Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 14 May 2020
The review can also be viewed on the Canberra Weekly website.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 14 May 2020
The review can also be viewed on the Canberra Weekly website.
Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)
Length: 394 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
From bestselling Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor comes another fun and intriguing Australian historical drama, Where Fortune Lies, which tells a multi-layered story of people seeking their fortunes in colonial Australia.
1879, Ireland. Anne Brown is a beaten-down young lady, hoping to escape the harsh life of poverty and misery she sees the rest of the women in her family experience. After a particularly cruel night which sees the one good thing in her life taken away from her, Anne flees her hometown, hoping to make a new life for herself in far-flung Australia.
Several months later in London, young gentleman Will Worthington and his sister Mari are shocked to discover that their recently deceased father has changed his will. Instead of the modest inheritance they were expecting, they find that all his money has been left to a mysterious pregnant painted lady who intends to resettle in Australia. With their social standing in London destroyed, Will and Mari, along with Will’s loyal best friend, artist Charlie Turner, follow their father’s mistress to Australia to seek their fortunes.
Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Will Mari and Charlie quickly befriend local businessman Tom McIntosh and his beautiful daughter, Alice, who Will falls in love with. While Will and Mari enjoy the opportunities afforded to them in Melbourne, Charlie spends time in the Victorian Alps with Alice’s brothers, Harry and Richie, and their wild group of friends, who show him how to live the rough colonial life. While there, Charlie finds his artistic inspiration through his work with the McIntosh boys and their wild horses, as well as his love for a mysterious exotic dancer. However, danger lies on the horizon, as Harry and Richie have been covertly engaging in the deadly trade of bushranging. Soon the fates of all these young people will hang in the balance, as tough choices, dangerous loyalties and harsh heartbreaks will impact them all.
Where Fortune Lies is another fantastic read from O’Connor, who has written some exceptional historical dramas in her five-year career. I read my first Mary-Anne O’Connor book last year, In a Great Southern Land, which told an excellent story about a group of people coming to Australia in the 1850’s to participate in the gold rush and subsequent uprising at the Eureka Stockade. I quite enjoyed In a Great Southern Land and I was rather pleased that my review of it was quoted on the back of the copy of Where Fortune Lies that I received. This latest novel follows a similar concept to O’Connor’s last book, with a diverse group of characters journeying to opportunity-rich Australia in order to seek a better life, and O’Connor is once again able to weave together a rich and compelling story of love, family drama and action in the Australian wilds, and I quite enjoyed the fun blend of story elements that the author was able to come up with.
Where Fortune Lies contains a strong character-based story that follows the lives and adventures of several characters who are drawn together by fate, love and family. O’Connor does a wonderful job of introducing these key point-of-view characters, whose story the reader finds themselves getting quite attached to. I really enjoyed the way that the author spaced out the various character threads, taking the time to explore the lives of each of the separate characters. While some of the character arcs do cross over quite a bit (for example, Charlie Turner directly interacts with all the other major characters and serves as a major bridging character), other characters are kept relatively separate from each other, with only a few scenes together. However, these characters arcs still have some subtle interactions, with their actions indirectly impacting other characters’ lives, or the two characters meet or discuss each other without realising who the other person really is. I liked the method of storytelling, as it allowed the reader to get to know each character individually and see the various struggles and difficulties that they are facing, as well as how they overcome them and evolve as people. I really enjoyed each of the character arcs that O’Connor explored, and I think that all of them came to a satisfying conclusion, especially as the various threads combine together at the end of the book with all the main characters finding their final fates. Each of these character-driven storylines had a good blend of adventure, adversity, romance and drama, which I think came together extremely well as an overall narrative.
I really liked the way that O’Connor once again dived back into Australia’s past, this time looking at the turbulent 1870s, and presenting the reader with another view of the country’s iconic colonial history. Where Fortune Lies contains some fantastic examination of various parts of old-school Victoria, including the busting metropolis of Melbourne, and it was interesting to see O’Connor’s depiction of the crossing to Australia and the things that immigrants back in this period would have experienced. Most of the story, however, takes place in the rugged wilds of outback Australia, particularly in the wilderness and small towns of the Victorian Alps. O’Connor presents a fascinating exploration of these communities, and I really enjoyed her depictions of people capturing the wild horses a la The Man from Snowy River. However, the highlight of this jaunt back into history has to be the author’s focus on the bushrangers, the dangerous highwaymen who stalked the Australian outback. A good part of the book’s plot revolves around some of the characters getting involved in bushranging out of desperation or greed, and it was rather intriguing to see how society perceived these criminals. There are a number of references to real-life bushrangers, such as the Kelly Gang and Captain Thunderbolt, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this exciting part of Australia’s history. All of this serves as an incredible background to this fun story, and I look forward to seeing what amazing part of Australia’s past O’Connor will explore in her next book.
