Normal People by Sally Rooney.

There has not only been so much hype about this book, but a successful TV show (which I haven’t yet watched) as well. Once again, I was caught in the silly bind of asking myself do I read it and risk disappointment or not? Fortunately, I did read it and while the book wasn’t what I expected, it was a good read.  Basically, the story centres on two misfits (though the fact they both are isn’t immediately apparent) who, thrown together through life’s vagaries, nonetheless share little in common except they’re both smart and curious – mainly about each other, though they’d be the last to admit that. While Marianne is unpopular at school, Connell is the boy most dream of being or being able to call boyfriend, a situation that’s reversed once they get to university. Then, it’s the other’s turn to shine. The book follows the social, psychological and emotional intersections of these two characters through adolescence and early adulthood; the way in which they both depend upon and yet deny their need for each other. They’re like atoms, inexplicably drawn to each other then flung apart, mostly because, for all their intelligence, they don’t really understand themselves or their need of each other and are hopeless at communicating.  I found this quite frustrating in some ways – the fact they don’t learn from the pain they feel and cause and repeat mistakes that cause a series of emotional upheavals and damage to their souls. Are they “normal people” or is this a satiric commentary on their ability to function “normally’ (whatever that is) and embrace dysfunction instead? So, while I appreciated the rawness and realness of much of the dialogue and situations, I also found the naval-gazing a bit tedious and their white privilege a bit...

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Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie

I don’t recall the last time I was so chilled by a book as this one – and I mean that in a good way! The story of young widow, Callie and her attempt to put the tragic death of her husband behind her and the suspicion cast on her by a click-bait hungry media, by hiding in a small town in Tasmania – New Norfolk – Devil’s Lair is suspenseful, atmospheric and really very scary! Grateful that her friend has offered her a safe haven in Tasmania, what Callie doesn’t expect is the kindness of the strangers she encounters, or the eerie surroundings in which she finds herself. Located in the smaller gatehouse of a large property in which a curmudgeonly recluse lives, Callie nonetheless makes a real effort to get on with her life and interact with the people she finds herself among. More than anyone else, she finds herself drawn to Connor, one of the siblings who own a huge tourist-based property nearby and who gives her much-needed work. But when strange letters, stories of ghosts and unexplained deaths as well as the sense of being watched start to overwhelm her, Callie finds that the most rational of explanations don’t add up. Wanting desperately to trust someone, Callie is no longer sure, after all, how can you trust anyone when you can no longer trust yourself? I really enjoyed this book. The plot was terrific, the pace just right and the way it which it managed to capture the almost suffocating and frightening sense of being in a small house, at night, on the edge of the river and the feeling of being watched (I was looking over my shoulder in my bedroom!) against the gorgeous expanses of the Tasmanian countryside, was superb. Evocative, eerie and...

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Eight Detectives by Alex Parvesi

This debut novel by Alex Parvesi, a mathematician as well as writer, takes the structure of the typical murder-mystery genre as its subject and turns this into a series of clues that are meant to solve a crime. Basically, the story is about an editor at a press dedicated to publishing books in the crime genre, chasing down a famous author who lives on a remote Greek isle with the aim of  both seeking his permission to publish a series of short stories he wrote over 20 years ago that prove his thesis about the structure of almost envy murder-mystery (as he prefers to call them) ever written, as well as write an erudite introduction explaining his theories. The original book was called The White Murders.  This is the frame narrative for what then becomes a series of alternating chapters where the reader is given the seven short stories the author wrote all those years ago (and which comprise the original book), interspersed with conversations between him and his new publisher. Yet, in each story, there are a series of irregularities, which when the publisher points these out, the author either dismisses or explains away abruptly. When the publisher questions him re the title, which also conjures up an actual brutal murder of a young woman named White that occurred in England decades ago, and the writer dismisses any relationship as mere coincidence, she begins to question his response, not just to this, but to all her queries… I enjoyed this slow burn of a novel. Drawing on the tropes of the murder/mystery/crime genre, it explores it in a variety of homages – the gumshoe PI, the femme fatale, the bully cop, the dogged investigator and obvious and not so obvious suspects and victims. It bears echoes of Agatha...

