Review: My Best Friend’s Murder by Polly Phillips

Title: My Best Friend’s Murder

Author: Polly Phillips

Published: 6th January 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

My Best Friend’s Murder is an entertaining domestic thriller from UK journalist Polly Phillips, who currently calls Australia home.

“You’re lying, sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, legs bent, arms wide.”

Bec and Izzy have been the best of friends since they met, aged eleven. In the years since, Bec has mostly been content to let Izzy set the terms for their relationship, but recently she’s begun to sense that contempt lurks behind Izzy’s backhand compliments and seemingly solicitous advice. Hurt and angry, Bec is determined to confront her best friend, but could she really be responsible for her murder?

My Best Friend’s Murder is told from Bec’s perspective, beginning with her standing over a broken and bloodied Izzy, before moving back three months previously as Bec and her new fiancé, Ed, celebrate their engagement at home of Izzy and her husband, Rich. The occasion is not the first time that Bec senses something awry between herself and Izzy, but she is surprised by her best friend’s cool behaviour.

Well-paced, this is a suspenseful novel as Phillips reveals the history of the friendship between the two women and it’s increasing toxicity. To Bec, Izzy’s behaviour is inexplicable- beautiful, married to her handsome highschool sweetheart with an adorable child, wealthy and ambitious, Izzy has everything, yet she seems to resent Bec’s recent small successes – her engagement, and a potentially career altering opportunity. Phillips skilfully explores the complex dynamic of their friendship, the role each of them play in maintaining the status quo, and how difficult it is for them to let go. With Izzy’s death, Bec is left to grapple with her grief, and her guilt.

I admired Phillips subtle, and not so subtle twists, in the plot, and though I wasn’t so enamoured with an element of the ending, it’s a minor flaw in what is otherwise a well told tale. My Best Friend’s Murder is an absorbing read and an accomplished debut.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

Title: Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Author: Sue Williams

Published: 5th January 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Based on the lives of Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Macquarie, the wife of Australian colonel governor Lachlan Macquarie, and Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of a prosperous colonial woolgrower, Sue Williams blends fact with fiction to present an interesting story of adversity, courage, love, and friendship in Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

Thirty one year old Betsey Macquarie arrived in Sydneytown with her new husband, Lachlan, who was to replace Captain Bligh as governor, in December of 1809. Viewing the appointment as an adventure, with her keen interest in architecture, landscaping and social welfare, Betsey had hopes of working alongside her husband to grow the colony.

At the time of Betsey’s arrival in New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur, had been living in the colony for twenty years. Her husband John, a Corps officer and successful grazier had been called to England to answer charges of sedition for his role in unseating Captain Bligh, leaving Elizabeth to manage their home farm, three daughters, and Camden Park estate, where they raised their valuable flock of merino sheep.

In this novel Williams conjures a friendship between the two women that overlooks the political enmity of their husbands. Both intelligent, strong, and practical women, Elizabeth and Elizabeth grow to respect and admire one another despite their differences, and become confidantes. The friendship is delightfully rendered by Williams, and permits her to present a well-rounded picture of the ‘Elizabeth’s’ lives, disabusing history’s notion they were simply no more than extensions of their husbands.

History favours the role of men in the building of our nation, but Elizabeth & Elizabeth gives these two women credit for contributions to the betterment of the colony. Williams suggests Betsey was the driving force behind the design and construction of several of Sydneytown’s public buildings, including The Courthouse and St James Church, the ‘Rum’ Hospital, and The Female Factory in Parramatta, and the development of what is now known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Her support of her husband was also crucial to his many accomplishments as governor, despite the opposition he faced from ‘exclusivists’. Elizabeth Macarthur’s role in developing the family’s wool export business is better recognised today, though her husband continues to garner the lions share of credit. In her husband’s long absence from the colony however, she ably managed their extensive holdings, and oversaw the improvement of the merino flock that solidified their fortune.

Well-written, rich in historical detail and engaging, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is a lovely novel and recommended reading especially for those interested in Australia’s past.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Shelter by Catherine Jinks

Title: Shelter

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 5th January 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Shelter is a tense, twisty domestic thriller, from Australian author Catherine Jinks.

