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BOOK REVIEW: Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Friday, June 29, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Winner of Britain’s coveted Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award, Ann Cleeves introduces a dazzling new suspense series to mystery readers.

Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve with a lonely outcast named Magnus Tait, who stays home waiting for visitors who never come. But the next morning the body of a murdered teenage girl is discovered nearby, and suspicion falls on Magnus. Inspector Jimmy Perez enters an investigative maze that leads deeper into the past of the Shetland Islands than anyone wants to go.

My Thoughts:

I am a big fan of the British crime dramas, ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’, both of which are inspired by the work of writer Ann Cleeves, and yet I had never read one of her books. Being in the mood for an atmospheric murder mystery, I grabbed a copy of Raven Black at the airport.

The story begins with two drunken teenage girls knocking on the door of a lonely old man at midnight on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve. The following day one of the girls is found dead, within sight of the old man’s house. The tightly knit community of the island of Shetland remembers another girl who went missing many years before, also within sight of Magnus Tait’s house. Suspicions flare and tensions mount. Inspector Jimmy Perez – who despite his name comes from a long line of Shetland islanders – begins to investigate the girl’s death and uncovers long buried secrets that change his understanding of everything to do with the murder.

I remembered the TV show inspired by this book vividly, and so I knew right from the beginning who the murderer was. Discovering the culprit is not the only pleasure in reading a tightly plotted murder mystery, though. The bare, brooding atmosphere of the Shetland islands, the sharply drawn characters, the masterly laying of clues and red herrings, and a warm and sympathetic protagonist in Jimmy Perez all contributed to a very enjoyable few hours of reading. I’ll be reading more by Ann Cleeves.

For another great crime read, this one set in Australia, check out me review of And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic.

You can read my interview with Ann Cleeves here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


I went to see Amy Tan speak at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago, and bought The Valley of Amazement then. It was her first book in eight years and, like many of her earlier works such as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, was inspired by her own Chinese heritage. 

At almost 600 pages, the book is not a light read and this may explain why it sat on my to-be-read bookshelf for four years without ever being picked up. Every year, as the Sydney Writers’ Festival approaches once more, I try and read any books I bought there in previous years so that I don’t feel so guilty about buying another dozen or so. My own trip to China, and my desire to read novels set there, moved The Valley of Amazement to the top of the pile. 

Spanning more than forty years, The Valley of Amazement is a sweeping, evocative family epic that tells the story of a half-Chinese, half-American girl who is kidnapped and sold into a Shanghai courtesan’s house at the tender age of fourteen. Unable to escape, she is trained in the ancient art of seduction before her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. Strong-willed, impetuous, and determined, Violet becomes one of the city’s top courtesans before she falls in love with a rich American. He is trapped in a loveless marriage, but he and Violet make a life for themselves in Shanghai and have a daughter together.

Tragedy and drama follow in a long chain of events, as Violet’s life is affected by betrayal, revolution and war. The most pivotal moments in 20th century Chinese history are brought to life on the page, from the dissolution of the imperial dynasty to the rise of the Republic. Some of Violet’s adventures seem contrived merely for the chance to examine another aspect of Chinese culture and society, but Amy Tan’s writing style is so engaging this is easily forgiven. 

At her session at the Sydney Writers Festival, which moved me to buy the book, Amy Tan explained that she was inspired to write The Valley of Amazement after seeing a photograph of Shanghai courtesans in a book. She realised that the costumes worn by the courtesans was identical to an outfit worn by her grandmother. She later discovered that no ‘respectable’ woman would ever have gone to a Western photographic studio. She began to wonder if her grandmother had once been a courtesan, and what her life would have been like. Although she was never able to discover the truth, that moment of wondering became the impetus for writing her novel.

Amy Tan's depiction of the life of a Shanghai courtesan world is colourful, bawdy, funny, and heartbreaking. I was at times furious at both Violet and her mother for their stupidity in trusting bad men so easily, but then also uneasily aware that I may well have made the same mistakes, given the circumstances. Violet’s longing for love and freedom is surely universal, and China in the early 20th century was not an easy place to be a woman. 

