Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

During Covid-19 and isolation, I became obsessed with pandemic/eschatological narratives (I’ve always enjoyed them, but now I simply had to read them). This book, Station Eleven, kept appearing on various lists as one of the best. Now I know why.  When the Georgia Flu erupts all around the world, decimating the population and ending civilization as we know it, life is irrevocably altered. Fast forward 20 years, and a roving band of Shakespearean actors wander the small outposts of people that have survived, performing and bringing brief moments of joy and escapism into their lives. But when the troupe perform at one particular outpost, they encounter a man the likes of which they’ve not yet met. Not only does he pose a danger to them, but to the world slowly emerging from catastrophe… This is not like the usual pandemic/end of world books I’ve read. For a start, it is so lyrical and almost haunting in its prose and, secondly, unlike other pandemic novels, it barely deals with the medical or social implications of the outbreak except in relation to its impact on various characters. Segueing from the known past and the initial stages of the pandemic, the fear and desperation, to the uncertain future and implicit risks but also banality of the everyday, Mandel creates an authentic but haunting tale of humanity at its best and worst. I couldn’t put it down, and found it surprised, delighted and moved me at every turn. Highly recommended....

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City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

This wonderful book had been sitting on my TBR pile for far too long. My only regret in finally picking it up and devouring it, is that now it’s read, I can no longer be delighted and astonished by the marvellous world of young, unambitious but adventurous Vivian Morris in New York in the 1940s. When nineteen-year-old Vivian is sent to join her avant-garde, Aunt Peg, in the city that never sleeps, she becomes seamstress to the cast of the Lily Playhouse, assembling ad hoc costumes for their cheap and cheerful shows. Finally, Vivian feels she’s found her place in the world, drinking, partying and befriending the glamorous and utterly gorgeous showgirl, Celia. But when the grand British actress, Edna Watson, and her himbo husband arrive from Britain, essentially, refugees from the war, they bring in their wake a certain magic that enchants all those in their orbit. Keen to take advantage of the star’s presence, the Lily Playhouse seriously invests in Edna and puts on a grand play, The City of Girls. With a hit on their hands, everything changes, especially for Vivian who finds herself cast in a role she was never born to play. Told as a letter written by an ageing Vivian looking back on her life, to someone called “Angela”, the voice of this novel is utterly compelling. Vivid, able to call out her own flaws, own her mistakes and be generous towards others, as Vivian’s story unfolds, it’s not only the tale of one woman’s journey towards independence and self-awareness, but a world’s awakening after the horrors of war and the impact it has had on individuals, families, and society. In some ways, Vivian and certainly her Aunt Peg, are women out of time, but in others, they represent what women throughout the...

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Table For Eight by Tricia Stringer

After reading a series of intense and utterly marvellous works of historical fiction and then following these with a stunning but heavy eschatological story about a Coronavirus being unleashed on the world (seriously – see my other reviews), I thought it was time for something a little lighter. Enter, Table For Eight by Tricia Stringer which was the perfect antidote in so many ways. Set on a cruise ship (felt strange to be reading this in the shocking aftermath of the Ruby Princess and Covid-19), heading from Sydney for the South Pacific for ten days of sightseeing and indulgence, the book centres on sixty-four-year old Ketty, a fashionista and designer as well as an experienced cruiser, whose business is flailing. Determined to celebrate her sixty-fifth birthday in style, Ketty embarks on what she suspects may be her last cruise. Familiar with the ship’s regime and many of the crew, she anticipates who she’ll be seated with for the evening’s dinner. Surprised to find she’s sat a table for eight, it’s the other passengers, their interactions and reasons for being aboard that then form the crux of the story. They’re a mish-mash of people from different parts of Australia, all motivated to set sail (or not). There’s a family group of three, an old flame and his sister, a grieving widower, a bitter divorcee and her friend. As the days pass, the reader (along with Ketty, who is like a very kind mother-hen/oracle figure) learn more and more about these passengers and share the way being on the ship, the intensity of relationships and closeness of ship-life and the forced intimacy, alters them. Some characters are delightful, others not so much. What I particularly liked about this book is that it’s not often people in their sixties and older –...