Where Fortune Lies is another terrific Australian historical drama from O’Connor, who once again combines a captivating, character-driven narrative with an excellent depiction of Australia’s rich and vibrant history. This turned out to be an elegant and enjoyable read that features amazing romantic and dramatic plots, as well as an intriguing dive into the infamous bushrangers of Victoria. A fantastic new novel that once again sees O’Connor continues to shine as one of the most talented authors of Australian historical dramas.
Publisher: Pantera Press (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)
Series: Rowland Sinclair – Book 10
Length: 337 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed Australian author Sulari Gentill returns with the 10th book in her bestselling Rowland Sinclair series, A Testament of Character, an intense and compelling new entry which was a lot of fun to read.
Gentill is an excellent Australian author who has written several amazing books since her 2010 debut. While her main body of work is the Rowland Sinclair series, Gentill has also written The Hero trilogy, a young adult fantasy trilogy based on classic Greek stories, and the standalone novel Crossing the Lines. I am mostly familiar with her Rowland Sinclair books, however, as I have read the last several books in this series, all of which have been extremely enjoyable due to their fantastic blend of history and mystery. The Rowland Sinclair books follow the adventures of the titular Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy left-wing Australian gentleman artist, and his three artistic friends in the 1930s, as they find themselves in the middle of several murder investigations. Each Rowland Sinclair book is a fun and entertaining part of my yearly reading calendar, and I have been looking forward to checking out A Testament of Character for a while now.
In 1935, after the horrors they experienced in Shanghai, Rowland and his bohemian friends Edna, Clyde and Milton are enjoying a leisurely holiday in Singapore before heading back to Australia. However, their travel plans are dramatically changed when Rowland receives tragic news. An old friend of Rowland from his Oxford days, Daniel Cartwright, has died suddenly, and he has appointed Rowland as the executor of his vast estate.
Detouring from Australia to Cartwright’s home city of Boston, Rowland and his companions arrive for the funeral and find themselves in the midst of controversy and familiar conflict. Not only was Cartwright estranged from the rest of his family, especially his brothers, who disapproved of his lifestyle choice, but it turns out he was murdered, and the police have yet to find any suspects. Even more mysteriously, Cartwright had only just written every member of his family out of the will, leaving all his money to an unknown man everyone claims does not exist.
Determined to carry out the last wishes of his dear friend, Rowland attempts to find the man who apparently meant so much to him. However, his investigation quickly turns sour, as he runs into numerous people who do not want Cartwright’s will to come to pass. Forced to scour Boston, New York and other parts of post-Depression America for leads, the four friends encounter all manner of dangerous and eccentric characters as they pursue their quest. However, none of them are prepared for the terrible truth they encounter, especially now that Cartwright’s killer has them in their sights.
A Testament of Character is an exciting and compelling novel that proves to be a fantastic new addition to the Rowland Sinclair series. Gentill has done an amazing job coming up with another captivating story that not only features an exciting and gripping mystery but which takes an intriguing look at America in the 1930s. This story contains the series’s usual blend of fun, intrigue and action, as the four exceedingly liberal protagonists get into all manner of trouble across conservative America. There are some rather impressive and at times dark scenes throughout this book, and Gentill has also included some major character developments that will appeal to long-term readers of this series. The end result is an exceedingly enjoyable and thrilling story of love, adventure and revenge which proved extremely hard to put down.
At the heart of this book lies a clever mystery storyline that revolves around the murder of the protagonist’s friend and the identity of the mysterious beneficiary of the will. Gentill crafts an excellent multi-layered mystery, with a number of surprising twists, turns and false leads on the way to the exciting conclusion. While I was able to guess a little bit in advance who the main perpetrator turned out to be, all the revelations that came out in the final confrontation were really impressive and helped wrap up the entire mystery storyline extremely well. I also thought that Gentill came up with a very compelling and memorable motivation for the various crimes featured within the book. Some of these reveals were a bit dark and shocking, but they did make for some very dramatic and captivating sequences throughout the book. Overall, I thought that this was one of the strongest mysteries to have so far been featured within one of the Rowland Sinclair books, and it served as an amazing centre to this entire fantastic book.
