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Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

Power Reviewer  Power Reviewer

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Redhead by the Side of the Road
by Anne Tyler
If only this dose of Tyler’s magic had been longer… (5/7/2020)
Redhead By The Side Of The Road is the twenty-third novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Anne Tyler. At forty-three, Micah Mortimer isn’t dissatisfied with his life: it may be predictable, but having an adequate place to live, just enough work, and the company of a woman friend suits him fine. Excitement is overrated.

“He and Cass had been together for three years or so, and they had reached re things had more or less solidified: compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked. They had it down to a system, you could say.”

Micah exercises daily, eats healthy food and has a series of (not entirely inflexible) routines that give him a sense of control. He makes house calls around the city for his IT business, Tech Hermit and, while being careful not to get too involved, looks after the tenants in his building in his role as unofficial super. From his older sisters and their families, there is a mixture of concern and amusement at the way he lives his life.

Then, in the space of an October week, two unsettling incidents ruffle his calm. Cassia faces the threat of eviction from her apartment because of a secret pet (and Micah’s reactions to this later turn out to be unsatisfactory); and a teenaged boy turns up claiming that Micah is his father.

It is always such a pleasure to read a book by Anne Tyler, and this one has you smiling all the way through, unless you are laughing out loud or saying “oh, dear” or “oh, my”. Nothing terribly dramatic happens, but Tyler’s special talent is making ordinary lives shine.

Tyler is wonderful at character description: “She was so sharp-edged, both literally and figuratively – a shrill, vivacious mosquito of a girl, all elbows and darting movements, and it was a wonder she’d given a glance at a stick-in-the-mud like Micah.”

Micah is quirky but believable and his inner monologue is often particularly entertaining: the remarks he resists making, and the Traffic God who comments on his impeccable driving are two examples.

His bewilderment at human interaction is palpable: “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.”

Family gatherings are Tyler’s specialty: “A mahogany side table held a lamp and a pair of pruning shears and a bottle of nail polish. No doubt the living room was equally disorganized, but you couldn’t tell, because it was filled wall-to-wall with people… The general impression, as always, was tumult: noisy, merry, unkempt people wearing wild colors, dog barking, baby crying, TV blaring, bowls of chips and dips already savaged.” As always, many of her characters are a little eccentric, but their observations on life are insightful at the same time as being amusing. If only this dose of Tyler’s magic had been longer…
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Penguin Books Australia.
Sea Prayer
by Khaled Hosseini
A very worthwhile purchase. (3/6/2020)
Sea Prayer is an illustrated book by best-selling author, Khaled Hosseini. The text is very short and comprises what a father is telling his young son about the land they are about to leave, and how wonderful it once was, as they sit on the beach with many others, awaiting the boat that will take them to what they hope will be safety.
It is beautifully illustrated in a watercolour wash by Dan Williams and the proceeds go to the UNHCR and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to assist global refugees. It was inspired by the story of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015, and is dedicated to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution. A very worthwhile purchase.
The Ruin
by Dervla McTiernan
brilliant crime fiction (3/6/2020)
The Ruin is the first novel in the Cormac Reilly series by Irish-born Australian author, Dervla McTiernan. A month after his transfer from an elite Dublin unit to Mill Street Garda Station in Galway, and Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly is still being lumbered with cold cases to review, instead of any “real” work. But then the supposed suicide by drowning of twenty-five-year-old Jack Blake sees him assigned a very familiar cold case: one he was never able to close.

In February 1993, as a green young Constable, Reilly was sent to the dower house at Kilmore for a probable domestic dispute. What he found was the Blake family: Hilaria Blake, dead from a heroin overdose, five-year-old Jack malnourished and bruised, and fifteen-year-old Maude trying to care for him. Twenty years later, Cormac still vividly remembers the tiny battered boy and his attentive sister, who vanished that day to not be seen again.

Cormac is as surprised as anyone to learn that Maude Blake has turned up, and is apparently questioning the suicide ruling, with some compelling proof. Nor does his grieving girlfriend, Aisling Conroy agree that Jack was at all likely to take his own life. But this is not the case that Cormac will be working.

He is directed to re-examine Hilaria Blakes death, and soon his colleague from his training days turns up testimony implicating Maude in her mother’s death. It becomes clear that several of his colleagues have agendas to which he is not privy, and it becomes difficult to know whom he can trust.

McTiernan’s debut novel is filled with twists and turns and red herrings. Sexual predators, physical abusers, religious paedophiles, rapists and corrupt cops all feature in a plot that builds to a heart-thumping climax. This is brilliant crime fiction and more of Cormac Reilly will definitely be welcome.
by Eoin Colfer
a very entertaining read! (3/3/2020)
“Every time he met someone, Hooke was figuring how to murder them and get away with it, in case the need arose.”