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The End of October by Lawrence Wright

OK. I’ll admit it. Not only do I love eschatological narratives (I think Stephen King had it right when he spoke of people enjoying the horror genre because it connects them with their own sense of mortality and revivifies them – something like that. End of world narratives while sometimes classified speculative, share many characteristics with horror – I think revivifying the reader is certainly one of them), but at a time when we’re in lockdown because of Covid-19, a Twenty-First Century plague, this book seemed to be the perfect companion – but gird your loins.  Pulitzer prize winning author, Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower – a non-fiction book about the battle of information between the CIA and FBI in the lead up to 9/11, also an amazing and confrontational series on Amazon Prime), who finished this book – which is about a modern-day novel Coronavirus that sweeps the globe – a year ago, has been described as “prescient”. Wright, in typical humble fashion, claims Ridley Scott gave him the idea to write an apocalyptic narrative and that all he did, was “listen to the experts.” Something I suspect many wish their leaders also did.  This is the story of a virus called Kongali that appears to start in a refugee camp in Indonesia. Deadly and highly contagious, when an Indonesian man on a pilgrimage to Mecca takes the disease with him – a place where over three million Muslims worship – the ground is set for a pandemic the experts saw coming, but no-one is prepared for. Virologist, the clever Henry Parsons, with a dark past of his own, determines to find not only the source of the outbreak but a cure, before it’s too late. But with global geo-politics on the brink of war, and leaders falling...

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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary have been explored by a number of authors over the years – The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester (a fabulous read) a non-fiction book and recently a film, possibly being the most famous. Yet, Pip Williams‘s, The Dictionary of Lost Words, though a work of fiction (using an accurate historic setting) could well topple Winchester from this throne. Lost Words takes the creation of the OED as its raison d’être, but instead of focusing on the primary male actors in the development of the dictionary, it concentrates on the women and the female-centric words that were excised from the original work – for no other reason than they weren’t regarded as having enough significance.  Weaving the fictional story of Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicologists working on the dictionary project, we follow her from early childhood where she finds the word “bondmaid”, a word that refers exclusively to a subordinate female position, discarded on the floor of the “Scriptorium”. This is the place where her father and his colleagues work tirelessly to collect and collate words under the supervision of the real historical figure, Sir James Murray. Esme’s discovery and the word’s exclusion sparks a life-long quest in Esme, to understand the power of words, why and how they shape us and why some words are selected for inclusion in such an important work and others aren’t. I don’t want to say too much more and risk spoiling what unfolds. Needless to say, with a backdrop that includes the rise of the Suffragette movement and World War I, Esme’s professional and personal journey, which have words at their very heart, is riveting, deeply moving, as well as beautifully and lyrically written. On top of that, it’s an erudite exposition...

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Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative.  While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return.  The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored.  This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and...

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The End of Cuthbert Close by Cassie Hamer

This fabulous, delightful read by Cassie Hamer, tells the story of three women who live in the same neighbourhood and share a remarkable friendship, that is, until a newcomer arrives and threatens to disrupt everything that made living in Cuthbert Close special. Corporate lawyer and mother, Alex, widow, food-stylist and single-mother, Cara, and the oldest of the trio, stay-at-home mother and talented cook Beth, live busy but satisfying lives in a terrific cul-de-sac in an upmarket part of town. Their lives are spent caring for their families, working, socialising, and feeling gratitude for what they have, including each other. But when one summer’s evening, at the annual street party, a removalist van gate-crashes the event, bringing new neighbours – the svelte and glamourous wife and teen daughter of the lifestyle guru, the Instafamous, Primal Guy, their small world is turned topsy-turvy. Suddenly, marriages, plans, domestic arrangements and even dreams go awry. Is it just time for things to change, even for the worse, or is something closer to home causing trouble in this suburban paradise? This is a clever, really entertaining book that not only captures the suburban life of some people, but portrays the complications and joys of motherhood, female friendship, neighbours, relationships, kids and marriages so very well. The dialogue snaps and is often laugh-out-loud funny but at the same time can deliver depth and be incredibly moving. The women are so relatable with their triumphs, self-doubt, foibles and flaws and you genuinely come to care about them. Likewise, the men and children are familiar types that you can identify with easily. I so enjoyed this book – found it hard to put down – and even though I saw the twist, it didn’t spoil a thing as I loved how it came together and resolved. A...

