Thursday 31 January 2013

Book Review: NOW YOU SEE ME by S. J. Bolton

Now You See Me

Title: Now You See Me
Author: S. J. Bolton
Publisher: Transworld Digital (Kindle edition)
Read: January 25-28, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

One night after interviewing a reluctant witness at a London apartment complex, Lacey Flint, a young detective constable, stumbles onto a woman brutally stabbed just moments before in the building’s darkened parking lot. Within twenty-four hours a reporter receives an anonymous letter that points out alarming similarities between the murder and Jack the Ripper’s first murder—a letter that calls out Lacey by name. If it’s real, and they have a killer bent on re-creating London’s bloody past, history shows they have just five days until the next attempt.

No one believes the connections are anything more than a sadistic killer’s game, not even Lacey, whom the killer seems to be taunting specifically. However, as they investigate the details of the case start reminding her more and more of a part of her past she’d rather keep hidden. And the only way to do that is to catch the killer herself.

Fast paced and completely riveting, S. J. Bolton’s Now You See Me is a modern gothic novel that is nothing less than a masterpiece of suspense fiction.

My thoughts: 

I first fell in love with S J Bolton’s books when reading Awakening earlier this year, and this dark, atmospheric and scary thriller also didn’t disappoint. In fact, I couldn’t put it down!

DC Lacey Flint thought that she had finally left her traumatic past behind when she was accepted into the British police force three years ago. Now a detective based in Southwark, London, Lacey investigates mainly crimes against women and considers herself to be a low profile girl, one who keeps to herself, a person who doesn’t rock the boat or draw attention to herself. One night, after visiting a victim of a gang-rape Lacey is investigating, a woman is brutally stabbed in an alleyway only seconds before Lacey gets there, and dies in her arms. A short while later, a local reporter receives a note which links the woman’s murder to the famous Jack the Ripper killings in late 19th century London. Now an important witness and a bit of an expert when it comes to historic facts about Jack the Ripper, Lacey gets drawn into the murder investigation in an effort to catch the copy-cat killer before any more lives are lost. But more victims soon follow, with the brutality of the crimes escalating. As it becomes obvious that the killer is leaving special personal clues for Lacey, and that the murders may be linked to events in her past she thought she had left behind for good, Lacey not only becomes a target herself but in the eyes of some of her colleagues she may even be a suspect.

With Lacey Flint, Bolton has once more proven her talent for creating a believable, flesh-and-blood protagonist who carries heavy burdens of the past and scars that run deep. Slowly, as layer after layer is peeled away, the reader catches glimpses of the real Lacey – and there are many surprises and twists, with a final revelation which will shock and surprise. Despite her many issues, and the secrecy surrounding Lacey like a dark cloak, I found her plucky and enigmatic, and feared for her safety when she is suddenly thrust into the path of a sadistic killer. Yearning for love, like many of Bolton’s protagonists, Lacey’s past never fully allows her to get close enough to other people to fulfil that need. Her budding attraction to DI Mark Joesbury shows Lacey’s vulnerable side and makes her all the more human – and likeable. As in Awakening, the romance in the novel was just enough to add a bit of hope, but not too much to distract from the main storyline – this is a fine balance which Bolton seems to have mastered very well.

As the body count rises, and the murders become more brutal and graphic, it is impossible not to feel a shiver travel up one’s spine in fear and disgust. This book is not for the faint-hearted! Like a cleverly constructed horror movie Bolton skilfully sets the scene: deserted old Victorian buildings, monsters lurking in the shadows, an eerie tune playing in the background, footsteps in the dark, a horrific scream echoing in the distance – I pulled my doona right up to my nose and refused to go to the bathroom without all the lights on, despite my sleeping husband’s protests. In creating an atmosphere of dread and fear, one can see why Bolton has been named the”high priestess of rural gothic crime” in the past. I still shudder to think of the underground canals Lacey has to traverse in the middle of the night, rats and all – ugh!

What I like most about Bolton’s novels, apart from the spook-factor, are the facts strewn throughout the story which provide a strong foundation for her novels. In Awakening, it was information about snakes and other creepy-crawleys. In this novel the reader learns many historic details about Jack the Ripper and his victims, as well as the different popular theories about his identity. I was thoroughly intrigued. It’s a win-win situation – entertainment plus a history lesson all in one. If only our history lessons at school had been as much fun!

Bolton is in a class of her own, and I intend on reading a lot more from this author. Highly recommended for fans of police procedurals and spooky thrillers, who are looking for that extra chill factor.

Book Review: BALILICIOUS by Becky Wicks

Becky Wicks
Harper Collins
Read: January 22-24, 2013


From visiting ancient healers with cellphone additions to leaving a shaking ashram intent on extracting her soul, Becky Wicks soon discovered that six months travelling round Bali wasn’t all going to be about finding inner peace and harmony. In fact, the perils of possessed teens, eating raw, yogic headstands, diving shipwrecks and dicing with black magic and demons all took their toll on the Island of the Gods.

And that was before the vaginal steaming.

Becky Wicks lifts the sarong on real life in Bali in a blur of locals, tourists, expats and the others with Julia Roberts Syndrome, who arrive… you know… not really knowing who they are.”

My thoughts:

I won a free copy of Balilicious from the Reading Room, and with perfect timing it arrived in my mailbox two days before I was due to board a plane -to Bali! What better opportunity than to read about Becky Wicks' Bali experiences "on location" so to speak. In fact, I am writing this review whilst gently swinging into a hammock on Gili T, where some of Becky Wicks' memoir is based.

Okay, enough of my travels and back to the book: Balilicious is in no way a travel guide a la Lonely Planet style, but rather reads like Becky's travel blog, complete with photos. Hence the subtitle "The Bali Diaries". Readers of Becky Wicks' earlier book "Burqualicious" will probably be familiar with the style - I haven't read it yet, but was granted a preview of a couple of chapters at the end of this book.

In Balilicious, Becky Wicks tells about her personal experiences and adventures whilst spending six months living on the small Indonesian island of Bali. Mainly based in the beautiful mountain town of Ubud, Wicks also explored other parts of the island (such as Kuta, Legian, Ahmed, Lovina and Padang Bai), as well as Sengiggi and the Gili Islands, which are part of Lombok but only a short two-hour fast boat trip away from Bali. Not being afraid to throw herself into new experiences, Wicks’ travel adventures feature activities most of us may never even contemplate – such as a “shaking workshop” in the mountains, a session of vaginal steaming (the mind boggles) and colonic irrigation (as you surely all do when on holidays?). As you can see, Wicks’ diary explores topics you will never find in your average travel guide, but some that may be very pertinent for the woman traveller – the problem of getting affordable tampax in Bali, for example, or where to find strong, good-looking male divers. For the more adventurous spirit, there is always the hunt for evil spirits on a moonlit night in a cemetery on Gili T – hmmmm, I thought about it, but decided to give it a miss. It was a spooky place even in daylight.

Wicks writes with the sort of wry, often self-deprecating humour which appeals to me immensely. Her observations are astute, her comments often laugh-out-loud funny, and she gives everything and everyone the benefit of the doubt. Wicks tends not to pass any judgment without backing it up with facts – she mentions her contempt for journalists who don’t do their homework and jump to misleading conclusions, and she obviously lives by her principles. A lot of the chapters are full of fascinating background information about Bali and its culture, so even if you’ve never been there yourself, you should get something out of reading this book. For me, of course, the best fun was to visit some of the places Wicks describes so vividly, although I passed on most of the activities she so eagerly participated in (call me a chicken).

