All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Keepers Of The Lighthouse by Kaye Dobbie

The Keepers Of The Lighthouse
Kaye Dobbie
Harlequin AUS
2022, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: 1882 

Laura Webster and her father are the stalwart keepers of Benevolence Island Lighthouse, a desolate place stranded in the turbulent Bass Strait. When a raging storm wrecks a schooner just offshore, the few survivors take shelter with the Websters, awaiting rescue from the mainland. But some of the passengers have secrets that lead to dreadful consequences, the ripples of which echo far into the future …

2020 

Nina and her team of volunteers arrive on Benevolence to work on repairs, with plans to open up the island to tourists. Also on the expedition, for reason of his own, is Jude Rawlins, a man Nina once loved. A man who once destroyed her.

But the idyllic location soon turns into a nightmare as random acts of sabotage leave them with no communication to the mainland and the sense of someone on the island who shouldn’t be there.

The fingers of those secrets from the passengers lost long ago are reaching into the present, and Nina will never be the same again … 

I really, really enjoyed this.

I love a dual timeline story and this delivered in every sense of the word. It’s mostly split into two, 1882 and 2020 with a few brief forays into about 2010 for clarification of a backstory.

In 1882, we have Laura, a woman in her mid 20s who lives with her father, her stepmother and baby brother on an island in-between Tasmania and mainland Australia. It’s her father’s job to man the lighthouse so that ships might navigate the dangerous waters of Bass Strait. Although the island is a creation of the author, it is loosely based on a real island. For Laura, the isolation doesn’t bother her. The only get supply drops every so often and she isn’t worried by the harsh conditions. She thrives on the lifestyle, helping her father in ways that aren’t common for ladies in this time, proving to be a hard worker and excellent swimmer. When a boat wrecks in the rocks just off the island in a terrible storm, Laura and her family do their best to rescue and help the survivors, unaware that they’re about to be thrown deep into a mystery.

In 2020, Nina is leading a team to fix up that same island, make it habitable and desirable for tourists again. She’s well aware that her boss is keeping an eye on her from afar and expects Nina to pull this off without a hitch, which could be an issue when she realises documentary maker Jude Rawlins, a former boyfriend that there is unfinished business with, has also wangled his way onto the island. But that’s not the biggest problem – when strange things start happening that reek of sabotage, there’s a possibility that someone else is on the island that shouldn’t be.

This was such an engrossing read from start to finish. I really enjoyed both timelines – in fact often so much I would not want to leave one when a chapter ended but then the second I started the other timeline again, I wouldn’t want to leave that to go back to the original one! Often in dual timeline books, I find myself preferring one over the other but in this case I was equally invested and really enjoyed sinking into both timelines. I have a bit of a romanticised ideal about what it must’ve been like to live on a remote island, even though I do not at all think I could cope with the weather in Bass Strait! I think it would definitely take a very strong person (or family) to be able to deal with such a task especially as there are no days off in those times, the lighthouse had to be manned. Now everything is managed with technology and there’s little to no need for lighthouse keepers. Laura is strong and confident, not swayed by other people’s opinions of how she should behave (even when they’re well meaning, not necessarily mean) and she knows the sort of life that she wants.

In the present day, Nina is under a lot of stress, both with the arrival of Jude, someone that she has a very significant past with, and professionally as well. The two are also linked, because Jude being there could definitely affect her being able to do her job. The two of them were in love over a decade ago and I think when you tear a couple apart like that, the reader needs to really be able to believe that the reason was something that was that bad, that at the time, one of them couldn’t see a way out of it. And that really was successful here, as Nina’s story unfolds over the course of her chapters, it becomes so apparent why she is still suffering so much and how much it still impacts her day to day life. And in the case of Jude, he comes off a bit antagonistic at the beginning but you can see that he still, is hurting deeply after all this time and he just wants answers. Both of them are thrown together to puzzle out the fact that someone who shouldn’t be there seems to be on the island which brings up a lot of old hurts and issues but gives Nina the chance to be strong and finally confess her secret to Jude.

I found both of the mysteries intriguing and this was paced so well – definitely a real page turner!

9/10

Book #138 of 2022

Going to include this one in my 2022 Historical Fiction Reader Challenge as at least half of it is set in 1882. It’s the 37th book read for the challenge.

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Review: Hydra by Adriane Howell

Hydra
Adriane Howell
Transit Lounge Publishing
2022, 256p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/Quikmark Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Anja is a young, ambitious antiquarian, passionate for the clean and balanced lines of mid-century furniture. She is intent on classifying objects based on emotional response and when her career goes awry, Anja finds herself adrift. Like a close friend, she confesses her intimacies and rage to us with candour, tenderness, and humour.

Cast out from the world of antiques, she stumbles upon a beachside cottage that the neighbouring naval base is offering for a 100-year lease. The property is derelict, isolated, and surrounded by scrub. Despite of, or because of, its wildness and solitude, Anja uses the last of the inheritance from her mother to lease the property. Yet a presence – human, ghost, other – seemingly inhabits the grounds.

Hydra is a novel of dark suspense and mental disquiet, struck through with black humour. Adriane Howell beguilingly explores notions of moral culpability, revenge, memory, and narrative – all through the female lens of freedom and constraint. She holds us captive to the last page.

This is quite a difficult novel to review.