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The Scent-Keeper by Erica Bauermeister

When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. The writing is lovely, of that there’s no doubt but, initially, the story is opaque and unfolds slowly until…it doesn’t. In an usual move, the mystery behind young Emmeline’s life on a remote Canadian island with her scientist father who collects and captures scents in bottles, isn’t revealed until about a third of the way through the book. Up to that point, the reader spends each day with Emmeline, comprehending the small world she lives in through her eyes, ears and, as one would expect from the title, her nose. Her life might be defined by the island’s coastline, but in so many ways, it’s a deep and magical existence without borders, limited only by the stories she loves and her father’s and her imagination.  When Emmeline discovers one of her father’s stories is untrue, her reaction sets in motion a series of life-altering events. Suddenly, the investment in the narrative, in Emmeline and her father, John, becomes more than the worthwhile task it already was. After that point, Emmeline’s life, which has already taken an unexpected turn, continues to move apace. Forced to engage with people beyond her sheltered upbringing, Emmeline at first struggles. She is an unusual and extraordinary young woman who has been taught to understand the world through her olfactory senses (something we all do to a degree and mostly unconsciously). But it’s not until she meets a young man with a secret and learns one about herself that she’s propelled into an exciting future, one where others appreciate not only who she is, but what she can do for them. Rich in detail, observations about people and objects, but most of all, aromas, Emmeline’s first-person narrative is mesmerizing. Sadness,...

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The Shrine by L.J. Ross

It’s hard to believe that L.J. Ross has already written sixteen DCI Ryan books (and others besides), but I am so glad she has. This series is like comfort food. When you pick up the next one in the series, you know you’re in great hands. The familiar characters whom, over the years, you’ve grown to genuinely care about and will to succeed and survive appear and you settle in, knowing the recipe is being prepared by a master. This book is yet another very satisfying meal. When a colleague of Ryan and co., a high-ranking officer, is shot dead outside her home and then an explosion goes off in Durham Cathedral and a priceless relic is stolen, Ryan’s team are swiftly put into action. Ryan (for reasons I won’t reveal) is forced to bury personal feelings and simply get on with the job. But as the cases unravel, it’s clear that not only may they be related, but the killer hasn’t finished… Character driven, these books are slower-paced than many crime novels, allowing plot and certainly anything gritty to slide into the background as setting and dialogue and the bonds that connect the main characters are brought to the fore.  This is what makes them both an easy but immensely pleasurable read and I’m already looking forward to the next...

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The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

This was an unusual book to which I had incredibly mixed reactions. I can only think of this as a positive thing – for both the reader and the author. In telling the story of Lucy, a breast cancer survivor who, while struggling to deal with her new body (never mind the trauma of cancer treatment and everything the mind, body, and those around you deal with post-recovery – I speak from experience), has a strange and incredible experience with an octopus. This has a profound impact on her life in many, many ways, changing her both internally and externally and altering the relationships she has with those closest to her, those she meets and, above all, the natural environment and the fauna that inhabit it in ways humans cannot possibly comprehend. The novel opens in one of the most original ways I’ve read in a long time and it took me a moment to become accustomed to the voice. I found it strangely beautiful and moving – particularly when I understood it was a wondrous creature narrating. This occurs at different times in the novel- creatures take over the story. I am not as convinced by the success of those other voices or the position they hold in the book as I was this first one. In many ways, they jarred a little. That said, when Lucy and the humans and their interactions take over, the story moves well and the characters are interesting and mostly engaging. There were times I really didn’t like Lucy at all. I struggled so hard with this because as a woman, cancer survivor, and someone who feels bonds with the environment (especially in Tasmania), I felt I should like her more. But, as is the case with others in the book, she...

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The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle.

A.G Riddle’s books are what I would call a guilty pleasure. His Winter World series and Pandemic novels were easy-read page turners that were perfect holiday fare. The first book in this series, The Atlantis Gene was similar in that it was a fast-paced sci-fi action adventure story that was good enough for the sequel to beckon. While there were some worthy moments in this second book, especially near the beginning, I’m afraid that even for this genre, there were times it was impossible to suspend my disbelief. Not only did dead characters keep resurrecting but one of the main characters performs the equivalent of an ex machina manoeuvre, meaning that all the questions the reader and thus characters had could be (conveniently) answered as she suddenly became a font of all knowledge (because… shhhhh… she’s not who we think she is). It became a bit too much. So, while the book and characters were pitched into chaos which had folk flying, sailing, running, digging beneath the earth and making all kinds of discoveries and taking incredible risks, being transported here and there, I virtually ceased to care. My investment in the story, which became incredibly convoluted and expedient, ran its course. Not even the science was plausible or even, for that matter, interesting enough to give the wild tale credibility anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Riddle knows how to write and the short pacey chapters keep you turning the pages, even if it’s only to get to the end. Nah, that’s not entirely fair. There’s a smidgin of wanting to know left that did that. The ending prepares the reader for the third instalment. Not sure I have the...

