Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir
Brilliantly funny, clever and original sci-fi. (4/28/2021)
“Am I barreling toward the sun, or away from it? It’s almost academic. I’m either on a collision course with the sun or on my way out to deep space with no hope of returning. Or, I might be headed in the sun’s general direction, but not on a collision course. If that’s the case, I’ll miss the sun … and then fly off into deep space with no hope of returning.”

Project Hail Mary is the third novel by American author and self-confessed space nerd, Andy Weir. When he first emerges from the coma, he has no idea where he is, or how or why. It seems to be a spaceship, he’s the sole survivor of a crew of three, and the onboard computer is insisting he proffers his name before allowing access to certain areas, but he can’t remember that either.

“This is like being in a video game. Explore the area until you find a locked door, then look for the key. But instead of searching bookshelves and garbage cans, I have to search my mind. Because the “key” is my own name.”

His memory is spotty, coming in fits and starts; gradually, the fact that he’s a junior high science teacher reveals itself; he’s Dr. Ryland Grace, formerly a microbiologist who spent his career working up theoretical models for alien life. And he’s a long, long way from San Francisco.

The “what” Grayson remembers fairly quickly: a dire problem facing his home planet, and the importance of his mission is clear, a mission to save mankind. The “how” poses a challenge that his scientific mind relishes. When Grayson recalls the “why” that has placed him on the Hail Mary instead of a highly-trained astronaut, he’s dismayed and angry. What is quickly obvious is that he is facing a suicide mission. All alone.

Except it turns out he’s not.

More is difficult to reveal without spoilers, but Weir has neatly constructed a narrative in which flashbacks/memories slowly reveal the exact how and why, but also just what the ship is equipped with and can do. Weir gives the reader sci-fi that doesn’t get too bogged down with dense sci-facts but is interesting and thought-provoking.

Weir’s protagonist is a delight, smart and resourceful; his ever-inquiring mind and excellent deductive powers see him maintain his optimism that he will complete his vital mission. Ultimately, Grayson surprises himself. He’s also got a great sense of humour, so his inner monologue, asides to the computer and other conversations entertain:

“The computer finishes its boot process and brings up a screen I’ve never seen before. I can tell it means trouble, because the word “TROUBLE” is in large type across the top.”

This is a tale with an action plot, twists and surprises, featuring a planet Earth where greenhouse gases are welcome and the Sahara is covered in foil. There are philosophical discussions on behaviour and intelligence, lots of space walks, vodka, beetles and five-legged spiders, laugh-out-loud moments and the odd lump in the throat. Brilliantly funny, clever and original sci-fi.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Cornerstone
The Critic: The Second of the Enzo Files
by Peter May
page turner (4/25/2021)
The Critic is the second book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. The prospect of raising funds for his new forensic department at the university where he teaches biology spurs former forensics expert Enzo Macleod to travel to Gaillac to investigate a second case from Roger Raffin’s best-selling book of notorious unsolved murders. But on his very first night there, Enzo almost dies twice and, the second instance, he is certain, was an attempt on his life.

Until his disappearance in 2003, Gil Petty was described as “the most influential wine critic in the world”. A year after he went missing, his body was found by pickers in La Croix Blanche vineyard, posed in the ceremonial garb of an exclusive wine fraternity. He had been pickled in red wine. It is soon apparent that he was unpopular with some winegrowers, and they weren’t the only ones with motive.

It’s quickly clear that Enzo’s investigation is not well received by all the locals. When he visits the young gendarme who investigated Petty’s disappearance and murder, he meets with resistance to the point of obstruction, but when another body is discovered in similar condition, the gendarme unbends enough to allow Enzo to assess the scene. After Enzo is invited by the juge d’instruction to consult on both investigations, the young man’s resentment as Enzo exposes his unwitting incompetence is evident.

The tiny gîte in which Enzo is staying is the former home of an eighteenth-century Petty ancestor, and also where Petty was living when he disappeared. It becomes increasingly cramped as his student and assistant, Nicole Lafeuille arrives with her gear, then Petty’s estranged daughter, Michelle, Enzo’s erstwhile lover, Charlotte Roux, and his daughter Sophie with her boyfriend Bertrand all crowd in.

