Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Book Review: SHEERWATER by Leah Swann

Author: Leah Swann
Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Read: January 2020
Expected publication: 23 March 2020
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

Ava and her two young sons, Max and Teddy, are driving to their new home in Sheerwater, hopeful of making a fresh start in a new town, although Ava can't but help keep looking over her shoulder. They're almost at their destination when they witness a shocking accident - a light plane crashing in the field next to the road. Ava stops to help, but when she gets back to the car, she realises that somewhere, amongst the smoke, fire and confusion, her sons have gone missing...

My musings:

Before you pick up this book, make sure you understand the meaning of: “beautifully written, propulsive, tense, gut-wrenching and unputdownable” in the blurb. Especially the “gut-wrenching” bit. Or shall I say “gut-punching”? Because after finishing it this morning, I still feel strangely winded and hollow.

Let me also make it clear that you should not make the same mistake I made, and pick this up thinking it is mainly a mystery. I was somewhat puzzled when the “mystery” component was pretty much obsolete by the second part of the book. Instead, choose this book knowing it is about relationships, parenthood, trauma, domestic abuse (in all its shapes and form) and the unravelling of the human psyche into darkness.

You will get a taste of what is to follow from the very opening pages, when a small plane crashes into a field next to the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Ava and her two small children are the first on scene. Ava feels the same dilemma any mother in that situation would face – she has children in the car, should she stop or just drive on and call for help? With her rescuer background, she cannot resist the compulsion to render assistance. Instructing the boys to stay in the car and look away, she sets off to give first aid. And thus her fate is forever changed.

Swann writes beautifully and lyrically, conjuring up the stunning scenery of the Victorian coastline with her words. This is a two-sided sword, because her horrific scenes are just as vivid and unescapable as the tranquil ones (which are thankfully thrown into the mix every now and then to give the reader breathing space). Her characters are well drawn, their emotional baggage relatable, their plight unimaginable. With an uncanny insight into the human psyche, she teases out her characters’ darkest secrets, slowly and gradually, so that the picture we may have formed initially soon begins to unravel. It is very difficult to discuss this book without spoilers, so I will keep it brief. I had a lot of assumptions challenged. I was duly terrified when all the clues led to the inevitable finale, and yet I was not prepared for it.

Relationships feature strongly in this novel. Ava and Laurence’s marriage, which we gradually learn more about as the story progresses. The mother-daughter relationship between Ava and her mother. Motherhood. Brotherhood. Fatherhood, as seen through the eyes of Laurence, which will hold some surprises. Friendships in the most unexpected places. Dysfuntional, some of them.

Yes, I will leave it here because as much as I would like to blurt out some of the details that absolutely sucker punched me, I will not spoil it for you. Read it with a buddy, one you can call in the middle of the night when you have read the last page and need a friend as much as a 1800 helpline. 

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Book Review: THE WIVES by Tarryn Fisher

Author: Tarryn Fisher
Publisher: Graydon House
Read: January 2020
Expected publication: out now

“Fighting was the sandpaper that smoothed out the first years of a relationship. Sure, there was still plenty of lifelong grit after that, but the fighting stripped everything down, let the other person know what was important to you.” (Tarryn Fisher, The Wives)

Book Description:

You’ve never met the other wives. None of you know each other, and because of this unconventional arrangement, you can see your husband only one day a week. But you love him so much you don’t care. Or at least that’s what you’ve told yourself.

(This is all you need to know - best to delve in blind.)

My musings:

Do you like a crazy ride of a thriller that twists and turns and makes you question everything you just read? Unreliable narrators that may be lying, or crazy, or both? A premise that is so far removed from your own life experience that you read open-mouthed, turning the pages just to find out how this could possibly all work out? If you said yes to one or more of these questions, then put this book on your wishlist right now!

THE WIVES  was one of the craziest page-turners I have read in a while, and I loved it. My notes around the 50% and 75% mark read something like:” I am so confused. I have no idea what is going on here. This is insane!”  Normally have lots of theories, but this book totally stumped me. At one stage, daring to speculate, I shook my head with a wry laugh: “No, that would be just too crazy!” Insert narrator’s voice here: “But she was wrong. Because it was even crazier. A kind of crazy she could never have imagined.” Yes, I was way off, and the conclusion took me totally by surprise.

You know how hard it is to review the premise of a mystery that relies on surprise elements to provide a thrilling read, so I will just give you the bare bones. The book is written from the POV of main protagonist Thursday, a young woman in her late twenties, who shares her husband with two other wives. And if that’s not strange enough, she has never met any of her sister wives, nor does she know their names (she calls them Monday and Tuesday for the days of the week her husband Seth spends with them). As you shake your head in disbelief, I can hear you thinking: this can’t possibly end well. And of course it doesn’t. Would you be content to live in blissful ignorance whilst your husband, who you’re madly in love with, spends a majority of time with other women? Exactly! Thursday is curious, and does some snooping, and finds out a few things about hubby that worry her.

