Review: Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen

Title: Please See Us

Author: Caitlin Mullen

Published: April 1st 2020, Gallery

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen is a haunting, heartbreaking psychological thriller.

“There is something bad in the air and in the water now, something rotten and wrong. A moral disease.”

Set in Atlantic City, once a popular tourist destination, crowded with vacationers, the famous boardwalk is now lined with boarded up store fronts, half empty casino’s, and strolling prostitutes. Mullen effortlessly evokes a once thriving town gone to seed, broiling in the July sun, edged by the boggy marshes where the bodies of a serial killer’s victims lie.

“There is a sisterhood among them, these women in the marsh. Each time he brings another one, they understand what she has seen.”

And though the unidentified victims, referred to as ‘Janes’ have a voice, Please See Us primarily unfolds from the perspectives of Ava aka Clara Voyant, a sixteen year old thief, grifter and boardwalk psychic experiencing fragmented visions she doesn’t understand, Lily Louten, who has reluctantly returned to Atlantic City to live with her mother after a devastating betrayal by her partner that also decimated her career, and Luis, a friendless deaf and mute janitor who sees, but cannot speak of the horrors he sees.

“He doesn’t know what it is about this city, the way it swallows up anything kind and good.”

The story is slow-burning but suspense laden with a layered plot as Clara and Lily are drawn into the orbit of a serial killer. The writing is evocative, even lyrical, though what it describes are bleak scenes of desperation, poverty, addiction, and violence. Please See Us focuses on the vulnerability of women, particularly to men who seek to exploit and control them.

“We talked about what it meant to be a woman, to be looked at all the time, judged and measured and punished in a thousand different ways every day…”

Gritty, dark and compelling Please See Us is an assured debut novel.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Precious You by Helen Monks Takhar

Title: Precious You

Author: Helen Monks Takhar

Published: March 23rd 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2020, courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

A thoroughly modern psychological thriller Precious You by Helen Monks Takhar is a disturbing story of obsession, betrayal, and revenge.

When 41 year old magazine editor Katherine Ross first meets her new intern Lily Lunt, she is both drawn to, and distrustful of, the bright, ambitious 24 year old. Already struggling with feelings of irrelevancy Katherine suspects that Lily wants her job, but Lily wants much more than that. Lily wants everything.

Unfolding from the alternating second-person perspective of Katherine, and first-person narrative of Lily, Precious You twists and turns as the two women engage in a sinister power struggle. I was never quite sure whose perspective of events was the most trustworthy, and Takhar skilfully nurtures that element of doubt.

Their complicated dynamic is well portrayed, and if you are inclined to choose a side in the war between these two women, you’ll quickly be disabused of the idea that either deserves to win. As the story unravels so do their darkest secrets, and Katherine and Lily have more in common than you might suspect.

Takhar’s exploration of female identity, toxic friendships, family dysfunction and the generational divide is surprisingly thought provoking. While both characters represent extremes, their thoughts and experiences are often relatable, from Katherine’s mourning for her lost youth (and looks), to Lily’s Millennial sensitivities.

There is plenty of tension sustained through the novel as the rivalry between Katherine and Lily intensifies, and I felt compelled to read to the end to not only see how far each would go, but learn the truths both are hiding.

While a little melodramatic, I found Precious You to be an intense, and thrilling read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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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

++++++

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: Sheerwater by Leah Swann

 

Title: Sheerwater

Author: Leah Swann

Published: March 20th 2020, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

When a light plane crashes by the side of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, Ava, a former emergency rescue worker, feels compelled to stop and render assistance. Leaving her two young sons, Max and Teddy, safely locked in the car with strict instructions to remain, she and and another passerby bravely pull the pilot and two frightened children from the wreckage moments before it explodes. When emergency services arrives Ava makes her way back to the car only to find it empty.

Alternating primarily between the perspectives of Ava, her estranged husband Laurence, and their oldest son, 9 year old Max, Sheerwater is a harrowing tale, skillfully executed by Leah Swann.

Ava’s fear for her missing sons is visceral, her confusion and anxiety building as the police question her every word. Laurence’s attempts to reframe the narrative are infuriating, and an all too familiar reflection of recent current events. Max’s courage is heartbreaking as he tries to care for and protect his four year old brother, Teddy.