One of the most distinctive features of this whole series is the way that Gentill dives into the history and culture of the period in which the books are set. She has previously done a wonderful job of exploring parts of 1930s Australia, Europe and occupied Shanghai, and in A Testament of Character Gentill’s characters explore post-Depression America. This proves to be an excellent backdrop to the book’s superb story, and I loved the examination of the key cities of Boston and New York, as well as some rural areas of the country. Gentrill provides the reader with a fantastic and at times in-depth look at various parts of the 1930s American culture and society. This is done in two distinct ways, the first of which involves the protagonists exploring America as Australians, providing an outsider’s perspective of the events or places they visit (while constantly getting complemented for speaking such good English!). The second way is through Gentill’s inclusion of historical newspaper clippings at the front of every chapter. The use of these newspaper clippings is another recurring trait of the Rowland Sinclair series, and I have always enjoyed the way in which the articles relate to some cultural or historical aspect of the chapter the clipping fronts. Through the use of these methods, the author paints an intriguing picture about America during this period, which I think worked extremely well as a background to the main mystery plot. This is especially true as some of the motives and elements of the mystery revolve around the social attitudes and cultural expectations of the time, which the reader will need to have a bit of an understanding about. I have to say that I was glad that as part of this examination of historical America, Gentill also had a look at public opinion around the Nazis and fascists in the lead up to World War II, as this has been one of the more interesting story threads to follow throughout the series.
Another distinctive aspect of the Rowland Sinclair series is the way that Gentill writes a number of historical figures into the story, either as cameos or in major roles. The best previous example of this is easily the author’s inclusion of Eric Campbell and The New Guard (an ultra-right-wing Australian organisation in the 1930s) as recurring antagonists in some of the books, as these real-life historical figures are great foils to the progressive protagonists. Gentill continues to do this in A Testament of Characters, making great use of several iconic American historical figures to flesh out the story and create several memorable inclusions. Several of these historical figures have pretty major roles in the plot, including Joseph Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife and fellow author, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also some fun cameos from several other notable people, including Errol Flynn, a young JFK, Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, as well as several other characters who were in Boston or New York during the 1930s. There are also a ton of references to other unique figures in America during this time, including the Parker Brothers Company (Monopoly was released in 1935, and the protagonists of course end up playing a game), as well as a unique goat competition that was held in Central Park, of which Gentill of course names the winner. This is an extremely fun and amusing part of A Testament of Character, and I always enjoy seeing Gentill’s protagonists run into these real-life historical figures, especially as the author does a fantastic job examining and showcasing their personalities and motivations. I love how Gentill effortlessly works these people into the plot, and the reader is always left wondering who is going to appear next.
A Testament of Character is a superb and exciting new addition to the outstanding Rowland Sinclair series that is really worth checking out. Sulari Gentill has once again produced a fantastic mystery storyline that strongly benefits from the author’s clever dive back into 1930’s history. This results in a powerful and exhilarating novel which makes amazing use of its fun, distinctive inclusions and intriguing characters. I cannot wait to see what misadventures Rowland Sinclair and his friends get up to in their next book, and this is a truly wonderful Australian series with a real unique flair to it.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday the assigned topic was a freebie associated with book covers; however, I decided to do something a little different. Because it was Australia Day on Sunday, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read in the last couple of years. To that end, I am raiding the Australian fiction category of the Unseen Library and presenting my Top Ten favourite entries from it.
Each year Australian authors produce a huge range of amazing fiction across the various genres, and I am usually lucky enough to receive copies of some of these from the local publishers. As a result, I tend to read a lot of Australian fiction (which I am defining here as either fiction written by an Australian author or fiction with an Australian setting) most of which turn out to be pretty awesome reads which I review either here on in the Canberra Weekly. I am happy to once again highlight some of the top pieces of Australian fiction I have reviewed since I started the Unseen Library, as several of these outstanding books might not have gotten the international attention they deserved.
Due to huge plethora of fantastic Australian fiction that has fallen into my lap over the last couple of years, this list actually turned out to be a really hard one to pull together. I had way too many choices when it came to the best pieces Australian fiction I have read from the last couple of years, so in a few places I have combined a couple of books into one entry. In the end, I was able to work out what my top ten favourite pieces were, although I did also have to include a generous honourable mentions section. So let us see how this list turned out.
There was absolutely no way that I could write a list about my favourite Australian fiction without having John Marsden’s Tomorrow series at the very top. Individually the books in the Tomorrow series are amongst some of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have ever read, and together they are a perfect series. Words cannot describe how much I love this amazing series (although I tried really hard in the review linked above) and I have no doubt that it is going to remain my favourite Australian series for a very long time.
