Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Goldfinch: A Novel
by Donna Tartt
A good literary read that would have benefited from some judicious editing. (12/10/2018)
Award-winning American author, Donna Tartt begins her third novel with her twenty-seven-year-old protagonist, Theo Decker, in December, hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, reflecting on his life, while scanning newspapers for any available information about a recent murder. Over the next seven hundred plus pages, these in-depth reflections form a meticulously detailed account of the Theo’s life, beginning with the circumstances, when he was just thirteen, of his mother’s death, an event of which he says: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” It was then that he acquired the eponymous Goldfinch, the single remaining painting by 17th century Dutch Master, Carel Fabritius.

The ride that Tartt takes the reader on starts with Theo a virtual orphan in pseudo-foster care, then in the care of his negligent father, consuming copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. When fifteen-year-old Theo looks in the mirror, he notes his resemblance to his (safe-to-say) despised father, Larry, and when Larry’s girlfriend Xandra flings at him “You and your dad are a whole lot more alike than you might think. You’re his kid, through and through”, his denial is vehement. It becomes apparent from his later behaviour (drugs, alcohol, betrayal of good friends, criminal dishonesty) that she was indeed perceptive.

Readers familiar with Australian author Steve Toltz’s epic debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole (2008) may notice similarities, both in the length (somewhat daunting), the careless parenting, the roller-coaster life, and the black humour (in lesser quantity), although Tartt’s work is much less far-fetched. She certainly achieves a vivid portrayal of a thirteen-year-old boy’s grief at the loss of his mother.

Tartt has a talent for character description: “I found myself blinking up in the late afternoon glare at a very tall, very very tanned, very thin man, of indeterminate age. He looked partly like a rodeo guy and partly like a fucked-up lounge entertainer. His gold-rimmed aviators were tinted purple at the top; he was wearing a white sports jacket over a red cowboy shirt with pearl snaps and black jeans, but the main thing I noticed was his hair: part toupee, part transplanted or sprayed-on, with a texture like fibreglass insulation and a dark brown color like shoe polish in the tin.” A good literary read that would have benefited from some judicious editing.
The Nowhere Child: A Novel
by Christian White
A very impressive debut novel. (12/4/2018)
The Nowhere Child is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Christian White. In early 1990, two-year-old Sammy Went is abducted from her home in Manson, Kentucky, in broad daylight. Despite extensive searches and a thorough investigation, no trace of her was ever found. Twenty-eight years later, Melbourne photography teacher, Kimberly Leamy is approached by an American man who shows her a photograph of Sammy Went. The photo shows that Sammy bears a striking resemblance to two-year-old Kim. He claims to believe that Kim is Sammy Went.

Naturally, Kim dismisses the idea: no way her now-deceased mother, Carol Leamy could ever have kidnapped a child. But the idea persists in her head; the American shows her proof, and when Kim confronts her step-father, the expected denial does not come. It’s enough to spur Kim into travelling to Kentucky, back to the town where it all happened.

As a tragic event often will, Sammy’s kidnapping fractured the already strained Went family irreparably. The town of Manson, too, felt the upheaval that such an event can cause. When Kim arrives there, her presence, and the possibility that she really is the long-lost Sammy Went, once again spreads unrest amongst certain members of the community: several had dark secrets and not everyone told all they knew back then.

White’s initial premise is a fascinating one: to imagine that you are not who you have always believed yourself to be, what emotions must that stir up? For those you have, all your life, considered family, and for those who believe you form part of their family, what a disruption of everything they know! Then, to make things even more interesting, White throws in a gay father and a mother deeply ensconced in a fundamentalist church. Plenty of twists and quite a few red herrings will keep the reader guessing right up to a very dramatic climax. A very impressive debut novel.
Past the Shallows
by Favel Parrett
Moving and heart-breaking, this is an amazing debut novel. (11/26/2018)
Past The Shallows is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Favel Parrett. Since his Mum died in a car accident, Harry Curren, now almost nine years old, lives with his Dad and his older brother, Miles, on coastal southern Tasmania. Joe’s old enough to live on his own in Grandad’s house. It’s school holidays, and Harry would like to spend time with his brothers, even wander the beach when they go for a surf, but after Uncle Nick drowned, Dad makes Miles go on the boat with him and Jeff and Martin, not something Miles enjoys.

Living with Dad is no picnic: his moods are unpredictable, and when he’s angry, Steven Curren can be violent, so the boys try to tread lightly. There’s Aunty Jean who does stuff for them, but she’s nothing like her sister. And Harry’s best friend Stuart, but he’s not always at the caravan. One day, though, he follows a friendly little kelpie through the bush to a shack, before realising that’s where George Fuller lives. Everyone stays away from George, Harry’s not sure why.

