Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022

Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
a stunning read (12/7/2020)
“Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.”

Educated is a memoir by New York Times best-selling author, Tara Westover. Born into a Mormon family, Westover is raised in Buck Peak, Idaho by a father who has morphed from serious, physically impressive and independent-minded young man, to a man with (undiagnosed) bipolar disorder and paranoia about the Government and the Medical Establishment, who are clearly “Agents of the Devil”. Formal education results in getting “brainwashed by socialists and Illuminati spies”.

Her mother is a talented herbalist and an unregistered midwife, who initially believes in educating her children but acquiesces to her husband’s demands for practical skills. Their father instils in his family a deep mistrust of phones, doctors, any type of government documentation or registration, and his determination to be prepared for when the Feds come to get them; the threat of the coming Days of Abomination require the family to bottle fruit and put up preserves, and each prepare “head for the hills” bags.

When the third of her older brothers abandons the family, to go to college (against his father’s will), ten-year-old Tara is drafted into working in her father’s junkyard, where safety is left to God: “I tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, ‘Don’t throw them here! I’m here!’ Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, honey,’ he said. ‘God is here, working right alongside us. He won’t let anything hurt you. But if you are hurt, then that is His will.’”

Where there are injuries, be they penetrative wounds or third-degree burns, the injured drag themselves to be treated with rescue remedy and herbals by their mother. “Mother always said that medical drugs are a special kind of poison, one that never leaves your body but rots you slowly from the inside for the rest of your life. She told me if I took a drug now, even if I didn’t have children for a decade, they would be deformed.”

As an adolescent, large in her life is a judgemental brother who revels in physical and mental cruelty, while an absent brother encourages Tara to take a qualifying exam for Brigham Young College, despite having never been to school. After she excels in academia, the former becomes the cause of a major rift in the family; the latter never fails to support.
While her father allows Tara to audition for musicals (love or pride?), his reaction to her decision to go to college is disapproval: “The Lord has called me to testify,” he said. “He is displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming” When she wins a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, he reminds her to credit her (non-existent) home schooling; as she boards the plane for England, his main concern is that he will be unable to bring her home to safety “when the End comes”.

Once she has gained academic qualifications, she comes to realise: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

It’s said that truth is often stranger than fiction; sometimes, what Westover described is so shocking, it is blackly funny: Having had a major motor vehicle accident during an all-night drive, causing his family multiple injuries, the following year, her father insists on another late-night interstate drive: “’Shouldn’t we drive slower?’ Mother asks. Dad grins. ‘I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly.’ The van is still accelerating. To fifty, then to sixty” with the inevitable, identical result.

Westover’s book will leave some readers incredulous that such families exist in modern times, and may beg the question: Given that public education is freely available, and that most would consider the provision of basic education the responsibility of every parent, and the right of every child, then is preventing one’s child from gaining this not child abuse? What Westover has achieved is nothing short of inspirational. A stunning read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House.
The Goodbye Man: A Colter Shaw Novel
by Jeffery Deaver
action drama (11/9/2020)
The Goodbye Man is the second book in the Colter Shaw series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. In Washington State to track down a pair accused of hate crimes, Colter Shaw easily outsmarts his trigger-happy rival, some similarly-minded law enforcement officers and finds the young men on an isolated road near Snoqualmie Gap. As he disarms and secures them, one escapes and unexpectedly suicides.

He understands they were en route to a retreat, the Osiris Foundation, and what he observes as representatives arrive at the location of the death set his internal alarm bells ringing. Following some research and a bit of inventive online profile creation, Carter Skye pays the fee and registers for a three-week stay in their secluded enclave.

Shaw is alert for any scent of the Foundation being a cult but, despite seeing an undercover reporter assaulted and banished, he’s not entirely convinced the whole deal isn’t fairly benign. But within days, what he witnesses has him concerned for the safety of fellow attendees. And when he fails to prevent an outspoken young man from being murdered, the stakes get higher.

But what can one man, with no phone and no weapons, in an isolated compound with high security, do? Unless, of course, he has been brought up by a paranoid survivalist, that is. Unless he’s Colter Shaw.

While much of the cult-related material is interesting and believable, and quite a few aspects of the cult leader will likely remind readers of a certain recently-deposed president, some suspension of disbelief at Shaw’s abilities and activities will be needed. The story drags on for rather too long, and the unresolved issues from book one (the story behind Ashton Shaw’s death, Margot Keller, Russell Shaw) are only touched upon in the final forty pages. Perhaps they will be addressed in the next book, for those who can be bothered reading on.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harper Collins Australia.
Dear Miss Kopp: Kopp Sisters #6
by Amy Stewart
excellent historical fiction (11/4/2020)
Dear Miss Kopp is the sixth book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. By mid-1918, the Kopp sisters find themselves apart, with Constance and Fleurette on separate missions travelling the country, while Norma and her pigeons are in France. Letters (some unsent), short notes and telegrams flow between them and others, carrying news of their lives and glimpses at happenings and conditions in their far-flung locations.

Constance upbraids Norma for the brevity of her missives: Norma is reluctant to enumerate her problems with her commanding officer, and too modest to detail her triumphs, but her roommate in their poor, cramped accommodation has no such qualms; Nurse Agnes Bell, stationed at the American Hospital in their unnamed French village, is so pleased to borrow this Kopp sister (especially when Norma helps to prove her innocence on a theft charge), she writes in detail to Constance; Norma pours out her exasperations to General Murray back home.

Fleurette’s reticence in letters to her older sisters is absent in missives to her best friend, Helen Stewart, to whom she describes to the accommodations and chaperoning arrangements for the entertainment troupes sent to boost the morale of army camps full of soldiers about to go to war, and run-ins with overzealous Women’s Protective Committee members, apparently blinkered to culpability of men, resulting in stints in “girl jail”.

