Category Archives: General Fiction

The Midnight Library

Speculative fiction novel about life after death

Content warning: suicide ideation, suicide completion, mental health, self-harm

A couple of people had recommended this book to me, and when I saw it was available as an audiobook and less than 9 hours long (and therefore within my attention span), I decided to try it out. I was a little bit skeptical because the title and premise reminded me a lot of Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent graphic novel “The Night Bookmobile“. However, without examining it too closely, I chose it as my next running book.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan. The cover has a building in the centre that appears to be made of paper coloured white on the outside, and vague rainbow on the inside. The building is set against a night sky filled with stars, and there is a silhouette of a white cat to the left. There is text that says “One library. Infinite lives.”

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig and narrated by Carey Mulligan is a speculative fiction novel about a woman in her 30s called Nora whose life is falling apart. She’s lonely, she’s just lost her job and her cat has died. All her family are either dead or estranged. All her dreams of success have fallen by the wayside, and she can no longer think of any reasons to live and just wants the pain to end. However, after Nora completes suicide, she finds that things have not, in fact, ended. Instead, she has arrived in an enormous library full of books of all the alternate lives she could have had. Forced to closely examine all of her biggest regrets, are these other lives really better than the life she has chosen to leave behind?

Coincidentally, this is the third relatively new-release book I have read recently that uses speculative fiction to explore what happens after you die. Here is the first and here is the second, and I think this one is probably my favourite of them. This is a compelling book that gives an honest account of mental health, depression and the things that can lead to someone thinking about suicide. Haig skilfully and realistically conjures Nora’s alternative lives; and even her lives of dazzling success, wild adventure and complete contentment are grounded in the realm of possibility.

One of the things I liked the most about this book is how Nora’s mental health struggles were subtly woven into each possible life: emerging in different ways and requiring different treatment but nevertheless one of the constants. Haig uses trauma and grief to highlight how mental health can suddenly deteriorate, and that seeking help when you need it is crucial. While overall uplifting, this book is at no point overly saccharine or unrealistic about recovering from mental illness. Haig is honest with the readers about the work it takes to live with and live through depression. However, I liked that he took the time to write about the small positive ways you impact the world around you and that “success” comes in many forms. Mulligan was an excellent narrator and made Nora relatable and believable. I was a bit shocked however to learn that not everyone pronounces the word lichen the same!

While I enjoyed this book, there were a few points of logic that didn’t quite make sense to me. The first was in relation to the other Noras whose lives Nora stepped into. Via another character, Haig explains that the other Nora is simply absent and then returns with amnesia about what happened. Assuming both Noras are equally real, I think that the ethics of simply erasing someone temporarily, even if it’s another iteration of yourself, weren’t really adequately examined. I thought that Haig could have perhaps suggested something else instead, such as that the replaced Nora went to her own midnight library. I also felt that Haig several times suggested that Nora’s decision to pursue a particular career to extreme success necessarily had a negative impact on someone in her life, like a price that had to be paid, and I wasn’t sure that always had to be the case. I could nit-pick a few other examples, but I doubt anyone else is interested in quantum ethics and the experience of time and memories in a fictional scenario.

A well-written book with well-executed concept, it definitely leaves you thinking and gives you some great conversation starters to ask your friends.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Fantasy, General Fiction

Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way have unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction

Nine Perfect Strangers

Low-key thriller novel about an unconventional health retreat

Content warning: suicide, mental health

I received a copy of this book ages ago courtesy of Harry Hartog. I have been on a real adaptation kick recently so when I heard that a TV adaptation was being released, and given my very real lockdown attempt to finally get on top of my to-read shelf, I was inspired to finally read it.

Image is of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty. The paperback book is sitting on a blue and silver yoga mat between a Tibetan singing bowl and a small milk jar with a sprig of wattle blossom. The cover is white with 9 differently coloured stones balanced on top of one another, and has the additional text that says “Can a health retreat really change your life forever?”