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Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Robert Bryndza burst onto the crime-writing scene a few years back with his excellent Erika Foster series, which I thoroughly enjoy. It was with great excitement then that I picked up this first book in a new series, featuring police officer, Kate Marshall. Kate was a high-flying young police woman who, after sleeping with her superior, also catches a sought-after serial killer – the Nine Elms murderer. Instead of being rewarded for her efforts, she leaves the force in disgrace. The story begins fifteen years later as Kate, now a mother and a criminology lecturer, is living a quiet life by the coast, teaching keen students and interacting with her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper. When she’s approached by distraught parents with a missing daughter, Caitlyn, essentially a cold case that the police never took seriously but which the parents believe is connected to the Nine Elms murders, she reluctantly takes it on. In the meantime, a Nine Elms copycat killer has emerged and the body count is growing. Against her will, Kate finds herself doing private investigating with Tristan, not only to try and resolve what happened to Caitlyn, but learn what she can about this mimic killer, a killer who is getting too close to Kate and her son, Jake, for comfort. This novel opens in a strong and brutal manner (which is Bryndza’s style), grasping the reader by the collar and not letting go for a while. After this knockout beginning, the book slows a little as we’re introduced to Kate and invited to peel back the various layers that make the person she is now. Likewise, her professional and personal environment are described and explored, setting the groundwork for the character and future stories. But before long the pace builds again to breakneck speed as...

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The Noble Path by Peter May

Having enjoyed May’s Lewis trilogy and Lockdown (which was written fifteen years ago and rushed to publication because of the pandemic) I thought I would give this one a go. Also written decades ago and then re-edited to exclude some sex scenes, it’s set in London, Thailand and Cambodia – during the reign of the terrifying Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. While I knew this might be difficult reading in that what the poor Cambodians suffered during those bleak years is just shocking, I also have a vested interest in contemporary Cambodia. Not only do I support a school in the provinces, but have a lovely sponsored child there both of whom I visit, with like-minded friends who also have children and help this school, every year.  I’ve also been to Thailand often. I girded my loins ready for what I suspected might be a punishing read. It was, but not for the reasons I anticipated. This was such a predictable, cliched read that relied far too heavily on reductive stereotypes (gender, sexual, cultural, familial) to tell its story as well as giving a sort of nod to 1980s action flicks. At least, that’s what it felt like. Focussed mainly on disgraced British army officer, Jack Elliot, whose employed as a mercenary to go into Cambodia and rescue a wealthy refugee’s family from the Khmer Rouge, it also explores his daughter’s efforts to find the father she never knew was alive. While there are moments that are heartfelt and gripping (some of the scenes in Cambodia wrench your heart our of your chest) and do remind us of the horror of those times, I also found it gratuitous in parts. The villains, especially the Thai people (Jack has to enter Cambodia through Thailand and rely on a dubious set...

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The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs

While it’s been a long time between books set in Ancient Rome, never before have I read one that focusses on Etruscan culture and, in particular, those from a region only twelve miles from the Tiber River, called Veii. This story centres on the marriage of a young Roman woman named Caecilia who, to satisfy a treaty, is married to a nobleman from Veii, the wealthy and brave Mastarna. Thrust into an unfamiliar and enemy culture, aware she’s a pawn in a political game, Caecilia is terrified of losing her Roman-ness and fights hard to maintain her roots. However, Etruscan culture and rituals, their religion and treatment of others – particularly women whom they see as equals – differs so much from what she’d been raised to believe and fear and that’s before she considers the unexpected surprise that is her older husband. Drawn into familial as well as social dramas of her new Etruscan society, Caecilia slowly learns that it’s not just Roman leaders prepared to use her for their own ends. But as time passes, she also starts to question where her loyalties actually lie… This book was absolutely fascinating. The history and detail included in the story were riveting, but never at the expense of plot. On the contrary, all the little facts about life in these times, from the way the sexes were treated, class structure, dress, meals, religious rituals, modes of address, were all interwoven expertly throughout the narrative. Likewise, the setting is beautifully rendered. You see the citadel of the Veii, the frequent parties they indulge in, the manner of their rituals, just as you can envisage the landscape and changing seasons. It’s easy to tell that Storss not only knows this part of history well, but is passionate about it too, and...

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