All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity #3)
Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion
2013 (originally 2012), 332p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy? 

I am so late to this party. In fact, when I added this book to my goodreads, it showed me that I had originally listed it under wishlist/TBR in 2012! So 9 years later, I finally got around to reading it after hearing so many people say how much they loved it and seeing it mentioned among lots of people’s favourite books.

When this book begins, a woman has been captured by the Gestapo in France for looking the wrong way when crossing the street, indicating that she’s probably from Britain. She has faced quite a long period of torture and freely admits to telling those interrogating her, a lot of things, much to the chagrin of her fellow captives. She has negotiated a deal – she’ll write down all she knows about British airfields, missions, training operatives, equipment etc and well, she’ll live a little while longer. And maybe she will get a quick death, instead of being subject to experiments or worked and starved to death in a camp. But also, maybe she won’t.

The young woman weaves her story in with another – the pilot of the crippled plane she had to parachute out of. It’s a story of friendship and how two women from very different backgrounds met and forged this friendship when, without the war, they’d probably never have crossed paths, nor built up this friendship. Recruited to the war effort for skills in flying and in languages, the two women end up in dangerous places, sometimes doing dangerous things that they cannot talk about, even to each other. They understand each other, and find ways to be supportive even when they can’t really unburden themselves.

I loved the way this was told. It doesn’t seem to have worked for everyone, but it really did for me. The way in which the story is written, a story within a story and the fact that a lot of the information is alluded to rather than bluntly described. We know how much trauma and torture “Verity” has experienced but she rarely makes more than a passing comment about it. Somehow those comments are just as chilling as if it were described in detail. And anyone who has read anything about the Nazis knows what they were capable of, your mind fills in the rest.

I appreciated the way this story went in terms of making you think one thing about what Verity is saying and doing, before it flips it on its head later on. The narrative changes about 3/4 of the way through and everything slowly starts to recalibrate and you realise how clever Verity was, how well she thought on the fly, even after everything she’d been through. And what she was really doing there and what she was prepared to do in order for it to go ahead, even with her having been captured.

For me, this definitely lived up to everything I’ve heard about it and I got the read that I was expecting. I found myself hooked from the first page, invested in “Verity” and whether or not she might somehow, miraculously escape the fate that seemed to be waiting for her, seeing as she’d been captured. She is like a WWII Scheherazade, bargaining more time with tales of what she knows and she’s also not afraid to sometimes add in a dig to her German captors either. I definitely wondered at her tactic but the further I got into it, the more I needed to know and the more the book surprised me. Especially when the little connections began to make themselves known and I realised who certain people were and who they were connected to. I enjoyed the part that featured the French resistance and the work they were doing getting people in and out of France and the various missions and acts of sabotage they were involved in. It was satisfying to read, even when it came with heartbreak.

I ended up finishing this late at night, when I don’t usually read, because I had to know what happened and how it ended. It’s definitely the sort of book you want to read in a single sitting, the fate of these characters becomes something you get so invested in, even though I think on a deeper level, you know that it’s so unlikely that there’s going to be a fairytale ending. The ending is rough, in a lot of ways, but it’s the ultimate act.

Definitely need to read the others.

9/10

Book #121 of 2021

This is book #24 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful
Kim Lock
Harlequin AUS
2021, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Meet Mercy Blain, whose house has just burnt down. Unfortunately for Mercy, this goes beyond the disaster it would be for most people: she hasn’t been outside that house for two years now.

Flung out into the world she’s been studiously ignoring, Mercy goes to the only place she can. Her not-quite-ex-husband Eugene’s house. But it turns out she can’t stay there, either.

And so begins Mercy’s unwilling journey. After the chance purchase of a cult classic campervan (read tiny, old and smelly), with the company of her sausage dog, Wasabi, and a mysterious box of cremated remains, Mercy heads north from Adelaide to Darwin.

On the road, through badly timed breakdowns, gregarious troupes of grey nomads, and run-ins with a rogue adversary, Mercy’s carefully constructed walls start crumbling. But what was Mercy hiding from in her house? And why is Eugene desperate to have her back in the city? They say you can’t run forever…

Exquisite, tender and wry, this is a break-out novel about facing anxiety and embracing life from an extraordinary new talent.

This was a beautiful story!

I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this even before I read it because I knew someone that had read it and loved it and from what they said, I felt like it would contain a lot of things that I enjoy. Living in Melbourne, I spent a lot of last year in lockdown, and during that time I got into watching people living #vanlife on YouTube. So when I realised that this book contained a road trip up the centre of Australia with the main character in a van, I was pretty sure that it was definitely going to be something I would enjoy. But I didn’t just enjoy it for that.

Mercy Blain, the main character, hasn’t left her house for 2 years before it burns down and is considered to be uninhabitable. Although her ex-husband offers her a place to stay at his house, that for Mercy (and perhaps others) isn’t a workable situation and Mercy finds herself buying a van and just…..leaving. With Adelaide behind her she makes the decision to drive north all the way to Darwin, straight up the middle of Australia. It’s a popular route with “Grey Nomads” – retired singles and couples who have bought a caravan and are road trippin’ their way around the country.

But Mercy is reluctant to join the camaraderie that ensues at each overnight resting/camping spot. She has been living a very solitary lifestyle and even the thought of doing things that others find simple, such as buying groceries or filling up the vehicle with fuel, incite anxiety and high levels of stress. Interaction with people is the same and the more people it seems the more stress this brings. At first Mercy rejects any overtures of friendship, hiding in her van. The further she travels though, the more she seems to unfurl a little, and the trip brings about a way to face her demons, deal with the event that triggered this way of life for her. I adored some of the people she met along the way, particularly Bert, a retiree who is always looking to round Mercy up for “happy hour at ours, silver Cruiser and Jayco” and who doesn’t ever take it personally that Mercy doesn’t turn up. He continues to turn up at the same stops Mercy is at, continues to invite her and eventually Mercy, due to a few incidents, is drawn into the group and togetherness of people doing this trip, accepting of help when she needs it.