By briefly touching on the clash between Western culture, tourism and Balinese spirituality and culture, Wicks shows that the popular tourist locations featured in the book do not typify the whole of Bali – although reading about some of the more extreme places, people and activities described in the book the reader may be lead to believe that Bali is a tourist mecca which has totally lost its way. One should therefore be careful to read this book for its entertainment value rather than viewing it as a travel guide.

All in all, I really enjoyed Wicks’ memoir and couldn’t help wondering which diveshop the “hot” diver belonged to as I casually cycled through the streets of Gili T. If, like myself, you have been to Bali before, you should get a few laughs out of Becky’s exploits and cries of: “Yes, exactly! I saw / felt / experienced that as well!” Such as Wicks’ Ubud Monkey Forest experience, which she introduces with:

“In the movie Eat, Pray, Love, Julia Roberts is shown cycling through a leafy jungle, smiling as the furry little monkeys sit quietly on the sidelines, looking cute. […] I hate to be the one to break the news but now that I’ve done it, I know for sure that Hollywood has lied to us.”

And ends with:

“[…] another group of monkeys had raced out of the forest and formed a threatening circle around me. As they stared at me their lips curled back en-masse to reveal razor sharp teeth. We stood there in a stand-off, like extras from Planet of the Apes.”

Yes, Becky, exactly! We too had to run for our lives, fending a rabid monkey off with our thongs (for the non-Australians, the footwear kind, not the underwear).

Balilicious is the ideal book for a light, fun read and a bit of girlie armchair travel. Better still, do as I did, book a ticket and read it over there – and see for yourself!

Namaste', Becky Wicks! :)

I read this book for the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - category "Memoir".

Sunday 20 January 2013

Book Review: LOLA BENSKY by Lily Brett

Lola Bensky by Lily Brett

Title: Lola Bensky
Author: Lily Brett
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Read: October 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. A high-school dropout, she's not sure how she got this job - but she's been sent by her Australian newspaper right to the heart of the London music scene a the most exciting time in music history: 1967.
Drawing on her own experience as a young journalist, the bestselling author of 'Too Many Men' has created an unforgettable character in the unconventional and couragous Lola. Genuinely funny and deeply moving, 'Lola Bensky' shows why Lily Brett is one of Australia's most distinctive and internationally acclaimed authors.

My thoughts:

To think that I might never have picked up this book if I hadn’t received a preview copy through the Reading Room – what a loss that would have been! Lola Bensky is, as Lola herself may have said, a “smashing” book. Insightful, thought provoking and deeply moving, told in Lola’s fresh and innocent voice, it is one of the most original books I have read all year.

Lola Bensky is a young journalist in the 1960’s, travelling the world and interviewing young up-and-coming rock stars for an Australian music magazine. It is a life very different from her childhood, growing up as the only daughter of Jewish holocaust survivors in Melbourne. Forging a daily battle with her weight and trying to combat the guilt she carries as a legacy of her parents’ traumatic past, Lola uses her interviews and her elaborately planned diets to escape a world which often makes little sense to her. Through snippets of conversation with famous people such as Cher, Jimi Hendricks, James Morrison, Mama Cass and Janis Joplin, Lola explores the very human side of people who have since become legendary in their fame. Cher has borrowed Lola’s diamante studded false eyelashes and Lola is too embarrassed to ask her to return them. Jimi Hendricks discusses the use of hair curlers with Lola, who irons her own unruly hair straight every morning. And Mama Cass confides her own battle with her weight, a topic very close to Lola’s heart. Somehow details of Lola’s parents’ stories about life in the camps always make their way into the conversation, despite Lola’s intense efforts to distract herself from their reality.

Lola Bensky is an immensely likeable yet complex character – seeing the world through her eyes is eye-opening and challenges pre-conceived notions about the people she encounters as well as living the life of a displaced person. Growing up in the wake of one of history’s darkest chapters, Lola’s experiences are always tainted by the feelings of loss and shame she has inherited yet cannot ever fully comprehend. Renia, Lola’s mother, is present only in body, her mind still trapped in the past by the losses and suffering she has had to endure. Brett describes this perfectly in the following paragraph:

“Renia, Lola knew, felt she had to atone for not having died. She would never be free of that atonement. It would be as imprisoning as any prison. […]
Renia rarely laughed. She rarely felt joy, she felt fear and shame in abundance. Lola felt that Renia didn’t want her dead mother or father or any of her dead brothers or sisters to think she had a moment’s happiness in being the one who was left alive.”

Lola’s parents’ traumatic past does not fit well into the decade of the sixties, their suffering forgotten in an era advocating love, peace and harmony. Whilst other Jewish people instinctively understand Lola’s background, people who have not grown up in the shadow of the atrocities committed to her parents are shocked and unbelieving when confronted with Lola’s realities. As Lola calmly recounts stories she has grown up with, we reel in horror at the details of suffering revealed. As we follow Lola’s life from the age of 19 to the present moment, her daily struggles to find her own identity and peace of mind are exposed. Still shackled to the past by her parents’ memories and scars, which were never openly discussed with her, Lola must confront the deepest darkest places in her own soul to find the peace she so desperately craves.

Drawing on her own background, Lily Brett has written a novel which is not only extremely readable but also carries a message about life itself. It does so without ever sounding preachy, pretentious or depressing. Lola’s innocence permeates her narrative, her simple truths often shocking to those of us who have led more sheltered lives. Having grown up with grandparents scarred by their wartime experiences, a lot of Lola’s thoughts rang true for myself as well – especially her escapes into a fantasy world in an effort to escape the past.

Lola Bensky has earned its place on my favourite list for 2012. I can recommend it to anyone who not only likes an interesting and unusual read, but one that is thought provoking on many levels – and interesting. Brett’s own experiences as a young journalist bring people to life who have become inaccessible and untouchable because of their fame – to see such a human side to them is very touching and grounding. A wonderful book, highly recommended!

Book Review: THE WHITE SPACE BETWEEN by Ami Sands Brodoff

The White Space Between by Ami Sands Brodoff

Title: The White Space Between
Author: Ami Sands Brodoff
Publisher: Second Story Press
Read: January 17-19, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads): 

A family's story of the Holocaust lies buried in the soil of a graveyard in Prague, in the old neighborhoods of Montreal, in the serenity of a small New Jersey town, and in the memory of Jana - a woman finally asked to bear witnessFar from the landscapes of her earlier life, Jana raised her daughter, Willow, on the beautiful scrapbooks she kept of her own childhood in Prague before World War II. But her stories end with the beginning of the Holocaust, and Willow knows little of her mother's life during the war and its aftermath. Jana's memories of this time are so guarded that Willow is uncertain who her father is - the answer left behind in Montreal, the city where Jana first settled after the war.When both Willow and Jana find themselves back in Montreal, the past can no longer be hidden. New loves are found and lost loves rekindled, and mother and daughter decide to journey to Prague to unearth the stories that can no longer stay buried.