Parrett gives the reader a story that’s spare on detail, but the shocking truth of what happened back then is gradually revealed. Her descriptive prose is beautiful, in particular her renderings of the sea and surfing. The comparisons with Tim Winton’s work are certainly valid. The relationship between the three brothers is heartening and Harry is impossible not to love, to care about, to feel for. Moving and heart-breaking, this is an amazing debut novel.
London Rules: A Slough House Novel
by Mick Herron
Another excellent dose of British spy fiction (11/26/2018)
London Rules is the fifth book in the Slough House series by prize-winning British author, Mick Herron. During a sweltering summer in Slough House, the slow horses perform, with a minimum of enthusiasm, the tasks their boss, Jackson Lamb has dreamed up: Louisa Guy scans library records for borrowers of possible terrorist texts; River Cartwright pretends to compare rate payments with the electoral roll to reveal possible terrorist safe houses, while he worries about his demented grandfather; and J.K. Coe composes fake emails for agents who need to disappear after interacting too closely with the general public.

Still on the wagon, Catherine Standish mops up after Lamb while also monitoring the psychological temperature of their reduced number, in particular: grief over those recently lost, the effect of (now-drug-free for 62 days!) Shirley Dander’s anger management course, the stability of the ever-silent, traumatised Coe, River’s concerns for the O.B., and Roddy Ho’s continuing over-inflated belief in his own popularity.

Meanwhile, in the real world, a terrorist attack on a Derbyshire village leaves twelve dead, a pipe bomb at a zoo has a similar death toll, and the discovery of a bomb on a train averts another potential disaster. As Regent’s Park searches for terrorists, First Desk Claude Whelan also has to cope with the PM’s demands for certain background checks, an MP with PM ambitions, the MP’s tabloid journalist wife and of course, his Second Desk, Lady Di Taverner, who has designs on his job.

When there’s an attempt on Roddy Ho’s life, the slow horses are at first incredulous, then puzzled. Coe seldom contributes, but when he does open his mouth, it’s worth listening, even if Lamb’s sharp mind is already a long way towards figuring it out. And once again, the slow horses are out on an op. Apart from a generous helping of snappy dialogue, fists, knees, elbows, a wrench, a knife, a coat-hanger, guns, a bottle of bleach, and a tin of paint come into play.

As always, Jackson Lamb is rude, inappropriate, sharp and sly. He has a lot of fun with addressing the unfortunately-named Devon Welles. This instalment sees the first of the London Rules, “cover your arse” adhered to by many players, and ultimately, Ho maintains his oblivion regards the general opinion of his appeal. The idea that “…Lamb will go to any lengths to protect a joe, but would watch in mild amusement if the rest of the world hanged itself” is soundly reinforced.

Herron’s plot is imaginative but easily believable, with the odd twist to keep it interesting; there’s plenty of humour, much of it black, that will have readers snickering, giggling and laughing out loud. This fifth instalment of the series, while it contains some spoilers for earlier books, can easily be read as a stand-alone, but with a series as entertaining as this one, why would you? Another excellent dose of British spy fiction.
Lord John and The Private Matter
by Diana Gabaldon
enjoyable piece of historical fiction. (11/25/2018)
Lord John and the Private Matter is the first novel in the Lord John Grey series by popular American author, Diana Gabaldon. As he waits for his next posting, Lord John Grey, a Major in His Majesty’s 47th Regiment, learns of the death of a Sergeant well known to him. Something is off when he pays the widow a condolence visit, and his friend, Colonel Harry Quarry reveals that Sergeant O’Connell was suspected of being a spy. The man they had shadowing him has disappeared and Grey is set the task of investigating.

At the same time, quite by chance, Grey comes across a disturbing fact about the Hon. Joseph Trevelyan, the prospective husband of his niece, Olivia Pearsall. As Grey makes enquiries to confirm or dismiss his concerns, he discovers more alarming details, and the boundaries between his two fields of investigation begin to blur.

Before Grey finally learns what has transpired, he will visit a brothel and a molly house, examine two dead bodies, acquire a new valet, suffer mercury poisoning, encounter cross-dressers, drink quite a bit of German wine, adjudicate in a fight over a corpse, and board a ship headed for India. There are plenty of twists and turns before the exciting climax of this rather enjoyable piece of historical fiction.
The Colors of All the Cattle: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency #19
by Alexander McCall Smith
Delightfully entertaining. (11/23/2018)
“There were some people cut out for politics, but she was sure she was not one of them. She believed in reconciliation and compromise; politicians seemed to believe only in the routing of their opponents. That was not the way she saw the world. It was not the way her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, had seen it either. It was not the way, she was sure, that the ancestors had viewed things. It was not the Botswana way.”

The Colours of All The Cattle is the nineteenth book in the popular No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by British author, Alexander McCall Smith. Life is good in Mma Precious Ramotswe’s Botswana, although there are always some concerns: plans for a dubious hotel proposal next to the cemetery are a worry; the hit-and-run case in Mochudi, on which the police have given up, is offering no clues; and the vacancy on the city’s council may be filled by Grace Makutsi’s least favourite person if no one stands against her.