I loved being along for Mercy’s journey, all the up and down moments of it. Although Mercy flees in a moment of panic when she realises her house, her sanctuary, isn’t liveable anymore, it takes courage and bravery to keep going, especially when you’re someone who hasn’t been out of your house really, in two years. It involves having to interact with people, to deal with them face to face – can’t order everything online to your van! And it’s quite a trek to undertake on your own (with a dog for company), to drive from Adelaide to Darwin. There are often long stretches where there’s no fuel or place to stop, so sometimes planning is necessary. Mercy’s van is a character, not quite capable of the top speed on these outback roads, so she has to calculate for that too. I really enjoyed being along for the ride, as Mercy negotiates challenges and finds the courage to stand up for herself, as well as face what is coming back in Adelaide. I thought Mercy’s reactions to things that challenged her in the beginning were so well written, so believable. And as the story went on and I pieced together why she had not left her house in almost two years before the fire, I could understand.

I enjoyed every page of this – it definitely made me want to make this trip one day (although I fully admit I’m a bit of a princess, so I’m definitely going to need a more luxurious set up than the one Mercy had!). I appreciated the time and care taken to show Mercy’s struggles and how she tries to overcome them out of necessity and how she gains strength through her trip. You couldn’t help but cheer for Mercy with her every victory and hope for her with every kilometre. Kim Lock is a wonderful writer, who has definitely become an autoread for me.

8/10

Book #119 of 2021

The Other Side Of Beautiful is book #51 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Little French Bridal Shop by Jennifer Dupee

The Little French Bridal Shop
Jennifer Dupee
Allen & Unwin
2021, 291p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Larisa Pearl returns to her small seaside home town to manage her beloved great aunt’s estate, she’s an emotional mess. Larisa has just lost her job and her boyfriend and she’s struggling to cope with her mother’s failing health. But as she walks past the bridal shop window, a beautiful ivory satin wedding gown catches her eye…

Now, to the delight of everyone in town, Larisa is planning her wedding. She’s bought the dress, made floral arrangements and set the date. The only thing she doesn’t have is the groom. How did this happen? All she did was try on a dress and let her fantasy take flight.

Lost in a web of her own lies, Larisa must first face some difficult truths, including her mother’s fragile future, before she can embrace her family, straighten out her life and open her heart to finding love.

I have to admit, I struggled with this book a bit.

The first reason is, I think my own misconceptions. The cover and the description make it sound like it’s going to be a fun little rom com maybe – main character Larisa is tempted into a bridal shop despite not being engaged and suddenly finds herself buying a dress, planning a wedding. Only thing missing is a groom! But it’s not really like that at all…..

Larisa has recently lost her job and ended her relationship so it makes sense that she be the one to ready her great aunt’s house for sale after her recent passing. It’s a house she knows well, she visited often and learned a lot by spending time with her great aunt, who lived a very formal life. For some reason, Larisa walks into the bridal shop on her first day in town and it’s run by a former teacher of hers who is thrilled that Larisa is getting married. Except Larisa isn’t – but she tries on every dress in the shop anyway and finds the perfect one.

My biggest problem was, I really did not like Larisa as a character at all. The way in which she describes what she says to her former boyfriend when they split up, is awful. Her lying is incredibly problematic and her mother has dementia, which Larisa does her best to make all about her. I understand that people react to terrible things in different ways….but Larisa’s way is incredibly hard to read. Or make excuses for. She avoids her mother, leaving the entirety of her care to her father, and even perpetuates the lies to her father as well. The thing is, he knows she’s lying also.

Rounding out the reasons I didn’t enjoy this book is Jack – the caretaker of the house, who has worked there since he was a teenager. He’s now in his late thirties, married with eleven year old triplet boys and Jack is a walking cliche. His marriage has lost its excitement to him, so he leaves his wife to do the bulk of the childcare and the taking care of the home whilst he stays out later and later. Jack treats his wife horrifically – and when they separate he goes to live at the house Larisa is fixing up because in his mind, it’s his house too given he’s worked there for so long. Jack and Larisa have known each other since they were teenagers and they embark on this will they or won’t they hook up sort of thing, while each of them are perpetuating the lie about getting married (Larisa) and just generally being terrible at the fathering and husband thing (Jack).

Jack was such an awful person to read about. His thoughts about his wife and marriage, the back-and-forth in his mind, his determination to be a better husband and father that lasts about five minutes every time he thinks it, he just needed to grow up and stop resenting the choices that had gotten him to where he was. He doesn’t come across as a particularly hands-on father, preferring to take his boys out in a boat rather than help with the day-to-day life. He complains internally about his wife’s form of employment and how it takes over their house and how it’s all she talks about, he dislikes the fact that she has always resented the time he spent caretaking the house for Larisa’s now deceased great-aunt. When separated from his wife, he pursues Larisa but forgets about that when something happens to his wife and then realises that perhaps that wasn’t what he wanted either.

The only people I liked in this whole book were Larisa’s parents – her poor, dedicated father who took such wonderful care of his wife, his patience and gentleness with her. He doesn’t reproach Larisa for the fact she hasn’t been to visit in a while and Larisa is too embarrassed to explain to people that her mother has demential now so she lies and says they’re hiking in the Himalayas or holidaying in Palm Beach. She has a real aversion to acknowledging the illness and its effect on her mother, which, you know, I might’ve excused in a person in their teens or even early 20s. But Larisa was 38 or 39 (the same age I am actually) and it just made it seem really ridiculous, especially the denial and lying.