To her sisters, as she resides in female boarding houses in between assignments for the Bureau of Investigation, Constance describes the torture of families and sweethearts awaiting any word from sons, brothers, beaus, the dispatch of comfort items in parcels, the often-unhelpful American Protection League activities, book drives, support of French war orphans, and the bartering that produces miracle meals from meagre supplies.

Norma’s problems include Army superiors who consider the whole pigeon program, intended to save the lives of runners, a frivolity; and soldiers who see it as a waste of time and are so poorly informed the birds are mistreated and sometimes end up as pigeon pie. Not to be daunted by orders, Norma takes the initiative and gets her birds to the front under the radar, an exercise that includes madeleines and love poems.

Constance tries to boost her morale: “We can only do our part. We cannot, as individuals, put a stop to crime or mayhem or even war. (Especially war.) We won’t, in any final sense, ever win. There will always be a police department, or a sheriff’s office, or an Army and Navy, because there will always be another criminal, another battle, another belligerent nation. All we can do is to get up every day and to stand on the side of justice and fairness.”

Fleurette somehow ends up doing a solo performance: a hit with the troops but it infuriates their spoiled, moody star, May Ward. Her letters describe the mood of soldiers about to risk their lives, feeling that naming war insurance beneficiaries is virtually a bet against oneself. The acquisition of a feathered companion spurs Fleurette to write to Norma.

Meanwhile, Constance infiltrates networks of German saboteurs, goes on slacker raids, investigates propagandist publications and engages in anti-unionist espionage (much to her distaste). Her reports entertain Bureau director, Bruce Bielaski, who gives her free rein, and Constance eventually recruits and trains a female BI agent, then enlists the help of Fleurette in an important covert operation.

Stewart’s Historical Notes are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvelous tale. Once again, excellent historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Miss Benson's Beetle
by Rachel Joyce
Once again, Rachel Joyce does not disappoint. (10/31/2020)
Miss Benson’s Beetle is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Rachel Joyce. When, at the age of forty-six, Miss Margery Benson comes to truly understand the low regard in which she is held at the school where she teaches a class of ungrateful girls home economics, she makes a snap decision: she will fulfill the vow she made back in 1914 when she was a girl of ten.

She places an ad in The Times: “Wanted. French- speaking assistant for expedition to other side of the world. All expenses paid.” The right applicant will help her find the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, to prove its existence to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum.

She’d been shown it in a book, Incredible Creatures, by her beloved father, just before he died: “’Do you think they’re real?’ she said. Her father nodded. ‘I have begun to feel comforted,’ he said, ‘by the thought of all we do not know, which is nearly everything.’ With that upside-down piece of wisdom, he turned another page.”

The favoured candidate pulls out at the last minute, leaving Margery no choice but to accept the one she considered most unsuitable, Enid Pretty, a dyslexic, over-made-up, endlessly chatty bottle-blonde with a talent for charming her way through obstacles (sometimes via cash and cleavage). An observer describes her as a trickster.

Enid, keeping a tight hold on her red valise, is very eager to join in Margery’s expedition, but clearly harbouring a secret or two. “Enid was still anathema to Margery, like trying to read a map upside down. She rushed through life as if she was being chased. Even things whose whole point was slowness, like waking up, for instance, after a heavy night’s sleep, she took at a lick.” Yet, when Margery really needs her help, she freely gives it.

Margery and Enid arrive, but will they find their beetle? “She hadn’t a clue why she was lying in a hammock on the other side of the world, already half crippled, looking for a beetle that had never been found – she could die out here, under these alien stars, and no one would know.” And quite unbeknownst to then both, a rejected candidate, a former POW with a severe case of PTSD is hot on their trail, his intentions a little vague.

What a wonderful story Joyce gives the reader! Quirky characters who can irritate and endear; a setting so well rendered that the heat, humidity and foreignness are palpable; and several secrets gradually revealed. Laugh-out-loud (almost slapstick) moments are balanced with lump-in-the-throat occasions and wise words: “We are not the things that happened to us. We can be what we like”.

Central to the story is the unlikely friendship that forms: “The differences between them – all those things she’d once found so infuriating – she now accepted. Being Enid’s friend meant there were always going to be surprises” but also explored are grief and guilt, independence and self-worth. Once again, Rachel Joyce does not disappoint.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Transworld Publishing.
The Never Game
by Jeffery Deaver
A page-turner. (10/26/2020)
The Never Game is the first book in the Colter Shaw series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. Some people call Colter Shaw a mercenary. Not the fight-for-money kind. Colter makes a living by finding missing people for the reward offered. And he’s good at it. From a young age, his parents instilled into their children survival skills unlike any most parents would select. It’s stood him in good stead.

His latest case takes him to Silicone Valley, where a nineteen-year-old student, Sophie Mulliner, has gone missing. The local cops aren’t doing much, convinced she’s a runaway, so Frank Mulliner offers a reward. Colter gets the information, works out the probabilities, finds the evidence of kidnapping, doing everything the police should have. And he finds the girl. Job done. Except…

There are some strange aspects to this case. And there was a murder committed during the rescue. And then, hours later, there is another kidnapping. And another. It’s starting to look like the killer is playing a game, enacting a particular computer game. By this time the police actually want Colter’s help.

Colter Shaw is an interesting protagonist: highly skilled, always calculating the odds, assessing the probabilities, and usually making only informed decisions, even when faced with a mountain lion. The reader learns about his unconventional upbringing via flashbacks that intersperse the present-day narrative. There’s also an unresolved thread underlying Colter’s current cases, which is gradually revealed in those flashbacks, relating to a shocking event that occurred fifteen years earlier.