The prose is lyrical and evocative, portraying nuanced character and emotion. Vivid imagery conjures a sense of place, no matter the setting.

Though there are a few elements I felt were perhaps out of place, they didn’t detract from my interest. Unfolding over a period of three days, the pace is intense, and the increasing tension utterly gripping. I was left shattered by the ending.

Both beautiful and brutal, Sheerwater is a compelling read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Keeper by Jessica Moor

Title: Keeper

Author: Jessica Moor

Published: March 19th 2020, Viking

Status: March 2020 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

When a young woman’s drowned body is discovered, a lack of markings leads the police to believe their investigation will show she died by suicide. However Detective Whitworth’s curiosity is piqued when he first learns Katie Straw worked at a women’s refuge, and then that her name is an alias.

Keeper unfolds over two timelines, ‘Now’ – which follows the police investigation and in doing so explores the lives of the women in the refuge, and ‘Then’ – which reveals Katie’s history. The latter is an emotionally harrowing tale of a young woman drawn into a relationship with a frighteningly manipulative man.

Keeper centers around a very important topic – that of domestic/intimate partner violence in its many forms. I thought Moor’s portrayal of the issue’s complexity was nuanced and thought-provoking, and her diverse characters, including the detective, represent a spectrum of related perspectives and experiences.

Unfortunately though I didn’t find the execution compelling. The pace is slow, the tension is slight, and I really wasn’t surprised by the final twist designed to shock (though I think it’s likely I’ll be in the minority there). It’s also bleak, which is probably how it earned the literary tag.

In the end I’m a little torn, while I think Keeper is a socially valuable, and even interesting read, I just didn’t find entertaining.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books UK

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Review: Away With the Penguins by Hazel Prior

 


Title: Away With the Penguins

Author: Hazel Prior

Published: March 19th Bantam Press

Status: Read March 2020 courtesy Bantam/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Away With the Penguins is a charming tale of family, second chances, and well…penguins, from Hazel Prior.

“I must try to do something before it’s too late. Not just something with my money but something with my life, whatever dregs are left of it.”

Veronica McCreedy is a brusque, eccentric, and wealthy old woman who lives alone in a large house on the south west coast of Scotland, with only her ‘daily’, Eileen, and a part-time gardener for company. One evening her favourite television programme is replaced with a documentary about penguins, and inspired, Veronica makes an extraordinary decision that will change her life.

The story primarily unfolds from the point of view of Veronica, and her estranged grandson Patrick. Prior’s character development is skilful crafted, initially neither of the protagonists are particularly likeable, but as their pasts are revealed, and the story progresses, they become much more appealing characters.

Veronica’s adventures in Antarctica are delightful and poignant. The scientific team of Locket Island are rather horrified to have an octogenarian in their midst, but Veronica is unconcerned, and is determined to rise to the challenge, handbag on her arm.

Patrick is a bit of a loser, essentially unemployed and recently single, his first (second and third) contact with ‘Granny V’ does not go well, but he eventually redeems himself.

Unsurprising, Away With the Penguins includes strong messages about environmental issues, such as pollution, wildlife conversation and climate change, and of course, the importance of penguin research. I delighted in learning more about penguins, and the Adelie penguins in particular. Pip, the penguin chick that Veronica adopts, is an adorable element of the story.

An entertaining and uplifting story, Away With the Penguins is a lovely read, I finished the last page with a smile on my face, and hope in my heart.

++++++

Available from Bantam Press

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Review: Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

 


Title: Wicked As You Wish (A Hundred Names for Magic #1)

Author: Rin Chupeco

Published: March 3rd 2020, Sourcebooks Fire

Status: Read March 2020, courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

While browsing for a novel to suit the SwordsNStars challenge, the publicity tagline for Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco caught my attention.

“An unforgettable alternate history fairy-tale series about found family, modern-day magic, and finding the place you belong.”

The story begins in The Royal States of America, where Prince Alexei of Avalon is in hiding from The Snow Queen, waiting until he is found by the Firebird, so that he at last will have the power to renter his lands and claim his throne. When the Firebird finally appears, Alex, along with his best friend Tala – who has a rare ability to repel and negate magic – and a group of other young magic wielders, set out on a dangerous journey to Avalon to reclaim it from the Snow Queen’s deadly magic.

