Thursday 28 March 2019

Book Review: THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon

Author: Jennifer McMahon
Publisher: Doubleday
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: 30 April 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Times best-selling author of THE WINTER PEOPLE, returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don't simply move into a haunted house, they start building one from scratch, without knowing it, until it's too late...

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home - wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks -- she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie's descendants, three generations of "Breckenridge women," each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day.

My musings - ALERT - some mild spoilers included, read at own risk:

Spooky mysteries – love them? Hate them? Personally, a good haunting is always a bonus for me, and I can rarely resist the temptation to pick up a mystery that promises just that.

Professional couple Helen and Nate have decided to leave their jobs and city home for a more quiet life in the country. After looking for the perfect house and coming up empty, they settle for a few acres near a small Vermont town to build their own dream home. Helen, whose job of teaching history has given her appreciation for local legends, is overjoyed to learn that their land had been home to a local woman, Hattie Breckenridge, who was hanged as a witch at the turn of the century. Intrigued, she tries to find out more about her. But when does interest become obsession? Soon Helen is relentless in her quest, and even starts collecting items that once belonged to the family to include in her own home to honour Hattie’s memory. When things start to go bump in the night she is beginning to wonder – is Hattie trying to reach out from the grave to communicate with her?

My favourite part of the book was its atmospheric setting in the marshland surrounding Nate and Helen’s property, which once housed the infamous Hattie’s cottage. When a ghostly white doe starts making an appearance, I thought – yes, this is heading in the right direction of spookiness for me! However, people less fond of eerie vibes that make you keep your lights on at night will be pleased that this did not turn out to be a scary book after all. Yes, there are a few ghostly appearances, and some unexplained events, but I was not overly spooked. Sadly. So if you are looking for horror or some serious scare factor ratings, then this may not be the right book for you. Instead, McMahon has delivered a light, character driven mystery with some ghostly elements that connect the present with another mystery from the past.

My take on it: THE INVITED was a pleasant and easy read, but it desperately lacked the menace, suspense and spookiness that I had hoped to find here. At times, I felt that the author was trying too hard to make her paranormal elements work, and the hauntings by the mysterious Hattie fell totally flat for me. I much prefer a tense atmosphere and mysterious, unexplained events to dubious “sightings” of a ghost. Why Hattie’s ghost should choose Helen as her medium rather than some of the other characters that were more convincible contenders also remained a mystery to me. And where were the subtle hints of menace and danger to our protagonists? I felt that the setting had so much more to offer, but it never really eventuated for me. As for the modern day mystery, I had the villain worked out as soon as they entered the stage, even though my Sherlock armchair detective skills are usually only a 4-5/10 at the best of times. Hattie, who had true potential to be intriguing and complex, and who initially drew me into the story, never made a repeat appearance, which was disappointing.


All in all, THE INVITED will appeal to readers who appreciate a lighter mystery with some paranormal elements that won’t give them nightmares, focusing more on family secrets and a connection to a historical figure that all overlap nicely with present day events. If you are looking to be scared out of your mind, then this probably isn’t the book to do it. I enjoyed THE INVITED as a quick entertaining read but it did not live up to the promise of a spooky thriller for me.

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

Monday 25 March 2019

Book review: THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See

Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Scribner
Read: February 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

My musings:

I was first introduced to Lisa See’s writing through THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, which was one of my favourite books read in 2017. So imagine my delight and anticipation when I was granted an ARC of her latest book THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN from Edelweiss!

I admit that I knew very little (i.e. nothing) of Jeju’s history, the little Korean island that is home to our two main characters. In the 1930s, when Mi-ja and Young-sook were little girls, the island was quite unique for its matriarchic society. It fell to the women to provide an income through diving, whilst the men raised the children, did the housework and tended to the gardens. Young-sook’s mother was one of the head “haenyeo” on the island, teaching the younger women to dive - how to hold their breaths, how to read the ocean and how to stay alive in this dangerous occupation. “A woman is not meant for the household!” she said to her daughter. It’s a fascinating culture and much too complex to explain here, but See does a great job in making her haenyeo characters come to life. We meet Mi-ja and Young-sook when they are mere “baby divers” starting out on their journey, and accompany them through their whole lives into old age. And what tragic, heartbreaking lives they lived! I had no idea of the terrible history of the island when I started reading this book.

I loved See’s descriptions of island life and the culture of the haenyeo, and the story drew me in very quickly. In my review of THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE I reflected: “See seamlessly blends facts and fiction, educating the armchair traveller as the story progresses and adding depth to her characters.” At the start of the story, this was also the case here, and I was transported very quickly into Mi-ja and Young-sook’s world. However, maybe because of the long time-span covered in this book (a whole lifetime), I felt that after the girls had been married off to their respective husbands and had children of their own, I lost connection with the two main characters. Perhaps it was also due to the fact that the story moved along very quickly at that point, and focused very strongly on political events, but I had the impression that See was keeping her characters at arms’ length and that the personal stories got lost along the way.