It’s essentially a story told in two parts – firstly, the story of Anja, an antiquarian who works in Melbourne. Anja is passionate about a classification system for antiques that she devised for her thesis, something that she longs to implement in her professional life and believes she might be able to do so, once she reaches the level of ‘Specialist’. She has a rivalry of sorts with Fran, someone who works in the same office, as to who might reach this first. When Anja makes a decision that torpedoes her career, she finds herself using the last of her inheritance from her mother to purchase a 100 year lease on a remote cottage on the vast grounds of a naval base. The cottage is isolated and has not been used for some time and although it has a spectacular view of the sea, usage of the beach is not included as it belongs to the defence force. Not long after she moves in, Anja notices several disturbing incidents which makes her wonder why this place has been offered up now, and why it has been left alone so long.

Interspersed with this are classified documents from an investigation into some unusual and violent happenings at the naval base that surrounds Anja’s new property some 30+ years ago, some of which have been removed and other information is occasionally redacted.

Anja is a complicated protagonist, at the beginning of the book she is arriving back at work after some time away, during which it’s hinted that something has happened or gone wrong. Her focus is back on work but immediately it seems that Anja is….perhaps struggling a bit mentally. She is hyper focused on things sometimes and doesn’t seem to notice the ‘bigger picture’. She has an intense rivalry with a fellow employee and in her desperation to one up this person, makes a mistake that basically ends her career. Even after this happens, it seems that Anja can’t actually see what she did wrong and seems to feel like she’d do the same thing again every time. She makes impulsive, rash decisions and doesn’t seem to ever take responsibility for anything. After a bit of a rocky start she settles into her new life in the cottage and even manages to find herself a job but she still can’t let go of the past, constantly checking up on her previous work colleague.

I really liked the parts of the story that involved the previous investigation into the naval base. I found them incredibly interesting and quite good at building a sinister vibe in a slow and steady way, the precise nature of the military reports giving you nothing but clinical facts and observations as the investigator proceeds with interviews. Your imagination begins to fill in the gaps, try and work out what is happening by what isn’t being said (and by trying to figure out what was been removed from the report as several items are listed as so). These are complimented by some unusual happenings that Anja notices at the cabin, but how much of this is the product of the isolation and Anja’s frame of mind, is uncertain.

The writing in this is beautiful and so well done. It’s not a long story and it manages to convey so much, especially about Anja without specifically really telling the reader much about her at all. As I mentioned, even the investigative reports are used to maximum effect and the difference between the clinical feel of those and Anja’s slightly frantic thoughts help with creating an atmosphere of foreboding. For me it was all building towards something but I cannot help but feel like the ending was….not quite what I was expecting.

An interesting debut with impressive writing but there were some elements of the story that didn’t really work out for me in the end.

6/10

Book #137 of 2022

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Review: The Happiest Little Town by Barbara Hannay

The Happiest Little Town
Barbara Hannay
Penguin Random House AUS
2022, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Happiness has a way of catching up with you, even when you’ve given up trying to find it.

Tilly doesn’t believe she can ever be happy again

Fourteen-year-old Tilly’s world is torn apart when her single mother dies suddenly and she is sent a million miles from everything she has ever known to a small country town and a guardian who’s a total stranger.

Kate is sure she will be happy just as soon as she achieves her dream.

In the picturesque mountains of Far North Queensland, Kate is trying to move on from a failed marriage by renovating a van and making plans for an exciting travel escape. The fresh start she so desperately craves is within reach when an unexpected responsibility lands on her doorstep.

Olivia thinks she’s found ‘happy enough’ until an accident changes everything.

Ageing former celebrity actress Olivia is used to winning all the best roles in her local theatre group, but when she’s injured while making a grand stage exit, she is relegated to the wings. Now she’s determined that she won’t bow out quietly and be left alone with the demons of her past.

When these lost souls come together under the roof of the Burralea Amateur Theatre group, the countdown to opening night has already begun. Engaging with a diverse cast of colourful characters, the three generations of women find unlikely friendship – and more than one welcome surprise.

A new Barbara Hannay book is always cause to celebrate. They’re such comfort reads for me, feel good stories with wonderful characters and set in places that I wished I lived. This one is really no exception.

Primarily the story centres around three people: 14yo Tilly who was orphaned after her mother died recently. She’s never met her father and her mother’s boyfriend, while he cares for her, feels that he is not an appropriate guardian and would never be seen as such by authority figures anyway. Then there’s Kate, who is divorced, in her 50s with her own children grown and living their own lives. She’s renting a place in a town in the Northern Tablelands of Queensland as a base while she fits out a former tradie van so that she can go travelling around the country. And then there’s Olivia, a 70-something actress who is forced to confront her own mortality and future after injuring herself in rehearsals for a local play. The arrival of Tilly into the area turns everything Kate had planned for her future on its head and at first Olivia isn’t sure why it’s been suggested she help Tilly in terms of acting. What could she and a young teenage girl hope to get out of a friendship? But all of the women are going to be surprised.

I have to admit, I had a few feelings of trepidation after starting this because I do not feel what happened to Kate was at all fair – nor should it be legal. However I couldn’t find anything concrete that suggested it wasn’t! So it appears that while not ideal….it’s something that could actually happen. Whilst I see why Tilly’s mother made the choice she did, probably believing that it wouldn’t ever need to come to fruition, I do still feel that it wasn’t a fair choice, for anyone concerned, even if it probably did end up being the best choice she could’ve made at the time.