It seems that the consensus of opinion of those around her is that the only person in Gabarone who could win against the notorious Violet Sepotho is Mma Ramotswe, and her bossy friend Sylvia Potokwani effectively bullies Precious into standing. Her later attempt to withdraw is sabotaged by her sense of duty to the people of Botswana. The self-appointed campaign committee has some wonderfully amusing meetings. Precious campaigns on a platform of honesty, making no rash promises, but vowing to do her best, and she is genuinely overwhelmed, and somewhat dismayed, by the response from voters.


In this instalment: Charlie, detective-in-training and part-time mechanic, uses a frowned-upon (by Mma Ramotswe) method to obtain information, which gets him into more trouble than he had ever imagined possible; seeking information about a corrupt developer, Mma Makutsi naively undertakes a covert operation, but with less success that she had hoped; Charlie has a girlfriend, and this time things look serious, but Queenie-Queenie has not been entirely honest with him. Mma Makutsi’s shoes murmur advice; and Mma Ramotswe again demonstrates her unfailing kindness and generosity.

As always, McCall Smith gives the reader a novel that has humour and wisdom, insightful observations and heartfelt emotion. Delightfully entertaining.
Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit: A Kopp Sisters Novel
by Amy Stewart
fans of Miss Kopp will not be disappointed (11/4/2018)
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit is the fourth book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. It’s 1916 and Deputy Constance Kopp has been in the job for over a year. She’s very satisfied with her position as Matron of Hackensack’s jail, looking after the female prisoners. She also finds her role as probation officer for certain wayward girls fulfilling, although she doesn’t hesitate when there’s more active policing necessary. Chasing down a thief or diving into the Hackensack River to rescue an escaped lunatic are all part of the job.

But this is an election year and, while she has no interest whatever in politics, she finds herself, as the only female Sheriff’s Deputy, being used as a pawn in a dirty campaign. Her boss and patron, Sheriff Heath has to vacate his position; his wife insists he run for Congress; everyone assumes Heath’s predecessor, William Conklin will succeed him, but Detective John Courter of the Prosecutor’s Office, the other candidate for Sheriff, denigrates Heath’s achievements in every speech.

Constance Kopp is far more interested in the case of the woman she has had to transport to Morris Plains asylum. Mrs Anna Kayser has been committed by her husband, Charles, on the say-so of a doctor who has not seen her, and to Constance, does not display any traits of lunacy. Deputy Kopp smells a rat.

Readers new to the Kopp Sisters series may be surprised learn from Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources 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.

What won’t amaze is the utter dependence and powerlessness of women at this time in history. Miss Kopp, though, is clever, resourceful and persistent, although not even these qualities can protect her from some adverse events, and the lump that forms in the throat at this turn may catch readers unprepared.

While this is the fourth 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. Let’s hope that Amy Stewart has more of the Sisters Kopp up her sleeve.
Holy Ghost: Virgil Flowers Book 11
by John Sandford
Very entertaining. (10/28/2018)
Holy Ghost is the eleventh book in the Virgil Flowers series by prize-winning American journalist and author, John Sandford. It’s a late May Sunday morning when Minnesota BCA agent Virgil Flowers leaves Frankie Noble coping with morning sickness to investigate two shootings in the nearby town of Wheatfield (there may be some confusion as the blurb refers to the town as Pinion). What was a dying town that has recently seen a change in fortunes with sightings of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Mayor, Wardell Holland, is concerned for the adverse publicity.

Virgil’s not there long before another shooting occurs, this one fatal. In each case, the location and time of day are identical, but despite eye-witnesses, confusion reigns about the shooter’s location. Each tiny clue sends Virgil in a different direction, frustrating his attempts to make sense of it all. The townsfolk are a quirky bunch and include a hairdresser who gives shoulder massages, a petty criminal who enjoys porn and has a taste, if not a talent, for blackmail, and a mayor who shoots flies.

This dose of Virgil Flowers has quite a few twists and a whole school of red herrings that have Virgil chasing his tale and keep the reader guessing to the action-filled climax. Virgil does come up with some stupidly dangerous ideas that indicate he’s not yet quite used to the idea of being a prospective father. To keep things interesting, there’s a disgusting diner, a stolen semi-trailer-load of Lego, and chicken potpies are consumed to excess.

There’s plenty of sitcom humour, some of it bordering on slapstick, and the dialogue, especially the banter between Virgil and his BCA colleagues, is a highlight. According to some reviews, this is not Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers novel, from which the reader might conclude that the first ten must indeed be rather good. Very entertaining.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Simon & Schuster Australia
The Last Hours
by Minette Walters
A brilliant read. (10/27/2018)
The Last Hours is the eighteenth novel by British author, Minette Walters, and is a departure from her usual genre of crime/psychological thriller: this one is historical fiction. It’s June 1348, and the Plague has just arrived in England. The population is completely unprepared for the devastation this disease will wreak, but a scant few demesnes are better equipped to handle it than most. A Saxon, Lady Anne of Develish in Dorsetshire was raised by nuns; she has been quietly running the demesne in an efficient and compassionate way underneath the radar of her cruel Norman husband.