Highfire is a stand-alone novel by Irish author, Eoin Colfer. The Louisiana bayou: about the last place you'd expect to find a dragon. But here, just upstream from Petit Bateau on a trib of the West Peace River, is Vern (formerly Wyvern Lord Highfire of the Highfire Eyrie and possibly the very last dragon in the world), drinking Absolut, watching Netflix, wearing Flashdance T-shirts and staying under the (human) radar.

Fifteen-year-old Cajun-blood tearaway, Everett (Squib) Moreau is about to meet with a local small-time crook for some work when he witnesses the murder of said crook by (the totally corrupt Constable) Regence Hooke who, incidentally, is displaying what Squib considers an unhealthy interest in his mother, Elodie. Heard, but not seen, he tries to escape, and when Hooke begins tossing concussion grenades at him, and Squib believes he’s about to die.

Blacked out from the unexpected G force lift, Squib comes to, stunned to find himself in the cabin of what claims to be a dragon: a talking dragon who begins interrogating him. Fast forward some hours, and he has a job that includes acting as gofer for the (human-hating) dragon and shovelling dragon excrement over a mogwai called Waxman. As you do.

Regence Hooke has mighty plans concerning the takeover of a New Orleans mob boss’s operation, and observes Squib’s diligent industry with not a little interest: there might just be something here he can make use of… From there, heaps of action and gunplay, lots of high-power weapons and therefore a substantial body count. Colfer gives his characters plenty of clever, funny dialogue and it all makes for a very entertaining read!
Into the Fire: Orphan X #5
by Gregg Hurwitz
Another entertaining action thriller: bring on number six! (2/27/2020)
Into The Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. With perhaps the idea of having something like a normal life, Evan Smoak vows that whomever Trevon Gaines sends him, it will be his last Nowhere Man mission.

When forensic accountant, Grant Merriwether is murdered, his cousin Max quickly realises that the “in the event of my death” envelope Grant gave him is going to spell trouble. Max narrowly escapes walking in on a thug ransacking his apartment, and the LA Times journalist to whom he was meant to take Grant’s letter has been brutally slain. Desperate, Max clutches the straw he has been offered: the Nowhere Man’s number.

Evan is, as always, efficient and dispenses with the threat quick smart. So why is someone still shooting at him and making threatening phone calls? Is there another tier to this mission? He needs to get this sorted so Max (and Evan?) can start living a normal life. Although if a normal life involves Home Owners Association meetings, he might have second thoughts: “A familiar feeling of unease resurfaced, that Evan was a traveler in a foreign land, observing native customs and rituals without understanding their purpose. Being concussed didn’t exactly clarify matters.”

In this installment, Evan: inflicts a designer wound to facilitate tracking; gets into a dog fight; has a bedroom magnet mishap; rescues a puppy; provides a form of crudités to a meeting; mugs a mugger; goes to jail, and escapes, and does much of it while suffering concussion. It’s no surprise to readers of Out Of The Dark that Trevon Gaines makes a reappearance, and Joey Morales’s participation is virtually a given.

As always, it’s a good idea to suspend disbelief when reading this series, or you’ll start thinking that it’s as well Evan Smoak doesn’t have a paying job because when would he get time to maintain all his safe houses and vehicles, and who cleans his house? Washing clothing and cleaning shoes seems to be a moot point as they end up in the fireplace, replaced by an endless supply of identical new items. Another entertaining action thriller: bring on number six!
Out of the Dark: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
An excellent action thriller. (2/21/2020)
Out Of The Dark is the fourth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Among other things, Evan Smoak’s extensive training made him a skilled assassin. His very first mission, in an unnamed Eastern European state, involved the assassination of a foreign minister; it is this mission that somehow has led to his latest one. And he’s setting his sights high with this target: the President of the United States.

On this mission, he’s up against a formidable opponent: Special Agent in Charge, Naomi Templeton has the Secret Service in her genes and has recently been promoted to Deputy Director of Protective Intelligence and Assessment. And as the daughter of a former Director, she has something to prove. But Hank Templeton, now languishing in an Aged Care Facility, could also be a distraction. What Evan Smoak isn’t initially aware of is the dangerous man who has been tasked with killing him.

In this dose of Orphan X, Evan: deals with a dislocated shoulder (not his own); narrowly avoids participation in a father-daughter dance; neutralises a Los Angeles drug trafficker; finds, in Trevon Gaines, someone even more obsessed with order than he is; leaves a message, cryptic to others, but unsubtle for his target; has fun with a Tesla S; stays at the Watergate Hotel; and goes skate-boarding.

The situations where Evan chooses to interact, unarmed (or apparently so), with weaponed opponents are quite entertaining, as is the paranoia he induces in his target. As with all books in this series, it’s wise to check your disbelief at the door and just go along for the fantastic ride, as Evan gets himself out of multiple impossible (and often lethal) situations, and all without the level of equipment that backs him up in LA..