I really like the cover but the story inside didn’t match it unfortunately.

5/10

Book #118 of 2021

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Review: The Women’s Circle by Karyn Sepulveda

The Women’s Circle
Karyn Sepulveda
Ventura Press
2021, 240p
Copy courtesy of the author/publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sydney, present day. Anna is released into the world after six years in prison. The entirety of her possessions stuffed into a single plastic bag. The trauma of her past, a much heavier burden to carry. Feeling hopeless, isolated and deeply lonely, Anna attends an alternative support group; The Women’s Circle. But when she touches an ancient crystal, Anna connects to a woman she has never met, in a past she doesn’t recognise.

In 1770, a brutal regime torments the English village of Quarrendon and is determined to keep its women apart. Young villager Aisleen desperately seeks a way to defy the rules, reunite with her sister, and live life on her own terms, without her husband’s permission. The stakes are high and terror of punishment inescapable, but doing nothing comes at an even steeper price…

While separated by generations, Anna finds herself drawn to the spine-chilling and courageous plight of Aisleen and Quarrendon’s women. Can their bond help her to face her past and embrace her second chance at life?

A heart-warming and inspirational portrayal of inner strength and vulnerability, The Women’s Circle shows us the true power of female friendship in all its forms. 

This book arrived beautifully wrapped with a little personal note and a rose quartz crystal attached, which I thought was such a fun touch, such a great connection to the story.

Anna has just been released from prison after a six year sentence. She has a social worker who has found her a place to stay in a boarding house and has provided meals and clothing vouchers for her. Anna has to get a job, save for her own place and undertake some therapy as part of her parole. Her social worker believes in her but Anna has a lot of anger and bitterness inside of her and every day is a struggle against the addiction that sent her on the path that led to jail.

This book is told in several different time periods – there’s the present, where Anna is learning to live life outside of jail again and then, after she attends an alternative therapy group and touches a mysterious crystal, Anna finds herself able to see a woman’s life in England in 1770. There’s also flashes back into Anna’s past, which help show how perhaps, her life went the way it did.

I found myself really liking Anna as a character – she’s tough, but has flashes of vulnerability. She left her home in South America and moved to Australia, after the death of the two women who had taken care of her her whole life. There in Australia, she met Jake and was drawn into his web of drugs. When Anna is released from jail, she has to rebuild the life she came here to make, getting a job and learning to save money and most importantly, resist the temptation to return to using. She is living in a boarding house with other women who have also spent time in prison and part of that is learning to get along with people who are difficult or that you might not like. At times, Anna is not always successful in this!

The glimpses she gets into 1770 showcase a small, cut off village where the women have been completely cowed by a group of men, who exert control over everyone, even executing those that do not comply with their rules. Women are not to speak to anyone, especially other women and are to be accompanied by their husbands. The powers that be decide who the women marry and when and the husbands are also punished if their wives misbehave. The woman Anna is able to connect with is Aisleen, who was separated from her mother and sister and married off. Her husband is kind and desperately wants her to abide by the rules so as to avoid any punishments but that’s not in Aisleen’s nature. She wants to be reunited with her mother and sister and she knows that if the women come together, if they show their strength in numbers, they might be able to rise up against the tyranny of the few and restore their freedoms.

I found this time period fascinating – and also, deeply frustrating and hard to read, because it was too easy to put myself in the position of the women and wonder what life would be like cut off from your family, pretty much every freedom stripped from you, beholden not just to your husband but also a group of men who had decided that they were in charge and could dominate every aspect of society. Aisleen got the spark of an idea, nurtured it and then implemented it, her desire to try and change things outweighing any fear of the repercussions. I felt like Anna had something to learn from Aisleen, even though their lives were very different.

I also really appreciated the way Anna’s struggle was showcased – both with fitting in back in society, in terms of getting a job, living with other people and also, avoiding or trying to avoid, the lure of drugs. Addiction is something that I feel a lot of people (including myself) don’t really understand on a deep level and Anna’s constant day to day resistance was something that I felt came through very clearly. I really liked her burgeoning friendship with Brayden and his earnest overtures and ability to overlook her past. But mostly I liked the way Anna found support and also, her own inner strength to change her life, to grasp a new opportunity and make a future.

8/10

Book #116 of 2021

The Women’s Circle is book #49 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Talk Bookish To Me by Kate Bromley

Talk Bookish To Me
Kate Bromley
Zaffre
2021, 326p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Inspiration can come from the most unlikely – and inconvenient – sources.

Kara Sullivan’s life is full of love – albeit fictional. As a best-selling romance novelist and influential Bookstagrammer, she’s fine with getting her happily-ever-after fix between the covers of a book. 

But right now? Not only is Kara’s best friend getting married next week – which means big wedding stress – but the deadline for her next novel is looming, and she hasn’t written a single word. The last thing she needs is for her infuriating first love, Ryan Thompson, to suddenly appear in the wedding party. But Ryan’s unexpected arrival sparks a creative awakening in Kara that inspires the steamy historical romance she desperately needs to deliver. 

With her wedding duties intensifying, her deadline getting closer by the second and her bills not paying themselves, Kara knows there’s only one way for her to finish her book and to give her characters the ever-after they deserve. But can she embrace the unlikely, ruggedly handsome muse—who pushes every one of her buttons—to save the wedding, her career and, just maybe, write her own happy ending?

