People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield.

It was the fantastic title and wonderful historic and dark premise that had me purchasing this book the moment I set eyes on it. I mean, imagine a novel that features a woman who comes to believe she has married Jack the Ripper!

Set in the grim dank streets of Victorian London in 1888, the reader follows thirty-year-old Susannah as she falls head over heels for young, handsome surgeon, Thomas. But just as former- nurse, Susannah, keeps secrets from her new husband, so too Thomas and his wilful and quite creepy housekeeper, appear to be keeping very dark ones from her. But when their efforts to hide the truth from Susannah become deadly, she is forced to act.

I know many readers loved this book, and what sharing impressions of novels and their impact does is expose how wildly divergent readers’ tastes can be, and this is a wonderful thing. We each bring our own context, genre preferences and expectations to a book (for better and worse!). Sadly, while I so admire the notions underpinning this book, adore historical fiction (and crime!) and the push to give women of the past a voice, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped.

There’s a number of reasons, but mainly I found I didn’t relate to or care about any of the characters, not even Susannah. I also found some of the plot points and character motivation more convenient than logical vehicles for moving the narrative forward. What I did enjoy was the evocation of the city, the descriptions of dirty, fog-bound London and the gap between newspaper reports of the brutal murders, and even the brief experiences of the poor victims and those upon whom the grisly deaths impacted. I also love the chutzpah and imagination writers show when they tackle well known stories and mysteries – especially from the past – and put an original spin on them.

Unfortunately, while it has positives, this book didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

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The One by John Marrs

While I’d heard of many of John Marrs’ other books, I hadn’t yet read one. It was a recommendation from a bookshop that encouraged me to buy and read this one, and I’m really glad I did.

The story centres on the notion that out there in the world, somewhere, there is “The One” for each of us – not in the Romcom, Disney, Mills and Boon way so much – but someone who is genetically programmed to be our perfect match. The only problem is that you have to be willing to hand over your DNA and pay for the result and a little more for information on who The One is.

This is the premise underpinning the story, which not only follows a series of individuals and their experiences in finding (or failing to) their “perfect match”, but also the level of cynicism and doubt levelled at such an idea, especially by those already in relationships without having resorted to science to inform them if they’re with Mr or Ms Right.

But such an invention as “The One” is not without dire problems as an increasing divorce rate, misery of those yet to find a match or who are stuck with someone they’re not matched with, and the desire of the media to paint its recluse of a creator as some sort of Machiavellian scientist, responsible for all relationship/family woes indicates.

The short, fast-paced chapters are a roller-coaster as the reader follows the lives and loves, disasters and triumphs, emotional discord and joy of a number of different men and women who choose (or not) to be Matched and the consequences of what they do with that knowledge once they possess it.

While I felt that sometimes the scenarios stretched credibility a tad too much and the emotional heft was occasionally lagging, I also found the book hard to put down. I wanted to know the outcome of each person’s choices – would they get their “happy ever after” that finding “The One” implicitly promises, or would they be making the biggest mistake of their lives?

Marr throws in some twists and turns I didn’t see coming and which certainly kept me turning the pages.

Overall, I really enjoyed this almost satirical take on society’s long-held fascination for finding our “other half”. Stretching back as far as Socrates and The Symposium, it’s a desire that’s almost coded into us (through popular cultural representations (think of even old shows like Blind Date or Perfect Match, The Bachelor/Bachelorette and those mind of modern dating shows, Tinder, Grindr, and all the other Cyber dating services which promise so much and yet do they deliver? And fairy and folk tales, novels and films, all of which spin yarns about romance and finding the right person). You can’t help but ask, what would you do if you knew you could find out who the perfect person for you was, your other half, with little to no risk? What would you do if you were already in a stable relationship? If you shared children? If it’s relatively easy to find The One, does that mean you don’t have to work at a relationship anymore? Can one take The One for granted? What changes will the right person instigate in you if any? What will you transform about each other? The ethical/emotional/moral conundrums the book raises are certainly interesting and, towards the end, are thrown back at us in a credible way as well.

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Do you ever not read a book because it’s so very hyped and everyone is talking about it and you’re afraid you’ll be disappointed? Well, stupidly, that was me with Where the Crawdads Sing. I resisted its allure, the reviews that told me to enjoy it, that declared it wondrous. As a consequence, I’m very late to the praise party – praise, I might add, that is so richly deserved and to which I’m about to add.

