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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Darkskull Hall

Fantasy novel about a noble born girl sent to learn magic

Lockdown in Canberra continues, and I am still making an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf by whatever means necessary. One thing I realised is that I have a lot of fantasy books that, for some reason or another, I just have never gotten around to reading. I picked up this book when the author held a fantastic fantasy trivia night about 3 years ago that my fantasy book club went along to and absolutely dominated. In addition to winning a prize, I bought a copy of the first book in the author’s series and had it signed.

Image is of “Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy. The paperback book is in shadows and has a “staff” to the right illuminated with blue/green light at the top and warm “fire” light coming from the left. The cover is black with a picture of a young white woman with long brown hair who is holding green light in her hand with flames to the left.

“Darkskull Hall” by Lisa Cassidy is the first novel in the fantasy series “The Mage Chronicles”. The story is about a 16 year old called Alyx who is of noble blood and who lives a privileged, carefree life. All she thinks about is riding her pony and the budding romance with her oldest friend. However, her idyllic life comes to a grinding halt when she is told that she is the daughter of a mage and must go study across her nation’s border at a place called Darkskull Hall. The journey through contested territory is perilous, and some at Darkskull Hall even more so. Without any clear magic ability, knowledge of her true history or the protection of her family, Alyx must forge new friendships and find the courage to survive.

This is a readable book and Cassidy captures the voice of a teenage girl struggling with the abrupt transition from her previously pampered life. I enjoyed the gradual character development and while it is incremental, Cassidy does a good job of showing how the experience of Darkskull Hall, and loss of trust as a result, irreparably changes who Alyx is as a person. One thing that was incredibly refreshing was that Cassidy actually clearly knows a thing or two about horses, unlike some other fantasy novels I’ve read recently.

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking example of the genre, and plenty of the hallmarks of a typical fantasy novel were there: magic school, yet-to-be-discovered magical talent, war with neighbouring country, irritatingly and unnecessarily vague teacher. Reading this, I had the sense that despite the diversity of the characters, the world is quite small and we don’t get much sense of different languages, cultures and geographies. I am sure the world gets explored more in later books.

I wasn’t sure after reading this book whether I would read the next in the series, but I was pleasantly surprised that it really got under my skin. This is, at heart, a character-driven book and I kept finding myself thinking about them after the book was finished.

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Under the Whispering Door

Queer romance novel about life, death and what lies between

Content warning: death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Under the Whispering Door” by TJ Klune. The cover has a house with colourful storeys stacked precariously on top of one another, with a little scooter next to it. In the background is a stylised forest with a silhouette of a large deer.

“Under the Whispering Door” BY TJ Klune is a queer speculative fiction romance novel about a man called Wallace who has died. A lawyer by trade, Wallace’s initial instinct is to try to negotiate with the reaper who has been assigned to him about how to get back to his old life. However, when he finds himself at a strange tea shop run by a man called Hugo, Wallace begins to realise that while his old life was actually not that fulfilling, he is not quite ready to cross over.

Coincidentally, I have been reading a few books that grapple with the afterlife and the question of what lies beyond. This was overall a very enjoyable one. Klune is excellent at a slow-burn romance, and in that respect it is as delicate as the other book of his I’ve read. Wallace is the quintessential corporate lawyer but somehow Klune’s take on his character development feels fresh and original. This book radiates with warmth, and I enjoyed the tenderness that developed between Wallace, Hugo, reaper Mei, Hugo’s grandfather Nelson and, of course, a ghost dog called Apollo. I also liked how Klune set out the many rules of how the crossing over process is supposed to work, and promptly begins breaking them with wild abandon. I am very passionate about improving bad rules, and lots of bad rules are improved in this book.

