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Review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

The Family Upstairs
Lisa Jewell
Century
2019, 464p
Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

You thought they were just staying for the weekend. They looked harmless enough – with only two suitcases and a cat in a wicker box. But soon things turn very, very dark. It happens slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly. Now you and your sister must find a way to survive…

Okay, brief blurb.

Lisa Jewell is one of those authors that I’ve seen around a lot and I always assume I must’ve read some of her books in the past but this is apparently not true and this is the first book of hers I’ve actually read. It’s a dual timeline mystery with a bit of a sinister edge.

Libby has always known she was adopted and when she turns 25, she receives a letter from a solicitor that informs her that she’s now ‘of age’ and will inherit a Chelsea property from her birth parents, who died when she was just a baby. With all that comes some information and Libby spends a lot of time googling her birth parents and the tragic circumstances of their death and how she fit into the story. When Libby explores her new home, she finds evidence that someone may be there and so she enlists the help of a journalist who covered the story to help her find some of the answers she craves.

The story also delves back some 25-30 years into the past, to showcase what happened to Libby’s parents and how it all came about. There are three main narrators – Libby, Lucy (who is in hiding in France and now that ‘the baby’ is 25, is desperate to return to England) and Henry. Not everyone is who you think they are and the way in which they all fit together changes and evolves as the story moves on.

This was really, really engaging. It starts with Libby getting her surprise inheritance, which is a hugely valuable house in a very prestigious area of London. For Libby, who grew up not at all wealthy, this is a shock. She could sell this house and even in its slightly run down state, it would fetch more than enough money that she would never need to worry about money ever again. She’s scrimped and saved to buy her small one bedroom flat and now all of a sudden, everything has changed. And the story of her origin you couldn’t even make up – her parents were once incredibly wealthy socialites who died in tragic and mysterious circumstances, the true story of which has never really been known. There’s been much speculation and guessing in the media but there are still so many unanswered questions, such as what happened to her two siblings? Who cared for baby Libby between the death of her parents and the discovery of their bodies? What happened to her parent’s money?

For the answers to that, you have to go back. Back to the downfall of Libby’s parents, so to speak, which we see through the eyes of a child. He watches as strange people move in ‘temporarily’ into their big, sprawling house and then never leave. The changing relationships, the strangeness of the evolving rules until it’s truly a terrifying situation. The desperation increases, the level of neglect and the slow slide into a completely different and dangerous lifestyle. I felt like everything was covered really well in here, the bewilderment of children as these people came to live with them, the slow realisation that the money was running out, the insidious way in which power shifted within the household and who came to hold it all. There were so many twists and turns and each time I felt like I had it figured out there would be something else that happened to change it and I’d be left wondering again. It was so well planned out and I really felt like it was the sort of book that I could not put down once I got into the meat of the story.

I’ve kept this quite brief because I feel as though it is the sort of story where you should go in not knowing that much about it and just discovering the different elements of the story, the twists and turns as well as trying to decipher the different parts of the mystery. And I am definitely going to have to read more Lisa Jewell books! This book has definitely put her on my radar and she has quite a few backlist books to enjoy as well as keeping an eye out for her future releases.

8/10

Book #124 of 2019

 

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Review: Meet Me In Venice by Barbara Hannay

Meet Me In Venice
Barbara Hannay
Penguin Random House AUS
2019, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A year after her husband Leo’s death, widow Daisy invites her three adult children to join her for a holiday in beautiful Venice. It will be wonderful, her chicks under one roof again in their father’s birthplace. But is it possible to recapture the past?

Marc’s marriage is in jeopardy, but for his mother’s sake, he convinces his wife to keep up appearances. Anna’s trying to hide the truth about the dismal state of her London acting career; and Ellie, enjoying a gap year and uncertain about her future choices, wants to avoid family pressure to conform.

Despite the magic of Venice, family ties are tested to the limit, especially when a shocking secret from Leo’s past is revealed. Now everything they value about love, family, commitment and trust must be re-examined.

How can one family holiday require so much courage? Will Daisy’s sentimental journey make or break them?