While the story does include quite a bit about gaming, this is fairly subtly done. There are plenty of twists and red herrings and, as well as setting up the case Colter will next be dealing with, Deaver leaves enough unanswered questions in Colter’s background for future instalments. A page-turner.
Just Like You
by Nick Hornby
entertaining and thought-provoking. (10/19/2020)
Just Like You is the eighth novel by award-winning British author, Nick Hornby. When Lucy Fairfax and Joseph Campbell embark on their relationship, neither is looking too closely at the reasons, or the likely outcome: they are acting on mutual attraction, and find that they enjoy each other’s company.

Lucy, a separated mother of two, is Head of the English Department at the local high school, forty-two years old and white. Joseph does various part-time jobs including, football coaching, baby-sitting and working in the local butcher’s, is twenty-two years old, and black. When they are together, they are happy. Despite their quite disparate backgrounds, they are interested in each other’s lives, enjoy their conversations (the coming Brexit vote is on everyone’s lips), and have great sex.

Lucy’s young sons love spending time with Joseph, although there’s less of that now that he comes to spend time with Lucy instead of baby-sitting them. Because this is a covert relationship: they don’t go out. It is when the result of the Brexit vote is announced that they realize just how closeted their lives have become, and how different they really are. The relationship ebbs fairly swiftly if amicably. Joseph still babysits. They both date others. But is it really over?

The insecurities that need to be soothed with reassurances in any relationship are a little different here, taking in race, age gap and level of education: “He was just a kid. He could see that now. It was because everything was new that he was embarrassed and raw. He wasn’t established in any field, really. He’d be bringing her stuff, like a puppy, for a long time to come, and she could only rub his belly and call him a good boy until he was an old dog with no new tricks.”

The Brexit referendum backdrop allows Hornby to explore the effect of such an issue on everyday life: “Lucy understood it now. The referendum was giving groups of people who didn’t like each other, or at least failed to comprehend each other, an opportunity to fight. The government might just as well be asking a yes/no question about public nudity, or vegetarianism, or religion, or modern art, some other question that divided people into two groups, each suspicious of the other. There had to be something riding on it, otherwise people wouldn’t get so upset.”

There are plenty of (sometimes darkly) funny moments in this tale, including kids who are much more aware than their mother thinks, a mother who twigs to her son’s activities via Find My Phone, and a confession by text. As well as heading in an unpredictable direction, Hornby’s latest is entertaining and thought-provoking.
Anxious People
by Fredrik Backman
Wise, insightful and blackly funny. (10/3/2020)
“…you should always be nice to other people, even idiots, because you never know how heavy their burden is.”

Anxious People is the sixth novel by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman. It is translated by Neil Smith and consists of (approx):
11 Comedy of Errors
11 Locked-room mystery
33 Social Commentary
11 Love Story
11 Slapstick/Keystone Cops
22 Philosophy
1 Farce
And 100 Backman
A small Swedish town. The young cop is frustrated. The hostages have been released unharmed, but the hostage-taker is missing, and the cop is certain that some, if not all, of the hostages are telling less than the whole truth. The big bosses from Stockholm will soon be there to take over.

The older cop worries for the young man, who obviously wants to solve the whole thing before they arrive. But the puzzle is defeating him. Hidden by a ski-mask and wielding a pistol, the robber made an unsuccessful attempt to rob the bank, then fled into an apartment open for viewing, taking the potential buyers hostage.

After a thorough search of the apartment, however, there was no sign of the failed robber. Interrogation of each of the hostages yields little useful information. Of course, the reader, privy to the bank robber’s thoughts, has it figured out pretty quickly, right? Sure.

In characteristic Fredrik Backman fashion, he gives the reader a cast of people, all with their own individual anxieties, but all easy to identify with, throws them together and gradually reveals how they got that way. If all are initially strangers, there are definitely less than six degrees of separation between some of them.

There’s a gun, a fair bit of blood, a large rabbit, a bowl of limes, several pizzas, and someone ends up with a lump on their forehead, but no animals are harmed in the making of this tale. Patience with the initial silliness is amply rewarded with an intriguing mystery, astute observations and sage comments, and lots of laugh-out-loud moments: “The bank robber stamped the floor in frustration. ‘No one’s listening to me! You’re the worst hostages ever!’” Wise, insightful and blackly funny.
Utopia Avenue
by David Mitchell
Another excellent dose of David Mitchell magic. (9/29/2020)
Utopia Avenue is the seventh novel by award-winning British author, David Mitchell. In early 1967, due to a pickpocket, bass guitarist Dean Moss finds himself, in quick succession, homeless, jobless, almost penniless and still owing the final payment on his guitar. Levon Frankland appears at the critical moment with a proposal, and shortly thereafter, Dean’s on stage at the 2i’s club, playing with a dazzling lead guitarist and a talented drummer. Frankland has big plans for them.

Not much later, Jasper de Zoet, Peter “Griff” Griffin and Dean are listening, spellbound, as Elf Holloway, the remaining (and better) half of the Fletcher and Holloway duo, sings her compositions solo. It’s these four that will comprise the band soon to be known as Utopia Avenue, which Frankland hopes to promote to fame and fortune.

It takes a year of hard slog, practice and travelling to gigs, not all of which are well-received, before they have a single and an album on the market. This eclectic mix of singer/songwriters, each with established roots in distinctly different genres, produces a unique sound. Elf has proven her popularity in folk; Griff drums jazz; Dean’s style is blues; and Jasper’s, acid rock; music critics struggle to classify them, but the public likes what it hears.

