30 November 2022

Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon book cover

Published in 2014, The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon has been on my virtual 'maybe' list for several years; okay I'll admit it, 8 years. During this time, the author has published several new novels the blurbs of which have also piqued my interest; I'm looking at you The Drowning Kind and more recently The Children on the Hill. I'm the kind of reader who sometimes prefers to try an older title before deciding if an author is worth continuing on with, so thanks to my library for making that possible.

The Winter People is a paranormal mystery set in West Hall, Vermont, replete with strange disappearances, ghost sitings, myths and legends surrounding a circle of stones called the Devil's Hand and a ring made of bone.
"They think that there's something out there, in the woods at the edge of town, something evil, something that can't be explained. There have been a lot of stories over the years, folks who've gone missing, people who say they see strange lights or hear crying sounds, tales of a pale figure roaming the woods. When I was a boy, I thought I saw something myself one time: a face peering out at me from a crack between the rocks. But I moved closer and it was gone." He made his eyes dramatically wide and gave a little chuckle. "Have I scared you yet?" Page 132
The story alternates between time periods - 1908 and the present day - and different character perspectives (Ruthie, Katherine, Martin) and also includes diary entries from The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea that add to the layers of suspense. Eventually the author skilfully brings all of the stories together and in doing so, solves the mystery.

The clever plotting reminded me of the likes of Ruth Ware or Laura Purcell, although I already read quite a few accomplished authors in this particular niche.

The Winter People has been classified by many readers as horror, however I found it only mildly creepy, if that. I believe it belongs more fittingly in the category of YA historical fiction and domestic noir with a touch of the paranormal and supernatural and it was a good choice for the October / Halloween reading schedule.

The Drowning Kind was published in 2021, so based on previous trends, I'll probably get to it in 2029! Have you read any books by this prolific author?

My Rating:

25 November 2022

Review: Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory is the third book in the Fairmile series that began in 2019 with Tidelands (Book 1) and follows straight on after the events in Dark Tides (Book 2). This instalment in the historical fiction series begins in spring 1685 and takes us through to summer in 1689. So much happens in this generational family saga that it's hard to believe the plot takes place in just 4 years, but this encompasses the disquiet around the religious beliefs and practices of King James II, the unrest around monarchy and parliament and of course, the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

Philippa Gregory has a talent for showing how the politics and living conditions of the day affected everyone from the Queen right down to the every man, or ferryman as the case may be. A sub plot in the book took a few characters to Barbados this time and introduced the reader to the atrocious conditions of the slave trade and sugar harvesting industry. In Dark Tides we followed Ned to New England and the two contrasting settings didn't strike the right chord for me. This time however, I was equally entertained by the goings on in Barbados as I was for the happenings back in England, and largely, I think that was down to the character of Rowan.

In Dawnlands we catch up with the same main characters in the family, and continue to follow them through their work lives, personal lives, loves, losses and changes in favour. This allows for deep character development and I enjoyed the introduction of a different sort of love one character has for another:
"No! Never. He loves her as a man loves a woman, as a young man loves a young woman, and that's good and right for him. But I love her as if she were a star in the sky. I love her as if she were the wind blowing over the water. I don't need to own her, I just want her to be in the sky, moving over the deep, I just want her to shine." Page 377
Lady Livia Avery is still a force in their lives and a thorn in their side. A manipulative woman and a terrific villain in the series, here a character tries to deliver a warning about her:
"I promised myself I'd never look back. I advised you to do the same. She's like laudanum: at first it's wholly beneficial, then you can't imagine your health without it's support, and you want more and more." Page 92
I enjoyed Gregory's take on the warming pan incident surrounding the birth of James Edward Francis Stuart to Queen Mary in 1688, although it could prove controversial for some readers. What was certain, is that the Royal couple needed a male heir, and it's clear in the following passage that the Court was equally desperate for her to conceive:
"There'd better be nothing in this that is dangerous," Livia warned her bluntly. "If she gets ill then I will be in terrible trouble, but you're a dead woman." "Nothing but thyme to boil in sweet wine. She should take honey and pepper every day, and she should eat hare and venison, male meat, the pizzle and the parts. Can you order that for her?" "Of course I can," Livia said. "She's the Queen of England. I can get almost anything in the world but a son in the cradle!" Page 261
Dawnlands is just as entertaining as Tidelands and the machinations of Lady Avery are increasingly manipulative and self-serving and just as hard to deal with for the characters as they are for the reader. The author has created a terrific villain in the series and I can't wait to see what plans she has in store for this social climbing, conniving woman.