Saying that, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN is a meticulously researched book, and See’s knowledge of Korea’s history and the haenyeo culture shines through from beginning to end. See is not afraid to include some graphic scenes from horrendous massacres on the island, as seen through the eyes of her characters, which I had been totally ignorant of. Interwoven with these historical events is the friendship bond between the two women, which will be put to the test when they are confronted with an impossible choice in a life-or-death situation. Personally, I would have preferred if the story had focused on Mi-ja and Young-sook when they were unmarried girls working as haenyeo, and I never tired of the descriptions of haenyeo culture and lifestyle, which were fascinating. I interrupted my reading several times to look up photos and facts about the haenyeo, which gave me a vivid picture of the island women. I felt the timeline in the present a lot less immersive, and caught myself skipping some parts to get back to the past.


All in all, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN read like a strange hybrid between fiction and non-fiction for me. At times, it was like receiving a history lesson, making it more of an educational experience for me than an emotional one, which was ok, but I had hoped to have more of my heart involved than my brain. Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate See’s extensive knowledge not only of the history of the island, but also of haenyeo culture, which was fascinating. I strongly recommend visiting the author’s website where she shares some links to photos and footage of haenyeo women.

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

Saturday 23 March 2019

Book Review: THE STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiths

Author: Elly Griffiths
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

From the author of the beloved Ruth Galloway series, a modern gothic mystery for fans of Magpie Murders and The Lake House.

Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. A high school English teacher specializing in the Gothic writer R. M. Holland, she teaches a course on it every year. But when one of Clare’s colleagues and closest friends is found dead, with a line from R. M. Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her life collide with the storylines of her favourite literature.

To make matters worse, the police suspect the killer is someone Clare knows. Unsure whom to trust, she turns to her closest confidant, her diary, the only outlet she has for her darkest suspicions and fears about the case. Then one day she notices something odd. Writing that isn't hers, left on the page of an old diary: "Hallo, Clare. You don’t know me."

Clare becomes more certain than ever: “The Stranger” has come to terrifying life. But can the ending be rewritten in time?

My musings:

"Hell is empty and all the devils are here."

An atmospheric Gothic setting in an old school building that is rumoured to house a ghost? A literary inception (book within a book) element? Some gruesome murders with cryptic notes that have the police puzzled?

Yes, yes, YES! *clapping my hands together in excitement and jumping up and down*

It’s true – this book has it all – but wait, there is more! I am incredulous that I have never read any books by Elly Griffiths before, because this one had all the elements I enjoy in a good thriller. It starts with an excerpt of The Stranger, a novella by classical author R.M. Holland, featuring a stranger telling a story to another passenger on a train as they ride through the dark night. It’s creepy, and it’s menacing, and it had me hooked immediately like a hapless little fish flapping around on the end of the line. This story may not be the main plot, but its theme flavoured the rest of the story and cast its dark shadow over it. Just the way I like it!

The rest of the book is being told through three POVs: Clare, an English teacher at Talgarth High School whose best friend Ella gets murdered very early in the story; her daughter Georgie; and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective investigating Ella’s death. Each of the three women are well-rounded and intriguing characters with complex backstories and secrets to hide that may – or may not – make them unreliable narrators. I especially enjoyed the character of DS Kaur, whose different cultural background added a lot more depth to the storyline than in many other police procedurals.

Another favourite of mine was the setting, which was so atmospheric and creepy that it almost featured as another character in the story. Talgarth High, the setting of much of the story, is an old brownstone building that was once home to R.M Holland, the author of the famous story The Stranger and its infamous quote: “hell is empty”, which featured prominently in the spate of murders to follow. The building also has its own resident ghost, the White Lady, who has been spotted by many townsfolk and is believed to herald an imminent death. This particular ghost will soon have her work cut out for her, when the bodies mount up!


All in all, this was just such a delicious read for me. Murders inspired by a classical gothic novel, an old English schoolhouse setting with its own resident ghost, a white witch, ghostly scribbles in a diary and a detective who must solve the puzzle before more lives are lost. My highlight was to be able to read R.M. Holland’s novella The Stranger in its entirety at the end of the book, which left me duly spooked and thoroughly satisfied.  THE STRANGER DIARIES  was a perfect blend of gothical, suspense and police procedural with a touch of the supernatural, based on a (fictional) classical tale. It was clever, engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t wait to read more from this author in future.

