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BOOK REVIEW: Behind the Sun by Deborah Challinor

Wednesday, November 22, 2017




The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Irreverent and streetwise prostitute, Friday Woolfe, is in London′s notorious Newgate gaol, awaiting transportation. There, she meets three other girls: intelligent and opportunistic thief, Sarah Morgan, naive young Rachel Winter, and reliable and capable seamstress, Harriet Clarke.

On the voyage to New South Wales their friendship becomes an unbreakable bond -- but there are others on board who will change their lives forever. Friday makes an implacable enemy of Bella Jackson, a vicious woman whose power seems undiminished by her arrest and transportation, while Harriet is taken under the wing of an idealistic doctor, James Downey. Rachel catches the eye of a sinister passenger with more than honour on his mind, whose brutal assault leaves her life hanging in the balance.

When they finally arrive on the other side of the world, they are confined to the grim and overcrowded Parramatta Female Factory. But worse is to come as the threat of separation looms. In the land behind the sun, the only thing they have is each other ...



My Thoughts:

Deborah Challinor and I shared a stage at the Historical Novel Society (Australasian) conference in Melbourne a few years ago, and so I was keen to read some of her work. She’s a New Zealand author and historian who has written over a dozen books, quite a few of them set in Australia. Behind the Sun is the first in a quartet following the adventures of four young women in the 1820s who are all convicted of various crimes and transported halfway around the world to the convict settlement of Sydney.

There is Friday Woolfe, a cheeky and irreverent prostitute, Sarah Morgan, a cool and intelligent thief, Rachel Winter, young and beautiful and far too naïve, and Harriet Clarke, a seamstress who stole some cloth in the hopes of saving her family from starvation.

Moving from the filth of Newgate Prison, to the hardships of the notorious convict ships, and arriving at last in Sydney, the four women find their friendship and courage tested to the limits.

Written with verve and zest, Behind the Sun has bright moments of humour and warmth and some very dark moments of cruelty and loss. The story races along at a cracking pace, but not once is historical veracity or vibrancy sacrificed for narrative momentum. A really great holiday read with some truly unforgettable characters. 


For another great read about women and crime, check out my review of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. 


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

BOOK REVIEW: The Midsummer Garden by Kirsty Manning

Friday, November 17, 2017




The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.

1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists' lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the chateau. But who will she trust?

2014 Pip Arnet is an expert in predicting threats to healthy ecosystems. Trouble is, she doesn't seem to recognise these signs in her own life. What Pip holds dearest right now is her potential to make a real difference in the marine biology of her beloved Tasmanian coastline. She'd thought that her fiance Jack understood this, believed that he knew she couldn't make any plans until her studies were complete. But lately, since she's finally moved in with him, Jack appears to have forgotten everything they'd discussed.

When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip's kitchen, the two stories come together in a rich and sensuous celebration of family and love, passion and sacrifice.


My Thoughts:

Kirsty Manning is an Australian journalist and author who has previously co-authored a book on gardens and cooking called We Love Food. These two passions are apparent on every page of her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden.

The novel travels back and forth in time between the stories of Pip, an Australian doctoral student in 2014, and Artemisia, a cook at the Chateau de Boschaud in 1487. The two are linked by the discovery of a small book of hand-written recipes hidden within a set of antique French copper pots given to Pip as a wedding gift. Artemisia is planning to marry also, although she must keep her romance a secret from the cruel Abbot Roald who would never give his permission. Pip’s marriage plans are also in danger of falling apart, as her studies into Tasmanian marine life do not seem as important to her fiancé Jack as they are to her.

As both women’s hopes and dreams unravel, the story travels to Spain and then to Italy as Pip searches for her true calling. This is a rich, sensual, and evocative novel, fragrant with the smell of crushed herbs and flowers, and haunted by the high cost that women must sometimes pay to find both love and their vocation. 


For another book about food and France, see my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard. 


Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment! 

BOOK REVIEW: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

Friday, November 10, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power. . . .


A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.

The first volume of the Empress of Bright Moon duology paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.


