Where Fortune Lies by Mary-Anne O’Connor

Where Fortune Lies

Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)

Series: Standalone

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.

Guest Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

In her latest guest review, the Unseen Library’s editor, Alex, checks out one of the biggest releases of the year, and also sets herself up to do some more reviews for the blog in the future.

The Testaments Cover

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book 2

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Unlike the Unseen Librarian himself, who seems to have no problem zipping through several books a week, I tend to buy books faster than I read them. I was very pleased, and not at all surprised, to find there’s a phrase for this in Japanese: tsundoku, meaning one who acquires books with every intention of reading them, but who never gets around to it. Well, it’s high time that I try to kick this habit and delve into my shelf of unread books, beginning with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

We received a copy of The Testaments way back in September 2019, before the honeymoon hiatus, but unfortunately the large, heavy hardback wouldn’t have fared well in my suitcase, so although I was keen to read it I was forced to leave it behind. Unfortunately several other distractions (including Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins) meant it wasn’t until the post-Christmas calm that I took the time to finish it off, but I am so glad that I did, because this is a first-rate book that didn’t deserve to wait so long for my attention.

The Handmaid’s Tale reported the experiences of Offred, a Handmaid to a powerful Commander in the post-revolutionary United States, the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story several years later, and features accounts of three women and their own struggles for survival in Gilead. I won’t go into detail about the plot of the book (I’m sure reviewers with better time management skills have beaten me to it), only to say that it was incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Those who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale will love to see how the world has changed over the years.

I was absolutely thrilled by all of the world-building in The Testaments. The new regime of Gilead is fascinating, but in The Handmaid’s Tale details are limited to what Offred chooses to share in her narrative, which itself is limited by what Offred knows, given the sheltered and isolated life she is forced to live as a Handmaid. The Testaments, on the other hand, with its multiple narrators, presents a far broader view of life in Gilead. The first narrator is an Aunt, one of the powerful matrons who train the Handmaids and teach the children. In fact, she is none other than Aunt Lydia, the indomitable battleaxe responsible for the indoctrination of Offred who features so prominently in the original book. The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, the daughter of a powerful Commander. Her story is recorded after her liberation from Gilead and provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a child growing up in the regime. The third narrator is Daisy, a child growing up in Canada. From her we get an outside view of Gilead—how the terrible society is viewed by its near neighbours and how the Mayday resistance seeks to help its people. The three tales are each engaging in their own right, but as they become more and more intertwined the story only gets better.

There are elements of the story that tie into the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, but literary purists who have not watched the show will enjoy The Testaments just the same. Since it is a sequel, however, I would say that it will be best enjoyed by those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale or seen at least the first season of the show. The Testaments is a book that was 35 years in the making, but it was well worth the wait.

Spy by Danielle Steel

Spy Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 273 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From the mind of the fourth-bestselling author of all time, drama and romance novelist supreme Danielle Steel, comes an excellent and compelling story about life, war and espionage that is really worth checking out.

Alexandra Wickham is the youngest child of a well-to-do British family living out on their estate in the country. A beautiful and intelligent young lady, Alex appears to be set for a life of privilege and marriage. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 allows Alex to throw off the shackles of expectation, and she moves to London, volunteering as a nurse. However, her fluency in French and German attracts the attention of a new government organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who are desperate to recruit her.

Suffering from personal losses and determined to do her part for her country, Alex joins the SOE and quickly becomes a skilled and valued agent. Trained in various forms of combat, sabotage and espionage, Alex makes several journeys into German territory to obtain valuable information. However, the hardest part of her new life is keeping her work secret from her friends and family, including her worried parents and the brave pilot she falls in love with.

Even after the war ends, Alex finds that she is unable to stop spying. When her husband, Richard, enters into the foreign service, Alex is recruited into MI6 and tasked with obtaining information from the various people she meets socially. As she follows her husband from one volatile end of the world to the next, Alex must reconcile the two separate parts of her life if she is to survive. But who is she? The loving wife and parent or the government agent who can never reveal her secret to those closest to her?

