The Vanishing Season

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Book Review:  The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen

I used to love creepy books about serial murderers but as I’ve aged and had children, I’ve found they scare me too much to make them regular fare. However, Joanna Schaffhausen is a good friend of a good friend of mine meaning I feel like I know her (even though the limit of our friendship is the occasional comment/reply on one of our mutual friend’s Facebook posts, LOL) and, therefore, I felt obliged to pick up a copy of her debut novel.

For someone who doesn’t read this genre often, The Vanishing Season definitely had its creepy moments. Our heroine, Ellery, was fourteen when she was kidnapped by a serial killer. Now, fourteen years later, she’s working as a police officer in a small town where three people have gone missing in as many years, all around her birthday. Coincidence? She thinks not.

Ellery asks the FBI agent who rescued her all those years ago, Reed, to help her connect the dots and assist her in proving to her superiors that the missing persons have met with foul play.

I enjoyed the police procedural moments of the book. Ellery and Reed going through the evidence, interviewing potential witnesses etc, was a well paced and enjoyable read.  Ellery and Reed went from step to step logically and there was never any noticeable curve balls thrown into the plot that made me roll my eyes.

The use of modern investigation techniques (DNA testing etc) also felt just right. As was the number of red herrings to put you off the scent of the actual guilty party.

There’s nothing I hate more than info dumps regarding the backgrounds of characters and Schaffhausen avoided this trap and instead presented the details of Ellery and Reed’s past seamlessly. Funnily enough, Ellery’s ordeal at the hands of the serial killer didn’t particularly freak me out. What did upset me greatly was Ellery’s life when she returned from the clutches of the serial killer. I’ll just say I wouldn’t nominate Ellery’s mother for any Mother of the Year contests.

In fact, Ellery’s return from being kidnapped did give me flashbacks to The Way Back by Kylie Ladd which I read very recently. That book also had a 14 year old victim struggling to cope after she returned to her family. In this case, Schaffhausen does give Ellery’s PTSD a more dramatic edge but this is in keeping with the style needed for a serial killer based thriller.

I must mention Ellery and Reed’s relationship also. Their history created a bond between them which Schaffhausen portrays perfectly. I think the balance of romantic love versus platonic love was exactly right for this installment.

There’s no huge Gone Girl twist in the end of the book but there is enough tension in the climactic scenes to make you keep turning pages until you reach the end.

The book gets a friend of a friend’s 5 out of 5 rating.  I would have still highly recommended it even without this connection, however.  My only whine would be that the book didn’t seem very long.  This obviously means I’m looking forward to the next book.

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The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match

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Book Review:  The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match (Emmeline Truelove #.5) by Juliana Gray

This is a novella prequel of the two Emmeline Truelove books, both of which I’ve read. (I expect there also should be another published one day, considering their endings.)

I checked the dates, and this was published a few months before the Emmeline book #1 A Most Extraordinary Pursuit. Therefore, this book should give you a taste of that book and make you want to read it. Well… It does but… (You know I love my buts.)

First, it does make you want to read the subsequent novels. It’s a perfect introduction to a series. For a novella, it’s a good size book which doesn’t leave you feeling cheated due to its brevity (as so many novellas tend to do, in my opinion). Its characters and plot are well rounded and satisfying.

Our heroine, Penelope, is a joy. It’s so nice to have a mature character in a romance novel. Yes, American Penelope is around 50! Woo-hoo! For once I don’t have to get on my bandwagon about characters being too young.

The book is set in the late 19th century meaning when Penelope’s husband loses all their money before his death, she is forced to act as a chaperone to a relative, Ruby Morrison. The Morrisons decide to go on a transatlantic voyage as Mrs Morrison has taken it into her head that Ruby should marry one of the other passengers — the rich and powerful Duke of Olympia. No one imagines that the Duke might look at an ‘old’ woman like Penelope!

Of course it’s no spoiler to say that the Duke does just that. Being 70, however, means that it’s much more appropriate than if he was attracted to Ruby and vice-versa.

Besides the romance, there is also a hint of mystery. I won’t spoil too much but there is a little bit of spy business going on and Gray borrows heavily from some older classics for these details whilst still making everything fun and enjoyable.

Now, to the part where the book does fall short — as a taste of things to come. Seriously, this book in no way represents the two other books in the series. Penelope and the Duke feature very briefly in those books and if you picked A Most Extraordinary Pursuit up because you’d fallen in love with these two, you’ll be extremely disappointed.