Sir Richard of Develish departs for another demesne to set up his spoilt fourteen-year-old daughter in an advantageous marriage but Gyles Startout, Anne’s informant in Richard’s retinue, soon realises there is a sickness afflicting the nearby village. Potent and virulent, it appears to be something that kills quickly with few survivors. By the time Sir Richard decides to return to Develish, its already too late for many of his party.

In response to an announcement from the Bishop of Sarum regarding “A Black Death”, Anne takes the unconventional step of bringing the demesne’s bondsmen to live on the land contained within the moat that Sir Richard had, in his vanity, built as a folly. Her plan to isolate them from the rest of the population is a revolutionary measure that proves to be the salvation of Develish and its serfs.

On her husband’s return, she insists on his party being quarantined, a move that angers young Lady Eleanor and also attracts censure from Hugh de Courtesmain, Sir Richard’s Norman steward. As does her later appointment of a serf as Steward. Thus they survive, free of the pestilence, for some months, but how long will they last on the food they have stored? And how will they avoid attack from raiding parties? Then a teenaged boy dies, and Anne’s steward takes drastic action.

Walters gives the reader a fascinating look into the mid-fourteenth Century, bringing history to life in what is obviously the product of extensive research. Her characters are complex, human and flawed. They have secrets and doubts and weaknesses and their actions result in plenty of intrigue. Walters explores not just the ordeal of surviving the plague, but also, surviving in a world drastically changed, with a population so severely depleted that the very dynamic between serf and master is altered.

While is does not exactly end in a cliff-hanger, there are several matters left unresolved by the final twists, and the last pages reveal that there will be a sequel, which is unfortunately not slated for publication until October 2018, so readers have to wait a year to learn the further fates of Anne and Gyles and Thaddeus and Isabella. Walters has proven without any shadow of doubt that she has much more than one string to her bow. A brilliant read.
Transcription
by Kate Atkinson
Another Atkinson masterpiece. (10/25/2018)
Transcription is the fourth stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. In 1940, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong finds herself recruited into the Secret Service. Mostly it’s fairly boring, typing up reports and transcribing recordings of agents meeting with British Nazi-sympathisers. But then she’s given another identity and the work gets more interesting, for a while. After one exciting episode, arrests are made.

But there were some incidents about which Juliet doesn’t like to think too much, and when the war ends, she’s not sorry to leave it all behind. Five years later, Juliet is working for the BBC producing children’s programs when a face from the past appears: the man who posed as the Gestapo contact passes her in the street. What is disconcerting is that he pretends not to know her.

On the heels of this, a somewhat threatening note is delivered, more of her former colleagues from MI5 flit in and out, and she feels sure she is being followed. Frustrated for information from official channels, Juliet decides to become the hunter rather than the prey.

Once again, Atkinson gives the reader a plot that is perfectly plausible, but filled with twists and red herrings. Her depiction of London during the war and in the immediate aftermath has an authentic feel, with the social attitudes portrayed appropriate for the era. Her protagonist is easily believable: Juliet is intelligent but still naïve, although perhaps not quite as innocent as she first seems.

Her descriptive prose is excellent, as always, and Atkinson no doubt delighted in dropping this piece of dialogue in the final pages: “Fisher clapped his hands, as if to signal the end of the entertainment and said, ‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.’” Another Atkinson masterpiece.
Unsheltered: A Novel
by Barbara Kingsolver
an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read (10/12/2018)
Unsheltered is the ninth novel by best-selling, prize-winning American novelist, essayist, and poet, Barbara Kingsolver. Now in her fifties, Willa Knox never expected to be living in a run-down house in Vinelands, New Jersey, still the hub of a family that includes her two adult children, her new grandson, her debilitated, demanding father-in-law and an ageing dog.

Virtually unemployed, Willa is writing some freelance articles; her university professor husband Iano has a low-paid teaching job; her recently-widowed son Deke is juggling single fatherhood with setting up a personal financial advice company; her daughter Tig has abandoned college for protest action; her father-in-law Nick needs urgent medical care; and due to a lack of foundations, the house she inherited is literally starting to fall apart. Any sort of windfall, though not expected, would be helpful.

Some hundred and forty years earlier, Thatcher Greenwood has moved from Boston to teach science at Vinelands High School. Newly married to Rose, he has taken on the responsibility of both his late father-in-law’s family and house. His bright young sister-in-law, Polly is a bonus, whereas Rose’s mother, Aurelia falls into quite a different category. The house is not as sound as Aurelia believes, and his teaching position is a source of great frustration, as the school’s principal undermines his every attempt to infuse his students with current scientific knowledge.