If Dean comes across as an angry young man with father issues, Elf’s background epitomises family support, while Griff’s anarchic persona belies a loving family; Levon tries to stay under the homophobic radar that typifies the times.

Jasper is different: a youth spent commuting across the channel between his maternal English and paternal Dutch families, he describes himself as emotionally dyslexic, and that’s not all that’s going on in his head. A problem that has plagued Jasper since he was fifteen seems to be re-emerging and the band’s visit to Amsterdam allows him to seek help…

“A brain constructs a model of reality. If the model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labelled “Sane”. If that model is different, you’re labelled a genius, a misfit, a visionary or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labelled a schizophrenic and locked up”

Three main narratives, with some flashbacks, trace the band’s trajectory from inception to (relatively short-lived) fame and the aftermath, detailing incidents and life events that inspire the songs on their three albums. The chapters are headed for the LP track titles, with the narrative perspective denoted as the artist’s credit, in parentheses.

This is not a quick read, but it’s hard not to invest in these characters and worry about their fate and feel indignant at what befalls them: love and loss, grief and guilt, plagiarism, blackmail and false imprisonment. Mitchell easily evokes the era, with plenty of star cameos dotting a soup thick with sixties names, drug use, free love, and song titles that are bound to cause earworms (some quite annoying).

While this novel can probably be read as a stand-alone, and will appeal especially to readers of a certain vintage, having read Mitchell’s previous works will certainly enhance the reader’s enjoyment, as there are quite a lot of references (characters, events, objects) to earlier works: Mitchell fans are more likely to “get it”. There are also significant spoilers for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Another excellent dose of David Mitchell magic.
The Book of Two Ways
by Jodi Picoult
interesting and thought-provoking (9/7/2020)
The Book of Two Ways is the twenty-fourth adult novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Jodi Picoult. By some miraculous quirk of fate, Dawn Edelstein is one of a handful survivors of a plane crash. During the crash, her thoughts go, not to her family, but to Egyptologist and former lover, Wyatt Armstrong, last seen fifteen years earlier, and the dissertation she never completed. Instead of going home to her husband and daughter, Dawn flies to Cairo, heading for the dig where she believes Wyatt will be. Her sole intention is to complete her dissertation.
By some miraculous quirk of fate, Dawn Edelstein is one of a handful survivors of a plane crash. During the crash, her thoughts go, not to her family, but to Egyptologist and former lover, Wyatt Armstrong, last seen fifteen years earlier, and the dissertation she never completed. Dawn returns to Boston, to her job as a death doula, to a marriage strained by a recent incident and to a teenaged daughter unsettled by self-image and hints of tension between her parents.

Dawn in Egypt recalls her childhood with her superstitious Irish mother, her three seasons in Egypt, and the thrill of discovery: a new tomb and a new lover. As she once again works a dig, her earlier time shared with Wyatt is uppermost in her mind: how their relationship, both professional and personal, began, developed into a fiery passion for work and each other, and then was cut short in a mercy dash back to Boston.

Dawn in Boston is reminded of her sudden return from Egypt to a dying mother, a hospice, guardianship of a teenaged brother, and the overwhelming responsibility settling on her shoulders. With her marriage now a little wobbly, she thinks back to meeting Brian Edelstein and their shared life. At the same time, Dawn attends a new client, a dying woman of her own age with some parallels to Dawn’s life.

As chapters alternate between Egypt and Boston, yielding certain pieces of information, it seems Picoult is taking the reader on two of many possible future life paths of a woman whose thoughts, feelings and emotions have been distilled by a near-death experience. Or, at least, that’s how it looks for most of the novel, until Picoult throws the reader for a loop.

This is a very cleverly constructed story, although mixed ratings indicate that not all readers appreciate the ride. Picoult has patently done a mountain of research. Some of the Egyptology is a little heavy going: the brain tends to skip over tongue-twister Egyptian names and the photographs are indistinct but hieroglyphs are clear; the stories, myths and legends are captivating, as are the Irish superstitions and the death customs. The role of the death doula is fascinating and if the quantum mechanics is quite involved, the concept of parallel universes and alternate potential futures is intriguing.

As usual, Picoult’s characters are larger than life, if not always entirely endearing. Dawn seems to have some double standards and readers may not find her apparently easy switch between lovers easy to forgive. As always, interesting and thought-provoking.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: UK Title: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton
Original and very clever (9/6/2020)
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the first novel by British freelance travel journalist and author, Stuart Turton. When Aiden Bishop wakes, inhabiting the body of Dr Simon Bell, on the floor of the forest, he has no memory. He does not know his own name, nor that of the body he’s occupying. He has not a clue how he came to be there. And he doesn’t realise that he is destined to spend the next eight days reliving the same day, over and over, hosted in different bodies. Some will be hale and hearty; others elderly and frail, or suffering injury; some are cowards, some intelligent, some malicious, others fools.

What Aiden is certain about is that Anna is in danger, if not dead: he has seen a woman flee through the wood, chased by a man, then hears a gunshot. Finding his way to a country mansion in disrepair, he learns he is a guest at Blackheath for a party celebrating the return, from Paris, of the daughter, Evelyn Hardcastle. And he is subsequently told that the only way to escape Blackheath is to discover the identity of the person who murders Evelyn at 11pm.

What an interesting closed-room mystery! As Aiden cycles through his hosts, he gains a new perspective on the day’s events, and gathers clues that may help him escape. Adding an element of surprise and danger is the fact that Aiden is not the only person trying to solve this murder. And because there are so many characters, so many facets to the day, so many intrigues, so many secrets, and so many (in excess of ten) murder victims, the reader will do well to take notes. And even then, many things are not what they first appear.

