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BOOK REVIEW: Do You Love Me or What? by Sue Woolfe

Monday, May 29, 2017




BLURB:


A brilliant collection of short stories by the bestselling, award-winning author of Leaning Towards Infinity, Painted Woman and The Secret Cure


Do You Love Me or What? is a collection of eight sparkling, nuanced short stories from one of Australia’s most celebrated and loved writers. Written in elegant, shimmering prose, Sue’s stories are woven with themes encompassing love, loss and yearning, memory and identity, the desert and water, and people who live on the periphery of society. Her sentences are spare and evocative, yet paint fully realised pictures that speak of the poignant, shared experiences of the nature of relationships, past and present.


MY THOUGHTS:


A collection of eight elegant and poignant short stories, Do You Love Me or Not? is concerned with the (often failed) search for connection and love between humans. Each story introduces a new character, yet there are connections between the stories in setting, theme and language. 


Some of the stories are achingly sad, others frightening, and some tender and heart-warming. ‘Small Talk’ was my favourite. It tells the story of a woman who goes to the desert  and wants to connect with the local Indigenous people, but finds that the silence between them is more difficult to bridge than she had imagined. It is not until she listens to the silences that she begins to understand. The story is gorgeously written and vibrant with colour and sensual detail.


‘By early evening of that day, she’d travelled beyond the mountain range and was in country so flat, with trees so low, that when she turned on her heel, she saw the entire circle of the horizon spinning by. She didn’t put up her tent but lay under the dome of stars, watching the trajectory of the Southern Cross move directly above her toes, then above her stomach, above her chest, above her head. Until dawn, the black sky was spangled all the way down to the ground, all around her.


She felt herself become braver.’ 


I also loved ‘The Dancer Talks’, told from the point of view of a tango dancer who fears she is going blind. The story is full of the intensity and anguish of dancing: ‘Magdalena … had never ceased to marvel at the way dancers considered their bodies rather like the way her carpenter father considered a tool, something that, with enough skill, could create a heaven on earth.’


Just wonderful. 




BOOK REVIEW: Ember and Ash by Pamela Freeman

Sunday, April 09, 2017

BLURB:

The old ones will have their revenge.

Two peoples have been fighting over the same land for a thousand years. Invaders crushed the original inhabitants, and ancient powers have reluctantly given way to newer magics. But Ember was to change all this with a wedding to bind these warring people together - until her future goes up in flames.

Ember's husband-to-be is murdered by a vengeful elemental god, who sees peace as a breach of faith. Set on retribution, she enlists the help of Ash, son of a seer. Together they will pit themselves against elementals of fire and ice in a last attempt to end the conflicts that have scarred their past. They must look to the present, as old furies are waking to violence and are eager to reclaim their people.

MY THOUGHTS:

Pamela Freeman is the author of a brilliant fantasy trilogy called ‘The Castings,’ comprised of Blood Ties, Deep Water and Full Circle, which I really loved.

Ember and Ash is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe but a generation after the events of the trilogy. It begins with the wedding night of the heroine, Ember. Her husband is killed within moments of them taking their vows, by a vengeful elemental god. The tragedy re-opens old wounds and destabilises the fragile peace of the land. Ember sets out on a quest to defeat the god and save her people, accompanied by one of her kin, Ash, the son of a seer. Their journey will test them to their limits, and help remake their world forever.

It was wonderful to return to the world of ‘The Castings’, where every new-born child is named for the first thing the mother sees after the baby is born. One of the things I love about Pamela’s writing is the way the stories of minor characters are given unexpected weight, so that everyone’s lives have meaning. She is also courageous enough to give us an unexpected ending which nonetheless rings true with the world she has created. 

BOOK REVIEW: Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Friday, April 07, 2017

BLURB:

Lirael is no longer a shy Second Assistant Librarian. She is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, with Dead creatures to battle and Free Magic entities to bind. She’s also a Remembrancer, wielder of the Dark Mirror. Lirael lost one of her hands in the binding of Orannis, but now she has a new hand, one of gilded steel and Charter Magic.

When Lirael finds Nicholas Sayre lying unconscious after being attacked by a hideous Free Magic creature, she uses her powers to save him. But Nicholas is deeply tainted with Free Magic. Fearing it will escape the Charter mark that seals it within his flesh and bones, Lirael seeks help for Nick at her childhood home, the Clayr’s Glacier.

