The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

In brief: In Hong Kong, three expatriate women are going through difficult times: Margaret has lost her child, Mercy can’t move forward due to her past and Hilary desperately wants a child. Circumstances bring them all together…

The good: Janice Y.K. Lee always writes powerful, emotive stories.

The not-so-good: What happened to G?

Why I chose it: Christmas present.

Year: 2016

Pages: 332

Publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)

Setting: Primarily Hong Kong

My rating: 9 out of 10

Hong Kong is not a common setting in my book reading world, so on hearing about this book I really wanted to read it. The bonus was hearing that it was by Janice Y. K. Lee, who wrote the hauntingly beautiful The Piano Teacher. I was expecting a book of substance, which I definitely got. Lee takes the expatriate experience, in itself lonely, and applies it to three women, who also have reasons not to be happy.

Margaret was a willing expat life, willing to take on life in Hong Kong – the lunches, charities and the Target.com hauls. All that changed when her child, G (we never learn the rest of his name) disappeared off the streets of Seoul. Now she is a shell of her former self, not willing to move on and not willing to forgive her baby sitter. That person happens to be Mercy, also an expatriate Columbia graduate. Mercy knows she’s not one to have good luck and she feels just as bad about the disappearance of G as Margaret. Now she drifts aimlessly in Hong Kong until one night she meets an expatriate at a bar… That man happens to be the husband of Hilary, who sits on the fringes of the American expatriate society. She doesn’t have a child, but wants one desperately. She’s determined to the adopt orphan Julian, no matter what the gossipers say.

For the most part, the women are alone in their experiences and it’s only gradually that the reader sees the links between the women in this small, awkward community in a foreign city. The narrative moves from character to character as they sit on the fringes. All are afraid to move on with their lives, to accept the past. Except for Hilary – she’s got a shock coming to her as her life becomes entangled with Mercy’s. The pain and lonesomeness is tangible for each character, but it’s to Lee’s credit that the reader never gets sick of it. Things move slowly as each character moves on, but again it’s not boring but feels very natural. Lee has a talent for writing that is raw, yet beautiful, no matter the subject matter. The melancholy seeps through the novel but the ending gives a glimmer of hope for each of the characters. Slowly but surely, they are accepting their fates and moving in the direction to make the most of it.

This is a book that hints, rather than reveals to the reader but without being frustratingly obtuse. Enough of the loose ends are tied up to be satisfying, but there is plenty to reflect on once the book is finished. It’s not just about the fish out of water that can be the expatriate experience, it’s an insight into motherhood and how the past shapes the future.

In at the Deep End by Penelope Janu

In brief: Harriet Scott is an environmental activist/teacher with a secret – her fear of water. When she meets Commander Per Amundsen in Antarctic waters, little did she know it would set off a change of events that would have her facing her fears.

The good: Excellent characterisation with witty dialogue between Harriet and Per.

The not-so-good: I felt a bit lost at the start as the story jumps straight into the action.

Why I chose it: Looked really fun, thanks Harlequin for the ARC.

Year: 2017

Pages: 340

Publisher: Harlequin Mira

Setting: Sydney, Australia and waters off the Antarctic

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

I initially found out about In at the Deep End when reading a story about Penelope Janu, the author. I love stories where professionals in another field turn to writing as it means two things for me: an informed, cracking read and hope that one day I’ll bust out a book that’s not a required textbook! I also love the cover of In at the Deep End as it screams wit, fun and something a bit different. I can guarantee you that this book holds all of these things, plus more. It’s a wonderful debut with some of the most crackling wit I’ve found in any books I’ve read.

The opening of the story is original too as we find heroine Harriet in a sinking ship off Antarctica. At first she seems like a courageous captain, ready to go down with her ship but as she is rescued, there’s an inkling that there is more at stake for Harry than the loss of the Scott Foundation’s ship. That becomes more obvious as she loses her cool when she’s splashed by big waves. Watching all this closely is her rescuer, Norwegian army commander Per Amundsen and he’s not happy. His scientific mission to Antarctica has been thwarted thanks to Harry’s rescue, so now he plans to sue. This sets off a relationship that crackles, sizzles and fences its way to love. It’s an honest story that shows both Harry and Per at their best and worst and the fun is in their dialogue and two steps forward, one step back dance as they attempt to resolve Harry’s fear of the water.