After they manage to break through the security on Petty’s computer, Enzo decides they need to decode the cipher in which Petty wrote his tasting notes, reasoning this might point to motive as, while a high Petty rating would guarantee success for the vineyard, a low one would spell ruin. The way they go about this is terribly clumsy, but they do all get their fill of good wine.

Enzo’s other avenue of investigation, apart from the source of Petty’s death garb, is to trace the origin of the wine in which the victims were pickled using a wine fingerprint, which necessitates a plane trip to California in a kilt.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep the pages turning: even if the murderer’s method is obvious by halfway, the motive and the identity are not. There are several red herrings to keep the reader guessing, and multiple attempts on Enzo’s life, at least one of which remains unresolved at the conclusion. That “I’ll just go to the murderer’s place to see if I can find the bodies, but I won’t bother to let anyone know where I’m going” trope is wearing a bit thin, though.

Enzo does seem to be juggling beautiful women in this instalment, shamelessly flirting even as he really has too many women around him, all giving each other black looks. May also demonstrates that the French bureaucracy has the same fondness for acronyms as other nations do. It will be interesting to see where #3, Blacklight Blue takes our transplanted Scot. At times blackly funny and also filled with winemaking facts, this is a page-turner.
Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Fans of the genre and this series will be enchanted, (4/21/2021)
“To any man who ever loves an Owens, let this curse befall you, let your fate lead to disaster, let you be broken in body and soul, and may it be that you never recover.”

Magic Lessons is a prequel in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. The curse that fosters angst in the lives of characters we meet in Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic was spoken from the gallows in Salem in 1686 by their ancestor, Maria Owens.

This prequel follows her life from when, as a baby, she was found by Hannah Owens in a snowy field with the crow; taught much of the Unnamed Art into which she was born; watched the women around her betrayed by men who saw evil where there was none; vowed not to deal with love, but taken in anyway, by the father of her daughter, Faith and sent to the gallows by his word.

And after that gallows curse, the search for a taken child whose direction takes a turn to the darker arts. And finally, to the building of that house on Magnolia Street, via imprisonment and witch trials and dunkings. As expected, there are herbal recipes, spells and familiars and, of course, that pesky deathwatch beetle, but also good, true, patient men, brave and loyal friends, and love. Fans of the genre and this series will be enchanted, and looking forward to the final volume, The Book of Magic.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
The Rules of Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Another charming read (4/11/2021)
The Rules of Magic is a prequel in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. It is June 1960 when the Owens siblings, Frances, Bridget and Vincent, leave New York to spend summer for the first time with their Aunt Isabelle in the Magnolia Street house in Massachusetts. Their parents are resigned to this, but neither is pleased. Susanna has done her utmost to steer her children towards a normal life, and away from all things magical, but prohibition has been ineffective.

Even at fourteen years old, Vincent accepts that they are different, having sought out a copy of the banned Magus downtown. He freely shares his musical talents, but hides his clairvoyance, disturbed enough by it to resort to alcohol, and later ventures into the darker side of his craft.

When April Owens, their eighteen-year-old, rebellious second (or third or fifth) cousin, turns up at Magnolia Street, the sisters are wary, but the connection with Vincent can’t be denied.

It’s clear that his sisters have gifts too: seventeen-year-old Franny has an uncanny connection to birds; sixteen-year-old Jet can almost always tell what people are thinking. Vincent suggests his older sisters acknowledge what they are. Aunt Isabelle counsels that to deny who you are only brings unhappiness.

By the time they leave Aunt Isabelle’s, Franny has read Mary Owens’s diary and knows about the curse that afflicts all members of the Owens family: Ruination for any man who fell in love with them. Each of the siblings starts out determined not to inflict this on anyone, but how can you control falling in love? Besides which, one of the rules of magic from Aunt Isabelle’s Grimoire said “Fall in love whenever you can.”

Jet falls for Levi with tragic and far-reaching consequences, and life changes radically for the siblings. Vincent’s lover is someone who understands the curse and is ready to accept what fate throws their way. When Franny finally acquiesces to the love she has been denying for years, her lover has a clever plan to fool the curse.

Set against the backdrop of the sixties: the Summer of Love, drugs, the Monterey Pop Festival, the draft, Hoffman tells the story of those amazing aunts who played such an important role in the lives of Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic.