Deceit is an extremely clever thriller revolving around Australian politics that came out in 2018. Thanks to its incredible realism and excellent story, I really enjoyed this book when it came out, and it ended up getting an honourable mention in my Top Ten Favourite Books of 2018 list. I absolutely loved this book and I have been meaning to read the sequel, Duplicity, for a little while now, especially as I suspect I will be just as good as this first fantastic book.
Another book that featured on my Top Ten Favourite Books of 2018 list. City of Lies was an incredible fantasy debut which featured a superb story about a family of poison experts trying to keep their king alive during a siege. This was an awesome read, and I cannot wait for the sequel to this book, which is hopefully coming out later this year.
The Escape Room was the second book from rising thriller star Megan Goldin, who has gotten a lot of positive attention over the last couple of years. The Escape Room was a very compelling novel that contained a clever revenge plot against a group of ruthless Wall Street traders. Goldin did a fantastic job with The Escape Room, and her upcoming book, The Night Swim, will hopefully be one of the reading highlights of the second half of 2020.
Restoration was the third book in Slatter’s Verity Fassbinder series (following on from Corpselight), which follow the titular character of Verity Fassbinder as she investigates magical crimes in modern day Brisbane. Restoration was a really fun read that got an easy five stars from me due to its incredible story, great use of an Australian setting and fantastic humour. Slatter outdid herself with Restoration, and I hope we get more Verity Fassbinder novels in the future.
Tom Taylor is an Australian-born author who has been doing some amazing work with some of the major comic book companies over the last few years. While I have read a bunch of his stuff (such as his run on X-Men Red), my favourite piece of his work has to be the All-New Wolverine series. All-New Wolverine was a deeply entertaining series that placed one of my favourite characters, X-23, into the iconic role of Wolverine. Not only did this series do justice to both X-23 and Wolverine’s legacy (before his inevitable resurrection) with some well-written and heavy storylines, but it was also a lot of fun, especially thanks to the introduction of Honey Badger.
Peter Watt has long been one of the top authors of Australian historical fiction, and I have been a big fan of his work for a couple of years now. While I was tempted to include his Frontier series (make sure to check out my reviews for While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above), in the end I thought it would be better to feature his current Colonial series. The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger are excellent pieces of historical fiction containing an exciting and compelling story.
After the Lights Go Out is one of the few pieces of Australian young adult fiction which I feel matches up to the Tomorrow series in terms of quality and substance. This book about a family of survivalists being thrust into an actual doomsday scenario was extremely captivating, and I loved this extraordinary novel. Really worth checking out.
Half Moon Lake is an amazing historical drama that was one of my favourite debuts from 2019. This book is a clever historical drama that was inspired by the real-life historical disappearance of a child and the tragic events that followed. A gripping and memorable book that comes highly recommended.
The most recent addition to my Australian fiction category, The Last Smile in Sunder City is another impressive debut which I had an incredible time reading. Arnold has come up with an excellent mystery set in an inventive new fantasy world with a conflicted central protagonist. This was an amazing first book from Arnold and I will hopefully be able to read his follow-up books in the future.
Well, that concludes my list. I am so happy that I got the chance to highlight some of the great pieces of historical fiction I have been fortunate enough to enjoy over the last couple of years. Each of the above books are exceptional reads, and I had a wonderful time reading all of them. While I was a little disappointed that I had to leave a few great books off this list, such as Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson, DEV1AT3 by Jay Kristoff and The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly, I really like how my list turned out. I think that I will come back and update this list in the future, probably close to next year’s Australia Day. I am highly confident that this next version of my list will contain some new books from 2020, and I look forward to seeing which pieces of upcoming Australian fiction I am really going to enjoy next. In the meantime, I hope all my fellow Australians had a great long weekend and please let me know which pieces of Australian fiction are favourites in the comments below.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 7 November 2019.
Make sure to check out my extended review of The Queen’s Tiger.
Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)
Series: The Colonial series – Book 2
Length: 360 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s best historical fiction writers, Peter Watt, returns with another exciting historical adventure in The Queen’s Tiger, the outstanding sequel to his 2018 release, The Queen’s Colonial.
Following on from the events of The Queen’s Colonial, in 1857, former Australian settler Ian Steele is still living under the guise of Samuel Forbes, a rich English noble who Ian bears an uncanny resemblance to. Ian switched places with Samuel in order to help him meet the required military service he needs to receive a vast inheritance. Serving as a captain in Queen Victoria’s army, Ian has proven himself to be a natural soldier, fighting against the odds dozens of times over against the most vicious enemies of the crown. However, despite the formidable enemies he has faced on the battlefield, Ian has encountered greater dangers far closer to home, as Samuel’s father and his murderous brother Charles are determined that Samuel will never receive his inheritance.