For another great read set in China, check out my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Blurb (From Goodreads)

1947. The war is over, but Juliet Barnard is hiding a secret. While her family believed she was helping the war effort from the safety of England, in truth Juliet was a trained wireless operator, dropped behind enemy lines in Paris to spy on the Germans. But the mission went critically wrong when Juliet was caught and imprisoned in a mansion in Paris's Avenue Foch. Now she can't - or won't - relive the horrors that occurred there, and the people she betrayed . . .

The last thing Juliet wants is to return to France, but when ex-SAS officer Mac begs Juliet to help him find his sister, another British agent who is still missing, she can't refuse. And in retracing her past, Juliet begins to realise that in wartime, the greatest enemy isn't always the one that you're expecting to fight.

My Thoughts:

Australian author Christine Wells has been making a name for herself writing intelligent, suspenseful historical novels. Her latest offering, The Juliet Code, begins in 1947 when a young woman named Juliet Barnard is being interrogated about her role as an undercover wireless operator in Nazi-occupied France during the war. She is wracked with guilt and remorse over the disappearance of a friend and colleague of hers, and so agrees to help to her friend’s brother track down what happened to her.

The narrative moves back and forth between Juliet’s interrogation and subsequent return to France, and the events of 1943 when Juliet was first parachuted into France. She is young and naïve, but acutely aware of the danger if she should be caught by the Germans. Eventually her luck runs out and she finds herself a prisoner. Unable to escape, drugged and tortured, Juliet cannot help but betray her friends. This disloyalty haunts her. She blames herself for the deaths and disappearances of other secret operatives, and so when an ex-SAS officer named Mac begs for her help, Juliet reluctantly agrees – even though she is afraid of the horror of the memories it will rake up ... and the chance she may find herself in danger again.

I love books about resistance fighters and spies in World War II, and The Juliet Code is a fine addition to my collection. I really liked the fact that Juliet was not a particularly good secret operative, but determined to do her part. Her bravery, resolution, and quick wits prove to be more valuable than strength and ruthlessness. The tender love story at the heart of the book adds poignancy and warmth, without crowding out the true narrative arc – a story of an ordinary young woman who does her utmost to help and save those whose lives are torn apart by cruelty and war.

I also loved reading Christine Wells’s ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book which reveals the true-life inspirations for Juliet, Felix and Mac.

You can read my review of Christine's earlier book, The Traitor's Girl, here.

And I was lucky enough to interview Christine for the blog this week! You can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.

INTERVIEW: Christine Wells

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Today I welcome Christine Wells, author of The Juliet Code, to the blog.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
While in the process of researching The Traitor's Girl, which was about World War II spies, I came across the story of Noor Inayat Khan. Noor was a wireless operator who worked for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied Paris during World War II. Everyone thought she was too gentle to survive such dangerous conditions but she managed to elude the Germans and operate effectively for months until she was betrayed. When German counterintelligence kept her prisoner in a mansion in Paris she made several attempts to escape and fought her captors so viciously that they deemed her a dangerous prisoner and kept her handcuffed in solitary confinement.

I wanted to tell a story about an unlikely spy, a woman who is flawed and makes mistakes, but who struggles and ultimately prevails.

How extensively did you plan The Juliet Code?
For this novel, I began with the premise, the inciting incident and an idea of the key turning points, but I didn’t plan Juliet extensively. In fact, it took a different direction from the one I intended when I began.

What were some of the major challenges and obstacles that you overcame while writing this book?

A major challenge for me was getting my head around ciphers and coding—in particular, the Playfair Cipher used by the Special Operations Executive during the war—and trying to then simplify and explain the process in the book. I didn’t want to let The Juliet Code get bogged down in detail because first and foremost, readers are interested in the story. Hopefully, I struck the right balance.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I was keen to match up an SAS officer with a former Special Operations Executive agent in The Juliet Code but at the time I began the book I didn’t realise that the Nazi officer on whom I based the character of Kieffer had not only incarcerated Noor Inayat Khan but he had also ordered a group of SAS paratroopers to be executed and their identities obliterated in a manner contrary to the Geneva Convention. One SAS man escaped execution and it seemed a perfect way to give Mac, the SAS officer, a personal stake in hunting Kieffer after the war.

I love the covers of your books. Do you get much of a say in how they’re designed?
I hear from readers that they love my covers and I feel very lucky because I don’t have much say in their design. I might give a physical description of the protagonist but that’s about the only input I have before the cover is sent to me. I am then able to comment but I haven’t felt the need to ask for changes in the three I’ve had with Penguin. The cover artist has done a wonderful job every time.