This is a superb novel that carries such emotional heft. It is filled with heart-aching loveliness but also threats of billowing darkness, that it’s only now, over a week after I finished it, I feel I can step back enough to review it.

The tale commences in the late 60s with a suspicious death. It then rolls back twenty or so years and introduces us to the young, sassy yet quiet Kya Clark, a child who dwells on the edges of a town in the wetlands of the American south. She lives in poverty, in a makeshift house, apart from and yet also among those existing on the margins. Known as the “marsh-girl”, rumours about her and her ever-diminishing family abound in town, rumours that have no basis in fact, but are part of what ensure people like Kya, her family, and those who don’t fit the (white) mould are kept at arm’s length and othered. There are exceptions to how she and those who eke out a living in these wetlands are treated – there are a few who are able to see beyond the wild tales and stories of peculiarity and recognise the possibility and beauty in a child who rejects human contact – except on her terms.

The novel segues between the investigation into the death in the late 60s and Kya’s life as she matures, mostly in solitude and yet, never really lonely. At one with her natural environment, Kya’s searing intelligence, burgeoning knowledge and endless curiosity guide her year after year beyond her once narrow boundaries and into the extraordinary landscape she knows and loves and into the lives of two very different men.  

I don’t want to say too much more except this book tugs at the heart like no other I’ve read in a while. I ached while I read, cried, smiled, felt my flesh crawl, my soul open. At one time, I held my breath for so long, it was as if I forgot to breathe. It was an extraordinary reading experience which I now regret is over. I sort of wish I was still to discover this magnificent book; had the painful beauty of its story, of its words and the emotions it stirred, the images it evoked, to look forward to.

As it is, I will pass on the wonderful impact of this tale and hope that the next reader to pick it up feels about it the way I did. Sensational, moving and unexpected in every regard.

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Into the Night by Sarah Bailey

Sarah Bailey’s second book, Into the Night, is a terrific follow up to her wonderful debut, Dark Lake. The troubled protagonist of Dark Lake, Detective Sergeant, Gemma Woodstock has shifted to Melbourne and is still readjusting to life in the city and away from her beloved son. Dedicated cop by day, with a hostile and uncommunicative partner, Nick Fleet, Gemma is a drifter at night, enjoying random sexual encounters in order to feel a brief sense of connection as well as the control lacking in other parts of her life.

When a homeless person is brutally murdered and then a famous young actor is killed on the set of his latest movie, Gemma empathises with the loneliness of the homeless man and drawn to the actor’s murder; someone killed the man in broad daylight and yet in a similar way to the other victim. Yet, while no-one sets to gain from the homeless man’s death, everyone appears to when it comes to the rich handsome young actor, but in order to solve the crime, Gemma needs to not only trust her instincts, but those she relies to do her job properly…

Not only is this a terrific police procedural that doesn’t steer away from revealing the dogged and often unexciting processes involved in attempting to solve a crime, but it’s a top-notch exploration of relationships and families as well. Professional relationships, personal bonds and how one impacts on the other whether you’re a man or woman, mother or father, are beautifully and often painfully rendered. Gemma Woodstock is such a flawed and yet relatable character and it’s her vulnerabilities as much as her strengths that make her so appealing as a policewoman and as a person.

A terrific novel with good and believable twists and great pacing.

Looking forward to seeing what Bailey writes next.

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In Celebration of the release of The Chocolate Maker’s Wife – here’s some background on the writing of the novel and what’s between the covers…

This is an edited excerpt of what appeared in the ARC copy of the novel.

Official release date: 18 February in Australia/NZ. Out in the USA and UK August 2019.

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife, a tale of tragedy, triumph and sensual delight in Restoration London, is my twelfth book. It’s also the fourth time I’ve used the same basic premise to explore humanity and history through fiction by focussing on women in trade. So many historical fictions are about the gentry and nobility and they’re fascinating. What captivates me even more is what ordinary folk – well educated or not, rich or poor – did to survive in business, sickness, health, love and loss. In previous novels, I’ve tackled a candle-maker-cum-courtesan, a brewer, a lock-pick/spy and due to a timely visit to Hampton Court in 2014, I’ve my latest book.