And what a marvellous tale it is: another enchanting story of family and love and magic. The characters are appealing and often a bit quirky, the romance is delightful and the magic fun. Hoffman gives her characters wise words and insightful observations about life. The prequel Magic Lessons, which tells Maria Owens story, is eagerly awaited. Another charming read.
Under Pressure: Lucas Page #2
by Robert Pobi
Excellent crime fiction (3/22/2021)
Under Pressure is the second book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an explosion at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum incinerates over seven hundred people, while leaving the building largely intact, Dr Lucas Page is unsure what he can offer to the investigation. But FBI Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, Brett Kehoe, wants his expertise with numbers.

“No system — and that includes a series of crimes — is intrinsically random; the observer just has an imperfect understanding of how said system operates. If you see something that appears to be random, you’re missing data. And hidden inside larger seemingly organized structures, you can find smaller ones that look like they’re nothing—statistical noise — but they’re not. They’re just part of a different pattern.”

The device is apparently highly sophisticated and its design, ensuring maximum cruelty, zero survivors and the destruction of artwork worth a billion dollars, suggests several possible motives. A warning email sent to a CNN journalist, which denounces humanity’s reliance on technology, leaves Lucas unconvinced even when the next target, an internet hub, fits this motive.

Lucas firmly believes they need to look for the money: who would benefit? But is that the right question? Further explosions and victims don’t clarify the issue of motive, but are all linked to the high-profile company whose gala IPO launch at the Guggenheim was bombed. Horizon Dynamics is a company using nano-technology and AI driven solutions for rejuvenation and repair of eco-systems, and its directors are linked to each event on several levels.

As more bombs explode and more people die, some of them potential suspects, initial theories are challenged, but the sadistic aspect of the bombs leads Lucas to conclude there is a personal element. Lucas enlists the help of his post-grad students to analyse a mountain of data that has stumped the FBI, reasoning that: “The bureau’s people were fettered by both protocol and lack of vision.” Not so his clever students.

Another excellent dose of Lucas Page and Alice Whitaker that features land mines, a puppy, a confetti bomb, sniffer rats, an opportune pair of handcuffs, and a very large body count. Once again, Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. Entertaining dialogue is another hallmark of this series.

Will Lucas work with the FBI again? While he enjoys the stimulation it offers his mind, his wife and family certainly don’t appreciate that it takes him away from them and potentially puts his life (and theirs) at risk. Nor is this the first occasion that his involvement seems to be associated with unfortunate consequences for the Special Agent In Charge of the case. It will be interesting to see if Pobi gives fans further installments of Lucas Page. Excellent crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and St Martins Press
City of Windows: A Lucas Page Novel
by Robert Pobi
First-rate crime fiction. (3/16/2021)
City of Windows is the first book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an FBI agent is shot in his car on a Manhattan street during a snow-storm, Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, insists on analysis of the scene by Dr Lucas Page. But it’s been ten years since Lucas was part of the Bureau, and he’s wary. The victim’s identity draws him in; he works his magic and pinpoints the location of the shooter. And then Lucas hopes to walk away.

Within hours, another victim, another impossible shot, and Lucas again picks the spot from which the sniper took the shot. But while one of Bureau agents attributes it to random shootings, Lucas can’t dismiss it so easily: he is soon proven right when the victim turns out to be ex-FBI. By the time a third person is shot, under similar impossible circumstances, it is clear that someone is targeting law enforcement officers. But why?

Lucas Page is an interesting protagonist: an astrophysicist and college lecturer who is endowed with acute spatial awareness, making him a whizz at projectile geometry. The Event that ended his career with the Bureau, and his marriage, has left him with several bionic bits and, eventually, a new wife and a tribe of adopted kids. He’s devoid of tact, and shows no compunction about using his grad students to do some Bureau grunt work.

For this case, Kehoe teams him up with Whitaker, a female African-American, intelligent, formidable and with a delightful knack for anticipating questions. Their dialogue is very entertaining, and serves to provide some of Lucas’s backstory (the rest from flashbacks) as well as his strongly-held opinions and his intolerance of stupidity. The heroic Aussie double amputee also charms the reader.