My thoughts:

The only one of her family to survive the Holocaust and internment in a concentration camp, Jana Ivanova flees post-war Germany to start a new life in Canada. Now in her eighties, Jana has almost succeeded in leaving her past behind – she has adopted a new name – Jane Ives – raised a daughter to adulthood and kept her wartime experiences secret even from those closest to her. Only the number tattooed on her forearm and the nightmares she still regularly suffers are niggling reminders of her past and her losses.

Willow, Jane’s daughter, has grown up in New Jersey with stories and photos of her mother’s childhood years growing up in Prague and her early years in Montreal, but she knows very little about her mother’s suffering during the war, nor Willow’s father, a man shrouded in mystery who died before Willow was born. Despite Willow’s curiosity, Jane has never confided in her in an effort to protect her from the suffering she had to endure. Now in nearly forty, Willow is a loner, more comfortable with the puppets she makes than flesh-and-blood people. When she is invited to Montreal as an artist in residence and puppeteer teacher she accepts – and is reminded of some of her mother’s stories about her life as a new immigrant in the city.

“Willow thinks of a lifetime of questions, empty spaces, the eerie feeling of not being able to ask questions when she was – is still – full to bursting with them.”

So when Jane visits Willow in Montreal and tells her that she has decided to tell her story to the “Witness Foundation”, an organisation collecting and documenting testimonies of the Holocaust, Willow is surprised. Together the two women embark on a journey of discovery of past secrets, which will give Willow some of the answers she has craved for so long.

The title, The White Space Between, refers to the spaces between the letters, the silences, the unsaid things. There are many unspoken things between Jane and Willow, secrets which have shaped their relationship and Willow’s future. In the little snippets of memories Jane recalls throughout the story, the reader learns a little bit about her past, but many unanswered questions still remain. Through past and present conversations between mother and daughter, Willow slowly gains an insight into some of the memories her mother has tried to protect her from.

I have read many different books about how the experiences of the Holocaust have shaped not only the survivors’ lives, but also that of their children. I have also experienced the effects of hidden secrets and suppressed suffering on families through past encounters with Holocaust survivors who have shred their stories with me. It is a subject which is close to my heart, and I welcomed the opportunity to read Brodoff’s novel. Unfortunately I found both Jane and Willow quite remote and hard to connect with, apart from a few snippets where Jane shares Jana’s memories of the war with the reader, which were very touching and sad. But overall, I felt like an outsider looking in, instead of being a part of the story, seeing the scenery, feeling the emotion. Even when Jane and Willow return to Prague to put the past at rest, I found it hard to engage, to share their emotion – Relief? Sadness? Joy? I am still puzzled as to how Jane’s past has really affected Willow, how knowing may have changed her, shaped her differently.

All in all, the novel left me longing for more – more information, more emotional connection and more insight. Maybe I needed to read more between the lines ….

For people interested in novels addressing the topic of Holocaust survivors and the effect of their past on their family and children, I can also recommend:

Lola Bensky by Lily Brett REVIEW
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

I read this book as part of the 2013 Monthly Keyword Reading Challenge - and it contained the key word chosen for January: "white".

Thursday 17 January 2013

Book Review: THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER by Jael McHenry

The Kitchen Daughter

Title: The Kitchen Daughter
Author:  Jael McHenry
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Read: January 16, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

My thoughts:

Ginny Selvaggio has had a sheltered upbringing. At 26 years of age she is still living in her childhood home with her parents, hiding from a world which is confusing for her. Many things other people take for granted are frightening for Ginny: loud noises, for example, or people’s touch, metaphors and interpreting emotions. When Ginny’s parents die suddenly, she copes with her feelings of loss and grief the only way she knows, by cooking. Following in the footsteps of her mother, who was an excellent cook and has taught Ginny all about food from a young age, cooking is the one thing Ginny is good at and which helps her cope with unexpected situations. On the day of her parents’ funeral, overwhelmed by grief and the crowd of mourners in her house, Ginny retreats to the kitchen to cook her late grandmother’s recipe of bread soup – and is visited by the ghost of her Nonna, giving her a cryptic warning.

In the days that follow, Ginny discovers that she can evoke the ghosts of the dead by cooking recipes written in their own hand. When Ginny’s sister Amanda threatens to sell the family home, and Ginny discovers some photos of a mysterious stranger and a letter of apology and regret written by her father to her mother, Ginny resorts to her newly discovered gift to get some answers – with some unexpected results.

With The Kitchen Daughter McHenry has created a heart-warming coming-of age story from the perspective of a person living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although Ginny has never been officially diagnosed, many of her reactions and the way she interprets the world around her are characteristic of someone living with the syndrome. From the outset, Ginny’s voice seemed genuine to me, as the reader is invited to look at the world through Ginny’s eyes. With her mother having consistently refused to have Ginny examined and diagnosed, she is aware of being different from other people but has had to develop her own explanations and coping skills. It instantly raised the question for me whether her mother was doing Ginny any favours by sheltering her from the world and refusing to acknowledge her differences out of fear of having her child “labelled”. As Ginny makes a startling discovery about her parents, her mother’s motives make a bit more sense.

With describing Ginny and her sister’s individual journeys of trying to cope with the loss of loved ones, as well as those of supporting characters, the author has created an insightful novel about the different types and stages of grief. Even in Amanda, Ginny’s overbearing and controlling younger sister, her deep hurt shines clearly through, showing how different people cope with emotions too strong to bear at the time. Another interesting aspect discussed in the novel is the concept of “normal”. As Ginny says: “There are so many flavours of normal, it doesn’t matter which one I am. […] There really is no normal.”

Ginny’s ghostly visitors add a subtle touch of magic and whimsy to the story, without overdoing it, very much like another novel I recently revisited, Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris. I found the idea of being able to conjure the ghosts of loved ones through the smell of their own food very comforting – thinking that I still have many handwritten recipes from my own grandmother (who was an excellent cook), and how lovely it would be to be able to reconnect for a few precious moments to say the things that have remained unsaid. It is interesting to see Ginny’s motivations for inviting the ghosts of her relatives, and the things she chooses to discuss with them. Her encounter with her dead father was especially touching, for various reasons I will not spoil for readers here. One question, however, is still nagging me: what did Nonna really mean? Did I miss something?

I really enjoyed reading The Kitchen Daughter, and it left a warm fuzzy feeling despite much sadness contained in the novel. It is one of those books which make for a nice cosy read in front of the fire, with a fragrant stew simmering in the background – or one which would offer many pertinent discussion points for a bookclub read.

Readers who enjoyed this story may also like reading Addition by Australian author  Toni Jordan, an insightful novel told through the eyes of a person living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I read this book as part of the 2013 What's In A Name Reading Challenge - read a book with something you'd find in your kitchen in the title.

Tuesday 15 January 2013


Schneewittchen muss sterben by Nele NeuhausSnow White Must Die

Title: Schneewittchen Muss Sterben (German); Snow White Must Die (English)
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Publisher: Ullstein Buchverlag (German edition); PanMacmillan Australia (Australian edition)
Read: January 07 - 14, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):
Skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony and lips as red as blood... But this is no fairy story...

In a small town in Germany a boy is accused of murdering a beautiful girl. But does a "wicked queen" lurk in their midst?

On a September evening eleven years ago, two 17-year-old girls vanished without a trace from the tiny village of Altenhain, just outside Frankfurt. In a trial based on circumstantial evidence 20-year-old Tobias Sartorius was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of his childhood friend Laura and his beautiful girlfriend Stefanie – otherwise known as Snow White.

