Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Evocative (tick), haunting (tick), with mystery dripping from every word and page (tick), a mute, outsider heroine who is also an orphan, a ruinous but beautiful house populated by ghouls only the orphan can see… this has to be a V.E. Schwab book, doesn’t it?

After reading and adoring The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, I was keen to see how Schwab would apply her formidable writing talents and wild inventiveness to a YA book. I wasn’t disappointed.

 When Olivia Prior is summoned by a strange letter to leave the orphanage in which she’s been abandoned for years, and join the family she never knew she had, she packs up her few belongings, including her dead mother’s precious but mostly incomprehensible journal, and sets out. When she first lays eyes on the mansion her family has dwelt in for years, Gallant, despite the hostile greeting of her cousin and awkwardness of the two staff that share the rambling place with him, she tries to settle in. But she is haunted quite literally, by the half-formed ghouls that inhabit the corners, shuffle in the shadows, and the evident mystery that enshrines not just the house and grounds, but the strange wall at the end of the garden and what lies behind it.

When Olivia crosses the threshold the wall represents, she finds herself in a darker, dangerous version of Gallant. She also learns the truth of her mother and father and her family’s legacy, one that beckon her towards the gloomiest of possibilities. Desperate to belong, to understand why she’s drawn to this other place, this other, grimmer version of the future she’s been offered, Olivia has to make a choice, one that is both deadly and final.

As always, Schwab’s writing is delicious. The prose, the way each and every scene is imagined, the characters created, is so sinisterly beautiful it makes you shiver. Even the journal, which is like another character in the tale, comes alive in unexpected ways.

Yet, the story has a sense of fraying around the edges, as if it’s just a part of a whole, suggesting more than what we’ve been given. I’m not sure if this means a sequel might be in the offing, where characters and motives can be (pardon the pun) fleshed out (it becomes clear if you read the book), but even if it’s not, I enjoyed the sense of incompleteness. It requires a leap of faith, of imagination, something I think readers and lovers of YA fantasy and Schwab’s work will happily take.

With Gallant, Schwab has woven an uncanny bit of magic.

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The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott

Having recently finished The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, I was really in the mood for another, fast-paced, escapist Atlantis-themed novel. Andy McDermott’s The Hunt for Atlantis, the first in what is a very long series featuring archaeologist, Nina Wilde and former British SAS soldier, Eddie Chase, appeared to fit the bill.

Raised by parents obsessed with discovering the location of the lost city of Atlantis, it’s natural that after their sudden deaths in Tibet years earlier, Nina should continue with their work. Believing she’s found the location of the lost city, it’s not until her application for a university grant to test her theories is rejected and she is picked up by a philanthropic Norwegian billionaire Kristian Frost and his organisation, that Nina can begin her hunt in earnest. But there are others interested in what Nina has found and her search, so much so, Frost hires a bodyguard to keep her safe – the crude but courageous, Eddie Chase. And so the adventure really begins.

From the snow-clad regions of Norway, to the heat of the Middle East, steaming jungles of Brazil, the dark depths of the Atlantic and dangerous streets of New York, the hunt to find Atlantis and the secrets the ancient civilisation has kept for millennia is on. Can Chase keep Nina and those in the Frost organisation keen to see her succeed safe from the deadly brotherhood determined to see her fail? Or will Atlantis remain hidden forever?

This novel started well. The pace was break-neck, the premise (if you suspended your disbelief) fine and the characters were solid enough. The descriptions of car chases, plane crashes, shoot-outs, explosions, and so many near-death experiences were cinematic to say the least. But after a while, the whole run, shoot, run, shoot, get captured, freed, run, shoot, repetitiveness became a little tired, even for this action-buff. Not only that, but the cliched dialogue and often sexist representations (beautiful women, handsome – once you get to know them – heroes and ugly villains), galled a wee bit too much. Then there was the unconvincing brain power of Nina the central figure who everyone was relying on to find Atlantis. Even so, they had to bring in her (pedestrian) professor and mentor to do some translating. As he begins, suddenly, Nina (after a hard face palm) remembers she CAN do it after all – d’oh! Do they send said professor home? No. he hangs around like a fart in an elevator and is just as odious. That’s only one example of the clever woman character versus unnecessary extra person failing in that regard. Then there was the lack of sexual chemistry between Nina and Eddie, the other characters with “doom” tattooed on their forehead (metaphorically speaking), so you knew from the outset what their fate would be – and so on. In other words, the novel became quite predictable very quickly.