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

If you enjoyed both the gothic element in this story as well as the "book within a book" theme, then I strongly urge you to pick up:

The Weight of Lies The Weight of Lies by Emily Carpenter

Friday 22 March 2019

Book Review: THE SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides

Author: Alex Michaelides
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.

Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him.... 

My musings:

The hype finally got the better of me! I know I’m late to the party, but I admit that I really enjoyed this twisty thriller just like the rest of you.

You’ve all read the blurb and to be honest, the less you know of the story the better. I instantly found the premise of a woman locked up in a mental institution for the criminally insane for brutally murdering her husband very intriguing. There is something about the term “institution” that brings up black and white images of horrendous Victorian asylums with bars in front of dark windows dripping with rain and mirroring the open-mouthed gapes of inmates locked away for eternity. On that note, I loved that the author did not buy into those type of stereotypes when portraying the psychiatric facility where Alicia is being held but gave us a much more modern, realistic version. Facing the imminent threat of being closed down due to a lack of funding, its team of staff are desperate to do the best for their patients despite budget cuts and constant restraints by management, who focus on the business side of things rather than the patients. Working in a hospital myself, I found this aspect to be true to real life, even though there is some journalistic licence used for the sake of entertainment and making the story work. Overall, I was happy with the author’s portrayal of the facility and its therapists, which added an unusual angle to the book I really enjoyed.

I also really like the idea of delving into the human psyche, so an MC who is a psychologist or psychotherapist always draws me in, especially if they are emotionally damaged themselves. THE SILENT PATIENT really delivered on that front, as psychotherapist Theo Faber is trying to delve into the mind of the “silent patient”, Alicia Berenson, in an effort to help her remember the events of the night of her husband’s murder. Or so he says. I assume that, as for any detective revisiting an old unsolved case, there is a certain professional arrogance at play here, to prove that you can succeed where others have failed. But you will have to read for yourself to see whether that is the case here or not. Let me just say that over the course of the book we get as much of an insight into Theo’s psyche than that of Alicia, which added depth and set this mystery apart from many others in the genre.

I really enjoyed the clue-by-clue chapters as Theo tries to find out what happened the night of Alicia’s husband’s brutal death, partly through his sessions with her and partly from his own private  investigations into her life (which probably break every rule in the book about his scope of practice, but never mind that). Alicia is a complex and fascinating character, made all the more intriguing because she refuses to talk and defend herself. Which is the main element that drives the story – since Alicia remains a silent presence, we, the readers, are just as much in the dark about her past as Theo. Until ... ok, again I won’t give anything away. Just read it!

I was so engrossed in the audiobook that the ending snuck up on me all too quickly. To be honest, I did have an inkling of what was to happen, but thought I must be wrong, because surely the book couldn’t be ending yet, I was having way too much fun. And I’m normally not the best armchair Sherlock, so it took me by surprise when I was right. I must be reading way too many thrillers to see that one coming! However,  even if you are the type of reader who favours a “killer twist”, most reviewers have admitted to being gobsmacked by the final reveal, so this was obviously just a fluke rather than real detective skill on my part (I won’t give up my day job quite yet). I loved the way the author wrapped up the ending, which was just right and very satisfying.  


All in all, the whole psychotherapy angle is what drove this story for me and which made it a page-turner, as I was eager to see where Alicia’s therapy would lead to. The problem with a well-announced “killer twist” is that you start to expect the unexpected, which was the case here for me. That said, there probably isn’t a twist that hasn’t been done before in some book, some other time, so I’m not one to hold a grudge. Overall, THE SILENT PATIENT was an extremely entertaining, fast-paced story for me, and I don’t hesitate to recommend it to readers who love psychological thrillers that delve into the human psyche and don’t mind slightly unorthodox MCs.

If you liked the psychotherapy angle of this story, you may also enjoy:

Blue Monday The Frieda Klein series by Nicci French

Suspect The Joseph O'Loughlin series by Michael Robotham

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Book Review: THE NIGHT OLIVIA FELL by Christina McDonald

Author: Christina McDonald
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

In the small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother ever wants to get: her teenage daughter Olivia has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain dead, she's pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the angry bruises circling Olivia's wrists.

When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia's fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter's life. Was Olivia's fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?

Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother's love. With flashbacks of Olivia's own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: how well do you know your children? And how well do they know you?

My musings:

Well, this one will definitely go on my list of “books that made me cry”. It’s not a long list, and kudos to any author who can elicit such strong emotions in her readers that quite a few people in our group read admitted to shedding a few tears.