After serving his sentence, Tobias returns home. His presence in the little German village stirs up the events of the past. Events that the locals would prefer to remain hidden. When the Sartorius family is subjected to a number of attacks, Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and DS Oliver von Bodenstein are tasked with monitoring the tense atmosphere in the tight-knit community. As the village inhabitants close ranks it becomes apparent the disappearance of Snow White and her friend was far more complex than imagined.

Then history starts to repeat itself in a disastrous manner when another pretty girl goes missing. The police are thrown into a race against time. Will they be able to save her, or is she destined to die?

My thoughts:

After reading reviews of Snow White Must Die, I was instantly intrigued – especially as this was an author new to me, and one I could read in two different languages. I decided to download the German version and read it in its original format, partly to help set the scene and get absorbed in the book’s atmosphere. And I was not disappointed – this author is now firmly on my TBR list!

The novel opens with the release from jail of a young man convicted of murdering two 17-year-old local girls, and his return to his small hometown Altenhain, where despite having served his ten-year sentence he is not welcome. During Tobias Sartorius’ absence things have changed for the worse for his family and friends – his father’s restaurant has had to close after villagers blackbanned him for being the parent of a murderer; his parents’ marriage has suffered under the strain and his mother has left town to start a new life where nobody knows her; and his best friend has not been in contact with him since the night of the murders. Only his old childhood friend and girl-next-door Nathalie, now a famous actress and known as Nadia, has been faithful to him all these years.

Tobias’ release triggers some dark forces in the village – his mother is mysteriously thrown from a railway overpass and Tobias himself is bashed by masked intruders, who threaten to kill him unless he leaves town. Things come to a head when another young 17-year-old, Amelie, who has met Tobias and bears a striking resemblance to one of the dead girls, vanishes. Amelie’s disappearance and the discovery of the body of one of the dead girls Tobias was convicted of killing ten years ago prompts a renewed police investigation into past and present crimes, involving detective team Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein, who detect some inconsistencies in the old murder files and the circumstantial evidence used to convict Tobias. Whilst struggling with issues in their own personal lives, Pia and Oliver reopen the old files, and get soon drawn into the village’s dark and sinister secrets.

With Snow White Must Die, Neuhaus has created a thriller with so many clever plot lines that it is truly impossible to guess the outcome – and a cast of interesting, flesh-and-blood characters who each bring their own demons into the story. I was totally engrossed in this book from the very first to the last page, and could not rest until I had unravelled the mystery. Neuhaus’ insight into small town politics as well as the dark forces of human nature which motivate people to turn a blind eye to injustice, or worse, conspire to obstruct the path of justice, was eye-opening and drove the story all the way. Neuhaus is clearly familiar with the setting and its people, and her descriptive writing soon draws the reader into an atmosphere of lies, corruption, cruelty, violence and conspiracy.

For me, there were a few minor inconsistencies in the story and a couple of loose ends, which could possibly be explained by this book being the fourth in the series – but the first to be translated into English. Whilst the first part of the book built tension and suspense, the story dragged a little bit in later sections with the different agendas of the many characters involved, and the many parallel storylines introduced – however, it did not lessen my enjoyment of the book. Kirchoff and Bodenstein make a solid, intelligent and likeable detective pair, and I will definitely not stop here but am looking forward to getting my hands on the other books in the series – sometimes being bilingual is very useful!

To sum it up in one sentence, Snow White Must Die is a well-rounded, cleverly constructed and totally addictive police procedural with an engaging pair of detectives I am sure we will hear a lot more of in the future.

Highly recommended!

I read this book as part of the 2013 Monthly Keyword Reading Challenge - and it contained two of the key words chosen for January: "white" and "snow".

Book Review: SORROW'S ANTHEM by Michael Koryta

Sorrow's Anthem

Title: Sorrow's Anthem (MP3 audio version)
Author: Michael Koryta, narrator Scott Brick
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Read (listened to): January 02-14, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Once Lincoln Perry and Ed Gradduk were friends. Then Perry became a cop, Gradduk turned dangerous, and their friendship imploded. Now, Gradduk is dead. And Perry wants to use his PI license to prove that whatever else his childhood friend might have been, he wasn't a murderer.

For the police, this case is over. The woman Gradduk is alleged to have killed can't tell her side of the story, and the building she entered with him has burned to the ground. But Perry is making connections to a wave of arson that struck Cleveland seventeen years ago—fires that lit up the dark secrets of two families, a local powerbroker, and at least one crooked cop. Now Perry and his partner can see ties between the past and present, between innocents and criminals—and sirens that keep playing...

My thoughts:

All throughout his childhood, Ed Gradduk has been Lincoln Perry’s best friend. Then, several years ago, in an attempt to help him, Lincoln made a decision which left the two friends estranged and make Lincoln a pariah on his own home turf. Now Ed is back and in trouble again, accused of arson and murdering a woman. Convinced that his old friend is incapable of such a heinous crime, Lincoln is trying to reach out to Ed in an effort to make amends. But more powerful forces are at play, and Ed is run down and killed by police before Lincoln has a chance to talk to him. Certain that Ed was set up for the crime, Lincoln sets out to clear Ed’s name, uncovering a world of crime and corruption and getting in the way of some of the city’s most powerful men.

This is the second Lincoln Perry mystery (audio version) I have listened to (I seem to be reading them in reverse order) and I enjoyed it as much as A Welcome Grave. Diving into the city’s dark underworld, Koryta has once again set the scene for a fast-paced, intelligent and dark thriller featuring the PI team Perry and his partner, veteran ex-policeman Joe Pritchard, who were first introduced in Koryta’s award winning novel Tonight I said Good-Bye (which I have yet to read). I loved the author’s explanation for the title of the book, named after the sorrowful cacophony of sirens from the different emergency services vehicles on the scene of an accident – how apt!

For such a young author, Koryta shows amazing insight into regrets of the past, loss and personal sacrifice, expressed by Lincoln’s melancholy reflections about his childhood and lost friendship with Ed Gradduk. Lincoln Perry is the perfect PI – an ex-cop, a loner, a man with a past and a man who feels strongly about justice and is not afraid to fight for it and risk his own life for the sake of uncovering the truth. He and Joe Pritchard make a strong pair, with Joe, the older and wiser partner, offering a word of caution and reigning Lincoln in when he gets swept away in the heat of the investigation. Their personalities complement one another, setting a strong groundwork for many more books to come.

I listened to the audio version of this novel as part of the 2013 Audio Book Challenge. The narrator Scott Brick  (who also narrates Koryta’s other novels) does a great job giving life and personality to the different characters, which made listening to the audio book a pleasure. His somewhat dry and melancholy voice perfectly fitted a reflective Lincoln Perry, who is coming to grips with past grief and loss.

The book is also part of the 2013 What's In A Name Reading Challenge - read a book with an emotion in the title - sorrow.