Now, I have to admit that before this year Danielle Steel was not an author that I really went out of my way to read. Steel writes a staggering number of novels each year (seven in 2019 alone), and most of them do not appeal to me (I think a quick perusal of some of the previous books I’ve read will give you a good idea of what my usual literary tastes are like). However, after enjoying Turning Point earlier this year (which I checked out because I do enjoy medical dramas), I decided to try Spy, as I was kind of curious to see how Steel would handle the historical spy genre. What I found was a captivating and enjoyable story which I was really glad I grabbed a copy of.

Spy is a historical fiction novel that follows the life story of the fictional protagonist, Alexandra Wikcham, who serves as the book’s point-of-view character. This was a rather full and exciting story that not only focuses on the main characters career as a secret government agent but also explores her personal life, such as her interactions and relationship with her family, how she fell in love, and how she become a caring wife and mother. Spy’s overall narrative is a fantastic blend of drama, historical fiction, spy thriller and romance novel, which proves to be quite addictive and rather enjoyable. I loved seeing the full progression of the main character’s life, and I found myself getting attached to several of the characters featured within.

This was the first historical fiction by Danielle Steel that I have read, and I have to say that I was impressed with the various periods that were explored. The first half of the book is set during the events of World War II, and Steel does an incredible job of portraying this iconic part of the 20th century. The story is primarily set in England during this part of the war, and the reader gets a real sense of the events that are occurring, the struggles facing normal citizens during the conflict and the various contributions that the English people were making during the war. Spy also explores the damage, both physical and emotional, that the war produced, as the main character experiences great loss and despair throughout the course of the conflict and sees the impact on people that she cares for.

In addition to the great portrayal of World War II, Spy also examines a number of other intriguing historical events, periods and locations. The second part of the book is set over a much longer period of time and follows Alex and her husband, Richard, as they travel the world as English diplomats. These diplomatic assignments place them in a number of different countries during significant periods in history. For example, Alex and Richard end up in India during the end of British rule, when India is split into two countries. Other countries they end up in include Morocco, Hong Kong, America and the Soviet Union. All of these visits are only for a short part of the book, but they offer some intriguing snapshots into the various countries during significant parts of history. These combined historical periods make for a truly captivating and enjoyable novel, and they really work well with the dramatic and espionage aspects of the book, enhancing these other story elements with the cool historical settings.

I really enjoyed the espionage parts of Spy, as Steel has come up with a fascinating underlying thriller plot for this book. The actions of the SOE during World War II have long formed a great basis for historical spy stories over the years, and Steel did a fantastic showcasing how their female agents were recruited, often from organisations such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, trained, and then dropped into Europe for missions. The various missions that the protagonist undergoes in Europe are quite interesting, and range from various reconnaissance missions, to more complex information gathering exercises. The protagonist’s actions after the war are also quite intriguing, as she is recruited by MI6 to spy on the various people her husband comes into contact with as a diplomat, and this results in her getting involved in some major historical events. It was quite fascinating to see with both missions during and post-World War II, the importance of information obtained from gossip or a leading conversation with a beautiful woman, and the impacts such information could have. This espionage part of the book is also the part of the book that I personally found the most thrilling and entertaining, and it was really cool to see all the danger and intrigue that followed this central character.

As Spy is a Danielle Steel novel, there is of course a central romance storyline that dominates the course of the book. At the beginning of the war, Alex meets and falls in love with Richard, a handsome and charming English fighter pilot, and they form a great relationship that lasts over 50 years. This is a really nice and supportive relationship, which is able to overcome some rather substantial obstacles, mainly World War II and Alex’s career as a spy. Not only are the forced to put their relationship on hold during the course of the war, in fear that one of them might die, but Alex is required to keep all of her espionage activities a secret from Richard. Even when they are married, Alex is unable to tell him that she is a MI6 Agent or warn him that she might be putting their lives at risk in foreign countries. All this secrecy weighs heavily on the mind of Alex throughout the course of the book, and it adds a whole new dramatic edge to their relationship. However, I really liked the way it ended, and this was a fantastic and heart-warming romantic storyline that I quite enjoyed.

The latest Danielle Steel novel, Spy, proved to be a really compelling and moving story of life and love during the turbulence of the 20th century. Featuring a gripping story which followed the entire life of a female British espionage agent, Spy was an excellent novel that honestly has something for everyone in it. I was really impressed with this novel, and I am planning to check out more Danielle Steel novels in the future. Her next release, Moral Compass, sounds particularly intriguing, and I have already requested a copy of it.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 10 October 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of young adult and horror author Kim Liggett comes one of the most thought-provoking reads of the year, The Grace Year.

