Review: The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin

 

Title: The Safe Place

Author: L.A. Larkin

Published: 9th November 2021, Bookouture

Status: Read November 2021 courtesy Bookoutre/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

A year after finally gathering the courage to report her boyfriend and boss, hero fire captain Marcus Harstead, for domestic violence, Jessie Lewis is a pariah in her home town of Eagle Falls. Branded an unstable, vindictive liar by her charismatic ex and his supporters, including Sheriff John Cuffy, when first a local family with whom Jessie had a public spat is killed in an arson attack on their home, and then Jessie is linked to the scene of a second fatal fire, she is quickly labeled the prime suspect. With only a retired FBI agent willing to believe her innocent, Jessie realises she has no choice but to expose the arsonist before her life turns to ashes.

The Safe Place by L.A. Larkin is a fast-paced, action packed thriller that involves domestic violence, PTSD, conspiracy, arson and murder. The author has crafted an intriguing and dramatic plot as Jessie, victimised, threatened and hunted, repeatedly finds herself in incredibly tense confrontations in a desperate effort to clear her name. Jessie is certain she knows who is framing her for the arson, and why, but her ex is not the only person in Eagle Falls with secrets they’d kill to keep, and there are some gripping twists as Larkin reveals hidden motives.

However I found Jessie to be a frustrating character. She’s a bit of a mess, understandably so given her past and current situation. I wasn’t unsympathetic, and I was always rooting for her survival, but I really struggled with the way in which she consistently made the worst possible choice in almost every situation.

Nevertheless The Safe Place is a page-turner, a tense and exciting story that had had me enthralled.

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Review: Deception Creek by Fleur McDonald

 

Review: Deception Creek {Detective Dave Burrows}

Author: Fleur McDonald

Published: 1st November 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read November 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Two seemingly unrelated story threads eventually overlap in Deception Creek, the fifth Australian rural mystery novel by Fleur McDonald to feature Detective Dave Burrows in the town of Barker, though the ninth in which he appears.

When Joel Hammond returns to Barker after serving a nine year jail sentence, Dave is surprised by the venom directed at him by a handful of locals. Their anger, Dave learns, is unrelated to the financial crimes that Joel claims he is innocent of. When Joel was a teenager his girlfriend, Maggie, died after a fall from a water tower, and though he was cleared of any involvement, her family have always believed him responsible.

Though Emma Cameron’s marriage has ended in divorce, she’s proud that all her hard work means the farm she inherited from her parents in Deception Creek is almost debt free. She doesn’t want to be alone forever though and when Kyle Pengilly, with whom she shares a tragic memory, comes to town, she finds his obvious interest flattering.

McDonald’s plot is skilfully crafted, well paced, and offers a truly unexpected ending. While Dave, and his partner Senior Constable Jack Higgins try to keep peace in town as Maggie’s brother, Steve, becomes increasingly confrontational with Joel, their partners, Kim Burrows and journalist Zara Ellison, grow curious not only about Joel’s insistence that he was not guilty of fraud, but also what really happened the night Maggie died. I was caught up in the drama and suspense as their questions unravel shocking truths that have been hidden for decades.

I’ve grown familiar with the core characters, who share a strong sense of community and justice, over previous instalments and find them to be an appealing foursome. I liked Emma, an independent, capable farmer, and Joel who, despite the accusations levelled against him, is sympathetic. Interestingly, both these characters give McDonald another opportunity to explore facets of PTSD, as she has done in several previous novels.

Though it can be read as a stand alone, Deception Creek is another great read is what is an engaging series that combines suspense and romance in an authentic rural Australian setting.

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Review: Women to the Front by Heather Sheard & Ruth Lee

 

Title: Women to the Front: Australian Women Doctors of the First World War

Author: Heather Sheard & Ruth Lee

Published: 2nd April 2021, Ebury Press

Status: Read November 2021

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My Thoughts:

 

After the Great War broke out in 1914, Melbourne doctor Helen Sexton was just one of what was to be at least 28 Australian female medical practitioners, aged between 27 and 56 years olds trained primarily in general medicine but also in specialties from pathology to anaesthesiology to surgery, who attempted to enlist as a doctor with the Medical Armed Forces in Australia or Britain. Their offers rebuffed, the Australian women, eager to aid in the war effort, instead reached out to international medical organisations and soon found roles that allowed them to serve in several settings, including within mobile medical units stationed along both the Eastern and Western fronts.

In Women to the Front, authors Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee, draw on available official documents, personal letters, diaries and other material to ensure that these intrepid Australian women doctors are acknowledged, and lauded for their contributions to the war effort. The book is organised in five parts, with a narrative divided by year and then location, detailing the women’s movements across the Allied fronts. There are a lot of names, acronyms and dates which can be difficult to keep track of, but helpfully the authors also include a glossary, individual biographies of each doctor, and a comprehensive index.

