Bruny by Heather Rose

I don’t know where to begin with this book. It was so wonderfully unexpected. A thrilling, outrageous and clever tale about family, politics, betrayal, deceit at the highest levels and the people who really pay for that – and all set in Tasmania. What’s not to love?

The book opens when a bomb explodes, almost destroying a new and ridiculously expensive bridge that has been built by the Tasmanian government using federal and international funds and which connects the beautiful island of Bruny to the rest of Tasmania via a six-lane roadway. Overkill anyone? Heralded by the sitting government as an essential piece of infrastructure that will invite more tourists and thus money to Tasmania and advance the island fair, there are many who doubt the efficacy and legitimacy of the project. Vested interests, splinter groups both combine and implode as debates over the bridge – especially now it needs to be repaired – escalate.

Enter Astrid Coleman, member of a famous political family currently working for the U.N., whose twin brother is not only the Premier of Tasmania, but her older half-sister is leader of the Opposition. An expert in conflict resolution, it’s believed Astrid will not only be able to pour oil over troubled waters by tempering the mood of those against the bridge, but prepare locals for the government’s solution (one backed by the Federal government) to ensure the bridge is repaired by the rapidly approaching opening date: by bringing in hundreds of Chinese workers.

Astrid arrives home to find not only the island and, particularly Hobart and Bruny in turmoil, but her family as well. Her father is suffering from dementia and quoting only Shakespeare, her mother is dying of cancer and while the family can come together and give the appearance of unity in their personal lives, in their professional, political lives, it’s a very different story.

Seeming to go along with her brother’s plans, when Astrid discovers what’s really going on, it’s game on. For what no-one knows is Astrid has her own agenda …

This novel is such a searing, intelligent and often funny (in that kind of I cannot believe this, but I sort of can way) read, I couldn’t put it down. The world and politics Rose constructs are utterly recognisable and just as infuriating and frightening. There’s a right-wing President in the USA who’s a buffoon, Brexit has caused long-predicted chaos, Australia is creating closer ties with China. Current prominent Australian political figures make an appearance – albeit with different names but not characters and you’ll have fun discerning who is who and enjoy Rose’s take on them. Not only is the politics scary and cause for despair (including the various groups who align with one side or the other and either represent or resist “progress” – mind you, Rose cleverly investigates this concept too – are they really resistant to progress or simply wanting to preserve the environment and the standard of living that comes with a pristine eco-system for the future? The answer is overt and satisfying – of course!), but the personal relationships in the novel are really well drawn as well. But, and maybe I am biased here, it is Tasmania and especially Bruny that shine. The locations are wonderfully drawn and even if you don’t know the area (I live in Hobart, so am very familiar with all the locales), you breathe the air, walk the streets, cross the channel with Astrid and the others, delight in and shudder at the quirkiness of (some) Taswegians, and become appalled at the entire project underpinning this novel – and that’s before the kicker twist.

Unashamedly political, but not one-sided, this is a great read that will have you suspending your disbelief and, hopefully, like me, enjoying every single word. Have already recommended it to everyone I know and bought multiple copies for gifts as well!

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The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier

Like so many others, I was thrilled when the new Juliet Marillier book, The Harp of Kings, landed on my Kindle. Instead of diving straight into it, which I was so tempted to do, I held out and made reading it my reward for completing work that had to be done. Finally, a few days ago, the task I’d set myself was finished and I was at last able to return to the world Juliet so lovingly and beautifully created in the Blackthorn and Grimm series. Even so, this book also works as a standalone as it shifts into the next generation of players in this fabulously crafted realm of fey folk, druids, kings, warriors, bards, healers, wise women and so much more.

Told from three different points of view, Liobhan and Brocc’s, the children of Blackthorn and Grimm who are both superb singers and composers of music and training to be Swan Island warriors, and Dau, a chieftain’s son also training to be a warrior and with a dark and troubled past that he keeps firmly locked away, the reader is given insights into each character’s fears and strengths. We’re also given a greater depth of understanding about what makes these interesting young people tick and the choices they’ve made and are yet to have thrust upon them.

When the three of them are chosen for a specific task – to find and restore the precious Harp of Kings so that a new ruler might ascend to the leadership of a distant kingdom – and given fresh identities to both aid them in its completion and protect them, they are forced to work together and subsume parts of their characters in ways they’d never foreseen. While Liobhan and Brocc have a strong and deep sibling bond, Dau was raised in a different environment before being thrust into the competitive and dangerous world of the Swan Island warriors. Isolated by choice but also by his new identity, he is forced to see himself and the others in ways he never conceived.