His rant on terrorists is excellent: “Numbers don’t lie. And although everyone is allowed to have a position, not all positions are created equal. There are experts in any given field; one person’s ignorance is not just as valuable as another’s knowledge, and the fact is your average American has to worry about his neighbor more than terrorists by orders of magnitude.” And re gun sales “They weren’t buying protection – they were being sold fear.”

Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. More of this cast of characters is available to the reader in the second instalment, Under Pressure. First-rate crime fiction.
Raft of Stars
by Andrew J. Graff
An outstanding debut novel. (3/15/2021)
Raft of Stars is the first novel by American author, Andrew. J. Graff. Fish and Bread are on the run. Fish (sort-of-accidentally) shot Bread’s dad (a nasty, violent alcoholic), and they don’t want to go to jail or foster care. Bread leaves a note for Fish’s grandpa on his fridge to explain they are headed for the National Guard Armory at Ironsford to find Fish’s dad (who will know what to do).

The note promises to send money for what they have taken, and asks grandpa to please reassure Fish’s mom they will be OK: they have their bicycles, two cups, their fishing poles, some food, Jack Breadwin’s gun and five bullets, grandpa’s jackknife and sharpening stone, a flint, matches and a tarp. Please tell the Sheriff that Fish didn’t mean to kill Bread’s dad (he’s on the Breadwin kitchen floor).

Ten-year-old Fischer and his best friend Dale Breadwin are confident they can make their way through the Mishicot Forest to Ironsford, ninety miles to the north. They will build a cedar raft, follow the river, hunt and fish, poach if they have to.

Their plan does have a few small wrinkles: Fish hasn’t told Bread that his father died in the Middle East three years ago; both boys are likely discounting the danger of coyotes and bears; neither boy is aware that the forest harbours dubious characters running meth labs in riverside cottages; nor, perhaps most importantly, that there are dangerous, unnavigable rapids at Ironsford Gorge.

They soon realise that they have grossly underestimated the difficulty of raft-building with only a barlow knife, and when their food supply (Slim Jims, beans, tuna) runs out, they are dismayed to find not only that foraging and fishing less productive than they had anticipated, but also that killing a creature to eat it is not as easy or straightforward as they had believed.

Meanwhile, within hours, several people are on their trail. Fischer’s grandpa, Teddy Branson is a Korean War veteran who immediately understands the dangers these essentially good boys could face, and is determined to save them. Sheriff Cal is a newcomer to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, having departed Houston, Texas in disgrace to take up the post of interim Sheriff in Claypot. A year in Marigamie County has done little to take the city out of the man, and he’s unconvinced about such a trek on horseback.

Fischer’s mom, Miranda travels from Cedar to await news at Teddy Branson’s farm. Tiffany Robins, the purple-haired cashier at the Sit-And-Go Gas Station, was charged with caring for Sheriff Cal’s dog. The aspiring young poet, who is sweet on the Sheriff, joins Miranda when the blue heeler goes AWOL. But Miranda is a mother fiercely attached, a lioness who is single-minded about rescuing her boy, and cannot sit idle. These two women strike out in pursuit, proving themselves surprisingly resourceful.

As two boys on a raft face hunger and weather and wildlife, two men with horses, persistent mosquitoes and a machete slash a path north, while two women paddle a canoe towards those killer rapids. They face wild water, storms both physical and psychological, and discover untapped reserves of strength and courage.

As the story hurtles towards a dramatic climax, friendships are formed, loyalties are tested, truths are told and acts of true bravery are performed. Graff does it all with some gorgeous evocative prose: “Fish saw a stretch of river the length and width of a football field, marked by vertical cliffs on either side, with two or three craggy islands dividing explosive currents. The water seemed to fight itself. It tumbled into pits. It bellowed. It hissed and leapt. It beat against the faces of the islands in giant, upswept pillows of water. Downstream of the islands, the entire river disappeared again, presumably over another falls, sprays of water rising into the lightning.”

This is a tale of love and grief and valour which can favourably compare with William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Frequently funny (often blackly so), sometimes sad, and occasionally thought-provoking, this is a tale that would translate extremely well to the silver screen. An outstanding debut novel.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.
Prodigal Son: Orphan X #6
by Gregg Hurwitz
More please, Mr Hurwitz! (3/2/2021)
Prodigal Son is the sixth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Now retired from his Nowhere Man role, Evan Smoak is disturbed by a persistent caller: “Evan, it’s your mother.”