The circumstances in which Kate and Tilly come into each other’s lives definitely made me sympathetic to the both of them. Tilly is at such an impressionable age (she’s the same age as my eldest son who turns 14 next week) and she’s had her entire life as she knew it, completely turned upside down. It’s mostly been her and her mother her whole life and it seems like they had an incredibly wonderful and close relationship. Now her mother is gone and she’s had to go and live somewhere else with someone she didn’t know existed beforehand in a completely different town where she has no friends. And for Kate? She’s done with raising her children in a hands-on fashion. She has her own plans for the future and definitely didn’t count on becoming a guardian.

Tilly’s fear and uncertainty, her grief all shone through the pages. I felt like this really nailed a teen who has been through so much and was feeling lost and like she had nowhere she fit in. She just desperately needs a bit of stability and some inclusion and although she and Kate get off to a rough start, eventually the two of them muddle through it and the introduction of Tilly to the local theatre group also helps enormously as it gives Tilly a feeling of belonging and something that she is passionate about. Her friendship with Olivia becomes something precious too, like a surrogate grandmother-granddaughter relationship which benefits them both as neither of them have those relations.

I loved this whole town and the other residents that we got to meet. I’d love if we got to revisit this town in a future book, maybe revisit Tilly too, as she gets older. I think there’s a lot of potential to explore more about it, if the author ever wanted to do that. I loved the budding romance for Kate and the ways in which we got to know Olivia and understand the things that had happened in her past. And why the three of them ended up becoming quite close, something that you know will continue to develop after the end of the story that forms this book. I loved Kate’s ‘van life’ component (makes me wonder if Barbara Hannay watched some of the same people on YouTube that I do, as I started watching a lot of this sort of thing in lockdown!)

This was everything I expected and now I eagerly await the next release.

9/10

Book #136 of 2022

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Review: Cold, Cold Bones by Kathy Reichs

Cold, Cold Bones (Temperance Brennan #21)
Kathy Reichs
Simon & Schuster AUS
2022, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Winter has come to North Carolina and, with it, a drop in crime. For a while, temporarily idle forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan is content to dote on her daughter Katy, finally returned to civilian life from the army. But when mother and daughter meet at Tempe’s place one night for dinner, they find a box on the back porch. Inside: a very fresh human eyeball.

GPS coordinates etched into the eyeball lead to a Benedictine Monastery where an equally macabre discovery awaits. Soon after, Tempe examines a mummified corpse in a state park, and her anxiety deepens.

There seems to be no pattern to these random killings, except that each mimics in some way a killing that a younger Tempe witnessed, analyzed, or barely escaped. Who or what is targeting her, and why?

Helping Tempe discover the answers is detective Erskine “Skinny” Slidell, retired but still volunteering with the CMPD cold case unit—and still displaying his gallows humor. As the two penetrate a bizarre survivalist’s lair, even Skinny’s mood darkens.

And then Tempe’s daughter Katy disappears.

At its core, Cold, Cold Bones is a novel of revenge and why revisiting the past may be the only way to rescue the present.

This was okay, I guess.

Last year I read my first book in this series for about five years – I’d actually thought the series must’ve wrapped up. That book wasn’t great and I really didn’t have much interest in continuing with the series but this book arrived and I know they’re fast reads, something that I can pick up and get finished and it’s familiar. Sometimes there’s a comfort in that.

Tempe is still in North Carolina in this one (honestly feels like a while since there was one set in Montreal) and she’s helping her daughter Katy move into a place after Katy has been honourably discharged from the army. Ryan is on an island someone investigating something and so it’s Skinny Slidell that Tempe calls when someone leaves a fresh eyeball on her doorstep. From there on, they get a call about the head, then a call about another body and another body and another until everything starts to feel a little familiar. Someone is ‘leaving’ these bodies for Tempe, recreating details from cases from her past.

I didn’t mind the actual mystery here, in that things felt interesting to begin with – the eyeball, the head, trying to figure out who the victim was and why the eye was sent to Tempe. Why would someone go to the trouble of carving tiny GPS coordinates into the eye?

I had two big problems with this book however – the first one is just the way Kathy Reichs writes now. The snappy, truncated sentences and random thought jumping that seems to inhabit Tempe’s head. It’s always been quite like this but I honestly feel like either it has gotten much ‘worse’ in the clipped style or my tolerance for it has significantly decreased as the books decline in quality for me. Either way I just know that’s a part of this and I have to just deal with it when reading it, even though I just wish Tempe would articulate her thoughts in actual sentences instead of just fragments and single words.

Secondly, there was so much build up about the victims and their identities and were they connected or not that I honestly felt like a lot of the motive of the culprit and building the tension around that and their identity was just….not executed well. Also some of these bodies had been taken or killed three years ago and it’s only now that things start happening (I think the perpetrator got frustrated with the lack of action, hence sending the eyeball to Tempe’s house) but…like three years is a long time to wait? Between murdering someone and waiting for it to catch Tempe’s attention. I think most people will also probably guess who the perpetrator is and yet when it was revealed it also felt like such a let down? Like it was the least interesting possible outcome, which was disappointing.

Tempe gets knocked out at least twice in this book and hit at least once more in the face and the last book had her head possibly exploding due to {insert medical reason I no longer remember} but that doesn’t get a run here so maybe she finally saw a doctor about that and it was cleared up but still, it cannot be good to be continually hit on the head so many times. Also I really dislike Katy as a character so I found it hard to get invested in her disappearance but using her discharge as a reason she might’ve just gone off grid and everyone suggesting that she’s probably ok, just needs space was….weird?

