Skin Deep by Gary Kemble

The debut novel, Skin Deep, by award-winning short story writer, Gary Kemble, published by Echo Publishing (who kindly sent me a review copy – thank you very much) is a ripper of a read. Not being familiar with Kemble’s work, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the promotional blurb announced the novel was cross-genre. I have had mixed experiences with cross-genre novels (no pun intended) so worried I might be a little disappointed, especially as the blurb set my expectations high. What I read was a page-turning, exceptionally well-written, tale of regret, deception, betrayal, politics, war, corruption at the highest levels and all with a marvellous supernatural bent that evokes time, place and people with richness and depth.

25356542Journalist Harry Hendrick, once a star student at the university where he did his journalism degree, who because of a major mis-step early in his career is stuck working for the a local Brisbane newspaper (having been rejected by all the major ones, including the “Brisbane Mail” – a thinly disguised Courier Mail, the paper for which I’ve written for over 16 years!). When he wakes one morning after a particularly wild night to find himself sporting an odd tattoo, he is unable to explain when or how he came about it, believing he must have been incredibly wasted not to recall. When other tattoos start appearing on his body, accompanied by vivid and horrific dreams, dreams that include olfactory and taste sensations as well, Harry knows something fantastical is happening to him. But who can he tell? Who would believe him? Not the girlfriend who has just dumped him, the attractive reporter at the Chronicle where he works or his patient boss. As for his best mate, Dave, he’s likely to think he’s mad. Harry isn’t convinced he’s not.

When the dreams intensify, and the tattoos appear with alarming regularity, telling their own gruesome version of the events Harry experiences night after night, he understands something major is afoot, something that involves not only the story that almost had him kicked out of university and discredited as a serious journalist years earlier, but one that involves wild and dangerous magic, a desperate desire for revenge and extraordinarily powerful people who will stop at nothing to ensure no-one lives to repeat the tale they’ve worked so hard to bury.

From the first page, this book gripped and didn’t let me go. Kemble is a terrific writer and his evocation of place, particularly, is outstanding. It’s not just Brisbane (which I know and love and smelt, felt and imagined as I read), but the surging seas off the coast of Australia, the dry, barren lands of the Middle East and even the interiors of houses and office buildings as well as landscapes. Likewise with people. Harry (along with the other characters in the book) is flesh and blood and his fear and confusion as events overtake him are visceral.

I don’t want to say too much for risk of spoiling the plot except to say that this political thriller-cum-action-crime-supernatural novel is fabulous. My only reservation is the cover. I don’t think it does justice to the contents and certainly, I never would have picked it up. The title is so apt and tantalizing and yet the vague image of smoky squiggles just doesn’t cut it for this reader and if it as the same effect of repelling other potential ones, then it’s to their detriment as they’d miss out on a great novel.

A fantastic debut from a terrific writer. I cannot wait for his next book.


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Book Review: Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman


Needing a great story to slip into and escape for a while, I was delighted to see that Kimberley Freeman’s latest, Ember Island had downloaded on my Kindle. Loving Freeman’s previous books, I couldn’t wait to snuggle down with this one. Cup of tea: check; cushions to rest against: check; silence and no interruptions: check. Big sigh of contentment… open bookEmber Island… And….

Immediately, I was transported to Ember Island, a fictional place in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, and the struggles of internationally renown but reluctant writer, Nina, who, discovering her property on the island (once owned by her grandmother) has been damaged in a storm, arrives to oversee repairs. Only, the house isn’t the only thing needing fixing. Nina is nursing a wounded heart and suffering from terrible writers’ block and, as the story unfolds, readers learn she is burdened from carrying a guilty secret as well.

The story shifts gear back to the late 1800s and the life of orphaned Matilda Kirkland who, after her beloved grandfather dies, follows her new husband, Jasper, to Guernsey in the Channel Islands to take up life as a wife and all that entails. Only, when Tilly (as she is known) arrives, nothing is as it seems and her dream future with the dashing Jasper soon becomes a nightmare from which she must wake or perish.

Segueing between the two stories of two very different women, the connecting thread being Nina’s grandmother, Eleanor or Nell, and the diaries she has left of her childhood on Ember Island, the reader is immersed in their separate travails and quest to find both love and peace, a place to settle their restless souls, but without sacrificing their sense of self.

While Freeman segues between the narratives and times, she doesn’t compromise pace or plot and the reader is allowed the time to not only get to know the characters, but to enjoy the unfolding tale as well. At first, I confess, I found Nina a bit whiny, though I did appreciate the descriptions of the crippling doubt even a famous author experiences and her inability to shake these demons. Still, I also wanted to slap her and tell her to appreciate the success she clearly has had, the supportive people in her life and to just get on with it and stop complaining! It’s testimony to Freeman’s prose that I responded to Nina that way; she is a realised character and certainly, the further you get into the story the more you come to appreciate why Nina feels the way she does.

Tilly is both a product of her era and someone who struggles against the shackles of imposed gender roles and male authority but without sacrificing veracity. Sometimes, however, she is too easily seduced by those who don’t have her best intentions at heart; the lessons she learns from them and their actions are hard indeed. The younger characters in the book, especially precocious Nell, are endearing and wise beyond their years.

This is a romance, and while it features good men and bad, it also explores female friendship and the ties that bind and those that are severed and why. I really enjoyed the female relationships and the love and trust and betrayal that are explored within these.

Overall, this is a marvellous page-turner over which I lost sleep trying to get to the end because I simply HAD to know what happened. Though I saw a couple of the twists, there were one or two I did not, and they quite took my breath away!

Anyone looking for a great read, pick up Ember Island, slip into its pages and escape – though here’s a warning: you might not want to come back!

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