******Please beware that this entire review will contain SPOILERS******

I don’t often write reviews that are riddled with spoilers but for me, it’s really hard to talk about this one without addressing several things in the plot that I think are definitely a dealbreaker for a lot of readers, particularly those that are romance lovers. I’ve read a lot of romance in my time and this book contains something that had I known about it going in, I’d never have read it. And even though I didn’t like this book anyway before that….it definitely made it irredeemable and unsalvageable as a read for me.

Kara is about 30, she’s an author who is experiencing writers block. About to be maid of honour for her best friend, she’s horrified (or is she?) when the best man turns out to be her old college boyfriend, whom she broke up with in acrimonious circumstances about 10 years ago, when she was 20 and he was 22. She believed Ryan was cheating on her, if not physically, then definitely emotionally during a long distance period in their relationship when he’d graduated and moved for work.

I hated Ryan. He’s one of those smarmy characters that’s supposed to be charming but for me, he was just a complete jerk. He shames Kara for reading romance, both in the past when they meet in college and in the present day. He calls it “literary porn” and basically insinuates it’s all the same and even though he doesn’t suggest only those lacking in intelligence would continue reading the same book, it’s generally what people mean when they say that. The two of them are toxic in their first interactions upon reintroduction and I honestly couldn’t understand why Kara’s best friend was attempting to throw them together in ways that were both rude and stupid. She seemed to think that these people who hadn’t seen each other in ten years and had broken up in very upsetting and hurtful circumstances, were “exuding a vibe” or something. It was ridiculous. And then because seeing Ryan means Kara is able to write one chapter of the book that’s due very soon that she’s been completely blocked on, she invites Ryan to stay with her in her one bedroom apartment with his dog when he’s thrown out of his hotel. This is despite all the words coming out of her mouth are that she doesn’t want to spend time with him or be reminded of him and what happened. Not only are there break up feels but it’s also tied up in her father’s death and Kara is very messed up over that still. Then Kara is immature and arranges to go out on a date…..which Ryan then crashes and I hate things like this because this sort of behaviour is not normal and should never be accepted as such.

Yikes. Oh God, yikes. Honestly, this would probably have been enough for a poor rating, because Ryan is awful, Kara is spineless and her friends are pushy and disrespectful. But after they “get back together” because the chemistry/feelings haven’t gone away, Kara discovers in the worst possible way, that Ryan oops, forgot to mention that he’s engaged. To the woman she once thought he was cheating on her with, ten years ago. This renders Kara the ‘other woman’ and I cannot properly express the howl of rage this induced and if I hadn’t been reading this on an iPad, I’d have hurled this book at the nearest wall. For me, cheating is a hard no and the side characters do utter backflips to justify it, one of Kara’s friends even basically telling her “it’s okay, he didn’t cheat on you.” What in the actual fuck is that? Girl, if he did it with you, he’ll do it to you. We’re supposed to just ignore this poor other character (who never did anything wrong because they actually weren’t involved many years ago) and accept that Ryan and Kara have some sort of higher love that transcends other commitments. Oh to the hell no. Ryan is such a garbage human that he equates the secret he kept with the fact that Kara booked a 6 month sabbatical in Italy to write her next novel twelve months before he came into her life again and didn’t mention it immediately. One of these things is not like the other Ryan. Also Ryan didn’t speak to his dad for ten years after he cheated on Ryan’s mother…..and then cheated on his fiancé with Kara. Hello hypocrisy. And although it’s made clear that Ryan didn’t physically cheat on Kara ten years ago, I don’t think the emotional aspect of it is adequately addressed and seems best forgotten because of the fact there was no physical activity. But he was clearly pulling away from Kara and choosing this other person to confide in and spend time in (and stay at her house).

Kara goes to Italy and meets someone else and I thought, it would 100% redeem this book for me if she fell in love with this dude and forgot all about Ryan but, alas no. She gets some counselling from her friend who tells her that it was fine, Ryan explains why he did what he did and also, he was totally Kara’s first and he didn’t cheat on her like I mentioned above. Her other friend interferes as well and these two starstruck lovers are reunited. Bless.

Public Service Announcement: If he cheats on you or with you, he’s still a cheater.

Also I got so mad that I forgot to mention the fatshaming which is also gross.

A huge nope for me.

2/10 (solely for the argument Kara makes to Ryan to express how her reading different romance novels are like him watching different baseball games. The only part of the book I felt was well written or made any sense).

Book #112 of 2021

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Blog Tour Review: Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West

Catch Us The Foxes
Nicola West
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Ambitious young journalist Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson would do anything to escape the suffocating confines of her small home town. While begrudgingly covering the annual show for the local paper, Lo is horrified to discover the mutilated corpse of Lily Williams, the reigning showgirl and Lo’s best friend. Seven strange symbols have been ruthlessly carved into Lily’s back. But when Lo reports her grisly find to the town’s police chief, he makes her promise not to tell anyone about the symbols. Lo obliges, though it’s not like she has much of a choice – after all, he is also her father.

When Lily’s murder makes headlines around the country and the town is invaded by the media, Lo seizes the opportunity to track down the killer and make a name for herself by breaking the biggest story of her life.

What Lo uncovers is that her sleepy home town has been harbouring a deadly secret, one so shocking that it will captivate the entire nation. Lo’s story will change the course of her life forever, but in a way she could never have dreamed of. 

This is a book that is going to really divide readers. It’s interesting, it’s twisted, it’s equal parts clever and frustrating and it’s definitely one where if you know someone that has read it, when you finish you’re definitely going to be hitting that person up to dissect it in great detail. For many, this will be a love it or hate it book.

