What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon

Recommended to me by a dear friend, this time-slip novel about a young, grieving American woman, who journey’s to Ireland with her grandfather’s ashes only to find herself transported back into his history, is hauntingly lovely.

The book starts in 2001, when Anne Gallagher, despondent and lost over the death of her beloved grandfather, Eoin, fulfils his final wishes by taking his ashes back to his home country to spread them over the lake he loved.

Heart-sore, lonely, yet enchanted by this country she’d only ever known and loved through her grandfather’s stories, Anne is both mesmerised and lost. Knowing she is named after and resembles her grandfather’s mother strongly, she seeks solace in the few mementoes she has of her grandfather’s life, including a detailed journal written by the man who was like a father to her own grandfather, a doctor named Thomas Smith. Fittingly, while absorbed in the past and drifting through the present, Anne is wrenched back in time to 1921 and the height of the troubles in Ireland, when Michael Collins and those who believed in the future he saw are fighting for Irish independence – including Eoin’s father figure, Dr Thomas Smith.

These are dangerous times and moreso because there are those who would see Anne Gallagher  – the past one and the modern one – dead. Over the next few months, as tensions increase and Ireland draws closer to war – civil and with Britain, Anne finds comfort in the new life and loves she is forging, a healing and simultaneous remembering and forgetting that is both painful and joyous. But Anne knows she is living on borrowed time. As a child of the future, does she have a right to this past or is it one she’s lived before? Or will any chance of learning the truth be taken from her?

This is an exquisite story that is so easy to lose yourself in, even at its bleakest moments. Like so much good historical fiction, you also learn while reading it. Having an Irish grandfather who fled Ireland at this time (while being fired upon) it was easy to have sympathy with the causes being espoused. The conflict was bitter, confusing and caused so much heartache and bloodshed. All of this, and the inner turmoil it created, the families and friendships it tore apart, is beautifully explored. The reader sees the “troubles” through Anne’s eyes, someone familiar with the written history but swiftly learning that living it, with all its inherent danger, immediacy and pain, is altogether very different.

The love-story woven through it – or rather, love stories – there are a few and all with Anne at the centre – are really moving and relatable. So are the countryside and its warm, stoic and superstitious people.

A fabulous read that kept me awake until the wee hours so I could finish it and then beyond that while I wept a storm. A good one.  

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The Nowhere Child by Christian White

When Christian White appeared on ABC breakfast to discuss his debut novel, The Nowhere Child, I was immediately struck by not only his humbleness, but about how he spoke about the craft of writing. Then, of course, there was the summary he gave of his novel. I confess, I was hooked, and wasted no time downloading The Nowhere Child, anticipating with no small degree of excitement what I might discover (another great novelist and tale).

I was not disappointed.

This story about a young woman, Kim Leamy, who is approached by an American man on the streets on Melbourne, is marvellous and utterly gripping. The man tells Kim he believes she is actually Sammy Went, a girl who was kidnapped from her home, Manson, in Kentucky 28 years earlier. Refusing at first to credit such an implausible notion, as she begins to delve into the possibility, everything Kim thought she knew, about herself, her family and her past is suddenly thrown into doubt.

Left with no choice, Kim/Sammy must now go backwards in time, to the place this man believes she originated from to confront what might be her past in order to reclaim her present and her future. But the past is a dark place filled with secrets, some of which should never be disturbed…

Segueing between “then” and “now”, the USA and Australia, as well as moving between first person PoV and third person, this is a masterfully plotted, beautifully characterised novel that draws the reader into not only small-town life with its strange folk, customs and religious devotees, but also into what makes and breaks a family. Able to move the reader between places and times with ease, White paints a picture of different kinds of family life, tragedy, grief, confusion, tolerance and intolerance, loss and guilt so well.

Particularly fascinating (and repellent) were the strange religious cult (who refuse to embrace that name) that have a peculiar hold over the township – even of those who don’t approve of or believe in its practices.

Eerie at times, always plausible and with some excellent twists, this is such an accomplished book (with a simply lovely Author’s Note and Acknowledgments). I am really looking forward to what White produces next. Highly recommended.

 

 

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Ripple by Michael C. Grumley

The fourth book in the really exciting Breakthrough Series, Ripple keeps the pace fast, the plot tight and the action going. In this book, the specially formed group overseen by Admiral Langford and operating under the radar are dispersed across oceans and continents, trying to unravel secrets left beneath the waves eons ago, and searching for another source of the remarkable biological entity they earlier found and which the Chinese and Russians sought to possess at any cost. An entity which can change the course of humanity’s future while at the same time throwing the past into question.