Barbara Hannay is one of my favourite Australian authors and a new novel from her is always a cause for celebration. In this one we mostly leave Australian shores for Venice. Widow Daisy has decided to undertake the trip that she and her late husband Leo would’ve taken in his retirement and shout her three kids a trip to Venice, the place of Leo’s birth. Given that her family are spread quite far and wide – son Marc in Silicon Valley, middle daughter Anna in London, it gives them a chance not to just catch up but to spend some real quality time together as well. She doesn’t really know that Marc has separated from his wife Bronte and that Anna’s career in London has stalled and neither of the two offspring want to tell her. Daisy has struggled since Leo’s death and they both can tell that this Venice trip is something that excites her enormously, gives her back her spark. Youngest child Ellie has just finished year 12 and doesn’t know what she wants out of life, unlike both her ambitious siblings, which often leaves her feeling a bit the odd one out.

I really enjoyed this book on a lot of levels. I actually connected to more of the characters than I thought I would, surprisingly I found myself being able to identify quite strongly with Ellie, who is half my age but I’ve talked before about how I’ve never really felt like I knew what I wanted to ‘do’ in life. That I’ve never had that drawing towards a career like others have, who immediately know what they want and go after it. Or fall into something they’re excellent at. It’s probably especially harder when there’s siblings who went before you and managed to make successes of themselves, which is what Ellie feels. She is younger by a decent amount than her older siblings and I think sometimes it more feels like they’re distant relatives rather than her brother and sister. After all both live overseas and probably have done for most of her high school years. There’s definitely a little bit of distance and Ellie seems reluctant to talk to them about her lack of ideas, her need to take a break to figure things out.

I found myself really invested in the story of Marc, the oldest child who was pushed to always do his best. He ended up in Silicon Valley working crippling days trying to keep up with everyone else there and it’s about to cost him everything, including his marriage. Marc and Bronte met at university and she moved to America with him although her Visa prevents her from working so she’s been left on her own for long hours day and night while Marc works. Even when he’s there, he’s not really present as he’s checking his emails and squeezing in more work. Bronte has basically had enough and only her fondness for Marc’s mother has her agreeing to go on the trip and pretend everything is still fine so that they can find a way to gently break the news to her in person. The forced proximity is extremely difficult for them both and it makes them really think about what they want, what is important and how much should you be willing to sacrifice for a job. I really liked this because a lot of the time I do read about people just getting together but there’s less about marriages that are going through difficulties and how you make it work when things change, say from the more laid back days of uni to juggling jobs, especially very demanding jobs.

There’s a bit of a mystery running through this book as well – Daisy discovers something puzzling before they arrive in Venice, and then once there, they visit some remaining family of Leo’s who also drop a bit of a bombshell that rocks them all. I really enjoyed the way this played out and how it took an unexpected turn, which I appreciated. I also got a chance to enjoy Venice as a setting…..funnily enough I’ve not read a whole lot set in Venice and a lot of what I’ve read is more historical fiction, so it was good to visit it in a modern way. There was a little about the issue of tourism in Venice as well, which I feel most self-aware tourists and would be tourists should be thinking about.

This was incredibly engaging and a lovely look at family relationships and how grief can also serve as a catalyst to bring people together, to take control of what is left and use it as an opportunity to reshape your life. I loved this! Well I love all of Barbara Hannay’s books so really this is no surprise.

8/10

Book #123 of 2019

Meet Me In Venice is book #56 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Feeling well on my way to my 80 book total for the year!

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Review: Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable
Soniah Kamal
Allison & Busby
2019, 354p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal. But Alys Binat is resolute she will not marry.

This warm and witty tug-of-love between mothers, daughters and rich, eligible bachelors is a fresh take on Jane Austen’s original.

This was so much fun! One of the best adaptations of Pride & Prejudice that I’ve read. It’s faithful to the book but with a fresh, modern spin that really encompasses Pakistan and I thought it was amazing.

Alys Binat comes from a wealthy, well regarded family and for a good portion of her life, they wanted for nothing. But then her father was betrayed by his own brother and now they are practically penniless. Alys and her sister Jena work as teachers at a prestigious girls finishing school. They also have three younger sisters Mari, Qitty and Lady. Mrs Binat longs for her daughters to be married but both Alys and Jena are of an age now where it seems unlikely that they will make excellent matches, especially given there’s no money left for a dowry. Alys is also incredibly adamant that she will not marry as a social contract to better her situation, nor will she stoop to trying to catch a man. She’s a successful independent woman who can earn a wage and pay her way and as she tries to tell her own students, there’s more to life than immediately falling into marriage and babies when you’re still only a teenager.

