When You Were Mine by Michael Robotham

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....

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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...

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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...

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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...

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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...

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The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman

The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman is a wonderful and heart-warming read that sheds a bright light on pre and post-WWII Australia, Sydney specifically, focusing on often overlooked women’s experiences. The main character, Tilly, initially secretary to the editors of Sydney’s most popular broadsheet, the Daily Herald, finds the call of war changes everything. Like many women of the time, the absence of men who have left to fight, catapults her into a role usually reserved for males: in this instance, war correspondent.  Unlike male reporters who are jettisoned into war zones or embedded with the troops (and I loved that genuine war correspondents of the era such as George Johnston are mentioned), Tilly’s reporting doesn’t mean travel, but it does mean covering the impact of war and loss of men – their absence – on domestic life. Determined to do her best, Tilly writes from the heart and with unerring accuracy, all the time noting the social, psychological, economic and other changes war brings about, not only on others, but her own life. As the wife of a PoW, Tilly is all too aware of the hefty cost of battle on everyone. Forced to deal with entrenched sexism, misogyny and all the other negative assumptions her remaining male co-workers and other men she encounters particularly make about women, Tilly and her peers continuously prove they’re simply doing what they’ve always been a capable of but were never given the opportunity. The age-old maxim.  But it’s not only Tilly’s work and observations on life the book explores, but what those left behind do to help the war effort and acknowledge the sacrifices being made – from the amazing land army of women, to those who go above and beyond to send care packages, knit, sew, cook, learn trades and...

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Girl, 11 Amy Suiter Clarke

Girl, 11 is a crime novel about a serial killer who, twenty years before the book opens, murdered a number of women and girls without ever being caught. A methodical person with an obsession with numbers, the killer picks up young woman in descending age, keeps them for a period and then deposits their bodies for the authorities to find and their broken families to mourn. Most people believe the killer died in a catastrophic fire which also destroyed the body of the last girl he took. True Crime podcaster, Elle, has long been fascinated by the TCK (the Countdown Killer), so when she starts to release a weekly podcast featuring a new angle on the investigation and interviews with the retired chief investigator, medical people, bereaved parents, it quickly becomes popular. But popularity isn’t necessarily a good thing and attract numerous trolls and personal threats as well. Yet, it seems as if Elle is on the cusp of learning the identity of TCK and, when someone about to give her crucial information is killed, she’s convinced the murderer has surfaced again. Understanding how obsessed Elle is, there are those even very close to her that believe she’s allowing this to overtake her reason, putting herself and others in terrible danger. When someone close to Elle is kidnapped, she no longer knows whether she can trust her instincts. Is the killer back? Is it a copycat? Or is she torturing herself for other more personal reasons or worse, for none at all? A clever, well-plotted book that segues between the first-person transcripts of the podcasts and third-person flashbacks and present day accounts, it’s a story of trauma, grief, incredible resilience and trust.  A fabulous, fast-paced read that will keep the blood pumping into the wee...

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Falling by T.J. Newman

The moment I heard about this book, I was looking forward to reading it. Not only was the actual novel based on a sensational premise, but I loved the tenacity of TJ Newman that after 41 rejections, she still kept trying to get her manuscript published. Thank goodness she did and thank goodness for the foresight of the 42nd agent who recognized a great story and talent. Falling has a terrifying set-up (and opening). It’s not spoiling anything to reveal the what drives the overall story as the blurb does the same thing. Basically, an experienced pilot is told to crash a laden commercial passenger plane or his family, who have been taken hostage, will die. If this sounds like the plot for an action movie (and it’s going to be) that’s because it is non-stop action from beginning to end. Furthermore, the book is deliberately  cinematic so its easy to visualise each and eery scene and character, particularly those of us familiar with flying (most of us) and the type of aircraft – an A320. The characters are well drawn, you have empathy for both the heroes and the villains, the latter being crafted in such a way that like some of the other characters, you understand their rage but not their ways of resolving it. And even though the American ra-ra is laid on a bit thick at times, and the story borders on sentimentality, it somehow fits. Newman worked for Virgin America for 10 years and this shows. readers are given insights into what goes on behind the scenes with cabin crew, in the cockpit and the relationship between these colleagues and their counterparts on the ground. This was so interesting and brings an authenticity to the story (I was going to write “implausible story” – not...

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The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe… Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down. Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even...

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