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BOOK REVIEW: Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder

Friday, November 24, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Inspired by the author's own family experience. The Brennans - parents Finn and Bridget, and their sons, Jarrah and Toby - have made a sea change, shifting from chilly Hobart to a sprawling purple weatherboard in subtropical Murwillumbah. Feeling like foreigners in this land of sun and surf, they are only just starting to settle when, one morning, tragedy strikes - changing their lives forever.

Determined to protect his wife, Finn finds himself under the police and media spotlight. Guilty and enraged, Bridget spends her nights hunting answers in the last place imaginable. Jarrah - his innocence lost - is propelled suddenly from his teens into frightening adulthood. As all three are pushed to the limit, questions fly: Who is to blame? And what does it take to forgive?

A haunting and ultimately redemptive story about what it takes to forgive.


My Thoughts:

A few years ago I bought a novel called The Raven’s Heart by a writer I had never heard of, Jesse Blackadder. I was partly seduced by the cover and partly by the subtitle, ‘The Story of A Quest, a Castle, and Mary, Queen of Scots.’ It sounded just like my kind of book! And it was. I adored it so much I wrote to the author and told her so. Jesse wrote back to say thank you and to ask me if I would be willing to launch her next book for her. Chasing the Light was inspired by the story of the first women to travel to Antarctica. I was intrigued enough by the premise to agree to read the book, and then – once I had read it and loved it – to launch it. So Jesse and I met for the first time at Chasing the Light’s book launch in 2013 and we’ve been fast friends ever since.

We’ve attended festivals together in both Australia and the UK, and last year spent a close-bonding week together as part of the Byron Writers Festival ‘Five Writers Road Trip’ around far northern New South Wales. Jesse told me that she was working on a novel inspired by a family tragedy that had had a powerful shaping force upon her life and her imagination. When Jesse was twelve, her two-year-old sister had drowned in their backyard pool. Jesse had tried to grapple with this catastrophe in her fiction before, but it had always been too raw, too close to home. As the 40th anniversary of her sister’s birth approached, however, Jesse had experienced a moment of epiphany. The story of Sixty Seconds had sprung into her imagination, demanding to be told.

Although it is inspired by true life, Sixty Seconds is a work of fiction. It begins: ‘The boy steps into this day like he owns it – like he is, in fact, God and has conjured this up with a sweep of his hand before breakfast: this achingly blue sky, this currawong sending out a ringing call from the verandah post, this water dragon sunning on a warm rock to loosen her scales, cocking her head and blinking a yellow eye in his direction.’

It’s a moment of easy joy and summery beauty, made heartbreakingly poignant by the tragedy we know is about to happen.

Sixty Seconds articulates what must be every parent’s greatest dread. The death of a beloved child, the grief and horror and guilt, ‘the seismic shift’, as Jesse calls it, which changes everyone’s life. Told in alternating chapters between the points-of-view of the boy’s father Finn, his mother Bridget, and his elder brother, Jarrah, the book moves forward from this point of shock, and shows how the ripples affect the whole community. Each voice is distinctively different. Jarrah speaks in first person, Finn in third person, and Bridget – most interestingly - in second person (and present tense). It’s a bold and unconventional narrative choice, but it works. Each chapter is very short, and so the fractured narrative structure of the book reflects the shattered family unit. As Bridget reflects, ‘the three of you – Finn, you, Jarrah – clinging to each other, rain-slicked, like shipwreck survivors. All looking in different directions.’

There is always a danger of melodrama and sentimentality when writing of tragedy, but Jesse never veers anywhere close. Her language is simple, direct and powerful. The story has tremendous pace, as the ramifications of the boy’s death reverberate through the grief-stricken family. Secrets are revealed, choices and mistakes made. At the heart of the novel is the question: can anyone recover from such a loss? If so, how?

The final chapters of this beautiful novel gave me chills all over my body, and such a lump in my throat I could not breathe. Both haunting and heart-rending, Sixty Seconds is as much a story about the redemptive power of love as it is about the terrible power of grief. I know some people will be afraid of reading it, afraid of how close it may cut to the bone. I can only urge you to read it anyway. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. 


