Tuesday 25 October 2022

Reading from my TBR pile: a hint of the supernatural


THE BOOK OF COLD CASES by Simone St. James


Only Simone St. James can strike exactly the right balance between a cold-case mystery and a ghost story, and I enjoyed both elements immensely. Shea Collins’ passion is crime, especially unsolved cases that still cast a shadow long after the media has lost interest. A medical receptionist by day, Shea spends her nights looking into unsolved murder cases on her true crime website “The Book of Cold Cases”. When she gets the opportunity to interview Beth Greer, the woman suspected of having committed Oregon’s infamous 1977 “Lady Killer Murders”, her excitement is hard to contain. Little does Shea know that the can of worms she is about to open will have far reaching consequences for both Beth as well as herself…


As is St James’ hallmark, her murder mystery was spiced with an old, haunted mansion and a very unforgiving ghost who does not take kindly to being disturbed. I loved the dynamics that developed between Beth and Shea and the way we slowly got to uncover each woman’s deepest secrets. I could never have predicted Beth’s!


The supernatural element added something unusual to this cold case mystery and set it apart from other crime novels on the market. It’s not easy striking just the right balance between reality and the otherworldly, but St James manages that just fine. Listening to the audio version with my noise cancelling headphones on made me become so engrossed in the story that I had goosebumps.


THE BOOK OF COLD CASES will appeal to readers who enjoy a solid murder mystery with a spicing of the otherworldly. There is a fair bit of ghostly activity going on here, so a little bit of suspension of disbelief is called for. I particularly enjoyed the haunted house setting, which St James does so well, and the time travel to the 1970’s. A perfect Halloween read!


GIRL IN ICE by Erica Ferencik

Ever since reading THE RIVER AT NIGHT, I have greedily devoured everything Erica Ferencik has written, and I was eagerly awaiting the publication of GIRL IN ICE. If you love a bleak, claustrophobic, remote setting, then it doesn’t get much better than this, because the author has chosen the Arctic Circle as the backdrop to her latest book.

Linguist Val Chesterfield is still mourning the tragic death of her scientist twin brother on a remote outpost in Greenland when she receives an intriguing invitation by her brother’s boss. A little girl has been found in the ice, and no one can understand her language. Would Val consider travelling to this remote place to see whether she can communicate with the child? Despite being terrified of travel, Val accepts, realising that this could be the opportunity to put some of her demons relating to her brother’s death to rest.

GIRL IN ICE turned out much darker than Ferencik’s previous books, offering a disquieting mix of genres, from mystery to suspense to speculative fiction with elements of horror that made my skin crawl. Aided by a claustrophobic setting and Val’s own demons, the story took on a decidedly sinister turn when it was disclosed that the little girl Val has travelled to see has been thawed out of the ice – alive. Whilst not exactly in the league of the zombie apocalypse, the hint at the “undead” and its implications, as well as other dystopian elements created a tense, foreboding setting that really got under my skin.

I just wish that I could have liked Val a bit more as a character. Whilst her anxieties and insecurities added an element of the unreliable character, I would have liked to see a strong lead tackling the sinister elements head-on, which may have added to the suspense rather then getting bogged down in Val’s thought processes. I am also finding that this trend of neurotic female characters who are medicating themselves is getting a bit tired. It reminded me of a novel I read earlier in the year, THE DARK (by Emma Haughton), with almost identical themes.

That said, the mystery of Sigrid and the remote setting kept me reading eagerly to find out the answers, and even though the ending was somewhat luke-warm, the overall reading experience was satisfying. Whilst this is not my favourite Ferencik book, it’s definitely worth grabbing when you’re in the mood for some armchair travel to a cold, remote and forbidding landscape that hides a sinister secret.




I’m not sure why I thought it would be a great idea to choose a spooky book for my weekend reading, because man, this story was bleak! True, it did deliver plenty of goosebumps on the spooky front, but I am struggling to find some sort of joy in life again after this hopeless, sad tale.

Twenty-five-year-old Elsie has narrowly escaped spinsterhood by marrying the handsome and enigmatic Rupert Bainbridge, only son and heir to a large country estate. Their life together is cruelly shattered by Rupert’s untimely (and extremely suspicious) death, seeing a pregnant Elsie travel to the country manor husbandless to take over the reigns of a resentful bunch of servants and villagers. As promised, the old mansion delivers all the haunted house tropes: a locked attic door hiding terrible secrets, an old nursery that comes to life only when Elsie enters, and a bunch of creepy wooden figurines termed the “silent companions”. After being haunted by these spectres, Elsie tries to find some answers in an old diary her cousin has unearthed in the attic, which may explain some of the bumps in the night. However, the house has not finished with Elsie yet …

I’m not quite sure how to rate this book. On one hand, it was deliciously spooky, with the silent companions popping up where you least expect them and making their menacing presence known. On the other hand, there were few rays of sunshine to be had, so take a good dose of anti-depressants before reading this one! Rupert is not the only one who bites the dust in this story, nor is his death the most gruesome of them all. And as for poor Elsie’s fate – well, I can’t give away any spoilers, but karma really has it in for this girl. I discovered that I like my spooks delivered with a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps I am just feeling fragile?