But even as Lirael and Nick return to the Clayr, a young woman from the distant North braves the elements and many enemies in a desperate attempt to deliver a message to Lirael from her long-dead mother, Arielle. Ferin brings a dire warning about the Witch With No Face. But who is the Witch, and what is she planning?

Once more a great danger threatens the Old Kingdom, and it must be forestalled not only in the living world but also in the cold, remorseless river of Death.

MY THOUGHTS:

I have been a huge fan of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom fantasy series since the first book Sabriel was published in 1995. Any new book in the series is a cause of celebration (and not just in my house!) Goldenhand is the sixth in the series (counting the novella ‘Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case’ which was published in Garth’s collection of shorter pieces, ‘Across the Wall’). I think the series must be read in order, for maximum enjoyment. I do so again every few years.

Goldenhand focuses once more on the story of Lirael, who was once a shy Second Assistant Librarian but is now the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. Once again she and her friends must battle with evil powers to save the Old Kingdom ... and as always that means passing into the cold and relentless world of Death with nothing but a bandolier of bells to help her.

Always a joy to read, Garth’s writing is fluid, and full of moments of both beauty and brutality. Lirael is my favourite of his many wonderful characters (perhaps because she was shy and grew up with her nose in a book, just like me). I was also so glad to see another of my favourite characters return (but I’m not going to say who because it’s a spoiler.) All I can say is – if you love heroic fantasy and haven’t yet read the Old Kingdom books, start now. 

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: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BLURB:

In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


MY THOUGHTS:

I have read Emma Donogue’s brilliant collection of fairy-tale retellings Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins but have not yet read any of her novels. I have heard such high praise of her writing, however, and I was so interested in the premise of her new novel, The Wonder, that I bought it as soon as it hit the bookshops.

The story begins with an English nurse, who had trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arriving in a tiny Irish village to watch over a little girl whose family claims can survive without food. She lives on ‘manna from heaven’, and so is thought of as a kind of miracle. People come to her to be blessed, and leave the family gifts in return. The nurse, Mrs Wright, thinks it is all a sham, and determines to reveal the truth. However, slowly, all her preconceptions and prejudices are turned upside-down, and she discovers a very different truth to what she had expected.

I first read about cases like this in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s brilliant history of Anorexia Nervosa, Fasting Girls. She shows how food-refusal by girls and young women stretches all the way back to medieval times, when saints and martyrs refused food or purged themselves of food as a sign of their religious devotion. In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of so-called ‘fasting girls’ including the famous case of Sarah Jacob, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ who eventually died of starvation at the age of twelve after a watch was set over her by the local doctor. 

The Wonder is inspired by such real-life stories but, in the true art of fiction, transforms it into something much greater. The Wonder is a story about faith, about love, about secrets, and about the mysterious ways in which human lives intersect and impact on each other. I loved it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

Monday, March 27, 2017



BLURB:


1648: Civil war is devastating England. The privileged world Katherine Ferrars knows is crumbling under Cromwell's army, and as an orphaned heiress, she has no choice but to do her duty and marry for the sake of family.


But as her marriage turns into a prison, and her fortune is decimated by the war, Kate becomes increasingly desperate. So when she meets the enigmatic Ralph Chaplin, she seizes the chance he offers. Their plan is daring and brutal, but it's an escape from poverty and the shackles of convention. They both know if they're caught, there's only one way it can end..


MY THOUGHTS:


I absolutely loved Katherine Clements’s debut novel The Crimson Ribbon which was inspired by the true-life story of Elizabeth Poole, a mystic and writer during the English Civil War who became famous for her boldness and vision (she told Oliver Cromwell not to execute the king, for example).


It was one of my Best Books of 2013, and so I was excited to hear Katherine Clements had published a new book, also set during the English Civil War.


The Silvered Heart tells the story of Lady Katherine Ferrars, an impoverished noblewoman-turned-highwaywoman. The book begins when she is only thirteen, and is travelling to her wedding with the son of another aristocratic family. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads are at war, though, and so the roads are dangerous. Her carriage is held up by highwaymen, and young Kate barely escapes with her life. The events of that day foreshadow what will happen to her later, as she struggles to survive the imploding of her world. 