It starts with a parent’s worst nightmare. Abi Knight is woken in the middle of the night by a phone call advising her that her daughter Olivia is in hospital on life support after a fall from a bridge and is not expected to survive. But that can’t be right – Olivia is right in the next room, safely tucked into her bed. Isn’t she?

I admit I was hooked pretty much from this point onwards, and appreciated the 3.5 hour plane flight that enabled me to devour this book in one massive read-a-thon that left me in tears. Yes, there also is the mystery of who really was responsible for Olivia’s fatal fall, but to be totally honest, this was not the focus of the book for me. Anyone in the long line of suspects could have been guilty, and it would not have changed the gut wrenching truth that a beautiful young life had been lost. As the story slowly unfolds through Abi’s POV in the present, trying to come to terms with the loss of her daughter and searching for the truth, we also hear from Olivia’s POV starting in the past and exploring the events leading up to her fall.

McDonald explores so many interesting and emotional themes in her book. How well do we know our children? How well do we know our parents? As both Abi and Olivia tell us their versions of the story, it becomes obvious that their realities are quite different and that each is hiding things from the other. Abi, who is always questioning her ability to be a good mother and to protect Olivia from harm, has a strong sense of guilt and failure that accompanies her grief. How did she not realise that Olivia was in trouble? McDonald also throws out this interesting question: do you prefer happiness or truth?

I loved the soul-searching journey each and every character embarks on in this thought-provoking book and am so happy that I read it as a group read with the wonderful Travelling Friends. Our discussion added so much more to this book, and brought up some challenging questions and truths that may otherwise have got lost in translation. I highly recommend reading this book with a friend or a group to be able to talk about it – from its moral and ethical dilemmas to its hidden, simple questions in life. There was a depth to this story not often found in other mysteries, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I have read quite a few thrillers in the recent past that featured teenage voices, and I admit that I am very picky and easily underwhelmed with books that get this element wrong. So I am very happy to say that Olivia did not fall into that category. Whilst her chapters truthfully reflect the teenage voice, I always felt that I could relate to her thoughts, be it through raising my own teenagers or memories of my far distant teenage years. It was the contrast of Olivia’s thoughts to Abi’s impressions of her daughter that I found especially thought provoking.

I could go on and on discussing this book and am grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in a Q & A with the author to discuss some aspects of the story that affected me on a personal level. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller, then this one may not be the right book for you. However, readers who love character driven and emotionally charged narratives with the additional bonus of a mystery at the heart of the story will enjoy this one! I would also fully recommend it for a book club read, as it made for the most wonderful and deep & meaningful discussions. A wonderful debut – I look forward to reading more from this author in future!

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Book Review: BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM by Peter Swanson

Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: William Morrow
Read: March 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating:  🌟🌟🌟🌟

Book Description:

Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.

But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.

Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?

My musings:

Peter Swanson’s thriller THE KIND WORTH KILLING is one of my all-time favourite thrillers, so I was very interested to find out what he has in store for us with his latest book BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM, which came out earlier this month.

The premise is very intriguing: Hen and Lloyd are invited to dinner at their new neighbours’ house to welcome them to the neighbourhood. During a tour of the house, Hen spies a fencing trophy on a shelf in the home office. It bears an uncanny resemblance to an item that belonged to a young man who had been brutally murdered in their old neighbourhood. What makes it even more suspicious is that Matthew, her neighbour, works at the school the murder victim attended at the time. Curious, Hen asks about the trophy and is fobbed off with the flippant explanation that Matthew had acquired the item at a garage sale. But Hen doesn’t believe in coincidences. All her alarm bells are jingling. When the trophy has gone from the shelf at her next visit to the house, she is convinced that Matthew was somehow involved in the murder. Could he even be the killer?

Swanson is a master at character development and straight away we know that Hen is not the most reliable narrator. Suffering from bipolar disorder and with a history of psychotic episodes, her claims that her neighbour may be a murderer are instantly dismissed by those around her. Even as the reader, I was often questioning her actions, which seemed impulsive and often downright dangerous. However, with Hen Swanson gives us a well rounded, multi-layered character whose history of mental illness is well portrayed and who drove the story for me. I would really love to see Hen’s artwork, which sounded as intriguing as her character herself. I soon found out that each and every person in the novel had something to hide. In usual Swanson style, I hence embarked on a rollercoaster ride of a series of “unfortunate events” engendered by our cast of dysfunctional people.

I think that Swanson’s talent lies in making even his most dysfunctional characters likeable. It is hard to explain how much I rooted for the murderous Lily in THE KIND WORTH KILLING  without sounding like a psychopath myself, but I freely admit that I really liked her. Similarly, despite the events unfolding in his latest book, I found all characters strangely compelling. Except perhaps for one. With good reason, as I later found out. But I am not giving any more away here! Fans of the author will be pleased that his latest book is not only clever and original, but also contains the hallmark twists that mark his earlier works. You may need some slight suspension of disbelief to fully buy the whole story, but it’s fiction, right?

