The Tsarina’s Daughter – Ellen Alpsten

There is honestly nothing I can say that will even begin to do this book justice.    A sweeping tale of the young life of Tsarevna Elizabeth, The Tsarina’s Daughter is breathtakingly beautiful.

The story follows the life of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I and all that comes with being born into one of the most powerful families in Russia.  A time in history that was both brutal and extravagant, where one moment your place in society and indeed the Russian Court could go from the beloved and worshipped to just as easily being tortured and thrown into a cage.

The beautiful Elizabeth’s life is firstly thrown into turmoil after the death of her father and then dangerously so after the death of her mother.  At once in line to marry the King of France she is left almost penniless and in fear for her life as everything around her begins to fall and a new league of power sweeps in.

Such a fascinating part of history this book is all the things you want from an historical fiction masterpiece.  It is captivating, rich, bold and yet violent and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Although this is a follow up to the author’s previous book, Tsarina, it can absolutely be read as a standalone.  I haven’t read Tsarina yet, but omg will be grabbing a copy now that’s for sure.  Side note……I seem to have this terrible habit of stumbling across a series out of order, argh, really must do a better job of reading books in order – lol.

The Duchess – Wendy Holden

Another fabulous five star read from Wendy Holden.  For those that follow my posts you’ll probably already know I’m slightly obsessed with historical fiction, and I’m also slightly obsessed with the Royal Family…….so put those two things together and look out……I’m hooked 🙂

The author’s previous book, The Governess, was my first five star read for the year and I was so looking forward to her next book The Duchess and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The Duchess follows the life of Wallis Simpson, most famously known for being the reason behind why the then Prince of Wales abdicated the throne in 1936 and therefore throwing Elizabeth into the role as Queen at such a young age.

It was an absolute scandal in the history of the Royal Family and I found this read truly fascinating as I followed Wallis’ life and how this poor, divorced woman from the US could appear to wield such power over the Prince Edward.  It was certainly an eye opener and I was honestly shocked as I learnt more around how it all came about.

The writing is mesmerising once again and completely draws you in.  I’m still so torn about how I personally feel about Wallis but that’s what also made this book so wonderful, her character, flaws and all, fully came to life in front of you.  She certainly comes across as a social climber willing to do whatever it takes to better her life and position, irrespective of who is hurt in the process.  Clearly disliked by the Monarchy for the part she played, it certainly appears that the Prince of Wales was not without fault in this situation too.

Told in alternating timelines from 1972 at the Duke of Windsor’s funeral to the late 1920’s through mid 1930’s when the then King Edward abdicates the throne.

A fascinating look into the class system in England and a wonderful behind the scenes look into another part of the Royal Family.

For fans out there of the Netflix series The Crown, this is an absolute must read.  Loved, loved, loved it.

I can’t wait for her next book in the trilogy which will be based on the early life of Princess Diana.

Last Shot- Jock Zonfrillo

OMG this book.  Honestly, I don’t know what else to say.  This will absolutely be one of my favourite reads for the year.  I read the whole thing cover to cover in just over a day, I couldn’t put it down.

It was engaging, it was funny, it was heartbreaking, it was raw, it was emotional, it was real. 

I’m a huge fan of Masterchef, always have been, right from when the original UK version started all those years ago, and I’ve also been a massive fan of the Aussie version so I was seriously keen to read Last Shot.

Whether you are fan of cooking and food or not, this book will resonate with anyone that loves a good autobiography.  Jock shares his story from his troubled childhood growing up in Scotland right through to how he and his family have been affected by the current COVID pandemic and the closure of his beloved restaurant in Adelaide as a result.

It’s also a frightening look into the world of elite Michelin star restaurants and the cutthroat industry that seems to break so many.

Jock is open and honest about his serious heroin addiction from his teens through his adult life until becoming clean approx. 20 years ago.

As an Aussie I was fascinated to read about his passion for our indigenous culture and the amazingly tireless work he has done to bring that culture to the mainstream and into our kitchens.  It’s was also so frustrating and maddening to see how the Australian media has done its best to tear all that good work down with the click of a button and their fake news stories simply for shock value.

But like so much of his life Jock’s resilience shines through and his unwavering passion for what he believes in is forefront in everything he does.

A passionate family man that is clearly devoted to his kids and his family I honestly can’t recommend this inspiring 5 star read enough.

And I promise…..from now on…..I won’t put any f*@^ing cream in my carbonara!!

Thursdays at Orange Blossom House – Sophie Green

I read this as part of a read-a-thon with a fabulous group of fellow bookstagrammers thanks to Tandem Collective.

I’m so glad I did because this book is not something I think I would otherwise have picked up.  As most of you know I’m a bit of a thriller addict so if there’s no dead body popping up in the story I usually get a little confused.

For that reason, this was a nice change of pace for me, a palette cleanser almost.  An easy character-driven read that just meandered along at a pleasant stroll.

Based around three women of different ages and all in different situations who come together at a local yoga class in Cairns, Far North Queensland.  The characters all have their own difficulties and dramas like everyone but through their weekly yoga sessions they build a strong friendship that all of them realise was missing from their lives.

I think the fact that it was set in Cairns probably added to the enjoyment for me.  I actually lived in Cairns at the same time this book was set so I could imagine everything that was being described, and when the release of Pulp Fiction was referenced in the book it made me laugh as I remember rushing to the local cinema in Cairns to see it and being asked for ID .

While not an earth-shattering five star read for me it was still nice to pick up a book that you didn’t have to think about too much and could just wander along amongst the cane fields.

Gun to the Head – Keith Banks

Gun to the Head is a fascinating look into the world of undercover police and the tactical side of the police force in the 1980’s. Ticking all those true-crime and memoir boxes, this was such a gripping read that I devoured over a weekend.

Keith Banks is one of Queensland’s most decorated police officers having been involved in some very high profile cases as well as living through the well-publicised Royal Commission into police corruption.

A raw, honest and at times confronting look at the real life world of undercover policing and tactical operations.  A world that is often glamorised in movies and TV programmes, we soon see through Banks accounts of what they went through it’s definitely anything but glamorous. 

With many officers turning to drug use to maintain their covers, alcohol to dull the pain of what they experienced in the course of doing their jobs, and the very real fear of violence every time they left for work it was disappointing to realise how little support these officers were provided during that era.  The mentality was very much just be a man and suck it up.  That’s what you do.

As a result this book also highlights the very real issue of mental health and PTSD faced by those working in this high pressure environment and the horrific things they must have seen and experienced on an almost daily basis.

This lack of support is an undertone throughout the entire book and it’s extremely obvious how passionate Banks is about changing this and highlighting the need for support.

So well written and so engaging I definitely need to grab a copy of his previous book, Drugs Guns & Lies, after reading this one.

Olympus, Texas – Stacey Swann

This was so much fun!! One of those books that is almost a guilty pleasure, a jam-packed read just for the thrill of it.

Unlikeable characters, families behaving badly, affairs, marriage breakdowns, a suspicious death…..it’s too good to put down.

March decides to return home to Olympus Texas, 2 years after being caught having an affair with his brother’s wife.  In a family that is larger than life, in a town that’s full of small-town gossip it’s anything but a warm welcome for March.

Not that he expected to be welcomed back with open arms, but what he didn’t expect was to set off a chain of events that for some would ultimately have devastating consequences.

With his father Peter as a role model, who seems to leave a brood of children around the town with women he can’t help himself from falling into bed with, and his long suffering mother June who does her best to pick up the pieces around them, it’s really no wonder March’s life and that of his siblings is a disaster waiting to happen.

They are truly a dysfunctional family and what makes it even more interesting is that Stacey Swann has done a fabulous job of weaving Greek mythology into the story, with each character mirrored on one of the Greek Gods, and I love all things mythology.

Even if you don’t, it’s like watching an old episode of Dallas and watching the train-wreck of their lives unfold in all its bold and brassy glory!!!

Circus of Wonders – Elizabeth Macneal

Such a beautiful book.  It was both magical and lyrical and I was totally mesmerised the entire way through.

For me, a wonderful read, a read that I will recommend to anyone and everyone is one that holds my attention.  A read that pulls me in and has me reading every single word on the page, never feeling the need to skip ahead for fear of missing something or reaching the end too soon.  It’s being invested in the characters and feeling a part of their life.

Circus of Wonders captured all those feelings. 

Set in 1866 amidst the backdrop of circus life, when those that were different were paraded around as “freaks”, spectacles to be gawked at, laughed at, and profited off, all for their differences to what the world deemed as “normal”.

Born with birthmarks that give her skin a mottled, speckled appearance, Nell lives a quiet life in a coastal village in southern England.  Although often dreaming of something better, she is content to lead a relatively isolated life, tending her flowers and spending time with her brother.

When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village Nell’s father sees a way to make some quick money, as well as way to rid himself of the girl he sees as a blight on his family, a bad omen for the village.

Now finding herself sold to the circus, ripped away from everything she has known, to be treated as an object on display each and every night, Nell’s life will never be the same.  Yet what starts as heartbreak for Nell, soon turns into a life full of wonder and joy, and as she starts to fall for Toby, the Circus ringmaster’s brother, can she for the first time experience what true love is?

A truly magical book that shows the worth of someone is not how they look on the outside but how they feel about themselves on the inside.

The French Gift – Kirsty Manning

Wow, what an amazing read this was.  One of those books that when I turned the last page I just sat there for a while and savoured what I had taken in and what I had experienced to let it all sink in.

The French Gift is steeped in historical fiction set amongst the atrocities of WWII and the forced labour camps that women were sent to work in as prisoners, whilst at the same time meshed with the present day and the world of historians and curators as they try to honour the past.

Beautifully written I was absolutely drawn to all the characters in this wonderful story.  It’s 1939 and Margot is the maid at a stunning villa in France, which is host to the social party of the season.  Margot’s life is turned upside down in the blink of an eye when she is thrown into the spotlight and into prison accused of a murder she didn’t commit.

Soon after in 1940, journalist and French Resistance fighter Josephine is thrown into prison by the Germans where she shares a cell with Margot.  The two form a fast friendship and an unbreakable bond, which continues when they are transferred from the French prison to the labour camp in Germany where they are forced to endure the most horrific of conditions and circumstances.

Their story is heartbreaking and tragic, but it is also one of immeasurable strength and courage.

As a backdrop to these chapters is the present day world of Evie and her son Hugo.  Evie runs a botanical bookshop in London and when Josephine dies, as her great niece, Evie is asked to help with an exhibition to showcase Josephine’s life.

I loved everything about this book, the dual timelines, the history, the rich characters and the wonderful friendships that played such an important role.

Thank you so much to Allen and Unwin for the chance to read The French Gift which is out now and definitely worth picking up.

The Husband Poisoner – Tanya Bretherton

So admittedly my husband was a little concerned when he discovered this book sitting on my kitchen bench – lol.

This was such a fascinating read, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  I don’t usually read a lot of non-fiction books unless they are true crime related and often about stories that are well publicised so it was so interesting to read this one and the lesser known crimes of some suburban Sydney housewives who decided to do away with their husbands or random members of their families.

Mainly set around the late 1940’s to the mid 1950’s, while this was an inside look into how you can find some nifty ways to use rat poison if you wanted to remove someone from your life, it was so much more than that.  It was a look into how so many of the regulations we know today came into effect. From banning dangerous poisons like Thallium that were once easily purchased at your local chemist, to introducing the food safety acts to ensure the food we purchase is healthy, safe and not contaminated in anyway.

For the locals out there the author also did a fabulous job of heavily building into the story two police detectives who played a huge part in uncovering the use of Thallium as a poison, but also of how their careers came to grow and prosper thanks to their heavy involvement in the NSW Police corruption of their time.  They may have been responsible for catching killer housewives, but they were effectively criminals themselves.

There were certainly frightening elements to the story, and certain sections of the book are absolutely not for the faint hearted as we learn about what actually happens to the human body at decomposition stage, personally, I now wish I didn’t know. 

It was also a heartbreaking reminder of how the mentally ill were treated in that era, often subjected to horrific treatments and inexcusable neglect.  One of the terrible symptoms of Thallium poisoning is severe damage to the nervous system and when no doctor could determine a cause for the victim’s excruciating pain they were simply diagnosed as being neurotic or suffering a nervous breakdown and ultimately sent to an asylum.

As a little light relief I loved how each of the chapters were finished off with a recipe that would have been popular in its time, such as Bonox, Brawn, or Potato and Bacon Pie, all minus the added ingredient of rat poison of course.

This really was a truly fascinating book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m so thankful for the chance to have read it thanks to Hachette Australia.  I would absolutely recommend this one to anyone that loves historical fiction, true crimes and anything that is that little bit different.

What Could Be Saved – Liese O’Halloran Schwarz

5 Fabulous Stars for this stunning book.

I loved this book so much, it honestly feels like there is a gaping hole in my heart where it used to sit.

Described as rich with mystery and family drama, this compelling novel delves into the extraordinary power of sibling love, rivalry and loyalty. 

The story begins with Laura, an artist struggling to find her rhythm again.  Out of the blue she receives a call from a complete stranger claiming to be her brother.  Laura and her sister Bea, now a mum to teenage boys, have not seen their brother Philip for over 40 years, since he vanished one day as a child when they were living in Thailand. 

Laura is instantly convinced it is him and insists on jumping on the first flight back to Thailand to bring him home.  No amount of push back from her sister and her partner will stop her.  From here we are thrown into a roller coaster of emotion.

Alternating between 1972, and the present day we learn the truth about this family tragedy all those years ago as the two timelines mesh together perfectly.

It is the time of the Vietnam War when their father Robert is offered the opportunity to move from the US to Bangkok with his wife Genevieve and three young children and after one year turns into three, there are inklings that Robert’s job “building a dam” may not be all that it seems.

Yet they have made a good life for themselves in Thailand and Genevieve has become renowned as the wonderful hostess who throws beautiful parties.  The children have also adapted to their new life, ferried around to one activity after another relishing their time in Bangkok, until suddenly their worlds are turned upside down. It is every parent’s worst nightmare when suddenly 8 year old Philip simply disappears and all the pieces this family have kept hidden from each other come tumbling out.

Forty years later, could it really be Philip on the phone?  After so much pain and false hopes could he really just walk back into their lives? 

This book is alive, it is vibrant, it is utterly mesmerising.  The writing is captivating and completely draws you into this family’s world.  It is also tragic and heartbreaking and for all these reasons, even at 450 pages I just couldn’t put it down.

I know it is only the beginning of the year but this is definitely going to be one of my absolute favourite books of the year, it is truly phenomenal!!  An absolute must-read!!

Thank you so much to Allen and Unwin for the opportunity to read this truly outstanding book.

*****