Though Sheard and Lee state they had limited information to work from, they have put together compelling accounts of the women’s experiences as wartime doctors. The Australian doctors served in at least twelve countries, working under a wide range of conditions in a variety of roles from 1914 to 1918. Doctors Laura Forster (NSW), and Ethel Baker (QLD), joined the BHF (British Field Hospital for Belgium) which established a 150-bed field hospital in Antwerp in September of 1914. The facility was quickly flooded with wounded soldiers, the women often required to operate through the night. Barely a month later they were forced to evacuate as the German Army advanced. Pathologist Dr Elsie Dalyell (NSW), the first Australian woman to win a Beit Fellowship, offered her skills to the War Office, but when refused joined Lady Cornelia Wimborne’s Serbian Relief Fund field hospital, and headed to Serbian Macedonia on the Eastern Front where she was responsible for the collection and analyse of specimens to detect and diagnose everything from wound infections, to diseases such as Typhus. Dr Agnes Bennett (NSW) volunteered with the French Red Cross and treated the wounded soldiers from the battlefields of Gallipoli who were shipped to Cairo. Sydney (NSW) doctor Marjory Little took charge of the 46th Stationary Hospital’s laboratory. The 46th, in Étaples, France, was an isolation hospital in the largest army base camp ever established overseas by the British, and contained one of the army’s most important laboratories.

It’s humbling to think of the strength, courage and will these Australian women doctors, and the others noted in this book, possessed. At a time when women had so little agency, and were barely tolerated in the medical profession, they fearlessly entered the theatre of war and proved themselves more than capable. Infuriatingly they were afforded very little official respect from the Australian or British military, either during or after the war. Though sometimes awarded a nominal rank they were denied full military pay rates and benefits. A handful of the women were awarded minor British medals, none received recognition from Australia. Other countries were more generous, Dr Lilian Cooper (QLD), for example, was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava, the Russian Cross of St George, and the French Red Cross Medal for her services. Astonishingly, when World War II began, the Australian military again refused the enlistment of Australian women doctors despite their outstanding record of service.

Inspiring and informative, Women to the Front is an important book acknowledging the invaluable contributions made by the extraordinary Australian women who selflessly served the Allied Forces as doctors during World War I.

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Available from Penguin Books Australia or your preferred retailer

Review: At the End of the Day by Liz Byrski

 

Title: At the End of the Day

Author: Liz Byrski

Published: 28th September 2021, Macmillan Australia

Status: Read November 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

A heartwarming, uplifting story about friendship, family, love, acceptance and change, in Liz Byrski’s eleventh novel, At the End of the Day, it’s during an unexpected delay in Doha that Miriam Squires, heading home to Perth after visiting her sister in England, strikes up a conversation with Mathias Vander, who is on his way to visit his daughter after spending time with a childhood friend in Belgium.

The pair are surprised by the immediate rapport that develops between them and are reluctant to dismiss their fortuitous meeting on arriving in Australia. In their seventies, they each have concerns about the baggage they carry, Mim is struggling with the debilitating effects of post polio syndrome, Mathias with a secret he’s kept hidden his entire life, and both are anxious about their futures. These are lovely characters, fully realised and portrayed authentically. Through them Byrski explores issues related to ageing, including frustration with physical limitations and compromised independence, as well as those related to mental health such as identity and self-worth.

While Mim and Mathias move towards reconciling with their pasts and making decisions about their futures, Mathias’s daughter Carla is mourning the end of another relationship, until an introduction to a friend of Mim’s, Jodie, sparks new hope. Though they are decades younger, the stories of Carla and Jodie in part reflect those of Mim and Mathias as Jodie struggles to recover from her injuries after a car accident, and Carla musters the courage to trust her heart again.

Written with tenderness, charm and wisdom, At the End of the Day is an engaging, character driven novel with the life-affirming message that it’s never too late to pursue happiness.

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Review: Outback Secrets by Rachael Johns

 

Title: Outback Secrets {Bunyip Bay #5}

Author: Rachael Johns

Published: 27th October 2021, Mira

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

I’m delighted to finally return to Bunyip Bay with Rachael Johns! Outback Secrets is her fifth rural romance set in the Western Australian community, and pairs publican Liam Castle, with agricultural aviator, Henrietta ‘Henri’ Forward.

Liam has been The Palace publican in Bunyip Bay for a decade, having arrived from Colorado in the wake of a tragedy. Though he’s privy to the many secrets of the community, no-one can claim to know his. When Henri, spending Christmas at the family farm, confides in him the need for a fake beau to distract her mother from nagging her to stay and settle down, Liam surprises both Henri and himself by agreeing to the plan.