It starts with Marlowe “Lo” Robertson about to do an appearance to promote her book about the murder of her best friend Lily Williams, which occurred about seven years earlier. Lo discovered Lily’s body in the stables of the carnival at the local show and is shocked when her father, the local police chief, asks her to keep quiet about what she feels are very important details. When someone delivers Lily’s journals to her, Lo is horrified to discover that the town might be hiding something incredibly sinister – and that some of the most powerful citizens are in on it.

This book is full of twists and turns that will make you query everything. Whenever you think you have the mystery figured out and you definitely know what is happening now and who is doing what, you’ll read something else two pages later that will recalibrate everything and then you’re definitely sure that you know what is happening! There’s a lot about this that is written really well – it’s very much a story where you can’t trust anything anyone is telling you and the narrator becomes more unreliable as the book goes on. The fact that this is a ‘book within a book’ allows the author some liberties with the telling and it’s the sort of story where you need to query everything you learn because chances are, it’s going to be completely different in a few pages anyway!

I enjoyed this – and I found it a riveting read that definitely kept me engaged and I very much wanted to learn what the truth was, and what had really happened to Lily and why. Because there were quite a few scenarios presented and each one would’ve brought about a very different outcome for many of the people we were introduced to in the book. But…..I did have a few issues with the story and I felt that there were things that felt a little glossed over or didn’t perhaps have the sort of impact that they should have.

Firstly, I’m pretty surprised the author chose to use a real place as the setting in this book, because she’s not kind to it. There’s very little positivity in the portrayal of the town at all – and it’s a well known town, quite popular with tourists and day trippers (both of which also attract some scorn) but the worst of it is probably reserved for some of the powerful men in town and the rampant misogyny and blatantly homophobic behaviour. And then of course there’s the suggestion of potentially sinister behaviour happening and everyone turning a blind eye to it, or being complicit. I thought something of this nature would’ve been better in a made up town, even if it was clearly based on a particular town. I just thought it was an odd choice, and I know small towns can be incredibly constricting and difficult – the amount of desperation from Lo in wanting to get out (then why didn’t she?) and the criticism of those that didn’t, felt weirdly bitter without much in the way of actual reason.

The other thing that made me really uncomfortable was the ending – not because of the way it ended, I was all for that choice and the twists and turns that got the reader to the final answer. It was more the fact that the author took something heavily stigmatised and had her characters pretend they weren’t, in order to use it as a scapegoat that benefited them and suited their narrative and allowed them to continue on. Now I mentioned this to a blogger friend of mine who suggested it may have been a commentary on how such things are still stigmatised and even when people are saying not to, there’s still a strong trend towards burying it or using it if possible and that could be the case – the author could be using this a social commentary on this. Or they could not be. It just detracted from everything for me – I think you’re supposed to think how cold, but all I could really think was how unnecessary to make this thing your cover for the big bad.

Occasionally I had trouble believing that Lo was in her 20s – the narration often made her seem quite a bit younger but I don’t know how much of that was the writing or it was what the author was intending. The nature of the the way the story is told means that as I said, you can’t take anything imparted to be anything other than the intentional way that the story was chosen to be presented. It makes for an odd read at times, as you try to pick out what might not have occurred precisely the way you’re being told it did.

A very different read – I don’t think everyone will enjoy it but I thought that for the most part, it was engaging and clever and full of twists and turns that will mean you won’t know what happened until almost the last page. And even then you’ll question what you know!

7/10

Book #117 of 2021

Catch Us The Foxes is book #50 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021 – and with this title, I successfully complete the goal I set for myself, to read 50 books. I’m pretty sure I can get to 80 before the year is out.

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Review: The Wattle Seed Inn by Léonie Kelsall

The Wattle Seed Inn
Léonie Kelsall
Allen & Unwin
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Three aching hearts, a ramshackle country pub and a tangled web of secrets.

PR executive Gabrielle Moreau knows she has an easy life, but when her business partner claims she lacks career passion she takes ownership of a dilapidated pub in a tiny riverside settlement to prove she can be a success without falling back on her privilege.

Eighteen months ago, Settlers Bridge stonemason Hayden Paech had it all: a job he loved, good mates and a close family. All he needed was the right woman to come along, and he was ready to settle down. But one poor choice stole that chance and he’ll never risk caring for anyone again.

Living at Wurruldi Hotel for … goodness, so many years, Ilse has seen more changes of ownership than she can recall. Clinging to her failing memories, she’s tired of trying to protect the property her grandparents built. With the arrival of the elegant Gabrielle Moreau, however, it seems that finally an owner may recognise the importance of recapturing the grace and dignity of Ilse’s past.

For Ilse to find peace, Hayden forgiveness and Gabrielle her true passion, three aching hearts must reveal their secrets. 

I absolutely adored Léonie Kelsall’s first novel, The Farm At Peppertree Crossing, so I was so excited to read this. It’s set in the same area and readers of that first book will probably be happy to see quite a few familiar faces peppering this story, including Matt and Roni.

Three years ago, Gabrielle Moreau and her then-fiance and business partner, bought an old pub. Since then there’s been an earthquake that caused a little damage but Gabrielle now owns the pub outright and is determined to restore it to its former glory and hopefully, find her passion. On her first night in town, she meets a bunch of locals in a different pub and is drawn into their close knit friendship group. Even better, two of them have skills she desperately needs to help restore her building – her vision is for an inn rather than a pub.

Hayden Paech is damaged in more ways than one. Without his friends badgering him to stay part of the group, to go out, to live, he’d probably be a hermit, just his service dog for company. He and Gabrielle do not hit it off well due to an assumption on Gabrielle’s part and her wariness of his dog but the more time they spend together, the more something simmers between them.