The story starts at a cracking pace and doesn’t really let up – if there’s not some action to be had in the water, there’s a lot of verbal action between Harry and Per. I know it sounds like I’m going on about the dialogue, but it really is that good. It’s the kind of rapid fire wit that makes you smile and chuckle. Plus, the dialogue seems so natural, it’s amazing. (Oh, and there’s a bit of Norwegian to be learned thanks to Per). Initially I was a bit confused as to how Harry got to the Antarctic, but after her rescue, everything is becomes clearer. She’s the daughter of environmental adventurers (think Steve Irwin), who have made a number of documentaries but have now passed away. Harry is somewhat of an Australian celebrity, having grown up on TV. She’s now a teacher who infuses her lessons with tales of her childhood, as well as being a quick artist. In her spare time, she continues to assist the family foundation, even though she doesn’t own any of it. Harry’s cruising in an awkward place, and it takes the calm eyes of Per to see it.

Harry immediately decides Per is some sort of action hero, Polarman. It’s easy to see why. He’s well built with piercing eyes, very physically fit and super smart. He sees everything and what he wants is to cure Harry’s water phobia – and do his study in the Antarctic. He’s warm to Harry’s cold skin, yet he can be verbally as cold as ice. He’s an enigma that fascinates Harry (and the reader), which makes for a fantastic romantic hero.

Much of the story is Per helping Harry to learn to be in the water, spiced up by the fascinating conversations you can have on the second step of a swimming pool. Don’t think that it’s boring. It’s not. It’s a lovely exploration of the beginning of a relationship with a heroine who is feisty, a bit clumsy but always passionate. Per is the epitome of the romantic hero (also I’m certain he would say he isn’t, with a few choice words in Norwegian) that will capture your heart. Their story is feisty, messy and simply a great read.

The House of New Beginnings by Lucy Diamond

In brief: In a group of flats in Brighton, a number of women are looking for a new beginning. Will they find it in Brighton with the courage to strike on their own?

The good: All the characters are delightful and interesting and I wanted to read more about them all!

The not-so-good: I feel a bit lonely now I’m away from the house at 11 Dukes Square.

Why I chose it: Always meaning to read a Lucy Diamond book but never quite getting there until now, thank you Pan Macmillan.

Year: 2017

Pages: 470

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Setting: Brighton, England

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Lucy Diamond’s books have always sounded like something I’d like to read but I’ve never gotten around to it. Until now. (I seem to be doing well in 2017 in reading authors I’d always meant to!) Perfect for fans of Cathy Kelly and Jill Mansell (two authors I enjoy), The House of New Beginnings is a story full of warmth, heartache and ultimately joy. It’s a fantastic beach read or one to cosy up on the couch with as it’s not a demanding read, but one that will envelope you in the world of 11 Dukes Square. I finished this book several days ago and I’ve missed the characters since then!

There are several main characters in the story, all residents of the same building near the seafront in Brighton. All are fairly recent arrivals to Brighton from different parts of England and all are coping with a great deal of change in their lives. Georgie was my favourite character (she’s young but a determined optimist) who has moved to Brighton with her boyfriend for his new job. She has a plan to get a job as a journalist and she won’t take no for an answer, even if it means going to a roller disco 80s evening! Rosa had a high flying job but left London after a breakup of epic proportions. She’s turned her hand to working as a chef (cooking is her passion) but cutting up pumpkin isn’t that thrilling. Will she branch out to achieve her dream? And finally, Charlotte has gone through heartbreak and is just trying to fill her days to get through them. Can elderly resident Margot help her to see the sunshine as Charlotte does weekly chores for her?