He’s highly sceptical, but ultimately, can’t resist verifying, so he heads to Buenos Aires where, indeed, he meets a woman he believes to be what she claims. Veronica LeGrande wants him to help someone, but when he makes a cursory investigation, he barely survives an attack by a Hellfire missile. And he begins to wonder if coming out of retirement will end up voiding his unofficial Presidential pardon.

Andrew Duran’s life has been no picnic, and now a series of bad luck incidents finds him penniless, estranged from his daughter and her mother, and on the run from people he believes are out to kill him. In his poorly paid position watching over an impound lot, he has witnessed a murder without seeing the killer, but he is certain he is now a target.

Having neatly escaped the missile, Evan’s next stop is his personal tech expert, Joey Morales, interrupting the “normal” life he’s insisting she try to live. Together they research the victim and gradually uncover a disturbing situation: they are dealing with someone powerful and dangerous.

When Evan tracks down the man he’s meant to be helping, the reception is hostile, but he soon realises that he recognises Andrew Duran from his youth. Before long, both are the target of a nasty pair of siblings employed to do “wet work”

In this instalment, Joey’s prodigious tech talents are useful in gaining entry to three secure facilities, for one of which she tags along. Crashing a party (and rescuing a teen from a sexual predator) are in the mix. And of course, TommyStojack comes up with some nifty hardware when needed.

The interactions between Evan and Joey are always entertaining, and as usual, the dialogue is often darkly funny:
“Evan said, ‘Is that a bread knife?’
Duran regarded it. ‘Steak knife, I think.’
‘No,’ Evan said. ’I’m pretty sure it’s a bread knife. That curved end is gonna give you problems unless you plan to saw me to death.’
Duran considered. ‘Maybe I’ll just nick you and let you die of tetanus in five months.’”

Flashbacks to Evan’s youth at the Group Home give the reader some more detail of his selection into the Orphan Program, and Hurwitz also challenges him with a raft of emotions he’s unaccustomed to dealing with.

If every book in this series is replete with hi-tech devices, this one, featuring AI, autonomous weapons and microdrones, is especially so. Evan gets a tour of an AI development lab and is witness to some jaw-droppingly scary tech adaptations, especially when there are glitches in ethical adaptor software. And the concept of “outsourcing the negative emotion associated with killing so our soldiers don’t have to feel it” is certainly unsettling.

Suspension of disbelief is needed, but once again, plenty of action, injuries too numerous to tally, a body count of eighteen, several exciting climaxes and one helluva cliff-hanger ending. More please, Mr Hurwitz.
This Tender Land: A Novel
by William Kent Krueger
a wonderfully uplifting read. (2/23/2021)
“Lying on my blanket beside Albert, I was happy to have him for a brother, though I had no intention of telling him so. I didn’t always understand him, and I knew that, more often than not, I was a bafflement to him as well, but the heart isn’t the logical organ of the body, and I loved my brother deeply and fell asleep in the warmth of his company.”

This Tender Land is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, William Kent Krueger. It’s 1932, and twelve-year-old Odie O’Banion, his older brother, Albert, his Sioux friend, Moses Washington and Little Emmy Frost are paddling a canoe down the Gilead River, heading towards the Mississippi. They’re on the run from the police, wanted for theft, kidnapping and murder.

The managers of their erstwhile “home”, the Lincoln Indian Training School, are also on their trail, and that’s a place they never want to see again, so they are doing their best to keep a low profile. Eventually they settle on St Louis as their destination, knowing it will take some time from Minnesota.

Why they are in flight, what and whom they encounter on the journey, and what happens at its end, is what fills this superb coming-of-age/adventure tale. They endure forced labour and corporal punishment, captivity and several narrow escapes. A still is built, a man is shot, a tornado devastates, a snake-bite is suffered, and Krueger demonstrates that dumpster-diving is no new phenomenon.

Group members join a Christian healing crusade, visit shanty towns, work in a restaurant, hop a freight train, and are on the receiving end of both the heartlessness and the kindness of strangers. Their experiences alter their beliefs in God, and teach them about love, trust, charity and loyalty.