I really loved the way this is told – the narrative is split between three perspectives: Gabrielle, Hayden and also Ilse, who lived most of her life in and around the pub and it was held her in family for generations. Gabrielle is from the city and is also from a wealthy background so she’s used to life being a certain way, things happening when you’re ready to offer money for services. Life in the country is different – contractors are quite happy to say they don’t work out that far or will come out when they’re ready, to give a quote. When she meets the group of locals and is able to hire cabinet maker Justin and stonemason Hayden, she also finds that friendly Sharna is willing to pitch in and Gabrielle can even do some of the work herself.

Gabrielle and Hayden get off to a prickly start, for a few reasons. Hayden is a character that is absolutely radiating with pain – both physically and mentally, which he tries to hide. His friends, especially Taylor, the local doctor, are always checking on his welfare and making sure he’s doing okay and the thoughts and nightmares aren’t getting on top of him. Hayden is suffering from PTSD and he has his service dog, who recognises the signs that Hayden might be experiencing times of high stress, and to wake him from nightmares and provide comfort. The support that the dog provides was showcased so well – he was such a part of the story he was almost a main character himself and not only does he provide that comfort and security for Hayden, looking after him when required but he also helps Gabrielle overcome her fear and wariness of dogs.

Hayden and Gabrielle both had some trauma, grief and loss in their past – and are still dealing with the after-effects of that. Hayden has a lot of guilt, for things that are not his fault. It can be hard to bear but sometimes a tragedy is just that…a tragedy. I think Gabrielle can understand those feelings because she’s had similar ones herself. I really appreciated the way their friendship developed from this snarkiness to this deep understanding of each other and all their parts. Before the end of the book, Hayden and Gabrielle have seen each other’s deep vulnerabilities, scars and raw wounds and are the stronger for it and that was something I really enjoyed reading. There’s no suggestion that this developing relationship will ‘fix’ Hayden, will change things for him but he’ll have support and love from a different direction, when he needs it.

I also really loved Ilse’s chapters. I don’t think her story is hard to discern even in the beginning but I felt it was done in a way that really worked and the slow reveal of all the parts of her story was well crafted. It gave the reader a chance to view the inn’s history, see how it had shaped lives and how Gabrielle was bringing it back.

You don’t have to have read the first book in order to read this one – it stands alone really well. But if you have read one and not the other (no matter which way it is) then I highly recommend you read both because they are both wonderful.

8/10

Book #115 of 2021

The Wattle Seed Inn is book #48 of the Australian Women Writer Challenge 2021

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Review: You And Me On Vacation by Emily Henry

You And Me On Vacation
Emily Henry
Penguin UK
2021, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

TWO FRIENDS
TEN SUMMER TRIPS
THEIR LAST CHANCE TO FALL IN LOVE

12 SUMMERS AGO: Poppy and Alex meet. They hate each other, and are pretty confident they’ll never speak again.

11 SUMMERS AGO: They’re forced to share a ride home from college and by the end of it a friendship is formed. And a pact: every year, one vacation together.

10 SUMMERS AGO: Alex discovers his fear of flying on the way to Vancouver.
Poppy holds his hand the whole way.

7 SUMMERS AGO: They get far too drunk and narrowly avoid getting matching tattoos in New Orleans.

2 SUMMERS AGO: It all goes wrong.

THIS SUMMER: Poppy asks Alex to join her on one last trip. A trip that will determine the rest of their lives.

You and Me on Vacation is a love story for fans of When Harry Met Sally and One Day. Get ready to travel the world, snort with laughter and – most of all – lose your heart to Poppy and Alex.

Oh my Gosh.

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, ever since I read (well, actually, listened to) Beach Read by Emily Henry last year, became obsessed with it and learned that she had another book out middle of 2021. And for me, this absolutely lived up to my expectations for it and I freaking loved this book.

Poppy and Alex met briefly at university – they’re both from opposite sides of the same town in Ohio and went to the same university in Chicago. They didn’t exactly hit it off but a year later a mutual friend arranges for them to share a ride back to their hometown for break and what starts off awkward ends up being the beginning of an amazing friendship. From there, they’re pretty much inseparable and save every summer for a holiday with each other, firstly doing things cheap and cheerful and later, after Poppy gets a dream job for a travel publication, with someone else’s budget. They are best friends, no matter what else is going on, who else they might be seeing, even if Poppy acknowledges deep down, it’s 95% best friends, 5% “what if”.

The book is told back and forth in time – in the present day, Poppy is experiencing some burnout. She worked so hard to get her present job but after a few years doing it, it doesn’t bring the same ‘zing’ anymore. She can’t understand it. Her friend tells her to go back to a time when she was genuinely happy and work from there and for Poppy it’s before everything “went wrong” with Alex, some two years ago on their last vacation in Croatia. She decides to reach out to Alex and try and fix their friendship. She proposes another summer vacation together so part of the book explores their reconnection and it also goes back in time to showcase their meeting, the car ride home together and various other moments from their summer vacations to different places.

I loved both Poppy and Alex. When we meet them, we know it all went wrong – that this really wonderful friendship has petered out to a couple of “Happy birthday” and “thanks” texts a year. Poppy knows that she still thinks about Alex all the time, that she still mourns what they’ve become but she’s not sure if Alex feels the same. She can’t prevent herself from reaching out though, and Alex responds. What we don’t know, is how and why everything went wrong and it takes a while for everything to come out, because things are told in a way that fleshes out the friendship before it begins to show how it broke down. I sort of guessed what had happened and I think most people will as well. Alex and Poppy have this undertone and it ebbs and flows a bit, depending what is going on but both of them are hesitant about it (or Poppy is – the narrative is all hers, we have to just guess at Alex’s feelings and intentions). I knew I was going to love this after I’d read less than 20 pages – it had me laughing and as I got into it, some scenes made my heart hurt as well.

