Book Review: Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones

Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones

A haunting and evocative mystery set on a remote Scottish island

Grief-stricken and on the verge of a breakdown, Luda Managan and her two teenaged children try to make a home for themselves on a collection of harsh and haunted Scottish islands. 
 
Luda, a photographer, is mesmerised by the extraordinary magic of the islands and soon finds herself condemned by the local community after publishing images documenting the death of a local child. Alienated, Luda turns her attention to the records from the 17th century island witch-hunts and the fragmented life stories of the executed women. Min, restless and strong, tries to fill up the space in their family left by her father. She soon finds comfort in the depths of the icy North Sea and in an unlikely friendship with the elderly and irreverent local ‘witch’. The only thing that beautiful and gifted Darcy cares about is getting marks high enough for entry into university – one very, very far away from his mother. 
 
Until he meets the wild foundling, Theo. 
 
When a tragic accident unleashes ghosts and the echoes of long-ago violence and betrayal into their lives, the Managans are forced to confront the ways that history both hinders us and sets us free. 
 
Drawing on records of the witch trials and folk tales of the northern isles, Salt and Skin is full of tenderness, magic and yearning. It’s a meditation on the absence of women’s voices and stories in history, and the unexpected ways that sites of long-ago trauma continue to haunt the living

Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones

My Review

I wanted to jump through the cover and walk around in Salt and Skin’s evocative witchy world. I found myself reading slower than usual so that I could savour this beautifully written haunting story for as long as possible.

When Luda and her two teenage children, Min and Darcy, move from drought-stricken Australia to the wild and isolated Scottish islands for Luda’s new job recording the impact of climate change on the islands, they are plunged into the folklore and witchy history of their new home while also dealing with their own tragic past.

With the help of her colleague, Tristan, Luda becomes fascinated with the witch markings in their home (perfectly named ‘the ghost house’) and the history of the women who made them. I loved learning more about the history of the 17th century Scottish witch trials through this story line. So often women’s voices aren’t recorded through history and I enjoyed thinking about what those women could have been like along with Luda in her investigation.

Min and Darcy make friends with a young foundling, Theo, who many people suspect could be a selkie. Theo’s story felt so personal, like I was reading about somebody I knew, yet there was also the mythology surrounding his origins that felt so other worldly.

I enjoyed the fragmented nature of this story and, as always, Henry-Jones’s prose is beautiful. Lyrical and both strong and incredibly vulnerable about the same time. I’m so glad that I was able to read it.

Details

Title: Salt and Skin

Author: Eliza Henry-Jones

Published: August 2022, Ultimo Press

Format: Paperback, 320 pages

RRP: $32.99

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads: Salt and Skin

Book Review: The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

Synopsis

Winner of the inaugural Allen & Unwin Crime Prize.

‘So you believed the alleged rapists over the alleged victim?’ Jane’s voice took on an indignant pitch. ‘Girls lie sometimes.’ I nodded. ‘And rapists lie all the time.’

When Senior Detective Antigone Pollard moves to the coastal town of Deception Bay, she is still in shock and grief. Back in Melbourne, one of her cases had gone catastrophically wrong, and to escape the guilt and the haunting memories, she’d requested a transfer to the quiet town she’d grown up in.

But there are some things you can’t run from. A month into her new life, she is targeted by a would-be rapist at the pub, and realises why there have been no convictions following a spate of similar sexual attacks in the surrounding district. The male witnesses in the pub back her attacker and even her boss doesn’t believe her.

Hers is the first reported case in Deception Bay, but soon there are more. As Antigone searches for answers, she encounters a wall of silence in the town built of secrets and denial and fear. The women of Deception Bay are scared and the law is not on their side. The nightmare has followed her home.

Chilling, timely and gripping, The Unbelieved takes us behind the headlines to a small-town world that is all too real – and introduces us to a brilliant new voice in crime fiction.