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy novels in the style of Dennis Lehane, Lee Child and Harlan Coben.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Book Review: ALLE SIEBEN WELLEN (EVERY SEVENTH WAVE) by Daniel Glattauer

Alle sieben WellenEvery Seventh Wave

Title: Alle Sieben Wellen (German); Every Seventh Wave (English)
Author: Daniel Glattauer (English translation by Katharina Bielenberg, Jamie Bulloch)
Publisher: Deuticke (German), Silver Oak (English)
Read: December 26 - 28, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

The eagerly awaited sequel to Love Virtually--2011's wittiest, most compelling love story. “How will this go on, Leo? The same as before? But where will it go? Nowhere, just on. You live your life, I live mine. And the rest we'll live together.”
Love Virtually ended as Leo abruptly departed for a new life in the United States, determined to end once and for all the intense cyber-exchange that threatened Emmi's marriage and his own happiness. But shouldn't these unconventional lovers--intimates who have never met in person--get another chance? Readers thought so, and begged for more. The captivating story continues as Leo returns from Boston and gradually resumes his email contact with Emmi. But now he has his own real-life relationship, with Pamela, a woman from the US. Still, Emmi and Leo cannot stop writing to each other, no matter the consequences. When Pamela learns of Leo's secret and unusual liaison, she returns home, and Emmi's marriage to Bernhard is tested to its limits. Once again Daniel Glattauer delivers an irresistible page-turner--and a sequel worthy of the original.

My thoughts:

Alle Sieben Wellen (or Every Seventh Wave in English) is the sequel to the unusual cyber love-story Gut gegen Nordwind (or Love Virtually) featuring email partners Emmi Rothner and Leo Leike.

After breaking off contact with Emmi and moving to Boston for almost 10 months, Leo is back in town and answers one of Emmi’s old emails, rekindling their electronic correspondence. Whereas their earlier emails read like light and playful romantic flirtations, the post-Boston exchanges are more serious attempts at finding a place in the real world for their unusual friendship. After all, Emmi is still married with children, and Leo has a new girlfriend who wants to move in with him. So where does that leave their desperate longing for each other’s correspondence? Finally, Emmi and Leo meet in person (which the reader only finds out through subsequent email exchanges). Now that they have met in the “real world”, can their friendship go on as before? Will meeting split them up, or take them to the next level? These are questions Glattauer attempts to answer, again solely by sharing Emmi and Leo’s email exchanges with the reader.

Personally, I loved the cliffhanger ending of Gut gegen Nordwind and admired the author for having the courage to defy the temptation to serve up a neat, tidy and happy ending. Because of the uncertainty of the ending, the novel stayed with me for some time, and I kept thinking about Emmi and Leo, picturing several scenarios of how their relationship may have fared in the future – and I was content with that. However, when I found out that there was a sequel, the temptation was too great to resist, and of course I did rush out to buy a copy. I don’t regret reading the sequel, but in some regards it took away some of the originality and the charm of Emmi and Leo’s unusual love story.

Whilst the first instalment was charming, unique and very addictive, number two describes the struggle of merging fantasy with reality, of trying to integrate a virtual world with the real one. Glattauer does an excellent job in portraying the challenges of being confronted with reality, the sacrifices and choices which need to be made by Emmi and Leo to continue their friendship. The euphoria of first love has gone – and they are now faced with tough choices. Continually drawn between their attraction to one another and their other responsibilities, their on-again / off-again relationship is reflected in their verbose email exchanges, which lack some of the charm of the earlier novel but still managed to make me smile and enjoy the journey. Emmi’s rejection and bitterness is reflected in her earlier emails, as is Leo’s resignation – despite several attempts to break it off, their addiction to one another continuously makes them write back again, despite all logical reasons not to.

Glattauer’s writing style still managed to charm me and draw me into the story, and his word plays were fun to read. If you liked Gut gegen Nordwind, and have longed to find out what happens to Emmi and Leo, then you will probably enjoy this book. If you hated the first one, then I don’t recommend reading the sequel. All in all, “Alle Sieben Wellen” is a light, enjoyable and feel-good summer read, which left me with a smile on my face.

Book Review: GUT GEGEN NORDWIND (LOVE VIRTUALLY) by Daniel Glattauer

Gut gegen NordwindLove Virtually

Title: Gut Gegen Nordwind (German); Love Virtually (English)
Author: Daniel Glattauer (English translation by Katharina BielenbergJamie Bulloch)
Publisher: Deuticke (German), Silver Oak (English)
Read: December 09, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

It's a virtual romance that begins by chance. When Leo mistakenly receives e-mails from a stranger named Emmi, he replies--and Emmi writes back. Soon, secrets are shared, sparks fly, and erotic tension simmers.

My thoughts:

“Gut Gegen Nordwind” is a clever, funny and thought-provoking novel about how the virtual on-line world can uncover our hidden needs and desires and provide a unique platform for attraction and relationships on a completely different level.

Written entirely in the form of emails between the main protagonists, the novel tells the story of Emmi Rothner and Leo Leike, who are accidentally brought into email contact when Emmi tries to cancel a magazine subscription and types in the wrong email address. Still reeling from the break-up of a relationship, Leo responds with sarcasm to Emmi’s email, which starts an unusual correspondence between the two strangers. But words have their own power, and soon Emmi and Leo find themselves attracted to each other, looking forward to their daily correspondence with a person they have never seen. Planning to finally meet their email partner, the self-proclaimed “happily married” Emmi is worried that she may not find Leo attractive, whilst Leo is certain he would recognise Emmi, of whom he has formed a firm fantasy picture. But meeting each other in the real world proves to be much more difficult than previously thought, as neither wants to jeopardise the relationship which has become to mean so much to them.

I read this novel in German, and loved the author’s language, witticism and play on words throughout Emmi’s and Leo’s dialogue – the insightful, witty and snappy email exchanges made me smile and almost had me longing for my very own secret email partner. I could well imagine why both Emmi and Leo would look forward to their daily correspondence. Despite the obvious pitfalls and warnings lighting up in the back of my mind when reading this novel, I found the story very romantic and sweet – and very different from any other romantic novel I have ever read (and romance is normally a genre I approach with caution, which is why it took me almost a year to pick up this book and read it).

Glattauer’s novel challenges a lot of beliefs about what makes a romantic relationship, and what our true needs are from each other. What does the “happily married” Emmi see in Leo, who is a total stranger she has never laid eyes on, yet who has become her closest confidante, knowing things about her which she would never tell her husband? Would their relationship ever survive a meeting in person? Are our words a truer reflection of ourselves than our whole persona, or can we use them as a mask to hide our true face? Built on the premise that attraction is more than skin-deep, the novel validates the merits of different forms of connection between people. As Emmi and Leo slowly get to know each other, so does the reader, taking me on a journey of discovery I found very intriguing – I now look forward to reading the sequel (with some trepidation … if you have read the book you may understand why). All in all, “Gut Gegen Norwind” was one of the more enjoyable romantic novels I have read in a very long time, and I can fully recommend it to anyone with a sense of humour and in need of a light, enjoyable summer read.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Book Review: THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)

Title: The Diviners
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (November 2012)
Read: December 06 - 10, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Evie O'Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City--and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--also known as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies."

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer--if he doesn't catch her first.

My thoughts:

With her new book “The Diviners” Libba Bray has created one of the most enjoyable, unusual, clever and addicitive YA novels of 2012. Set in New York in the 1920’s, the book transported me straight back into a time between the two great wars, an atmosphere of smoky nightclubs, flappers, eccentric characters and some mysterious spooky happenings in the city. It is the sign of a good book when you eventually emerge from it after hours of non-stop reading, bleary eyed and disorientated and sighing: “What a ride”, feeling incredibly sad to turn the last page.