At least Ryan was a presence in this one that felt useful, not hindering. But all in all, this was really just an average book told in a not spectacular way. Also as an aside, Tempe’s fury at Slidell not wanting her along on busts is….ridiculous. She’s not a cop. She’s so mad that he constantly ‘dismisses her talents’ and yeah she is a great forensic pathologist but mostly all Tempe does is get hit on the head and Tempe you are not a police officer. You have no business being part of that side of things – stop it.

5/10

Book #117 of 2022

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Review: A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce

A Place Near Eden
Nell Pierce
Allen & Unwin
2022, 296p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: How can we know the truth of our own lives? This question troubles Matilda, as she looks back on her time with her foster brother, Sem. Matilda remembers long hours at the swimming pool. Celeste, a girl who lived downstairs with her artist mother. Sem disappearing for hours, then days. Her father yelling in the driveway. A car coming to take Sem away.

Five years later, Matilda lives in Melbourne with her mother. Sem is now a memory she has locked away. Until, at a party, Matilda reconnects with Celeste and then Sem. Celeste and Matilda move out to the coast near Eden to house-sit. Sem follows, but as the long summer drags on, the atmosphere in the house becomes claustrophobic. When Sem starts disappearing again, Matilda finds herself on unsteady ground, haunted by their past.

One morning, after a night at the pub, Matilda wakes up scratched and hungover, with no memory of the previous night. Sem is once again gone. This time, for good. Matilda becomes consumed by an obsession to know if she is responsible for Sem’s disappearance. But the truth struggles to fit into a neat story.

Part absorbing mystery, part riveting family drama, A Place Near Eden is a story of the pursuit of truth and the ways we fail those we love.

This is the winner of Allen & Unwin’s 2022 Vogel Prize, which is for an unpublished by an author under the age of 35.

It’s an interesting story but I have to admit, I finished the book in two minds about it. For a couple of reasons, some of which seemed deliberate literary choices that I’m not sure had the impact they could have and others because I am who I am and what this book offers is sometimes, not what I enjoy as a reader.

This story is being told by main character Tilly to someone else, and it narrates the details and events that lead up to a certain night, with a devastating outcome. When Tilly was 13, her mother opened their home to foster a boy almost two years older than Tilly named Sem, against the wishes of Tilly’s father. Sem had bounced around several homes before coming to theirs and was troubled and even though Tilly’s mum tried her hardest to offer him stability, Sem still struggled, running away and going missing quite often. Shortly after, the marriage between Tilly’s parents buckled under the strain and not long after that, Sem was removed to another home. Around five or six years later, in a different state, Tilly reconnects with not just Sem but also Celeste, who lived with Tilly, Sem and Tilly’s mother in a share house after the marriage between Tilly’s parents broke down. What happens next is up for debate as Tilly is drawn into a troubling friendship that ends in blurry tragedy.

There were things in this that I found to be quite relatable. Tilly is an unreliable narrator, she often admits that she doesn’t remember things well or when people tell her their memory is different to hers, she seems to adapt their memory as true. She is easily led, especially by Celeste, who seems to be a charismatic but manipulative woman, that Tilly is no match for. And yet she seeks her approval constantly, follows her lead and seems to blindly believe the best in Celeste, no matter her careless barbs or casually cruel remarks and the deliberate way she seems to taunt her about her on/off relationship with Sem. So for some of this, I could relate to Tilly. I can remember what it is like to want a friend, to want to be close to someone and ignore the remarks that could just be a joke – but could also be not. Tilly seems…..very young. She finishes school a year later than she probably should, having been held back after moving to Melbourne but she doesn’t come across as a 19/20 year old in this novel at all. She’s very naive and I feel as though her somewhat unusual upbringing, particularly in her later teen years, seems to have contributed to (but would not be the sole reason) for this. Her mother, after her divorce from Tilly’s father, embraced a sort of free-spirit lifestyle and thought nothing of living in a sort of halfway house, disappearing into the bush regularly to ‘find herself’. She rarely ever seems there for Tilly emotionally and at times, even seems to view her rather negatively, for reasons that are hinted at but not addressed specifically relating to the reason Sem ended up leaving her care.

I don’t really want to go into what precisely happens but I will say that I was surprised it was revealed when it was – the whole book has an air of doom hanging over it and an allusion or two to an impending court case so it’s not hard to figure out that something terrible happens but I didn’t expect the narrative to tell the reader until later. But what it does tell you is up in the air for debate anyway, and the book is a bit all over the place time wise, as it’s being narrated by Tilly who sometimes goes off on tangents as she “remembers something” during her telling. There’s also backtracking and querying of previous events as Tilly as remembered them, with the added caveat that her memory is not always reliable.

There’s no closure on multiple things in this book, which I personally found frustrating. You can draw your own conclusions on one happening but the event that’s coming will do so after the book finishes and so there’s no way to know what happens. This is not my personal preference but I know there are people out there who love open and ambiguous endings, where the author doesn’t tie things up neatly for the reader and you’re left wondering. And I was wondering, so perhaps in that way, it worked!

6/10

Book #111 of 2022

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Review: The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt

The Brightest Star
Emma Harcourt
Harlequin AUS
2022, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A thirst for learning and a passion for astronomy draw an extraordinary young woman deep into the intellectual maelstrom, political complexities and religious extremism of Renaissance Florence. This beautifully crafted novel will appeal to readers of Karen Brooks’ The Good Wife of Bath and Pip Williams’ Dictionary of Lost Words.