My Thoughts:

I met Weina Dai Randel when I was in the US earlier this year, attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland. A gorgeous cover and intriguing premise worked their usual powerful force on me, and I added her novel The Moon in the Palace to the great pile of books I had to lug home.

The story begins when a Buddhist monk predicts that a five-year-old girl named Mei would one day be the mother of emperors and reign over the kingdom of China. From that moment, Mei’s father began to plot to have his beautiful little girl brought to the attention of the Emperor. Her father’s plans are disrupted by his unexpected death, but then Mei – now twelve years old – finds herself summoned to the court as one of fifteen maidens chosen to enter the Inner Court. From this moment, her life changes drastically. Separated from her mother, she must learn to negotiate through the intrigues and dangers of the life at the palace. The Emperor has many hundreds of concubines, most of which he has never seen. If Mei wants to become his Most Adored, she must use her wit as well as her beauty … and be very careful not to fall in love with another man …

The Moon in the Palace brings the claustrophobic world of ancient China to vivid life. Exotic, dangerous, brilliantly coloured and romantic, it’s an astonishingly assured debut and a fascinating story.


For another great read set in Ancient Asia, in this case Japan, I recommend Lian Hearn's book Across the Nightingale Floor, the first in a fantastic series. It made my list of favourite books by Australian Authors. 


Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!



BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Friday, October 20, 2017




The Blurb (From Goodreads)

From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shat
tered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

My Thoughts:

Elizabeth Kostova is best known as the author of The Historian which was a huge bestseller in 2005, riding the tsunami of vampire craziness. Elizabeth Kostova’s book was dark, complex, intelligent, and filled with the true history of vampiric lore. I loved it. I also loved her second novel, The Swan Thieves, about art, love and madness. So I was really thrilled when I was asked to do an event with Elizabeth during her Australian tour in July.

She was here to promote her third book, The Shadow Land, which moves fluidly between the past and the present in Bulgaria. The story begins when a young American woman – newly arrived in the capital city of Sofia – accidentally finds herself in possession of someone else’s bag. Inside the bag is an urn filled with human ashes.

Distraught at the discovery, Alexandra tries to find the original owner but the only clue she has is the name engraved on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov. In her quest to identify him, she finds herself in ever increasing danger.

The sections set in the past are told from numerous points-of-view but circle ever closer to the life and death of Stoyan Lazarov, a musician who sees something he should not have seen during the years of the communist regime.

Heart-breaking, evocative, and suspenseful, The Shadow Land explores a little-known and tragic part of European history in beautiful, restrained writing that brought me to tears several times.

For another great historical read set in Europe, check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The author of The Girl Who Came Home turns the clock back one hundred years to a time when two young girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, convinced the world that they had done the impossible and photographed fairies in their garden. Now, in her newest novel, international bestseller Hazel Gaynor reimagines their story.

1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?

My Thoughts:

One hundred years ago, two girls went down to the stream at the bottom of their garden in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, and took some photographs of fairies. Elsie Wright (aged 16) and Frances Griffiths (aged 10) were cousins, and each took turns in being photographed. They developed the photos, and showed them to Elsie’s father who had mocked them for believing in fairies. Elsie’s mother showed the photos at a meeting of the Theosophical Society, and eventually they came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who championed the two girls and their photos as evidence of supernatural phenomena. The two girls maintained the truth of their photographs all through the ensuing media storm but eventually confessed - when in their 80s – that the fairies had been drawn on paper and carefully cut out and stuck on hat-pins. All except one, Frances said. One of the photographs was real.

Hazel Gaynor brings the mystery of the Cottingley Fairies thrillingly to life in a gorgeously written narrative that moves seamlessly between Yorkshire in the 19th century - a time when Conan Doyle and other men of science wanted desperately to believe in the possibility of fairies and ghosts and spirits - and Ireland in the 21st century. A mystery, a love story, and an enchanting and surprising journey of self-discovery, 'The Cottingley Secret' unwraps the true story behind one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century while still allowing the possibility of the magical.



Read my 2015 interview with Hazel Gaynor here.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Marry in Haste by Anne Gracie

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

From the award-winning author of The Summer Bride comes the first in a charming new historical romance series where marriages of convenience turn into true love matches.