You might also like to read my 2013 interview with Jesse Blackadder


Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Jarulan by the River by Lily Woodhouse

Friday, August 04, 2017



Jarulan by the River – Lily Woodhouse


The Blurb (from GoodReads):

A failing estate, a fractured family, a turn of fortune and a story of love stretching across generations and connecting a family from all corners of the globe. For readers of Elianne, The Thorn Birds and Oscar and Lucinda

Matthew Fenchurch, patriarch and landowner of the northern NSW property Jarulan, lives in a grand, decaying folly, invaded by ghosts and the local fauna. His wife is dead, one son has fallen on a battlefield in France, and another lives as a remittance man on a marae in New Zealand. With his daughters married and elsewhere, his only company is the farmhands and an old family servant.

When Matthew builds a memorial above the river for his brave lost son – and all the boys of the district who have died fighting for King and Country – his daughters and their families return for the unveiling. They bring with them someone who will change life at Jarulan forever, who will fight the ghosts of the past and the claimants of the present, and ensure a dynasty, though not as anyone expected.

Erotic, haunting, brimming with wildlife, love, beauty, babies, ill deeds, revenge and unions – illicit and condoned –JARULAN BY THE RIVER is an epic tale of passion and redemption.


My Thoughts:
The ‘Jarulan’ of the title is a grand house on a river in northern New South Wales. Once flourishing, it is now in decline. Matthew Fenchurch, a man in his late fifties, is grieving the deaths of his wife and his eldest son, who was a casualty of the First World War. Matthew decides to build a memorial to the fallen, and asks his housekeeper to write to his scattered children and ask them to return to the estate for its commemoration. There is his other son, the drifter Eddie, and his daughters Louise and Jean. Eddie fails to respond, but the two sisters obey. Their arrival sets in train a scandalous love affair that will change the future of Jarulan forever.

A sprawling and surprising tale of love, grief, loss and change that crosses generations and continents, Jarulan by the River is poised, challenging and, at times, poetic in its descriptions of the Australian landscape. I could feel the heat and dryness and hear the constant rasp of the cicadas. The narrative moves from multiple points-of-view – Matthew himself, Evie the Irish maid who dreams of love, Nan the old housekeeper who has seen the family fracture and fall apart, Rufina the German nanny, Eddie who has fallen on hard times, and his half-Maori son Irving. At the centre of the tale, however, is the house and the ghosts and memories it contains. 

BOOK REVIEW: A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart

Thursday, August 03, 2017


A Letter from Italy – Pamela Hart

Blurb (from GoodReads):

Inspired by the life of the world's first woman war correspondent, Australia's Louise Mack, the most sweeping love story yet by Pamela Hart

1917, Italy. Australian journalist Rebecca Quinn is an unconventional woman. At the height of World War I, she has given up the safety of her Sydney home for the bloody battlefields of Europe, following her journalist husband to the frontline as a war correspondent in Italy.

Reporting the horrors of the Italian campaign, Rebecca finds herself thrown together with American-born Italian photographer Alessandro Panucci, and soon discovers another battleground every bit as dangerous and unpredictable: the human heart.


My Thoughts:
A passionate and poignant love story set on the beautiful Italian coast by the bestselling author of The Soldier's Wife and The War Bride. Pamela Hart has been making a name for herself by writing vivid, compelling and gorgeously romantic historical fiction novels about the lives of Australian women during the First World War. Her first two – The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride – were set in Sydney during and just after the war years. Her latest, however, is set in Italy, and was inspired by the true story of Louise Mack, an Australian journalist who became the world’s first female war correspondent. 


The heroine is a strong-willed Australian journalist named Rebecca Quinn who has followed Jack, her war correspondent husband, to the frontline of the war in Italy. He goes undercover in Albania, leaving Rebecca alone in Brindisi, an Italian port town about halfway down Italy’s boot-heel. She is determined not to be sent home, but women journalists are not welcome and so she must prove herself even while struggling to stay safe. She begins to work with a talented Italian-American photographer named Sandro, racing to get scoops before any other journalist and finding herself in the heart of the action. Meanwhile, Jack goes missing and Rebecca finds her emotions in turmoil


The pages seemed to turn themselves, and I found myself sneaking off to read when I was meant to be working. A really thoughtful and subtle historical romance with lots of brains and lots of heart. 