Fans of the previous book will welcome the reappearance of Joey Morales (and the clever, snappy dialogue that results), and readers familiar with DC will enjoy this instalment for the many locations mentioned. Book number five, Into The Fire, promises to be just as much fun. An excellent action thriller.
Hellbent: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
Excellent page-turners! (2/14/2020)
Hellbent is the third book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. The one person that Evan Smoak does not expect to call his Nowhere Man line is his mentor, Jack Johns. And it turns out to be a call he would never want to receive. Soon after, he sees vision of Jack’s final moments. But Jack has left him a message and a mission.

Jack’s instructions are for Evan to “secure the package” and it takes him a while to understand that the package is a sixteen-year-old girl, an Orphan Program washout, a discard. His initial plan is to stow Joey somewhere safe while he gets on with his revenge mission, because for sure taking along a sixteen-year-old girl will be nothing but a burden. But it all turns out to be less about revenge than something else.

Joey is no ordinary sixteen-year-old girl, and it's entertaining to watch this lone wolf reluctantly working in tandem with a talented and resourceful teen who knows her way around more than just a computer. Perhaps Evan unintentionally slips on some of Jack's commandments occasionally, but now, with Jack's murder, #4 (never make it personal) is off the table. This time it's definitely personal.

While there are many serious moments, including when Jack dies (but cleverly, very cleverly), much of this installment is hilarious. The addition of this whip-smart young woman makes for many laugh-out-loud interactions, and Joey draws on that human part of him that Jack insisted on nurturing.

For novices of this series, the prologue already sets the tone with Evan Smoak, fight-torn, fleeing police pursuit in a stolen car when thumping begins from the vehicle's trunk. Some of the weapon description is likely to make the eyes glaze over, but again, it’s easy to picture this on the screen, big or small.

As usual, there is a high body count, predicted by the statement "Evan needed to get food, and then he had people to kill." All that going on, and then a Nowhere Man request that brings his in close quarters with a ruthless Salvadoran gang, the threat of which he disperses very elegantly. The Trojan Horse idea? ingenious! A quick short story (The Intern) follows, then it’s on to #4, Out Of The Dark. Excellent page-turners!
The Nowhere Man: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
would be great on the screen. (2/9/2020)
The Nowhere Man is the second book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Evan Smoak has helped another needy person and is about to relax when a loose end niggles, so he follows up, finds there is more to do and proceeds. But, mission not yet complete, he is captured, sedated and imprisoned.

The cell is a luxurious one, resembling a well-appointed bedroom, but it is a prison, without a doubt. The where, the how and the why are gradually revealed, and then it’s up to Evan to escape in order to complete his mission (and another, that has since lined up for his attention). He has already managed to kill a few of his guards and keeps a tally of the number of guards and dogs that will be obstacles to his escape: “Two dogs, ten guards, one sniper, Dex and counting. He’d have to kill a lot more of them tomorrow.”

While the first installment of this series saw Evan utilising advanced technology in addition to his personal skills, in this one, Hurwitz puts him in a situation where he has only his own talents on which to rely. These are, of course, not inconsiderable. Needless to say, there’s a high body count. The agent of Evan’s final, impossible escape will likely be predictable for most readers, but doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.

Watching Evan Smoak improvise is certainly interesting, but his attempts to neutralise a dozen guards, two by two, while it might appeal to MMA fans, is likely to make some eyes glaze over. Again, it would be great on the screen. It is easy to see this series becoming addictive in a suspend-all-disbelief-and-hold-on-for-a-wild-ride kind of way. Bring on #3, Hellbent.
Orphan X: An Evan Smoak Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
A page turner! (2/4/2020)
Orphan X is the first book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Just what is Evan Smoak? Some sort of fixer, avenger? He’s certainly not the importer of industrial cleaning supplies he claims to be. He flies very much under the radar; is skilful and well resourced, both materially and psychologically; extraordinarily efficient; and cautious, always cautious. But this time, in answering a call for help, has his caution been insufficient? Because suddenly, unusually, he is not completely in control of the situation.

Just what turned twelve-year-old Evan from Pride House Group Home into the accomplished (if enigmatic) man on a mission for justice, and how, is told in flashbacks. How he achieves that justice, and for whom, makes for a cleverly plotted tale full of twists and tricks and red herrings that reaches multiple exciting climaxes.

One of the commandments that Evan lives by is to deal with one mission at a time. But certain residents of his apartment block now seem to need his help regardless of what else might be needing his attention, and he’s finding it hard to dismiss them. Is Evan a sucker for a sob story?

This is a novel that would translate well to film. The Las Vegas rooftop fight scene, while it might appeal to fans of mixed martial arts is, at nine pages, so long that it becomes boring enough to skip to the end. Would look great on film, though.