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty is a low key thriller novel about 9 people who sign up for a wellness retreat at a place called Tranquillum House on a property in rural Australia. A bestselling novelist, a couple with relationship issues, parents and their adult child, a mother, a lawyer and a cynical man everyone seems to recognise each find themselves hoping to change their lives for the better. The charismatic Masha, director of the program and supported by her staff Yao and Delilah, is eager to lead each person on a personalised 10-day journey of wellness and healing towards a new life. However, after the first few days it becomes apparent that Masha’s methods are unorthodox, illegal and potentially deadly.

This was a very readable book with Moriarty’s signature character-driven style. The book changed focus from character to character, but was primarily told from Frances the writer’s perspective who was particularly endearing. Moriarty really teased out each character’s personality and traumas, and even though his family’s story was one of the more challenging ones, I really enjoyed the character of Napoleon and how Moriarty unpacked his nerdy cheeriness to expose the pain beneath. I also thought Ben and Jessica had a really interesting dynamic, and Moriarty explores how a drastic change in life circumstances can impact a relationship and different perspectives on cosmetic surgery. I thought she really captured the spirit of the wellness tourism industry with just the right amount of foreboding to keep things interesting. I really felt that Moriarty must have spent quite a bit of time researching, because the way she wrote about certain elements of the book was very realistic. The tension between the projected confidence about finding the answers to a fulfilling life and the self-doubt that affects us all was done really well, and Masha’s hubris was something to behold.

As readable and amusing as it is, this book is a little bit extra and there were a few parts where the drama felt a little excessive. While I really enjoyed Moriarty’s descriptions of Tranquillum House, there was maybe a little too much celebration of the colonial project and the house’s convict history and no recognition of traditional owners of the land. Seeing the modern timber and glass building in the (American) adaptation of the book, I felt that perhaps it was the better setting. The ending was maybe a little too drawn out and neat, but in these times far be it for me to begrudge a happy ending.

A spirited and enjoyable read with a good dose of histrionics and a very tidy resolution. While the TV series is maybe a little too Americanised and a little melodramatic, so far it seems well-cast and fun enough to watch.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Under Your Wings / The Majesties

Dark mystery about a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family

Content warning: family violence, racial violence

When I first heard about this book, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years when I was very young, and another year for university, but have not read nearly as much fiction by Indonesian authors or set in Indonesia as I would like. I was already familiar with this author from her translation work, and after a bit of trouble finding a physical copy of the book (it has been republished in America under a different title), I found out that it was available as an audiobook. I was training for a run with one of my dogs (that we ended up not being able to go to anyway), and it was the perfect length and topic for my next listen.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “Under Your Wings” by Tiffany Tsao. The cover has a picture of a woman in profile with her hair up in a bun against a plain white background. She is in black and white with a red butterfly covering her eyes. The cover has the words “Blood is thicker than water, but poison trumps all” in red.

“Under Your Wings” (published in the USA as “The Majesties”) by Tiffany Tsao and narrated by Nancy Wu is a mystery novel about a young woman called Gwendolyn Sulinado who is the sole survivor of a mass murder. As she lies in hospital on the brink of death, she reflects on her life and upbringing and tries to piece together what caused her twin sister Estella to poison her entire wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family.

This was a very enjoyable book for me and had lots of elements to hook me and keep me hooked. I have been lucky enough to attend some enormous Chinese weddings in South-East Asia and have experienced first hand some of the opulence that comes along with them, and I loved Tsao’s casual yet compelling descriptions of the wealth enjoyed by Gwendolyn’s family. While at university, I wrote a paper on the racism experienced by Chinese-Indonesians, particularly during the May 1998 riots, and I thought Tsao’s novel explored this historic racial tension from a unique and insightful point of view. Tsao acknowledges the privilege enjoyed by the Sulinados and other families in similar positions, and the necessary political deals and exploitation that leads to such extreme wealth. Tsao also acknowledges the tension between pribumi and Chinese-Indonesians goes two ways as discovered by Gwendolyn when exploring her family’s history.