The journey of these women from heartbreak to happiness was heart-warmingly lovely. Yes, there are sadder parts of the narrative but they are balanced out nicely with the hilarious and cringe worthy but funny. (Let’s just say that I wouldn’t mind doing a few chores for Margot!) Lucy Diamond handles each woman’s loss sensitively and compassionately, so much so that I really felt for Charlotte. For Rosa, I just wanted to give Max a piece of my mind! (Although the revenge in the book is 100% brilliant, it nails what we know of Max’s foibles). The characters are also incredibly realistic, they could in fact be your neighbours, mates or colleagues. I think that’s what made The House of New Beginnings stick with me, what did happen to the characters could happen to anybody. They didn’t have any extraordinary powers, money or fame – they were everyday people, dealing with everyday things. But don’t think that the story is boring, because it isn’t. The writing sparkles and the characters make their life interesting (with a little bit of help from the town of Brighton, which seems to have some nice cafes and quirky nightlife). The minor characters, such as Gareth, Paul and the women at the refuge are also every day people, but with a unique or memorable trait. (Particularly Paul. His big reveal as the landlady’s son at the end is hysterically funny).

So if you’re looking for a book that will effortlessly engage you, do give The House of New Beginnings a go. It’s fun and uplifting, a treat of a story.

City of Friends by Joanna Trollope

In brief: Stacey, Gaby, Melissa and Beth have been friends since their first economics class. On the day Stacey loses her job, the secrets and lies between the four begin to unravel.

The good: Each character is unique with a completely different set of problems.

The not-so-good: Stacey, you need to talk more!

Why I chose it: Have never read any of Joanna Trollope’s books before, so it’s high time I started. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for the copy.

Year: 2017

Pages: 329

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Setting: London

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Confession time: I’ve never read a Joanna Trollope book before City of Friends. Why? I don’t know really. I could make a lot of excuses but the truth is I’ve never really gotten around to it – it’s too hard to go to the library, the local bookshop closed down…then it’s all too late. In a way, City of Friends explores that notion – letting something slide until it’s too difficult, then nearly impossible. But the stakes are much higher here as it’s about secrets within friendships and family.

The story opens dramatically with Stacey losing her job, very suspiciously after she’s asked to work from home some days to look after her mum who has dementia. After her boss says no, he then casually mentions that she’s superfluous to the team and he was going to make her redundant anyway. This really got me simmering, the casual sexism and the fact that it’s pretty much against equal opportunity laws. The explosive start develops into a theme – can women have it all (family and work life)? What are the barriers that women face when they try to do that? Is it so wrong for a woman to say she loves her work before her family? These ideas are what hooked me into City of Friends. It’s a bold investigation into the life of a career woman.

All four women studied economics and now have high flying jobs in the corporate and academic sectors. Except for Stacey, who is a lost end with caring for her mum. It’s a different structure that lacks routine, socialisation and her mum barely notices if she’s there or not. Melissa started her own company and now tells boards of directors what to do. She excels that that but when her son says he wants to spend time with his father, she’s at a loss what to do. Gaby has the family and the high powered job that she openly admits she loves more than her family. Now if she could tell Melissa that she hired her ex-lover’s wife and that she can’t give Stacey a job…but it’s too late. Beth went into academia, becoming an in demand guru of organisation psychology but her relationship is on the rocks. Can she handle a vindictive breakup and change her future?

What was pleasantly refreshing about City of Friends is that it didn’t shy away from the characters’ flaws and mistakes. They were tackled openly once they were brought to the fore. The flaws in each character didn’t make me like them less as a reader, rather I appreciated the honesty and I could see myself being friends with them. They are not superhero workers, lovers and mothers – they all juggle everything and sometimes it fails, occasionally in cringe worthy fashion. Yet the story is not preachy or bogged down in drama – it’s a pleasant read that moves quickly. The only thing I would have liked to have seen more of is the economics as I’m interested in that area, but I really I’m in a tiny minority here (and to be honest, I don’t think it would have fit with the lighter tone of the book). I’ll certainly be seeking out more of Joanna Trollope’s novels as I thought the strong female characters and open exploration of their faults was refreshing.

Heart of the Sky by Fiona McArthur

In brief: A new job in the Outback is just what Tess needs to escape from her life. Her landlord Soretta welcomes the newcomers with open arms, until new pilot Charlie reveals his ulterior motive…

The good: I enjoyed reuniting with Soretta and the gang from Mica Ridge, as well as following Tess’s role as an outreach breast cancer nurse.

The not-so-good: I devoured this in just a few days.

Why I chose it: The Homestead Girls was loads of fun, thanks Penguin Australia for the copy.