What are some of your favourite books that you’ve read recently?
Most recently, I read and loved Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door, a suburban mystery along the lines of Liane Moriarty’s books with that fine balance of sharp insight, humour and gut-wrenching sadness. I also enjoyed Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, a thriller featuring a female barrister protagonist that I thought extremely well researched and authentic.

What are some of your favourite non-fiction books?
I absolutely love Of Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War by Leo Marks — Marks is a delightful storyteller who inspired the character of Felix in The Juliet Code. I totally fell in love with Leo when I read this memoir. I also devour Ben McIntyre’s rollicking tales of espionage and special forces, such as Operation Mincemeat and A Spy Among Friends.

Do you listen to music as you write, and if so, what?
I only listen to music as I write if I’m finding it difficult to block out other noise, and then I listen to Mozart.

Can you tell us more about your Author’s Note, and your true-life inspirations for Juliet, Felix and Mac?

I’ve spoken a little about the inspiration for Juliet above. As I’ve mentioned also, Juliet’s love interest, Felix Mortimer, is based on Leo Marks who was in charge of decoding wireless transmissions for the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. He wrote a poem for the agent Odette Sansom to use as a cipher key, called ‘The Life that I Have” which later became famous. He was the son of the owners of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road (made famous by a novel of that name) and after the war he became a playwright and scriptwriter.

My tough Scottish SAS captain, Steve Mcintyre (“Mac”) was inspired by a real SAS paratrooper who escaped the Nazis by using his watch spring to pick the lock on his handcuffs. I so admired the mix of supreme toughness, strategy and guile of the SAS men in World War II that I knew I had to write about one of these extraordinary men. Mac also serves as a foil to the more intellectual heroism Felix shows.

You can read my review of The Juliet Code here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A sumptuously magical, brand new take on a tale as old as time—read the Beast's side of the story at long last.

I am neither monster nor man—yet I am both.

I am the Beast.

The day I was cursed to this wretched existence was the day I was saved—although it did not feel so at the time.

My redemption sprung from contemptible roots; I am not proud of what I did the day her father happened upon my crumbling, isolated chateau. But if loneliness breeds desperation then I was desperate indeed, and I did what I felt I must. My shameful behaviour was unjustly rewarded.

My Isabeau. She opened my eyes, my mind and my heart; she taught me how to be human again.

And now I might lose her forever.

My Thoughts:

The Beast's Heart by debut Australian author Leife Shallcross is a retelling of the classic French fairy-tale ‘La Belle et la Bête’, told from the perspective of the Beast. Like many lovers of fairy-tales, it is one of my own personal favourites and I have drawn upon its symbols and structures in my own novel, The Beast’s Garden, which is set in Nazi Germany.

Leife Shallcross’s novel is a much more conventional fairy-tale retelling, set in a magical world of castles and forests and curses. I do not call it conventional as a perjorative: I love this type of story. Authors such as Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Helen Lowe, Shannon Hale and Edith Pattou have all enchanted me with their reimaginings of old tales, and The Beast’s Heart deserves to take its place amongst the best of them.

The original tale was written by the French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. It was then greatly reduced and simplified by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and re-published in 1756, just thirty-three years before the French Revolution. It is Mme Beaumont’s version which is best known, and which Leife Shallcross has drawn upon rather than the 1991 Disney animated film.

One key difference is that Belle has sisters in the original tale, and their challenges and love affairs add action and humour to Leife Shallcross’s tale, as the Beast watches them through his magic mirror.

Leife Shallcross writes beautifully, and there is a great deal of charm in the depiction of the Beast and his longing for friendship and love. The Beauty of the tale is also brought to life with depth and complexity. She is called Isabeau, which is a name I love (I called the heroine of my own debut novel Isabeau too!)

I also loved the depiction of the Fairy and the unexpected reasons for her casting the curse.

There has been a fashion in recent years for depicting fairy-tales as dark, violent, and sexually charged fantasies, but I prefer this more lyrical and romantic style. The action of the plot unfolds slowly and sensitively, and time is taken to bring the magical world vividly to life.

A compelling and surprising retelling of ‘Beauty & the Beast’, this debut offering from an Australian author is filled with peril, darkness, romance and beauty. Utterly enchanting!

You might also be interested to read my post about my favourite fairy tale retellings.