Unsurprisingly, though delightfully so, real feelings quickly develop between Liam and Henri. Johns is adept at establishing chemistry between two characters and then deepening the relationship in a believable way as they learn more about one another. Liam and Henri complement each other well and their romance is fun and heartwarming.

It’s refreshing to have a heroine in a romance who actually isn’t all that interested in the traditional ‘happy ever after’ that leads to marriage and babies. A confident, independent woman, Henri loves her job as a pilot and I liked her passion for her chosen career.

Liam, who has played a minor background role in previous Bunyip Bay novels, is an appealing romantic hero, thoughtful, discrete and generous. The tragedy in his backstory is an unexpected element that introduces some sensitive subjects to the novel, including trauma, PTSD, grief, and suicide.

I was surprised to realise it’s been five years since the last Bunyip Bay book was published as the community and its characters all still feel very familiar. Though Outback Secrets can be read as a stand-alone, it’s a joy catch up with the lives of the couples who have featured in earlier novels including Faith and Monty (Outback Dreams), Ruby and Drew (Outback Blaze), Adam and Stella (Outback Ghost), and Frankie and Logan (Outback Sisters).

Outback Secrets is another engaging and charming story of romance, family and community, and I hope to visit Bunyip Bay again soon.

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Review: Who Sleuthed it? Edited by Lindy Cameron

 

Title: Who Sleuthed It?

Author: Lindy Cameron (Editor)

Published: 1st September 2021, Clandestine Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Clandestine Press

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My Thoughts:

Who Sleuthed It? is an engaging anthology of nineteen short stories where pampered pets and animated animals help each other, or their human sidekicks, solve crimes.

There are fact-finding felines and clever canines including British Shorthairs, Sherlock and Watson, in Fin J Ross’s ‘A Rascal in Academia’, and a ‘smiley, loyal, obedient Golden Retriever’ in ‘When the Chips Are Down’ by Louisa Bennett (aka LA Larkin). Scotland Yard’s finest, Reggie Starling, flies into action when the Crown Jewels are stolen in a tale by Kat Klay; CJ McGumbleberry (a non de plume) writes of a Great Horned Owl who is bamboozled by a clever chipmunk; and a motivated magpie helps a policewoman to solve both a murder and a massacre in ‘The Tidings’ by Tor Roxborough.

I’m familiar with the work of several of the contributing authors, including Kerry Greenwood who offers a tale of theft featuring the indomitable Phryne Fisher and her pets, Ember and Molly, in ‘La Gazza Ladra’; Meg Keneally’s ‘The Flotilla’ is set at the turn of the 20th century in and around the quarantine station on Sydney Harbour, near a colony of Little Penguins; and a retired police dog is a protective watchman in ‘The Tiger Mothers of Bethlehem Maternity’ by Vikki Petraitis.

Most of the authors contributing to the anthology are Australian, while a few are from the UK or USA. The settings vary in period and place, including Victorian London and modern day Melbourne. Humour is common to most of the stories, while a few have a supernatural element.

Whimsical, inventive and canny, Who Sleuthed It? offers an eclectic collection of mystery tales that are sure to delight animal lovers.

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Review: I Shot the Devil by Ruth McIver

 

Title: I Shot the Devil

Author: Ruth McIver

Published: 1st September 2021, Hachette

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“Mid way in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and found myself alone in a dark wood. What wood that was! I never saw so drear! So rank, so dark, so arduous a wilderness, its very memory gave shape to fear.” (Inferno, Dante Alighieri)

I Shot the Devil is Ruth McIver’s debut, a gritty novel about the secrets surrounding a decades old murder, missing children, and police corruption.

When true crime journalist, Erin Sloane is assigned a feature article on The Southport Three, she’s reluctant to confess her own connection to the 1994 thrill kill case. Not only was her father a detective with Nassau County where the murder occurred, but both the victims, and the assailants, were her friends.

Hardly the picture of stability, with a childhood marked by loss and neglect, and a long-standing pill and alcohol habit, it’s difficult to judge Erin’s reliability as narrator. Delving into the past proves to be both emotionally and physically threatening for her as she renews contact with her abusive ex-boyfriend, one of the Southport Three, and slowly pieces together what really happened the night two teenagers died. Erin knows there is no truth to the claims of satanic influence, but it proves to be more complicated too than either revenge or a drug fuelled thrill. Erin uncovers corruption that implicates her father, now dying with Alzheimer’s, along with other police officers, and a web of conspiracy.

The novel is atmospheric, the sense of threat and tension is established early and builds effectively. There are some elements of the narrative that I thought didn’t quite work though, for example I thought the pacing was a little uneven, and there are some foreshortened threads.

I Shot the Devil is an edgy, dark thriller and McIvers is an author with definite potential.

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Review: Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

 

Title: Birds of a Feather

Author: Tricia Stringer

Published: 29th September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Three independent women of three different generations are at the centre of Tricia Stringer’s 14th novel, Birds of a Feather.