One of the only things that frustrated me about this book was how frequently the characters say that Mei is an excellent (albeit inexperienced) reaper, when everything in the plot appears to suggest otherwise. I found her maddeningly vague, the few dead people she brought to the teashop seemed extremely unhappy about it and she seemed extremely quick to lose her temper with anyone who didn’t live in the teashop. The budding romance suffered a little for a bit too much tell and not quite enough show. Apart from being a device for adding tension, the reason why Mei was able to touch ghosts but not Hugo was never really explained. In fact there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies about what ghosts could and couldn’t do, especially when it came to Apollo the dog.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and sweet story about finding the biggest joy in the smallest pockets of life.

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The Wonderling

Children’s book about an orphan fox boy

I cannot remember where I bought this book from, but there is no mistaking why. It is a beautiful hardcover book with copper metallic detail on the lettering both on the slipcase and beneath. Then, of course, is the premise. As I have mentioned many times on here I am a big fan of animal fantasy, and the little anthropomorphic fox and suggestions of steampunk had me hooked.

Image is of “The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok. The hardcover book is resting on a slate grey background with a pocket watch, a clockwork mechanism with a bunny and a key to the right. The cover is outlined in lime green with a teal band across and filling in the middle. There are clockwork beetles in the corners, ribbons, a key and a red fox with one ear wearing a great jacket and a necklace with the number 13.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok is a children’s animal fantasy steampunk novel about an orphan fox boy known only as 13. A “groundling”, a mix of both fox and boy, he lives at the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures run by the cruel Miss Carbunkle. Bullied and downtrodden, when he makes a new friend called Trinket who gives him a new name, Arthur agrees to escape the Home and try to find the truth about his past and his destiny.

There were a lot of positive things about this book, and I think Bartok’s writing is probably the strongest selling point. It is lyrical and playful and her descriptions are lovely to read. I really enjoyed the art sprinkled throughout the book and the all the different types of groundlings. Trinket was one of the best characters who, despite being tiny and almost entirely birdlike, had lots of gumption and pizzazz. I enjoyed the interludes with the young boy Pinecone and his family in their treehouse, and they were some of the most enjoyable parts of the book.

However, this book was heavily inspired by “Oliver Twist” with the hapless Arthur just as much a victim of circumstance as the orphan Oliver, and even Quintus is just like a hybrid of the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Despite these broad plot and character similarities, the story was rather confusing and there were a lot of elements that didn’t make sense or simply went nowhere. For example, someone out of kindness put something in Arthur’s pocket, but didn’t help any of the other groundlings? But Arthur inexplicably never checked his pocket? And then the thing was lost anyway? I also felt that while individually the elements of Arthur’s world were very whimsical, collectively the worldbuilding was a bit lacking. Some of the choices (e.g. men wearing top hats walking cats in Lumentown) seemed to be based more on aesthetics rather than logic.

An easy if somewhat meandering read that draws a lot of inspiration from Dickens.

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Trace: Who killed Maria James?

Non-fiction book about making a podcast about an unsolved murder

Content warning: murder, graphic violence, child sexual abuse

I started listening to this podcast when it first aired back in 2017 and I was immediately engrossed, but perhaps not for the same reasons as everyone else who listens to true crime podcasts. In 2008 a friend of mine went missing while travelling overseas and was found dead several weeks later. The answer to the question of what happened to her has never been resolved. In fact, her case has also been discussed in episodes of different podcast. So listening to this story about a woman who was murdered in her own bookstore being told by someone who was truly committed to finding out the truth gave me hope that perhaps one day the truth of what happened to my friend will be uncovered. When the author came to the Canberra Writers’ Festival the following year to discuss her book, I knew that I had to go along. I’m not quite sure what led me to finally pick it up three years later, but the timing couldn’t have been better. After all these years, the Victorian Coroner is re-examining the case. The podcast had a new episode out just this month and you can keep up to date with the court proceedings here.

Image is of “Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown. The paperback book is resting against a red brick wall next to a small silver microphone. The cover is white with interlocking puzzle pieces. Behind the missing pieces is a photograph of Maria James in red.

“Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown is a non-fiction book about the making of Season 1 of the true crime podcast “Trace“. This season is about the unsolved murder of Maria James, who was found stabbed to death in her own bookshop in 1980. Brown reviews historic case material and interviews police officers who were involved in the original investigation while she tries to negotiate the production of the podcast and navigate interviews with witnesses who may be reluctant to speak out.