The plot is quite complicated, with plenty of twists and tricks and intricate details. There is quite a lot of blackmail, a 19-year-old murder not entirely solved, impersonation, and a footman who likes to use a knife on people. There is an array of interesting and sometimes quirky characters. While the jumps between days are clearly marked, the convoluted nature of events requires a good memory. The map of the house and grounds, and the character list, are essential. Original and very clever.
The Janes: Alice Vega #2
by Louisa Luna
brilliant crime fiction (9/4/2020)
“Cap watched Vega carefully. He knew what her questions would be before she asked them, but she still managed to make them seem fresh, innocent, curious. She pulled every last bit of information from Sarita Guerra like she was winding the string on a kite, drawing it in for a tight, safe landing.”

The Janes is the second book in the Alice Vega series by American author, Louisa Luna. The two “Jane Does” were Latinas, probably illegals, with the same killer, and a piece of evidence indicates there are more girls somewhere, maybe still alive. Alice Vega is called in by the San Diego PD and the DEA; off the books, cash. She insists on bringing in her own consultant.

Even though he has just received a permanent work offer from a lawyer in Denville, with all the benefits that entails, Max Caplan jumps at the chance to work with Alice again: clearly, despite an interval of many months since their first encounter, his crush has not abated.

There is something not quite right about the whole thing, so Vega, always cautious, holds back some of her findings and, when certain people begin acting out of character, her reluctance to share is vindicated. Still, with her brilliant deductive mind and her excellent IT resources, she and Cap are quickly on the way to locating the girls. But this turns out to be far more dangerous than they might have expected when Mexican drug lords form part of the bigger picture.

Vega and Caplan’s second outing is fast-paced and cleverly plotted, with more than one exciting climax. As before, the dynamic between these two is a delight. Vega is smart, imaginative and resourceful, physically fit, accomplished with weapons and, in this instalment, creative with a set of bolt-cutters. And she is skilled in both psychological and physical persuasion (yes, there is violence). Cap has different talents and intuitively follows Vega’s lead. Cap’s inside knowledge of policing complements Vega’s strong sense of justice.

The minor characters are certainly more than one-dimensional, while the dialogue offers plenty of humour, some of it deliciously dark. The story does contain a few minor spoilers for the first book, but these little tastes are likely to tempt readers to indulge in Two Girls Down, if they have not already done so. Fans will be pleased that the ending does not preclude further hook-ups between this pair, so it is to be hoped that Luna has many more shots of Vega and Caplan in her arsenal. Brilliant crime fiction!
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Text Publishing.
The Bass Rock
by Evie Wyld
a brilliant read (9/2/2020)
“There is such stillness in that small wood where my grandmother died that it catches my breath, I feel I am looking up into space or into a deep high-ceilinged crevasse. ‘Hello!’ I call, just to hear if my voice echoes back. It does, three times.”

The Bass Rock is the third novel by award-winning British-Australian author, Evie Wyld. In post-war Britain, newly-married Ruth Hamilton finds herself in an oversized house in a village in North Berwick, Scotland. She tries, when they are home from boarding school, to connect with her step-sons, and to please her demanding, frequently-absent husband, but measuring up to the beloved wife and mother whom they lost proves discouraging.

It’s a far cry from her existence in London, and she still sorely misses the brother who perished in the war. Ruth finds the village claustrophobic and its traditions less than wholesome. Is the vicar simply a harmless, overenthusiastic lunatic? The person she can best relate to is the house-keeper she inherited with the house. Ruth senses a presence in the house, a feeling shared by her housekeeper’s niece.

Decades later, Viviane Hamilton is conducting an inventory so that her grandmother’s house can be sold. As a favour to her uncle, she stays on to keep the place looking lived in. As she sorts through her grandmother’s possessions, she uncovers traces of the woman about whom her own mother has been frustratingly reticent. Viv, too, senses a presence, although she can’t be sure if it’s part of her own mental problems.

In early eighteenth-century Scotland, Sarah has been branded with the taint of her mother’s unconventional lifestyle. When harvests fail and livestock sickens, the villagers, convinced she is a witch, want to burn her. Their priest and his son rescue her and flee through the woods towards the coast.

The three clearly distinguished main narrative strands are arranged in a nested format and these nests are interspersed with short, anonymous pieces that graphically illustrate the fate of women who sometimes make poor choices but are often simply at a disadvantage due to their gender.

This tale of murder, mental, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence illustrates the ongoing powerlessness of women and children in a patriarchal society. But there is also love and loyalty and friendship, and it highlights the resilience of women who support each other and don’t accept the old lie: that mentality that encourages male privilege without challenge. And a certain odious character does meet a deserving fate.

Echoes of each narrative appear in the others. Viviane’s inner monologue and her conversations are often a source of dark humour. Wyld’s prose is often exquisite: “It rains through the night and all day, but it is not cold. The air is heavy, in the early parts of the morning, like a blanket weighing on us. The loud patter of drops on leaves and the way it moves the scrub around us, jumping off the spring-green growth, weighing down the branches, makes me think of us moving across the belly of a gigantic scaled beast, warmed by its blood.” This is a brilliant read and fans of this talented author will not be disappointed.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Better Reading Preview and Penguin Random House Australia
The Constant Rabbit
by Jasper Fforde
Smart and inventive, another thought-provoking and entertaining read. (8/17/2020)
The Constant Rabbit is a novel by Welsh author, Jasper Fforde. The 2020 United Kingdom that Fforde describes to the reader is very much an alternate one where, fifty-five years earlier, a Spontaneous Anthropomorphic Event transformed a selection of animals into human-sized, talking, walking, thinking creatures.