I have always loved books set during the English Civil War and never understood why it has not become as popular a period as Tudor or Elizabethan times. It has everything. Bloody battles, betrayals, executions, kings-in-hiding, star-crossed lovers, spies, witch-hunts, highwaymen and, of course, the legend of the Wicked Lady - a woman who tried to shape her own fate by taking to the roads. The character of Lady Katherine Ferrars is fascinating. She’s headstrong, impetuous, romantic and, at times, both selfish and unkind. This makes her seem so real – she just gallops off the page. 


The Silvered Heart is an exciting and engaging mix of drama, romance, and history – I really loved it and hope Katherine Clements is writing another book. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, March 22, 2017



BLURB:


In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.


But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 


MY THOUGHTS:


I have been steadily reading my way through Sarah Waters’s backlist after discovering her a year or so ago with the brilliant, unputdownable Affinity. She’s one of those writers that always makes me sigh and wish that I could write as well. 


The three books of hers that I have read to date are all set during the Victorian era. The Little Stranger, however, is set in the difficult years after World War II, when the known world has been shaken loose from its moorings. Its topography is familiar to me from dozens of books by Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Patricia Wentworth. Even though The Little Stranger is not a who-dunnit by any means, it shares a great deal with books by these classic crime writers – a grand English country house, class snobbery, mysteries and misdirection, unexpected twists, and a series of unexplained deaths and tragedies.


The Little Stranger also differs from Sarah Water’s earlier books by having a male narrator. Dr Faraday is the local doctor who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into affairs at Hundreds House. It soon becomes clear that he is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, which really heightens the tension and suspense, and reminded me of Agatha Christie’s great masterpiece Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It also reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the way the slowly building suspense becomes almost unbearable.


Yet The Little Stranger is at heart a creepy Gothic ghost story, with a malevolent poltergeist driving the inhabitants towards the house towards the book’s grand tragic finale. 


Or is it? 


Is the ghost real? Is it a strange kind of madness? A manifestation of intense psychic distress? Or is it a kind of malicious manipulation by someone in the house? Perhaps even the doctor himself?


This mystery and ambiguity is part of the genius of The Little Stranger. Since I finished reading it, I’ve discussed it with dozens of people who all believe something different. I think it is just brilliant. 


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. 

BOOK REVIEW: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Friday, February 17, 2017

BLURB:

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. 

Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. 

Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

MY THOUGHTS:

Atmospheric, compelling and full of foreboding, Wolf Winter was one of my best discoveries this year. It is set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, and begins with the discovery of a dead man’s body in the mountains by two little girls. The girls’ mother, Maija, finds herself unable to let the murder rest. It must be someone she knows, she reasons, and yet … who? 

Filled with superstitions and the fear of witchcraft, the local people all have secrets to hide. And so does Maija. The result is something so eerie, so chilling, so powerful, I could not put the book down. It reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, two of my favourite books, in the sheer desolation of the landscape and the sense of a dark threat that hangs over the characters. Brilliant.


BOOK REVIEW: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

Thursday, February 16, 2017



MY BLURB:


London, 1728. Tom Hawkins is headed to the gallows, accused of murder. Gentlemen don’t hang and Tom’s damned if he’ll be the first. He may not be much of a gentleman, but he is innocent. He just always finds his way into a spot of bad luck.  


It’s hard to say when Tom’s troubles began. He was happily living in sin with his beloved, Kitty Sparks — though their neighbors were certainly less pleased about that.  He probably shouldn't have told London’s most cunning criminal mastermind that he was "bored and looking for adventure." Nor should he have offered to help the king's mistress in her desperate struggles with a brutal and vindictive husband. And he definitely shouldn't have trusted the calculating Queen Caroline. She’s promised him a royal pardon if he holds his tongue, but then again, there is nothing more silent than a hanged man.     


Now Tom must scramble to save his life and protect those he loves. But as the noose tightens, his time is running out.


MY THOUGHTS:


The Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the sequel to The Devil in the Marchelsea, which I read and loved last year. Thomas Hawkins is a brilliant creation – flawed and yet so likeable. 


The son of a parson, he spends his day drinking and gambling and falling into trouble, with the help of his sharp-tongued, strong-willed lover, Kitty Sparks, who refuses to marry him because women lose all power once the wedding ring is on their finger. 


Set in 1728, the book is rich in sensual historical detail and yet the pace is unflagging. Thomas is in a race against time to solve a gruesome murder and outwit a sadistic aristocrat before the hangman’s noose is put about his neck. A truly fabulous historical romp.



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