1496 It is the height of the Renaissance and its flowering of intellectual and artistic endeavour, but the city state of Florence is in the grip of fundamentalist preacher Friar Girolamo Savonarola. Its good people believe the Lord speaks through him, just as certainly as the Sun circles the Earth.

For Leonarda Lunetta, eldest daughter of the learned Signore Vincenzo Fusili, religion is not as interesting as the books she shares with her beloved father. Reading is an escape from the ridicule flung her way, for Luna is not like other girls. She was born with a misshapen leg and that, and her passion for intellectual pursuits – particularly astronomy – alters how society sees her and how she sees the world.

Luna wants to know, to learn, to become an astronomer who charts the nights sky – certainly not the dutiful, marriageable daughter all of Florence society insists upon. So when Luna meets astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, she is not surprised that his heretical beliefs confirm her view that world is not as it is presented – or how it could be. These dangerous ideas bring her into conflict with the preacher Savonarola, and her future is changed irrevocably as politics, extremism and belief systems ignite in a dangerous conflagration.

Luna is a woman born out of time, the brightest star of her generation, but can she reconcile the girl of her father’s making with this new version of herself? And if she does, will Renaissance Italy prove too perilous and dark a place for a free-thinking woman? 

I really enjoyed this.

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction but I admit that most of it is much more recent – a large portion is probably centred around the world wars and so earlier time periods are definitely less frequent in my reading. I haven’t read a lot of books set in the 1400s, just few here and there and it’s a time period that makes me fully appreciate being born in this time. Not that this one is perfect either, there’s plenty of happenings lately that reinforce that. But a woman’s sole role in this time seems to be to grow up pretty and demure so that she’s a good asset to her father to make an advantageous match. She’s to be a good wife to her husband, give him sons and run his household and if she’s lucky, he won’t abuse her but he probably will in some form or other.

Leonarda Lunetta is a young woman, the eldest daughter of a learned man by his first wife, who died. She was indulged in her education and she has a passion for astronomy. But as the city of Florence is ripped away from the Medici’s, her father’s generous patrons and a fundamentalist preacher by the name of Savonarola takes control of the city, it brings danger for Luna and her family. Her father’s business is under pressure, and he’s decided that Luna must marry, despite the fact that because of a physical disability that she was born with, it was assumed no man would ever have her. Luna is whispered and talked about, people claim she has the mark of the Devil due to her physical disability and she is often physically bullied as well.

This was a time when God’s favour and the Devil’s mark ruled people’s lives where people believe that Luna’s physical disability is some sort of punishment to her parents or indication of lack of favour. There are multiple remarks about how she shouldn’t be allowed in church and should be kept out of sight. This is a time when women were considered delicate and emotional creatures, definitely not capable of understanding academic things and the concepts that only men can grasp. Luna has a quick and clever brain and although her father has given her a good education, he also has put his foot down about further studies, instead believing that he should try and find her a husband, if to do nothing other than improve his own reputation and that of his family with his second wife. Her father was interesting without being likeable – he gave Luna a strong education but then removed the privilege. He’s a brutish man at times, cruel to his wife but in a casual way that seems common of the time. He’s puffed up with his self-importance but also willing to sacrifice much in order to show loyalty to the family that helped him, even when they’re out of favour and in the end it’s hard to deny what he does for Luna as well, even if it might be kind of inadvertent.

I felt like the second part of the novel was definitely the stronger one as it explored grief and frustration and oppression as well as choice and a warring desire for Luna to still further her knowledge, but also there’s so much she has to deal with in terms of what has happened and why it happened.

I’m not religious and the idea of the Church and/or people within it having so much power was terrifying to me. That they could execute people, destroy their homes and property, books and artwork, even for suggesting new scientific theories, was such a difficult thing to read. The whole idea of being pious in public, to be the ‘best’ possible worshippers so as not to draw attention or to be the next example made to keep everyone in line by means of fear and oppression, would be so difficult for me. Like Luna, I fear I’d have difficulty holding my tongue. This was a time when it seemed that everyone was highly, devoutly religious and Italy is a deeply religious country, (to not be was probably some sort of death sentence) but it just further reinforces the idea that so many things done in the name of religion were totally terrifying and who was in charge and who made the rules could change on a whim as people amassed power or had it removed from them. The preacher in this book is a real person from history, who was eventually excommunicated by the Pope and met a grisly end himself.

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, particularly if you like to step away from WWI and WWI as settings for a while.

8/10

Book #112 of 2022

Counting this one towards my 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It’s book #35 completed for the challenge so far.

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Review: Hip Hop & Hymns by Mawunyo Gbogbo

Hip Hop & Hymns
Mawunyo Gbogbo
Penguin Books AUS
2022, 350p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A memoir of loving hard, falling apart and fighting back, set to an unrivalled playlist.

‘Hip hop and hymns: the two would always go hand in hand for me. My life would always straddle both. The sacred and the profane, all living on the same block, all divine in the end.’

Mawunyo Gbogbo is a church-going African Australian girl growing up in the sleepy mining town of Muswellbrook, NSW. At home, her parents fight all the time, and some of her siblings keep her at arm’s length. At primary school, Black Is Beautiful until a racist bully dares to tell her otherwise. But at high school, she falls in love with two things that will alter the course of her adult life: the seductive thrill of hip hop music and charismatic bad boy Tyce Carrington. Tyce also feels like an alien in Australia, despite his Aboriginality – or because of it.