In the British Isles, the most numerous are now rabbits, who prove to be peaceable and hard-working. It takes a good deal of world-building to make a tale like this work, but anyone who has read his books knows that this is something at which Fforde is highly skilled.

Even though Peter Knox works at the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce detecting rabbits attempting identity fraud, he’s not anti-rabbit like some of his colleagues, who are just a shade off hominid supremacists. But his favourable treatment of a doe rabbit borrower at the village library has been noted by the right-wing village elders. He recognises Constance Rabbit from their casual friendship at college decades-earlier, before rabbits were banned.

The ruling UK Anti-Rabbit Party is pressing for their “humane” solution, Rehoming the rabbits from their established colonies to a MegaWarren in Wales, and their campaign to subvert the Rabbit Underground sees a very reluctant Peter plucked from his office job into active Ops, tracking down a suspected rabbit operative. His last experience on Ops had ended very badly.

To unsettle him even further, the vacant house next door is suddenly occupied by Major Clifford and Mrs Constance Rabbit and their two children. While Peter tries to deal with his re-emerging attraction to his new neighbour, his scary boss wants him to infiltrate, suspecting connections to the Rabbit Underground, while the village council wants the rabbits out of Much Hemlock.

What follows for Peter is a wild ride that includes being challenged to a duel, a graffitied garage door, getting drunk on dandelion brandy, being charged with murder, physical mutilation, prison time, wearing a wire, and slicing a lot of cucumbers. Of prison, he says: “In a turnabout that no-one expected after the crash of 2008, the second-largest group in prison after rabbits was now sociopathic investment bankers, corrupt representatives of ratings companies and dodgy corporate accountants.”

Readers from Goulburn NSW might be quite delighted to find that their Big Merino also exists in Fforde’s world, if by a different origin. As always, Fforde manages to include a generous helping of over-the-top English-sounding place names, typically useless government departments with all their annoyingly abbreviated titles, plenty of poli-speak and silly character names.

Fforde gives the reader a heavily satirical social commentary that takes aim at propaganda, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, right-wing politics and detention centres, to name but a few. He even lets a character muse that satire might “provoke a few guffaws but only low to middling outrage – but is couped with more talk and no action. A sort of … empty cleverness.” Smart and inventive, another thought-provoking and entertaining read.
by Maggie O'Farrell
Utterly enthralling, this is yet another dose of Maggie O’Farrell brilliance. (8/13/2020)
Hamnet is the eighth novel by award-winning British author, Maggie O’Farrell. In the summer of 1596, an eleven-year-old boy, the grandson of a Stratford-upon-Avon glovemaker, tries desperately to get medical attention for his twin sister, suddenly struck down with a fever. His mother, skilled with herbs, would know what to do, but she is a mile away tending to her swarming bees. His father is in London, and the physician is on a call. Hamnet is afraid for his beloved twin.

This is a story told from multiple perspectives, and while it pivots around the event of Hamnet’s death, it is more the story of his mother, Agnes than anyone else. The split-time narrative alternates between that summer day in 1596 when Hamnet’s sister Judith falls ill, and the significant events in the years leading up to, and following that tragic death.

The reader may draw a natural conclusion about the identity of the sixteenth-century Stratford man with ink-stained fingers, but O’Farrell never names him; instead, depending on the perspective of the narrative he might be referred to as the glovemaker’s son, the brother, the Latin tutor, the husband, the brother-in-law, the father, the uncle.

History it may be, but this is no dry tome: O’Farrell takes the scant known facts of the playwright’s family life and, with gorgeous prose, richly fills them in, making the historical figures real, warm, living people with feelings and emotions and desires, characters in whom it is easy to invest, with whom it is impossible not to empathise. Only the eyes of the hardest-hearted will not be brimming with tears.

O’Farrell is such a talented author; her characters are so well formed, her scene so skilfully set that sixteenth Century Stratford-upon-Avon comes alive, is vivid in the reader’s mind. Her extensive research is apparent on every page, but the historical tidbits are seamlessly woven into the story so that the reader is barely aware of how much they are learning. Utterly enthralling, this is yet another dose of Maggie O’Farrell brilliance.
Sweet Sorrow
by David Nicholls
A beautiful read. (8/4/2020)
“In the chaos of our family’s self-destruction he had quietly and unassumingly made himself present and though I could hardly recall a conversation that might be considered personal or honest, in the strange, mute semaphore of teenage boys he’d communicated a sense of care and somehow passed on the message to the others, an unspoken command to be, if not kind , then not actively cruel.”

Sweet Sorrow is the fifth novel by British author, David Nicholls. It was mid-1997, school was done, and sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis was resigned to an unpromising future, waiting for the rest of his life to begin. Meanwhile, there was a long summer to endure, living with his father, Brian, the currently unemployed former owner of a chain of failed record shops. By default, as the older child, Charlie was left to look after his father when his mother left to live with her lover, taking along his sister.

“I knew from science fiction, rather than from Science lessons, that time behaves differently depending on your location, and from a sixteen-year-old’s lower bunk at the end of June in 1997, it moved more slowly than anywhere else in the cosmos.”

Brian Lewis was now often a sad, Mad Dad (chronically, clinically depressed), and sixteen-year-old Charlie was frightened, furious and resentful of the father he’d formerly connected so well with: he went out on his bike as often as possible.

“Boredom was our natural state but loneliness was taboo and so I strained for the air of a loner, a maverick, unknowable and self-contained, riding with no hands. But a great effort is required not to appear lonely when you are alone, happy when you’re not.”