Meg knows all too well what it’s like to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband so she is willing to accept the risks of providing temporary shelter to a young mother and her two daughters on the run. Meg’s home, ‘The Bolthole’, is an isolated property in country NSW, and great care has been taken to ensure the family are impossible to trace, yet Nerine remains terrified that her husband will find them. Though Meg does her best to allay Nerine’s fears, and reassure five year old Ana and 22 month old Collette they are safe, some minor incidents stoke’s Meg’s own anxieties. She thinks it is more likely her own ex-husband has returned to intimidate her with regards to a recent inheritance, than Nerine’s husband having found her, but the real threat is closer to home than Meg can ever imagine.

Shelter isn’t an easy read, the themes and issues central to the novel, which includes generational trauma, domestic violence, psychological manipulation, and narcissism, are uncomfortable to explore, however I got caught up in this taut, well paced thriller which cleverly subverts reader’s expectations. Though the primary plot twist is not entirely unexpected, it shocks nevertheless, and Jinks left me feeling breathless as the level of menace and violence accelerated in its wake. In regards to the conclusion though I am somewhat torn, it’s reasonably realistic and as such fitting, but not very satisfying.

At times I found Meg to be a frustrating character, however her behaviour really is in keeping with someone who has been a long term victim of psychological abuse by a narcissistic partner. Even though she is physically free of her ex husband, Meg’s first instinct is always to appease someone who exhibits high emotion, or makes demands of her, so she reacts, rather than makes decisions. Nerine is convincing as a mother paranoid about the safety of herself and her children, and though she’s not particularly likeable, she is sympathetic in light of the story she presents. Jinks’s portrayal of the children, especially Ana, deserves special mention, as they are accurately represented with regards to age and circumstance.

I found Shelter to be dark and disturbing, yet utterly engrossing, but fair warning, it may be too much for readers sensitive to its themes.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Lana’s War by Anita Abriel

Title: Lana’s War

Author: Anita Abriel

Published: 2nd December 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

Lana’s War is Anita Abriel’s second historical fiction novel set during World War II.

Discovering she is pregnant, Lana Hartmann (née Antanova) hurries through the streets of occupied Paris, anxious to share the happy news with her husband, a music teacher. She is horrified when she finds her husband being questioned by the gestapo and devastated when she witnesses his callous execution while trying to protect a young Jewish girl. Miscarrying their child that same day, Lana staves off despair by volunteering at a convent where she is offered an opportunity to join the resistance. Eager to honour her husband’s sacrifice and save Jews from the Gestapo, Lana accepts and is sent to the Riviera region of France. There Lana is asked to trade on her Russian heritage and, as Countess Lana Antanova, help Swiss resistance member, Guy Pascal, with his efforts to smuggle Jews out of the country.

I like that Abriel has chosen a setting for her novel in an area of France usually overlooked in WWII historical fiction, which tends to favour Paris or the French countryside. Nice, and its neighbours including Cannes, St. Tropez, and Monaco, are part of the French Riviera, on the south east coast of France. Just 30km from the Italian border, Nice was occupied first by the Italians, and then the Germans before being liberated in 1944.

When Lana arrives in November, 1943, she is surprised that the city seems largely unaffected by the war. Unlike in Paris, stores are open and well stocked, and the casino’s, hotels and cafe’s are well patronised, though the place is overrun with German soldiers. Abriel ties the plot of her novel in with the escalation against Jews in the area, where Lana is tasked to learn the timing of upcoming raids, giving them an opportunity to evade being sent to Drancy Internment Camp. I liked the premise which promised adventure, tension and romance, unfortunately the execution fell short for me.

I liked Lana well enough but I didn’t find her to be a particularly consistent or convincing character. While her motivation for her choice to work with resistance is strong, and she’s obviously intelligent, given her education, she doesn’t seem wise enough to be so adept at espionage. It’s also a bit of a stretch that within days of her arrival she has four men essentially in love with her. I did like the romantic attachment Lana formed, but I wasn’t keen on how it played out. Lana’s relationship with Odette, a young Jewish girl, however was lovely.

Unfortunately, despite finding the broad strokes of the the story to be engaging, I thought the prose itself was rather flat, and a touch repetitive. Though I dislike the phrase, I also thought there was far more ‘telling than showing’ and as such, tension rarely eventuated, or fizzled out.

A story of war, vengeance, courage and love, Lana’s War was a quick read, but for me, not a particularly satisfying one.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Also by Anita Abriel reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Published: 29th December 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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Inspired by Gina Wilkinson’s own experiences as a diplomat’s wife in Iraq, When the Apricots Bloom is a thought-provoking and moving story about loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.

