Murder On The Ballarat Train (Phryne Fisher #3) by Kerry Greenwood

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Title: Murder on the Ballarat Train

Author: Kerry Greenwood

Genre: Crime

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: March 2005

Format: Paperback

Pages: 180

Price: $22.95

Synopsis: In Phryne’s third adventure, Phryne is off to Ballarat for a week of fabulousness, but the sedate journey by train turns out to be far from the restful trip she was planning.

For the elegant Phryne Fisher, travelling sedately is not at all what it seems.

‘Lie still, Dot dear, we’ve had a strange experience.’ But neither the resourceful Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher nor her loyal maid, Dot Williams, are strangers to odd events.

When the glamorous Phryne Fisher, accompanied by Dot, decides to leave her delightfully fast, red Hispano-Suiza at home and travel to the country in the train, the last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save their lives.

What was planned as a restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares: a young girl who can’t remember anything, rumours of vile white slavery and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. And Phryne is at the centre, working through the clues to arrive at the incredible truth before another murder is committed.

Fortunately, Phryne can still find a little time for a discreet dalliance and the delicious diversion of that rowing team of young men.

~*~

aww2017-badgeJourneying to Ballarat on the train with Dot, Phryne is expecting a week of elegance and a break from the bustle of the city. However, Miss Fisher finds herself midst a murder case, a young girl whose memory has disappeared and rumours of white slavery occurring in Melbourne. Returning back to Melbourne with Dot, the young girl, Jane, and the daughter of the murder victim, Phryne sets herself the task of finding out who killed the old woman, and where Jane comes from so she can help her, and engaging in a dalliance with a rowing team from the local university, culminating in events that Phryne had not thought possible.

As always, Phryne engages the Communist drivers, Bert and Cec to help her look into the less savoury aspects, people and locations that are linked to Jane in order to help her, and eventually, another young girl called Ruth. Little does Phryne know that somehow the rowing team and the two cases she picked up on the train are to become linked, and the killer and their secrets revealed.

Kerry Greenwood has succeeded again in creating a female character who simultaneously fits in with the time period she lives in yet also flouts all socially acceptable behaviour for a woman of her standing. She allows the male police to act when necessary, but assists them and uses her feminine wiles to ensnare Detective-Inspector Robinson into helping her, which he does, gladly, and in awe of her.

Set in the late 1920s, during the early stages of the Great Depression that gripped the world during the 1930s, and up to the Second World War, Kerry Greenwood at times hints at moments of Australian history that are significant, though these moments are a bit more prevalent in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series, set roughly during the same time, and with a character who is also an amateur detective and gives the police he deals with a run for their money.

A series of historical fiction crime books with a female character who is strong and feminine in equal measures, and whose escapades shock the prim and proper, and traditional echelons of society in a young Australia, merely ten years fresh from a world war and almost three decades old, Kerry Greenwood has captured an essence of the Australian character in a unique way. I am enjoying this series, and look forward to reading more, and hopefully getting through them all this year.

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Singing My Sister Down And Other Stories by Margo Lanagan

singing my sister downTitle: Singing My Sister Down and Other Short Stories

Author: Margo Lanagan

Genre: Fiction, Short Stories

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 26th January. 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 208

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: An outstanding collection of thirteen short stories from the internationally acclaimed, multi-award winning author of Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels.

‘We all went down to the tar-pit, with mats to spread our weight.’ So begins ‘Singing My Sister Down’, Margo Lanagan’s internationally acclaimed, award-winning short story.

Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories brings together ten celebrated short stories, along with three new ones, from the extraordinarily talented author of Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts.

A bride accepts her devastating punishment. A piece of the moon is buried. A ferryman falls into the Styx. Wee Willie Winkie brings a waking nightmare. A new father dresses a fallen warrior princess. A sniper picks off clowns one by one. Margo Lanagan’s stories will stay with you, haunting you with their quiet beauty and fine balance.