The timelines alternate between chapters with the events of the 1870s told from Thatcher’s perspective, while Willa narrates the story set in 2015/6. Kingsolver uses a clever device to bridge the chapter: the final words of one chapter form the heading of the next. Between the narratives, parallels and echoes abound, and not just the residency at 744 East Plum Street. And with them, Kingsolver deftly demonstrates that many of the challenges we think we’re facing for the first time are by no means unique or new phenomena.

Kingsolver is highly skilled at creating believable characters: she writes about ordinary people facing everyday challenges, and yet, the reader can’t help but be enthralled. These are people who face hardships yet still worry about the greater good, about their country and the world. Their dialogue is credible, their relationships, realistic, and while there is naturally some friction between certain characters, their interactions (between couples, friends, siblings, parents/children, in-laws) are often entertaining.

Kingsolver’s depiction of these pre-Trump-era characters who have made good decisions, doing the right thing and working hard all their lives, and still ending up effectively on the poverty line, is absolutely spot-on. Her analysis of the mindset of those who support Trump (who remains unnamed herein) is astute and insightful. “…we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species, but we don’t want to hear it. So if it’s not this exact prophet of self-indulgence we’re looking to for reassurance, it will be some other liar who’s good at distracting us from the truth. Because of the times we’re in.”

Kingsolver gives Tig the voice of caution, making her intelligent, perceptive and articulate. If some readers feel this has a preachy tone to it, well, perhaps that’s because nothing else has worked and the situation is truly becoming dire. But it’s not all doom and gloom: there are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the conversations; and if those nations that consider themselves highly developed could take a leaf out of the book of a country that has had no choice but to curb their consumerism/materialism, then Cuba apparently has much to teach us all.

As always, Kingsolver’s descriptive prose is exquisite, and her love of nature is apparent throughout, as is her concern for the state of the nation and of the world. Again, she gives the reader an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read.
A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult
yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read. (9/26/2018)
A Spark of Light is the twenty-third novel by popular American author, Jodi Picoult. In Jackson, Mississippi, a women’s clinic that provides, amongst other services, abortions is targeted daily by pro-life campaigners. They harass the staff and the clients as they enter and leave. But today is different: a gunman has entered the building and begun shooting.

Trained police hostage negotiator, Detective Lieutenant Hugh McElroy is soon on the scene to talk to the gunman, but within minutes learns that his daughter, Wren and his sister, Bex are inside the clinic along with other innocent hostages. As he tries to reason with the shooter, those inside struggle to help the injured without further enraging their captor.

The day’s events, as they unfold over ten hours, are told in reverse, with an epilogue resolving the dramatic end of the first chapter. As the story follows the path that directs each character to their destiny at the Clinic, their thoughts and dialogue give the reader a deep appreciation of their nature, their challenges, their passions. The shooter’s motivation and the series of events that leads up to his shocking actions illustrates how easily misunderstanding, desperation, a deficit of compassion and happenstance together can end in tragedy.

Picoult never hesitates to tackle controversial topics, nor does she in this latest work. The main issue is, of course, abortion, but many other related topics feature: the legal obstacles, the reason doctors and nurses work in these clinics, the for and against arguments, the situations where abortion seems appropriate, the fallacies that are spouted by pro-lifers, inequity between laws that protect the foetus and those protecting the mother, the legal inconsistencies between states, the import of illegal abortion drugs from China, and even the semantics surrounding the issue.

While many will feel that her treatment of the topic is balanced, Picoult’s latest novel is bound to polarise readers. The depth of her research is apparent and she backs it up with an extensive bibliography. In the Author’s Note, Picoult gives a succinct quote regards pro-lifer activities from a woman who has had an abortion: “I don’t need people shaming me because of a choice that already hurt my heart to have to make.” Picoult gives the reader yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
The Clockmaker's Daughter: A Novel
by Kate Morton
Classic Kate Morton. (9/24/2018)
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is the sixth novel by Australian author, Kate Morton. When bank archivist Elodie Winslow opens a long-forgotten box, she’s fascinated by the contents, in particular a leather satchel containing a sketch book and a photograph of a beautiful young woman. While it should relate somehow to the founder of Stratton, Cadwell & Co., James Stratton, it is apparent that some items belonged to nineteenth-century-artist, Edward Radcliffe. But one sketch especially resonates with Elodie: she’s convinced it is the place of her mother’s bedtime stories.

Edward had purchased Birchwood Manor because he felt a strong connection with the place. The plan had been for the Magenta brotherhood to spend the summer of 1862 there, engaged in artistic pursuits. But the intruder who shot and killed Edward’s fiancée, Fanny Brown, had put a premature end to that.

Edward's utter devastation was to be expected after such a tragedy. The precious Radcliffe Blue was now missing, and the Police report implicated Edward’s most recent model, a woman going by the name of Lily Millington, but not everyone believed that version of events. What really happened? And did it have anything to do with the satchel, the sketch book and the photograph that Elodie had found?