BOOK REVIEW: Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

Thursday, April 06, 2017

BLURB:

An action-packed, compelling historical fantasy, from the pen of an award-winning author


The battle-scarred warrior princess Bluebell, heir to her father’s throne, is rumoured to be unkillable. So when she learns of a sword wrought specifically to slay her by the fearsome raven king, Hakon, she sets out on a journey to find it before it finds her. The sword is rumoured to be in the possession of one of her four younger sisters. But which one? Scattered as they are across the kingdoms, she sets out on a journey to find them.


MY THOUGHTS:


Sisters of the Fire is the second in a new fantasy series by one of my favourite Australian writers, Kim Wilkins, following on from Daughters of the Storm. The story follows the adventures and misadventures of five sisters in a world very much like ancient Britain. There is Bluebell the warrior, Ash who is tormented by her ability to see the future, Rose who gambled all for love, Ivy who was sold into marriage for her father’s power, and Willow who plots against them all. The writing is elegant and lucid, and the story unspools swiftly and strongly. Filled with action, intrigue and a little bit of romance, this is one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in a long while. 

BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Orchard by Anna Romer

Tuesday, March 21, 2017




Beyond the Orchard – Anna Romer 


BLURB (from GoodReads)


A haunting story of yearning, love and betrayal from the bestselling author of Thornwood House


Lucy Briar has arrived home in turmoil after years overseas. She’s met her fiancé in London and has her life mapped out, but something is holding her back.

Hoping to ground herself and find answers, Lucy settles into once familiar routines. But old tortured feelings flood Lucy’s existence when her beloved father, Ron, is hospitalised and Morgan – the man who drove her away all those years ago – seeks her out.

Worse, Ron implores Lucy to visit Bitterwood Estate, the crumbling historic family guesthouse now left to him. He needs Lucy to find something– an old photograph album, the very thing that drove Ron and his father apart.

Lucy has her own painful memories of Bitterwood, darkness that has plagued her dreams since she was young. But as Lucy searches for the album, the house begins to give up its ghosts and she is driven to put them to rest.

And there, held tightly between the house, the orchard and the soaring cliffs, Lucy uncovers a long-hidden secret that shattered a family’s bond and kept a frightened young girl in its thrall ... and Lucy discovers just how fierce the lonely heart can be.


MY THOUGHTS:

A story that moves between the past and the present, with intrigue, passion, betrayal and the metafictive use of a dark fairy-taleit’ll be no surprise to anyone that I loved Beyond the Orchard, the first novel of Anna Romer’s that I have read.
 

I loved the name of the heroine – ‘Lucy Briar’ - and the name of the house – ‘Bitterwood’. Names are always very important to me, and I love it when an author takes care in crafting their names. I also loved the setting – an old house set on cliffs with a creepy ice house in the gardens. The scenes set in the 1930s were particularly powerful, and I loved the us evocation of the Australian landscape.

The story is a complex one, with a great many characters and numerous different time periods, but I thought the numerous narrative threads were woven together with a light hand, and I never got confused about who was who and when was when. 

The mysteries hidden in the past were truly suspenseful, and I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, really wanting the secrets to be revealed

All in all, Beyond the Orchard is a tantalising mix of mystery and romance – Anna Romer weaves together the past and the present with a deft hand, creating a compelling page-turner with a shadowy fairy-tale-like atmosphere.

Love parallel narratives? Lots more reviewed here!


ANY RECOMMENDATIONS OF SIMILAR BOOKS FOR ME? Leave them in the Comments below :)

BOOK REVIEW: Kumiko & the Dragon By Briony Stewart

Sunday, March 19, 2017




Kumiko and the Dragon
– Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret – Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Shadow-catchers – Briony Stewart


BLURB of Book 1 (from GoodReads)


Kumiko doesn't like going to bed. She can't sleep, and the reason she can't sleep is because of the giant dragon that sits outside her bedroom window, every single night.

So one night she plucks up the courage to ask the dragon to leave, not knowing that the truth she is about to discover is more thrilling than anything she could ever have imagined.