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, in fact, falls into a whole different genre. Actually, it’s a genre all of its own but, the most likely genre I’d suggest is sci-fi. This book had no hints — at all — of the science fiction aspect to come in the series. If I’d read this first, I’d have picked up A Most Extraordinary Pursuit thinking I was going to read a romance with a hint of mystery. (Actually, now that I think about it, I did pick up that book thinking that…)

Now, in another plot twist, after reading this and checking Goodreads, I discover that the Duke also features in two other series by Gray called Princesses in Hiding and Moonlight. So Gray is not only the most frustrating author I’ve read lately, she also is the most talented when it comes to sucking me into reading more of her books. Yes, instead of crossing a book series off my TBR list, I’ve managed to add another two to it. Well done, Juliana Gray, well done.

4 out of 5 on my novella scale.

The Way Back

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Book Review:  The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

This book wasn’t really what I was expecting. I thought The Way Back would be a mystery cum physiological thriller, perhaps police procedural. Instead I got to read the dramatic story of a typical Australian family coping with an unbearably heartbreaking situation. This wasn’t a disappointment, I must point out.

The book is presented in three parts: Before, During, and After. ‘Before’ introduces us to an ordinary Aussie family. Mum and dad, Rachel and Matt, big brother, Dan, and little sister, Charlie. Mum is the chief breadwinner, working in her high powered position that doesn’t leave enough time to spend with her family; Dad often does the housework in the day before working stressful night shifts as a fireman; Dan has no friends and spends most of his time in his bedroom playing guitar and coping with bouts of depression, and Charlie a chatterbox happy-go-lucky kid who’s trying to make her way through the minefield that is adolescence. Even though Charlie is starting to discover boys, her one true love for now is still horses.

‘During’ shifts the plot along to what happens when Charlie goes off for a ride and only her horse returns. There is no mystery as to where Charlie is or who takes her. We get the entire ordeal from Charlie and her kidnapper’s point of view. Her family, however, does not have this luxury and we get to connect with the overwhelming hopelessness they feel during her disappearance.

The twist in this book, I believe, is that it doesn’t end once Charlie is found. This is, after all, where most books finish. Instead we get to read in just as much detail about what Charlie and her family go through ‘after’ she returns. Out of all the sections, this was the most interesting and poignant, I thought, and it really made the book something a little different and special.

I think my favourite thing about this book is that it felt so real. No character (not even the kidnapper) or plotline seemed over the top. There are quite a few real life crimes mentioned in the book even. For Australians, the familiarity of the Daniel Morcombe case would make comparisons inevitable anyway. And I couldn’t help but be reminded at how strong that family is once again.

The book and its characters feeling so real did mean I shed a tear more than once. Having kids myself around Charlie’s age did not help!

Even though it was all harrowing, I still really enjoyed this book and would definitely read another Kylie Ladd novel.

4 ½ out of 5

Thanks to Allen and Unwin for supplying me with a copy via a Goodreads Giveaway.

PS Someone suggested that this was a book for young adults. Maybe 16 plus if they are the more mature type. I know my 15 year old would never cope with it!

The Mummy Bloggers

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Book Review:  The Mummy Bloggers by Holly Wainwright

I started reading this book with such enthusiasm. After all, a couple of the characters are my age and they mention all types of things I can relate to (even my beloved Thermomix, LOL) but a few chapters in and, to use my internet speak, everything was blah.

The general premise has three bloggers, each quite different despite all specialising in the online parenting arena, vying for a blogging award. The idea that there are such awards sounds insane but, as the book is written by a real life blogger, I assume it’s got some basis in reality — with an obvious addition of some exaggeration. The book pretty much just shows the lengths these three women will go to win the award.

Adding to the plot is the fact that all three bloggers are personally linked. Blogger Elle, the active wear clad perfectionist, is married to Adrian who was married to blogger Abi, the  gluten-free homeschooling hippy, who is now the partner of Grace who is the sister of blogger Leisel, the guilt-ridden working mum.

If it seems a little like a soap opera, it is. In fact, you can throw in Leisel’s ex-junkie hubby, Elle’s mission to avoid her embarrassing white trash family, a crazed knife-wielding stalker/troll and the over-the-top opinions of anti-vaccers to make the book even more like an episode of Melrose Place.

All three main characters were extremely unlikeable. Abi, I guess, was my favourite. Elle was actually too horrible at times to seem real (even though her behaviour was copied from real life people such as Belle Gibson). While reading, she reminded me of a character from a Jackie Collins book. You know, the starlet who sleeps her way to the top only to have her small town crazy relatives threaten her lofty ambitions? Blah.