In setting the scene, on a scale of clunky to subtle/seamless, Hurwitz‘s information dump is closer to the former. A step away from literary crime fiction, what is clear from the first book is that with this series the best approach is to park your disbelief, locate the grabrail and just hold on for the (often quite far-fetched) ride! A page-turner!
The Last Resort
by Marissa Stapley
a fairly entertaining read. (12/15/2019)
The Last Resort is the third novel by best-selling American author, Marissa Stapley. Located on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, the Harmony Resort is touted as the last resort for failing marriages. Celebrity therapist Dr Miles Markell and his wife Grace and their team at the luxury resort repair marriages, a dozen couples at a time. It takes just two weeks. Their own marriage is, of course, perfect.

The reader knows, though, from the first pages, that after Hurricane Christine has passed through the area, Miles is missing, with grave fears held for his safety. Trouble in paradise, indeed! But before all that, the couples, with all their problems and quirks and secrets, arrive: alcoholic Shell Williams and her workaholic husband, Colin; social worker Johanna Haines and her District Attorney husband, Ben Reid. The other eight couples, nameless and featureless in the background.

From vague hints drip-fed into the narrative, the reader gradually learns what crippling secrets (and there are quite a few) these three couples are holding, and how their lives have been affected, until things build to an explosive climax, concurrent with a category four hurricane making things wet and wild.

It’s quite clever of Stapley to situate her resort in Mexico where the (accredited?) therapists are able to be unprofessional, unethical and inappropriate without oversight from any professional body; and where clients can be made to sign a (legal? binding?) contract with some surprise conditions. What does become quickly clear is that all the therapists are as much in need of therapy as the clients they are treating.

Nonetheless, the credibility is stretched: would DA Ben really sign a contract with no more than a cursory glance? Would two therapists and one intern dealing with twelve couples actually have time for all those dramatics and dummy spits? Certainly, the Haines/Reid and Williams couples seem to be getting more than their share of attention.

Stapley’s characters are perhaps a little stereotypical: a predator and some enablers; the sexually repressed, the grieving, the traumatised, the weak, the guilty; lots of angst there. Some are immediately detestable; others eventually evoke some sympathy.

Stapley uses multiple formats besides the conventional narrative to convey the story: blog, email, therapy session transcript, book excerpt and flashback. The very neat resolution is undeniably Agatha Christie inspired. Get past the slow start, suspend disbelief and it’s a fairly entertaining read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
I Know Who You Are
by Alice Feeney
Undeniably a page-turner. (11/20/2019)
I Know Who You Are is the second novel by British journalist and author, Alice Feeney. When actress Aimee Sinclair returns home from the day’s film shoot to find her husband missing, she’s puzzled. True, they argued the previous night, but now he has disappeared, leaving behind everything he would normally take with him: coat, shoes, wallet, phone, keys. Next morning, she discovers that someone, a woman resembling her, withdrew ten thousand pounds and closed the joint bank account she has with Ben, the previous afternoon.

DI Alex Croft and her (mostly silent) sidekick, DS Wakely, seem sceptical about everything Aimee tells them from the moment they arrive. Not that she tells them everything: she knows better than to trust the police. But she does remind them of the stalker she has told them about before, who signs her cards with the name of someone that Aimee knows is dead. They are dismissive, but Aimee worries that someone from her past is behind it all.

Meanwhile, Aimee tries to get on with life: the final days of the film shoot, the wrap party. She loves acting, especially with Jack Anderson, but doesn’t love the interviews (journalists are not to be trusted), the gossip and some of the other actors. And is her agent avoiding her? Maybe he’s finally realised what a fraud she really is.

Feeney’s protagonist is the quintessential unreliable narrator: Aimee states in the first few lines that she tells lies. And the other half of the split-time narrative indicates that Aimee is definitely not who everyone thinks she is. She seems to do a lot of her thinking in metaphors and aphorisms, which becomes an irritating affectation after a while.

Some of the characters are exaggerated, almost to caricature level and some parts of the story do require quite a degree of suspension of disbelief. Aimee’s second guessing is unconvincing. But ignoring that and the plot holes, even the most astute reader is unlikely to guess the truth before the big reveal. Undeniably a page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by HQ Fiction Australia
The Lying Room
by Nicci French
A brilliant, blackly funny and wholly enthralling read. (11/9/2019)
The Lying Room is the thirteenth stand-alone novel by British writing duo, Nicci French. Neve Connolly “was not so far off fifty. She had a husband who was more or less unemployed and on and off depressed; a job that had ground her down; financial worries. And she had a daughter who for years had turned her life inside out and upside down.”

She regards her affair with senior colleague, Saul Stevenson: “like a gulp of fresh water, reminding her that she still had a self, a sliver of life that belonged only to her”; it is a “joyful escape from the distress of her life.” She’s perhaps not proud of it, but she can’t really help herself. When she receives a text that represents an unexpected opportunity to be together, she quickly heads for their pied-a-terre. So she’s shocked to find Saul’s corpse, clearly the victim of a violent attack.

Neve has a logical reason for not calling 999: it would break her already fragile teenaged daughter Mabel, “jittery and frantic and full of rage”, to discover Neve’s infidelity to her husband of twenty years, Fletcher. Instead, she meticulously and methodically removes any trace of herself and their relationship. Well, almost. When she returns for an overlooked item, she makes a disturbing discovery.