 

~*~

 

aww2017-badgeSinging My Sister Down And Other Stories by Margo Lanagan brings together a collection of surreal, fantastical and timeless short stories. They are not interconnected, but each reflect on the human condition, and aspects of the fantastical. In the title story, Singing My Sister Down, a bride is forced to accept a devastating punishment while her family watches and assists – it is heartbreaking and yet, has a feeling of fairy tale or the distant past, where punishments were harsh. One story, Ferryman, draws on Greek Mythology and the underworld, with the ferryman of the River Styx falling into the river he crosses every day, ferrying the recently departed to the Underworld to live with Hades and Persephone. Not All Ogre is an unusual retelling of Sleeping Beauty, with a not so happy ending for the sleeping princess. These are just three of the thirteen stories that are included in this anthology, and that evoke a sense of timelessness mixed with a fairy tale or mythical feel. Another story shows a more sinister side to the Wee Willie Winkie nursery rhyme.

 

Each story is written in first person, and set in undetermined times and places, and at times, drawing on myth and fairy tale to create the story. This gives each story an eerie feel, but at the same time, it works really well, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the stories that Lanagan has written. In some tales, the sinister side of tradition and fairy tales or nursery rhymes emerge –Wee Willie Winkie is shown as a living nightmare, a world where the worst dreams come true and haunt people for a long time. Yet others are more surreal, where I was unsure about the setting and plot and characters – yet at the same time, show a world that is not quite perfect at times, but idealised through the eyes of some of the narrators. The characters are all flawed, but driven by their own natures and desires towards the final outcomes of each story.

 

Within each story, Margo Lanagan has created a world we can recognise – the world of human nature and human flaws, not a physical world. It is lyrical and full of rich language and imagery that makes each read compelling, something that I didn’t want to set aside. It is another book that can be devoured or savoured, and I tried to do both, wanting to know how each story ended, yet not wanting to finish it too quickly.

 

In most anthologies, the stories can be linked by a theme, or even a series of characters or other plot devices. Yet in Singing My Sister Down, each story is its own entity, and yet, this works. I liked the different stories and characters within each tale, alternating between timeless worlds or worlds of magic and wonder, or unknown worlds hinting at a non-human existence. She does all of this in a wonderful way that captures the imagination and brings together ideas of what makes us human – and how an individual might deal with certain circumstances. If I had to pick a favourite, or at least one that sticks with me, it is probably Not All Ogre – I recognised the fairy tale motifs and this was exquisitely done, even though the conclusion and events that led to the conclusion were unexpected. I think this worked well for this tale in particular, leading the reader to believe one thing and then allowing another to happen – this made it intriguing and memorable.

 

A good read for young adult and adult readers. It can be read in a few days, and I hope to revisit it.

 

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The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

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Title: The Blue Cat

Author: Ursula Dubosarsky

Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 176

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: From the multi-award-winning author of The Red Shoe comes a haunting story about a boy who can’t – or won’t – speak about his past in war-torn Europe, and his friendship with a young Australian girl.

A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.

Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …

~*~

aww2017-badgeThe Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky is a glimpse into a world affected by war through the eyes of children. The main character, Columba, is a dreamy, curious child, who notices the strange boy, Ellery at school during the early part of 1942. A blue cat, sleek and mysterious, has appeared at her neighbour’s house. The arrival of Ellery and the cat spark a curiosity in Columba that has her asking more questions, wanting to know more about the world as she tries to become Ellery’s friend. Columba’s friend, Hilda, is the realist, the pushy one out collecting money for the war effort, and isn’t as dreamy as Columba.

Ellery’s arrival hints that war is closer to home than everyone thought. He is mysterious and quiet, and doesn’t speak English – through the eyes of a child, he is strange, a mystery and yet, someone that Columba sees is in need of a friend. Though they do not talk, they become friends, something Ellery’s father finds pleasing for his son, lost in a new world without a mother. The story culminates in a search for the mysterious blue cat, and events that bring the war and the realities of what that means closer to home for Columba.

The Blue Cat is dreamy, and has a fairy tale feeling about it – as though the blue cat is not quite real. This fits with the dreamy sense I got from Columba, and also the childlike ways of understanding the war – You-Rope for Europe, said phonetically perhaps, as a child might say it. I found there was a sense of magic about it – the threat is real, especially during the air raid siren practice when Columba and Ellery are out walking, and yet, it retains some of the innocence of childhood, though it is scarred by a war that is so far away yet in other ways, so close to the characters.

