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Favourite books for 2018

IMG_1605Here it is, almost the end of the year again. There have been some highs this year, primarily the shortlisting of my adult mystery manuscript When Secrets Come to Light for The Banjo Prize, and subsequently being offered a contract for its publication. That was very validating and I was on a high for weeks following. I also received a contract for a middle-grade novel, He’s My Brother. They will both be forthcoming in 2020.

On the other hand, I didn’t get as much new writing done this year as I’d hoped. Ideas have been percolating for a new adult novel, though, so that is progress of a sort.

I did read more than last year, which was one of my goals, so here are some of my favourites. I’d recommend any of them if you’re looking for something new to read.

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham – Loved this psychological thriller that kept me turning pages well into the night. The story follows two women, Meghan who seems to have it all, and Agatha, who works part time at the local grocery store, and idolises Meghan from afar. When pregnant Agatha learns that Meghan is also expecting, she finally plucks up the courage to start a conversation with her. An unlikely friendship evolves, centred around the trials of pregnancy and the ordeal of the upcoming births. Meghan has no idea that that simple exchange would alter her life forever.

Michael Robotham has done a brilliant job of portraying these women, their mental states, and their relationships. The suspense is dripped out as we learn more about their lives, and follow them into the dark realms of their secrets.

Beneath the Mother Tree by DM Cameron – Debut author DM Cameron has woven together a tale of intrigue and mysticism that pulls the reader into the tiny island community where the story is set. Right from the beginning of the book, there is a sense of unease, of something not right, and Cameron plays it out beautifully, drawing out the suspense and increasing the tension right through the book.

Ayla is a young woman who grew up on a small island off the coast of Queensland, fed by the Irish folk tales told by her grandfather, Grappa, and surrounded by the Indigenous history of the local community. When she meets a mysterious flute-player on the beach, Grappa fears it is the Far Darocha, dark servant of the Faery Queen, come to lure her into the faery realm.

Riley and his mother have moved to the island to escape their past. A stranger in a tightly-knit community, he is drawn to Ayla, as she is to him. What unfolds is part love story, part mystery, and a little bit of magic. Would appeal to both older teens and adults.

Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield – This YA book has everything you could want. Mystery, suspense, secrets, intrigue, and a touch of the supernatural. Add to that well-drawn characters, great prose and an Australian setting and you have a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Seventeen-year-old Grace Foley is a daredevil. She’s not afraid of anything, and will do anything for a laugh. Until she tries to defend her record for ‘Walking the Pipe’ across the disused quarry and something happens that she can’t explain. Not to herself and not to anyone else. Her search for an explanation leads her into a twenty-year-old mystery that has never been solved and despite the well-meaning advice of family and friends she can’t seem to let it go. Is it really the ghost of Hannah Holt come to exact her revenge? Or is Grace going a little bit mad?

This is a novel that keeps the reader turning pages. The characters are well-developed, the voice authentic and edgy, the suspense well drawn, and the mystery intriguing. Vikki Wakefield brilliantly portrays Grace’s anxiety and fear as she battles with what is real and what is imagined. Highly recommended.

The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning – A compelling tale of friendship, love and the hardships of war, this story is set in two time periods.

In 2016, Alexandra flees London with a broken heart and returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, when her grandfather falls ill. With only weeks to live, they begin to reveal the mystery of their early life together in Shanghai during WWII. Intrigued, Alexandra goes to Shanghai to discover the truth of what happened, leading her to question who she is, and where her family really came from.

In 1939, Romy flees Vienna with her family, landing as a refugee in Shanghai, where she meets the beautiful Li. Romy and Li become fast friends, but as the war in Europe escalates, their friendship is tested, and Romy begins to doubt Li’s loyalty.

Manning brings the streets of Shanghai to life, especially in the historical sections of the book: the sights, the sounds, the smells. It was a fascinating read, not only for the characters and their personal circumstances and trials during this harrowing period of history, but also for the history itself – of Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies by Jackie French – A beautiful and passionate historical novel by Jacki French that explores the power and courage of women in a time where women were considered anything but powerful and courageous.

Sophie Higgs is the daughter of an Australian businessman, and thus not entirely accepted when she arrives at Shillings Hall in the English countryside. Nevertheless, she makes tentative friendships with the other ‘lovely ladies’ who are there to partake in Miss Lily’s lessons in etiquette and high society. Sophie, however, suspects that there is more to Miss Lily than meets the eye, and that she has an alternative purpose in her training of the girls.

It is 1914, and when war breaks out, women the world over are required to abandon etiquette and take on roles they were never prepared for. Sophie finds herself embroiled in a plot to stop a devastating tragedy, and must employ all the skills Miss Lily taught her to ensure a successful outcome. Still, the question of Miss Lily’s true identity never leaves her.

Jackie French is a master of historical fiction. She is able to bring history to life, so that the reader is immersed in the time and place the story is set and this book is no exception. Sophie is a likable character, strong and independent with a mind of her own, and her story is compelling. And I, too, found myself wondering who Miss Lily really was and what motivation truly drove her. I’ll be looking for the other two books in this trilogy. Recommended for anyone who likes historical women’s fiction.

The Centre of My Everything by Allayne Webster – A young adult book for older teens, this is a confronting but passionate read. The story is told from the perspective of four teens living in a small town in South Australia. As the blurb on the back says:

‘Justin’s back, and wants to put the past behind him.

Corey’s a footy hero and high-school dropout who can’t even find work picking fruit.

Tara wants to be loved. But if her mother doesn’t care, why would anyone else?

Margo wants out, and she has a plan to get there.’

Webster holds nothing back in showing life in this small community. The good, the bad and the ugly. It deals with real issues, hard issues that no one wants to talk about. It is raw and honest. Not all the characters are likable, but they are compelling, and I couldn’t stop reading. And by the end of the book I really cared about them. All of them.

A book that won’t easily be forgotten.

The Right Place by Carla Caruso – A romance novel rich in the history of 1950’s Adelaide, this novel is written in two timelines.

The main story line follows Nella as she arrives at Torrente Blu, one of the few surviving market gardens in Adelaide, left to her by her nonna who recently passed away. Intent on packing away her grandmother’s things and selling the property, she is drawn into the history of the place when she discovers her nonna’s hand-written cookbook. When she realises her childhood friend and neighbour, Adrian, who is managing the market garden, needs help on the property, she offers to assist, and soon his passion for life on the land starts to rub off on her.

Interspersed with Nella’s story are snippets of her nonna’s life as a new immigrant in 1958. Esta and her husband and young daughter move to Adelaide from a small village in Italy to escape the ravages of WWII. But life in South Australia is not at all what Esta expected, and she struggles to come to terms with the harsh reality of life in an alien country.

This is a heartfelt story of two women trying to find their place in life.

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