“I did want to believe that God was my shepherd and that somehow he was leading me through this dark valley of Lincoln School and I shouldn’t be afraid… But the truth I saw every day was that we were on our own and our safety depended not on God but on ourselves and on helping one another.”

Krueger takes the reader to a time in the not-too-distant past when children had virtually no rights, especially if, as in this case, they were orphans or Native American children forcibly removed from their parents. While there were, of course, many genuinely good people amongst those in a guardianship role, a significant number of these children were at the mercy of unscrupulous adults who revelled in cruelty and to whom kindness was a foreign concept.

Krueger gives the reader a relatable cast of characters who are humanly flawed, neither wholly good nor evil, and endows some with insightful observations and wise words: “Albert, who was four years older and a whole lot wiser, told me that people are most afraid of things they don’t understand, and if something frightened you, you should get closer to it. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t still be an awful thing, but the awful you knew was easier to handle than the awful you imagined.” Subtly filled with fascinating historical detail, this is a wonderfully uplifting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
And Now She's Gone
by Rachel Howzell Hall
A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner. (2/20/2021)
“Gray knew firsthand about men who could turn charm on and off like a beer tap. Love letters and expensive sea salt caramels one day, spit-flecked lips and bugged eyes two weeks later.”

And Now She’s Gone is a novel by best-selling, award-winning American author, Rachel Howzell Hall. After two years behind the scenes at Rader Consulting, Grayson Sykes is finally given her first proper case (not a Chihuahua): she has a missing girlfriend to locate. “She’d always been the nosy kid, the Negro Nancy Drew.”

Isabel Lincoln has been gone for six weeks, and her boyfriend, a hunk of a cardiologist named Ian O’Donnell, wants Gray to find her. “Once she realizes she’s being stupid, yes, she’ll come back.” Ian pointed at her. “I just need you to help me help her accept that sooner rather than later.” Isabel also took his dog, which angers O’Donnell, and Gray wonders if he wants the dog back more than the girl. She also wonders why he wants Isabel back: is it really love or is he concerned for his image?

Even before O’Donnell has told Gray repeatedly what a nice guy he is, she has already decided that Isabel has gone “Probably because she smelled the crazy on him and didn’t want it to get into her favorite coat. Hard to get the stink of nuts out of wool.” Familiar alarm bells are faintly ringing. The more people she talks to, the more Gray feels that Isabel was lucky to get away, and Gray should know: she has her own history to draw on. But O’Donnell is the client so she at least has to go through the motions.

When she does, though, something strikes her as not quite right: she’s getting conflicting information and begins to wonder if O’Donnell is an abusive, narcissistic and possibly dangerous man from whom Isabel Lincoln needs to escape; or if O’Donnell is a genuinely nice (if narcissistic) guy and Isabel is a vindictive gold-digger.

And those disturbing texts to the number generated for her dating app: has Gray’s own personal monster finally tracked her down? Because Gray is heartily sick of looking over her shoulder, of checking the rear-view mirror on every drive. She’s armed and feeling dangerous.

Wow, what a tale! The plot has so many twists that the reader might want to pre-book a chiropractic appointment. There’s plenty of dark humour in the dialogue and Gray’s inner monologue, quite a bit of action with knives, and the body count builds with each jaw-dropping revelation.

Howzell Hall’s protagonist can’t fail to appeal: Gray is smart and sassy, gutsy and ready to stand up for herself. Her rotten past has firmed her resolve against being a victim and to help others “Especially cases that helped women get away from dangerous men.” A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan Tor Forge
The Survivors: A Novel
by Jane Harper
brilliantly-plotted piece of Australian crime fiction (2/1/2021)
The Survivors is the fourth novel by award-winning Australian author, Jane Harper. When Keiran Elliott returns to his small Tasmanian hometown of Evelyn Bay to help his parents pack up their house, not everyone is pleased to see him. While everybody knows what happened during the big storm, twelve years earlier, not all regard him with sympathy; blame radiates from certain eyes.

Mere hours after he and Mia and their baby arrive, though, a young woman is dead on the beach. The town is shocked at the loss of this sweet young woman: a temporary summer waitress and art student, she was well-liked. It soon becomes apparent that there are some parallels with the disappearance of a young girl during that fateful storm, with some of the same bystanders present in the town. The Evelyn Bay Online Community Hub is a hotbed of rumour and comment.