When they finally reach the kingdom of Briefne and meet the man who would be king, and understand there are otherworldy forces at work as well as plots and plans a plenty, and not only from the court, but the mysterious druid figures who are responsible for the harp and the ancient ceremony to crown the king, the Swan Island warriors realise much more is at stake than first thought. But when one of them is asked to make a great sacrifice, the entire task, the future of a kingdom and the lives of those asked to guarantee it, are also put at risk…

The chapters alternate between the three main viewpoints and, as the story unspools, the reader invests heavily in each character and their particular grasp of what’s happening. Brave, bold, flawed, strong and kind, the three main characters are wonderfully and richly drawn as are the worlds they inhabit – both past and present. The way Juliet weaves the folklore of the region, introduces concepts surrounding nature, inclusivity, as well as politics and even love is masterful and transports the reader to another time and place – one this reader was so reluctant to leave.

This is another sublime story from Juliet Marillier. My only disappointment is that I had to finish the book and thus tear myself away from this wonderful world. Actually, there’s another regret – now I also have to wait what will seem a very long time for the next instalment in what is already a marvellous new series. Oh well, back to work so I can earn another sojourn of the imagination in a marvellous Marillier tale.

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Cold Storage by David Koepp.

There was a great deal of hype surrounding this book, Cold Storage by David Koepp, which kept popping up in my email and all my book-related social media. I always enjoy a good sci-fi thriller and apocalyptic-type narrative, so thought I would give it a go. Koepp comes with good credentials having written the screenplays to some very successful blockbusters. I was ready for an edge-of-your-seat, high-octane ride. And, I did get that in parts.

What should have probably sent some warning bells my way was the fact many critics mentioned how funny the book was. While laughter is often the natural response to danger or being frightened, I am not entirely certain the end of the world should be that hilarious. But I reserved my judgement.

This is story that begins 30 odd years before the main events. We read about a team of scientists who travel to a remote community in Western Australia where a fungus has wiped out an entire community. The scientists retrieve the fungus and manage to return it to the US where they put it in a storage facility deep underground where a constant freezing temperature should keep the deadly organism dormant.

Should.

Fast forward to now and two security guards at a storage facility are puzzled when an alarm sounds and they discover a hidden vault deep underground which has thermal controls that are malfunctioning. When they realise just how catastrophic this is and infected people and creatures start to run amok, they are forced to put their own lives in danger to save the world. But, they’re not alone. Called to take control is retired scientist cum operative, Roberto Diaz. Older, wiser and with a lot less to lose, he makes the hard decisions, decisions that may yet cost more lives than he bargained for.

This is a story that requires you to suspend your disbelief and then some. I am all for that if the narrative takes hold of me. This mostly did though at times I found the anthropomorphising of the fungus a bit irksome and the rather gruesome antics of the animals more than my credibility could bear. Also, I didn’t find it as funny as clearly others did. Maybe my humour gene wasn’t working. Not sure. Some of the characters are cliched, but others work very well.

You can tell this novel is written by a screenwriter as some of the scenes are very cinematic and there’s no doubt, there are parts of the novel where the pages are being turned swiftly because the pace is thrilling. Unfortunately, there are also parts, for this reader at least, where I was turning the pages to simply get to the end.

Overall, a good holiday read that will mean you never look at deer, cats or fungus the same way again.

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The Long Call by Anne Cleeves

How fabulous is this, hey? Anne Cleeves has started a new series and while I am disappointed I won’t get to read any more about Vera Stanhope or Jimmy Perez (the lead characters from her other respective series), it’s been exciting to get to know a new character. In The Long Call, the first book in the Two Rivers series, this lead character and detective is the rather gentle and self-effacing Matthew Venn. A man with an interesting and troubled past, having been raised and then rejected by an evangelical community, Matthew has a tendency to empathise with most people he encounters, even the criminal kind. The hard-bitten, gum-shoe detective he ain’t.

The book opens with Matthew as an outsider at his father’s funeral, a position to which Matthew is, sadly, sort of accustomed, as much as he’s tried to compensate for this as well. When he takes on his first major case in the Two Rivers area, Matthew has to both learn the strengths and weaknesses of his team as well as the area he and his beloved partner have moved into. But just when Matthew thought he could forge ahead personally and professionally, put his difficult past behind him, the killer lurking in the region has other ideas…

This book, like the first book in any good series, is a slow-burn. Beautifully written and constructed, the reader is taken into not only the crime that rocks a community, but the lives of those seeking to solve it, in particular, Matthew and his team. We’re given insights into the personal foibles and ambitions of all involved and it’s so typical of Cleeves that she says so much with so few words. Likewise, the area is brought to life with a few choice phrases, and it leaps off the pages in all its rainy, coastal and cold glory.