The Blue Cat combines history with a sense of dreaming, placing the characters in a world where sometimes their imaginations help to get them through the day, but at the same time, the reality of war will always be there. Prisoners of war, bombs and people like Ellery, hiding away, hoping for safety away from the dangers of a nation far away. Throughout the book, Ursula Dubosarsky incorporated primary sources from the time period, which added to the reading experience and gave Columba’s story an authentic feel, and added to the gravity of the situation and reality that the characters were living. An enjoyable novel showing war through the eyes of a child, and a good read for children aged ten and over.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

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Title: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Author: Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Granta/Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 256

Price: $27.99

Synopsis: A story of three polar bears: a memoirist who flees the Soviet Union; a dancer in an East Berlin circus; and Knut, a baby bear born in Berlin Zoo at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms. I curled up, became a full moon, and rolled on the floor. I may also have emitted a few hoarse shrieks. Then I lifted my rump to the sky and tucked my head beneath my belly: Now I was a sickle moon, still too young to imagine any danger. Innocent, I opened my anus to the cosmos and felt it in my bowels.’

A bear, born and raised in captivity, is devastated by the loss of his keeper; another finds herself performing in the circus; a third sits down one day and pens a memoir which becomes an international sensation, and causes her to flee her home.

Through the stories of these three bears, Tawada reflects on our own humanity, the ways in which we belong to one another and the ways in which we are formed. Delicate and surreal, Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes the reader into foreign bodies and foreign climes, and immerses us in what the New Yorker has called ‘Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness’.

~*~

Memoirs of a Polar Bear tells the story of three generations of a polar bear family – a grandmother, her daughter, Tosca, and Tosca’s son, Knut – and their lives in the German Democratic Republic, Russia, Canada, a circus and Berlin Zoo. In this book, the reader steps outside of the mind of humans, and into the minds of the three polar bears and their lives as polar bears, writers and performers, providing a commentary on how animals and humans are viewed differently through the eyes of three unique, yet connected animals.

Through each story, a world where rules constrict what people and bears can say and do emerges, contrasting in the first two parts the Soviet Union with the rest of the world, and the challenges faced by the bears to exist within the rules but still be who they are. When in the Soviet-era, Tosca and her mother interact with people who want to use their voices and writing to speak out against the faults they see but they want Tosca’s mother to do so in a certain way, their way, and to write in the language they wish her to write in, rather than allowing her to choose the language.

Tosca’s story is that of a former performer, who is recruited to the circus to create a performance. Here, she struggles against the constraints of Pankov and his demands, and what he deems as appropriate to show and say, fearful that anything with any kind of social commentary will be dangerous in the world they live in. In the final section, about Knut, at the Berlin Zoo, is based on the actual bear that lived there from 2006-2011, born in captivity and the first to survive this at the Berlin Zoo in thirty years.

Knut’s story had a sad feeling to it, perhaps because it was based on reality. As a whole, the book is strange and intriguing at the same time. Where the grandmother’s tale is told solely in first person, Tosca’s begins as though a human is speaking about her, until it seems like Tosca and Barbara merge, and Knut’s tale begins in third person –which made me think that somebody else was telling his story until an encounter with a Sun Bear encourages Knut to begin speaking in the first person.

Amusing, strange, heartbreaking and intriguing, Memoirs of a Polar Bear shows how animals see humans and how the world might be if humans and animals could have conversations and walk around together. I enjoyed this journey into the minds of a polar bear – it held my interest, and was cleverly executed. A well written, and interesting novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will hopefully interest anyone who enjoys stories from an unusual perspective.

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

traitor coverTitle: Traitor to the Throne

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy

Publisher: Faber/ Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 592

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The second installment of this highly-acclaimed trilogy, Traitor to the Throne throws the irrepressible Amani into a world of espionage, harems, and the Sultan himself.

This is not about blood or love. This is about treason. Nearly a year has passed since Amani and the rebels won their epic battle at Fahali. Amani has come into both her powers and her reputation as the Blue-Eyed Bandit, and the Rebel Prince’s message has spread across the desert – and some might say out of control. But when a surprise encounter turns into a brutal kidnapping, Amani finds herself betrayed in the cruellest manner possible. Stripped of her powers and her identity, and torn from the man she loves, Amani must return to her desert-girl’s instinct for survival. For the Sultan’s palace is a dangerous one, and the harem is a viper’s nest of suspicion, fear and intrigue. Just the right place for a spy to thrive… But spying is a dangerous game, and when ghosts from Amani’s past emerge to haunt her, she begins to wonder if she can trust her own treacherous heart.