Year: 2017

Pages: 278

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)

Setting: Outback Australia

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Fiona McArthur’s novels are always a heart-warming read for me, as I know that there will be tears, sadness but ultimately a joyful ending. Heart of the Sky is no exception to this, and it also has the added bonus of reuniting the reader with the women of The Homestead Girls. There are also what I’d consider to be two main characters in the novel, but they’re not the hero and heroine. It’s the story of two women, one familiar to the reader and one not, who find joy in unexpected places.

The first person we meet in Heart of the Sky is Tess. She’s an oncology nurse, looking for a new outlet after the tragic death of her husband. From a calendar image, she gets the idea of moving to outback Australia to assist cancer sufferers there. This starts a new journey as Tess becomes an outreach breast cancer nurse in the red dirt country of Mica Ridge. She’s based at the Flying Doctor Service so she can fly out to women on stations to offer support and nursing assistance. Of course, this means that we get to reunite with the other characters from FDS, such as Billie, Daphne and Mia. It’s not long before Tess is living at Blue Hills with Soretta and her grandfather making them welcome. The other new boarder is Charlie, relief FDS pilot, who has a secret up his sleeve. It’s not long before he and Soretta become firm friends, but when his secret is revealed, it deeply affects people she’s come to love. Can Tess and Soretta find their way to happiness?

I enjoy books with an oncology thread to them (I know, it’s a bit odd) because I get to experience the human contact side of it all. I can honestly say that this is the only place I’ve read or heard about knitted knockers (aka knitted prostheses to be used after a mastectomy). Tess’s determination to provide the best care possible regardless of distance is inspirational and even the little touches like tea in her office show how thoughtful and caring she is. There are tips from her practice that others could use in real life to make these women (and men, breast cancer is not exclusively female) to feel more comfortable.

It was also great to get to know what makes Soretta tick. She was determined and even a little bit fiery in The Homestead Girls. She is a bit more comfortable financially in this book, so she let her guard down to Charlie. I enjoyed reading about her mixed feelings and loyalty to her friends and family. The latter part of the book where both her feelings and her wits were tested was great to read. There was a sense of urgency in terms of plot, but Soretta was very level headed in emotional and practical terms. This made me warm to her even more as a character. Like Tess, she wants the best for those she cares about.

Overall, Heart of the Sky is a lovely story, full of characters you will love instantly and with enough drama to keep reading through the night. That’s why I never miss one of Fiona McArthur’s books!

New York Nights by C.J. Duggan

In brief: Sarah jumps at the chance to be an au pair in New York City. But there’s more than a few odd things about working for Ben Worthington. His family talk warn her not to ask questions, but how can she not when Ben looks so hurt?

The good: Sarah is a fun and sassy character and New York is just gorgeous.

The not-so-good: I must admit, the baby stuff isn’t my style.

Why I chose it: I loved Paris Lights, thanks to Hachette for sending me this book (the second standalone book in the Heart of the City series).

Year: 2017

Pages: 306

Publisher: Hachette

Setting: New York City

My rating: 8 out of 10

I’m really glad that I’ve discovered C.J. Duggan’s novels – her writing is sassy and witty with strong female characters who are willing to take on anything, no holds barred. New York Nights is the second book in the Heart of the City series, but both are standalone stories. What they have in common is the themes of love in a big city and young women nailing standing on their own two feet. These books are delightful summer reads, perfect for the beach or in my case, under the air conditioner in 42˚C heat!

Sarah Williams has always enjoyed being an au pair in her small Aussie rural town, but when the family move to Slovenia, she’s not really up for that. Fortunately her employer knows someone looking for an au pair in New York City, so in a dream come true, she flies over to be interviewed by the Worthingtons. It’s not the ideal interview as two of the women are as cold as ice, but the third is warm and insists Sarah is perfect for the job. She just has to remember one thing – don’t ask questions. Sarah is naturally inquisitive and stands up for what’ right, but she’s got this. Plus, it’s New York City with a cute little baby. There will be walks through Central Park, strolls to the Magnolia Bakery and a wonderful rooftop space to enjoy the sunshine.