I admit that this book started off a bit more slowly than I had expected and it took me a little while to find my feet. However, by about the 20% mark I knew that I was going to be in for a treat, and was not disappointed.

All in all, if you like dark twisted thrillers driven by a cast of dysfunctional characters, than this one is definitely for you.

Thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Monday 11 March 2019

Book Review: HOME FIRES by Fiona Lowe

Title: Home Fires
Author: Fiona Lowe
Publisher: HQ Fiction
Read: February 2019
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

When a lethal bushfire tore through Myrtle, nestled in Victoria's breathtaking Otway Ranges, the town's buildings - and the lives of its residents - were left as smouldering ash. For three women in particular, the fire fractured their lives and their relationships.

Eighteen months later, with the flurry of national attention long past, Myrtle stands restored, shiny and new. But is the outside polish just a veneer? Community stalwart Julie thinks tourism could bring back some financial stability to their little corner of the world and soon prods Claire, Bec and Sophie into joining her group. But the scar tissue of trauma runs deep, and as each woman exposes her secrets and faces the damage that day wrought, a shocking truth will emerge that will shake the town to its newly rebuilt foundations...

My musings:

I'm usually a thriller girl through and through, but when I'm on holidays I often crave a lighter, feel-good read. Lucky for me, HQ Fiction came to the rescue with this bookmail just before our last trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it whilst lying on a tropical island beach!

Home Fires tells the story of three women from a small community in Victoria's Otway ranges in the aftermath of a devastating bush fire that cost many lives and properties. 18 months later, the townsfolk are still struggling, trying to rebuild their lives. Each of the women have been affected by the fire in ways that left them feeling trapped. Claire, who lost both her parents in the fire and is aware of her new in-laws' constant disapproval of her, which causes friction in her marriage. Bec, whose husband was injured and disfigured in the fire, robbing her of any chance she may have had to leave her unhappy marriage. And Sophie, who had to assume the role of breadwinner when their house burned down and her husband lost his job. When these women join a project to help rebuild their community, there may be a chance of healing for each of them as well.

Lowe presents us with a rich cast of relatable and true to life characters that drove this story for me. I loved her insightful portrayal of a community in the aftermath of a disaster, which I can relate to very well, having lived through a similar event when our kids were little. It's the closest I've ever felt to death and some of the emotions Lowe describes brought back some powerful memories. It is also a very current and seasonal topic in Australia, with the reality of fires in various regions of this vast country raging as we speak. Lowe has done her research and has allowed her characters to speak out for the many victims of these natural disasters, who will have to live with the scars of their experiences and the aftermath of loss and devastation. I know from personal experience that this can make or break a community, which is also reflected in the story, as the group of women actively try to get the small township of Myrtle back on its feet.

One thing I particularly enjoyed is that Lowe also describes the feelings of women who have moved to Myrtle after the fires, and who are now living with the giant elephant in the room, always feeling like outsiders and afraid to “say the wrong thing” that may trigger bad memories for those who have lived through the tragedy.

Women’s fiction is not a genre I generally gravitate towards, but Lowe’s great story telling and her true-to-life characters made this one an enjoyable experience for me, and one that would make for many great discussion points. Whilst I felt that it was overall a feel-good read that did not focus on the tragedy of the fires but on the healing journey of each character involved, there are many topical issues that gave food for thought: PTSD, domestic violence, gender stereotypes ( in various guises), and the way people react to a tragedy – amongst others.  Lowe writes well, the story flows seamlessly and all characters are relatable and well-rounded, with personal backstories that add depth to this novel. Whilst I think that female readers will feel more drawn to the story than men, everyone wanting to get a realistic snapshot of community spirit and life in rural Australia may find that this book is exactly what they are looking for.

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

Thursday 7 March 2019

Book Review: RASH by Lisa Kusel

Title: RASH
Author: Lisa Kusel
Publisher: WiDo Publishing
Read: February 2019
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Writer Lisa Kusel, while living comfortably in her California home, feels an unsettling lack of personal contentment. When she sees a job posting for a new international school in Bali, she convinces her schoolteacher husband Victor to apply.

Six weeks after his interview, Lisa, Victor, and their six-year-old daughter, Loy, move halfway around the world to paradise. But instead of luxuriating in ocean breezes, renewed passion, and first-rate schooling, what Lisa and her family find are burning corpses, biting ants, and a millionaire founder who cares more about selling bamboo furniture than educating young minds. Not to mention Lisa’s fear that one morning she might see the Dengue Fever rash on her young daughter.