When Mawunyo’s offered a chance to further her budding media career in New York City at the Bible of hip hop, The Source magazine, she throws herself headlong into the city’s heady buzz and hustle – but even as it lures her in, it threatens to derail her dreams.

Hip Hop & Hymns is a tussle between the search for belonging and falling hard for the things that can tear us apart, and a clear-eyed, heartfelt story about daring greatly and what it means to be Black in Australia. 

I really enjoyed this. It’s a really engaging story of a young girl growing up in a very predominantly white area of Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Mawunyo was born in Ghana, but moved to Australia with her parents when she was still very young. We’re quite similar in age, she’s a couple of years older than me and we grew up not too far away from each other – I lived in a town a few hours north of where she did and the town I grew up in was also very predominantly white.

In high school, Mawunyo finds solace in music, predominantly the music of Black American hip hop artists, which speak to her in ways that she hasn’t experienced anywhere else and with anything else. Secure in herself until someone she is forced to sit next to in primary school made her feel inferior for her skin colour, the music is a way to reclaim herself and to have pride in herself as well. She voraciously explores new releases and back catalogues, finding favourite artists and blasting new songs. Mawunyo finds an interest in journalism as well, and moves first to Bathurst to pursue this degree, before also getting the opportunity to study overseas, connect with other members of her family and even intern at a hip magazine. All throughout this time and after, well into adulthood working for the ABC in Sydney, Mawunyo is repeatedly drawn back into a relationship with a man named Tyce, who she knew as a boy when they grew up and went to school together.

No matter if hip hop isn’t your music of choice, I think it will be easy for many people to connect with Mawunyo’s story as she talks about finding solace and understanding in music, using it to question what happens around her, her experiences and those of others. Music is a rite of passage for many teens, no matter their background but this book also pays homage to Mawunyo’s heritage, her birth in Ghana, what it was like growing up in a rural NSW mining town being probably the only African family there for part of it (and the racism that she experienced during this time), her parents and their constant fighting, her mother’s religious fervour and the way in which Mawunyo’s own faith developed. Also I think it’s easy to relate to the relationship you can’t let go of, the boy that maybe ‘got away’ in your younger years. Mawunyo gets another chance with hers but it’s a troubled relationship and Tyce has many demons, many of which revolve around his Indigenous background and the way that shapes his experiences.

I appreciated this insight into Mawunyo’s life, her schooling in a rural town and the different ways in which she was casually treated by some people, was eye-opening even if it wasn’t particularly surprising. I enjoyed her desire to become a journalist and the path that took her on (meeting Bruce McAvaney, being part of the coverage for the Olympics), heading overseas to study and the different ways various members of her family viewed her appearing. I also felt the insight into her family dynamics were very interesting and the way that her parents shaped her growing up and into adulthood as well, particularly around her journey with religion.

A very interesting memoir detailing an African-Australian experience, and although hip hop wasn’t ever my ‘thing’ I was surprised how much the mention of some of these artists and songs kicked up memories of my own time in high school.

8/10

Book #106 of 2022

I’m going to count this towards my 2022 Nonfiction Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. It’s the 3rd book I’ve read for the challenge, which puts me halfway through my goal to read 6 books.

1. Social History

2. Popular Science

3. Language

4. Medical Memoir

5. Climate/Weather

6. Celebrity

7. Reference

8. Geography

9. Linked to a podcast

10. Wild Animals

11. Economics

12. Published in 2022

I’m using it for the category published in 2022

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Review: The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth

The Crimson Thread
Kate Forsyth
Penguin Books AUS
2022, 359p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In Crete during World War II, Alenka, a young woman who fights with the resistance against the brutal Nazi occupation, finds herself caught between her traitor of a brother and the man she loves, an undercover agent working for the Allies.

May 1941. German paratroopers launch a blitzkrieg from the air against Crete. They are met with fierce defiance, the Greeks fighting back with daggers, pitchforks, and kitchen knives. During the bloody eleven-day battle, Alenka, a young Greek woman, saves the lives of two Australian soldiers.

Jack and Teddy are childhood friends who joined up together to see the world. Both men fall in love with Alenka. They are forced to retreat with the tattered remains of the Allied forces over the towering White Mountains. Both are among the seven thousand Allied soldiers left behind in the desperate evacuation from Crete’s storm-lashed southern coast. Alenka hides Jack and Teddy at great risk to herself. Her brother Axel is a Nazi sympathiser and collaborator and spies on her movements.

As Crete suffers under the Nazi jackboot, Alenka is drawn into an intense triangle of conflicting emotions with Jack and Teddy. Their friendship suffers under the strain of months of hiding and their rivalry for her love. Together, they join the resistance and fight to free the island, but all three will find themselves tested to their limits. Alenka must choose whom to trust and whom to love and, in the end, whom to save. 

A new Kate Forsyth book is always cause to celebrate. I have read almost all of her adult books (I think there are a couple that have escaped me) and they are always rich with history and mythology with wonderful characters and more often than not, very compelling love stories woven in. This one is set a little more in recent times than most of the previous ones I have read, with Kate Forsyth choosing to tell the story of the Nazi invasion of the Greek island of Crete during the Second World War, which was something that I didn’t know a lot about before reading this book. It has come up a couple of times briefly in other books I’ve read but I think this might be the first book I’ve read that focused pretty much solely on the Nazi occupation of Crete and what that was like both for the locals and also Allied forces who were trying to repel the invasion and then later on, returned to drive the Nazis out.