Um, not quite. Grace is a cute baby, but she’s not into sleep. Plus her father, Ben is an enigma. His preferred method of communication is short, sharp texts or emails. He generally avoids Grace. But then sometimes he’s warm, funny and genuinely interested in Sarah. Sarah can’t make him out and begins to ask questions. Which occasionally Ben answers before he shuts down. What will it take for Ben to open up to Sarah and Grace? Will Sarah make it out of New York City with her heart intact?

New York Nights has a slightly more serious tone than Paris Lights, possibly because Sarah has much more responsibility with Grace and Ben doesn’t like to talk. It’s still a satisfying ending, perfect for the couple but there’s a lot more at stake here. There is Ben’s past to be revealed, which isn’t all that pretty, plus the family dynamics of the Worthingtons. They are not a happy family, with multiple divisions and secrets ramped up to CIA Top Secret levels. Finding out their secrets was nearly as fun as reading about Sarah and Ben. I did get slightly sick of Grace being fussy, probably because she’s pre-cute baby stage and just sleeps, poops and cries. Fortunately the focus moved from Sarah and Grace to Sarah and Ben at just the right time for me. This was also when Ben began to open up more, changing him from a brooding enigma to sultry hero. The glimpse into the au pair scene of NYC was equal parts horrifying and fascinating. I liked that New York Nights had more happening that just the romance, which kept me reading and reading and reading! It’s a fun, easy read which delights and the detail about New York is extra gorgeous. It’s obvious that a lot of careful research went on here!

Now my biggest problem is waiting for the third book in the series, London Bound, which is released late March. C.J. Duggan’s book are the perfect treat for me, combining beautiful locations with a fun, sexy read.

True Colours by Kristin Hannah

In brief: The Grey sisters have always been a team, until a stranger comes to Oyster Shores. Can the sisters forgive or forget, or will it take a lot more?

The good: There are hidden depths in this book that made the latter half speed by.

The not-so-good: Start is a little slow, I wasn’t too sure where it was going.

Why I chose it: I’ve always meant to read a Kristin Hannah book but never got there – thanks Pan Macmillan for helping me out.

Year: 2017 (originally published 2009)

Pages: 393

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Setting: Oyster Shores, Washington, USA

My rating: 9 out of 10

Kristin Hannah is one of the (too many) authors on my to-read pile. I have a copy of a couple of her books, but fate has always intervened to prevent me from getting the book off the shelf. I was determined for this not to be third time unlucky when I was offered True Colours to read and review. Now of course, I am annoyed at myself for not reading Kristin Hannah sooner! This novel combined family relationships, love, suspense and some crime into an unexpected, riveting read. I think 2017 is going to be my year of the ‘new to me and absolutely fantastic’ author.

Initially, I wasn’t sure where this novel was going to head. It opens with the aftermath of the death of the Grey girls’ mother and then moves forward into the early 1990s where the girls are grown up. Aurora married a nice but boring doctor, Winona became a lawyer and Vivi Ann continues to work on the family ranch, Water’s Edge. (That really threw me having a farm so close to the beach – I’m more used to farms being inland and the ocean being a day trip away). Vivi Ann rides horses in barrel races to try and earn money for the struggling farm, but she seems to be fighting a losing battle. I began to wonder at this point if the story would be all about horses (people who know me would know that I like my horsepower wrapped in an engine). Luckily, for me, it wasn’t. It’s not a spoiler to say that the ranch begins to see better times, although both Vivi Ann and Winona are struggling. Winona is desperate for her father’s approval, which Vivi Ann seems to receive casually. To top it off, Vivi Ann is now dating Winona’s high school crush. How can sisters be so lucky and unlucky?

Unfortunately this is only the start of the Grey girls’ troubles. Winona hires an outsider, Dallas, to work on the farm and Vivi Ann sees far more in him than the others, despite being engaged to someone else. But it’s going to be a long hard road to happiness for the girls, if it comes at all…

One of the major plot points is unexpected and carries strongly through the latter half of the book, so I won’t be discussing it here. I felt that this lifted the book from a nice story about sisters and their lives to a gripping read that takes the story outside of the small town. It was very well done emotionally, tugging at the heartstrings of the reader, yet I was never entirely sure who was guilty… The whole story is very well written, right down to the mentions of the 1990s fashion (hairspray, shoulder pads and the like). I quite enjoyed this, and it was nice to not have the characters connected to their phones for the entire novel. It forced them to talk things out or on the other side, go to extraordinary lengths to avoid each other.