From then on follows a crazy, twisted story of a woman’s quest to get answers. THE WIVES was one of those page-turners I could not put down. The more weird and wonderful things Thursday uncovered, the crazier the story got, the more I needed to know how it would all tie together.

The only reason this was not a five star read for me was the ending, which was a bit too bizarre even for me, and I so like a twisted roller-coaster-ride of a thriller. Perhaps it was just that I had hoped for a different outcome. Never mind. One thing that I learned was: polygamy is not for me. Going on my murderous thoughts towards Seth very early into the novel, I would probably end up in jail rather than gaining favourite wife status. 


Anyway, enough said: if you like crazy, twisted and original stories then I urge you to give this one a go. I found it highly entertaining, evidenced by my all-night read-a-thon that gave me the biggest book hangover the next morning. Buckle up, delve in and enjoy the ride!

Friday, 17 January 2020

Book Review: DEAR CHILD by Romy Hausmann

Author: Romy Hausmann
Publisher: Quercus Books
Read: January 2020
Expected publication: 14 May 2020
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

“You haven’t got us, not really. It’s your prison, not ours.”

Book Description:

A windowless shack in the woods. Lena's life and that of her two children follows the rules set by their captor, the father: Meals, bathroom visits, study time are strictly scheduled and meticulously observed. He protects his family from the dangers lurking in the outside world and makes sure that his children will always have a mother to look after them.

One day Lena manages to flee - but the nightmare continues. It seems as if her tormentor wants to get back what belongs to him. And then there is the question whether she really is the woman called 'Lena', who disappeared without a trace 14 years ago. The police and Lena's family are all desperately trying to piece together a puzzle which doesn't quite seem to fit. 

My musings:

After finishing this book earlier today and sitting with it for a while to gather my thoughts, I still feel a bit conflicted about it. Initially, as it was off to a very rocky start with me, I berated myself for choosing a story that centred around characters kidnapped and held in captivity, a theme that has never really been my cup of tea. I’m one of the few people who weren’t totally enamoured by ROOM, or SILENT CHILD, or LOOK BEHIND YOU. So what initially attracted me to this one?

The premise is intriguing: a young woman is critically injured in a hit-and-run accident. She has a young child with her who calls her “Mummy” and claims that they are living in a cabin in the woods. Initially it appears that she is Lena, a woman who disappeared without a trace 14 years ago. Soon, however, facts don’t add up. Lena’s father is adamant that the unconscious woman in hospital is not his daughter. So who is she, and what happened to Lena?

All my doubts dispersed around the 50% mark, when I suddenly found myself totally invested in the story. I think that the game changer was the tightening web of intrigue and secrets that kept me turning the pages. As well as the character study of our three main protagonists, who have all been victims of the crime in their own way. I felt especially fascinated by the child character Hannah, whose view of the world is so crazily distorted by her early childhood experiences. I am trying really hard not to give any spoilers here! As the psychological aspect came more into play, I was well and truly hooked.

Hausmann writes well, and the omissions in the separate POVs that give each character a slightly unreliable edge (I was suspicious of everyone!), really ratcheted up the tension in the second half of the book, as it marched towards its unexpected finale. I wouldn’t say I loved the cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, because they kept me turning the pages way too long into the night, but they were cleverly done and obviously achieved their desired effect!

With her debut DEAR CHILD, Hausmann has served up an intelligent, multi-layered and intricately plotted novel that only gave up its secrets after peeling back all the layers. I dare you to guess the outcome – I certainly didn’t. It contains some truly chilling themes and scenes, some of which were concealed in the implied and unsaid, and in Hannah’s perception of reality. It was frightening to me to think that this horrible situation has happened to real people,  in real life!


All in all, if you loved Emma Donoghue’s famous novel ROOM and are fascinated by the psychological aspects of captivity, then this book should be on your radar. For me, it was the final chapter that really wormed its way into my heart and made sure that I will remember this book for some time to come. Once you read it you will see what I mean.

Thank you to Netgalley and Quercus Books for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Book Review: THE LOST ONES by Anita Frank

Author: Anita Frank
Publisher: HQ Fiction
Read: December 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

England, 1917

Reeling from the death of her fiancΓ©, Stella Marcham welcomes the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister, Madeleine, at her imposing country mansion, Greyswick – but she arrives to discover a house of unease and her sister gripped by fear and suspicion.

Before long, strange incidents begin to trouble Stella – sobbing in the night, little footsteps on the stairs – and as events escalate, she finds herself drawn to the tragic history of the house.

Aided by a wounded war veteran, Stella sets about uncovering Greyswick’s dark and terrible secrets – secrets the dead whisper from the other side…

My musings:

If you like Downton Abbey and ghost stories, then this mix of historical fiction, a grand old English estate setting and supernatural happenings should be right up your alley!

