Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

You know when you pick up a Michael Connelly book you’re about to hugely entertained by a tight, gritty plot, intense characters, high-octane moments and a realistic setting. Fair Warning, the third book in his Jack McEvoy series, ticks all those boxes and then some. Jack is a reporter with a long-from investigative paper that usually focusses on softer issues that everyday readers find interesting. But when a woman he had a one-night stand with twelve months earlier is found brutally murdered, he’s not only pulled into the investigation, but determines to uncover the culprit. What Jack does find leaves him not only under suspicion for the crime he’s also seeking to solve, but on the brink of uncovering a serial killer who’s been on the loose for years and with a (growing) body count that makes even Jack and his associates baulk. As Jack gets closer to finding out the killer’s identity, so too the murderer is getting closer to Jack. Is breaking news worth risking your life for? Connelly has done it again with an edge of the seat read that plunges the reader into some very dark corners before hauling us out again, giving us a good ol’ shake and then setting us upon another shadowy, dangerous path. Replete with characters who always act in ways that make sense – whether it’s in relation to who they are, their personal relationships, their job, laws, rules etc (too many crime books ask readers to suspend their disbelief just a bit too much – Connelly, I find, is never guilty of that particular sin but always works within the logic of the world he evokes) – possess flaws, egos and big hearts as well as dire intentions, this is another sensational read. I read this over a couple...

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Cry of the Firebird by T.M. Clark

I have been meaning to read a T.M. Clark book for quite a while, knowing they’re set in South Africa, a place I’ve never been but remain curious about. I was finally able to do so and enjoy being immersed in a culture and land both perilous and beautiful. When Dr Lily Winters, a WHO consultant, is sent back to her beloved South Africa due to the unexpected death of an unpopular colleague, she and her famous musician husband find themselves embroiled in searching for the origins of an HIV outbreak in the San comminity of Platfontein. Despite being given appropriate medicines and care, the people are dying, leaving behind not only a trail of heartbreak, but many unanswered questions. With the help of a Kalahari policeman, Little Piet, Lily determines to discover why the disease is killing so many as well as learning why and how her colleague died. Her determination sets her on a dangerous path as there are those equally resolute she’ll remain not only ignorant about why HIV is flourishing, but unable to interfere with their very lucrative business. This is a slow-burn book that takes the reader on a journey through lush and wondrous landscapes and into unfamiliar but breathtakingly beautiful territory. The descriptions of South Africa are simply lovely and deposit you smack bang in the middle of vegetation, a lake inhabited by flamingos, or scrubland and ghettoes with ease. You smell the earthy afternoons, the crisp mornings and see the beauty of the sky as the sun rises or sets. Though I’ve seen this book described as a thriller, I wouldn’t call it that, but it is a tightly-plotted mystery, filled with characters you either loathe (because they’re so unremittingly greedy and selfish) or invest in and a place that leaps from...

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Lockdown by Peter May

In keeping with my pandemic/apocalyptic reading, I found this one by author Peter May, whose Black House/Lewis series remain one of my all-time favourites. Apparently, May wrote Lockdown over fifteen years ago, but his publisher didn’t think anyone would credit a pandemic locking down London. I get that. Ha! Funny (not), how a few years on this is not only believable, but happening. May uses a global pandemic and a major city in lockdown as the scene for the murder of a child. London, the epicentre of the viral outbreak, is under martial law. D.I Jack MacNeil, a gruff, pragmatic Scotsman (they all seem to be in this genre!), is on his last day working for the Yard. His career and marriage are in tatters and he misses his young son who he determines to spend more time with as soon as he finishes up with the police. Tasked with finding the killer/s before they strike again, Jack not only has to track down the perpetrator, but within the next twenty-four hours, avoid getting infected. However, Jack is being watched and as he moves close to finding the killers, the virus moves closer to not only claiming him, but threatening those he loves. Can he catch a killer or just the deadly illness decimating the population? This is a cracker of a read, made more so not only because of the tight time frame in which it’s set, but also because of the frisson experienced while reading it. London is brought to a standstill on the page, but its patrolled streets are brought to eerie life for the reader as we recognise not only the empty roads and shops, the blockades and masked people, but the fear, uncertainty and the countdown to an end that is as uncertain and...

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The Paris/Dior Secret by Natasha Lester

I hadn’t read a book by Natasha Lester before, but that mistake was rectified when I picked up The Paris Secret (also called The Dior Secret?). Now, having read her latest, I understand why people rave about her work. I also know I have more marvellous tales to lose myself in. I feel, however, I need to explain why I haven’t read her before and I think it’s to do with the covers. I’m not sure why, but to me they suggest a different content to that which lies between them. It was a content I didn’t think I’d enjoy – how wrong can you be? I LOVED this book. The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” is one I should have heeded in this instance. But of course, we do and I judged poorly. The novel employs multiple timelines to tell the story of a group of disparate women at different stages in world history and women’s autonomy. There are the amazing women who flew planes during the war – not to fight the enemy, but to relocate them for airmen to both fly into enemy territory and deposit or pick-up resistance fighters/spies. It was incredibly dangerous and devalued work – the latter at least initially. In this part, the reader follows the lives of two sisters – Liberty and Skye – their estrangement and unconventional career paths. The men and women they encounter in their duties are brave, bold and reckless and the relationships they form are enduring and deep. Based on actual events and the history of these incredible women, I found this section riveting. The book also explores the launch of Christian Dior’s first fashion collection post-war. Bold, stylish and extravagant, it speaks to a world hurting from war and its terrible aftermath. His...

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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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