When the murder is reported, DCI Alastair Hitching is on the case. Neve finds his gaze disturbing, and has to firmly resist the urge to tell him everything. “’Secrets,’ he ruminated, looking ahead, walking with long strides. ‘They’re dangerous things, don’t you agree?’” Trying to keep it all together, “She realised that she was already thinking like a criminal” and at every encounter with Hitching, Neve feels all will be revealed and she is about to be arrested.

The authors manage to work some deliciously dark ironies and utterly wicked twists into the plot. When it seems things can't get any worse, of course they can, and do! As the story unfolds, occasional elements of farce emerge, and sometimes things actually feel quite surreal, especially as, despite the dark goings-on, the minutiae of a life with a husband, a “stormy, ferocious” teenaged daughter, two pre-teen sons and a guinea pig, continue throughout.

Every so often, Neve succinctly summarises her current situation and as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly bizarre, although, to her surprise “Life continued in its tracks. Perhaps, she thought, it would be like a building that is demolished, holding its shape after the button is pushed, only gradually losing its outline, wavering, folding in on itself with a roar.”

This duo certainly has a way with words: as Neve tries to puzzle out who has done this, she understands that someone had “spread distrust through her like a stain.” A brilliant, blackly funny and wholly enthralling read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
The Stationery Shop: A Novel
by Marjan Kamali
A wonderful read. (9/30/2019)
“Look, Zari, being in love is difficult to explain. When you know it’s right, you just know. There’s no avoiding it. It’s like … it’s like a tree has fallen on your head.”

The Stationary Shop of Tehran is the second novel by Turkish-born author, Marjan Kamali. In 1953, Tehran is full of political unrest, but seventeen-year-old Roya Kayhani isn’t interested in all that (she hears it from her father constantly). Roya just wants to read: Persian poetry, Rumi in particular, or translated novels, it doesn’t matter which. That’s why she’s a regular visitor to the Stationery Shop opposite her school. It’s a place to retreat to, a calm of quiet and learning; Mr Fakhri often has a volume of poetry all ready for her; she just loves the piles of writing tablets and pencils and fountain pens.

One Tuesday, while she’s idly perusing the shelves, a young man strides in whistling, collects some papers, rushes out again, but not before directing at her a dazzling smile and saying “I am fortunate to meet you.” Mr Fakhri tells her Bahman Aslan is “the boy who wants to change the world”. That (or perhaps Bahman?) should be approached with “vigilance” and “severe caution”. And yet, by the time they have met and chatted several Tuesdays in a row in his stationery shop, Mr Fakhri seems to need to check his inventory in the storeroom whenever they are there alone.

Walks and the Café Ghanadi and the cinema, and gatherings with her sister and their friends at home follow. Roya’s father approves of this passionate young man, because he too believes fervently in their Prime Minister, Mohammad Massadegh, and his vision for the country. Roya worries a little about Bahman’s overt activism, and the Shah’s police, but he assures her all will be well.

Soon they are engaged. Roya endures the nasty remarks and glares from her prospective mother-in-law. Life is wonderful and their future is bright. Then Bahman disappears without a word. Through Mr Fakhri, they communicate by long loving letters, but their arranged meeting goes badly awry. Was the destiny that her mother assured her was invisibly written on her forehead not to be with Bahman? It will be sixty years before they encounter one another again…

What a wonderful cast of characters Kamali gives the reader: some are easy to love and others require sympathy and patience. Their emotions and feelings, so well conveyed, are many: love (of course!), jealousy, grief and guilt, pride, ambition and greed, courage and cowardice all feature. The narrative is carried principally by Roya, but Bahman’s perspective is shown through letters he writes Roya, with Mr Fakhri’s contribution filling in some important background.

Kamali’s beautiful descriptive prose will easily evoke the fragrance of the Persian kitchen and that unique stationery shop smell. There are several incidents that will tug at the heart-strings so have the tissues ready. This is a beautiful book filled with lyrical prose and enclosed within a gorgeous cover. A wonderful read.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Simon & Schuster Australia.
The Nanny
by Gilly Macmillan
Macmillan’s best yet. (9/28/2019)
The Nanny is the fifth novel by British author, Gilly Macmillan. It's with great reluctance that recently widowed Jo Black returns to Lake House, her Pewsey Vale childhood home, with her ten-year-old daughter Ruby. The last thing she wants is to be beholden to Lady Virginia Holt, the mother she remembers without any fondness. But her husband Chris's death has left her homeless and temporarily without funds.

The person who featured most fondly in Jocelyn Holt’s childhood was Hannah, the nanny who cared daily for her until she suddenly disappeared without trace from Lake House when Jo was seven. Jo’s memory of the time is a little fuzzy. When skeletal remains are found in the lake, Jo can’t help but wonder if her nanny met a violent end. Virginia’s insistence that the bones are very old only increases Jo’s suspicion.