Tsao also examines the issue of intermarriage between powerful families and how money, prestige and reputation are sometimes put before the safety and wellbeing of individual family members. One of my favourite parts of the book, however, was reading about Gwendolyn’s work mixing genetic engineering (something I love to read about), her passion for entomology and fashion to create beautiful dynamic garments. Wu was a perfect narrator for this story and her ear for accents captured the nuance of Chinese-Indonesians not only of different genders and ages, but who had studied in Australia as compared to the USA.

I think probably the only thing that I wasn’t completely sure about was the twist at the end. Without giving anything away and not to say that the ending didn’t fit the narrative, I felt that the story was already so delicate and complex, I didn’t think that it needed one more final reveal to make its point.

A beautifully written and beautifully narrated book that had me from the get-go.

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Shelter

Outback thriller about secrets and lies

Content warning: family violence, child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I actually read some of this author’s work when I was a teen and particularly enjoyed her biopunk novels, though this one is a significantly different genre.

Text Publishing — Shelter, book by Catherine Jinks
Image is of a digital book cover of “Shelter” by Catherine Jinks. The cover is of a silhouette of a small house and a dead tree in a paddock at either sunrise or sunset. There are lights turned on and there is fog in the background.

“Shelter” by Catherine Jinks is a thriller novel set outside a small country town in rural Australia. Meg is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a small property. A survivor of family violence herself, she agrees to take in a young woman called Nerine and her two small children and let them hide out for a while. Despite the secrecy, remoteness and lack of reception, Nerine is adamant that her violent ex while find a way to track them down. As more and more strange things happen, Meg begins to wonder if it is her own ex-husband they should be worried about and how safe her hideaway really is.

This is a tense read and Jinks really demonstrates her prowess at setting pace and a sense of place. Meg is a believable character who is at once capable and independent yet ultimately very vulnerable. The scars left on her psyche by her ex-husband grow more and more evident as the pressure in the book continues, and I felt that Jinks really captured the long-term harm that being in an abusive relationship can have on you and how insidious emotional abuse in particular can be. Throughout this book, Meg second-guesses herself and her hesitation and lack of faith in herself ultimately impacts the way other people treat her and leaves her open to further exploitation. Heartbreakingly, I felt that Jinks wrote about how abusive families can impact children very authentically and the scenes with Ana were particularly compelling and upsetting.

However, this is not a feel good story and ultimately the ending felt very unsatisfactory. I appreciate the point I believe Jinks was trying to make about the justice system and how an emotional abuser can continue to indirectly cause you harm long after the relationship has ended. However, as the climax of the books unfolds and the impact of what happened becomes clear, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief. I know that Jinks has likely been inspired by (slight spoiler if you click through) this case, but I think that the Epilogue just felt a bit off to me. As I finished the book, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure Meg got a fair shake of the stick. Perhaps that was Jinks’ intention.

A complex, challenging and deeply uncomfortable novel that explores emotional abuse from a fresh and disturbing perspective.

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The One Dollar Horse

Young adult pony fiction about rescuing a horse to become a champion

Content warning: racial stereotypes, slurs

When I was young, I was an avid pony fiction fan and have even written about how it is at heart a feminist genre of books. So when I saw this book at the Lifeline Book Fair with fuchsia page edges, gold lettering and a pretty grey horse on the cover, of course I bought it. I realised despite this blog’s namesake and my shelves being full of them, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges and this one caught my eye.

Image is of “The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John. The paperback book is resting on a green ribbon with gold fringe and lettering that says “Finalist” next to a small horseshoe. The book has pick page edges and a grey horse on the cover.

“The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John is a horse fiction novel about a teenage girl called Casey Blue who lives in East London. With her single father recently out of prison, Casey does not have many resources to support her pie in the sky dream: winning the Badminton Horse Trials. However the closest Casey can get right now is volunteering at a local riding school and riding one of the ponies after all the students have finished. However when she comes across an emaciated and wild-eyed horse on his way to the knackery, her split-second decision to save him changes everything.