Despite their misfortune, the Binats are still lucky enough to warrant invitations to important social events and it’s here that lovely Jena catches the eye of a wealthy bachelor, who is amiable and lovely – shame about his snobby friend Valentine Darsee who insults Alys within her hearing and also his two sisters (hilariously named Hammy and Sammy, short for Humeria and Sumeria) who look down their noses at everything. Mrs Binat is so hopeful that her Jena might not only marry finally but marry well.

The book tracks very closely to the original, with all the major players included although some take on a bit of a twist, especially Sherry Looclus, the Charlotte Lucas of this version. She’s in her 40s, willing to sacrifice for any marriage, especially one that will make her financially secure. I felt quite interested in Sherry’s story, because it does appear to be one of the few places where the author does go in a new direction and adjust the story a little to suit a more modern timeframe. The other is what happens to Darsee’s young sister, which remains the same but with more modern consequences.

The social whirl of Pakistan is a huge portion of this book, with extravagant wedding celebrations that last for days and have multiple ceremonies and the food and entertainment portion that go with it. The food is quite lovingly described as are the outfits and jewellery. The struggle of being a family who has had it all and now has little takes its toll on the often overwrought Mrs Binat, who is every bit as frivolous and overbearing as the original. I quite enjoyed the role of Mr Binat and his shameful realisation of how his own inadequacies and inaction has an impact on everything that happens, including allowing the young and silly Lady to go away on holiday against Alys’ wishes and the ruin she almost brings down upon them all. Lady herself is a thoroughly modern day selfish and self-absorbed teenager who cares little how she gets something as long as she ends up getting it. I found myself wanting to slap her more than once. Mari is an overzealous Muslim determined to bring back propriety and burqas and Qitty is beautiful but often maligned about her weight by Lady and even her mother. The way in which Qitty turns this into a positive and embraces her own true self is rather delightful.

For me, there’s a strength in the relationship between Alys and Darsee, which starts off very badly when she overhears him class her as neither attractive not intelligent enough for him. Darsee and Alys butt heads quite often and her reaction when he proposes the first time is so much fun to read. And so are the small moments, such as when he takes his leave abruptly after Alys learns of Lady’s disappearance and you know why he’s doing it, because he blames himself and is sure she will blame him too after all, he knew about Wickhaam and kept it quiet. And Alys thinks he’s departing abruptly because of the scandal that will engulf their family, how it will prove everything he ever said correct. I enjoyed the way they found common ground in literature too. It made me feel as if the two of them would have an actual meaningful relationship with things in common that they could discuss and enjoy, because relationships in 2019 are much different to how they were when Pride & Prejudice was being written and set. Couples were tied together by other things.

I found this to be clever and funny. It sticks to the core storyline quite admirably but isn’t afraid to deviate a bit either where it needs to for the sake of its modern setting or the culture of Pakistan. I loved Alys and her independence, her questioning of her students, her push for them to seek more for themselves and to step outside a box, even though it often meant she was called in and reprimanded. This was familiar but yet different and I thought it was fabulous.

9/10

Book #121 of 2019

I’m also counting this read towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. I’m using it to tick off prompt #18 – Romance or love story. It’s the 13th book read for the challenge. Halfway there!

 

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Review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature Of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury ANZ
2013, 501p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

5th January 1800. Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks’ Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones). An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.

The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London to Tasmania, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad – most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.

This is another book that has been on my TBR shelf for years now. I received a copy in the mail from the publisher waaayyyy back in 2013 and I never got around to reading it. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert before although she is well known for things like Eat Pray Love and other self-help style memoirs which are just not really my thing. This had some good reviews from people I trust but I just didn’t get around to it. However it seemed perfect for a number of prompts for the Reading Women Podcast Challenge and it was something that was easily accessible as it was on my shelf.

This was a great introduction to Gilbert for me, because this is such an engaging book from the very first page. It details the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of a very wealthy man and his pragmatic and intelligent Dutch wife. It details how her father made his fortune and then how he and his wife raised their daughter, in a most unusual way. Alma was incredibly well educated and encouraged from a very early age to display her intelligence in fact, she was expected to. She was allowed sit at the dinner table when her parents entertained and was expected to be able to make scientific opinions and also argue them with conviction and accuracy. Alma’s thirst for knowledge is almost insatiable and she’s intrigued by the world of botany, which is how her father made his fortune and how it continues to flourish. Despite her intelligence and her father’s wealth and perhaps because of her unusual upbringing, she receives no interest from men and seems destined to live out her days in the family home, conducting her research and aiding her father as he grows more dependent in his older years. It details her strange and troubled relationship with her adopted sister and how that complicates as they grow older, rather than simplifying. And when she falls in love and believes that happiness might finally be within her grasp, she’ll go to the other side of the world to find the answers she needs for peace.