RASH is an unfiltered, sharply-written memoir about a woman who goes looking for happiness on the Island of the Gods, and nearly destroys her marriage in the process. For anyone who has ever dreamed of starting over in an exotic locale, this is a poignant reminder that no matter where you go, there you are.

My musings:

I don’t normally read a lot of memoirs. Lisa Kusel’s book Rash made me reevaluate that choice, because there is something infinitely touching about someone sharing their life story with you, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. As I laughed, cringed and shuddered my way through Lisa’s honest and vivid account of her year in Bali, I related on many levels to her story. For us, the thing that would fix all of life’s problems was a three-year stint travelling around Australia in a caravan with two kids under five. I wish that I could be sitting around the campfire with Lisa and compare notes, because what a laugh that would be!

Who would give up the comfort of their life in California, uproot the whole family and move to a little tropical island in Indonesia? Someone looking for a change. Change is good, right? A change of scenery may even fill that hole of chronic discontent in our heart that niggles that there must be more to life. So when Lisa found an advert looking for teachers to help set up an innovative new school in the tropical rainforest of Bali, it was like a dream come true. Her husband Victor applied for the job, and soon the whole family set off to embark on their new adventure.  But life is usually not that simple, and Lisa and her family soon find out that their tropical paradise is not what it was supposed to be.

I loved Lisa’s candid writing style, her self-deprecating humour and her warts-and-all approach in describing her “seachange”. There are no enlightened moments with Balinese medicine men or serene rides through lush rainforest on an old-fashioned bicycle to the gentle tinkle of windchimes. Instead, her days are spent squashing giant killer ants that threaten to carry off her daughter in the middle of the night, hiding under layers of netting to escape swarms of dengue infected mosquitoes and scraping thick mould off bamboo furniture and walls to the deafening sounds of gamelan music as she is reflecting on her crisis-stricken marriage. There were quite a few funny moments, too, like Lisa’s standoff with a protective male monkey, which I related to from our own personal experiences in Bali – I never forget the time when my husband tried to fend off the fang-bearing killer monkey with his thong (the flip-flop kind, not the underwear) whilst his womenfolk fled in panic. Lisa, if you had indeed spent some time in Kuta with those beer-swilling Aussie rugby teams you may have learned some life-saving thong combat action!

Whilst Lisa spends many lonely, miserable days in the country she had hoped would be the answer to all her problems, she reflects on the eat-pray-love phenomenon and questions herself on her lack of Gilbertian enlightenment. Having been to Bali I can see that living in a rather basic bamboo hut in the middle of the Balinese rainforest without some of the conveniences we take for granted would look a lot more serene in a movie (or the Green School advertising clip I found on Youtube) than in real life. I appreciated Lisa’s honesty as she shared her struggles every step of the way, and the way her Western views regularly clashed with the different cultural practices she is faced with in her new home. Her inner probings to explore her capacity for unhappiness are relevant in our society today and made for some reflection on my part whilst I was reading her honest account. I have read somewhere before that characters in books never seem to eat or pee – well, Lisa has it all in her book, which makes it all the more relatable! What also made this book speak to me is that I knew most of the places Lisa talked about in her story – we may even have aooommmmhed on neighbouring yoga mats during a yoga session at the Ubud Yoga Barn without realising it. 


All in all, Lisa Kusel’s memoir is a poignant account of a woman searching for happiness and contentment in a far away land, only to find that all her problems have followed her. Written with honesty and humour, Rash will appeal to everyone who has ever dreamed of escaping it all. I hope that Lisa and her family have found contentment in their new life in Vermont and that the year in Bali is but a distant memory that ultimately brought them closer together. If nothing else, it made for a damn good read!

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

Tuesday 5 March 2019

Book Review: THE LAST WOMAN IN THE FOREST by Diane Les Becquets

Author: Diane Les Becquets
Publisher: Berkley
Read: February 2019
Expected publication: 5 March 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

Marian EngstrΓΆm has found her true calling: working with rescue dogs to help protect endangered wildlife. Her first assignment takes her to northern Alberta, where she falls in love with her mentor, the daring and brilliant Tate. After they’re separated from each other on another assignment, Marian is shattered to learn of Tate’s tragic death. Worse still is the aftermath in which Marian discovers disturbing inconsistencies about Tate’s life, and begins to wonder if the man she loved could have been responsible for the unsolved murders of at least four women.

Hoping to clear Tate’s name, Marian reaches out to a retired forensic profiler who’s haunted by the open cases. But as Marian relives her relationship with Tate and circles ever closer to the truth, evil stalks her every move.…

My musings:

I love nothing more than a wild, remote setting, so as soon as I read the synopsis of The Last Woman in the Forest I knew I had to read it!