This is a classic horse story of overcoming adversity, finding a pony and achieving greatness. In some ways, St John had an interesting premise: the impact of incarceration on a family. I felt that this aspect of the story was handled quite sensitively and St John explores how discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record can haunt someone, even after they have done their time. I thought that Storm Warning’s storyline was strong, and the trauma he experienced takes a long time to heal from. A high-spirited horse with physical and psychological damage is a big challenge, and I really enjoyed the patience and creativity Casey used to build trust and win him over.

However, there were quite a few flaws in this book that I was not able to overlook. First of all was the sheer number of dei ex machina. Nobody can fault Casey’s passion and drive, but ultimately, despite her lack of experience and resources, things just work out for her. She ultimately receives a trainer, accommodation, stabling, farrier services, tack, clothing and money all through luck and generosity of others. I certainly appreciate that many of the riders Casey is up against come from extremely privileged backgrounds with all the money and support in the world, and that eventing is an incredibly expensive sport. I’m not too proud to admit that perhaps some of this is envy, and that any teen girl with a pony wishes that everyone would drop everything and throw money and time at them to fulfil their dreams of competing. However, there were just too many things that fell into Casey’s lap, as much as I appreciated that she’d had a tough time and deserved a bit of luck.

However the real issue I had with this book was the inadvertent racism. One of the volunteers at the riding school is of Chinese heritage, and St John refers to her as “the Chinese girl” Jin multiple times (instead, of course, just by her name Jin), and her sole role in the book is to spend her time assisting Casey and facilitating her uncle dressed in “black martial arts pyjamas with a dragon embroidered on the pocket” to administer acupuncture, whose speech St John writes in an exaggerated “Chinese” accent. I’m sure you don’t need my assistance to identify the stereotypes. She also describes a character as “g*psy dark” and is disparaging towards characters who are overweight. Despite being quite understanding of Casey’s situation, St John writes in rather a sneering, snobby tone about the other people who live in her apartment block and who she goes to school with. You would think, given her sympathy for Casey’s background, she would be more sympathetic towards people of similar backgrounds but sadly no. Even poor Mrs Smith cops it a bit being described at the tender age of 62 as an “older woman”.

While I enjoyed the fantasy of rescuing a horse to build an unshakable bond, and the complexity added by Casey’s father’s challenging background, ultimately I had to suspend disbelief just a little too often and the effect was frequently interrupted by St John’s likely unconscious but nevertheless pervasive sense of superiority.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

The White Tiger

Novel about ambition and inequality set in India

Content warning: graphic death

This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.

Image is of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The paperback book is sitting in front of a redbrick wall next to a crystal tumbler and a small bottle of rum. Above the objects embedded into the wall is a small gold figure of the Hindu god Ganesh. The cover is white with large stylised writing in black and red and letter Is dotted with orange tiger eyes, with an image of an orange car striped liked a tiger.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.

This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.

However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.

Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.

A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.

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Emma

Classic Jane Austen romance novel

Content warning: child grooming

I have read some, but not all, of Austen. I saw the trailer for this adaptation that came out last year and it looked fun. I can’t remember exactly when but I picked up a copy of the book from the Lifeline Book Fair, it was sitting on my shelf, and since I like to read books before I watch the movie, I thought I’d better get to it.

Image is of “Emma” by Jane Austen. The paperback book is resting in the corner of a wicker basket that also has a green teapot, scones, a purple and white napkin, a purple Jane Austen’s House Museum bookmark, a bundle of lavender and a small bowl of plum jam.