This is an engrossing book that goes into much deeper detail than the podcast, with a strong focus on Brown’s own experiences researching and recording. With the extra space afforded by the book, Brown is able to give a lot more detail about the different leads that were and were not followed by Victoria Police. She outlines the initial investigation, and shares the in-depth interviews she has with the detective who was the lead of the case. I think some of the most powerful parts of the book are when Brown, in her signature honest style, acknowledges the choices she made as a journalist and the times where those choices were mistakes. Brown is forthright about balancing the needs of the interviewees, the priorities of the producers and pursuing promising lines of enquiry. The most harrowing parts were about Maria’s sons and their experiences of abuse by priests of the Catholic church, and the stories Brown uncovered from over survivors of abuse. Perhaps, however, the most disturbing parts were how many errors there seemed to be in the way the evidence in Maria’s case was handled and whether or not these errors were accidental.

An incredibly important book not just for true crime fans or even fans of the podcast, but for all of us who believe that the truth should not be obstructed.

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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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The Cabinet

Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society

Content warning: fatphobia

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. The cover has an image of a chameleon holding onto a black branch, stylised with different textures including images of cabinets. The cover has a pale pink background, and the text is enclosed in boxes with a black cat peeking over the top.

“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.

As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.

I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.

A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.

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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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Red Sparrow

A thriller about Russian and American spycraft

Content warning: objectification of women, torture, sexual assault

It is the time for film adaptations, and this book is actually the tie-in edition. I remember seeing quite a slick trailer for this film (though I had never seen it), so on a whim I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair. I have been reading a lot of books that have been adapted into films or TV shows recently so I thought I would stick with this trend and chip away at my to-read shelf.

Image is of “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. The paperback book is sitting next to a bowl of borsch, Eastern European beetroot soup garnished with sour cream and dill. The cover is red with a picture of Jennifer Lawrence who plays one of the main characters in the film adaptation.

“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews is a thriller novel about Russian and American spies. After her career is stymied, former ballet dancer Dominika is pressured by her uncle to join Russian intelligence and train to become a ‘sparrow’, a secret agent trained in seduction. Her target is Nate: an American CIA agent who is forced to leave Russia and take up a much less exciting post in Finland. When Nate and Dominika cross paths, they are instantly drawn to one another and begin a game of spycraft made even more dangerous by attraction.

Image is of the book in a paper bag filled with ingredients in reusable containers.

I was able to forgive a lot in this book for one simple reason: at the end of each chapter was a recipe. I absolutely love fiction books with recipes, and this book had a recipe at the end of every chapter. The story had quite a lot of potential, and the earlier chapters in particular were tense and surprising. I enjoyed reading about Russia, and even if the parts about the sparrow school weren’t even remotely true it made for compelling (though disturbing) reading.

Image is of the book next to a plate of potato fritters that were absolutely delicious, and a creamy spinach dip that didn’t quite work.

As enjoyable as it was to cook recipes from the book, the rest of the book left a lot to be desired. I thought that the set up would have been perfect for a Spy vs. Spy thriller, where both Dominika and Nate use their spycraft skills to try to hook the other into betraying their country and spilling state secrets. Unfortunately, this book suffered from classic American exceptionalism, the tension between Dominika and Nate is broken way too early on and the book swiftly becomes more about the mechanics of passing on state secrets which, while of great interest to a former CIA agent, was of far less interest to me. This decision to shift focus meant that the pacing felt sluggish for the rest of the book, and I was much less invested in the characters. One thing I was shocked about was how frequently the author referred to breasts. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I was really shocked at how frequently the narrative was interrupted with superfluous references to breasts.

I’d like to say that the film was better, but it was not. They made the torture more gruesome, the sex more rapey and there was, disturbingly, more chemistry between Dominika and her uncle than there was between Dominika and Nate. An OK book peppered with fun recipes that did not need a film adaptation.

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