This was such a great book. It’s pretty hefty, about 500p and but it’s the sort of book where you don’t notice its length because the story it’s telling is so rich and engaging and Alma becomes such a strong and wonderful character that her life is a source of fascination, especially for the time. The Whittaker family have money when they establish themselves in Philadelphia, but their eccentricities mean that they are never quite accepted by the elite of society, which probably suits them anyway as they prefer their social occasions full of intelligent and engaging debate, scientific breakthroughs and theories. Alma’s mother is rigorous in her criticism and faint with her praise and Alma and her adopted sister seem to be always looking to avoid her critical eye.

The book is rich with biological detail, from Alma’s father Henry’s early days exploring to his development of his new home, to her own travels and scientific research. It comes at a time where exploration of the world was very popular, as was recording scientific and biological finds and for the most part, taking samples back to places like Britain in order to cultivate them. Or to make money from them. A bit of the book is devoted to Henry’s perceived rivalry with Sir Joseph Banks a noted explorer and in latter parts, Alma’s own scientific observations and study of mosses lead her to theories on evolution and change. She has the opportunity to travel to a place completely the opposite of where she has been brought up, a place that’s under attempt from missionaries to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. The book doesn’t address the moral implications of these actions or look at them as right or wrong, given the time of the book but it does give the reader a chance to reflect on the commonality of this sort of thing at the time, in all parts of the world, the zeal with which some people sought to undertake this task.

This book spans about a century of really interesting exploration and story telling. There’s such a lot of research that must’ve gone into writing it, the sorts of plants and flowers in different parts of the world that were being noticed and harvested and transported around the world, the ways in which this must be done. I felt really connected to Alma as a character even though we have little in common. There’s something about the way in which her upbringing gave her all the opportunities in the world to excel academically and to satisfy that part of her that wanted to know things but didn’t provide particularly much in the way of personal growth – and what it did provide, Alma wasn’t really in the position to recognise it and embrace it. Her journey is such an interesting one and even though she was born wealthy and privileged with a family that valued education more than anything, she still suffers disappointments. It’s what she does with these I think, that made me so fond of her.

I really loved this, it was just such a wonderful read. And if Elizabeth Gilbert were to write some more fiction, especially historical, I will definitely read it.

8/10

Book #120 of 2019

I’m counting this towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019 ticking off prompt #19 – About nature. I think this book definitely qualifies. It’s the 12th book I’ve completed for the challenge and I feel like I’m starting to pick up some momentum now.

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Review: The Postmistress by Alison Stuart

The Postmistress
Alison Stuart
Harlequin AUS
2019, 395p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A stunning historical tale of loss, desire and courage that is full of the terror and the beauty of the Australian bush, for readers of The Thorn Birds, The Naturalist’s Daughter and The Widow of Ballarat. 

To forge a new life she must first deal with her past…

1871. Adelaide Greaves and her young son have found sanctuary in the Australian town of Maiden’s Creek, where she works as a postmistress. The rough Victorian goldmining settlement is a hard place for a woman – especially as the other women in town don’t know what to make of her – but through force of will and sheer necessity, Adelaide carves out a role.

But her past is coming to find her, and the embittered and scarred Confederate soldier Caleb Hunt, in town in search of gold and not without a dark past of his own, might be the only one who can help. Can Adelaide trust him? Can she trust anyone?

When death and danger threaten – some from her past, some borne of the Australian bush – she must swallow her pride and turn to Caleb to join her in the fight, a fight she is determined to win…

A devastating incident leaves Adelaide, the daughter of a wealthy Englishman, with a bit of a consequence. Rather than face her stern father’s wrath, Adelaide flees England and books passage to Australia where she eventually ends up the postmistress of Maiden’s Creek, a small mining town east of Melbourne. There she raises her young son Danny along with her former maid, who assists her in all manner of work. Adelaide doesn’t fit the role of refined woman of the upper class – she is kind to everyone and will often assist the less than fortunate in learning to read and write. She enjoys her role, she enjoys the small town, feeling at peace on the other side of the world.