Once more, lives are in danger, the clock is ticking and as the group draw closer to the truth, the risks they take become even greater, the rewards if they succeed, do as well.

All along, the technology that’s allowed Alison, Deanne and their teams to communicate across species keeps learning and what it teaches the dolphins and primates is nothing compared to what these creatures are yet to teach their humans…

This series is just such a great read. Michael C. Grumley can not only write but inviting you to suspend your disbelief and douse your cynic gene, he takes you on an emotional and visceral ride that is breath-taking in scope and richly imaginative. I am utterly stunned a major publisher has not picked this guy up, but I am so grateful he keeps writing and that his following is growing. Cannot wait to read the next instalment in this series and see where he takes us, never mind his characters.

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The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I was doing a book signing at a sensational book store (Petrarch’s in Launceston, Tasmania Australia) when the owner, Peter, and I began to discussing books we love. Apart from me being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, our tastes were very similar. We started waxing lyrical about great historical fiction and crime fiction/thrillers. He asked me if I had read, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and when I confessed I hadn’t (I hadn’t even heard of it), he insisted I must. He pointed out the book even came with a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” clause. Well, how could I resist that?

18144124So, I started reading the novel. Written in the first person, it follows the life of, and investigation into, a terrorist plot by a man who has had many identities but in this book is mainly known as “Pilgrim”. Working for a top-secret US government organisation, Pilgrim, a man who has been involved in so many operations and worked all over the world, is forced back from premature retirement to find and halt a lone-wolf terrorist who plans to bring down the USA and its allies in the most diabolical of ways.

Taking the reader all over the world and into the hearts, minds and histories of both “pilgrim” and the lone-wolf, as well as different cultures and countries, the novel is vast in scope and very hard, once you get past the initial set up and what appears to be a red-herring murder in the USA, to put down. Parts of it are very well written, you feel like you are part of the action (Hayes’ screen-writing background is put to good use as the book is very cinematic) and the heart-racing consequences of some of the decisions both the “good” guys and those with nefarious intentions make.

However, it wasn’t always plain-sailing with this book. I have to say I found the main character almost too-perfect – like a James Bond/Jason Bourne and any other action and superhero rolled into one and then on steroids. There didn’t seem to be anything he hadn’t done or couldn’t do and was the “best” at – as an assassin, an investigator, an author (!) (yep), and even about art. Raised by a billionaire philanthropist, apart from a few family issues, the guy doesn’t even have to worry about money. Oh, and he’s really handsome… how do I know? Because he basically tells us – and smart – he tells us that too. Did I mention he’s also a doctor? Yet, there was so much telling rather than showing of all this throughout the novel (a major flaw in the book), Pilgrim came across as a bit of an egotistical prat (who nonetheless could demonstrate empathy for Holocaust survivors, appreciate art, and love kids – and ogle all the beautiful women that pepper the book. Apparently, unattractive or homely women don’t enter Pilgrim’s sphere) rather than the patriotic and ethical guy he apparently is.  Not only that, but when he did act/show, he made really basic mistakes and incorrect assumptions about those he was supposed to be an expert on. I found this tendency to “tell” all the time frustrating because, when Hayes “shows” he’s good at it and it’s mainly in the final stages of a very long book that he does this well.

Another aspect of the novel I struggled with was the portrait of the Islamic world. It was very negative and, frankly, clichéd. It was as if all the Arab characters, with few exceptions, were drawn from reductive and often horrible templates, created post 9/11, to justify invasion, racism, Islamophobia and so much more. I found this quite disheartening. It was very U.S.A “ra ra” (all the men in the White House, including the President, are “good blokes”, while the Turkish, Saudi and other Middle Eastern authorities are a range of negative and often idiotic stereotypes) in so many ways and I can see that it would be the kind of movie a post-Trump America (or at least those who voted for him) might love. I didn’t love the book, but I do understand its appeal – it’s simplicity. It creates a world of black and white, where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies and even when the good guys do bad things, it’s for a greater good. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the movie True Lies, when Jamie Curtis discovers her husband, played by Arnie Schwarzenegger, is a spy. She asks, “Have you killed anyone?” He answers (affected by a truth serum) “Yes. But they were all bad.” This is that kind of book; Pilgrim is that kind of “hero.”

Overall, this is a fast and quite gripping read (despite its length) that would be great for holidays or long plane trips – but be prepared to suspend your disbelief. While I don’t want my money back, it didn’t live up to the hype.

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