My Review

The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis is a fast-paced chilling story about small town secrets.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has escaped from Melbourne to the small coastal town of Deception Bay after a rape case went horribly wrong. Almost as soon as she arrives, she is exposed to a group of drink spikers responsible for a spate of sexual assaults in the area and is determined to get to the bottom of who is responsible. What she didn’t expect is the wall of denial and fear that she must encounter at every turn – even from her boss.

I’ve long been a fan of Vikki Petraitis’s true crime books and podcasts and I enjoyed her first fiction novel just as much. She’s expertly woven in facts with fiction to create this important and timely story about how difficult it is to get true justice in sexual assault cases.

I loved Antigone’s tough no-nonsense exterior, even while she was under such an incredible amount of pressure. She had a lot of depth as a character and I think that the first person narrative was an excellent choice for this story as it allowed for more of Antigone’s thoughts and feelings to be explored. She might have been a bit too much of a strong female stereotype if her vulnerabilities weren’t revealed throughout the story this way.

The supporting cast of characters were also well-rounded. I particularly enjoyed her somewhat bumbling, but well intentioned, partner Wozza and Pip was a delightful surprise. Waffles the failed police dog was my favourite though!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Unbelieved and am looking forward to reading more!

With thanks to Allen & Unwin for my review copy.

Title: The Unbelieved

Author: Vikki Petraitis

Published: Allen & Unwin 02 Aug 2022

Pages: 384

RRP: $32.99 AUD

Source: Publisher

Goodreads: The Unbelieved

Book Review: The Good Mother by Rae Cairns

The Good Mother by Rae Cairns

‘Past and present collide on and off the page in this explosive debut’ Sunday Telegraph

‘This story wouldn’t let me go’ Michael Robotham

Shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction

She’s protected them from the truth. Can she save them from her past?

Sarah Calhoun is a regular Sydney soccer mum, but she’s keeping terrifying secrets from everyone she loves . . . and her past is about to catch up with her.

When two men from Northern Ireland hunt her down, she’s forced to return to Belfast to testify at a murder trial. Caught in the crossfire of an obsessive policeman driven by a disturbing past, and a brutal IRA executioner, Sarah faces an impossible choice: lie and allow a killer to walk free, or tell the truth and place her children in the line of fire.

With her family and innocent people at risk, Sarah must find the courage to fight for the truth. But righting the wrongs of the past just might cost her everything . . .

This fast-paced, explosive thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat to its gripping finale.

‘Show me a soldier who would fight harder than a mother to save her son.’

My Review

The Good Mother by Rae Cairns is a fast-paced thriller that had me on the edge of my seat until the very end.

Suburban mum Sarah Calhoun has kept her past a secret for years until it catches up with her in the worst possible way – through her children. She used to work as youth worker in Ireland during the 90s until she witnessed a murder by a brutal IRA member and had to leave because her own life was on the line. Now her children may have to pay the price of what she saw.

At first, Sarah comes across as a bit of a helicopter mum who doesn’t want to let her children out of her sight, but it soon becomes apparent that her fears are well-founded when an obsessive Irish policeman hunts her down and she is left with two choices: let the killer walk free or put her children’s and other innocent people’s lives in danger.

Not being a mother myself, I was a bit worried that I would find Sarah difficult to connect with, but I found her relatable in other ways. Particularly with her motivations around what she witnessed in the 90s and her fearless determination to make sure that the IRA didn’t get away with murder this time.

I also really enjoyed the setting of both the modern day and 1990s Ireland and I feel as though I learned a lot about The Troubles woven throughout the book in a natural way. The author’s own experiences have provided invaluable insight into such a complex period of recent history.

The good mother is a strong debut and was Shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction. I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this author.

Thanks to HarperCollins for my review copy

Details

Title: The Good Mother

Author: Rae Cairns

Published: HarperCollins AU 30/03/2022

Pages: 368

RRP: $32.99 AUD

Source: Publisher

Goodreads: The Good Mother

Book Review: The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

Two women separated by centuries but connected by one beautiful silk dress. A captivating novel based on a real-life shipwreck discovered off Texel Island by the bestselling author of Gulliver’s Wife, Lauren Chater.