THE LOST ONES takes part during the dark days of WWI, which has robbed our main protagonist Stella of her fiancΓ©. Even though her grief seemed very justified to me, her family have decided that enough time has now passed to put up a stiff upper lip and get on with her life again, and the family doctor even threatens to have her committed to a local asylum if she doesn’t snap out of it soon. Stella is relieved when she gets the opportunity to rush to the aid of her pregnant sister Madeleine, who is unhappily ensconced at her husband’s grand old family home, Greyswick.  Even though she doesn’t admit it to Stella (British stiff upper lip and all), she is becoming increasingly scared of the house, which seems to have an unhappy spirit residing on its upper floor. Madeleine has heard pitiful sobbing at night, and unexplained bumps from upstairs that set her teeth on edge.

Wonderful! And herewith the scene is set. Spooky old mansion – tick! Unhappy main protagonist with a tragic past – tick! An antagonistic mother-in-law (Madeleine’s) – tick! And dark family secrets that threaten to come to light. I was really looking forward to finding out what was going on here.

I loved the blend of historical fiction and ghost story, which is always a hit for me, especially when the setting includes an old gothic mansion. I could vividly picture Greyswick and was glad that I didn’t have to spend the night there! Also interesting was the author’s portrayal of her female characters, and their standing in society at the time, which added depth to the tale. Imagine being threatened with a mental asylum because you are grieving your lover’s terrible death in the trenches – hmmmph! The only character I found lacking was Tristan, who remained quite shallow and underdeveloped for me. I thought that this particular character had more potential to feature in the story, and I would have liked to get to know him a bit more deeply. I also think that the book would have been more scary for me had the supernatural activity been experienced by Stella rather than filtered through Alice, a character I found difficult to engage with.


That said, THE LOST ONES was an entertaining read that should appeal to both lovers of historical fiction as well as those looking for a ghost story that is not overly gruesome or frightening. Lovers of truly scary supernatural tales may find it a bit tame, however. Personally, I loved the atmospheric setting most of all, and the Du Maurier vibes that infused the story. I am interested to see what the author comes up with next.

Thank you to HQ Fiction for the free copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Audiobook Review: AKIN by Emma Donoghue

Title: AKIN 
Author: Emma Donoghue
Read: January2020
Narrator: Jason Culp
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

“The whole point of travel is to learn there's no such thing as normal.”

Book Description:

Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he's discovered from his mother's wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he's never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip.

Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak frites to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy's truculent wit, and Michael's ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family's past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.

Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together. 

My musings:

Emma Donoghue’s novel THE WONDER is one of my all-time favourite books, so I was very excited to pick up her latest novel AKIN.

Old people in fiction really intrigue me. There is so much history there for the taking, plus the potential of some of life’s wisdom being imparted after a lifetime of experiences (even if the lifetime is only fictional). Also, if older characters behave oddly, this can be excused because of their age, giving the potential for the author to have a lot of fun sending their protagonist on all sorts of adventures and speaking their mind. Noah Selvaggio fits that bill perfectly. At 79, he faces a lonely old age after the death of his wife Joan a few years ago, and more recently his younger sister Fernande. In the winter of his life, he certainly did not expect being asked to become the ward of his deceased wayward nephew’s young son (whose mother is in jail for drug dealing). Especially as he is about to embark on a long awaited journey to his childhood home, Nice (France) before he has to follow his wife and sister to the grave.

As the title suggests, AKIN is about family ties, but there is so much more at play here. As Noah reflects sadly on the obstacles of old age – bereavement, loneliness, a slowing of the mind and body – he is also a character who doesn’t shy away from an adventure. Trying to reconcile early childhood memories of living in Nice, he is also on the search for information regarding some old photos he has found among his sister’s effects, which he believes were his mother’s. The images are mysterious, depicting seemingly random objects and people, as if the photographer had accidentally pressed the shutter. Noah thinks this is unusual for his mother, who was the child of a famous photographer after all. Maybe they have a meaning he has not yet uncovered?

Suddenly saddled with the responsibility of looking after eleven-year-old Michal, Noah’s trip may not start out as he had expected, but it will certainly provide some excitement, - and maybe also the answers he had been looking for.

AKIN was such a joy to read! Witty, heart-warming, touching, thought provoking and sometimes laugh-out-funny, the contrast between the travel experience of the old man and the young boy provided all the feels. With Joan living on as a voice in Noah’s head, she was also a character in her own right, providing a running commentary on the two unlikely travellers’ experiences.

Donoghue writes well, setting the scene very early and breathing life into her characters. I got so much out of this book: there is the heart-warming relationship between the man and the boy and the refreshing contrast in their views as they explore Nice. Then there is the mystery behind the photos, which had me totally intrigued. Noah is like an encyclopaedia of Nice’s history and sights, which provided an armchair travel experience that was almost like one of those guided tours on top of a tourist bus across the city. I enjoyed every minute of it!

Finally, credit must go to the narrator, Jason Culp, who breathed life into Noah until I could picture him vividly in my mind. In contrast, he provided the perfect mix of attitude and vulnerability for young Michael’s voice. It’s not easy to find an audiobook that really resonates from both the writing and the narration, but this fit the bill. Highly recommended!