MY THOUGHTS:

This delightful story will take the young readers on a soaring dragon adventure, as Kumiko discovers a strength she never even knew she had.

A trilogy of charming fantasy books for very young readers, inspired by the tales that Briony Stewart’s Japanese grandmother used to tell her. Kumiko is frightened of going to bed because a dragon spends each night perched outside her bedroom window. One day she plucks up the courage to write the dragon a note … and so begins her adventures with the many different dragons who live in the clouds above our world. 

Some really beautiful writing.


BOOK REVIEW; Rose's Vintage by Kayte Nunn

Friday, March 17, 2017




Rose’s Vintage – Kayte Nunn

BLURB (from GoodReads):

British blow-in, Rose Bennett, is heartbroken, overweight, irritable and a long way from home. She isn’t sure what exactly she’s doing at Kalkari Wines in the Australian Shingle Valley – it’s the middle of winter and far from the lush, romantic vineyard setting she’d been expecting. 

Her brother thinks she’s spying for him, her bad-tempered new boss thinks she’s the au pair and the nanny can’t wait for her to clean the place up. 

Discovering pagan bonfire ceremonies, bizarre winemaking practices and a valley full of eccentric locals, Rose just wishes she’d ended up somewhere a bit warmer. But as the weather improves, the valley reveals its beauty, and Rose starts to fall in love: with the valley, the wines, the two children she’s helping to look after, and one of the men there. 

When her boss’s estranged wife returns and her brother descends, wanting answers, Rose is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.


MY THOUGHTS:


A warm-hearted and very readable contemporary romance set in an Australian vineyard, Rose’s Vintage throws failed-British chef-turned-au-pair Rose into the midst of a range of lovable, eccentric characters including two adorable children and their brooding, difficult but gorgeous father. I really enjoyed Rose’s journey as she rediscovered her love of cooking and negotiated her way through a host of troubles to find, at last, true love. 

 Perfect reading for a lazy summer Sunday!


Love contemporary romance set in the Australian landscape? Read my interview with Georgina Penny, author of A Summer Harvest

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS!

BOOK REVIEW: CASTLE OF DREAMS by Elise McCune

Monday, March 13, 2017





Castle of Dreams – Elise McCune


BLURB (from GoodReads)

A ruined castle deep in the rainforest holds a secret that unites three generations of women: two sisters who find themselves in love with the same man as the Second World War rages and, decades later, a young woman determined to uncover the secrets in her grandmother's hidden past.


Growing up together in a mysterious castle in northern Queensland, Rose and Vivien Blake are both sisters and close friends. But during the Second World War their relationship becomes strained when they each fall in love with the same dashing but enigmatic American soldier.

Rose’s daughter, Linda, has long sensed a secret in her mother’s past, but Rose has always resisted Linda’s questions, preferring to focus on the present.

Years later Rose’s granddaughter, Stella, also becomes fascinated by the shroud of secrecy surrounding her grandmother’s life. Intent on unravelling the truth, she visits the now-ruined castle Rose and Vivien grew up in to see if it she can find out more.

Captivating and compelling, Castle of Dreams is about love, secrets, lies – and the perils of delving into the past . . .



MY THOUGHTS:

A gorgeous cover and intriguing title drew me to Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune, described as an ‘enthralling novel of love, betrayals, loss and family secrets.’  The castle of the title is inspired by a real place in the Queensland rainforest, a Spanish-style castillo built by Jose Paronella as a pleasure park in the 1930s. The idea of a castle in an Australian rainforest setting is utterly beguiling, and I was immediately drawn in by the opening scene describing the crumbling bell-tower overgrown by lush vines, brightly coloured parrots darting past. 

Castle of Dreams moves back and forth between the stories of Vivien and Rose, two sisters in wartime Brisbane, who each fall in love with the same man; and Stella, Rose’s granddaughter, who finds herself fascinated by the untold secrets of the past. 

I love this type of dual narrative, and found the scenes set in the 1940s particularly evocative. A real page-turner of a book, with just enough sizzle.


Do you love parallel narratives too?
Here are lots of recommendations for you! 