Jo Baaker, a textiles historian and Dutch ex-pat is drawn back to the island where she was born to investigate the provenance of a 17th century silk dress. Retrieved by local divers from a sunken shipwreck, the dress offers tantalising clues about the way people lived and died during Holland’s famous Golden Age.

Jo’s research leads her to Anna Tesseltje, a poor Amsterdam laundress turned ladies’ companion who served the enigmatic artist Catharina van Shurman. The two women were said to share a powerful bond, so why did Anna abandon Catharina at the height of her misfortune?

Jo is convinced the truth lies hidden between the folds of this extraordinary dress. But as she delves deeper into Anna’s history, troubling details about her own past begin to emerge.

On the small Dutch island of Texel where fortunes are lost and secrets lie buried for centuries, Jo will finally discover the truth about herself and the woman who wore the Winter Dress.

The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

My Review

The Winter Dress is a captivating dual timeline story about love and secrets, written in Lauren Chater’s signature evocative prose style.

A 17th Century dress was discovered in remarkably good condition in a shipwreck off the coast of the small Dutch island of Texel in 2014. Chater had woven the small threads of factual information about the dress to create a fascinating story.

In the contemporary timeline, textiles historian Jo Baaker returns home to Texel from Australia to investigate the origins of the dress and help preserve it. As well a working with a difficult male colleague, Jo is also forced to come to terms with her past in Texel and the tragic death of her parents.

 The 17th-century timeline focuses on the owner of the dress. Anna comes from a formerly wealthy family and now works as a companion to artist Catharina van Shurman who has secrets of her own.  The dress becomes Anna’s talisman as she navigates the seedy side of the high society of the Hague.

The enormous amount of research that has gone into The Winter Dress is impressive. Not only has Lauren Chater meticulously researched the dress and the historical period, but there is also a great deal of information about current day diving practices and life in Texel.

Even more impressive is the way that Chater has woven the facts in with the fiction in a way that had me turning the pages for more.

Details

Title: The Winter Dress

Author: Lauren Chater

Published: Simon & Schuster Australia (March 30, 2022)

Format: Paperback, 368 pages

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads Reviews: The Winter Dress

The Understudy by Julie Bennett book review

The Understudy by Julie Bennett

Immersed in the underbelly of the theatre world in the gritty streets of Sydney in 1973, this addictive debut will have you wondering just how dangerous ambition – and love – can be.

It’s opening night. The stage is set, the houselights have dimmed and the handsome male lead is waiting. This is your time. Your chance to prove you are so much more than the understudy.

You have worked so hard and would have done almost anything to get here. But not what they are accusing you of – never that. It’s simply bad luck that Australia’s darling of opera has gone missing, throwing the spotlight on you just as the whole world is watching history in the making.

But the show must go on and it’s all down to you. Take a deep breath and get ready to perform the role of your life.

My Review

The Understudy is a thrilling story of mystery and intrigue in the world of professional opera singers set against the iconic background of the Sydney Opera House in the 1970s and rural Australia in the 1950s.

When understudy Sophie gets the chance to star as the lead role in Madama Butterfly with handsome Italian tenor Armando Cecchi, her excitement is tempered by the mysterious disappearance of leading lady Margaret Gardiner. Not only is Margaret gone but everyone thinks that Sophie must know what happened to her and her relationship with Armando is all over the papers.

The 1950s timeline tells us more about how Margaret became the overbearing leading lady and provides clues about what happened to make her disappear in the 1970s.

I particularly enjoyed the 1970s setting of Sydney and the Opera House, which was inspired by the author’s own experiences performing there for its opening performance. The power plays between the performers was brilliantly executed and I thoroughly recommend this debut novel.

Details

Title: The Understudy

Author: Julie Bennett

Published: Simon & Schuster Australia (March 2, 2022)

Format: Ebook, 464 pages

Source: Netgalley

Goodreads Reviews: The Understudy

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

My Review:

Hamnet is a fascinating story about William Shakespeare, his wife, and the tragic death of their 11 year old son. Based upon the few historical facts known about Shakespeare and his family, O’Farrell has weaved a beautifully written dreamy story about how he met his wife Agnes and what happened when their much loved son Hamnet died of the plague. Shakespeare went on to name one of his most famous tragedies after his son, although the reasoning behind it isn’t revealed until the very end in an epic final scene.