On one of these rides, Charlie found himself quite unintentionally rehearsing Romeo and Juliet with Full Fathom Five Theatre Cooperative on a hint of a possibility of a promise from the lovely Fran Fisher, playing Juliet. It was something he kept meticulously separate from his school mates, whose ridicule could not be borne, but which he eventually realised was enjoyable for more reasons than Fran’s proximity.

Few authors can match Nicholls for portrayal of the kind of hopeless male who might show a bit of promise but ultimately excels in mediocrity: “Not admired but not despised, not adored but not feared; I was not a bully, though I knew a fair few, but did not intervene or place myself between the pack and the victim, because I wasn’t brave either. I neither conformed nor rebelled, collaborated nor resisted; I stayed out of trouble without getting into anything else. Comedy was our great currency and while I was not a class clown, neither was I witless” and “in photos of myself from that time, I’m reminded of those early incarnations of a cartoon character, the prototypes that resemble the later version but are in some way out of proportion, not quite right” are examples.
Nicholls gives the reader a moving tale of first love with a protagonist who will strike a chord with anyone who can remember their teens, can remember agonising over every word, overthinking every gesture. There’s plenty of humour, some of it a little bleak, but also some lump-in-the-throat moments. A beautiful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Migrations: A Novel
by Charlotte McConaghy
brilliant novel. (8/2/2020)
“I lie in the sea and feel more lost than ever, because I’m not meant to be homesick, I’m not meant to long for the things I have always been so desperate to leave. It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”

The Last Migration is the first adult literary fiction book by Australian author, Charlotte McConaghy. A dire near future, a world of mass extinctions, oceans almost empty of fish: Franny Lynch boards a fishing vessel in Tasiilaq to follow her tagged bird, one of perhaps the very last Arctic terns, on its long migration south.

Under harsh conditions of extreme cold, wild storms and a tense relationship with the crew who seem to barely tolerate her, Franny’s mind cannot avoid forays into her troubled past: parental abandonment, a fervent love, heart-breaking tragedies, grief and incarceration.

Franny Lynch comes from a line of women possessed of wanderlust, but she meets the one man with whom this need not spell disaster: “I rest my head on his shoulder; I rest myself in his hands. It seems a safe place to be kept, even to belong. But where does he get to belong. What crueller fate is there than to belong in the arms of a woman who dies each night?”

But now she makes the journey, selecting this reticent sea captain, Ennis Malone, convincing him to take her along, promising the thing he wants most. She watches the crew: “Even though they are as varied as a group of people can be, I can tell they are all the same, all of these sailors. Something was missing in their lives on land, and they went seeking the answer. Whatever it was, I don’t doubt that they each found it. They are migrants of land, and they love it out here on an ocean that offered them a different way of life…”

What could possibly underlie a determination so single-minded, so all-consuming that this conservation-minded woman can set aside what seems a clear conflict of interest to board a vessel whose captain is equally obsessed with securing the Golden Catch? As the story jumps from present to past and back, McConaghy gradually introduces snippets of Franny’s life that coalesce to form a heart-breaking picture. The resulting “aah” moment will have even the most callous reader choking up with tears.

McConaghy gives the reader gorgeous prose, marvellous characters, some extremely topical subject matter, plenty of emotion and a smidgen of hope. A map would have enhanced the enjoyment of this brilliant novel.
The Love Story of Missy Carmichael
by Beth Morrey
a wonderfully uplifting read. (7/23/2020)
“Surveying the boxes, chests and trunks - the leftovers of lost lives: Fa-Fa, Jette, my mother and father, Leo, even Alistair and Mel, since they’d begun new lives elsewhere – I fancied I could hear the echo of them all in their things.”

Saving Missy is the first novel by British author, Bath Morrey. Now that dear her son Alistair and her sweet little grandson Arthur have returned to Australia after their Christmas visit, Missy can admit to herself that she is desperately lonely. Their big house is so empty without Leo, and her daughter Melanie, teaching in Cambridge, no longer visits London after the row they had. But Millicent Carmichael is also a reserved English lady who does not display her feelings in public.

When she spots young Otis in the park one day, that ache for her grandson intensifies. His redhead mother is obviously a terrible woman, loud, and unpleasant. Casually waiting for another glimpse of Otis, Missy meets interior designer Sylvie Riche and is invited for coffee along with Irish Angela and Otis. But do these people really want her company?

It turns out that Angela needs someone to watch Otis when journalistic deadlines loom, and Missy decides she can put up with strong opinions peppered with expletives, imparted through a haze of smoke and alcohol, if it means a dose of little boy. But even more urgently required is a place for Bob, a dog whose family can’t keep her just now. Missy is quite sure she does not want a dog.

A change of heart, though, sees Missy meeting dog walkers and, almost unintentionally, allowing Angela, Otis and Sylvie into her house, her attic and, eventually, her life. Inside, the house is more than “minimalist” bare: Missy has relegated clutter and anything deemed unnecessary to the attic.

Triggered by exchanges with her new acquaintances, and items brought forth out of the attic, memories from Missy’s childhood, her first encounter with Leonard Carmichael, and significant incidents during their almost six decades of marriage, emerge. Thus the reader learns how Missy Carmichael arrived at this point in her life. Gradually revealed, too, are Missy’s secrets, her regrets and those things about which she feels most guilty.

When Missy has unbent enough to accept the help and love and care on offer, it turns out she herself has more to offer than she ever dreamed. Missy discovers that, even in her eighty-first year, she can give comfort and support and knowledge to those who need it, something quite different from the role of a wife and mother that precluded any possible career her splendid degree might have offered.