Morton's latest offering weaves the stories of many characters, in the form of anecdotes, vignettes or short stories in themselves, together into one epic tale that spans over a hundred and fifty years, and that ultimately reveals the answers to mysteries and connections, to each other, and to the house. Such an epic needs many narrators, so the cast is not small, even including a ghost, and yet there are often barely a few degrees of separation between them. Morton does tend to use coincidence, which can occasionally make the final reveal seem contrived, but readers familiar with her work will be aware of what to expect.

There is no lack of parallels between the lives of various characters and while it is easy to hope for the best for those whose stories are told, some (Ada, Lucy, Winston) hold particular appeal and, for most readers, young Tip will be the stand-out favourite. There are some suitably nasty characters as well, one whose idea of friendship leaves much to be desired. This is a story with twists and red herrings, with grief and guilt, with theft and treasure and hidden spaces, with love of many sorts and a heart-warming ending. Classic Kate Morton.
Force of Nature: A Novel
by Jane Harper
another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction (9/20/2018)
“It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things. It all kept adding up until it was just too late.”

Force of Nature is the second book in the Aaron Falk series by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Jane Harper. A late-night call has AFP agent Aaron Falk and his Financial Intelligence Unit partner Carmen Cooper heading for the Giralong Ranges. A corporate team-building weekend has gone wrong and one of the participants, Alice Russell, is missing. Alice is the whistle-blower in their current case, so Falk and Cooper are concerned that her actions have been exposed to their target, resulting in some sort of retaliatory action.

But when they arrive, the local Police Sergeant shares his own concerns: that Alice may be a victim of Sam Kovac, the son of notorious serial killer, Martin Kovac, whose killing field was in the Giralang Ranges. And as they question the remaining members of the party, they become aware of just how unpopular Alice was with her colleagues. Could she have come to harm at their hands? Or has the pressure simply become too much, prompting her to disappear off the scene? Has it anything to do with certain photos and clips spreading on social media?

Falk’s second outing is easily as fine as his first. The narrative alternates between Falk’s observations as he investigates, and the account of events during the weekend from the perspective of each of the four remaining participants. It soon becomes apparent that none of those questioned is completely candid about what happened, or what they know. The storyline is highly credible, with several twists and red herrings keeping the reader guessing right up to the exciting climax.

Harper effortlessly evokes the Australian winter mountain landscape, and her characters are typical of those one might encounter in an office environment. Falk’s inner monologue and his dialogue with Cooper give the reader insight into his career choice and personal history, and reinforce his integrity. This is another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction and, whether or not it features Aaron Falk, more from Jane Harper will be eagerly anticipated.
The Dry
by Jane Harper
certainly lives up to the hype (9/15/2018)
The Dry is the first book in the Aaron Falk series by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Jane Harper. After twenty years away, AFP agent Aaron Falk returns to drought-stricken rural Victoria for the funeral of his one-time best friend, Luke Hadler. All of Kiewarra is there to bury Luke, Karen and little Billy, but few of them are glad to see Falk.

Falk’s field is financial crimes, so Luke’s mother asks him to look into a possible alternative to the foregone conclusion of murder-suicide that seems to have been reached by the detectives from Clyde. And neither is Kiewarra’s own cop, Sergeant Greg Raco, entirely convinced by this explanation. There are enough discrepancies in the facts that Falk decides to stay a few days, to see if he can cast light on this awful tragedy. He owes Luke’s memory and his parents at least that much.

But Falk and his father left Kiewarra under a cloud when, at sixteen, his dear friend Ellie Deacon drowned in the Kiewarra River. While no one was ever charged, Falk had his suspicions then about who was responsible: are they affecting his impartiality now? Are there reasons to think the crimes are related?

During his informal investigation, Falk connects with townsfolk, reconnects with old friends and old enemies, and it is soon apparent that the ill will from his teens has been comprehensively reawakened.

Against the backdrop of a struggling country town, Harper gives the reader twin mysteries: a cold case and one still dominating the town’s consciousness. Multiple narrators give a variety of perspectives, eventually revealing the truth about both these wretched events. Harper’s characters are believably flawed: there are no saints here, and many of them harbour secrets. Falk’s loyalty to his friends is tinged with doubt and suspicion.

Harper’s Kiewarra easily evokes the typical country town with its small mindedness, its secrets, its rumour mill and the lightning spread of gossip, and a lack of the anonymity often felt in cities. This is a tale that is fast-paced, with an exciting climax and twists and red herrings that will keep even the most astute reader guessing until the final chapters. Harper’s debut novel certainly lives up to the hype, so interest in Aaron Falk’s second outing, Force of Nature, is bound to be high.
Whistle in the Dark
by Emma Healey
Healey’s second novel is at least as good as her debut. (7/26/2018)
“Jen felt a sudden exhaustion from the burden of the love she felt for Lana. Why did she have to drag this love around everywhere when, sometimes, she’d like to leave it behind for a few hours? Without that love, she could float away, let her daughter’s mood improve, let her put her frown and her sharp tongue back in their still-shiny packaging. Without that love, she could be light, untethered by their shared genetics, by the memory of Lana as a baby, or by the pride she felt in her wit, even when it was aimed so fiercely at her.”