~*~

Opening where the Sultan’s guards have captured Amani, the Rebellion and the Rebel Prince, Ahmed, soon find a way into the palace to rescue her. The rescue that takes place sets in motion a series of events that endanger Amani and the rebels, the Djinni and the Demdji like Amani – children of mortal women and Djinn, marked by a vibrant colour of hair, or, like in Amani’s case, blue eyes that stand out against her desert girl features. She is known as The Blue Eyed Bandit, and the Rebellion has come to the palace.

Later, kidnapped by someone she thought she could trust and hidden away and controlled in the Sultan’s harem, where she has been stripped of her powers, Amani uses her instincts from her time in the desert, in Dustwalk, to survive the dangers of the palace and the harem, where fear, intrigue and suspicion rule the women there and their daily lives. Using these characteristics to her advantage, Amani spies on the harem and the Sultan – bringing danger to Amani and those she cares about, and making Amani wonder if she can trust herself.

I received this to review initially not realising it was the second book in a trilogy – even though I hadn’t read the first one, I picked up the plot fairly quickly and have bought the first one to read and fill in any gaps I may have. Amani’s world – a world inspired by Sultans and Djinni, where magic and technology are at war and at the same time, being forced together to fight the same war, and where everyone fits into the world nicely, and comes together to create a diverse cast in many ways was one of my favourite things about this novel. It had strong characters, but they were still flawed, plans weren’t perfect and things still went wrong. And not everyone was who Amani thought they were.

As a reader, I enjoyed the mystery and intrigue connected to characters like Tamid, Leyla, Rahim and several of the harem girls, and the Sultima. Even the minor characters had an important role to play, and I certainly had several surprises along the way, when things that I did not expect were revealed. The cliffhanger ending had me reading it twice – I am eager to find out what happens and how things get resolved. As with any war, good and bad people die, and even those who are neither good nor evil, but benevolent or ambiguous face the prospect of death in a war that has been plaguing Miraji and its neighbours.

The first person perspective of Amani, peppered with a few chapters from an outside perspective, such as a Djinni, works well. When she is cut off from the Rebels, Amani has to rely on anything she can hear in whispers from around the palace and her own instincts to get by. She is a resourceful character. I enjoyed reading about a fantasy world in a desert. In Amani’s world, it is set during a time when technology is beginning to take over from magic and superstition – perhaps akin to times in our own world history like the Industrial Revolution, but in a Arabic-like setting. Religion and beliefs are hinted to, but not named – showing that Amani’s world and their traditions are different to our own.

I am looking forward to reading book one, and then book three when it comes out, and seeing how the war concludes – and how Amani and the Rebellion finish what they started.

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Stasi Wolf by David Young

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Title: Stasi Wolf (Karin Müller #2)

Author: David Young

Genre: Historical/Crime and Mystery

Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre/Allen and Unwin

Published: 22nd February 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 416

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: How do you solve a murder when you can’t ask any questions?

East Germany, 1975. Karin Müller, sidelined from the murder squad in Berlin, jumps at the chance to be sent south to Halle-Neustadt, where a pair of infant twins have gone missing.

But Müller soon finds her problems have followed her. Halle-Neustadt is a new town – the pride of the communist state – and she and her team are forbidden by the Stasi from publicising the disappearances, lest they tarnish the town’s flawless image.

Meanwhile, in the eerily nameless streets and tower blocks, a child snatcher lurks, and the clock is ticking to rescue the twins alive…

~*~

Set during the height of the Cold War and East Germany, under the control of the Stasi and communist influence, Stasi Wolf is the second in the Karin Müller series. Oberleutnant Müller, a member of the People’s Police, is sent to Halle-Neustadt to investigate the disappearance of infant twins. Forbidden by the Stasi to publicise the disappearance so the flawless image of Halle-Neustadt remains intact, Karin and her team run into a series of problems and roadblocks that prevent them from completing the job in a timely manner. As the months pass, the child snatcher hides in plain sight amongst the nameless streets, and a much larger mystery is lurking in the shadows of the missing twins.