Overall, I felt the novel was lacking in depth, the writing was too basic, and was relying too much on an one pony trick for its entire length.

Average. 3 out of 5

Thank you Allen and Unwin for my copy.

 

All Clear

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Book Review:  All Clear by Connie Willis (#4 Oxford Time Travel)

After finishing All Clear, my love for Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series has not diminished and in fact I’m sad and depressed that I only have Fire Watch, the short story, remaining. I’d love to demand Willis write another book in the series but as I recently read she took an epic eight years to pen Blackout and All Clear, I don’t see it happening in my near future.

All Clear is a continuation of Blackout (#3 in the series). You have to read Blackout for it to make any sense as it’s not a separate plot/book which you can follow without reading the former. (Blackout and All Clear combined would have edged out War and Peace for length so Willis decided to break up the book into two volumes.) Upon stating that, however, I did feel a slight change in the mood when All Clear began.

All Clear seemed to answer a lot of Blackout’s questions rather quickly. Only, instead of making the reader more calm, Willis managed to add yet another layer of tension with their solutions.

The main premise of both books is that three time travellers, Polly, Michael and Eileen, cannot seem to return to their own time after arriving in England during WW2. In Blackout, the time travellers thought their presence and the ‘net’ (a time travel portal) refusing to open and return to them to 2060 was due to their level of interference during the period. They wonder if, after inadvertently changing minor events, they’d affected the future and Germany and the Nazis might have won the war.

In All Clear, they start to believe that the time travel ‘net’ might be closed in an effort to kill them, and everyone they come into contact with, to prevent a time paradox. Adding to their woes, besides the obvious dangers of the war, is their fast approaching ‘deadlines’ (a deadline is the date the traveller started a different assignment into the past). As in, they can’t be in two places at once and will die if they haven’t returned to their present by this date.

This is about as technical as Willis gets. Her stories aren’t about sci-fi gadgets or explaining the nuts and bolts of how time travel works. They’re about people and love and death and friendship and romance and bravery and sacrifice. The characters in her books are ordinary people. Ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Actually, she said it best: What are Blackout and All Clear about? They’re about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who “did their bit” to save the world from Hitler—Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie—heroes all.

Yes, while Dorothy Sayers is almost another character of To Say Nothing of the Dog (book #2 in the series), Agatha Christie plays a huge part of All Clear. As does Shakespeare and JM Barrie, the latter being used in a long running gag which made me laugh each time it was used. Oh, and the spies working for Operation Fortitude (a military deception by the English to make the Germans think they were attacking at different times and different areas than they were in reality) which features heavily in the book all have names taken from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest — such irony!

Willis seems to weave things like this through her stories so effortlessly. Another thing she does effortlessly is writing huge emotional moments when you least expect it. That is, she has a knack of making you laugh at something right before she punches you in the gut.

Binnie and Alf, two children Eileen is saddled with in Blackout, are perfect examples of this. I adored them both. They are hilarious. And then, suddenly, they do or say something so small and seemingly insignificant, and you’re awash with emotions and tears.

Yes, like in her previous Oxford books, parental love is a huge theme of All Clear. Eileen’s developing bond with the children is probably my favourite part of the book. It’s a storyline that is never forced or cliched or corny. Instead it’s poignant and timed exactly right.

I also adore the relationship between Mr Dunworthy and Colin. This had, of course, began in The Doomsday Book and its continuation feels so organic and right.

As is the romantic love featured in the book. Again, instead of shoving the romance at the reader, Willis presents it so naturally we not only believe in it wholeheartedly, we cheer it on eagerly.

There is also the continuing theme of friendship and loyalty. Other than our main time travellers, we get a plethora of supporting characters who also carry on with the theme. Willis’s characterisation is so superb with all the many and varied minor players she introduces and uses. I could imagine them all so clearly. You also get a huge sense of who loves whom, platonically or otherwise, so easily from the way Willis writes.

Don’t panic though, the book is not a romance in the traditional sense. It has great literary value for its history lessons, if nothing else. (I get so mad that scifi is dismissed by most intellectuals.) I learned more about WW2 from this book than I had from any other platform.

I can’t recommend these books or this series enough.

Obviously this is a 5 out of 5 read.