Evangeline O’Neill, called Evie by her friends, is in trouble again. An independent, feisty and modern young woman of the swinging 20’s, she also has an unusual gift – she can “read” objects, is able to tell things from a person’s past by touching an object the person has been close to. Using her gift under the influence of alcohol at a party one night creates an unpleasant “incident”, which not only makes Evie a social pariah in her hometown in Ohio, but also alerts her conservative parents to her unruly behaviour. In an effort to show her the error of her ways, Evie is being banished to New York by her parents to stay with her uncle, Will. With New York being much more exciting than Ohio, Evie is not opposed to the idea, especially since one of her best childhood friends, Mabel, lives in the same apartment building as her uncle.

New York soon proves to be all that Evie has hoped it to be. Her uncle Will Fitzgerald, the somewhat eccentric curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult (or, as Evie calls it, the “Museum of Creepy Crawlies”) leaves Evie to her own devices a lot of the time, free to make some interesting friends and explore the city’s nightlife. But a dark and evil force is loose in the city, performing cruel and ritualistic killings which baffle authorities and have people frightened for their safety. When Will is asked to assist the police with their investigation, Evie is also drawn into the path of an evil force so frightening that it will take her and her friends all their combined efforts just to survive.

By using the third person narrative with focus on several different characters to tell the story, Evie being the main one, Bray re-creates the 1920’s as if stepping through a time machine and emerging in a smoky jazz club, afraid to walk home through the foggy New York streets where an evil force is materialising to take innocent lives. The author’s knowledge of the city is evident as she introduces the reader to New York’s most mysterious and spooky places, weaving a story which had me enthralled for hours (through all 600 or so pages), unable to put the book down. The roaring 20’s are perfect for this setting – a time between the great wars, when women started to fight for equality, when conservatism and prohibition clashed with the carefree era of jazz-clubs and dancing girls, when conservative religious beliefs were no longer enough and more and more people sought answers in the supernatural and the occult.

Evie is a wonderful protagonist. Clever, independent and spirited, with a quick wit that leaves a smile on your face, she is not intimidated by any obstacles in her way. Starting out as a rather naïve, attention-seeking and immature schoolgirl, Evie’s character grows with the novel as she learns more about herself and her unusual gift, and befriends other young people who are also “different”. The various perspectives round the novel rather than distracting from the main story, which is an art form in itself and so often doesn’t work for me at all. Whilst I did feel that some characters were used to set up the sequel of this novel rather than contribute to the plot, the side-stories were so interesting in themselves that I really didn’t mind.

By introducing the supernatural, Bray blends murder, mystery, folklore, history and a touch of romance to create one of the best atmospheric spine-chilling ghost stories I have ever read. Finally, a ghost story which really works – I am so often disappointed when I simply want a good supernatural thriller without an excess of gruesome horror. This is where “The Diviners” really delivered for me, and I loved feeling the goose bumps rise when confronted with Naughty John’s nocturnal forays into the foggy city streets on the lookout for another victim.

Be prepared that the ending leaves itself wide open for the sequel – however, whilst I am left eagerly anticipating the next instalment, I do not feel cheated by the novel in its own right. I will definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes any of the above genres – or simply an entertaining, clever and unusual novel. And I am (im)patiently waiting for the next book in the series …. Well done, Libba Bray, this book definitely made it on my list of favourites for 2012.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Allen & Unwin (Allen & Unwin Facebook Page) who provided me with a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review - I thoroughly enjoyed the journey :)

Book Review: THE IMPOSTER BRIDE by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride

Title: The Imposter Bride
Author: Nancy Richler
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
Read: December 13 - 17, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When a young, enigmatic woman arrives in post-war Montreal, it is immediately clear that she is not who she claims to be. Her attempt to live out her life as Lily Azerov shatters as she disappears, leaving a new husband and baby daughter, and a host of unanswered questions. Who is she really and what happened to the young woman whose identity she has stolen? Why has she left and where did she go? It is left to the daughter she abandoned to find the answers to these questions as she searches for the mother she may never find or really know.

My thoughts:

The Imposter Bride is a wonderfully insightful book about war, loss, displacement and new beginnings, and the impact of these on the individual and their families.

After fleeing the chaos of post-war Europe, Lily Azarov arrives in Montreal to begin her new life as a mail-order bride to Sol Kramer in order to secure an entry permit into Canada. However, on seeing the sad young woman at the railway station, Sol gets cold feet and opts out of the arrangement – instead his brother Nathan, attracted by Lily’s beauty and aura of mystery, marries the young refugee. From the very beginning it is clear to Nathan that his young bride carries a heavy burden of loss and grief from the unmentionable things she has had to endure during the war, and that she may not be the person she claims to be. But he is infinitely patient with her and hopes that the birth of their daughter Ruth will make Lily feel more settled and at home in her new country. However, when Ruth is three months old, Lily leaves the house to buy some milk and never returns.

Young Ruth grows up motherless but much loved by her father, grandmother, uncle Sol and Sol’s wife Elka,, who welcomes Ruth into their home and becomes Ruth’s mother substitute. Ruth knows very little about her mother, and doesn’t miss her.

“I didn’t miss her, had never missed her. I would not have known what to miss. Her absence was more a background to my life than anything else. It was a given, a stable fact of life that was definitional, not dynamic, like the hole in the centre of a bagel, without which a bagel would be something else …..”

On her sixth birthday, Ruth receives a parcel from her mother, containing a pretty quartz and a short impersonal postcard. Over the next decades Ruth gradually sets out to find out more about the mother she has never known, and who is surrounded by a shroud of mystery. Little by little some of Lily’s true identity is revealed, and her connection to the other women in Ruth’s life.

I have a weakness for books set during WWII and dealing with the subject of the holocaust. Several novels I have read in the past have addressed the issue of displacement, emigration and new beginnings, but none as perceptive as Richler’s novel. With great insight and subtlety she explores the impact of Lily’s traumatic past on her own life in a new country, as well as those around her. Emerging from unspeakable suffering and loss, and having left her very identity behind in order to start a new life, Lily is like a piece of driftwood, unable to forge emotional connections to people around her. Isolated by the experiences nobody else around her has shared or can fathom, her new life is not the haven Lily has hoped for, but casts her into isolation and lethargy. When she is confronted by her past, she does the only thing left open to her – she runs.

For Ruth, her mother is a shadowy figure who has never featured in her life, and who she does not miss. Yet the absence of her mother and the mystery surrounding her affect Ruth in very subtle ways, which prompt her to ask questions about the woman who abandoned her as a small baby. Over decades, Lily’s absence colours the relationships between all the strong and independent women in Ruth’s life ever so slightly – her grandmother Bella, Aunt Elka, Aunt Elka’s mother Ida and aunt Nina. But safe in the folds of her extended family it takes Ruth many years to want to find her mother, and reclaim the legacy of the past. Slowly all the loose ends come together as Lily’s past and true identity are revealed.

I really loved reading this book, and would have welcomed more detail about Lily’s experiences during the war, which knit the storyline together and explain some of the mystery surrounding her. The emotional journey it took me on was very intense – sometimes sad, always interesting, and certainly opening my eyes to the powerful influence trauma has on future generations. Having lost my mother as a child, I found it hard to reconcile Ruth’s passive acceptance with the pain I experienced from my mother’s absence, but found Richler’s explanations plausible and well documented.

A book highly recommended to anyone interested in the legacy of the holocaust, displacement and new beginnings – or simply about mother-daughter relationships impacted by trauma and loss.

Disclaimer: Thank you to The Reading Room and the publisher Harper Collins Canada for providing me with a free copy of this book for an honest review :)

Book Review: THE ISLAND HOUSE by Posie Graeme-Evans

The Island House

Title: The Island House
Author: Posie Graeme-Evans
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Read: December 17 - 20, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

The Island House is an unforgettable novel about a young archaeologist who unearths ancient secrets, a tragic romance and Viking treasure on a remote Scottish island.

Freya Dane arrives on the island of Findmar, hoping to learn more about the work of her father, who was also an archaeologist, and to find out why he left his mother so many years ago ...

It's AD 800 and a comet, an omen of evil, shines down on Findmar, and the fears of the locals are justified. Signy, a Pictish girl, loses her entire family in a Viking raid, and the island is plunged into a war between three religions ...

When the comet returns, the link between past and present becomes clear, and Freya will also learn the true meaning of love and loss.

My thoughts:

The Island House is an evocative dual time novel, skilfully blending the past and present together through archaeological discoveries and some paranormal activity on a remote windswept Scottish island.

After the sudden death of her estranged father, Freya Dane travels to Findnar, a remote island off the coast of Scotland, to visit the cottage she has inherited. An archaeologist like her late father, she is intrigued by some of the finds he has stored in the cottage’s undercroft, as well as an unfinished letter he wrote to Freya shortly before his death, referring to being haunted by vivid visions of the past connected to the island’s rich history.

Looking further into the island’s past, Freya is soon plagued by visions similar to those of her father’s, images of a brutal raid and a young girl in mortal danger. With the help of the local librarian and a young man who had been involved in the incident that took her father’s life, Freya sets out to make sense of her father’s legacy to her and unravel the secrets of the island’s Viking and Christian past.

Switching over to the time period of 800 AD, the novel also tells the story of Signy, a young Pictish girl, who loses her whole family in a Viking raid and is taken in by Findnar’s Christian community, who have established a monastery on the island. Magni, a young Viking badly burnt in the sacking of the village, has also been taken in by the charitable nuns and is being nursed back to health. Both being considered pagans and outsiders, the two children form a firm friendship with the dream of returning home to their individual villages one day. However, soon Signy’s loyalties are being tested when Christian beliefs challenge those of her ancestors, and Signy becomes a nun herself with the hope of atoning for her sins – ultimately resulting in tragedy for herself and those who are dearest to her.

Reminiscent of Barbara Erskine's novels (such as Lady of Hay), Signy’s traumatic past interlinks with Freya’s life on the island through paranormal events involving Freya herself and several people she comes into contact with on Findnar. I loved the evocative descriptions of Signy’s life and felt myself totally intrigued by the events leading up to the images which have haunted Freya’s father and which now torment her. The author manages to seamlessly switch between the past and the present, weaving a rich tale spanning time periods more than a thousand years apart. Her descriptions of the Viking raids are vividly betrayed, as is the clash of Christianity with the animistic religions prevalent in the area at the time, which has dire consequences for Signy. Her struggle to find a balance between the beliefs of her ancestors and the new austere Christian God is very touching, and skilfully portrays the influence of a strict belief system on other cultures.

Scotland also comes alive with the author’s evocative descriptions of a bleak, windswept and yet breathtakingly beautiful landscape still shrouded in its colourful past. Reading the book I wanted to jump on the next plane and go there! Setting the opening scene amidst the arrival of a comet in the night skies created an atmosphere of mystery and possibility, which the author skilfully used to link the two parallel storylines. Graeme-Evans’ awe for Scotland’s past and its harsh beauty shows through her writing, and her descriptions of the landscape and historical events are well researched and portrayed.

Unfortunately parts of the modern-day sections of the novel let me down in its overall enjoyment. As one of the main protagonists, Freya remained remote and distant, a bit of an enigma which I found very hard to relate to. Similarly, the relationships she forms with people around her often seem confusing as they are inconsistent with her guarded and reserved personality. For example, the intense dislike Dan and Freya feel for each other is suddenly seamlessly transformed into affection without any explanation to the reader. Being one of those annoying readers who gets hung up on technicalities I had several “yeah right!” moments when the author stretched credibility a bit too far. I don’t pretend to have any knowledge whatsoever about archaeology (apart from watching the Time Team on ABC), but I do have a pretty good grasp of human anatomy – excavating a whole human skeleton out of peat loam single-handedly in one day and bagging it neatly before nightfall was stretching the imagination a bit too far for me (all those bones!).

On a similar note, Freya’s archaeological finds get bigger and more fanciful as the novel progresses – I think the story would have worked just as well (or better) with one humble find rather than (SPOILER) an Indiana Jones like scenario towards the end. All modern day characters had huge potential to add depth to the story with their unique personalities, but somehow got lost in translation. I would have loved to see Simon more in the role as the modern-day villain – the novel needed one, and he had initially been set up to fit perfectly into that slot.

All in all, the “Island House” is a pleasurable journey into Scotland’s past and makes a light and entertaining summer read. Recommended for fans of Barbara Erskine’s dual time novels, and anyone enjoying the concept of the past haunting future generation. In the author’s own words:
“The past does not die. It waits.”

Disclaimer: Thank you to The Reading Room and the publisher Simon & Schuster for providing me with a free copy of this book for an honest review :)

Book Review: GARDEN OF STONES by Sophie Littlefield

Garden of Stones

Title: Garden of Stones

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA (January 2013)
Read: December 21 - 22, 2012

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In the dark days of war, a mother makes the ultimate sacrifice Lucy Takeda is just fourteen years old, living in Los Angeles, when the bombs rain down on Pearl Harbor. Within weeks, she and her mother, Miyako, are ripped from their home, rounded up-along with thousands of other innocent Japanese-Americans-and taken to the Manzanar prison camp.

Buffeted by blistering heat and choking dust, Lucy and Miyako must endure the harsh living conditions of the camp. Corruption and abuse creep into every corner of Manzanar, eventually ensnaring beautiful, vulnerable Miyako. Ruined and unwilling to surrender her daughter to the same fate, Miyako soon breaks. Her final act of desperation will stay with Lucy forever...and spur her to sins of her own.

Bestselling author Sophie Littlefield weaves a powerful tale of stolen innocence and survival that echoes through generations, reverberating between mothers and daughters. It is a moving chronicle of injustice, triumph and the unspeakable acts we commit in the name of love.

My thoughts:

Opening with a modern-day murder mystery, Garden of Stones is a rich, touching and poignant historical tale describing the fate of a Japanese-American girl caught up in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour and sent to the infamous Japanese internment camp near Manzanar, California, which will change her life and future forever.

Lucy Takeda is a pretty fourteen-year-old girl living in Los Angeles and mourning her recently deceased father when the bombing of Pearl Harbour takes place on December 7, 1941. Sharing the fate of over 120,000 other Japanese Americans, Lucy and her mother Miyako are forced to leave their home to be “relocated” to Manzanar, the first of the ten concentration camps to be established in the US to house these political prisoners. Having been born in America and growing up as the privileged single child of a wealthy American-Japanese businessman, Lucy is a Nisei, a person of Japanese ancestry born in America. She identifies strongly as American, like many other fellow camp inmates with similar backgrounds. Yet they are being treated like prisoners, having to endure harsh living conditions, a total lack of privacy and personal freedom, and being subject to abuse from senior camp officials.