Septuagenarian Eve Monk is not at all pleased when a shoulder injury requiring surgery threatens her highly prized independence, and it’s with great reluctance that she hires registered nurse Lucy Ryan as home help. With her partner, a FIFO worker, often absent, young mother of two, Lucy, is uncomfortable with juggling work and childcare, and isn’t sure working for Eve is good idea. Nevertheless, the two slowly warm to each other, much to the annoyance of Eve’s goddaughter, Julia, who arrives unannounced after finding herself at a professional and personal crossroad.

Exploring the themes of independence, friendship, careers and family, among others, each woman, though at different stages in their lives, struggle with similar issues in Birds of a Feather. This is a character driven story as Eve, Lucy and Julia confront the spectres of their pasts and find the courage to determine new futures.

To be honest it took me a while to warm to all three characters. I initially thought Eve to be brusque and demanding, Lucy overly anxious, and Julia rude and selfish. As the story progresses however each becomes more nuanced and I came to admire their many strengths. The development of their friendship is gratifying, and I was cheered by the supportive bond they formed, and drew strength from.

Set in mid 2021 Stringer doesn’t overlook the impact of the CoVid-19 pandemic, which has affected both Lucy and Julia, but it doesn’t have an active presence in the story per se. Most of the novel takes place in a small coastal town, named Wallaby Bay, on the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. I liked the depiction of the community, whose main industries include tourism and prawn-trawling, and the minor conflicts of its residents add colour and interest to the story.

Warm, sincere and thoughtful, Birds of a Feather is an engaging contemporary novel sure to delight readers, new and old.

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Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital by Joanna Nell

 

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanne Nell

Published: 29th September 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is an endearing and entertaining novel from bestselling Australian author Joanna Nell.

Though the decor is tired, the menu uninspiring, and the coffee bland, The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has served the visitors and employees of St Jude’s Hospital nobly for fifty years, its profits funding a variety of projects to benefit patients. Staffed by volunteers, septuagenarian Hilary Halliday has held the position of manager for a decade and runs a tight ship, but with her personal life recently upended, her role at the cafeteria has become a life raft, which is why she is rocked to discover that management is contemplating closing the cafeteria in favour of a popular ‘whole food’ cafe franchise.

The storyline of The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is told through three characters – Hilary; probationary volunteer Joy, with a penchant for blue eyelash falsies and bright clothing, of similar age to Hilary; and seventeen year old student Chloe Foster-Pearson, reluctantly volunteering at the behest of her surgeon mother. Each slowly reveals their private struggles as they face uncertain futures. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these well drawn characters, very different from one another, who become united by their determination to save the cafeteria.

The themes of family, friendship, change, and identity are prevalent in The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital. Nell also sensitively explores issues related to ageing, particularly for women. There is a little dig at the commercialisation of hospital care, and the Millennial folly of style over substance.

Written with warmth and humour, The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is a charming and cheerful read.

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Review: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert

 

Title: The River Mouth

Author: Karen Herbert

Published: 1st October 2021, Fremantle Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Fremantle Press

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In Karen Herbert’s accomplished crime fiction debut, The River Mouth, a mother resumes her search for answers to the unsolved murder of her teenage son when the decade old case is reopened in the wake of the death of her best friend.

Sandra Davies is stunned when the police advise her that not only has the body of her best friend, Barbara Russell, been found in the Pilbara desert, but that routine tests discovered Barbara’s DNA matched a sample taken from the under the fingernails of her late son. Darren was shot dead by an unknown assailant while swimming in the river with friends ten years earlier, but what possible motive could explain Barbara killing a fifteen year old boy?

As Sandra tries to make sense of this unexpected development, convinced Barbara is blameless, Herbert unravels the past from the perspective of Barbara’s son, and Darren’s best friend, Colin. Darren is a high-spirited teenager, full of teenage bravado, with a sharp tongue, while Colin is more reserved and thoughtful. When Darren is not helping out his dad, a successful cray fisherman, the boys spend much of their time together, at school and on weekends, often joined by Tim, and occasionally Amy. While they occasionally cause mischief, and push against their parents’ rules, the group are fairly typical teenagers. I thought Herberts characterisation of the teens was realistic, and felt that she deftly captured their dialogue, attitudes and behaviours.

It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the insular Western Australian costal community in which Sandra lives harbours more than one secret that could have led to Darren’s murder, and Herbert uses these red herrings to good effect. The novel is well paced, with the suspense managed effectively across both timelines. Though the ambiguous circumstances of Barbara’s passing remains an irritant to me, I think the mystery of Darren’s death is satisfactorily resolved, even if the aftermath is somewhat non-traditional.

The River Mouth is an impressive debut, and a fine addition to the growing oeuvre of rural Australian crime fiction.

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