I was lucky enough to interview Leife Shallcross for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.

INTERVIEW: Leife Shallcross

Saturday, June 09, 2018


Today I welcome Leife Shallcross author of The Beast's Heart, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Ohhhhh yes. Incorrigible. I think it's a really important part of being a storyteller! My desire to write stories is absolutely rooted in the (possibly excessive) daydreaming I indulged in as a kid. I can even remember the moment I decided to try turning my daydreams into actual stories! That yearning to escape into a daydream is what drives all my stories and underpins my reading choices. I still daydream all the time - and, in fact, I've discovered recently just how important it is that I make time in my life for daydreaming (having a book published soaks up your spare time in a thousand different ways and I'm only just realising how much I need to protect that precious "quiet time" for my dreaming mind.)

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Part of me certainly always did. I still have a bunch of stapled-together stories I wrote and illustrated as a child, and, as I said, I've always indulged in daydreaming. In high school I had a wonderful English teacher (the Australian poet, John Foulcher) who ran creative writing classes after school. That was when I realised how much I was in love with words and when I really started wanting to "be a writer". I came from a generation that weren't encouraged to consider artistic pursuits as serious careers, however, so it was very much only a hobby for me until my mid-thirties. I also took a long time to realise exactly what it was I wanted to write. I kept waiting to grow up and start writing "serious" literature. So at age 35 or thereabouts, I suddenly worked out fairy tales were my jam, I didn't want to write anything else, and, dammit, I was going to give writing them for publication a red hot go. I've been extremely fortunate in my publication journey and, by way of a happy ending, my English teacher turned up at my book launch in April! It was really thrilling to be able to see him and tell him how much I owed to his early inspiration.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I am a Canberran born and bred. I've live here most of my life, and I love it. Right now autumn has just finished; that's my favourite season and when the city is shown to its best advantage. There are beautiful autumn colours everywhere. Mornings can be cold and grey, but usually by 10.30 you get blue skies and glorious sunshine. I did live in London for a little while after I finished university, working as a nanny and soaking up as much as I could of the London atmosphere as I could and travelling around the UK. I think London is my favourite city. I would definitely love to go back and spend some more time there. When I'm not writing, I love baking, especially baking to share. And I'm one of those people who is not good at sitting still without having my hands busy. So if I'm watching TV with my kids, I tend to be doing something crafty at the same time - quilting or needlepoint mostly.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I started writing it long, long before I ever thought I had a hope of being published, and I just wanted a way to lose myself in one of my favourite fairy tales. So the Beast's chateau and gardens were probably the first "character" that really crystalised for me , as I created a fairy tale world to just go and live in for a little while. The rest of it grew from there.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I'm still working that out! I've found different stories require different levels of pre-planning, although I naturally tend to sit more on the wing-it end of the spectrum.

Where do you write, and when?
I still have a day job (which is currently pretty demanding), so I like to get up early and write for an hour or so before the rest of my family gets up and the day starts. I try to spend bigger chunks of time on my WIPs on weekends and I've just started taking myself on a writing date at lunchtime at least once a fortnight. Then I snatch any other bits and pieces of time to write as I can.

What is your favourite part of writing?

Those times when a scene just explodes into being in your head and just runs like a movie and your fingers almost can't keep up a typing speed fast enough to catch it all. They're rare, and the bits in between can be a bit of a slog, but, God, those moments are so good.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I've been thinking a lot about this lately as I try and write my next novel! Going for a long walk, a run or a decent drive in the car often helps. Recently I've been working on synopses for a couple of my works-in-progress - this is a great exercise for distilling down the book to its purest essentials and clarifying exactly what it is you are trying to write. I also use music a lot to help me channel the mood for particular scenes.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read! Or consume stories via TV or movies - not zone-out TV, it's gotta be quality story-telling and brimming with vibrant characters. Good screen-based story telling can teach you a lot about how to tell a tale. I also love throwing myself into research. That's always a good way of finding things that spark the imagination. I have a tendency to get lost down research rabbit holes, but that's half the fun, isn't it?

Immersing myself in art is always wonderful for inspiration. I feel like there's two kinds of inspiration. Firstly, there's direct inspiration, where something lights a spark that starts all sorts of fires for your story. And then there's general inspiration, which doesn't necessarily give you any particular ideas, but is useful for helping you get back to the grindstone when things are challenging. Immersing myself in other people's art can give me that direct inspiration I need for new ideas, but often it's just seeing what human creativity is capable of and remembering it takes hard work and reigniting my determination to be part of that endeavour to create beautiful things.