An Ordinary Girl

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Book Review: An Ordinary Girl by Betty Neels

So, ‘operation find my floor’ is underway. Yes, I have a new project – to read and pass on at least one book per month from the titles which have overflowed from my bookcase and are spilling onto the floor, creating towers beside the bed. My new preference for ebooks means these piles of books are growing at such a rate they are now threatening to trap me in bed. (Okay, this sounds like a good thing but, unfortunately, until I win lotto or write some bestselling book myself, I still need to get up and go to work, at the very least.)

I’ve started with a short book which didn’t demand too much concentration. (That is, one that allowed me to continue to watch the Commonwealth Games at the same time as I read it.)

An Ordinary Girl sticks to Neels’s tried and true formula. Heroine is a plain and sensible girl who is naturally brilliant with children and animals. Hero is a doctor (not Dutch this time though!) who meets h, the Vicar’s daughter, when he and his fiance (aka the evil OW) are caught in a snowstorm. Our couple keep interacting in a series of convenient meetings and other rather ordinary circumstances until H realises h will keep his house much better than the OW.

The heroine is actually probably a bit too unassuming. We get a lot from the Hero’s POV and don’t get enough h scenes to really feel the love and/or sympathy for her sad life which is the usual M&B/HP goal.

I was thoroughly confused as to the time setting of the novel. My copy is saying it was first published in 2001 which is the same year Neels passed away. From the way the characters behave, I’d guess she wrote it much earlier. For example, h’s lack of career is unsettling for modern times. She arranges flowers for the church, changes sheets, washes and pegs out said sheets, babysits and types up her father’s sermons. She’s also considered a spinster who will probably never marry at the ripe old age of 29. Obviously I assumed the book was supposedly set in the 70s or 80s but then there is a sudden reference to using a mobile phone. This does nothing to modernise the rest of the plot and/or characters. The editors would have been better off leaving it as some sort of vintage story.

Neels never has graphic sex and everything stays strictly sweet (or as it’s now often referred – ‘clean’). This makes the book quite restful and stress free actually.

3 out of 5 stars I would have probably given it more if the time setting wasn’t so confusing.

A Place to Remember

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Book Review:  A Place to Remember by Jenn J McLeod

This book had such a great premise but the end product ultimately disappointed me.

It essentially is told in three parts. I struggled with the first part which is pretty much just your standard rural romance. It’s the 1980s and 27 year old Ava goes to work as a cook on a cattle property west of Rockhampton (Queensland, Australia, for those who’ve not heard of it). John is the 20 year old son of the family employing her. Despite their age difference they bond over cooking (baking mostly) and fall in love. Alas, John’s miserable mother and Katie, the young girl next door who’s always imagined she would marry John, team up to spoil the romance. Their opportunity soon comes when John suffers from a medical issue.

I had a hard time connecting with young John. I found him a bit of a bore. Ava’s sad past too left me a little cold. Instead of falling in love with her father, which I assume I was supposed to, I simply found him weak and complicit to his wife’s treatment of their daughter. (To do nothing is to aid and abet.)

The second part of the book started with much more promise. This John, now aged around 50, was more my type of man. He seemed so much stronger and his newfound love of painting suited him and the storyline much more than the cooking thing. Ava, now 58 and in the middle of her own health scare, decides to seek out John under the pretext of him painting her portrait. The whole idea was wonderful but I didn’t think McLeod executed it quite right. Ava and John’s scenes were too rushed. I would have preferred McLeod drag the sitting for the painting out much longer. I really wanted to get a middle aged romance with lots of UST. Instead I got a lot of Ava panicking about her scars and wrinkles and wishing she looked like she did when she was 28.

The third part of the book focuses of the romance between Ava’s daughter, Nina, and John’s son, Blair. Again, we were back to a normal rural romance which unfortunately didn’t pique my interest. (I must add,  the secret surrounding Blair was quite obvious and I guessed it early on.)

I was keen to read the book seeing as it was set in my home state but McLeod’s style is not flowery descriptive prose and I was never really transported into the setting as I should have been. The fact that the characters were driving up and down from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast to Rockhampton (about a seven hour drive) seemed unrealistic and annoyed me greatly also.

There were some good points to the book. Ava is quite the feminist and there is no slut shaming of her, NIna or Katie.

The book is quite long and I struggled because I’m fast learning I dislike rural romance, but if you’re a fan you’ll definitely get your money’s worth with essentially two featured in the book.

I think many people will love this book, but I just wasn’t one of them.

Thanks to the publishers and net-galley for my copy.

3 out of 5