Caleb Hunt is an American who ended up in Australia by chance. With scars of his own from the US Civil War, Caleb has left a lot of his former life behind, vowing never again to ply his craft. By chance he wins a claim of land in a gamble and decides it’s as good an option as any, deciding to try his luck. After he’s betrayed, he’s forced to reassess, not able to start work on his claim just yet. In Maiden’s Creek his quick thinking act to save someone’s life leaves him injured and he finds himself being cared for by Adelaide, who believes she owes him a debt.

I read quite a bit of historical fiction but surprisingly, I actually don’t read a lot of Australian historical fiction. This makes me wonder why because this book was fantastic and I enjoyed it from the first page to the last. It opens in England, with Adelaide as a young woman having breakfast with her father where he tells her he’s annoyed one of his ships has been lost. Adelaide isn’t annoyed though – what she’s experiencing is much more powerful than that. Then it skips forward to her in Australia, the postmistress of a small town close to a gold mining area. Adelaide is a very strong woman, a devoted mother to her son and the kind of person who treats everyone the same, from the wives of bank managers to the ‘dancers’ in a local establishment. She’s built herself an impeccable reputation in the small town, well aware that the one lie she’s told could bring it all crashing down.

Caleb has no one left. He’s as far away from ‘home’ as he can possibly get. When accident and design strand him in Maiden’s Creek, he and Adelaide get off to somewhat of a rocky start with Caleb reluctant to play patient. He really just wants to get out to his claim as quickly as possible and assess what he can do there. However he’s not in any condition to be able to do that, which gives them the perfect excuse to get to know each other.

This was a really well paced story with wonderful characters and a setting that really highlighted how isolated parts of Australia are and how arduous travelling around it was. The part of country that Maiden’s Creek is in has both mountains and is  also heavily forested which makes it a very challenging trek by horse and cart. Caleb’s reaction to staring over the edge of a cliff is great. There’s a lot of what I feel would be 19th century Australian issues addressed here, such as working at the local mine and the dangers and troubles that can bring, especially in the face of a manager who cuts corners in safety for production, effective medical treatment and policing in isolated areas, the weather, the wildlife and dangers like bushfires. A lot of these are still relevant today but with more technology to combat them.

The tension in the novel built nicely alongside the burgeoning attraction between Caleb and Adelaide, with the author doing a great job placing the characters in peril in a really believable way. The story had some interesting twists and turns, some of which I saw coming and some that I didn’t, so that kept me guessing and turning the pages. I really enjoyed the way the minor characters were included to – the romance between Netty and her beau, the ‘dancers’, the doctor with his troubles, the man who offers Adelaide medicines. It’s a nice little community, although not without its issues.

Very enjoyable.

8/10

Book #118 of 2019

The Postmistress is book #55 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip
Melissa Lucashenko
UQP
2018, 318p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger.

Wise-cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her Pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.

Kerry plans to spend twenty-four hours, tops, over the border. She quickly discovers, though, that Bundjalung country has a funny way of grabbing on to people. Old family wounds open as the Salters fight to stop the development of their beloved river. And the unexpected arrival on the scene of a good-looking dugai fella intent on loving her up only adds more trouble – but then trouble is Kerry’s middle name.

Gritty and darkly hilarious, Too Much Lip offers redemption and forgiveness where none seems possible.

I always have more books a month than I can read and there are some I just don’t get to, even when I really want to. They go on a bookcase in my bedroom for those times when I feel like dipping back into the pile. This book was in that pile…..I decided it would be perfect for my Reading Women Challenge, for the book by an indigenous woman prompt. Melissa Lucashenko is a Goorie author from the Bundjalung people. And the day I finished this, it was later announced as the winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. I had read only one of the longlist, during my attempts to read the Stella Prize Longlist. Quite often I’ll read as much of a longlist or shortlist as I can, only for the winner to be one of the few texts (or the only) I’ve yet to read. So I was pretty thrilled with my timing reading this!