Detective Constable Andy Wilton is fairly certain that Lady Holt, with her cut-glass accent, knows a lot more than she’s saying about the remains. He’s firmly of the opinion that these upper-class types think they’re above the law, and he’s determined to get to bottom of this case.

The present day narrative is from three perspectives: Virginia, whose apparently genuine anxiety over the welfare of her daughter and granddaughter is at odds with Jo’s recollection of her; Jo, whose overriding concern is getting a job so she can get Ruby away from the influence of the (possibly demented) mother she still loathes; and DC Andy Wilton, who is intent on identifying the (probable) murder victim. The eponymous nanny’s narrative covers events leading to, and during, her time as Jocelyn Holt’s nanny.

Once again, Macmillan gives the reader a brilliant mystery with several red herrings, a couple of twists, a good dose of irony and a thrilling climax. There’s art fraud and assumed identities, and even the most astute reader is unlikely to guess exactly what happened before all is revealed, and after that, Macmillan has one more surprise up her sleeve. This might just be Macmillan’s best yet.
Kopp Sisters on the March: A Kopp Sisters Novel #5
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical fiction (9/27/2019)
Kopp Sisters On The March is the fifth book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. After a very public dismissal from her deputy’s position in Hackensack, and a depressing winter, in early 1917 Constance Kopp finds herself, with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, and some two hundred other young women, at Camp Chevy Chase in Maryland. They are attending the National Service School, all her sister Norma’s doing.

She quickly deduces that it’s more theatre than proper training, and is frustrated by the emphasis on knitting, cooking for convalescents and scientific bed-making. When the camp’s matron breaks a leg, Constance’s organisational nature takes hold, and her interim in-charge status soon extends to the duration of the program. One slight wrinkle is that Constance doesn't agree entirely with the established program, and is quickly tempted to add some more practical, useful activities.

The sisters share their tent with two others, one of whom is not there to alleviate boredom, to socialise or to help the country’s war effort. Beulah Binford, going by the name of Roxanna Collins, is hoping to escape her notoriety by travelling to France with the other women at the end of her training. But various events at the camp bring back memories to haunt Beulah.

Norma is apparently willing to forgo her access to the daily newspapers for the opportunity to bring her messenger pigeons to the Army’s notice. Ever the performer, Fleurette has already, much to Norma’s consternation, organised a show for the young women featuring May Ward. It turns out, however, that Norma’s instinctive reservations about May Ward’s husband, Vaudeville manager Freeman Bernstein, are right on the money. She exhibits admirable control while holding a revolver pointed right at him.

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 marvellous tale.

While this time in history is still notable for the utter dependence and powerlessness of women, with men increasingly occupied by war, women are stepping up to show what they can do. Miss Kopp is still clever, resourceful and persistent; she’s also capable and caring.

While this is the fifth book in the series, it can easily be read as a stand-alone. However, readers are likely to want to seek out the earlier books, and fans of Miss Kopp will not be disappointed: there is still plenty of humour in their dialogue. Let’s hope that Amy Stewart has more of the Sisters Kopp up her sleeve. Excellent historical fiction
How Not to Die Alone
by Richard Roper
an outstanding debut novel (8/9/2019)
How Not To Die Alone (also titled Something To Live For) is the first novel by British author, Richard Roper. Andrew Smith works for the council. It’s not a job people line up to do: he searches the dwellings of the solitary recently-deceased to discover if there might be family or funds to cover the funeral that the council is otherwise obliged to provide.

His department, Death Administrations, is a small one and his boss, Cameron Yates has the sort of fervour that makes people cringe (picture a benign version of David Brent from The Office). Meetings in the “break-out space” are greeted with “the enthusiasm a chicken might if it were asked to wear a prosciutto bikini and run into a fox's den.” His other colleagues, except for their newest staff member, Peggy Green, are definitely less than gracious.

On Peggy’s first day, Andrew takes her to a property inspection; later, as she is recovering with a Guinness in the pub, he confesses that he goes to their funerals if no-one else is likely to: “The idea that they'd not have someone to be with them at the end, to acknowledge that they'd been a person in the world who'd suffered and loved and all the rest of it - he just couldn't bear the thought of it.”

Andrew lives in a four-bedroom townhouse near Dulwich with his lawyer wife, Diane and his children, Steph and David. At least, this is the accidental fiction he has somehow perpetuated at work to give him a “normal” image. Andrew actually lives alone in a dingy flat with his model trains and his Ella Fitzgerald records. The only people he might venture to call friends, he’s never met in real life: they are the people who post on the model train forum.

Despite the absence of remains, their job is often an unpleasant one requiring, in addition to a strong stomach, sensitivity, diplomacy and respect. Working with Peggy turns out to be a pleasure, and Andrew wonders if, for the first time in his life, he might make a real friend. Of course, the problem with that is he’d have to tell her the truth about his life, although Cameron’s latest team-bonding brainwave may make it a moot point, when it will be Andrew’s turn to host his colleagues at dinner.