I thought that Alex and Poppy had awesome chemistry and that the slow burn was really well done – by the time the sexual tension was ready to break, I was soooo ready for it! I love a slow burn and I think that the book excelled at it and I just felt like the flashbacks established their friendship so well – the 95% and the 5% (although sometimes these values fluctuated, depending on what was happening and how Poppy was feeling at any given time, such as the chapter where she’s unwell and the chapter where they’re in Croatia). I was so invested in them, for the first part I was also frustrated at Poppy because I’m like why can’t you see what is happening here, why this is how you are feeling, why this happened, why you’re doing this/saying this/etc but I realised she did see, she just didn’t want to for various reasons. And those reasons were explained and I feel as though both character’s backgrounds were a strong reason in why certain things were an issue for them, in terms of why none of them pulled the trigger earlier. There were also some misunderstandings, where both of them were desperate to preserve the friendship that they gave off the wrong impression, and this is a good example of how those misunderstandings can spiral out of control until they effect the friendship in an entirely different way.

This is so much my jam. A total keeper, think I need the audiobook version as well now. I really love listening to books I’ve already read and loved and I enjoyed the audio of Beach Read so much that I think I’ll definitely love this one too.

And now my wait for the next Emily Henry begins.

9/10

Book #107 of 2021

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Blog Tour Review: The Eighth Wonder by Tania Farrelly

The Eighth Wonder
Tania Farrelly
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The Suffragette meets The Greatest Showman in this story ofpassion and courage, as a young feminist fights against the rules of society to find her place in the world.

New York, 1897. The richest city in the world.

Beautiful, young and privileged, Rose Kingsbury Smith is expected to play by the strict rules of social etiquette, to forfeit all career aspirations and to marry a man of good means. But she has a quietly rebellious streak and is determined to make her own mark on Manhattan’s growing skyline. When the theft of a precious heirloom plunges the Kingsbury Smiths into financial ruin, Rose becomes her family’s most tradeable asset. She finds herself fighting for her independence and championing the ideal of equality for women everywhere.

Enigmatic Ethan Salt’s inglorious circus days are behind him. He lives a quiet life on Coney Island with his beloved elephant Daisy and is devoted to saving animals who’ve been brutalised by show business. As he struggles to raise funds for his menagerie, he fears he will never build the sanctuary of his dreams … until a chance encounter with a promising young architect changes his life forever.

Just when Rose is on the verge of seeing her persistence pay off, the ghosts of her past threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. In the face of heartbreaking prejudice and betrayal, she must learn to harness her greatest wonder within.

From Fifth Avenue mansions to Lower East Side tenements and the carnivals of Coney Island, The Eighth Wonder explores the brilliance and brutality of one of the world’s most progressive eras and celebrates the visionaries who dare to rebel.

This book had a little of everything!

Rose Kingsbury Smith is young, beautiful, intelligent and her mother’s hope for their family. Although she’s known wealth and privilege growing up in New York, things have recently been getting tight financially and Rose’s mother Edith is desperate for Rose to catch a wealthy husband – preferably Chet Randall, and she’s determined to do everything she has to in order to orchestrate the match. But Rose would rather lose herself in architecture – she’s working as an apprentice with her father and it’s her passion. She has no desire to marry, to give up her independence and become a society wife and she definitely has no desire to marry someone her mother wishes to thrust upon her, with little in the way of feelings involved.

The opposite of Rose’s privileged upbringing, Ethan Salt grew up on the streets but a chance encounter with elephants walking across the Brooklyn Bridge mostly reformed the pickpocket and now he lives on Coney Island with an assortment of animals, mostly rescued from a life of pain. It’s his dream to build a sanctuary for him but Ethan’s reputation has preceded him and one of his animals is a lion that makes people nervous. There’s not a lot of donations forthcoming to fund his dream….and when Ethan and Rose cross paths, their connection stirs the ire of a man who would destroy them both.

I really enjoyed Rose as a main character – her determination and want to prove herself. She was so interested in architecture and making a difference, having her name be something people recognise and admire. Her mother was an awful society social climber, desperate to see Rose married to someone wealthy and influential, thereby stopping the family’s slow slide down the wealth scale. She was prepared to ruin her daughter’s life to achieve her goals (among other things) and her underhanded manipulation and bullying of her daughter was incredibly off-putting. It made me want Rose to stand up for herself and what she wanted – even if it meant the family wouldn’t be able to have servants or whatever else was so important to her mother. Rose and her father were definitely different – neither seemed interested in ascending the heights of Manhattan society and it seemed both would be pleased with enough to live comfortably and work to keep them engaged.

Daisy the elephant is a character in her own right in this novel and I enjoyed all of the scenes she was in, from the very first one as she is one of the elephants to cross the bridge, to the potentially devastating one. It made me think about how cruel to animals people have been (well, are still being, in many cases) and how accepted that behaviour was, how people viewed it as entertainment. Elephants are one of my favourite animals and although I’ve only seen them in zoos, the zoos of today at least try to mimic their natural habitats and provide them with space to roam, with the ways of cages and bars gone. Ethan’s love and care for his animals is wonderful to read – and even though he’s done things in his past that many people would probably not approve of, it’s a show of the haves vs the have nots…. what he had to do to survive. Even now he relies on donations from wealthy New Yorkers and is subject to their whims and trends in order to scrape together enough to care for his animals.