Over the next few days, as police from Hobart arrive to investigate, Keiran is not the only one whose thoughts go back to that awful time when his own brother and his best friend’s brother lost their lives. As well as the stress of his wandering, dementia-affected father and his frazzled mother, Keiran is being coerced by a friend into something he’s not quite comfortable with.

Harper easily evokes her setting: for anyone who has spent a summer in an Australian coastal town, this will feel familiar. The dialogue is exactly what one hears in such a place, and the characters are multi-faceted and believably flawed. Once again, Harper produces a brilliantly-plotted piece of Australian crime fiction, with red herrings and diversions that will keep the pages turning and the reader guessing right up to the final pages.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan Australia
Dear Child
by Romy Hausmann
A gripping and thought-provoking read. (1/14/2021)
Dear Child is the third novel by best-selling German author, Romy Hausmann. It’s a hit-and-run car accident that brings unconscious Lena and her daughter, Hannah, to the hospital emergency department in Cham. As Lena is treated, Sister Ruth talks to Hannah. What she learns from this poised, controlled young girl sets off alarm bells: within a short time, a late-night call is made to parents in Munich.

Matthias Beck and his wife, Karin immediately set out for Cham, near the Czech border: even waiting until morning is too long to find out if the woman is their daughter, their Lena, missing for almost fourteen years. Police are searching for an isolated cabin in the woods, and a boy called Jonathan: Hannah’s brother. Will Matthias and Karin finally have an answer?

There are three narrative strands: Matthias gives the perspective of the heart-broken father who has never stopped searching; Jasmin’s is a second-person narrative addressed to Lena and details some of her ordeal; Hannah’s words, with dictionary definitions, encyclopaedic facts, rules and schedules, but also glimpses of violence, succinctly illustrates the conditions under which Lena and her children lived in the cabin in the woods.

Of course, it quickly becomes apparent that Hannah is an unreliable narrator, including what are clearly fantasies, and not revealing all she knows. Some of what she says will leave the reader gasping. Nor can Matthias be completely relied upon, while Jasmin’s mental state after her escape also affects her perceptions.

What a brilliantly-plotted, twisty tale Hausmann gives the reader! There are plenty of red herrings keep the reader guessing until the final chapters, and even after the dramatic denouement, there are more surprises in store. Hausmann describes the power of the media to colour the public perception of an incident by questioning the virtue of the victim, and also demonstrates how powerlessness can drastically influence the choices one makes. A gripping and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Quercus
The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett
What a wonderful read!! (12/12/2020)
The Dutch House is the seventh novel by NYT best-selling American author, Ann Patchett. It had been Danny’s childhood home. Cyril Conroy had bought the incredible Dutch House, there in small-town Pennsylvania, in 1946 for his young family: his wife Elna, and five-year-old Maeve. It was just as the last Van Hoebeek, the original owners, had left it: furnishings, fittings, even clothing. Danny was born a few years later, and lived there until his step-mother threw him out at fifteen.

Danny’s mom had left when he was three; he was eight when Andrea Smith first came on the scene, but he and Maeve dismissed any idea of permanence. Andrea persisted, though; Andrea was fascinated with every detail of The Dutch House and Van Hoebeek family, who had made their fortune in packaged cigarettes.

Had Maeve and Danny paid more attention, they might have seen the signs, they might have predicted, but not prevented, it: just three years after she had first stood in front of the Van Hoebeek portraits in the drawing room, Andrea married Cyril, and took up residence in The Dutch House with her daughters. No longer were they the comfortable Conroy trio, lovingly cared for by Sandy and Jocelyn.

Danny had counted on following his canny father into real estate and construction; instead, Maeve insisted he study medicine at Columbia: their father’s trust, grudgingly dispensed by Andrea, was covering the not-inconsiderable cost. And on visits home, the siblings would park on Van Hoebeek Street, regard The Dutch House, and fume over their stolen inheritance, their self-made father’s fortune.