Roper’s first novel is a wonderfully heart-warming and uplifting tale: if there’s no Hollywood ending, there’s the chance of something like one. Readers are likely to recognise one or more of Roper’s characters from everyday life: he gives them insightful observations and wise words; and the underlying themes of maintaining connection and living life to the full are worthy ones.

The comparison to Eleanor Oliphant is quite valid as this novel also has a protagonist living a dysfunctional life as a result of earlier traumatic events, even if Andrew's social ineptitude is less severe than Eleanor's; certainly, his sense of empathy is more refined.

There's plenty of humour both in the dialogue and Andrew's inner monologue but there are also some lump-in-the-throat moments as he gradually shares more of the heart-breaking details of his adolescence and early adulthood. This is an outstanding debut novel and more from this talented author will be most welcome.
The Porpoise
by Mark Haddon
a wonderful read (8/7/2019)
The Porpoise is the fourth novel by award-winning British author, Mark Haddon and is a retelling of the Greek legend of Apollonius. Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a small plane crash. Her wealthy father Philippe, paralysed by grief at the loss of his wife, becomes reclusive, keeping Angelica in isolation. At first this is from a paranoia about her safety, but then it is his unhealthy obsession, his inappropriate attentions that he needs to hide from the world. And, as she matures, Angelica begins to understand that this is not normal.

It might be observed about Philippe: “If you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of your mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?”

Darius Koulouris is the son of a recently-deceased art dealer with business ties to Philippe. This rather dissolute young man comes upon something his father had intended for Philippe and immediately recognises the opportunity to check out the fabled Angelica. Before he has been in their company for long, he intuits the situation, but hesitates to get involved. On his return, Angelica begs him to take her away, but Philippe intervenes, with violence: Darius will be lucky to escape with his life…

Angelica has always been an avid reader. “Her favourite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.” Often “She enters that foggy border country between dream and story…she is weaving another world.”

And now the imagined world to which she escapes when subjected to Philippe’s incestuous attentions is one in which Darius escapes the far reach of her father’s murderous intentions. Darius morphs into Pericles who is sometimes Appolinus or Apollonius, sailing the Mediterranean and beyond, saving a city, being ship-wrecked, winning a princess’s hand, suffering terrible tragedy and wandering alone for many years of self-imposed exile.

Not all readers will be familiar with this Greek legend and its various iterations but a quick look at Wikipedia provides the basics, including the fact that William Shakespeare had a go, and Haddon refers to this in the Author’s Notes. The parts of the novel featuring Will are very entertaining, particularly if envisaging him as portrayed by David Mitchell in Upstart Crow.

Haddon’s version of the legend is beautifully told, with some exquisite descriptive prose that easily evokes the era, be it Ancient Greece, twenty-first-century Hampshire or Jacobean London. As the story progresses, Haddon’s Pericles and Chloe, through their trials, gain much wisdom, while Marina, without the benefit of either parent, grows into a beautiful person, within and without, courageous and resilient. While quite a departure from Haddon’s earlier work, this is a wonderful read.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Doubleday Australia
The Chain
by Adrian McKinty
A riveting read. (8/4/2019)

The Chain is the fifth stand-alone novel by award-winning Irish-born author, Adrian McKinty. What would turn an intelligent law-abiding mother into a gun-toting kidnapper? Divorcee Rachel Klein is finds out when her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kylie is snatched from the bus stop. She is told:

“You have to select a target and hold one of that persons loved ones until the target pays the ransom and kidnaps someone in turn. You are going to have to make this exact phone call to whoever you select. What I'm doing to you is what you are going to do to your target. As soon as you carry out your kidnapping and pay the money, my son will be released. As soon as your target kidnaps someone and pays the ransom, your daughter will be released. It's that simple. That's how The Chain works and goes on forever.”

Rachel can’t understand why she has been targeted, but she soon realises: “Selecting the right target is very important. You have to choose the right kind of victim with the right kind of family, people who won't lose their shit and go to the cops and who have both the money to pay and the emotional wherewithal to carry out a kidnapping to get their child back.”

She is warned of the reach of The Chain and the “blowback” that will occur for her if she breaks The Chain. Documented examples are given of people who didn’t heed this warning. But of course, Rachel’s first priority is to get Kylie back, and she will do whatever she must. But even if she succeeds, life will never be the same for them. Will she then let sleeping dogs lie? Or will she risk everything?

Once disbelief is suspended (as Rachel had to do) the reader finds themselves engrossed in a page-turner that does not let up until the heart-stopping climax. McKinty’s plot is brilliantly original and his characters are fairly believable; most of the females are quite resourceful and far from helpless. The dialogue is natural and there’s occasionally some pretty dark humour to relieve the building tension.