Each of the sisters goes through her own personal turmoil in various degrees of detail in True Colours and it’s interesting to compare them. Winona feels left out for many reasons – she’s not married, she thinks she’s fat and ugly and her career away from the ranch makes her feel alone and estranged from the rest of the family. She tries to cover it by being superior, but it often flies back in her face. Vivi Ann knows she has the love of her family, but is determined to stay independent and go through with life choices others don’t agree with. Aurora is much more of a background character – she’s sweet and dependable but the big events of her life don’t get much page time compared with the demands of her sisters. I wondered sometimes when she would get her chance to shine away from holding up Vivi Ann emotionally and doing Winona’s make up!

Overall, I really enjoyed this introduction to Kristin Hannah’s work. She can plot exceptionally well and bring her characters into the reader’s heart easily. Next stop, my bookshelf for more!

Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay by Jill Mansell

In brief: St Carys is an idyllic English seaside town, but its inhabitants have a number of secrets. Can they be untangled so love can win the day?

The good: Absolutely jam packed full of twists and turns in the plot.

The not-so-good: Read this one pretty fast!

Why I chose it: Never read a Jill Mansell novel before and decided this looked so summery – many thanks Hachette for the copy.

Year: 2017

Pages: 405

Publisher: Headline Review (Hachette)

Setting: St Carys, Cornwall (England)

My rating: 8 out of 10

I simply adore the cover of Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay – it’s warm and relaxing, just what you need for summer. Unfortunately, I read this under a pile of blankets with a summer cold but it was just the treat I needed. Because that’s what this book is, a treat. It’s simply delicious, combining love, mix-ups, heartfelt reunions and delicious takedowns all in one big box. All the twists and turns (and some are a little out there, it must be said) are just a bonus. Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay is a true delight – it’s like opening a box of chocolates to find it only contains your favourites!

The overarching theme is love, in all forms and sizes. It seems that all our characters have issues that are best solved by true love in the gorgeous seaside backdrop of St Carys, a seaside resort town in Cornwall. We open with Clemency, a real estate agent, finding true love in the seat next to her on a plane, until her seatmate Sam tells her after landing that he’s married. Fast forward three years, and Clemency is single but pretty happy. Then her stepsister Belle brings home her new boyfriend, who is looking for a place in St Carys. Of course, it just happens to be Sam! Belle lords it over Clemency yet again, until Clemency decides to invent a fake relationship with Belle’s ex-crush and her best friend Ronan. Ronan is known in town for being a ladies’ man, but he’s okay with the pretend relationship as he lost his heart to mail-lady Kate months ago. Plus, he really wants to find his birth mother without upsetting his beloved adoptive mother. Painter and friend Marina hides a secret – and it’s not her annoying ex-husband, as does Kate. Will all of this unjumble itself?

Of course it will, but it’s an absolute delight getting to that point. Plus, there are even more twists (only one of which I saw coming) that make reading this novel so delicious. It’s incredibly funny in places too. And the final wedding – well, that was the piece de resistance. Master subterfuge right there! I read over half this novel in one day as it really is that much fun. The characters range from gorgeous (Ronan with his cheeky ways) to sweet (Sam, the man with a heart of gold). Even the minor characters, such as the pharmacy assistants who seem to do nothing but gossip are quirky and individual. But my favourite character was Marina’s ex-husband George who is equal parts repulsive and hilarious in his self-assured, blind faith that he is God’s gift to women!

There’s plenty to love about this book – it’s warm, witty and as sparkly as the sea on a summer’s day. Yes, it’s a fast read but it’s as satisfying as your favourite treat – without the calories.

To the Sea by Christine Dibley

In brief: Just after Christmas, a girl is reported missing, presumed drowned. But this case is nothing like anything DI Tony Vincent has seen before…

The good: This book really pulls the reader in to its world – it’s not what you think.

The not-so-good: It’s hard to explain without spoiling big secrets!