Whistle in the Dark is the second novel by award-winning British author, Emma Healey. In the last days of a sketching holiday in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Jen wakes to every mother's worst nightmare: her fifteen-year-old daughter is missing. It is four days of worry before Lana is found, bruised and bloody, soaking wet, exhausted and hungry, by a local farmer.

"I can't remember" is her reply to every query. Jen's level-headed husband Hugh is perfectly happy to wait until his daughter remembers of her own accord: she's safe now, and that's all that really matters. Twenty-six-year-old Meg is convinced that her sister’s amnesia is just more of Lana’s attention-seeking behaviour.

But over the following days and weeks, Jen notes changes in Lana: this is not the teen she went away with. Whatever happened has changed her daughter in ways she can’t always define. She's quite sure she isn't imagining it, and she can’t help her compulsion to learn what those four lost days held for Lana.

Lana is not particularly likeable for much of the book: a typical prickly teen, and there seems to be a bit of sibling rivalry between sisters for Jen’s love and devotion. Jen’s relationship with Lana is not the easiest: “Jen was aware of the hum of paranoia beneath her thoughts, a hum that rose in pitch whenever Lana and she were alone together.”

A natural worrier, Jen is constantly clutching at straws, going to some extraordinary lengths to find out what happened to Lana. Any parent of a teenaged girl would be able to empathise with her, but is her level of concern natural, or does her monitoring of Lana’s tweets, Instagram posts and reading matter amount to stalking?

The reader wants to know too, sure, but sometimes Hugh’s laid-back attitude is less irritating than Jen’s anxiety. But it’s worth persisting, as Jen does, because patience is certainly rewarded with an excellent climax. And some of Jen’s research (viz. alternate uses of condoms) certainly adds humour. Healey’s second novel is at least as good as her debut.
Us Against You: A Beartown Novel
by Fredrik Backman
Moving and thought-provoking (7/21/2018)
Us Against You is the second novel in the Beartown series by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman. It is translated from Swedish by Neil Smith. Midsummer in Beartown and there’s no ice hockey to be played, but the events of spring, “the scandal” as some referred to it, still looms large in the town’s collective consciousness. The (unpunished) perpetrator may have left town, but the victim still bears the blame.

When the Regional Councillors decide that the Beartown Bears Ice Hockey Club will be liquidated, a hearty cheer goes up from their rivals, the Hed Hockey team, while the blame is placed firmly on the shoulders of the team’s manager, Peter Andersson and his daughter, Maya. One councillor, however, has plans of his own: a stranger arrives in Beartown on a mission from this politician. His plan brings hope, but is he to be trusted?

In this sequel, all the characters from The Scandal (Beartown #1) feature, but with their backstories expanded, their futures speculated upon and their present reactions to events explored. “Inside every large story there are always plenty of small ones.” Some new and interesting characters also appear. As with the first book, there is a lot of Ice Hockey in this story, but it could actually be centred around any team sport in a remote town to the same effect.

There is quite a long and slow build-up to the climax, which may be frustrating for some readers, but patience is rewarded. Backman presents moral and ethical dilemmas in a realistic fashion, there are some lump-in-the-throat moments and many wise words: “Men are busy, but boys don’t stop growing. Sons want their fathers’ attention until the precise moment when fathers want their sons’.” Moving and thought-provoking.
Happiness
by Aminatta Forna
a marvellous read (7/16/2018)
“When he was in London, going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants, the city itself began to feel like a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.”

Happiness is the fourth novel by British author, Aminatta Forna. American urban wildlife biologist Jean Turane has been living in London for eighteen months (studying the city’s fox population) when she runs into Dr Attila Asane: literally, the first time, on Waterloo Bridge; metaphorically, thereafter. Within days they have shared drinks and meals and are pooling their resources to search for a runaway ten-year-old boy.

Attila is a psychiatrist, well respected in the field of PTSD, and is in London to give his oft-used keynote speech at a conference. However, he soon finds his free time taken up with the search for Tano, and problems with Rosie Lennox, a former colleague who is now a care facility resident, and with Jean. By the time he makes his speech, the events of the preceding week see him altering it beyond all recognition.

As the events of the week unfold, the thoughts of main characters are drawn back to past incidents so that the reader gradually learns the path that has brought them to London in 2014. Vignettes of the support cast reveal chance connections. As well, they all spend time discussing topics pertinent to their current lives, so the story touches on PTSD, coffees, special diets, the medicalisation of normal emotions, foxes, coyotes, wolves and parakeets.