In the end, while I enjoyed a great deal of the tracking location and various discoveries, it was all a bit too much, and I just wanted to the story to end. Overall, it was the escapism I thought I was after but, sadly, it didn’t allow me to escape from the fact I just didn’t enjoy the story as much as I’d hoped.

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A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman

A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman is a delicious romantic romp set in contemporary Scotland and which tells the story of Lara McDonald who, after a relationship fails, returns to her home town of Fairview, near Glasgow. Broken-hearted, she takes a job with the catty Kitty Walker in her tea room called True Brew. Unhappy, but determined to heal, Lara befriends the local, elderly laird, Hugh Carmichael, sharing with him her hopes and dreams for a future she fears will never come to pass. When Hugh suddenly dies, Lara finds herself in a strange position: one of her dreams is about to come true, but as it unfolds, in ways she never could have imagined, she begins to wonder if the price is simply too high.

Filled with love lost and won, amazing recipes and descriptions of cakes, breads and slices which, I confess, had me rushing to the kitchen to bake (and eat) myself, the greatest threat this light, fun and always heart-rich tale poses is to your waist-line! The relationships Lara forges and those she resists are wonderful to behold, especially the one she has with her best friend, Morven and her prickly, militant mother. Slowly, as Lara begins to repair her heart, she finds it under threat again, only this time, she seems powerless to prevent herself repeating the same mistakes…

Told with pathos and humour, the story moves at a good pace and the characters crackle with vigour. The Scottish town of Fairview and the grand manor, Glenlovatt, and the food Lara and her friends make and consume also become characters and you’ll find it hard not to fall in love with them as well. As I was reading, it struck me that this would make a terrific Hallmark movie – which is interesting as one of Shackman’s roles (apart from author) is to write for greeting cards!

Recommended for lovers of romance, and those who want to escape into a good book, curling up by a winter fire or in some sand, beneath golden sun and heat, Shackman’s novel is a great companion.

Thank you very much to Allen and Unwin for sending me a copy. 🙂


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I Let You Go by Claire MacIntosh

What a remarkable book. Simply riveting from start to finish. Little did I know what I was in for when I began to read…

One cold, English evening, a mother walks her child home from after-school care when tragedy strikes. The novel then takes two primary points of view: a grieving mother’s, Jenna Gray, and that of detective Ray Stevens. The story covers many months and the reader is taken into the dramatic changes that Jenna’s life undergoes, how she copes with her decisions and those made for her and slowly, painfully, starts to build a different future – at least she tries until the past suddenly and cruelly catches up with her.

For Ray and his team, the case that shocked and upset them slowly becomes another cold one: an unsolved crime which eats at their equilibrium. For Ray, and his new colleague, it’s particularly raw but time and crime make other demands of them, that is, until sheer persistence brings a fresh lead… a lead that challenges their faith in humans and in their skills.

This is an utterly gripping book. At one level, I suppose it is a crime/mystery book, but it is also much more than that and, in its structure and focus, it’s quite unlike any other book I’ve read before. The first half is a fantastic study in character, families, grief, desperation, guilt, and how life and relationships make and break us. How we have to live with the choices we make: good and bad. The way MacIntosh draws us into not only Jenna’s attempts to rebuild her shattered life, but also Ray’s devotion to his job, guilt over his family and the trials he and his wife, former cop, Mags face when dealing with their teenage son are raw and real. The personal relationships Ray takes for granted as well as the professional ones he does not ring true as does his self-reproach and constant second-guessing of what he could do better. Jenna’s world and Ray’s come crashing down around them for different reasons and by the time they do, you’re so invested in both of them, it’s s genuine kick in the heart. The sometimes injustice of justice is front and centre.

The second half of the book, after shocking the reader with a twist that some might see coming (I sort of did, but it was no less breath-taking because I did), introduces a new voice and a further examination of relationships and what people will tolerate, sacrifice and deny in order to save face, love, themselves. It is heart-wrenching and difficult reading at times, but it’s also impossible to put down.

The ending is a kick in the guts, nail-biting and gratifying – but also completely suspenseful. I stayed up far too late to finish it as I couldn’t bear going to sleep not knowing how the book concluded. While I imagined a dozen different scenarios, not one came as close to MacIntosh’s outstanding climax and denouement.

If you enjoy well-written mysteries, with great character development, tight plotting and believable, flawed characters, this is one you must add to your library. It is stunning.


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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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