The world of Stasi Wolf shows East Germany thirty years after the end of World War Two, under Soviet and Communist control. It is a world that Karin Müller has grown up in, and as a member of the People’s Police, struggles against doing what is right for the nation, what the Stasi demand, and working to resolve cases of missing children, at times having to use subversive methods to get by the watchful eye of the Stasi, especially Malkus, the Stasi officer in charge of Halle-Neustadt, vetting every move Karin and her team make in the search for the missing babies. It is a story full of twists and turns, that shows hints of the past at times, and these hints are slipped in effectively and in a way that keeps the reader guessing.

The development of Karin’s character is excellent too – from the hints at what happen to her during her training, to her family dynamic and the scenes that give the reader a glimpse into her past, and what made her the person she is in the novel, and the way she uses these past experiences to subvert the orders she is given. Her ability to find a way to bypass the orders shows that she is creative and innovative – as much as she can be in a Communist run state.

I thought that the suspense and pace of this book were well written. The scenes that flicked back and forth in first person held much mystery, and added to the thickening plot and case that Karin was investigating. Another nice surprise was the side story of Karin’s relationship with the doctor, Emil. It didn’t take over the rest of the story, and was effective, and tied in nicely with the eventual conclusion of the story. It is a gripping story that ensnared me and captured my attention, wanting to know what happened next, and what kind of person would kidnap twins, and why.

David Young has captured the characters well, and the hints he leaves about some of the characters creating a well-thought out sense of mystery, and his backdrop of the Stasi controlled East Germany ensured a story that had many twists and turns, and complex and flawed characters, in a world where knowing who to trust was hard. It was a great novel, and I hope the series will continue.

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Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone-gapTitle: Bone Gap

Author: Laura Ruby

Genre: Magical Realism, Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Published: 22nd February 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: A masterful and seductive tale of love, magic, regret and forgiveness. Winner of the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award.

He’d been drawn here by the grass and the bees and the strange sensation that this was a magical place, that the bones of the world were a little looser here, double- jointed, twisting back on themselves, leaving spaces one could slip into and hide…

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps – gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza goes missing, the people of Bone Gap aren’t surprised. After all, it isn’t the first time someone’s slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was taken, ripped from the cornfields by a man whose face he can’t remember. But no one believes him anymore. Well, almost no one. Petey Willis, the beekeeper’s daughter, suspects that lurking behind Finn’s fearful shyness is a story worth uncovering. But as we, like Petey, follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap – their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures – the truth about what happened to Roza is slowly revealed. And it is stranger than you can possibly imagine.

~*~

Bone Gap is a small town in America, where strange things occur to ordinary people. Roza appears in Bone Gap, in the barn of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan, two boys abandoned by their mother, and with a dead father, they fend for themselves, finding a way to work together. Sean drives the ambulance, and Finn is finishing school, but can’t recognise faces: it is a quirk that people in Bone Gap find odd, that they don’t know how to respond to for much of the novel. Especially when Roza disappears and Finn knows who did it – the man who moves like a cornstalk – but can’t describe his face. It is Petey, the beekeeper’s daughter, who starts to believe him and befriend him, and their relationship grows over the summer. It reaches a climax where Finn is determined to set things right, and it swept me along, longing to finish it and find out what had happened.

There is romance in this novel – Roza and Sean, Finn and Petey, but it’s something that lingers as the mystery of Roza’s disappearance and Bone Gap emerge. A different person, usually Roza and Finn, tells each chapter with the occasional side character such as Petey and Charlie Valentine, the old man who keeps chickens and hides secrets. Who is Charlie and what role does he play? Is he dangerous, or simply a lonely old man who longs to be a part of something? And who is there to believe Finn about the man who moved like a cornstalk, but whose face he couldn’t describe – a face, that to Finn, looked fairly average and indistinct? It’s Petey who does, whose kind words push him into action. She is as much a friend as a girlfriend to him. Their relationship works as either, and it was the friendship they shared at the beginning that I enjoyed the most, and this aspect continued to come through, even in moments of doubt from each character.

Both romances were almost secondary to the character development. The arrival of the black horse brings the magic into it, and shows Finn that the world isn’t what it always seems to be. I enjoyed Bone Gap – it was different to many things I have read but it had a sense of mystery and magic that were hard to resist, flawed characters who didn’t have all their secrets revealed at once or at all, so reading on was the only option. And a relationship between brothers and how it healed that became more important than the romance – refreshing to see different kinds of love and relationships represented in Young Adult literature.

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