Major Calbourne Rutherford returns to England on the trail of an assassin, only to find he’s become Lord Ashendon, with the responsibility for vast estates and dependent relatives. Cal can command the toughest of men, but his wild half-sisters are quite another matter. They might just be his undoing.

When he discovers that Miss Emmaline Westwood, the girls’ former teacher, guides them with ease, Cal offers her a marriage of convenience. But strong-minded and independent Emm is neither as compliant nor as proper as he expected, and Cal finds himself most inconveniently seduced by his convenient wife.

Emm knows they didn’t marry for love, yet beneath her husband’s austere facade, she catches glimpses of a man who takes her breath away. As pride, duty and passion clash, will these two stubborn hearts find more than they ever dreamed of?

My Thoughts:


A light-hearted Regency romance by Australian author Anne Gracie, Marry In Haste is the story of a British soldier-turned-spy who unexpectedly finds himself hampered with a title, a vast estate, numerous aged retainers and a handful of wilful half-sisters who never do what they are told. Floundering helplessly, he turns to their former school teacher for help. But Miss Emmaline Westwood has her own dreams, and turning governess is not one of them. Life has other plans for her, however, and soon the mismatched couple are marrying for convenience’s sake, much to the disapproval of his irascible Aunt Agatha, who must always have the last word.

Anne Gracie’s Regency romances are always a delight, filled with vivid likeable characters, laugh-out-loud situations, and sparkling dialogue.




You might also enjoy my interview with Anne Gracie which you can read here.

Are you also an Anne Gracie fan? Please leave a comment, I love to read your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Now a major motion picture starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Tom Hooper, THE DANISH GIRL is a shockingly original novel about one of the most unusual and passionate love stories of the 20th century.

Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change?

It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

The Danish Girl is an evocative and deeply moving novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.

My Thoughts:

Inspired by the tragic true-life story of Einar Wegener, one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl has since been made into a hit movie starring Eddie Redmayne. I haven’t seen the movie but it certainly brought the book to my attention.

Then I heard David Ebershoff speak at the Historical Novel Society conference in the US, and I was so entranced I rushed off to buy the book straight away and have it autographed.

It’s a simple yet fascinating story. Einer Wegener was a Danish landscape painter, married to another artist, Greta, who painted enormous portraits of famous people. One day Greta’s model – a ballerina – failed to turn up and she asked her husband to model for her instead. Einar had to pull on a pair of silk stockings and hold a tutu against him. It awoke something in him. Einer began to dress as Lili, identifying more strongly with her every day. Eventually she underwent a series of surgeries, eventually dying of an infection after a botched attempt to transplant a uterus.

David Ebershoff has taken numerous liberties with the story, making Greta Wegener an American heiress when she was in fact Gerda Gottlieb and Danish. I believe this was to make the story more appealing to an American audience, but I would have preferred more historical accuracy. That detail aside, the novel is written with great sensitivity and tenderness, and Greta’s struggle to understand Lili is at the core of the novel. A really fascinating and heart-breaking story.



For another great read that's about to be turned in to a movie, check out my review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Remember to leave a comment, I love to know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: The Alice Network by Alice Quinn

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth ...no matter where it leads.

My Thoughts:


The Alice Network
is one of the best books I’ve read this year. An utterly enthralling tale of love, courage, resistance and redemption, it begins in 1947 with the story of Charlie St Clair, who has been taken out of college because she is pregnant and does not know who the father is. Taken to Europe by her mother ‘to take care of the problem’, Charlie rebels. All she wants to do is try and track down her cousin, Rose, who went missing in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie has only a few clues, but one of them leads her to the house of Eva Gardiner, a scarred and dangerous drunkard.