The story mostly revolves around three main characters: Alenka, a local of Crete who lives near the ruins of a palace in Knossos where the remains of the famous labyrinth remain. In better times Alenka worked as a curator and translator at the Knossos dig. She speaks multiple languages and in 1941, meets separately, two Australian soldiers stationed on Crete, Teddy and Jack. They’re best friends from Victoria although they are very different. Teddy is brash and confident, determined to make Alenka ‘his girl’. Jack is quieter and struggles with a stutter. The three become intertwined – Teddy and Jack are part of the official fight against the Germans but Alenka is part of an underground one, deep in the resistance by the locals against their invaders (and later, occupiers). Alenka has the added complication of the fact that her younger brother is half German and sees the coming invasion as a way for him to connect with them and he’s willing to do anything to ingratiate himself with the soldiers.

I really enjoyed this – I read the majority of it in a single sitting and found that for the most part, I could not put it down. Alenka is a wonderful character and her inner conflict about her brother is showcased really well. I liked the juxtaposition of Teddy and Jack and although I did not particularly like one of the characters, nor their attitude at all, I appreciated the trouble Forsyth took to make their friendship complicated. They are almost lifelong friends, having been friends since they were boys and joined up together and are fighting together. They are very different though and that does become a source of conflict within the story centring around both of them having an attraction to Alenka. All three of them take significant risks and end up in dangerous situations multiple times. Alenka’s role in the resistance was very interesting to read about – a lot of WWII stories showcase small (and large) ways in which local populations resisted the invading forces and their rebellions and wins are heartening. The Germans seemed to definitely underestimate the difficulty of the terrain as well as the tenacity of the locals and towards the end, they are becoming stretched in too many locations, invading too many places. There’s a lot of brutality that German soldiers are known for and some of that is showcased here but not blatantly.

A lot of the book is quite fast paced – the fact that the characters are often in danger or under threat in some way adds to this frantic feeling and it makes for a very quick read as well, as you find yourself wanting to know what is going to happen next. I’d definitely advise reading the Author’s Note at the back of the book as well, which gives some great context to some of the events and inclusions of the story. There’s also a lot that happens that is quite subtle – such as the story of Alenka’s mother and honestly, that could’ve almost been a book on its own! I also haven’t really mentioned the mythological aspect, which tied in so nicely to a lot of the reading I have been doing lately, which gave me a great solid background for a lot of the history included in this book.

This felt just so perfectly researched – reading it, it feels like you’re on Crete, experiencing this with all the locals. A wonderful book.

8/10

Book #110 of 2022

This book counts for my 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It is book #34 of the challenge.

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Review: The Signal Line by Brendan Colley

The Signal Line
Brendan Colley
Transit Lounge Publishing
2022, 304p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Brothers Geo and Wes are testing their relationship now that their parents have passed away. Geo and Wes rarely agree on anything, especially not the sale of the Hobart family home. Geo needs the money to finance his musical career in Italy. For Wes the house represents the memory of their father, and what it means to live an honest, working life.

But then a ghost train appears in Hobart, often on the tram tracks that once existed, along with the Swedish man who has been pursuing it for 40 years.

Everyone it seems is chasing their dreams. Or are they running from the truth?

The Signal Line is a warm-hearted, unforgettable novel about what we are all searching for, even when our personal dreams and aspirations have collapsed: love and acceptance.

This is definitely one of the more unusual books that I’ve read lately.

Geo is about thirty and has returned from living overseas where he’s been for the past few years, to Tasmania Australia to see about selling his parents’ home that he and his brother have inherited. His older brother Wes, who is about ten years older than Geo, is not keen and the two brothers are basically at odds from the moment Geo arrives. They’ve never really been close – the age gap and the fact that they’re very different coupled with the fact that they had very different experiences growing up in the family home has led to quite a distance between them.

The same day Geo arrives by plane, a mysterious train discharges a bunch of passengers along a disused line in Hobart, who claim to be from Rome, Italy and that they boarded the train just a short time before. Geo, who has been living in Italy, is used by Wes to translate the stories of the passengers and they are all consistent and they are all stunned to apparently find themselves in Hobart. Shortly after that, Wes and Geo meet a mysterious man who claims to know someone that can help him solve the mystery of the passengers – a man from Sweden who has pursuing the “ghost train” for the previous forty years.

For me personally, a lot of the strength in the story was the way the author conveyed the story of Geo and Wes. This is Geo’s story, so we do see everything through his eyes – his relationship with Wes, his relationship with his father, the relationship and bond he had with his mother. Wes is a police detective and it seems like during the time Geo has been overseas, the two haven’t really been in contact and Geo is surprised at the developments in Wes’ life. It’s quite clear that Wes seems to resent Geo for leaving or for spending time and money chasing his dream, which is to be a viola player in an orchestra. He’s had a lot of auditions and does play with a quartet in Rome, but he wants an orchestra position. Wes seems to view this as an overindulgent waste of time and he’s also critical of Geo for the way Geo views their father, even though Wes had a very different experience in terms of his relationship with their father. Geo has left a lot out, perhaps choosing to protect Wes’ view but it leads to the two not seeing eye to eye on pretty much anything. There’s a lot of tension and arguments as Wes does not want to sell the family home and Geo is basically of the view of well, either you buy me out and keep it yourself, or we sell it. I don’t want it. He also needs the money to continue to further his pursuit of an orchestra position, which seems to only further make Wes resent that ambition.