Not only was chocolate a decadent drink introduced to England from Europe – Spain (via South America) – around the 1660s, coinciding with the restoration of Charles II to the English throne and all that his reign heralded in terms of hedonism and decadence, but it was associated with a range of naughty behaviours and benefits. Touted for its health-giving properties, chocolate was also considered an aphrodisiac. While there were those who sought to ban it, there were many more who relished the wicked things it signified. Just like the new, bitter drink of coffee, entire “houses” were opened where men could gather and quaff, smoke and exchange news.

A chocolate house in Georgian times. Coffee and chocolate houses were popular, and served as clubs and meeting places for business (© TopFoto)
While this is a Georgian coffee or chocolate house, Rosamund’s in my novel would have been similar.

The new-fangled and troublesome (for king and court) profession of journalism was also burgeoning. The collision of new ideas, political protest and the ability to read what was happening as people’s literacy grew, spelled both dramatic change and disorder. Debates, gossip, plots, plans, arguments, gambling and all other manner of licentious conduct happened – and was encouraged – under the roof of the debauched, marvellous chocolate house.

As you can tell (because I could go on), I simply adore doing the research!

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife focusses on the first of these chocolate houses to open in London and with a woman at the helm. With great business acumen, young and lovely Rosamund – someone with a past both uplifting and utterly wretched – arrives in the capital. Rosamund makes a deal with the devil and learns all there is to know about chocolate, serving men who would both bed and wed her. Through chocolate and the people it brings into her orbit, her life undergoes an extraordinary transformation.

An 18th-century reproduction brass pot stands ready to dispense its liquid contents.
A glass chocolate pot – note the molinillo (the stick in the lid) and he handle out the side for pouring.

But one cannot serve “sin in a bowl” and expect their reputation to remain unsullied. Nor at a time when war is brewing, plots against the crown are thick, laws tightening, plague and then fire threatening, never mind lustful men and jealous women, can Rosamund expect to remain safe – especially when those plotting against her are the same who promise her security.

The Chocolate Maker’s Wife is filled with real historical figures, rich in historical detail and facts as well as a healthy dose of imagination and a great deal of luscious chocolate. I hope in reading it, like Rosamund, you’ll find damnation has never been so sweet.

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The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

Having recently read an article on all the great new Australian crime novels out there and discovering among those listed some I hadn’t yet read, I thought I’d remedy my oversight. The first book I chose was Sarah Bailey’s The Dark Lake and what a fabulous choice it was! 


Centred around the regional NSW town of Smithson In Australia and a deeply troubled and flawed Detective Sargent, Gemma Woodstock, The Dark Lake is gritty, raw and gripping.

When the body of popular and beautiful school teacher and local girl, Rosalind Ryan is found murdered in the town’s lake, everybody seems to have an alibi. Perfect, a stellar teacher who was loved by her students, it’s not until Gemma and her partner, Felix, start delving that they find contradictory impressions of who Rosalind was – kind and quiet or manipulative and demanding? While Gemma is forthcoming about the fact she knew Rosalind when she was at school, what she fails to divulge is the impact the woman had on her and her almost obsession with her.

Added to the complications of Gemma’s relationship with the deceased are those Gemma has with others in her life. Whether it’s her partner, Scott, who’s also the father of her son, Ben or her professional colleague, boundaries have been blurred and Gemma is both troubling to be around and deeply troubled herself. But when the case and the way she is handling it affects her home life, Gemma starts to understand that the past is affecting the present in ways Gemma can neither control or prevent.

This book is so well written. While Gemma is the primary point of view, other characters are also given a voice which work to piece together the puzzle that is the crime. Added to this are flashbacks to Gemma’s school days and the incident that altered her path in life forever. Often unpleasant, undoubtedly selfish even though she’s a loving mum, there’s a lot to like and dislike about the main protagonist – especially her honest assessment of herself. It’s such a strength of Bailey’s writing that Gemma is at all times real – even when she’s spinning lies and dissembling – perhaps mostly then. The thing is, she’s at all times relatable as is virtually every character in the book. Likewise, the town of Smithson and its population are easy to identify with, thus the crime and its impact affect the reader as well. Tension builds from the first page as Gemma, Felix and the team get closer to solving Rosalind’s murder, especially when it appears they may have had it wrong all along. 

A marvellous debut work that had me buying Bailey’s next book the moment I finished.

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