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 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

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 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

Book Review: The School by Brendan James Murray

The ups and downs of one year in the classroom

One teacher. One school. One year.

Brendan James Murray has been a high school teacher for more than ten years. In that time he has seen hundreds of kids move through the same hallways and classrooms – boisterous, angry, shy, big-hearted, awkward – all of them on the journey to adulthood.

In The School, he paints an astonishingly vivid portrait of a single school year, perfectly capturing the highs and lows of being a teenager, as well as the fire, passion and occasional heartbreak of being their teacher. Hilarious, heartfelt and true, it is a timeless story of a teacher and his classes, a must-read for any parent, and a tribute to the art of teaching.

My Review

The School is such a powerful read about the ups and downs of a year in a high school classroom told through the eyes of an English and Literature teacher. The names and events have been fictionalised and span many years and schools, but the school of this story is set in a public school on the Victorian coastline.

Over the course of the story, we progress through the school year with Mr Murray and his students, learning more about them and their lives as the school year progresses. The warmth, love, and care between Mr Murray and his students is evident throughout the book and I grew to care about all of the students almost as much as their teacher so thoughtfully does.

I also appreciated the way that the author highlighted the issues and the injustices that public school students so often face. It’s an important issue that needs to be addressed and Murray goes into great detail on this with his characteristic grace and humour. It must be so difficult and heartbreaking from a teacher’s perspective, but he remains focused on his students and their needs.

This is a wonderful story and a tribute to all teachers and the students that they care for. It’s beautifully and sensitively written and I think Mr Murray’s students are very lucky to have landed in his classroom. Just as I was lucky to attend high school with him in our own small coastal school. Highly recommended reading!

Details

Title: The School

Author: Brendan James Murray

Published: Pan MacMillan Australia

RRP: $34.99 AUD

Source: Publisher

Goodreads: The School

Zeus with our copy of The School by Brendan James Murray

Book Review: Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald

 The Nancys are back in another quirky and hilarious cosy mystery set in Riverstone, New Zealand

Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald and my cats.

Details:

Title: Nancy Business

Author: R.W.R. McDonald

Published: June 1, 2021

Pages: 360 pages, paperback

Genre: Cosy Mystery, Mystery, Crime, Contemporary

Source: Author

Goodreads

The Nancys are back again to solve another cosy mystery that has rocked the small town of Riverstone, New Zealand. It’s been four months since eleven year old Tippy and her wonderfully camp and risqué Uncle Pike and his partner Devon teamed up to solve a murder mystery and a lot has changed. Tippy is growing up and processing the events that occurred over Christmas, as well as her father’s death a year earlier. Uncle Pike and Devon have purchased the murder house near Tippy but can’t seem to agree on anything. In fact, it looks like they might even break up.

When an explosion kills three people and destroys the Riverstone town hall, the Nancys decide to go against the police who have already fingered a suspect who Tippy believes may have been framed — and Tippy’s mother — to get to the bottom of who was really responsible. Despite Uncle Pike’s and Devon’s rocky relationship and shocking revelations about the past that has Tippy wondering if she can ever trust anybody again, the Nancys stick together to solve the mystery and save Riverstone.

I loved hanging out with the Nancys again and really enjoy this contemporary adult’s version of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Despite their relationship troubles, Uncle Pike and Devon’s camp humour that mostly goes over Tippy’s head had me in stitches. I also really enjoyed the ways that Tippy is growing older and wiser as the series progresses. The ending and the resolution of the mystery were excellent, and I was pleased to see that the seeds have been sown for another instalment of this quirky cosy mystery series. I don’t think that it’s necessary to read The Nancys first, but you should anyway since it is brilliant and you will get to know the characters and their history before diving in.

About the Author

R.W.R. McDonald (Rob) is an award-winning author, a kiwi living in Melbourne with his two daughters and one HarryCat. His debut novel, The Nancys, won Best First Novel in the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards, as well as being a finalist in the Best Novel category. It was shortlisted for Best First Novel in the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards, and Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. 

Nancy Business, his second novel was published 1st June 21. 

Me and R.W.R. McDonald at the launch for Nancy Business at Brunswick Bound in between lockdown numbers 5 and 6

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall Book Review

THE MOTHER FAULT BY KATE MILDENHALL

Set in a dystopian Australia in the not too distant future, THE MOTHER FAULT is a cleverly crafted eco-thriller that had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

Mim is a geologist turned stay at home mum with two children Essie (11) and Sammy (6) in a Victoria that is ruled by ‘The Department’. Her husband Ben is an environmental engineer at an Australian/Chinese mine in Indonesia. Climate change has begun to cause catastrophic damage, all citizens are microchipped ‘for their safety, and anybody who doesn’t comply with ‘The Department’ are shipped off to a place called ‘Best Life’.

When Mim receives a phone call to let her know that Ben has gone missing from the mine she packs up Essie and Sammy and sets of across the country, and then across the ocean, to find a way to get to Indonesia and find her husband. Even though she must put her family and her friends in serious danger, Mim is determined to get to Ben.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE MOTHER FAULT and found the dystopian Australia that had been ravaged by climate change to be frighteningly plausible. The vivid characters and fast-paced action make it a compelling reading experience.

Details

Title: The Mother Fault

Author: Kate Mildenhall

Published: September 2, 2020 by Simon & Schuster

Pages: 366 pages, paperback

Genre: Dystopian, Thriller, Eco-Thriller, Speculative Fiction

Source: Own Copy

Goodreads

Book review: The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

I’ve been obsessed with books set in the 1930s lately, so I was instantly intrigued by The Portrait of Molly Dean when I discovered that it’s a true murder mystery set against the background of Melbourne’s bustling art scene in 1930.

Goodreads Blurb

An unsolved murder comes to light after almost seventy years…

In 1999, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean, an artist’s muse brutally slain in Melbourne in 1930. Alex buys the painting and sets out to uncover more details, but finds there are strange inconsistencies: Molly’s mother seemed unconcerned by her daughter’s violent death, the main suspect was never brought to trial despite compelling evidence, and vital records are missing. Alex enlists the help of her close friend, art conservator John Porter, and together they sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around the last days of Molly Dean. 

Review

The Portrait of Molly Dean is based on a real unsolved murder. Molly Dean was brutally murdered in Melbourne in 1930. She was a beautiful and popular artist’s muse who was determined to break out of her complicated home life and make a name for herself as a writer but her murder was never solved and she was almost forgotten.

This novel imagines what might have happened in Molly’s last days via the fictional investigations of an astute Melbourne art dealer who snaps up Molly’s portrait in 1999 for a bargain. As Alex and her art conservator friend investigate the painting and the mystery surrounding the death of Molly Dean, they discover that there were many inconsistencies surrounding the investigation and that there are still people out there who will do whatever it takes to make sure that the truth remained hidden.

There really isn’t anything that I didn’t love about this book! Both the 1930 and 1999 timelines were full of distinctly timely and Melbourne features and I also found the art history fascinating. Molly was such an interesting character that I found myself invested in finding out what happened to her. I feel like I could have been great friends with her. And I loved Alex Clayton the sassy art dealer and will be adding the rest of the Alex Clayton art mystery series to my TBR list!

Details

Published: March 1st 2018 by Bonnier Publishing Australia/Echo

Source: Own copy

Read: Paperback, January – February 2021

Pages: 271 pages

Rating: 5 stars

Goodreads

Amazon AU

Amazon UK

Amazon US

About the author

Katherine Kovacic was a veterinarian but preferred training and having fun with dogs to taking their temperatures. She seized the chance to return to study and earned an MA, followed by a PhD in Art History. Katherine spends her spare time writing, dancing and teaching other people’s dogs to ride skateboards.

A research geek, Katherine is currently fired up by the history of human relationships with animals, particularly as they appear in art. Her first book, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction.

Katherine lives in suburban Melbourne with a Borzoi, a Scottish Deerhound and a legion of dog-fur dust bunnies.

January 2021. True Crime.

Available in all good bookshops and online (paperback, ebook, audio) including:

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Booktopia)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Amazon US)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Amazon Australia)

The Schoolgirl Strangler (Kobo)