Why I chose it: I like to support Australian writers, many thanks to Pan Macmillan for the copy.

Year: 2016

Pages: 451

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Setting: Tasmania, Australia

My rating: 10 out of 10

To the Sea is a book I would have likely missed had the published not introduced me to it. I am so thankful that I read it though – this novel is so powerful and all-consuming that I think it will be one of my top reads for the year. Don’t be put off by the quiet, moody cover – To the Sea is an incredibly assured debut novel that blends crime, history and literary fiction with a secret ingredient. I can’t spill what that secret ingredient is because it may act as a spoiler, but for me it was beautifully, sensitively done.

To the Sea starts off as a pretty straightforward novel – a teenage girl has gone missing, presumed drowned off the Tasmanian coast. For DI Tony Vincent, it should be fairly straightforward. But when the detectives arrive at the family holiday home, things get stranger. Zoe had been missing for nearly 24 hours before her family reported her disappearance and why can’t they agree as to what she was wearing, or doing? For Tony, he becomes involved in the world of the Kennetts as he tries to piece together who Zoe was in this large family. Her much older brothers and sisters barely knew her and even her parents didn’t know all her secrets. Only Zoe’s mum, Eva, has an idea of where Zoe might be. She’s pretty sure that Zoe will be back. But on questioning, Eva’s reasoning doesn’t match logic. Her ex-boyfriend also tells some tales of Zoe’s unusual feats. Who, if anybody, is telling the truth and why is the family so bound by the past?

The story is told from multiple points of view, so the reader can see the viewpoint of detective Tony in addition to some of Zoe’s family including her mother, father and sister. Each of them bring a different aspect of what they thought had happened to Zoe, as well as their own stories. But who is the voice of reason? Eva is known for being a bit odd, sister Sadie has her own disappointments entwined with her thoughts and father John wants to protect Eva. It’s up to Tony, purveyor of facts, to bring it all together despite pressure from his boss and the police divers.

As the novel progresses, there is a swell of tension that rises through the Kennett family, breaking once Eva reveals her thoughts. It was at this point that the novel turned from a strong police procedural into a unique, powerful story. The change in storyline really sucked me in to its depths with the story within a story. I couldn’t help but drink it all in, thoroughly accepting of Eva’s suggestions. This part of the novel is beautiful in its strong emotions and descriptions of the landscape and history. You could say I was entranced even more than Tony was. The writing is beautiful, lyrical but most of all it was the ability of Christine Dibley to make me believe that I found awe inspiring. It’s difficult to believe that this is her first novel as it is so polished, multi layered and thoroughly tugs at the reader’s emotions. This is a novel that you shouldn’t pass by as it marks the introduction of a new Australian talent.

The Reading Group: December by Della Parker

In brief: A short story introducing The Reading Group, a monthly novella about a group of women.

The good: Interesting concept.

The not-so-good: Very short!

Why I chose it: Liked the sound of the series and the first story was free.

Year: 2016

Pages: 17

Publisher: Quercus

Setting: England

My rating: 7 out of 10

I read about The Reading Group series on social media and thought it sounded interesting, so when the first instalment was free on Kindle, I grabbed it. It was my own stupidity not to realise that a short story is just that and of course, I read it quickly and it was all nicely tied up at the end.

The story serves to introduce us to the women who make up the reading group – Grace, Jojo, Serena, Kate and Anne-Marie. The story focuses on Grace, who is not having a merry festive season. She and her husband are behind on the rent and one of their sons may have a recurrence of cancer. She doesn’t want to share her worries with the group, but knowing her, they suspect something is up and question her. When the truth comes out, of course they want to help and do, each in their own way.

It’s a nice introduction, but everything was wrapped up a little too quickly for me. I liked that things had a happy ending but I’d also be more tempted to read on if there was more of a cliff-hanger. Grace’s problems seem to be sorted, and there are a couple of grumblings of other characters not living a perfect life. A new novella will be released every month for the reading group dealing with that month’s book. (December’s was A Christmas Carol and there are shades of that in Grace’s problems). The first four are now available on Amazon. Will I read them? I think I’ll wait until the whole series is available so I can devour it in one go. It’s a light and easy read and I’m a sucker for books involving books.