BOOK REVIEW: On The Blue Train by Kristel Thornell

Sunday, March 12, 2017



BLURB:

What really did happen to Agatha Christie during her mysterious eleven-day disappearance just as she was on the cusp of fame? An entrancing novel of creativity and grief.

Yes, she said, finally. Breaks are important. There are times when it's wiser to get away. From it all.

It was the work of a moment, on 4 December 1926, Agatha Christie of London became Teresa Neele, resident of the spa hotel, the Harrogate Hydro. With her wedding ring left behind her, and her minimal belongings unpacked, Agatha's lost days begin.

Lying to her fellow guests about the death of a husband and child, Teresa settles in to the anonymity she so fiercely desires. Until, Harry McKenna, bruised from the end of his own marriage, asks her to dance.


MY THOUGHTS:

This novel by Kristel Thornell, who won the Vogel award with her first book, was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. Her car was found at the edge of a quarry, its hood up and lights on. Inside the police found her fur coat, her old driver’s license, and a bag of clothes. There was no sign of Agatha Christie herself. Murder was suspected, and thousands of police and volunteers combed the countryside, looking for her body. Eventually she was found staying at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the same surname as her husband’s mistress. 

I’ve long been interested in this story myself and have on my bookshelf an earlier novel inspired by the same incident entitled Agatha: A Novel of Mystery, by Kathleen Tynan, which I read years ago. I also have nearly every book Agatha Christie ever wrote, including her autobiography (in which there is no mention of her Harrogate adventure.) 

So I was really looking forward to On the Blue Train

My feelings on finishing the book are mixed. I think I was hoping for a book that brought Agatha to life, giving insights into her character and her creative processes, as well as illuminating the impulse which led her to run away from her life. Agatha Christie’s books are clever, witty, and very carefully constructed, and I had always imagined her as being acerbically funny and acutely observant. I was also, of course, interested in the relationship between her and her husband, who was at the time suspected of being her murderer. Was that her intention? Was she punishing him?

The heroine of Kristin Thornell’s book is something quite different. Clearly unhappy, she drifts around, buying herself new clothes and eating rather a lot of cake. She falls into company with another drifter, a man named Harry, and they remember past failed love affairs and contemplate the possibility of running away together. The pace of the book is slow and dreamy with little sense of tension or drama; and the heroine seems quiet, timid, and indecisive, which is not how I imagine her at all. 

On reflection, I probably would have liked On the Blue Train better if I was not so familiar with Agatha Christie’s own voice. Compare this:

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.

(Agatha’s own words) 

She sat and then stretched out, her head by the base of a tree, the coat like a silky languorous animal she was entwined with. She was also entwined with the possibility of death. 

That nacreous eye, watching over her. If she chose to, she could stare into it again, drift towards the magnet of a watery end. The end would come about by her own hand. In her own hand she would write a carnal full stop. 


(Kristel Thornell writing from Agatha’s point-of-view in On The Blue Train, page 295)


The two voices are so very different. I cannot imagine Agatha Christie describing a moonlit pool as a ‘nacreous eye’, or – a little earlier on the same page – ‘on a dim arboreal path she was taken by an imperious desire to lie down.’ 

So, as an act of ventriloquism, On The Blue Train does not succeed for me. 

It is, nonetheless, a slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Dry by Jane Harper

Saturday, March 11, 2017


BLURB:

Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well...

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret... A secret Falk thought long-buried... A secret which Luke's death starts to bring to the surface...


MY THOUGHTS:

Set in a small Australian country town, The Dry is a tense, compelling and atmospheric murder mystery, as well as an astonishingly assured debut from English-born novelist Jane Harper. It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015, and has since been sold in more than 20 territories and – wait for it – has been optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea's production company, Pacific Standard. It deserves all its acclaim. The story itself is brilliant: Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to his home town to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend. The town is in shock. Luke Hadler killed his wife and son, and then turned the gun on himself. Or so it is believed. Aaron begins to have doubts. But his investigation is hampered by the skeletons of his own past – and the people of that small outback town have long memories …

World-class crime writing with an evocative and powerful Australian setting puts this novel in a class of its own. Read it. 


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