenting Teddy (in a very un-PC manner) in his role as their personal assistant.

Old age residences seem to have become a popular setting in fiction recently. I liked how Thorne linked it to both Ruthie’s past and Teddy’s future. And the turtles that roam the grounds are a cute additional element.

With appealing characters, a sweet romance, and plenty of well-timed humour, I found Second First Impressions to be a delightful, feel-good read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins 

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