All in all, THE SILENT COMPANIONS will deliver if you love a spooky old mansion that oozes menace and tension out of every window. It also covers two separate timelines that come together to explain most (if not all) of the sinister happenings on the estate. But the book is best not attempted when you’re feeling low, because there is little hope left for any of its characters. Just be warned … A spooky, desolate read with Gothic vibes for the not-so-faint at heart.


Monday 17 October 2022

Book Review: ALL THAT’S LEFT UNSAID by Tracey Lien



Author:  Tracey Lien

Publisher:  Harlequin Australia

Read: July 2022

Expected publication: out now




Book Description:


Just let him go. These are the words Ky Tran will forever regret. The words she spoke when her parents called to ask if they should let her younger brother Denny out to celebrate his high school graduation with friends. That night, Denny—optimistic, guileless, brilliant Denny—is brutally murdered inside a busy restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, a refugee enclave facing violent crime, an indifferent police force, and the worst heroin epidemic in Australian history.

Returning home to Cabramatta for the funeral, Ky learns that the police are stumped by Denny’s case: a dozen people were at Lucky 8 restaurant when Denny died, but each of the bystanders claim to have seen nothing.

Desperately hoping that understanding what happened might ease her suffocating guilt, Ky sets aside her grief and determines to track down the witnesses herself. With each encounter, she peels back another layer of the place that shaped her and Denny, exposing trauma and seeds of violence that were planted well before that fateful celebration dinner: by colonialism, by the war in Vietnam, and by the choices they’ve all made to survive.

Alternating between Ky’s voice and the perspectives of the witnesses, Tracey Lien’s extraordinary debut is at once heart-pounding and heart-rending as it probes the intricate bonds of friendship, family, and community through an unforgettable cast of characters, all connected by a devastating crime. Combining evocative family drama and gripping suspense, All That’s Left Unsaid is a profound and moving page turner, perfect for readers of Liz Moore, Brit Bennett, and Celeste Ng

My musings:


ALL THAT’S LEFT UNSAID is one of those books that starts off as a mystery but then ends up being so much more, leaving you emotionally exhausted at the end of it. If a book haunts my thoughts long after I turned the last page, I know that it has struck some deep emotion with me somewhere.

Ky, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, returns to her childhood home in Cabramatta after the violent death of her younger brother Denny Tran, killed at a local restaurant. Even though the murder happened in front of dozens of witnesses, everyone claims not to have seen anything, and the police investigation has come to a dead end so far. Dealing with her own grief and the heartbreak Denny’s death has caused her parents, Ky starts asking questions – someone just had to have seen who killed her brother. So why is no one talking?

Even though ALL THAT’S LEFT UNSAID centres around a murder, it is more than just a mystery. In her debut novel, Lien explores what it’s like to be an immigrant in Australia – and to be the child of immigrant parents. It is also an exploration of grief and guilt that transcends race and culture – because parents grieving for their child speak a universal language that is understood with the heart rather than words. The mark Denny’s death left on his parents broke my heart, especially as they are trying to get answers and find justice in a culture that is foreign to them, with many barriers standing in their way. Ky, on the other hand, also has burdens only a child of immigrant parents can understand. On top of her own grief, she juggles her parents’ expectations, the role of the “good child” she was cast into, the problem solver and translator, the one that got out and made a better life for herself.

The social commentary on immigrant life in Cabramatta thirty years ago was an eye opener for me, and added a lot of depth to the mystery. I loved the way Lien included other narrators in addition to the voice of Ky, our main protagonist. One character in particular really spoke to me and made me forge a deeper emotional connection to the story than I would have otherwise done.




In summary, dealing with the struggles of immigrant life in Australia, inter-generational trauma, grief, guilt and the way children of immigrant parents feel torn between two cultures, ALL THAT’S LEFT UNSAID was a mystery with a powerful message that really touched my heart. If you love Celeste Ng’s or Amy Tan’s books, then you should definitely read this one.