Kerry Salter has avoided her childhood home for a while now. Deep in the bush in northern NSW, she’s returning because the family patriarch, her Pop, is dying. And it’s probably a good time for Kerry to get away from QLD anyway. With her girlfriend just banged up for a bank robbery gone wrong, Kerry has avoided jail but there’s warrants out. It’s a good time to lie low. But when she gets home, it’s a reminder of all the reasons why she spends so much time away. There’s Ken, her older brother. Bitter and with anger management issues, Kerry judges the distance to keep from Ken and what remarks she can get away with by what he’s had to drink and how many. There’s Pretty Mary, her mother who supplements a government income telling fortunes at local markets and reading tarot cards. There’s Ken’s teenage son, a shadow of his former self hiding out in his room playing video games and avoiding his father’s rage. Black Superman is Kerry’s younger brother, who escaped as well but made good with his public sector job and city apartment he’s paying a mortgage on. And then there’s various other family members including Richard, Pretty Mary’s brother and the local family elder who arrives in and out to dispense advice and keep the struggling crew together. Everything is overshadowed by the disappearance of Kerry’s sister Donna as a teenager a couple of decades ago.

This is a raw story of a family in all its dysfunction. It’s dark and quite brutal in parts, balanced out by humour and astute observations in other parts. Kerry is a snappy narrator, told from the time she was young that she’s always had ‘too much lip – that’s her problem’. Even now as a woman in her 30s she finds it hard to keep quiet, even when she should avoid provoking Ken, her brother who is liable to break her face in retaliation. Kerry and her family have different struggles and problems but they all share a strong connection to their local area. And when they discover that the local mayor and property developer extraordinaire wants to hock a piece of land along their beloved river, the siblings and extended family are swung into action. The river belongs to them, it’s connected to their family and has been for generations, a powerful part of their history and way of life.

It’s easy to want them to succeed in their quest. They’re a family that’s had their troubles and those troubles continue throughout the book as there are several surprising and very painful reveals that rock the family on its foundations. But their pride in the culture is strong, their knowledge of their history and their connection to each other and the land. Kerry has some unusual methods in the fight….but once again, it’s hard not to cheer her on! They’re up against someone who doesn’t play by the rules either and there’s been generations of injustices done to their family and this is almost like revenge on everything and everyone all at once. Although fictional, Lucashenko does state in an acknowledgement at the back of the book that almost all of the incidents or violence she included happened to people in real life within her extended family. The others she drew from Aboriginal history or oral record. It’s confronting and very traumatic in places, the reader is exposed to the grief and horror of the characters as they are, struggling to reshape a narrative and fit new pieces together of a story that changes everything about their family.

Lucashenko weaves a troubled family history, land rights and Indigenous connection to their ancestral homes and strength of family, forgiveness and acceptance of past wrongs in this highly engaging story rich with detail and Indigenous language. I enjoyed the family coming together in times of need and that even though there was great pain, they were able to still get through it and connect in new ways. I haven’t read any of the other books listed as I mentioned earlier but this one does feel a worthy winner of a literary award.

8/10

Book #117 of 2019

Too Much Lip is book #54 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019

Too Much Lip was read as part of my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. It counts towards prompt #16 – by an Indigenous woman. It’s the 10th book read for the challenge out of (hopefully) 26.

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Review: The Other Half Of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen

The Other Half Of Augusta Hope 
Joanna Glen
Borough Press
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of Harper Collins AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Augusta Hope has never felt like she fits in.

At six, she’s memorising the dictionary. At seven, she’s correcting her teachers. At eight, she spins the globe and picks her favourite country on the sound of its name: Burundi.

And now that she’s an adult, Augusta has no interest in the goings-on of the small town where she lives with her parents and her beloved twin sister, Julia.

When an unspeakable tragedy upends everything in Augusta’s life, she’s propelled headfirst into the unknown. She’s determined to find where she belongs – but what if her true home, and heart, are half a world away?

I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect going into this one. The blurb is pretty vague and looks like it could go in any number of directions.

Augusta Hope is a twin but her and her sister Julia are quite different. Augusta loves words – she reads the dictionary for fun and is always looking for new words, things that interest her. Her parents, one of whom runs a uniform shop and the other who helps out but is mostly a stay at home parent, don’t quite know what to make of Augusta. She has a thirst for knowledge and it seems that her surroundings don’t really satisfy her. Augusta also has a kind heart – she is one of the only people to befriend her next door neighbour’s child, a boy with profound disability, much to her father’s chagrin. Augusta and her twin Julia are inseparable until Augusta gets the marks to go away to university. Julia remains behind, living with their parents in the same childhood bedroom. From there, their lives begin to move in two very different directions.

Parfait is a young boy living in Burundi when the story begins. He and his family are caught up in the middle of a civil war and Parfait can only watch helplessly as much of his family is wiped out by the violence. A local missionary Priest from Spain gives Parfait the idea to escape to Spain. It’s a long, arduous journey that will take its toll on Parfait in more ways than one and it sets in motion the events that will eventually link these two narratives together.