While I haven't heard of a fourth book in the Fairmile series, I have no reason to believe there won't be one. The characters are continuing to eke out their various livings as best they can, with some striving to improve their station in life while others remain motivated to pursue political justice or concentrate on their individual or family legacy. 

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory is highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and best read as part of a series.

My Rating:

18 November 2022

Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher is set on the Mornington Peninsula an hour out of Melbourne, and our protagonist Charlie Deravin is staying at his family's holiday house while on suspension. Charlie is a cop and he plans to spend his time in disgrace digging into the disappearance of his mother twenty years earlier. His Dad is a retired cop, but despite having friends on the force, Charlie's mother's disappearance - and presumed murder - has never been solved.

This is the second novel I've read this year set on the Mornington Peninsula, (you can read my review of Hydra by Adriane Howell) and the third book set in Victoria (see my review of The Carnival is Over by Greg Woodland) and I think I'm ready for a change.

I'm not sure whether it's the over familiar Australian setting or the police procedurals or Aussie crime in general, but I'm starting to find some of them a little 'samey'. I remember getting this - legitimate reading related concern - after consuming one too many historical fiction novels set during WWII. So much Aussie talent has burst forth in this genre in the last 3 years, that we readers really have been spoiled for choice. For me, I think it's time to reduce my reading a little in this particular Australian crime niche and focus more on the genres supplying 5 star reads more readily.

The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher is well written and populated by interesting and relatable characters. The plot was engaging and I didn't guess the whodunnit, which is always nice. This is my first time reading anything by this prolific author, but The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher will appeal to fans of Australian crime fiction, including authors like Sarah Bailey, Sarah Barrie, James Delargy, Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, Greg Woodland and Christian White.

My Rating:

10 November 2022

Review: The Journey by James Norbury

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury book cover

* Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House *

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon is a charming book written and illustrated by the talented artist James Norbury. It's the sequel to the international bestseller Big Panda and Tiny Dragon published in 2021, and while I've only read a sample from that book (freely available on the publisher's website), I was easily able to slide in with the characters as they embarked on their journey without the feeling I'd missed an important backstory.

A seemingly simple tale, our two protagonists, Big Panda and Tiny Dragon - delightfully depicted on the cover - embark on an adventure together, but things don't go to plan. As they encounter set backs and face difficult and challenging situations, Big Panda shares his wisdom with Tiny Dragon and the attentive reader:
'Problems should not stop us,' said Big Panda. 'They are simply nature's way of letting us know we need to explore a different path.' Page 22
The Journey is about so many things, including overcoming obstacles, generating hope and seeking happiness wherever we are. Achieving spiritual fulfilment, facing fear and adversity, seeing opportunities in setbacks, and having the courage to embrace change are also key elements of the tale. Other themes included gratitude, acceptance, resilience, mindfulness and above all, friendship.

At times, I did find myself wondering whether the author was trying to cram too many reflections and lessons into the book, with Big Panda seeming to espouse elements of Buddhist philosophy on one page and Hallmark sentiments on another.

While the book overall is a warm, feel-good read, sometimes the dialogue or mini life lessons felt contrived:
'But if making the change was easy, it probably wouldn't make very much difference. Great change requires great effort.' Pages 52-53
Big Panda is the Mr Miyagi of the book, full of wisdom, with Tiny Dragon eager to learn from his experience. Perhaps it's just me, but characters like Big Panda or Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, are very appealing. Maybe it's something to do with their size and majesty and the effectiveness of the writing, but it makes me want to sit at the feet of Aslan or Big Panda and ask my own questions off script. I wonder what they would say...
'This raft is a little like us,' said Big Panda. 'Where it's been doesn't have to determine where it's going.' Page 60
It's not just Big Panda who always knows what to do, Tiny Dragon also has some revelations to share towards the end of their journey:
'I still feel some sadness at the loss of my friends, my home and, of course, my tea set, but I think maybe I am learning to be more accepting of things.' Page 141
I think you'll agree we can all try harder to be more accepting of things. I know I can, and it's a constant battle of self improvement for most of us as we try to 'do better' each day.

The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury will appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds who will each find something different to celebrate within the pages. Young readers who have faced recent adversity in the floods, will especially relate to the plight of Tiny Dragon; who reminded me a little of Pickett, Newt Scamander's little pet in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Beautifully presented in a hardback edition with gold foiling and silk bookmark ribbon, The Journey: Big Panda and Tiny Dragon by James Norbury will make a heartwarming gift at Christmas.

My Rating:

07 November 2022

Review: Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items by J.W. Ocker book cover

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items by J.W. Ocker was a mildly entertaining and interesting book, the kind of which is soon forgotten, but enjoyed while it lasted. The author is clear at the start of the book that he doesn't intend to cover hauntings, whether they be haunted locations or haunted objects, which I thought was fair enough.