The City of London itself is a major character in this book: residents and readers familiar with the city will find this an especially enjoyable novel. Forna tells a tale of fortuitous meetings and degrees of separation and good people who go out of their way to help. The gathering of doormen, traffic wardens, street actors, security guards and street sweepers in the search for the boy is especially heart-warming, and Attila’s speech on trauma is enlightening. This is a marvelous read.
The Winner Stands Alone
by Paulo Coelho
a rather tedious read. (6/24/2018)
The Winner Stands Alone is the eighth stand-alone novel by Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho. It is translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. The Cannes Film Festival: Ewa is there with her fashion-designer husband Hamid Hussein for showings and some high-power business meetings; Russian telco president, Igor Malev is there to demonstrate to his ex-wife that she needs to return to their marriage.

Igor’s obsessed with Ewa, and he had promised that if she left him, he would destroy some universes. He’s a cold-blooded killer with no conscience who easily murders random strangers: a young jewellery street vendor, an important and successful movie distributor, a first-time movie producer and a famous movie star, all without remorse. He refers to them as martyrs for love. But then his objective changes.

While the setting is well-portrayed, the plot is contrived and paper-thin, if rather bizarre in places, while the characters are one-dimensional vessels for Coelho’s preachy philosophical rants. Igor is obviously mad but the reader has to wade through chapters of his thought processes.

As the characters pontificate to one another, or to themselves, we get Coelho’s lectures on champagne, SMS messages, models, vanity, money laundering, tanning salons, gyms, police and all the industries commonly found at Cannes: movie, fashion, celebrity, cosmetics, diet, diamond, and marketing.

The whole tone is very moralistic, full of platitudes and aphorisms, and very heavy on message at the expense of good writing. It is repetitive to the point of being tiresome, making this a rather tedious read.
The Weight of Ink
by Rachel Kadish
Stirring and captivating (6/21/2018)
“Nothing of the building’s exterior – not even the stone walls, with their once-giant wingspan – had prepared him for this. The staircase was opulence written in wood. The broad treads ascended between dark carved panels featuring roses and vines and abundant fruit baskets; gazing down from high walls, their faces full of sad, sweet equanimity, were more carved angels. And halfway up the stairs, two arched windows let in a white light so blinding and tremulous, Aaron could swear it had weight. Windows to bow down before, their wrought-iron levers and mullions casting a mesmerizing grid across the carved wood: light and shadow and light again.”

The Weight of Ink is the third novel by American author, Rachel Kadish. In 1657, nineteen-year-old Ester Velasquez and her brother Isaac accompanied Rabbi HaCoen Mendes from Amsterdam to London. The rabbi, tortured and blinded by Inquisitors, was going to minister to London’s Jewish community; the siblings had just been orphaned in a house fire.

Late in the year 2000, history professor Helen Watt is asked to examine a cache of books and papers discovered under a staircase in a 17th Century London mansion. Written in Hebrew and Portuguese, the papers appear to date from the mid-seventeenth century, and concern Jewish refugees from the Inquisition. This is potentially an important find, and Helen engages a young American post-graduate student, Aaron Levy to assist her. Unfortunately, they don’t have exclusive access, and find themselves in a bit of a race to uncover the secrets held within.

As they examine the trove of papers, Helen and Aaron are surprised and excited to find that the scribe for the blind rabbi might have been a woman. Then, in between the lines of letters about false messiahs written in Portuguese, they discover the story, in Hebrew, of Ester Velazquez, a young Jewess educated by HaCoen Mendes (not quite accidentally, because the rabbi sees much despite his blindness), a young woman with an almost unquenchable thirst for philosophical knowledge and for discourse thereon. It’s a thirst so deep that she engages in subterfuge to attempt to satisfy it.

What a superb piece of historical fiction this is. Kadish carefully constructs her tale so that the reader shares the excitement of the small but significant discoveries, of facts slowly revealed, all the while bringing to life the daily routine of London’s seventeenth century Jewish community. The astute reader will, early on, catch the hint of “a gossamer-thin connection” that develops into quite a lovely irony by the end of the story.

Her characters, not necessarily likeable at first, slowly gain in appeal: Helen’s gruff exterior (a colleague describes her thus: “Behind the words she could read his regret that the one to make such a find had been Helen Watt – a dried-up scholar, inconveniently unphotogenic, on the cusp of a mandatory retirement no one but her would rue”) mellows somewhat; Aaron will initially strike the reader as arrogant and self-absorbed but his time with Helen definitely matures him: “How had he ever overlooked shy girls? It struck him that the fact that he wasn’t attracted to them might represent a flaw in his character, not theirs.”

Kadish gives the reader some exquisite descriptive prose: “She looked at him with the directness of someone making an inner calculus over which he was to have no influence” and “Today, when he’d peered under the staircase, it was as though what he’d starved for all these lifeless months of dissertation research had been restored to him. History, reaching out and caressing his face once more, the way it had years ago as he sat reading at his parents’ kitchen table. The gentle insistent touch of something like a conscience, stilling him. Waking him to a lucid new purpose” are examples. Stirring and captivating, this is not a short read, but is worth every minute invested.

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