I was intrigued by the ghost train idea at first – it seemed like it could go a number of ways but to be honest, the amount of random characters that drifted in and out of this story that Geo ended up inviting to stay at the house or ending up being connected with, kind of bogged it down for me a little bit. I was less interested in them and all their stories and why they were there (honestly for the most part most of them felt like they had no point really being in the story, with the exception of the Swedish guy and the guy from the bookstore). The deeper into the story of the ghost train and the calculations and the predictions and I began to kind of lose interest in it because I was less interested in when and where it would appear and more interested in the actual story of it but that wasn’t explored in any satisfying way for me. And everyone’s vague way of imparting knowledge and the weirdness of the journalist/investigative guy of many names outlived its novelty.

So for me, this one had excellent family relationships and portrayal of them – the stuff with Wes and his family and Geo watching all of this as a bystander as well as his own struggles with Wes, his unresolved feelings about his father, etc – all very good. And the ghost train felt promising when I first started the novel but it just didn’t end up holding my interest in the way that it probably should have.

6/10

Book #103 of 2022

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Review: Black River by Matthew Spencer

Black River
Matthew Spencer
Allen & Unwin
2022, 343p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A long, burning summer in Sydney. A young woman found murdered in the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. A serial killer preying on victims along the banks of the Parramatta River. A city on edge.

Adam Bowman, a battling journalist who grew up as the son of a teacher at Prince Albert College, might be the only person who can uncover the links between the school murder and the ‘Blue Moon Killer’. But he will have to go into the darkest places of his childhood to piece together the clues. Detective Sergeant Rose Riley, meanwhile, is part of the taskforce desperately trying to find the killer before he strikes again. Adam Bowman’s excavation of his past might turn out to be Rose’s biggest trump card or it may bring the whole investigation crashing down, and put her own life in danger.

It’s been a while since I read a good crime novel – I have to be in the mood for one, especially if I feel like it’s going to be one that increases anxiety!

When a young teenager discovers a body wrapped in plastic on the grounds of a boarding school, it has the media in a frenzy as they believe it to be the next victim of a killer that has been dubbed “BMK” – the Blue Moon Killer, who has two victims already so far, found at different places on the same river. In each case, it was clear the BMK had stalked their victims for some time, knew their movements and patterns. But other than the victims both being young and female, the task force put together to investigate cannot find any other link. The most recent victim is also young and female, the daughter of the chaplain of the school but other than that, there are a few things that seem to suggest that this crime is a bit different from the others. There’s enough to suggest that it could be BMK – but also a few things that raise some questions.

Journalist Adam Bowman is not a crime reporter but for his teen years, he lived on the grounds of the boarding school where the latest body has been found and that’s enough for his editor to send him out there looking for a different angle. Adam uses his intimate knowledge of the school to bypass the police cordon and get access that no other journalists get and it’s enough to get the cops to offer him a deal – if he helps them, they’ll make sure he will get proper access to stories, when the time comes. But he has to sit on things that they ask him to. For Adam, it seems like an idea situation – he’s in his 40s, works the graveyard shift, has never really gone anywhere in his career. Working with them in this situation can lead to perhaps even being able to write a book about this, in the future. He has no idea that Rose Riley, the Detective Sergeant, has her own suspicions about Adam, who always seems to be in the right place to make an interesting discovery and knows this area intimately – something they’ve already established that the killer does too. She’s definitely keeping an eye on him.

This was a really solid debut and I enjoyed a lot of things about the story. It was great to see a different setting – although the story still revolves around wealth and privilege, with the crime scene being the grounds of an exclusive boarding school where the rich and elite send their children, it was in a location I don’t see much in fiction, on the Parramatta River in Sydney’s west. Even though Adam went to the school, he wasn’t from a background of wealth and was there because his father taught at the school and the family lived in one of the houses on the grounds, which was an option a lot of staff took advantage of. The school is also the source of a trauma from his childhood and he didn’t finish out his schooling there although few people know what happened.

I really liked the dynamic between Adam and Rose although at times, Adam is quite oblivious to some of Rose’s deep suspicions. She knows they cannot afford to make a mistake – the eyes of the city are on them to solve this and solve it quickly, before there are more victims. The crimes are deeply disturbing, although there are things about the third victim that are different from the previous two. Her boss is the sort of man who has stuck his neck out before and they need to make sure that they have investigated everything thoroughly and not missed a single thing that could potentially lead to the perpetrator getting away or being at large long enough to select another victim and carry out another murder. Sometimes though, it seems like the list of potential suspects includes almost everyone that they talk to who is still on the grounds of the school over the summer break and it’s up to them to find what they need to narrow it down.

This definitely kept me guessing the whole way through. I’m not sure if it’s intended to be a series but I feel as though it could go that way if the author wanted to bring Rose and the other police like O’Neill and Patel back as well as Adam to work the journalist angle but it also works perfectly well as a standalone novel. Either way, I definitely will be reading Matthew Spence’s next book!

8/10

Book #100 of 2022

Going to include this one in my 2022 Aussie Author Challenge. It’s the 5th book read so far and it’s also an author that is new to me.

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