Set in Baghdad in 2002, the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three women – Ally, the wife of an Australian ambassador; Huda, Ally’s husband’s secretary; and Raina, Huda’s childhood friend.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is defined by loss, suspicion, and fear, the mukhabarat lurk everywhere looking for any sign of disloyalty to their ‘great leader’, visiting swift and brutal punishment on anyone who dare to speak against him. Listening devices are used routinely in homes and public spaces, dissidents disappear, or are made examples of. Americans are banned from the country, and representatives of other western countries, particularly women, are barely tolerated.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you? Two can keep a secret only when one of them is dead.”

By failing to declare her dual citizenship, and her previous career as a journalist, Ally is in a precarious position that only worsens when she attempts to learn more about her late mother, who thirty years earlier spent time as a nurse in Baghdad. Naive regarding the risks to both herself, her husband, and anyone else she involves in her task, Ally will be forced to make a difficult choice.

When ordered by the mukhabarat (secret police) to befriend Ally and learn her secrets, Huda, whose husband is unemployed after the country’s economic collapse, has no other choice but to agree if she is to keep her teenage son safe from being conscripted into the fedayeen (death squad). As the police apply increasing pressure for information, Huda grows desperate, and demands help from Raina, once her closest childhood friend, whom she holds responsible for the execution of her brothers.

A sheik’s daughter, now an art dealer, whose family’s wealth and influence has dwindled to almost nothing, Raina is also worried for her daughter’s safety when one of Hussein’s son’s expresses interest in fourteen year old Hanan. She has little to offer Huda, but suggests the two women together can find a way to save their children.

“If the blood oath is broken,” she declared theatrically, “then the penalty is sorrow.” “Sorrow for the oath breaker,” she declared, “and for the generation that follows her.”

Demonstrating that women the world over will do what they must to protect their children, When the Apricots Bloom explores the circumstances in which Huda, Raina and Ally find themselves in, caught between the past and the future, forced to choose between duty and love.

The three main characters of When the Apricots Bloom are well-developed, though it was Huda who I found the most interesting, and whose fate I cared more for. Ally and Raina have protections, and choices, that Huda does not, and as such I considered her the braver of the trio. Huda is forced to walk such a thin line, I felt tense each time she was confronted by the mukhabarat, and my heart was in my throat during the final scenes.

Wilkinson’s insights into the daily life of Iraqi citizens under Hussein’s totalitarian rule are fascinating, portraying a country crippled by war, an economy destroyed by sanctions, and a populace oppressed by terror, all contrasting sharply to the glimpses of life in Baghdad before Hussein’s rise to power. Abandoning their country is nevertheless a wrench for the Huda and Raina, and Ally is disappointed to leave without answers to her questions.

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom. Alas, the world is not perfect.”

Expressive, evocative, and convincingly authentic, I found When the Apricots Bloom to be an absorbing read.

+++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely by Jessica Dettmann

Title: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Author: Jessica Dettmann

Published: 6th January 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, Jessica Dettmann’s sophomore novel, was my first read for the new year, and happily, an ideal selection.

Witty, warm, sharp and sincere, this is a story of responsibilities, regrets, secrets, anxieties, dreams and dysfunction, as the family of Annie Jones, which includes her three adult children, their partners and offspring, her ex-husband, and the man he left her for, gathers under the same roof for Annie’s father’s funeral in the days before Christmas.

No family is without complications, but at this particular moment, Annie’s can be said to have more complications than most. Though she had imagined that with her father’s passing she would finally be free to pursue her own dreams, as the week unfolds, Annie begins to doubt that escaping the needs of her family will ever a possibility.

I quickly became invested in the characters of This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, even though I had little in common with them. They are realistic and nuanced, as are the dynamics between them. Annie garnered my complete sympathy, her daughter, Molly, not so much. I felt sorry for Simon’s wife, Diana, while Annie’s friend, Jane, made me laugh.

Taking place in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney over the Christmas period, the details of the setting are very familiar, as I spent several summer holidays with cousins who lived in the same area. We too made the daily pilgrimages to the beach, ate meals in the back yard, and played hide and seek among the plumbago.