Eva then begins to tell her story. In 1915, she is a brilliant young woman hampered by a profound stutter that leads most people to think she is stupid. Fluent in both German and French, Eva is recruited as a spy for the British and sent into Occupied France to work for the Alice Network, an underground resistance group run by Lili, an audacious young woman with the codename of ‘Alice’. Cool-headed, smooth-faced Eva is a natural, and begins to acquire useful information as she works as a waitress in a restaurant frequented by the top-brass German officers, who do not realise she speaks their language. Despite all her care, Eva catches the attention of the restaurant owner, a suave, sophisticated – and deadly – French collaborator named René.

The novel moves fluidly back and forth between the two historical periods, the suspense building as Charlie’s search for her cousin becomes entwined with Eva’s search for René, a man she had thought was dead. I just could not put this book down and found myself reading it when I had a million other things to do. I particularly loved the depiction of Eva’s struggle with her stutter, as this has been a lifelong fight for me also. Stutterers are rarely given heroic status in fiction or film, and indeed often appear only for comic purposes. It’s really refreshing to see someone with a speech impediment portrayed as clever, quick-witted and incisive. A stumbling tongue does not mean a fumbling brain.

The Alice Network was the first of Alice Quinn’s books I’ve read, but it will not be the last. I’m hunting down all her other books as we speak!



If you're interested in history, you may also enjoy reading my review of A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart, another great read set in WWI.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.

Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.


My Thoughts:

In the early 17th century, during the last years of the Elizabethan era, a witch craze hit Lancashire and a dozen men and women were brought to trial accused of black magic and Satanism. Six of the accused came from just two families who lived near to each other at Pendle Hill in Lancashire. Elizabeth Southerns (called Mother Demdike) was in her eighties, and was accused along with her daughter (also called Elizabeth) and her grand-children James and Alizon Device. A neighbour Annie Whittle (called Mother Chattox) was also in her eighties and was accused along with her daughter Anne. The other six also lived nearby, and included a mother and her son. One died in prison, and one was found not guilty, but the rest were hanged on 20 August 1612. The two women in their 80s were both acknowledged village healers and cunning-women, and their tsti9mony is a fascinating glimpse into the magical thinking of England in the 1600s.

Mary Sharratt has taken the story of the Pendle Witches – the most famous witch-trials in British history – and brought them to vivid and heart-rending life. Most of the narrative is told through the eyes of Bess Southerns, cunning-woman and widow, who ekes out a living on the edge of Pendle Forest by healing the sick, making love spells and foretelling the future. As her grand-daughter Alizon grows up, Bess begins to teach her the secret of magic but finds herself at odds with her neighbour, Mother Chattox, who turns to the dark arts in her desire for revenge and power.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after an exchange of hot words with Alizon, the family finds themselves drawn into accusation and counter-accusation, which leads them inexorably towards tragedy.

I knew the story of the Pendle Witches well, having read a great deal about it over the years, but it is not necessary to know the background to be drawn into this powerful and beautifully imagined novel. This is a story about love, compassion, strength and betrayal, and a must-read for anyone who loved Hannah Kent’s The Good People or Kathleen Kent’s
The Heretic’s Daughter.



For more great fiction about witches, check out my 2013 review of Witch Child by Celia Rees

Please do leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts! 

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Wednesday, September 06, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

My Thoughts:


"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one."


This chilling children’s playground rhyme was inspired by the true-life story of Lizzie Borden, who was – in 1892 - tried but then acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The case was never solved, and still continues to interest more than a hundred years after the event.

Sarah Schmidt says that she was inspired to write Look What I Have Done after Lizzie Borden came to her in a dream. I’m always fascinated by novels inspired by dreams, as so many of my own books begin in this way, and so I was eager to read her take on the well-known story.

The novel is told in alternating first-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget, and a loutish young man who seems to have been hired by the sisters’ maternal uncle to hurt or attack their father in some way. None of the voices seem particularly reliable, and so it is hard to ascertain the truth of what has happened. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic and cloying, with many descriptions of the stench of rotting meat and over-ripe pears. Lizzie’s voice is awkward and childish and gleeful in turns, and – although Sarah Schmidt does not attempt to answer the question of who was truly the murderer – by the end of the book, I felt sure that it was Lizzie and that her acquittal was a miscarriage of justice.

For another wonderfully eerie, historical mystery check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecila Ekback.

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



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