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

Thursday 13 October 2022

Small Australian town settings - 3 new books to get excited about


WAKE by Shelley Burr


Small, remote Australian towns are among my favourite settings for crime novels because they create a claustrophobic element that adds tension to an already emotionally charged story. With the fictional town of Nannine, Burr has created not only an authentic Australian atmosphere but also all the elements that make for a cracking good read. The simmering tension and hidden malice in the small town secrets that make up every remote, isolated settlement made this tale unputdownable.

The town has almost managed to paper over its cracks when private investigator Lane Holland arrives, eager to shake out a few secrets related to the disappearance of young Evelyn McCreery’s disappearance nineteen years ago. Initially reluctant to let Lane into her life, Evelyn’s sister Mina is still hopeful that some new truths may be revealed that help solve the mystery that has defined her life.

And thus the stage is set. What follows may not be new, but it is written well, slowly following clues and unearthing new information. What added to the mystery was Lane’s own motivation for coming to Nannine, which provided a refreshing perspective to the cold case investigation.

I thoroughly enjoyed WAKE and was surprised to hear that this is the author’s debut novel. I am sure that we haven’t heard the last from Shelley Burr and look forward to finding out what she will come up with next.


DIRT TOWN by Hayley Scrivenor


What was the last book that totally took you by surprise? Since I read A LOT of thrillers, I’m often disappointed by predictable endings. Well, I am very happy to say that Scrivenor totally blindsided me! 

DIRT TOWN follows in the wake of a spade of atmospheric, small-town Australian thrillers that delve into missing persons cases. Here, it is a young schoolchild who fails to return home after school and is eventually found buried in a shallow grave just out of town. In a place where everyone knows one another, it is hard to believe that a child killer is on the loose. 

The story is being told through various POVs, including two of the 12-year-old victim’s friends, her mother, the police detective investigating the case and the collective of the town’s remaining children (referred to as “we”), which brought some interesting insights into the case. As you can appreciate with a case of a dead child, the story was sad and tragic, with that melancholy air that also characterises a lot of Australian crime fiction. Child characters’ POVs often don’t ring true for me, but Scrivener nailed it with the voices of both her young protagonists, who appeared authentic and believable with their 12-year-old view of life and death. I also loved the way the author portrayed the dying small town and the way its residents clung to life there, trying to make things work. 

Hayley Scrivenor is an exciting new voice in Australian fiction, and I can’t wait to read more from her in future!


THE WHISPERING by Veronica Lando


If you love your thriller with a slight spicing of the supernatural, then THE WHISPERING should definitely be on your list (disclaimer: for those of you who love a good dose of spook, this may be a bit too mild). As an added bonus, it also features a delicious small town Australian setting in a remote region just as a cyclone is about to hit. With all those elements adding tension, this story was a definite must-read for me. 

Callum Haffenden is an investigative journalist who – just like thousands of mystery protagonists before him – falls into the trap of returning to his old hometown to help with the investigation into the mysterious death of one of his childhood friend’s son. OF course, Callum has plenty of his own secrets and demons, and we will learn in the course of the book why not many people are excited to welcome him back into their fold. 

I mentioned a supernatural element, which was one of the main reasons I was instantly drawn to the premise of the book. In the vein of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, a cluster of boulders in the vicinity of the town has been the cause of many a local legend, and linked to the disappearance and death of a few locals in the rainforest. Amongst the town’s children, it is well known that the “whispering” may lure you to your death, so they have taken to wearing small friendship bracelets with bells to drown out the boulders’ siren song. I won’t give any more away, because this was one of the best aspects of the book, albeit one I thought could have used a bit more to create a spookier vibe (I am not easily spooked these days, so it takes a bit to raise my goosebumps). 

I was very quickly drawn into the story, even though I thought that aspects of it could have been edited a bit more to move the story along at a better pace. I also had a few issues with credibility, for example the fact that if you’ve been an amputee for 30 years, you would have adapted much better to living with this reality than Callum has. A few other things grated a bit, but all in all the mystery central to the story kept me reading eagerly to find out the answers. Mostly, I loved the remote atmospheric setting, despite the fact that this must have been the slowest ever cyclone to approach a town and the worst prepared locals ever in Australia, flitting about the countryside despite the storm and the flooding (I have been through several natural disasters and believe me, you would not merrily drive around as a Cat 5 cyclone hits your town). Oh, to be able to suspend disbelief! 

But don’t listen to my moaning. THE WHISPERING will appeal to readers who love a remote atmospheric setting and a small-town mystery where everyone has something to hide. There were quite a few surprises in store and the premise of the mysterious boulders was most intriguing. Just like a strange mix between PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE DRY, THE WHISPERING is a worthy recipient of the 2021 Banjo Prize.