I loved the dream-like quality of this story, especially about Agnes’s history. It’s a beautifully written story and I highly recommend it to all historical fictions readers.

Details:

Title: Hamnet

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Published: March 31, 2020 by Tinder Press

Format: 372 pages, Paperback

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads reviews: Hamnet

Book Review: Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

“Family.

Faultlines.

Fallout:

A memoir”

Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

A powerful, poetic and moving memoir of family, violence and estrangement, from a stunning new literary voice.

After Michelle Tom’s house was damaged by a deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011, she and her young family suffered through another 10,000 aftershocks before finally relocating to the stability of Melbourne, Australia. But soon after arriving, Michelle received the news that her estranged sister was dying. Determined to reconnect before her sister died, Michelle flew home to visit, and memories of childhood flooded back.

Through remembered fragments, and told through the five stages of an earthquake, Michelle Tom explores the similarities between seismic upheaval and her own family’s tragedies: her sister’s terminal illness, her brother’s struggle with schizophrenia and ultimate suicide, the sudden death of her father, her own panic disorder and through it all, one overarching battle – her lifelong struggle to form a healthy connection with her mother.

A powerful, poetic and moving memoir of family, violence and estrangement, Ten Thousand Aftershocks weaves together seismic upheaval and one family’s trauma and tragedies in a series of ever-widening and far-reaching emotional aftershocks, in a beautifully written and compelling account of a dark family drama. For readers of The Erratics and One Hundred Years of Dirt.

My Review

In 2011, Michelle Tom lived through the Christchurch Earthquake and then ten thousand aftershocks before they pack up their lives and escaped to Melbourne. Soon afterwards, she is brought back to New Zealand to deal with an emergency in her dysfunctional family and the memories that are so often associated with that.

Ten Thousand Aftershocks is told in fragments through the five stages of an earthquake. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story as bits and pieces of the earthquake are interspersed with childhood memories and what was happening in the present. Not unlike how we trauma is experienced.

The prose is hauntingly poetic and the fragmented nature worked incredibly well for this shocking true story about trauma, tragedies, and dysfunctional family drama. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.

Details

Title: Ten Thousand Aftershocks

Author: Michelle Tom

Published: September 1, 2021 by 4th Estate AU/HarperCollins

Format: Paperback 369 pages

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads Reviews: Ten Thousand Aftershocks

Ten Thousand Aftershocks and Zeus

Book Review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

“Heart-wrenching, heartwarming and ultimately uplifting–a story about the power of a little kindness.”

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

A story of friendship, love and what it means to truly live when, sometimes, it may seem easier not to.

Caitlin is convinced she’s going to die.

Two years ago she was a normal twenty-something with a blossoming career and a plan to go travelling with her best friend, until a car accident left her with a deep, unshakable understanding that she’s only alive by mistake.

Caitlin deals with these thoughts by throwing herself into work, self-medicating with alcohol, and attending a support group for people with death-related anxiety, informally known as the Morbids.

But when her best friend announces she’s getting married in Bali, and she meets a handsome doctor named Tom, Caitlin must overcome her fear of death and learn to start living again.

Beautiful, funny, and universally relatable this story of hidden loneliness and the power of compassion and companionship reminds us that life is an adventure truly worth living.

‘Mental illness captured with remarkable nuance and skill: The Morbids is a lively and often very funny book, and one that is hopeful and heartfelt. It is an assured debut, and a book that will mean a great deal to many people.’ – The Guardian

My Review:

Caitlin is struggling after a car crash convinced her that she was going to die. She thinks that she’s coping with things with her new waitressing job and her support group the Morbids, but she realises that she needs more help than she thought when she meets an attractive doctor and her best friend announces that she’s getting married in Bali.