Miyako, a strikingly beautiful woman who has been suffering from bouts of depression and mania as long as Lucy can remember, is finding life in the camp especially hard, often staying in bed for days. Left to her own devices, spirited and proactive Lucy soon adapts to her new circumstances and unjust internment, making friends and holding down an after-school position as delivery person in the camp. But when Miyako starts a new job and catches the eye of a cruel and corrupt camp commander, their lives change for the worse. Abused, beaten and broken, Miyako tries to save her daughter from the same fate, committing an act of desperation that will forever shadow Lucy’s future and shape her life in ways she could never have envisaged.

Garden of Stones is one of the best books I have read all year, presenting yet another completely different aspect of the effects of WW2 on members of the population. With a keen insight into historical events and human relationships, the author brings this era of history to life in ways that drew me in completely, keeping me spellbound until the last page had been turned. It is impossible not to suffer with Lucy, a plucky, intelligent and spirited child, whose life is completely derailed by large political events as well as corruption and cruelty on a local level. Camp life is realistically portrayed in a way which allowed the reader to see it through the eyes of an adolescent girl and feel the effects of the imposed hardship on Lucy’s personality, making her stronger and more resistant to adversity.

Misadventure seems to follow her mother Miyako, drawn in by her exceptional beauty and her damaged psyche.

“I am cursed”, Miyako confides to her friend when Lucy’s safety is also threatened, “We are both cursed. I should never have had her.” 

Careful not to throw in any spoilers, I will just say that Miyako’s act of desperation to save her daughter from the “curse” is so extreme, and so unimaginable, that I reeled from the shock of it and put much of it down to Miyako’s fragile state of mind. Surely no mother in her right mind would go to such extremes – or would they? It is hard to fathom the despair of someone cornered, trying everything in their power to protect their child.

Lucy makes a wonderful protagonist, and my heart bled for her. Getting back up again after every knock, overcoming every hardship, Lucy is a person I admired greatly. Yet the older Lucy, who the reader is introduced to in the modern-day segments of the story, seems to have lost a lot of that unlimited positive energy and resilience that defines her in her youth. Only towards the end of the novel the reader is able to understand just how deeply her mother’s “curse” has affected her, shaping her life and robbing her of the future that should have been due to her young and beautiful self.

The dual-time structure of the novel worked well for me, with the modern-day murder mystery initiating the tale of Lucy’s childhood experiences. The historical events form the larger part of the novel, but its modern day components add depth to the characters and slowly reveal the mystery at the heart of the story - which ultimately solves the murder case and reveals much about the characters involved. Lucy’s daughter Patty, so different to the young Lucy we get to know, stays a bit of an enigma all along, but the series of events towards the end of the book provides the big “aha”-moment, bringing all loose threads together.

For me, Garden of Stones was an evocative, thought provoking and heart-wrenching tale of injustice, suffering, human relationships and the triumph of the human spirit. The story opened my eyes to a part of history I had given little thought to, and its haunting tale will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended!

Disclaimer: Thank you to Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Monday 7 January 2013

Book Review: AWAKENING by S. J. Bolton


Title: Awakening [Kindle Edition]
Author: S. J. Bolton
Publisher: Transworld Digital (April 23, 2009)
Read: Jan 01 - Jan 04 2013 on kindle

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An idyllic village is thrown into ­turmoil in the startling, heart-racing new thriller from the author of Sacrifice.

How did it all begin? I suppose it would be the day I rescued a new-born baby from a poisonous snake, heard the news of my mother’s death and encountered my first ghost . . .

Veterinary surgeon Clara Benning is young and intelligent, but practically a recluse. Disfigured by a childhood accident, she lives alone and shies away from human contact whenever possible. But when a man dies following a supposed snake bite, the victim’s post mortem shows a higher concentration of venom than could ever be found in a single snake.

Assisted by her softly spoken neighbour, and an eccentric reptile expert, Clara unravels sinister links to a barbaric ancient ritual, an abandoned house and a fifty-year-old tragedy that left the survivors fiercely secretive. Then the village’s inventive attacker strikes again, and Clara’s own solitary existence is brutally invaded.

For someone the truth must remain buried in the past — even if they have to kill to keep it there.

My thoughts:

No wonder The Times dubbed S.J. Bolton the “high priestess of rural gothic crime” after this novel was published – “Awakening” is an atmospheric, eerie, original and well-plotted mystery which kept me enthralled until the very last page. What better way to start the new year with such an excellent read!

Clara Benning, a young veterinarian disfigured in a horrific childhood accident, is living as a virtual recluse in a small village in Dorset, preferring the company of animals to that of her human counterparts. Her expertise and knowledge of reptiles prompts the local hospital to ask for Clara’s help when a local man dies from what initially looks like a snake bite, but turns into suspicious circumstances when blood tests reveal unusually high doses of lethal snake venom in his blood. The same morning Clara is asked to rescue a baby from a venomous snake curled up in her cot, and other snakes are being spotted in various households around the neighbourhood, including a deadly tropical taipan not native to the area. With villagers panicking and law enforcement trying to track down the cause of the sightings, Clara gets drawn further and further into the investigation into the mysterious happenings around town. With the help of a local policeman and a famous herpetologist, Clara conducts her own enquiries into the snake sightings, and discovers a possible link to events which occurred in the village over fifty years ago. As she draws closer to solving the mystery, Clara herself must be careful not to become the next victim.

With Clara Benning the author has created a fresh and interesting protagonist, whose knowledge of all creatures great and small provides fascinating background information to this creepy (crawly) mystery. With insight and compassion Bolton introduces a heroine who is so mentally and physically scarred that she has been avoiding human contact most of her life. As Clara gets drawn into helping solve the mysterious happenings in the village, she also slowly emerges from her self-imposed exile, growing as a person and finding that forgiveness and love may be possible for her after all. As Clara uncovers old mysteries, she also discovers truths about herself, and it was heart-warming to see her come out of her shell and grow as a person as the novel progresses.

If you are an ophiophobic you may disagree, but I found the facts about snakes and snake venom contained in this book utterly fascinating. Living in Australia, snakes are a constant presence in my life, though luckily none quite as deadly as the exotic taipan described in “Awakening”. To use snake venom – linked to an old ritual – as a murder weapon must be one of the most original plots of a murder / mystery I have read in a long time. My favourite part was when Clara walks through a field in the middle of the night and witnesses the following scene:

“Snakes … dozens of them … maybe hundreds. They were rippling through the long grass like ribbons flowing from a child’s streamer. Their bodies gleamed slick and wet, shining in the moonlight. They moved over the land with a collective purpose, a common goal, driven by an instinct I could never begin to understand. It was a grass snake swarm.[…]”

Apart from the very likeable plucky Clara, the novel swarms with other strange or slightly eccentric characters, including the Steve Irwin like herpetologist Sean North, who shares Clara’s love of reptiles. There are also some ghostly apparitions and damp haunted mansions on full-moon nights, adding an extra creep-factor to the story. Rural gothic crime indeed – I loved it, and would eagerly read more of the same genre!

“Awakenings” worked much better for me than Sacrifice, partly because for me Clara was a much more likeable protagonist – so I would highly recommend starting with it if you have never read any S. J. Bolton books. I will certainly be looking for more books from this author.