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No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times. Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered. Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love. But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart? This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded...

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The Last Monument by Michael C Grumley

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed his Breakthrough series, which is imaginative, bold and well-written, I was so excited to see another Grumley book published. I bought it straight away and read it swiftly. This time, Grumley steps away from his almost other-worldly action series and gives the readers what is an unashamedly Indiana Jones type mystery involving an air-traffic inspector, Joe Rickards, with a sad secret that he carries, and a young female academic, an anthropologist, who also bears a heavy burden. These two are thrown together when the anthropologist’s elderly great-uncle dies in a plane crash. Terrified of flying and an octogenarian, he nonetheless boarded a small aircraft in terrible weather with an old pilot friend. Where was he going? And what drove him to take such a terrible risk? When it’s discovered the great-uncle is carrying a letter sent to him sixty years earlier but which has only just been delivered and that it was sent by his brother who was thought dead after the war (something great-uncle never believed), a train of events is set in motion. Joe is roped into helping the great-niece learn the truth of not just what the letter meant, but what mystery lies at its heart. It’s a journey that will take both of them not only into the depths of South America, but into the deadly sights of others who have been searching for the answer to the mystery contained in the letter ever since the end of the war and will do whatever it takes to ensure only they discover the truth. Grumley knows how to write good, page-turning novels and grip the reader. This one is no different except, for some reason, the story didn’t quite grab me in the way the Breakthrough novels did. The lead characters...

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The Invention of Fire by Bruce Holsinger

The second book in the “John Gower” series, The Invention of Fire is stellar historical fiction, with a gripping plot, terrific characters and a fantastic grasp of the period that plunges the reader into the political machinations of 1386 London. When numerous bodies are found dumped in a the public latrine in the city, all bar one having died from being shot by the new and deadly weapon, the handgonne, Gower (and others) are both concerned and intrigued. When yet more bodies turn up, including some innocent peasants in the English settlement of Calais, it’s evident something dark and terrible is afoot. All the evidence points to one of the Lord Appellants, those who managed to wrest power from the mercurial King Richard II.   Gower, in his usual indomitable way, does what he can to not only discover the culprit, but the reasons behind what appears to make no sense – these random multiple deaths – and on the eve of the Riding – the changeover of the London Mayor.  In the meantime, a talented craftsman, who works at a London foundry, is asked to develop a new weapon without informing his employer. Torn between loyalty to his mistress and his country, but also carrying a deadly secret, the man has little choice but to obey what’s against his better moral judgement.  A married couple join a pilgrimage to the Palatinate near Durham – innocent enough on the surface, but what are they really hiding? Only Gower, with a little help from the newly appointed JP of Kent, Geoffrey Chaucer, has the nous to unravel the threads that tie these people, mysteries and dire circumstances together – but can he before more death hits the streets – or worse, those closest to the throne? Masterfully written, with great...

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Karen Brooks's books on Goodreads
TallowTallow (Curse of The Bond Riders, #1)
reviews: 29
ratings: 489 (avg rating 3.79)

VotiveVotive (Curse of the Bond Rider #2)
reviews: 10
ratings: 154 (avg rating 4.25)

The Gaze of the GorgonThe Gaze of the Gorgon (Cassandra Klein, #2)
reviews: 1
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.78)

The Kurs of AtlantisThe Kurs of Atlantis (Cassandra Klein, #4)
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.12)

Rifts Through QuentarisRifts Through Quentaris
ratings: 12 (avg rating 3.56)