What do you consider to be good writing?
My favourite kind of stories are the ones that sweep you away into a whole other world and, when you stop reading, you want to just find your way back. Someone asked me once to describe what it is I do without using the word that describes it (ie, "writer"), and I said I create portals to magical worlds where people can lose themselves for a little while.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

1. Just write whatever it is that you love to write. Don't try and fit some preconceived notion of what you should be writing.
2. If you really want to write for publication, find your writing community. You will learn so much from other writers - about writing as well as about the industry. A good place to start is by joining your local Writers Centre.

What are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects on the go. First is another YA fantasy, but less of a historical retelling and more of a steampunk action adventure. This one borrows from Cinderella, but my Cinderella has faked her father's death to save him from his disastrous marriage to the evil stepmother, and then becomes embroiled in trying to foil a dastardly plot that threatens the throne. The second of my WIP is the beginning of a series set in 18th Century London and involves runaway heiresses, dissolute viscounts, magic and murder. So much fun!

You can read my review of The Beast's Heart here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

Wednesday, June 06, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Struggling detective Alisha Barba is trying to get her life back on track after almost being crippled by a murder suspect. Now on her feet again she receives a desperate plea from an old school friend, who is eight months pregnant and in trouble. On the night they arrange to meet, her friend is run down and killed by a car and Alisha discovers the first in a series of haunting and tragic deceptions.

Determined to uncover the truth, she embarks upon a dangerous journey that will take her from the East End of London’s to Amsterdam’s murky red light district and into a violent underworld of sex trafficking, slavery and exploitation.

My Thoughts:

I can always rely on Michael Robotham to deliver an intelligent, fast-paced and psychologically indepth crime thiller, and The Night Ferry is no exception.

At the end of his earlier novel, Lost, young Alisha Barba has her back broken by a murder suspect. She is now trying to get her life back together again, but no-one wants her on their team. One day she receives a plea for help from an old school friend:

Dear Ali, I’m in trouble. I must see you. Please come to the reunion. Love, Cate.

Alisha has not spoken to her onetime best friend in more than eight years. Reluctantly she goes to the reunion, only to discover Cate is eight months pregnant. Her friend only has time to whisper to her, ‘They want to take my baby. You have to stop them’ before she disappears into the crowd. Moments later, she and her husband are both dead in what appears to be a tragic car accident.

Alisha suspects foul play, and begins to dig. It is not long before she uncovers an intricate web of lies and secrets. Each new discovery leads to danger and death. Alisha follows the clues to Amsterdam’s red-light district and hints of baby trafficking.

Ex-cop Vincent Ruiz (the hero of Lost) makes a welcome appearance, in a fast-paced and brilliantly plotted story that changes Alisha’s life forever.

You can read my review of another Michael Robotham book, The Suspect, here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: Frogkisser! By Garth Nix

Friday, June 01, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Poor Princess Anya. Forced to live with her evil stepmother’s new husband, her evil stepstepfather. Plagued with an unfortunate ability to break curses with a magic-assisted kiss. And forced to go on the run when her stepstepfather decides to make the kingdom entirely his own.

Aided by a loyal talking dog, a boy thief trapped in the body of a newt, and some extraordinarily mischievous wizards, Anya sets off on a Quest that, if she plays it right, will ultimately free her land—and teach her a thing or two about the use of power, the effectiveness of a well-placed pucker, and the finding of friends in places both high and low.

My Thoughts:

A funny and charming subversion of the well-known ‘Frog Prince’ fairytale, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix tells the story of a bookish princess, an eager but clumsy puppy, and a whole host of young men turned into amphibians.

Princess Anya just wants to be left alone to study sorcery, but unfortunately her step-stepfather wants to take over the kingdom and so transforms any suitor for her big sister’s hand into a frog. Anya reluctantly sets out on a quest to gather the ingredients that will enable her to turn the enchanted frogs back into humans, and encounters many obstacles – both humorous and deadly – along the way.

Along her travels, Anya learns a great deal about the dangers of absolute power and the importance of kindness, compassion and political awareness. Fabulous fun!

You can read my 2013 interview with Garth Nix here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

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