There’s a lot to like in Wicked As You Wish. It offers plenty of fast paced action, a diverse cast of characters, humour, intrigue, and a unique mix of political and cultural elements taken from both the modern world and the world of fairytales and legends.

But the world Chupeco has created is very ambitious and to be honest I struggled to make complete sense of it. Eventually I just had to sort of overlook the finer details and simply go along for the ride.

If you are willing to do the same, I expect you’ll enjoy Wicked As You Wish, as I did, but I think it’s fair to say it won’t be for everyone.

++++++

Available from Sourcebooks

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Review: Fifty-Fifty by Steve Cavanagh

 

Title: Fifty-Fifty {Eddie Flynn #5}

Author: Steve Cavanagh

Published: February 25th 2020, Orion

Status: Read February 2020, courtesy Hachette Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

I’ve had Steve Cavanagh on my TBR for a while as I was intrigued by the idea of a courtroom drama series featuring a conman-turned-lawyer. When I was assured Fifty-Fifty, the fifth book in the series to feature Eddie Flynn, could be read as a stand-alone I decided to just jump straight in, and I’m glad I did.

In Fifty-Fifty, Eddie finds himself embroiled in a high profile, complex murder case when two sisters accuse each other of the brutal murder of their father, former NYC Mayor Frankie Avellino. The evidence suggests either, or both, could be guilty. Eddie is convinced that his client, Sofia Avellino, is innocent. One woman is lying. One woman is a murderer. But which one?

I really enjoyed this clever, well paced, suspense laden novel. I generally don’t have any trouble predicting the guilty party in books such as these, but for almost the entire length of the story I truly felt either sister, Sofia or Alexandra, could be have been responsible for stabbing their father over 56 times.

I warmed to Eddie and his associates, Harper and Harry immediately, as well as his (not exactly but sort of) co-counsel, Kate Brooks and her investigator, Bloch, both of whom it seems will have a significant role in the series going forward.

Fifty-Fifty is sharp, smart and surprising. Even if I can’t find the time to read the first four books in the series, I’m looking forward to continuing with it.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

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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

++++++

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 Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Title: The Last Smile in Sunder City (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1}

Author: Luke Arnold

Published: January 28 2020, Orbit

Status: Read February 2020, courtesy Hachette Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

Imaginative and entertaining, The Last Smile in Sunder City is the first book in an urban fantasy series from debut novelist Luke Arnold.

“The magic had vanished and the world that magic had built was tearing itself apart…”

Six years ago, a war between The Humanitarian Army (representing the humans) and The Opus (representing the world’s magic creatures) destroyed magic. Known as The Coda, the event resulted in catastrophe in Sunder City. Without magic to sustain them, Elves rapidly aged and died, Were’s were left as half-transformed freaks, Vampires withered as they starved, while other creatures shed scales, or fur, or skin, and to the disadvantage of all, machinery and technology, once infused or forged with magic, stopped working. Arnold has created a bleak, gritty and imaginative world, with ‘Man For Hire’ Fletch Phillips at its center.

Fletch Phillips embodies the traits of a traditional noir P.I. in that he is a morose, down-on-his-luck, functional alcoholic who sleeps on a fold down bed in his dingy office. An orphan who lost his parents in horrific circumstances, Fletch once lived in a caring but closed community which he fled at eighteen to explore the wider world he half-remembered. He is terribly flawed, but not quite yet irredeemably, and I found him quite likeable. His journey from curious runaway teen, to guilt-ridden Man For Hire sporting three significant tattoo’s on his arm, is the subject of several flashbacks through the novel, which also eventually explains his role in the death of magic.

It’s not (metaphorically speaking) a blonde bombshell that walks into Fletch’s office to launch the story, it’s the headmaster of a local school searching for his friend and colleague – a centuries old, and ailing vampire. Fletch’s search leads him through the seedy streets of Sunder City, occasionally getting in they way of the police, (whom mostly despise him), and generally making more enemies than friends. I thought the mystery was fairly well plotted, though not particularly complex, and I would have preferred Fletch investigate more actively than he seemed to. I was also perhaps a little disappointed with the lack of action in the plot overall, but am prepared to forgive that given the need for Arnold to create the foundation of both the setting and character.

The Last Smile In Sunder City is a robust beginning to what I believe has the potential to be a popular fantasy series. I found it to be an easy and engaging read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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