The book is perfect for the audiobook format and is divided into categories, with each object given its own chapter. Each object is covered in a brief 5-8 minutes on audiobook, or a few pages in print format.

In the chapter entitled Cursed Under Glass, we learn about the infamous Hope Diamond and Otzi the Iceman, whose mummified remains were discovered more than 5,000 years after his death.

I enjoyed learning about rune stones in Cursed in the Graveyard, which only served to reinforce my thoughts on disturbing tombs or burial sites for purposes of research or grave-robbing.

Cursed in the Attic introduced me to the case of The Crying Boy Paintings - which I'd somehow never read about - The Baleroy Chair of Death and The Basano Vase.

In the chapter entitled Cursed in Stone, one of the topics was The Amber Room and I recall interviewing author William F. Brown about it back in 2012 as well as doing a few hours of Googling on the topic. In fact, this entire book elicits frequent Googling as the reader is inspired to look at the physical object being described and read a little further than Ocker's offerings.

The Business of Cursed Objects chapter included Annabelle the Doll and the Warren Collection, and all manner of haunted and travelling museums. The Curse in the Machine included James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder and The Prague Orloj (a magnificent medieval astronomical clock in Prague) among other items of interest including chain emails, which I thought was a bit of a stretch.

In his chapter Why Aren't These Objects Cursed, the author makes a good point when wondering why objects like the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull and the Skin Book of James Allen don't have a reputation for being cursed.

Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker was easy to digest with each cursed artefact covered in a short chapter, including information on where the item is (if the location is known) and how many deaths have been attributed to it.

Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker was akin to stumbling upon a random documentary while channel surfing and being sucked right in. It's only when I surfaced at the end of the book that I felt as though that might have been a waste of time, given I'd done most of the research myself in all that Googling. At the time however, I was happy for the bite size curse snacks delivered up by Ocker.

Published in 2020, Cursed Objects by J.W. Ocker is a light read recommended for those interested in history, social history, archaeology, the paranormal and of course curses. Even if you're a skeptic, there are plenty of facts, geography and history to sink your teeth into and some ripper stories.

I'm interested to know if you believe in curses, bad juju or karmic consequences, so let me know in the comments below.

My Rating:

03 November 2022

Review: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott book cover

* Copy courtesy of Text Publishing *

Reading Limberlost by Robbie Arnott was an ethereal experience. Inspired by the real life experiences of the author's Grandfather, Robbie Arnott has attempted to bring his Grandfather's stories of growing up on an apple orchard in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania to life.

Arnott's Grandfather sadly passed away last year at the age of 92, and while he asked his grandson not to include any 'magical realism stuff', it's heartbreaking to know he'll never see himself on the page as Ned in Limberlost. I think he would have been mightily proud of his talented Grandson.

Ned lives on a farm in Tasmania helping his Dad and his sister, while his two brothers are fighting in the war overseas. Ned hunts rabbits and sells their skins for cash and is saving up for something to make his brothers proud when they return.

It sounds like a simple plot or perhaps a simple living, but the novel is bursting with life and emotion. While the dialogue between the characters is spare, the nature writing is evocative and the Australian landscape and bushland is immediately recognisable. Like his father, Ned is quiet and reserved but his mind is busy with thoughts, some of which surprised me.

Here's an example of the descriptive nature writing and Ned's observations and deep thinking from mid-way through the book:
"He had never worked closely with wood before. If he'd thought of it as having a smell at all, it had been as the broad scent of the forest: the pungency of rotting vegetation, the clearing menthol of eucalypt, the off-sweet tang of wild blossoms, the dankness of mud, the freshness of rain, the rot of a dead wallaby, the chalky minerality of broken rock. The odours of trees belonged to their leaves and flowers; he'd assumed timber would be mute. He wondered at his wrongness, as the wood spice filled his lungs, sank into his blood.
The sight and smell. He felt tricked, drunk. He hadn't known the world could do things like this to him." Page 118
The writing is so visceral and I now have a desire to find out what Huon pine smells like. Any suggestions on how a city dweller might go about achieving that without a trip to Tasmania?

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott made my Top 5 Books of 2020 list, however I think it's fair to say Limberlost is a completely different kettle of fish. Limberlost is inspired by a personal story with a tangible past, rooted in family and history and without any magical realism. While the quoll in Limberlost certainly felt otherworldly in many ways, there were no magical creatures or fable re-tellings to enchant the reader here.

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott is a quiet and unassuming book, best suited to a patient reader willing to make space to absorb and appreciate the prose of Ned's personal story. If you're not sure if this is for you or not, you can access a free preview of the book here.

My Rating: