Category Archives: Book Reviews

[REVIEW] Something She’s Not Telling Us – Darcey Bell

I actually read this in October 2020, made some notes on a file, but didn’t get around to adding the links and pub details until now.

People, YOU NEED THIS BOOK. Five stars out of five. Barely hyped – I don’t think it even sold UK/Australian rights, so the paperback I read must’ve been imported here.

Just saying: if you’re into domestic and psychological suspense, this might be in your wheelhouse.

Darcey Bell
Something She’s Not Telling Us
Harper (US & CA: 7th April 2020)
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This is amazing. Early on, I had a feeling that this would be brilliant. When something starts so great, it doesn’t always stay that way, but you hope for the best.

It never lets up. The Mexican section is enthralling, and the final chunk of the book even better. Satisfying ending. This is everything you want in a read: effed-up people in effed-up families getting involved with other effed-up people in effed-up families; chaos ensues. A comfort-read; escapist, because thank crikey your family isn’t like that.

Domestic suspense does not get better than this. The author’s social media pages are unfortunately outdated, otherwise I’d probably send a thank-you letter. This was exactly what I needed to read. I’m so glad I had it.

[REVIEW] What Unbreakable Looks Like – Kate McLaughlin

Kate McLaughlin
What Unbreakable Looks Like
Macmillan Wednesday Books (US: 23rd June 2020)
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Lex is not like other girls. Not like other girls at school, and not like other trafficked girls.

A common criticism of some stories is “wish fulfillment”. And while it’s a weird thing to say about a character who’s been trafficked and assaulted…this is still a wish-fulfillment novel.

Because Lex’s story is very much the exception. It’s only because of her strong relationships that she’s able to not go back to being Poppy. Normally in story structure there would’ve been a plot point where she returned, however briefly before escape… But that just wouldn’t have been realistic in order for Lex to achieve the happily-ever-after story ending.

I can’t remember if there was mention of Lonnie’s after-life, except that she’s in college and isn’t in a relationship. Did she go it alone, or have family and friends to support her post-rehab?

Even the court case Lex testifies in has a happy ending for her.

It’s the kind of novel that makes you think of the stories it DOESN’T centre – and it’s those stories we need to hear the most. After all, this IS a novel…and Lex’s happy ending is, unfortunately, fiction.

[REVIEW] Master Class – Christina Dalcher

Christina Dalcher
Master Class (also published as Q)
Penguin Random House Berkley (US & CA: 21st April 2020); HarperCollins HQ (UK & AU: 30th April 2020/7th January 2021)
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Probably not the wisest choice to read this while my depression and autism symptoms flared up.

But I don’t think I’m the target audience. Probably more aimed at moms of high-achieving selective-entry private school students with bright futures.

I read this, relating to nine-year-old Freddie. Flashbacks to my final year of high school exams in 2004.

I’ve read reviews that mention the heavy-handed use of the German grandmother’s warnings. And we readers well understand what’s going on before Elena does.

But comments that it’s “unrealistic” that parents would vote for a political party pushing for separating lowest-tier students away from higher-tiered people?

I wish I had the optimism that this wouldn’t happen in real life. But too easily it could happen. Too many parents want the “dropkicks” out of the classes shared with their precious intelligent children. Because of course their children are the best and brightest. Their darlings couldn’t be “mediocre”. *eyeroll*

I do agree that parts of this story are unrealistic. Namely, the free healthcare with no one blocking access to termination should a pregnant person want one. Alas, in 2020, continued pregnancy is still used to punish.

There’s so much injustice in the story, and in real life. Reproductive freedom and reproductive justice…there’s so much work to do. It’s appalling that people are sterilised without the patient’s consent. It’s wrong to shame or guilt people into having wanted pregnancies terminated. But what’s also cruel is to force people (via legal and access barriers) to continue unwanted pregnancies. To deny people sterilisation when they want it.

And the politics of death. Euthanasia for lowest-tiered people without their consent. Meanwhile, others who want to die humanely and on their own terms are denied a legal option.

It’s this whole lack of consent. Choices taken away. Topics that are so personal to me, which is why this book was so hard to read. It’s hard to rate.

It’s hard to live.

[REVIEW] The Runaway – Hollie Overton

Hollie Overton
The Runaway
Hachette Redhook (US: 6th August 2019); Penguin Arrow (UK & AU: 3rd October 2019)
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WARNINGS: Cult, abuse.