Whilst the story is primarily a mystery centering around the unsolved murders of four young women in Stillwater, Montana, it also has a huge armchair travel component to the remote forests and mountains in northern Alberta, where our main protagonist Marian EngstrΓΆm is working as part of a project to protect endangered wildlife. It is here that she meets and falls in love with her mentor, the mysterious Tate. She is devastated to learn that Tate has died in a gruesome attack by a brown bear whilst on another assignment. Trying to come to terms with her grief and in an effort to consolidate some aspects about the stories Tate has told her about himself, she is looking deeper into her dead lover’s life – only to come to a terrifying conclusion: could Tate have been involved in the murders of the Stillwater victims?

As soon as I started reading, the author’s love for her chosen setting became obvious as I was instantly teleported into a wintry forest landscape where bears, moose and caribou roamed and humans were at the mercy of the elements. I loved the way Les Becquets brings this setting to life – this really was armchair travel of the best kind! I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author is an avid outdoors enthusiast, because her descriptions were vivid and beautiful – and at times terrifying! I also loved her knowledge on how to train rescue dogs, who were involved in Marian’s research projects. Any dog lover will appreciate the little snippets of observations on dog behaviour and training that run throughout the entire storyline.

Whilst the setting immediately drew me in, the mystery part of the story did not work so well for me. I am putting this down mainly to the structure of the story, which rolls out in two separate timelines told in Marian’s POV as well as short chapters introducing each of the female murder victims and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. Then there are the chapters from the POV of retired forensic profiler Nick, who is helping Marian with her investigations into Tate’s life. I felt that some important information was withheld until close to the halfway mark, which would have explained Marian’s suspicions and made her character more accessible for me. I felt that the author perhaps tried to pack too much into the story, resulting in showing rather than telling as she tried to deliver chunks of information instead of letting them play out. I also would have preferred some vivid dialogue rather than long rambling sentences summarising people’s conversations, which interrupted the story’s flow and always kept the character’s at arms’ length. Whilst the pacing was slow going in the first half of the book, I was happy to see that the author seemed to find her place in the second half, which delivered the aspects of the mystery so far lacking in the book.

Overall though I felt that suspense was lacking for me, despite a setting that practically cried out to be used for its full claustrophobic potential. Slow burning and character driven mysteries rely a lot on character development and underlying tension and suspense, which was missing here. So whilst I felt that the overall plot was original and clever, it did not live up to its full potential. A bit of editing would have done wonders here, by rearranging parts of the timeline, tidying up the story, chopping out huge chunks of back info that weren’t relevant and instead allowing a closer connection to the main characters.

I really enjoyed reading the afterword, in which the author explains what inspired her to write The Last Woman in the Forest and about her own life experiences. So, whilst this one didn’t quite work for me, I feel that the author has some great stories to tell and I look forward to reading more from her in future.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Berkley Publishing for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Book Review: THE NEXT TO DIE by Sophie Hannah

Author: Sophie Hannah
Publisher: William Morrow
Read: October 18
Expected publication: February 2019

Book Description:

What if having a best friend could put you in the crosshairs of a killer?

A psychopath the police have dubbed “Billy Dead Mates” is targeting pairs of best friends, and killing them one by one. Before they die, each victim is given a small white book.

For months, detectives have failed to catch Billy, or figure out what the white books symbolize and why the killer leaves them behind. The police are on edge; the public in a panic. Then a woman, scared by what she’s seen on the news, comes forward. What she reveals shocks the investigators and adds another troubling layer to an already complex case.

Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbeck has one of Billy’s peculiar little books. A stranger gave it to her at a gig she did last year. Was the stranger Billy, and is he targeting her—or is it something more nefarious? Kim has no friends and trusts no one, so how—and why—could Billy Dead Mates want to target her? If it’s not her, then who will be the next to die?

My musings:

I love books that feature unusual protagonists, so this one fitted right into that category. Kim Tribbeck is a stand-up comedian who, like most comedians, has a dark side, and some unusual quirks. I loved seeing the world through her POV, and she really drove the story for me.

The premise itself is intriguing – a serial killer is on the loose, targeting pairs of best friends. Who knew that friendship could be so deadly! Shortly before their deaths, each victim is given a small white book with a cryptic message that has police totally baffled. Watching the news, Kim remembers an incident a few months ago when an audience member of one of her shows had handed her a similar little book. Mystified, Kim had thrown it in the bin without understanding its implications. But how does Kim fit into this, when she doesn’t even have a best friend? In fact, Kim is a loner, having recently split from her husband, and she is estranged from her family. So what would Billy-Dead-Mates (which is what police have dubbed the killer – don’t you love it?) want with her? Could her life be in danger?