A wonderful, lose-yourself-in-an-armchair read. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz

Ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson was released, I have adored this series featuring one of the most original and feisty, bad-ass women in crime/thriller fiction, Lisbeth Salander. When David Lagercrantz took over writing the series in the wake of Larson’s death, like many, I was worried about how another writer could replicate and progress Larson’s characters, let alone his vision. Well, Lagercrantz has done a stellar job and his books are page-turners and thrillers par excellence. Up until this book, I also thought that Lagercrantz had kept Larson’s Lisbeth alive and kicking. However, in this latest instalment, there’s a sense in which she’s diminished. No, possibly that’s not the right word. There’s a sense in which her brilliance, her capacity to embrace both her dark and light sides, has weakened and thus this book doesn’t twinkle as brightly in the Salander/Blomkvist universe. However, it is very plot-drive – for better and worse – and it is still a well, written and mostly gripping read.

The novel opens with Lisbeth hiding in Moscow. There to enact vengeance, when push comes to shove, or gun to trigger, she finds herself unable to perform and is forced into the type of hiding on Lisbeth can pull off.

Concerned for Lisbeth’s welfare, back in Stockholm, Mikael Blomkvist is caught up in the death of a homeless man. Sadly not unusual in itself, a persistent coroner has cause to believe the man was murdered and asks Blomkvist to look into his background. Knowing Salander will be unable to resist, Mikael asks for assistance as well. What unfolds is a story of corporate greed, political machinations, ‘fake-news”, Russian cyber “troll-factories,” cover-ups, betrayal and murder.

There were parts of this book I raced through, eagerly anticipating how something was going to be resolved, but other parts were a bit pedestrian and dull by comparison. There are basically two storylines unfolding simultaneously and, frankly, one feels quite contrived (even though it’s interesting) while the other doesn’t quite meet the high standards Larson set and Lagercrantz has, up until this novel, easily met. I am possibly being hyper-critical because this was a good read nonetheless but there’s also a sense in which the Lisbeth we’ve grown to know and love is missing in action for too much of the book. As for Blomkvist, well, he’s in danger of becoming someone who rests on his impressive laurels. Let’s hope Lagercrantz doesn’t do the same.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I wasn’t sure what to expect reading The Testaments, especially after its prequel, The Handmaid’s Tale had such a profound impact on my life – as it did with so many others too (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the TV series, despite all the amazing reviews and awards, because I didn’t want the impression the book left to be diluted or, dare I say, translated in any way). It’s not incorrect to say that because of studying that book at university (and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus), I underwent a career change becoming an academic for over 25 years. Over some of that time, I introduced others to the wonder, power and terrible vision of Offred and Gilead’s story, reliving and appreciating its formidable narrative every single time. So, what would the sequel a book, as Atwood herself said, 35 years in the making offer? Would it destroy the foundations laid so long ago or build upon them in a way that is as astonishing and frightening as the first book?

The Testaments begins fifteen years after Offred disappeared from Gilead and readers heard her harrowing tale (and which we’d just borne witness to), interpreted through the lens of history and the dry rhetoric of an academic conference – a brilliant metaphor on its own. Told from three different points of view – that of one of the most influential and dreadful of the Aunts, a young Gileadian girl destined to become a Wife, and then from an outsider’s perspective – Gilead, the state that oppresses and subjugates in the name of God and specific interpretations of the Bible – is no less chilling and the themes and incidents no less prescient than they were in The Handmaid’s Tale. Once more, the reader is given insight into the socio-cultural structures that make Gilead; how the regime demands complete and utter surrender and also how it inculcates people into being complicit in upholding its dominant paradigms, even when they oppress them.

Just as we were in The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re given snapshots into the coup that overturned a mighty Republic, and how those in power maintained it. Through particular individuals and roles, we’re also given entrée to the domestic arrangements – whereas it was once through the eyes of a Handmaiden, this time it is mainly through the Wives, Marthas, Commanders, and daughters of the privileged.

How Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world, how it is and isn’t tolerated and the resistance movements that try and aid those wishing to escape its clutches, is also shown, as are how these organisations are represented within Gilead. Propaganda is not exclusive to one country or ideology, even if the reader is clearly meant to identify with the freer world.

Whereas the three different narrative strands first appear distinct, as this tale unfolds, they’re slowly woven together until the title of the book becomes both literal and another powerful trope.

Questions posed or left unanswered in The Handmaid’s Tale are mostly resolved (which was terrific), and what I really liked is that once more, historians are not let off the hook, even if the work they do isn’t disrespected but revealed to be, by nature, limited as well as complex and nuanced (even if some in that field are not).

This was an at once extraordinary and terrifying read in that so much of what unfolds holds up a dark mirror to contemporary politics, gender and sexual identity, social roles and movements. But it’s also fabulously entertaining, page-turning and exciting as well – Atwood is a master storyteller who knows how to keep her readers riveted. I wish I could say that The Testaments is only a marvellous and authoritative work of fiction, but I fear it is something much more and even darker – it’s also a warning. One has only to look at the state of world politics now and the rise of the extreme religious right to see parallels. Atwood has put us on notice and woe betide if we don’t heed what she says…

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