Morrey gives the reader a beautiful story with some predictable moments and a few surprises. Her depictions of London and Cambridge are evocative, and her characters feel like people you meet in real life. She gives lots of them wise words and Missy’s observation on the memory stick: “You just plugged it in, apparently. If only memories were that easy to access, and contain” is bound to resonate with readers of a certain vintage. There are plenty of wry observations and more than a few laugh-out-loud scenes. This debut novel is a wonderfully uplifting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Better Reading Preview and Harper Collins Australia
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know
by Malcolm Gladwell
a fascinating and enlightening read. (7/23/2020)
“There are clues to making sense of a stranger. But attending to them requires care and attention. We should accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.”

Talking To Strangers is the sixth book by British author, Malcolm Gladwell. Is it a book about social interaction? Yes, certainly, but not so much a “how to” as a “why do we get it wrong”. Gladwell explores the reasons that we seem to be so bad at telling when strangers are lying to us. He does this with reference to a myriad of psychological experiments, research, case studies and examples.

Gladwell holds that we are successfully deceived by strangers through a combination of three main reasons: the fundamentally human tendency to default to believing we are being told the truth; that facial expression and demeanour are much less reliable than we believe; and context matters a great deal.

“We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.”

Gladwell cites examples of Cuban spies and the CIA, Hitler and Chamberlain, Bernie Madoff and the SEC, the Penn State Paedophile Case, a murder in Perugia, and more “If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.”

Gladwell talks about whistle blowers, bail judges, alcoholic blackout and sexual assault, the effects of torture on brain function, and ultimately relates it all back to the tragic consequences of a traffic stop in Texas.

Regards reading faces and behaviours: “Each of us, over the course of our lives, builds our own set of operating instructions for our face, based on the culture and environment we inhabit. The face is a symbol of how different human beings are, not how similar we are, which is a big problem if your society has created a rule for understanding strangers based on reading faces.”

He tells us “Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we’re terrible at it”

And also “The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

Fully indexed, and with footnotes and thirty-one pages of comprehensive end notes, this is a fascinating and enlightening read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK
His & Hers
by Alice Feeney
Gripping British crime fiction (7/21/2020)
His & Hers is the third novel by British journalist and author, Alice Feeney. The audio version is narrated by Stephanie Racine and Richard Armitage. When DCI Jack Harper is called out to a murder in the woods near Blackdown, he’s shocked to realise the victim is a woman with whom he was intimate the previous evening. And he soon discovers several other items that make it clear that someone might be setting him up as the suspect in his own investigation.

Already stunned to have been casually demoted from her BBC TV newsreader position, Anna Andrews is even less impressed to be sent to Blackdown to cover possible murder case. Blackdown is the place she grew up, and she’d be happy never to return: too many unhappy memories, one of which involves the victim.

Jack is dismayed to see his ex-wife at the scene, not least because she’s with a BBC press photographer, but also because it stirs too many sad memories. He already has a challenging case to run, with a young, too-eager-to-please colleague, DS Pria Patel, who’s getting on his nerves, and pressure from higher-up to get a result.

With little more than a puzzling message on the victim’s nails, a strange item in the mouth and a boot-print, not much progress is made before, mere hours later, another victim is found. Jack isn’t at all sure that his small team is up to dealing with a serial killer. And it starts to look like Anna is personally involved…

The narrative is carried by three voices: mostly Jack and Anna, with occasional (in the audio, voice distorted) commentary by the murderer. If Jack’s part seems genuine and truthful, Anna’s feels less reliable, while the murderer’s parts are often quite cryptic. Overall, it is sufficiently ambiguous to throw suspicion on several characters.

Feeney is skilled at sowing the seeds of possibility. The slow disclosure of important information, connections and (sometimes) explosive secrets make this a pages turner. Red herrings, twists and distractions mislead and keep reader guessing and cycling through potential murder suspects right up to the thrilling climax. And beyond. Gripping British crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an audio copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan audio.
When She Was Good: Cyrus Haven #2
by Michael Robotham
Another brilliant read! (6/9/2020)
“People think they want the truth, but the opposite is true. Honesty is mean and rough and ugly, while lying can be kinder, softer and more humane. It’s not honesty that we want, but consideration and respect.”

When She Was Good s the second book in the Cyrus Haven series by award-winning Australian author, Michael Robotham. Initially, it looks like retired Detective Superintendent Hamish Whitmore has committed suicide. But that’s not what forensic psychologist, Cyrus Haven sees when he examines the scene. It quickly becomes clear that Hamish was murdered, and that it is related to the old (closed) case he couldn’t let go. What disturbs Cyrus most is the tiny notation in a corner of Hamish’s case whiteboard: Angelface, London, 2013.

Evie Cormac is back at Langford Hall, a secure children’s home, impatiently waiting to be deemed old enough to be released. But not everyone agrees that she’s ready. Meanwhile, she endures, hanging out for visits from Cyrus, and more importantly, their Labrador, Poppy. But Cyrus has been picking at the past, hoping to find out more about what Evie refuses to reveal; have his subtle enquiries tripped a wire that will put them all in danger?

For all those readers who wondered just how Evie ended up behind the wall in that house where the tortured corpse was found, this instalment of Cyrus Haven eventually explains all that, and a lot more! Evie doesn’t trust anyone, and maybe Cyrus would do well to take a leaf out of her book. As he meticulously follows up leads, it’s like he’s pulled a tiger’s tail. This novel is filled with edge of the seat, heart thumping action. And the final chapter, oh boy! Another brilliant read!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Hachette Australia.

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The Bell in the Lake
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The engrossing epic novel - a #1 bestseller in Norway - of a young woman whose fate plays out against her village's mystical church bells.
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