As Ian and his men, including his old friends Sergeant Conan Curry and Corporal Owen Williams, return from fighting the Persian army in Iran, a dangerous threat to the empire is brewing in India. Indian troops under the employ of the British East India Company have begun to mutiny, and the country, caught up in a swell of anti-British nationalism, is beginning to violently rebel against British rule. Among those caught up in the chaos are Samuel’s sister Alice and her husband the surgeon Peter Campbell, whose honeymoon turns into a brutal fight for survival.
Redeployed to India, Ian is once again leading the charge in some of the campaign’s most deadly battles against a determined foe. However, the biggest threat to his survival is happening half a world away back in England, as the real Samuel Forbes returns to London for a personal meeting under the name Ian Steele. When Samuel is spotted and his true identity is suspected, he finds himself hunted throughout England by Charles’s agents, determined to prove that Ian is an imposter. Can Ian and Samuel continue their ruse amidst the tragedy, tribulations and conflicts they encounter, or will the evil forces arrayed against them finally bring them down?
This was another fantastic book from Peter Watt, who has a true knack for producing compelling historical adventures filled with action, intrigue and family drama. The Queen’s Tiger is the second book in Watt’s Colonial series, which follows its protagonists through some of the most dangerous conflicts that the British army found itself involved with during the 19th century. I have to admit that I have been quite keen to check this book out for a little while, and not just because it quotes one of my Canberra Weekly reviews on the cover. The first book in this series, The Queen’s Colonial was an excellent read, and it did a good job following up Watt’s long-running Frontier series of which I was a big fan (make sure to check out my Canberra Weekly reviews for the last two books in this series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).
The Queen’s Tiger continues the intriguing story from the first book, which saw a simple Australian blacksmith pretend to be an English gentleman in order to serve as an officer in the Queen’s army. This was a compelling start the series, and I am glad that Watt has continued to follow through the fun blend of military action, intrigue and character interactions that have been a signature writing trend of his for some time. The Queen’s Tiger contains a wide-ranging story that covers several characters across a number of continents. This allows the author to showcase a number of different and enjoyable storylines within one book, and as such we can have one section of a book that focuses on the military action and adventure being undertaken by several of the characters in India, and the next section than looks at the sinister plotting of the book’s antagonists, or the desperate attempts of the real Samuel to keep his identity secret in England. In addition to their ongoing adventures, the author also explores the various relationships and romances that the various characters have, painting a rich tapestry of these point-of-view characters’ lives. This is a wonderful combination of storylines, all of which comes together into an excellent and highly enjoyable read.
Just like he did with the Crimean War in The Queen’s Colonial, Watt does a fantastic job bringing an intriguing historical conflict to life in this book, with his focus and examination of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The book actually follows the entire duration of the Indian Mutiny and showcases most of the key moments of the rebellion that turned into full-scale war for independence. As a result of the way that Watt positioned his characters from the first book, the reader gets to see two separate parts of the mutiny. Alice and Peter’s storyline, which also features the new major character of Scott Campbell, focuses on how the English people who were living in India when the mutiny started would have perceived what was going on, and the desperate battle that the English forces garrisoned in India faced against a mass rebellion of their Indian soldiers. Ian’s storyline, on the other hand, shows the battles that the English relief force faced as they tried to retake the country and rescue the English citizens trapped within. This was an extremely fascinating historical event, and I think that Watt’s portrayal of this conflict was extremely intriguing and compelling. Based on the comments in the historical notes section of this book, it looks like Watt is planning to take his characters through a number of England’s various 19th century military campaigns in the following books, and I look forward to seeing where they end up next.
Needless to say, a book that has such a strong focus on soldiers and the Indian Mutiny is going to be very heavy on the action, as the protagonists fight in several battles across Indian and Iran. There are a significant number of fast-paced sequences throughout this book, from the various battles and skirmishes that occur during the mutiny, to thrilling chase scenes in the backstreets of London. Watt’s grasp of 19th century military combat is quite impressive, and there is a very realistic feel to the huge number of fight sequences that occur throughout the book, as he focuses on the tactics and weaponry of the British infantry man. As a result, there is rarely a dull or quiet moment in this book, and action fans will really appreciate the cool fights occurring throughout the book.
Peter Watt has once again delivered an electrifying and enthralling piece of historical fiction with The Queen’s Tiger. Featuring some amazing depictions of a deadly part of history, as well as a bunch of great characters whose various adventures, deceptions and relationships are particularly intriguing, this is a fantastic piece of Australian fiction that is really worth checking out.