The Fossil Hunter
Grade : A-

The Fossil Hunter splits its point of view between two different timelines and characters connected by a fossil. Cooper manages to keep this deft balancing act going, creating three very interesting and worthwhile heroines.  Dark and engrossing and with dual timelines that are expertly captured in both time and place, it’s phantasmagorical and beautifully grounded at the same time. 

1847- New South Wales, Australia. Dirt-poor twelve-year-old Mellie Vale has a habit of sleepwalking to the edge of the millpond.  She has recently lost her home to a fire; her father is nowhere to be found and she is staying with Dr. and Mrs. Edith Pearson as she recovers from the chicken pox, which made her seriously ill. She doesn’t know that her father was a bushranger who fell in with a bad gang in the wake of the death of Mellie’s mother and brother, and that he was been captured and hanged.  Mrs. Pearson decides that Mellie might best recover by taking a holiday in Bow Wow Gorge with her friend, Anthea Winstanley, an amateur paleontologist.  Mellie believes the bunyip, a mythical creature, has been chasing her and causing her nightly wanderings, and Mrs. Pearson wants to break her of this notion.  Mellie is packed off with Lydia, Bea, Grace and Ella, the Pearson’s daughters and girls who are also in the Pearson’s care as “charity cases,” (only Lydia is kind to Mellie), to Anthea’s home.  

Mellie comes to learn that Anthea believes that a large, sea-dwelling prehistoric creatures once lived in the area around her property, the ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur.  Keeping an eye on Mellie and a group of other girls who have been sent to her for the summer, Anthea senses a special kinship with Mellie, and shares with her this belief she holds.  Soon, the girls are hunting fossils beside Anthea, but it’s Mellie who emerges as the woman’s mentee. Mellie decides that she’ll be the one to discover if the    ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur really floated under the ocean… if only she can conquer her memories of the bunyip and the violence it did to her. 

In 1919, Australian Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale is trying to collect herself in the wake of World War I.  She and her twin brothers, Dan and Riley, all served, but only Penelope made it back alive.  She worked with Sam Groves, an American, on the front lines, as an ambulance driver, ferrying the wounded from the battlefield, and the memories and mental scars are still with her – as is her attraction to Sam.  She’s gone to the London’s Natural History Museum to reconnect with her brothers’ spirits through their love of fossils.  When she learns that the boys have fossils in their collection from Bow Wow Gorge, where Anthea Winstanley, a colleague of Mary Anning, lived, she becomes determined to prove that her brothers’ collection is an important and worthwhile connection to Winstanley’s discoveries, and that they might even be part of a complete skeleton of some kind.  When Sam proposes marriage and declares that he wants to obtain her father’s permission to marry her, they travel to Bow Wow Gorge.  Grappling with her father’s disapproval, PJ soon learns that seventy years earlier, several girls staying with Winstanley mysteriously disappeared. When PJ stumbles over a skeleton down in the gorge, it seems as if the ugly secrets of the past might be intruding on the present. 

Mellie and PJ’s stories threaten to collide under the hot Australian sun.  What happened, and who is the owner of the remains that PJ found? 

The mysteries and tension inherent in the Fossil Hunter are double-layered, and there are many twisted and tangled threads that tie Mellie to PJ and vice-versa. It’s impossible to avoid loving Cooper’s main heroines here; they’re distinct and strong in their own ways, their dilemmas and relationships real and engrossing.  The book balances mystery, thriller and historical novel elements in its enchanting prose, and Cooper keeps the audience on their toes. 

The conflict between Mellie – whose imagination has given credence to a host of monsters because of some very real violence that has been done to her – and science-minded Anthea is fascinating.  There are villains for them to fight – Victor Baldwin, who wants Anthea’s land, the bratty and disobedient girls – together with the demons of the mind.  But this is about the mother/daughter relationship Mellie and Anthea forge together through healing. 

PJ has to heal from the rash actions of her brothers (they ran away to the front and enlisted), and her own sense of self-recrimination, and she manages to do that through self-examination and talking to her father.  Her romance with Sam sometimes seems superfluous to that point, but Cooper works to convince the audience of Sam’s worth. 

Which brings me to the only real problem I had with the book – Sam.  Obnoxious in his belief that America is the best country in the world, disappearing erratically, providing some emotional support for PJ’s journey but not enough, it feels as though the romance between him and PJ is unnecessary to a degree. Don’t take a drink every time he brags about how great Philadelphia is, you’ll get alcohol poisoning. 

But overall The Fossil Hunter is a really great novel about a very unusual topic.  With notes of Picnic at Hanging Rock perfuming its heady bouquet, it’s a great little book.

Note: This book contains on-page recollections of childhood sexual assault and rape. 

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer 

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Reviewed by Lisa Fernandes

Grade: A-

Book Type: Historical Mystery

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : August 12, 2022

Publication Date: 08/2022

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Lisa Fernandes

Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at, follow her on Twitter at or contribute to her Patreon at or her Ko-Fi at

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