“Emma” by Jane Austen is a romance novel whose eponymous heroine Miss Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy young woman who lives with her eccentric hypochondriac father in a large home in the bustling English village of Highbury. With her mother dead and her sister married and moved out, when Emma’s old governess Miss Taylor marries as well, Emma finds herself the undisputed mistress of the house and in need of entertainment. Buoyed by the success of matchmaking Miss Taylor with the eminently suitable Mr Weston, Emma turns her sights to other potential matches. She befriends a pretty young girl of unknown parentage and decides to orchestrate a match with the energetic vicar Mr Elton. Ignoring the warnings of family friend Mr Knightly, the older brother of her sister’s husband, Emma’s plans begin to go awry when it becomes quite clear that people, including herself, will follow their own hearts.

This is a clever novel with a likeable protagonist who is as flawed and human as she is beautiful and wealthy. Emma’s unique position as the mistress of Hartfield with a father who is reluctant go out or get involved in anything affords her a considerable amount of freedom compared to other women during the same era. I really liked how Austen tempered Emma by making her good at piano yet envious of her sometime rival Jane, and mostly kind but a little cruel towards Jane’s warm-hearted but a little overbearing aunt Miss Bates. Emma undergoes significant character development and there are some fun twists in the story.

This book was written just over 200 years ago, so it is unsurprising that there are some elements that don’t really stack up against today’s standards. This may be a slight spoiler but I think the most obvious example of this is the age difference between Emma and her ultimate love interest. The suggestion that he has been waiting since she was a young girl to grow up sufficiently did have a bit of a grooming vibe to it even if nothing untoward happens. Even though some of Emma’s views about class are tested by the other characters, and there is some sympathy for characters who have fallen somewhat in station, this is ultimately a story about a stratified society and people marrying appropriately for their class.

However, I think probably the most difficult thing about this book is that it is, unfortunately, quite a slow story. The romance is a very quiet burn, the characters aren’t all that colourful and it was a bit of a slog in the end. I quite enjoyed the adaptation because it brought a bit of colour and drama to the story, even though it too was a little slow.

An interesting and character-driven novel that admittedly took a bit of work to get through.

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The Dangers of Truffle Hunting

Saucy romance about food, wine and photography

Content warning: sex scenes

I have had this ARC sitting on my to-read shelf since I got it from Harry Hartog…gosh, about 5 years ago? I’m making a big effort to get through my reading backlog, and because of the title, I always felt like this was the right book to read in winter.

Image is of an advance reading copy of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend. The paperback book is standing upright between a champagne bottle and a bowl of cake mixture on a kitchen bench. A shirtless man stands behind it with a flour handprint on him. There are cloves scattered around, a red apple cut in half and two cinnamon sticks.

“The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend is a romance novel about Kit, a young woman who has just secured a job as a food photographer for a highly regarded lifestyle magazine with a slick and minimalist style. Kit is engaged to successful if somewhat uptight furniture designer and is about to start planning a big wedding at her family’s vineyard. However, when she visits her family to hear about her father’s new venture, she meets the farmhand Raph and is inspired to start taking much more creative, suggestive photographs. As the tension between her own creativity and desire begins to clash against the path that her work, her fiancé and even her own mother have set out for her, Kit must decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.

This is a fun and very readable romp that I absolutely whipped through. The perfect blend of idyll and serendipity with just the right amount of drama, I was up late at night flipping pages to get to that ending. Overend writes about food with the same sensuality that is drawn from Kit. This book is full of cozy and evocative scenes choosing wines in cellars, making pastry and even participating in cooking classes in France. Although not wildly surprising, there was a good twist later in the story to keep things interesting. Overend writes eroticism well and there are plenty of creative scenes to warm readers up on cold winter nights.

It probably should be said that this book is pure romantic fantasy, so even though it is written with realism in mind, there are enough coincidences, privileges and special opportunities that you’ll have to suspend some considerable disbelief. There are also a couple of scenes that felt a little superfluous. Also, I know it was the point of the book but Kit’s fiancé was so unbelievably boring, every scene with him in it made my eyes roll.

A spicy food-lover’s fantasy with not many truffles but nevertheless a quick and enjoyable to read.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermine’s the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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