This may not be the author’s strongest book (that honour goes to second novel The Walls), but it’s a solid story from an author who’s found her feet.

Fostering children – especially older ones – can be challenging, but as a psychologist working with the LAPD, Becca’s up to the task.

It’s hard watching Ash struggle. She has a good heart, but the downside of it – sacrificing herself for others – endangers her.

I’d previously not known much about Skid Row life, so the novel is good insight into the various communities there, and how they operate within themselves and with other groups – including the police. Author Hollie Overton is compassionate in her portrayal of Skid Row’s residents, showing their complexity.

I didn’t expect the cult plot, and watching the leader prey on the most vulnerable people in society while claiming to love them and be one of them…it hurts to read. I might like the THEORY of learning about cults, but reading the psychological manipulation and devastation in a close narrative (rather than the non-fiction I’ve read by journalists, who weren’t cult members themselves) is intimate and kind of intrusive. The futility of being a reader, mentally shouting at characters…it’s not a fun read. Crime fiction may be my escapism, but sometimes you get attached and it’s too close for comfort.

I read a lot of politics in the news. I’ve seen how people love to complain about human faeces on LA streets, but they don’t mention their personal efforts to physically clean up the mess. And that’s kind of how society in general tends to behave about “unpleasantness” – love to “expose” it, but aren’t willing to put in the effort themselves to improve the situation. Instead, it’s used for political point-scoring and agendas – mostly in a negative way, rather than constructive. What exactly would your candidate (who’s not the incumbent) do to improve the situation? How would you approach people – to punish, or rehabilitate? If people are unable to pull up their bootstraps – if they don’t have straps or boots to begin with – will you harm them, abandon them, or lift them? Do you help or harm? (And neglect often fits into the harm category.)

The novel raises big questions, and answers may not be found. But it challenges society at large to face issues they’d rather ignore.

[REVIEW] The Walls – Hollie Overton

Hollie Overton
The Walls
Hachette Redhook (US: 10th April 2018); Penguin Arrow (UK: 26th July 2018; AU: 15th August 2018)
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WARNING: Domestic violence.

Interesting to read about what it’s like to be a prison public liaison officer. Why aren’t more of them in crime fiction?

It’s sad watching Kristy Tucker’s journey from a strong single mother to a defeated spouse. But as she finds her feet again, we cheer her on. Her friendship with an inmate may seem strange, but he ultimately is her biggest supporter. She can handle abuse happening to her, but when her father and her son are threatened she knows life needs to change for the better. Her action plan may not be ideal, but realistically it’s the only way to prevent Lance from harming Kristy’s loved ones.

Hollie Overton’s debut novel, Baby Doll, had a great concept with uneven execution. But this sophomore novel gets things right, and it’s so rewarding to watch an author improve.

[REVIEW] Baby Doll – Hollie Overton

Hollie Overton
Baby Doll
Hachette Redhook (US: 28th August 2018); Penguin Random House Arrow (UK: 29th December 2016; AU: 27th February 2017)
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Lily Riser’s been kidnapped and hidden away for years, and twin sister Abby hasn’t coped well in her absence. Reunited, they adjust to life after.

I expected a thriller, but it’s more like family drama – which is fine, but inaccurately marketed. I connected with Abby, but no other character. (That epilogue is too HEA for me.) Plot points are brought up, but not examined in enough depth. (Lily scheming to steal her sister’s boyfriend, Sky missing Daddy Rick, etc.)

The novel’s concept has plenty of potential, and in the hands of maybe Jodi Picoult or Lisa Scottoline may have been a fulfilling read. But I feel like Baby Doll only skims the surface of issues. But there’s enough potential that I snapped up the author’s next novel…

[REVIEW] Seven Crows – Kate Kessler

Kate Kessler
Seven Crows (Killian Delaney, Book 1)
Hachette Redhook (US: 8th October 2019; UK: 14th November 2019; AU: 10th December 2019)
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Motorcycle clubs (if that’s all they are) are fine. “Bikie gangs”, however, are not for me. I hate seeing them romanticised, but thought I’d have better luck with this thriller.

It’s tricky. Because while a lot of it shows bikie gangs in all their horror, a fair portion of the novel does romanticise. Which is annoying, because there’s so much potential in the Seven Crows universe to truly shake up bikie fiction.

There are plenty of strong female characters…though they still choose to inhabit the very patriarchal society of bikie life. But imagine if all the women banded together and decided to ditch the dudes. Have an all-female club. Even make it an all-female gang, if need be…

I forget how Killian Delaney got involved with the Crows. Before or after she hooked up with Jason? Anyway, he’s dead. (Not really a spoiler.) But backstories aren’t shared unless they’re relevant to the plot…

She thought Jason was her “true love”. WRONG. But that’s OK, because there was another guy who loved her all along, and still loves her now, and now she loves him…

This is what I meant about the romanticisation. If you ask any bikie, they’d claim their club is the good one; that they only do bad stuff in revenge for other gangs’ bad stuff. And that’s the narrative the author pushes about the Crows. Killian’s new love has been “going legit”, because he’s not like other bikie members, or whatever.

And it’s just so boring and patriarchal. There’s so much set-up for revolution. While incarcerated in a women’s prison, Killian was in a sexual relationship with another inmate. So she’s bi, right? That would be so refreshing for a female to be bisexual in the patriarchy. However, Killian may have only been (and I hate to type this actual phrase that was in the book) “gay for the stay”.

That’s not the author talking. I’m pretty sure it’s the character and the bikie culture. It would’ve been brilliant if Killian’s new love was also female, to truly challenge bikie patriarchy.

Seven Crows is Book 1 in a series. Book 2, Call of Vultures, is due out later in 2020. I don’t know if more are contracted. And because this is only the first taste, perhaps later installments move more to destroy the patriarchy instead of enabling it. It’s just so frustrating to see so much potential go not-pursued in favour of less revolutionary threads.

Seven Crows is challenging. And because it has so much possibility the series will be all the more disappointing if it doesn’t reach its full capability.

[REVIEW] Dead Ringer – Kate Kessler

Kate Kessler
Dead Ringer
Hachette Orbit Redhook (US: 23rd October 2018; UK: 6th December 2018; AU: 27th December 2018)
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During the past few months, book communities have discussed “age-gap” romances. Well, that’s what some people claim. Others have pointed out that teen girls with adult men is statutory – and therefore not merely an “age gap”, and not a romance. After all, with a romance the reader should want the characters to be together HEA or HFN – NOT wishing that the adult man would be in prison.

Dead Ringer is a welcome relief. This is a CRIME novel, which puts the adult male/teen girl relationship where it belongs…as a CRIME.

But the central relationship in the novel is not romantic or sexual. It’s the sister relationship between an FBI agent and her twin who went missing as a teen. It’s a powerful novel that cements Kate Kessler as one of my favourite authors.

[REVIEW] All the Crooked Saints – Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater
All the Crooked Saints
Scholastic (US: 28th August 2018; UK: 3rd May 2018)
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It would’ve been so easy to quit this, which considered after three chapters. But because it’s not much over 300 pages, I persisted – and actually got a lot out of it.

But reading All the Crooked Saints requires patience and endurance. The writing style may be “poetic” or “lyrical”, but it’s off-putting. And it’s more story TELLING than showing, so the introductions of each character are all info-dump and more than a little absurd.

Why is it set in 1962? Because pirate radio isn’t a thing now? Why is it marketed to teens, when it suits an older audience better? Is it because Scholastic doesn’t publish adult fiction?

Even the author struggled to understand her manuscript while writing and revising it: http://maggiestiefvater.com/the-years-without-words/ She was later diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease), so she had a good reason.

A third of the way in, the story becomes much easier to read. The characters steal a gamecock!

The theme becomes clear: We can’t just leave people to solve their darkness alone. And we need help solving our own darkness. Once that’s established, life becomes easier. It’s a tearful read, but I may have been in a depressive episode at the time.

[REVIEW] Tin Star – Cecil Castellucci

Cecil Castellucci
Tin Star (Tin Star, Book 1)
Macmillan Square Fish (US: 24th February 2015)
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SPACE CULT!

Need I say more? No, but I will.

The sadness is real. The abandonment. Relying on the kindness of strangers at first. Then forging a life on your own, in a place of transit.

Whilst reading, I may have been in a depressive episode. Even if I wasn’t, the novel tears at the heart.

There’s plenty of space, but not nearly enough cult. The good news is that the sequel, Stone in the Sky, sounds like it may feature more of the cult. But start here.