Dettmann’s writing is perceptive, tender and poignant, deftly portraying the complexities of the modern family, and exploring themes of choice, resentment, expectation, freedom, and creativity. An absolutely lovely read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Title: Nevernight {The Nevernight Chronicle #1}

Author: Jay Kristoff

Published: 19th June 2017, HarperCollins

Status: Read December 2020

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My Thoughts:

I was gifted Nevernight by bestselling Australian fantasy/SciFi author Jay Kristoff, in 2019 from my Secret Santa (thank you again Little Miss Starr) via the Aussie Readers + Bloggers Secret Santa Exchange, and had hoped to have read it long before now, but better late than never!

“Never flinch. Never fear. And never, ever forget.”

In a land of three suns, where darkness falls just once a year, a young girl hides amongst the shadows. Mia Corvere, the orphaned daughter of a highborn family, is determined to avenge the murders of her parents and younger brother by the corrupt members of The Republic, no matter the cost. Chance leads her to the door of a mentor who prepares her to join the Red Church, a secretive organisation of assassins where she may earn a position as a Blade of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and thus the skill to vanquish her enemies, if she can survive among a hall of killers to graduate.

Nevernight is an entertaining fast paced read, offering plenty of action, intrigue and interesting worldbuilding. Though the main thrust of the plot isn’t particularly unique, Kristoff does add his own imaginative touches so that the story doesn’t feel stale, and I was quickly engrossed in the tale from the first few pages.

Mia is plucky, pragmatic, deadly and determined, but it’s her gift of weaving shadows that gives her an edge as an assassin. Mis doesn’t really understand her ability, she thinks of it as something that found her, in the form of Mr Kindly – a cat made of shadows that also feeds on her fear, rather than something that is part of her. I liked Mia a lot, like all fantasy heroines she has a streak of idealism that conflicts with her ability to create mayhem and murder. The cutthroat competition of the Red Church apprenticeship isn’t always easy for her, especially when it pits her against those she has befriended.

Nevernight is both more violent and more sexually suggestive, and explicit, than I expected, as I was under the mistaken impression it was considered a YA novel. This wasn’t an issue for me, but it’s perhaps important to note that despite its teenage protagonist, Nevernight is written for an adult audience.

The overall tone of Nevernight is quite dark, what with deaths and monsters, but there is also plenty of wit and sarcasm which I appreciated. I confess Nevernight occasionally feels a touch overwritten, but not so much that I cared, I enjoy a creative metaphor and Kristoff supplies plenty. I can take or leave the author’s fetish for footnotes though, I found it easiest to read through them at the end of each chapter.

An exciting tale of love and loss, bloodshed and betrayal, dark and light, Nevernight is the first book in the Nevernight Chronicle trilogy. Godsgrave and Darkdawn are already available, I hope to read both soon.

++++++

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Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Title: The Arsonist: Mind on Fire

Author: Chloe Hooper

Published: 15th October 2018, Viking

Status: Read December 2020

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My Thoughts:

Bushfires are practically synonymous with Summer in Australia, and there have been several severe and deadly conflagrations since its settlement including the recent large scale fire of 2019/2020. Of these blazes however, Black Saturday has the dubious distinction of claiming the most lives in recorded history.

On Saturday 7th February 2009, as temperatures soared to the mid 40’s, there were as many as four hundred separate fires burning in Victoria. By the time they were extinguished 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) of land had been razed, over 3500 structures (including homes, commercial premises, and agricultural buildings) were destroyed, stock and crops were lost, and 173 people lost their lives while hundreds more were injured.

One of the blazes, known as The Churchill Complex fire, started in the early afternoon on 7 February 2009 in the Latrobe Valley. The fire travelled rapidly, impacting on several towns in south east Victoria. Eleven people died as a result of the fire, 145 houses were destroyed, and more than 25,861 hectares were burnt. Less than a week after the fire began, investigators were able to determine that it was caused by arson.

In The Arsonist: Mind on Fire, Chloe Hooper tells the story of this disastrous event, and its devastating impact on its victims. She then details the investigation that identified Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local, as responsible, and his subsequent trial and conviction.

The statements from those that lost loved one’s, and property, are heartbreaking to read. Survivors, including the rural firefighters who fought the blaze, were forever changed by their confrontation with the fire, and the event continued to take a toll long after the fire was extinguished.

In Australia, Hooper reports, around 13% of vegetation fires are maliciously lit and it’s estimated that only one per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught. This is often because the fires are started in unpopulated areas, and the subsequent blaze conveniently destroys any evidence that may have remained. In the case of the Churchill Complex fire, investigators quickly suspected arson was at play and their attention was drawn to the suspicious behaviour of a man identified as Brendan Sokaluk.

Hooper takes us through the investigation, drawing on a number of perspectives to show how the police reached their conclusions about the cause of the fire, and who was to blame. Brendan Sokaluk, a 39 year old local resident, was seen in the area of ignition, by multiple witnesses, and met the general profile of an arsonist – he was from a disadvantaged background, unemployed, and anti social. During his initial interview, Sokaluk confessed to setting the fire ‘accidentally’, and then retracted his admission, but while it became clear to officers that Brendan had some level of cognitive deficiency, several suspected he was exaggerating his inability to comprehend the investigating detectives questions. Nevertheless the police felt they had enough information to charge Sokaluk with ten counts of arson causing death, and 181 other charges, the majority relating to criminal damage (plus a charge of possession for child pornography found on his computer that was later dropped).

While a psychiatric assessment declared Sokaluk fit to stand trial, his lawyers were never confident that he understood the gravity of the charges against him, nor the mechanics of the legal proceedings. Brendan never took the stand, and no true motive for starting the fire was ever established. The trial began in 2011, nearly three years after Sokaluk’s arrest, and Hooper leads the reader through the process that eventually saw him convicted and sentenced to 17 years plus time served (3 years). With his fourteen year minimum, Sokaluk will be eligible for parole in 2023.

I found The Arsonist to be a well-written and balanced account of Black Saturday, though I was expecting Hooper would a provide a little more detail and context to the disaster itself. I do think her reportage on the investigation was concise, and of the trial, nuanced. She is respectful of those who were most affected by the blaze, but not without empathy for Brendan Sokaluk and his family.

Fire is a merciless beast, one the Australian landscape is particularly susceptible to, especially as we head towards even more extreme temperatures in a changing climate. Having ignored much of the Aboriginal wisdom in managing the land with fire, there is ample fuel for people to ignite for any one of the complicated reasons arsonists do so, and Hooper suggests we ignore the risks at our peril.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Something Like This by Karly Lane


Title: Something Like This

Author: Karly Lane

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Despite the devastating loss of her husband, with hard work and the fortuitous inheritance of her grandparents farm, Tilly Hollis is now on the verge of fulfilling their shared dream to launch an equine therapy program for troubled teens. With just a few more weeks of work at a local cafe, she will finally have the funds to build the last of the infrastructure that will allow her to launch Healing Hooves Horse Therapy.

In need of solitude and a fresh start, retired army soldier and handyman Jason Weaver plans to renovate the old farmhouse he just purchased on the outskirts of Ben Tirran, and then move on. He is not expecting to have his head turned by a waitress in a small country town, and it surprises them both when a mutual attraction develops.

Something Like This from bestselling Australian author, Karly Lane, is a heartwarming rural romance set in the the New England highlands.

Tilly and Jason are well-realised, appealing characters. Tilly is a strong and resilient woman, particularly for having endured more than her share of tragedy including the loss of her father and brother in separate incidences as a teen, her husband’s untimely death, and most recently her mother’s slow demise from breast cancer. Jason is also no stranger to death, having served in the army he has lost several friends, and is especially haunted by the incident that cost him his lower leg. Still struggling with his past, falling for Tilly encourages him to look to the future.

I thought the relationship between the two characters was very well-handled, Lane allows them both time to adjust to their attraction to one another, and doesn’t rush the inevitable. I appreciated the lack of dramatic obstacles usually employed to keep a couple apart, which served to make this romance more realistic and relatable.

They say some people are horsey people, while others are not, but even non-horsey people will be moved by the touching goals of Tilly’s equine therapy program, and the history of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horses Tilly uses at her farm. Guy Fawkes Heritage horses (previously referred to as wild Brumbies), found in the Guy Fawkes River National Park in north eastern NSW, were once subject to regular culls to protect the environment, but are now considered to be of significant historical, military and cultural value. The population of this spirited breed is now managed with a rehoming project, and in Something Like This, Tilly combines her therapy program with the need to acclimatise these horses to humans.

An engaging story, set at a gentle pace, told with genuine warmth for her characters and setting, Something Like This is a lovely and eminently satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Also by Karly Lane reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Last Truehart by Darry Fraser

Title: The Last Truehart

Author: Darry Fraser

Published: 2nd December 2020, Mira Au

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Harlequin Au

“A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.

1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.

Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.

What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed..”

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My Thoughts:

Captivating adventure romance set in 19th century Australia! Full review to come…

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Available from Harlequin Australia at HarperCollins

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