I really enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s latest book, especially the chapters narrated by Kim, who was such a quirky, fun character to get to know. Being a comedian, she comes out with the most hilarious cynical quips, and her observations are spot-on. Hannah tries to liven the book up by using different formats to tell her tale: there are excerpts from a manuscript Kim Tribbeck is writing about her life, emails, letters, “inspirational stories”, a newspaper column all interspersed with the more traditional first and third person narratives. There are also quite a number of different characters to keep track of! I initially found some of these threads a bit confusing, but was happy with the way it all came together in the end. I liken my reading experience to putting together a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle – initially all you see is a jumble of shapes, but when it all comes together there is a big collective sigh of “Ahhhh! Yes, I see it now!” – which was quite good fun! If anything, some parts of the investigation dragged slightly and could have done with some careful editing, but I was so intrigued that it never lost my interest. I didn’t realise that this book was part of the Spilling CID series, which I had not read before. Seeing how I really liked DC Simon Waterhouse and his wife Charlie, I may have to pick up earlier books in the series as well! 


All in all, The Next To Die was a slightly unusual but fun reading experience for me. I loved Kim’s character and would love to see her back in another book, realising that this is unlikely. If you are a reader who enjoys different narration styles and don’t mind getting taken along several plot-lines during the course of the story, then you will enjoy this one. The clever mystery at the core of it all was definitely worth the journey!

Thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Book Review: LITTLE DARLINGS by Melanie Golding

Author: Melanie Golding
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Read: January 2018
Expected publication: 30 April 2019
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ all the stars!

Book Description:

Everyone says Lauren Tranter is exhausted, that she needs rest. And they’re right; with newborn twins, Morgan and Riley, she’s never been more tired in her life. But she knows what she saw: that night, in her hospital room, a woman tried to take her babies and replace them with her own…creatures. Yet when the police arrived, they saw no one. Everyone, from her doctor to her husband, thinks she’s imagining things.

A month passes. And one bright summer morning, the babies disappear from Lauren’s side in a park. But when they’re found, something is different about them. The infants look like Morgan and Riley―to everyone else. But to Lauren, something is off. As everyone around her celebrates their return, Lauren begins to scream, These are not my babies.

Determined to bring her true infant sons home, Lauren will risk the unthinkable. But if she’s wrong about what she saw…she’ll be making the biggest mistake of her life.

Compulsive, creepy, and inspired by some our darkest fairy tales, Little Darlings will have you checking―and rechecking―your own little ones. Just to be sure. Just to be safe.

My musings:

If you like a creepy mystery, and Melanie Golding’s debut novel Little Darlings has not come to your attention yet, then I strongly advise you to put it on your reading list right now! There is nothing better than an urban myth to give a mystery that extra scary touch, and Golding has gone one step further and has found various old legend to back up her story. This creepy story had me utterly captivated, and even after finishing it I could not shake off a slight feeling of unease that lingered in my room. Aren’t those the mysteries of the best kind?

A young mother calls emergency services from the maternity ward of the local hospital claiming that someone had tried to steal her newborn twins, but noone believes her. A few weeks later, her babies go missing for a short period of time when their sleep deprived mother briefly nods off on a park bench whilst out walking. They are quickly located, but their mother is convinced that these are not her babies. Everyone thinks she is crazy, but is she?

I love mysteries where it is never clear if the MC is in fact a bit crazy, imagining all the creepy things that are going on, or if there is indeed something sinister at play. Little Darlings messed with my mind in the best possible way. Yes, there is a certain supernatural element that may seem far-fetched to some readers, but I found it utterly compelling. Especially the premise that Lauren is convinced her babies are in danger, but everyone thinks she is crazy. Imagine how terrifying and frustrating this must be! I still vividly remember the constant fog of tiredness I operated under after the birth of my first child, and how after weeks of sleep deprivation my mind started playing tricks on me. So is Lauren really just a bit paranoid? Her story does seem a bit far fetched ...

Golding knows how to plant a seed of doubt in the reader’s mind very early on, which resulted in a constant sense of menace and danger that made me snuggle deep under my covers and jump at every noise in the darkness out there. The chapter introductions, featuring some old legends and urban myths, only served to ratchet up tension as they lent an aura of mysticism to the story. I still remember sitting in my grandma’s kitchen as a child whilst the old women talked about such things. Perhaps this is why this story evoked such primal terror in me. Whatever it was, it really worked, and I am putting Little Darlings on my list of best eerie mysteries! Very highly recommended to anyone who loves a creepy folk tale wrapped into the folds of a compelling contemporary mystery as much as I do.

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