This novel certainly serves as a timely warning to those who feel compelled to document every tiny moment of their lives on social media. McKinty enjoys a joke by including a cute little speech in chapter 51 that will have the majority of readers turning immediately to the last chapter. A riveting read.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Hachette Australia
The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt: A Novel
by Andrea Bobotis
An outstanding debut novel. (7/31/2019)
“Fair to middlin’. The phrase called up a memory for me, too. Of Grandfather DeLour, Mama’s father. ‘You are only fair to middlin’,’ he had once told me solemnly as I played with my dolls on the front porch steps. ‘But your sister, she’s the finest grade there is.’ Everything in Grandfather DeLour’s life, no matter how disparate— his grandchildren, the taste of his pipe tobacco, the fitness of his horse— he assessed in the language used to grade cotton”

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is the first novel by American author, Andrea Bobotis. When seventy-five-year-old Miss Judith Kratt tells her coloured companion (not maid!), Olva DeLour, that she intends to make an inventory of her home in Bound, South Carolina, because it is time, several things happen: listing all the notable items in the house she has lived in all her life brings back some stirring memories; and her younger sister, Rosemarie, absent some sixty years, returns.

Back in 1929, when Miss Judith was fifteen, inventory was her main duty at the Kratt Mercantile Company (est. 1913), so this is a natural thing for her to do, and takes her back there, to the events that culminated in the shooting death of her fourteen-year-old brother, Quincy. The York Herald stated that Kratt Mercantile Company mechanic, Charlie Watson was the prime suspect for the murder but Miss Judith was there, and she knows the truth.

Not that Quincy Kratt was a sweet innocent boy. He took after his father, Daddy Kratt, a thoroughly nasty man. Even Miss Judith herself does not come across as all that likeable but perhaps the observation she makes to Olva applies to herself (and maybe Quincy too): “It is true some of these fictional heroines have challenging personalities, but defects of character are often an outcome of circumstances, are they not?”

For sixty years, Miss Judith has kept the family secrets, and now, it seems, with Rosemarie back, they are going to come out. Olva, too, feels the time has come for some revelations, but more importantly, she is determined to keep those dear to her safe.

The story is told with the tone and cadence of an imperious Southern Lady, as Miss Judith’s statements demonstrate: “Olva and I share the belief that the world reveals itself to you if you take the time to sit and wait for it. Waiting, I’ve found, is not most people’s area of expertise. Olva is a blessed aberration” and “It never ceased to astonish me that we Kratt children grew up in the same hot cocoon of childhood yet emerged as such singular organisms, barely even the same species.”

Given the era and the setting, racism is, of course, bound to rear its ugly head, although even sixty years on, the undercurrent is still there. Olva remarks “It’s a luxury to be able to write or speak in the way you want.” Bobotis has a talent for descriptive prose: “…this gave the sense of the room having been tipped on its side and shaken by a curious child.”

The narrative alternates between 1929 and 1989, with each chapter of the latter era followed by Miss Judith’s cumulative inventory list. While initially the pace is very measured, it is worth persisting for a dramatic climax involving the family’s Purdey shotgun and the heart-warming resolution. An outstanding debut novel.
The Electric Hotel: A Novel
by Dominic Smith
not Smith’s best work. (6/30/2019)
The Electric Hotel is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. For over thirty years, semi-reclusive French cinematic genius, Claude Ballard has kept a suite at Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel, a suite filled with film and memorabilia, but it’s not until 1962 that he consents a request by aspiring film historian, Martin Embry to discuss his life.

When Martin is invited into Claude’s suite, he is assaulted by the vinegar smell and demonstrates to Claude how his precious archive of celluloid is deteriorating. Claude eventually consents to allow a selection of the canisters to be restored and copied. At their regular meetings, he describes for Martin how he first became enthralled in the world of moving pictures.

When he shows Martin his copy of the movie thought to be forever lost, The Electric Hotel, he explains how the key players in the making of that movie came together. The various problems and setbacks that besieged the filming process are explained in much detail, as is the grand premiere and the legal stoush that follows it. The sight of Sabine Montrose’s old valise under his bed takes Claude back to Belgium during the Great War, and this is definitely much more interesting than what has preceded.

The pace is quite slow, the narrative, wordy, and Smith’s attempt to bring this era to life falls short as his characters are initially a little distant and not easy to connect with. The behaviour of the characters meant to evoke sympathy in the reader is such that it is difficult to muster any. But perhaps fans of film history will be fascinated. It’s clear that Smith has done a lot of research into the subject, but trying to include it all is a mistake. The read would be greatly improved if much of the tedious first three quarters was relegated to the cutting room floor.

While some of the prose is gorgeous, this novel is not a patch on Smith’s previous novel, The Last Painting of Sara De Vos. And unfortunately, Smith's latest historical fiction loses half a star because he has succumbed to the irritating editorial affectation of omitting quote marks for speech. He almost redeems it by indicating the start of dialogue with a dash - but not quite. This is not Smith’s best work.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.

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