When Rose and Ethan come together, it’s the resurgence of a connection that was forged many years ago during a chance meeting. Ethan lives an unusual life and Rose definitely doesn’t want the sort of life that her mother would carve out for her. She wants to live her own life and I think despite his financial reliance on benefactors and donors, Ethan has a sort of freedom that Rose hasn’t experienced before. She cares about the same things he does, becomes devoted to the animals as well and wants to showcase her talents in a way that benefits everyone. And Ethan isn’t the sort of man who would want his wife at home overseeing staff, obviously, or having lunches with other important, influential wives. They both have things that they are passionate about and together, want to see each other succeed in those things. And help in any way that they can.

Like I mentioned previously, a little of everything – the wealthiest and poorest of New York, obligation vs passion, breaking the chains that held women during this time, love, friendship, mystery, even a little bit of a sinister thread and threat to people’s wellbeing. It kept me very entertained – an excellent debut.

8/10

Book #114 of 2021

The Eighth Wonder is book #24 towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

It also counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021 and is the 47th book read so far.

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Blog Tour Review: The Missing Girl by Kerry McGinnis

The Missing Girl
Kerry McGinnis
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 326p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The darkest secrets are buried the deepest.

Meg Morrissey has just lost her job, and her partner to an overseas assignment, when she is called back to the family home of Hunters Reach in the picturesque Adelaide Hills. Her ailing grandmother, who raised her when she was orphaned as a child, has always been a formidable figure in her life, and this is hardly a welcome summons.

When Meg arrives at the ramshackle old homestead, she learns that the place is up for sale. She is expected to care for the property with its extensive garden, while packing up the contents of the house. As she begins the arduous work of bringing the grand old homestead back to its former glory, she is forced to examine the question that has plagued her all her life – why nobody loved her as a child.

As the house unfolds the history of an earlier age, it also spills out secrets Meg had never imagined – in particular, the discovery of an aunt she never knew, her mother’s twin sister, Iris. The discovery brings horror in its wake, as Meg learns the secrets of the missing girl and the truth behind a wicked heart where love simply never existed. The more she uncovers, the more questions she has. With her grandmother unwilling to share what she knows, Meg must seek out the truth for herself.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the Australian bush in summer, with the ever-present threat of bushfire at its back, this is a highly evocative story of secrets and betrayal.

I really enjoyed this.

It’s set in 1990 and I am always surprised by how different books set in 1990 feel. Many things have evolved so much since then, particularly technology. 1990 is an entirely different time, before the commonality of mobile phones, before the internet.

Meg is in her mid-20s and has successfully escaped a life dominated by people who didn’t care about her: her parents were always much more interested in each other than they were in her, their only child, and life was a rotation of boarding school and being left with her cold grandmother on school holidays. Her parents died when she was still relatively young and that meant her grandmother became solely responsible for her care. She did the bare minumin: Meg was fed, clothed and educated but she was always aware that there was never any love there and her grandmother was such a difficult woman that when Meg was able to leave, she did so without ever looking back. Now however, her grandmother has summoned her back to prepare her large house for sale and having recently lost her job, Meg doesn’t have a reason to say no and she can’t bring herself to either. She’s always been rather frightened of her grandmother and seemingly anxious to please her, despite this never being possible.

I found myself really drawn into this from the very beginning. I loved the setting (regional South Australia during the summer) with Meg cleaning out the old house, arranging to sell some of the antique furniture, dispose of her grandmother’s belongings and getting the garden into shape. Being back there brings the one person who did care about her as a child, Betty, back into her life as well as a taciturn man arranged to bring the garden up to scratch. The old house is beautiful and even though it’s not been the source of good memories for Meg, it does present an opportunity for her to be able to delve into the past and perhaps learn the answers to questions she’s always been too scared to ask.

Meg’s grandmother really is an unpleasant, bitter person and it’s not difficult to see why Meg hasn’t been back. Perhaps if I were Meg, I wouldn’t have even bothered to come back at all but Meg does feel some duty and she’s not doing anything else – and her grandmother, who is very wealthy, is willing to pay her. She’ll never be able to return to her home after a fall she recently took (she’s close to 89) and Meg’s partner, photographer Phillip is away on an assignment in Papua New Guinea. When Meg has to contact him, she has no phone number for him so she has to ring his editor with a message for him to relay to Phillip when Phillip gets in contact with his editor. Phillip often travels to remote places and without a 24 hour news cycle, Meg tends to remain blissfully oblivious of potential hazards of Phillip’s job. After a natural disaster, Phillip does turn up at the house to convalesce – and help in his own way, providing the sort of stoic, unwavering support, kindness and love that few people have ever shown her in her life.

I admired Meg for going back there and for having the courage to dig into the past for answers when the entire family had never treated her very well. What she discovers is a big shock – but also goes a long way to explaining quite a lot of her treatment (although to be honest, not all of it). No one should ever have to experience the sort of upbringing that she did and Betty provided the only solace in what was a very lonely and miserable existence. Some of the twists I guessed, others I did not and I appreciated each reveal as it came. The tension in the novel grows with the threat of a looming bushfire and as with many people it’s not until the danger is right on top of them that they realise just how serious the situation is.

I was really invested in Meg learning the story of her origins and past and her getting all the answers she needed that might help give her some closure – to be able to move forward without her life being shadowed by her feelings of abandonment and emotional neglect. And it was very well done, I ended up reading this in a single sitting.

8/10

Book #113 of 2021

This review is part of the blog tour for The Missing Girl with thanks the publisher, Penguin Random House Australia. Be sure to check out the others taking part and learn their thoughts on this story.

The Missing Girl is book #46 for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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