Maeve, aware Cyril’s humble beginnings, was the most resentful; Danny had “never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.” Not until a career had been gained and discarded, and a marriage and children made, some twenty-seven years after they had been ejected from The Dutch House, did Maeve and Danny finally acknowledge what their obsession had done to them: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long”

While Danny’s wife seems resentful of his close relationship with his sister, it is not until a certain, somewhat familiar old woman turns up at Maeve’s hospital bed that he realises: “I had a mother who left when I was a child. I didn’t miss her. Maeve was there, with her red coat and her black hair, standing at the bottom of the stairs, the white marble floor with the little black squares, the snow coming down in glittering sheets in the windows behind her, the windows as wide as a movie screen… ‘Danny!’ she would call up to me. ‘Breakfast. Move yourself.’”

This is very much a character-driven story, and it clearly demonstrates Patchett’s literary skill: her characters are interesting and allowed to grow and develop, to display insight and utter wise words. The bond between the siblings is so well portrayed, it’s impossible not to feel for them. Like Anne Tyler, Patchett manages to make the lives of fairly ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things worth reading about.

Patchett’s prose is wonderful: “The madder Maeve got, the more thoughtful she became. In this way she reminded me of our father – every word she spoke came individually wrapped” and “Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundles together”. And that striking cover? It neatly ties the whole thing together, beginning and end. What a wonderful read!!
The Butterfly Lampshade
by Aimee Bender
a brilliant read (12/10/2020)
The Butterfly Lampshade is the third novel by NYT best-selling American author, Aimee Bender. Francie is just eight years old when her mother Elaine has a psychotic episode that lands her in hospital. Even at this tender age, Francie is ever-vigilant for the tiny changes that indicate a deterioration in her mother’s condition and suggest the use of the lock on her bedroom door. Not that Elaine has ever hurt her…

This time, though, it’s clear that the situation will be longer term, and Aunt Minnie, nine months pregnant, sends Uncle Stan to Portland to collect Francie and bring her to Burbank. Because Francie won’t get on a plane, her care is transferred (like a baton) from Stan (urgently flying back for the imminent birth) to Shrina (her babysitter) to Stan’s second cousin (for the train trip) to Stan at the other end. At the house she meets Aunt Minnie and her new cousin, Vicky.

Now almost twenty years older, and still carrying memories of that time, Francie feels the need to withdraw socially from almost everyone, to properly examine exactly what happened during this upheaval in her life. Because it was a strange few days, and it began at the babysitter’s with a butterfly lampshade, from which one of the insects materialised, floated in a water glass and was drunk down. A beetle that escaped a page, a besuited pair on a train and roses that fell from a curtain: these all need to be examined.

Up to now, Francie “could feel the memories there, wanting my attention, but I did not know what to do with them”, they “came to me in parts, in fragments and pieces, tugging at the corners of my thinking like a half-captured dream”. Her cousin talks of “sticky memories” and Francie enlists her help to create a place where she can concentrate her thoughts on remembering: “I liked the idea of giving the memories a place to emerge, like they had an inherent gaseous nature, and the tent would prevent them from floating away.” Remember she does, in intricate detail. What effect will it have on her?

What a magical story Bender has created! The narrative jumps back and forth to different times of Francie’s life, yet is easy to follow. Eight-year-old Francie is a wonderful character: clever, sensitive and insightful, with a pragmatism that guides her in protecting herself and those for whom she cares. These characters are easy to invest in, to care about. There’s a tinge of paranormal that adds to the fascination.

Bender has a marvellous turn of phrase: “my thought returned to its track, a train lining up synaptically that I could now get on and ride” and “Who would handle my mother’s clothes and perfumes? It was all spread in bits, like the trash we had left in Salinas, this life rubble” are examples. This is a brilliant read!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK.
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
a stunning read (12/7/2020)
“Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done. Some of us were more disciplined than others. I was one of the least disciplined, so by the time I was ten, the only subject I had studied systematically was Morse code, because Dad insisted that I learn it. ‘If the lines are cut, we’ll be the only people in the valley who can communicate,’ he said, though I was never quite sure, if we were the only people learning it, who we’d be communicating with.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are plenty of (sometimes darkly) funny moments in this tale, including kids who are much more aware than their mother thinks, a mother who twigs to her son’s activities via Find My Phone, and a confession by text. As well as heading in an unpredictable direction, Hornby’s latest is entertaining and thought-provoking.

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