In Garner County, a seemingly isolated town in the middle of vast wilderness, women are taught that they are magical beings whose eldritch powers are the root of all sin and whose magic can control the actions of men, causing them to do all manner of debauchery. In order to rid themselves of their magic, each girl in the village must participate in the grace year. At the start of their sixteenth year, all of the town’s young women are transported to an isolated compound deep in the woods. There they must spend an entire year together, using all their magic to survive amidst the harsh elements and the dangerous things lurking outside the fences. Only if they survive their grace year will they emerge as pure women.

Tierney James is just about to enter her grace year. As something of a rebellious soul compared to the other girls in the village, Tierney dreams of a better society in which women are not forced to survive amidst the bitter whims of the men nor pitted against other women. Hoping for a quiet life in the fields after she returns, an unexpected betrothal from her friend paints a target on her back from the other girls travelling with her. After arriving at the compound, Tierney attempts find a way for everyone to survive the harsh year. However, between the lack of food, the vicious poachers waiting outside the fence and the growing instability of the girls trapped with her, Tierney’s odds are not looking good. As the grace year continues, Tierney begins to suspect that she does not have any magic within her, and that the grace year is a lie. Can she convince her fellow participants of this before it is too late, or will Tierney be the latest victim of the grace year?

The Grace Year is a really interesting piece of fiction that features some stimulating examinations of modern society that has been getting some understandable comparisons to books like The Handmaid’s Tale. Liggett is a fantastic author who has produced a number of compelling young adult novels since her 2015 debut, Blood and Salt, each of which has some intriguing elements. Her latest book has more of a social commentary slant, as it takes a look at how younger women are viewed within our modern society.

I received a copy of The Grace Year a few weeks ago, and I have to admit that before the publisher contacted me, this book was really not on my radar. While the plot synopsis of this book sounded really interesting, it is a little outside of my usual review wheelhouse. However, after diving into this book, I found that Liggett has created a complex and creative tale in a unique setting filled with vicious action, social commentary, a moving romance and even some horror elements.

The central focus of the book is on how the world views young women and how it is capable to manipulate a society in order for certain people to remain in power. Liggett apparently based the story on a scene she witnessed in a busy subway, where a young teen girl was appraised by various people passing by her. As a result, her book is set in a rather disturbing dystopian society where a large female population is controlled by a smaller group of males and women are barely treated as people. The protagonist’s story unwinds the various methods that the men use to control the women, including through myth, religion, ceremonies, banishment and the events of the titular grace year. However, as the book progresses, there are some examples of female empowerment and thoughts of revolution that start to change the tone and direction of the book. All of these various elements ensure that The Grace Year is filled with quite a lot of social commentary that is incredibly relevant in modern times and which can be analysed in a number of different ways.

Liggett has done a great job telling her story in a well-paced and exciting manner. I found the initial parts of the book intriguing, especially when Liggett explored the various elements of the Garner County community, but my favourite part of the book covers the course of the actual grace year. There is a lot of apprehension built into the short amount of story before this point, as the narrator, Tierney, has very little actual idea of what actually occurs in the isolated compound during the grace year. In order to get to the compound, the young women have to traverse a landscape surrounded by poachers who make a legal living killing and harvesting the bodies of the grace year girls. While these poachers are a major threat, the real danger appears to come from the mental strain and manipulation of the isolation as the girls turn on each other. All this conflict and the resulting tribalism is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and makes for some powerful and dark scenes. There is also a rather curious and tragic central romance that takes up a lot of space in the centre of the book, which not only makes for some great reading, but which also helps highlight another aspect of the author’s crazy and inventive universe. All of this makes for a very compelling story that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who will love all the excitement and the really unique fictional society that the protagonist lives in.

The Grace Year is probably one of the more complex and unique books that I have had the pleasure of reading this year. It has some compelling ideas of society and gender identity that are interesting to unravel, all wrapped up in an excellent and captivating story. This is definitely a book that needs to be read in order to fully understand it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone looking for an intriguing piece of literature.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.