I felt that the topics of depression and anxiety surrounding death in this novel were depicted accurately and sensitively. It’s not always an easy read, but I was drawn in by Caitlin and the people in her life and found the ending heart-warming and uplifting. The characters of the self-help group the Morbids often added a humorous touch, despite the difficult issues that they all faced around death anxiety. It was a bit like those kind of what if scenarios that I think everyone imagines sometimes times 1000.

Caitlin often walks around the streets of Sydney and I found the immersive description a wonderful touch. The ending was a lovely reminder of the importance of allowing the people in our lives to help us when we need it like we all do sometimes.

A touching and heart-warming read relatable for most people who experience depression and anxiety.

Details

Title: The Morbids

Author: Ewa Ramsey

Published: Allen & Unwin September 2020

Format: Paperback 368 pages

RRP: $29.99

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads reviews: The Morbids

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

Book Review: The Orange Grove by Kate Murdoch

When status is survival, every choice has its consequence.

Blois, 1705. The chateau of Duc Hugo d’Amboise simmers with rivalry and intrigue. 

Henriette d’Augustin, one of five mistresses of the duc, lives at the chateau with her daughter. When the duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, maliciously undermines a new mistress, Letitia, Henriette is forced to choose between position and morality. She fights to maintain her status whilst targeted by the duchesse who will do anything to harm her enemies.

The arrival of charismatic tarot reader, Romain de Villiers, further escalates tensions as rivals in domestic politics and love strive for supremacy.

In a society where status is a matter of life and death, Henriette must stay true to herself, her daughter, and her heart, all the while hiding a painful secret of her own.

My Review

The Orange Grove tells a story of rivalry and intrigue set in Blois, France in the 1705 chateau of Duc Hugo d’Amboise through the eyes of one of his five mistresses, Henriette. A new young and beautiful mistress sets already high tensions between the mistresses and the Duc’s wife even higher, then a charming tarot reader adds himself headfirst into the mix.

I enjoy reading tarot cards and found the readings and explanations to be fascinating and cleverly added to the building tensions. Murdoch has thoroughly researched the history of France has and I enjoyed the way that she painted a picture of what it would have been like to live as a mistress of a French nobleman. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it very much, but it certainly makes for fascinating reading!

Details

Title: The Orange Grove

Author: Kate Murdoch

Published:  November 1, 2019, Regal House Publishing

Format: Paperback, 253 pages

RRP: $16.95 USD

Source: Author

Goodreads: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove by Kate Murdoch

Book Review: The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

“1930s Melbourne. In sunny suburban streets, a serial killer lies in wait…”

The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

November, 1930. One sunny Saturday afternoon, 12-year-old Mena Griffiths was playing in the park when she was lured away by an unknown man. Hours later, her strangled body was found, mouth gagged and hands crossed over her chest, in an abandoned house. Only months later, another girl was murdered; the similarities between the cases undeniable. Crime in Melbourne had taken a shocking new turn: this was the work of a serial killer, a homicidal maniac.

My Review

The Schoolgirl Strangler is a fascinating true crime account of Melbourne’s earliest recorded serial killer. In the 1930s, a sick and twisted killer terrorised the suburbs of Melbourne and country Victoria, luring young girls to their deaths and strangling them with their own underwear. The police were under pressure for years to solve this chilling murder spree, interviewing thousands of people. Even prosecuting the wrong man at one point.

Katherine Kovacic has methodically researched the hunt for the Schoolgirl Strangler, often under difficult circumstances during Covid restrictions, and she has done a brilliant job of weaving the facts into a story that had me turning the page like a thriller. I found it interesting that she uncovered The Schoolgirl Strangler while she was researching her novel The Portrait of Molly Dean. It seems likely that Molly’s killer was a copycat of the Strangler.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Katherine Kovacic’s in-person talks that I’ve been lucky enough to attend to listen to her speak about her research and writing processes.

Title: The Schoolgirl Strangler

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: January 3, 2021 by Bonnier Echo

Format: 320 pages, paperback

RRP: $32.99 AUD

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads: The Schoolgirl Strangler

The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic