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Five holiday reads
Murders, mysteries and mayhem
Many people I know seem to be going on holidays at the moment. Of course, it’s the season for it: it’s school holidays, university holidays and that time of year in Australia where you need to go into hibernation or escape to a warmer climate so it makes sense that everyone’s on the move.
I just returned home from a lovely two-week trip travelling around Australia to visit Canberra, Sydney and Perth. As I was on holiday, I decided that I was allowed a break from my book buying ban and could purchase whatever I wanted! I’m pleased to report that bought five books and I read all of them.
Looking back, I don’t think any of these five books really fit the usual definition of a ‘holiday read’ but they all gave me a brilliant sense of escapism which is exactly what I needed.
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Oliver Marks has just finished serving ten years in jail for a murder he may or may not have committed. When he finds out that the detective who put him in jail is retiring and wants to hear the real story, Oliver decides it’s finally time to tell the truth.
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off. In their final year, tensions rise until one of them winds up dead.
I love the premise of this book. It sounds like it was written exclusively for me: Shakespeare, a prestigious college community, a close-knit group of friends and a murder. What more could I want?
Sadly, a lot more. I didn’t enjoy If We Were Villains and it broke my heart.
I think I went in with the wrong expectations. I thought that it would be a murder mystery and it really wasn’t. To be fair, even though Shakespeare’s plays contain a lot of murders, they’re not really mysteries.
But once I had adjusted my expectations accordingly, I still couldn’t get on board with the book. The tension of a good mystery was there but it never went anywhere that excited me.
I didn’t feel like I learnt or felt anything new about Shakespeare’s works. The author did briefly reference one of my favourite Romeo and Juliet theories and I wish that she had leaned into it more.
Ultimately, it was a disappointment and did not live up to the hype. If you’re looking for a college murder-not-mystery book, I’d stick with The Secret History.
Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang
Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were in the same year at Yale but their careers have taken off in different ways. Athena is a massive literary star while June is not. So when Athena dies before June’s eyes in a freak accident, June steals Athena’s latest manuscript and publishes it herself.
June begins to get everything she’s ever wanted – a giant advance, a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, a splashy book launch, invites to speak on panels – but will the secret of what she’s done catch up to her?
I love reading from the point of view of an unhinged, unreliable narrator. It’s so satisfying to step into the shoes of somebody who has so clearly gone off the deep end.
What makes June so great is how entirely relatable and non-relatable she is at the same time. Rebecca F. Kuang has mixed in just enough elements of humanity (ambition, loneliness) in with June’s incredibly massive flaws (racism, ego). All she wants is to be a successful author – surely that’s a normal goal, right? But she gets so sucked into the writing-adjacent fame so much that you start to wonder if she actually likes the craft of writing itself.
Overall, the book was actually less unhinged than I expected (but I think that’s because I read a lot of murder mysteries where multiple people die) but still very enjoyable.
All That Impossible Space by Anna Morgan
Fifteen-year-old Lara Laylor feels like a supporting character in her own life, beside her best friend Ashley who’s set her sights on the school musical and her older sister Hannah who’s travelling around Europe on an exciting gap year.
But Lara’s life begins to change as she lands a role in the school musical, assesses her friendship with Ashley and works on a history assignment about the mysterious murder of the Somerton Man.
I adored this book. I absolutely love Anna Morgan’s writing voice. She managed to capture life as a teenager in Melbourne so well.
I feel like we have so many books that are romance-first, friendship-second when it comes to importance in the plot. I haven’t got anything against those books – I love a good romance. But this is a book that is firmly friendship-first and romance-second in a way which is rare. I really enjoyed it! Friendships are such a massive part of teenage life and Morgan writes them so well.
The disintegration of Lara and Ashley’s friendship is so tragic even if it’s necessary. Lara clings desperately to memories of Ashley being there for her despite the fact that their relationship is no longer like that.
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knows all about poisons, and when her former lover dies in the manner prescribed in one of her books, it seems inevitable that she is guilty. But Lord Peter Wimsey is determined to find her innocent and sets out to investigate the case himself.
This was my first read of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective books and I haven’t quite fallen in love with him yet. I found the exploits of his two female spy sidekicks much more interesting than him.
I was impressed with the way that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote herself an absolutely impossible bind to get Harriet out of and then somehow manages to untangle the web she created.
Whisper by Lynette Noni
For two years, six months, fourteen days, eleven hours and sixteen minutes, Subject Six-Eight-Four – ‘Jane Doe’ – has been locked away in a secret government facility called Lengard and experimented on, without uttering a single word.
As Jane’s resolve begins to crack under the influence of her new – and unexpectedly kind – evaluator, she uncovers the truth about Lengard’s mysterious ‘program’, discovering that her own secret is at the heart of a sinister plot.
Once again I am here to tell the publishing industry that the dystopian era is not over. This marvel by Lynette Noni is only a few years old and I’m obsessed with it.
Unbelievably, this is the first Lynette Noni book I’ve read but it definitely lived up to the hype. I felt so emotionally connected to Jane and her journey, even when I could predict a little of what lay ahead of her. I can’t wait to read the sequel.