When You Were Mine by Michael Robotham

When You Are Mine by Michael Robotham - Books - Hachette Australia

Once again, Michael Robotham has delivered a taut, atmospheric and utterly riveting story in a fabulous standalone novel that deals with fraught themes. This tale about toxic masculinity (and the forces that work to maintain it at any cost) and friendships, the way in which children can continue to pay for their parents’ past, and how some people can work against their own best interests is a challenging read. 

All her life, Philomena (Phil) has wanted to be a police officer. Despite her family’s criminal past, she manages to secure a position in the force and excels at her job. Fast forward a few years and she is much admired, engaged to a good man, and striving ahead in her chosen profession and personal life. Then, she is called upon the attend a DV case. From that moment forward, both aspects of her life begin to unravel. I won’t say much more except that this is such a hold-you-breath-and-turn-the page novel, I was quite literally on the edge of my seat! Well, hospital bed, actually, as I was unexpectedly admitted to hospital (not Covid!) and turned to something I knew would distract me from a distressing time – thank you, Michael R, you never let me down.

This is a book that will linger in your imagination long after the last page. It is masterfully told, incredibly fast paced and deeply unsettling. It holds a dark mirror up to society and dares you to look. I did and am still being haunted by what I saw.

Fantastic.

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The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

There’s no doubt that books set in Tasmania are popular at the moment and if this marvellous debut novel by former Taswegian, Mary-Lou Stephens, is anything to go by, it’s no wonder. This beautiful, heart-wrenching and atmospheric story about the apple orchardists of the scenic Huon Valley, is Australian historical fiction at its finest.

The tale opens in a dramatic and utterly riveting fashion – with the traumatic and deadly bushfires that ripped through not just Hobart, but great swathes of the East Coast, destroying everything in their path. Readers follow schoolteacher, Catherine Turner, as she desperately sets about keeping her pupils and colleagues safe from the flames’ path, before undertaking a dangerous journey south to check on her family and their apple orchard.

Tragedy awaits Catherine yet, being stalwart and loyal, she seeks to help her grieving father and mother rebuild their business and stake a claim in the industry and area she loves. Only, long-standing prejudice, changing political and industrial conditions and heart-ache will stand in her way.

In the meantime, her neighbour and childhood friend, Annie, has just given birth to a longed-for daughter. After five sons, this child is precious. Even so, Catherine cannot fathom Annie’s set against her husband’s old friend, Mark, and his young son, Charlie, who have come to stay with them as respite from a stalled career and broken marriage. Unable to help herself, Catherine is drawn to both Charlie and Mark, alienating Annie because of her interest, but without understanding why.

Against this alternating familial and friendship backdrop, the greater story of the apple orchardists, their heart-ache, back-breaking work and disappointment plays out over the years. We bear witness to massive social and political changes and challenges, the influx of migrants into the community, union movements, decisions made in far away in an indifferent parliament (and another country) and the impact they had on the ground, and learn how the Huon particularly became a haven for hippies and other artistic folk who wished to live differently and defy stultifying social norms.

I confess, I didn’t know much about the history of apples or the orchards or how Tasmania earned the moniker the Apple Isle. Mary-Lou has done impeccable research and given the story of what was endured and survived or the adaptions made such heart and depth. I ached for these folk; laughed, cried, became so indignant and angry. It’s testimony to fabulous writing that you can be pulled into a story that, at one level, is so vast and terrible and yet, at another, is experienced very personally through the main characters we grow to know and love.

This is a beautiful tale of loss, love, tragedy and triumph but, above all, incredible resilience that is both lilting and testimony to the people to whom its dedicated. It will linger in your mind and heart long after the last page. Better still, it will make you long to not only see Tasmania and all her natural beauty, but fight to maintain it.

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Shiver by Allie Reynolds

I was looking for something quick and gripping to read as I was laid up in bed with a fever and I couldn’t have asked for anything better, than Allie Reynolds’s book, Shiver.

Set in the Alps, it’s about a group of competitive snowboarders who, ten years after they’re involved in a tragedy, come together to commemorate the loss of one of their own. Believing they’ve been invited for an exclusive weekend in a resort they’re all familiar with, once they arrive, they find things are not what they seem. As the hours pass, they swiftly understand that whoever invited them – and it wasn’t who they thought – has done so with sinister intentions. But which of them is it? And what are the dark secrets they all seem to be hiding?]

Told from the perspective of one of the snowboarders, Milla, and moving between the present and ten years earlier, the story moves quickly, the suspense and claustrophobic feel of not only being trapped on a mountain, but with fiercely egotistic and alpha personalities, takes its toll.

The writing is taut, you are able to suspend your disbelief and let the story carry you. The characters aren’t always particularly likeable, though a couple are redeemed, and it’s a credit to Reynolds that she doesn’t shy away from exposing the less than glamourous aspect of competitive sport and athletes at these levels. It was a great way to spend a few hours, curled up in bed, turning pages of what was a thrilling read. 

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Digging up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Described as a cosy-mystery, I was really looking forward to getting into Pamela Hart’s latest book, Digging Up Dirt, a relatively new direction for this prolific and much-loved author as well. 

Poppy McGowan is a researcher for the education arm of the ABC, responsible for producing kids’ TV shows. She’s recently bought her dream home, an old settler’s cottage with more history than she bargained for. When bones are discovered beneath the floor mid-renovation and everything grinds to a halt while heritage investigate, Poppy finds herself incredibly frustrated. When one of the heritage experts is found murdered in her home, things take a turn for the worse. Suspected of the crime and then willingly roped into solving it, Poppy is a resourceful, determined woman who finds ways to make people talk. The reader meets her boyfriend, her family and the new man that wanders into her life,as well as a cast of well-drawn characters. 

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read, though I wouldn’t really call it “cosy” as in many regards, the novel pulls no punches, not only with a violent death and thus who-dunnit at the centre, but because it also tackles some hard-hitting themes such as domestic violence, feminism, racism, homophobia as well as Pentecostal religion. The book doesn’t steer away from critiquing the control these kinds of faiths can exert over their followers (and the kind of fiscal demands they make) as well as the hypocrisy that can lie at the heart of any institution which relies on power structures to function. I really enjoyed this aspect very much, and while it will push some people’s buttons, I’m all for that when reading.

Thoroughly enjoyed what I hope sincerely hope is indeed, as the subtitle promises, a first book in a new series. 

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Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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