I found quite a lot of the early parts of this story quite charming – Augusta is quirky but in just the right amount and her intelligence and desire to know more, her love of words, were all things that I found really quite enjoyable about her. Their street is an interesting depiction of what I feel is middle class Britishness, especially later on with the discussions of Brexit and the like, when Augusta is an adult. And the parts set in Burundi (which just happens to be one of Augusta’s favourite words and therefore her favourite country, which she has taken it upon herself to learn as much about as she can) were heartbreaking and yet also strangely uplifting in terms of wanting Parfait to succeed in his desire for a better life for himself and those who remain in his family. This is not easy and it gets a whole lot worse for Parfait, before it begins to get any better.

The two narratives don’t come together until quite late in the novel. Parfait’s tragedy has been a constant thing but Augusta’s doesn’t happen until she’s an adult and she’s completely blindsided by the two events. From quite a way out you can see where the book is going, bringing these two characters together but it’s a bit of a slow burn to get them there. I enjoyed the process though, and the journey of getting to know both Augusta and Parfait. Both of them are isolated in many ways, sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by design. And yet when they come together they discover that they are linked by one tragedy that encompassed people they both cared about. It’s something that binds them, makes them an unlikely pair. And although this is so serious, it’s littered with moments that lighten the mood with warmth and charm. I especially found amusing Parfait’s reaction to Augusta knowing absolutely anything about Burundi (even where it is) and he’s blown away by the depth of her knowledge about his country and the love and connection she feels toward it, even though she’s never been there. Just from being a child, connecting with the word, choosing it as her favourite and then obsessively devouring everything on it that she possibly could.

I ended up enjoying (most of) this quite a lot. I think there were probably a few small, niggling kind of issues that for me, cropped up very late in the book that I did wonder at the necessity of including. It’s quite difficult to really discuss why I had a problem with one aspect of the story in particular without spoiling it but it did make me feel a bit like it was presented as necessary but I didn’t at all feel it was. I didn’t agree with something Augusta did late in the book but I’ve also never experienced the sort of thing that drove her to it either so perhaps it’s just difficult for me to understand that level of grief and what it might make people do. It’s just not something I felt contributed to the story in a positive way really because it could have been achieved in other ways. I just found it a bit….odd. And so it was a bit of a curious note toward the end for me. It didn’t take away from the earlier charm I felt the novel possessed but it did stand out for me as something that didn’t work.

7/10

Book #116 of 2019

 

 

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Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri
Bloomsbury ANZ
2013, 340p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him.

Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portrayal of lives undone and forged anew, The Lowland is a deeply felt novel of family ties that inelucably define who we are.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those authors I’ve always meant to read. I actually received this for review when I was wanting to read books from the 2013 Man Booker longlist (I think) but the best laid plans often go astray and I’m only just reading it now. I picked it up specifically because I’ve slacked off a lot on my Reading Women challenge in the past couple months and I decided I needed to pick it up a bit. I don’t think I’m going to finish all 26 of the prompts because there are 2-3 of them that I just feel that I am stumped on or am unlikely to find something to work for it. But I’m trying to complete as many as I can and to also read a separate book for each prompt, instead of counting several for the same prompt.

I know almost nothing about India. I’ve never studied their history, nor have I read much set there. What I have read seems to be pretty limited to Victorian-era British colonisation with mostly rich Birtish expats in positions of power enjoying a bit of warm weather. For example, I wasn’t at all aware of the Naxalites until I read this book, a political organisation of far-left radicals inspired by Chairman Mao of China. This book is set in and around the time of the rise of Naxalites, which main character Subhash’s brother Udayan becomes involved in.

The book begins in Subhash and Udayan’s childhood, their striving for good marks, university degrees, things that will please their parents. Subhas and Udayan were inseparable as children, studying, playing, schooling together, being less than 2yrs apart in age. As they reach adulthood though and attend different universities and study different things, there seems to be a growing divide between the two of them. Subhash also decides to move to America to further his studies and it’s while he’s overseas, he realises just how deeply Udayan has become entrenched in the Naxalite movement. When tragedy strikes, Subhas makes the ultimate sacrifice, which changes his life forever.

This was a really interesting book. It’s my first Lahiri so I really have no benchmark but she’s a very admired voice – enough to have a whole category dedicated to her in the Reading Women challenge! This book covers a lot, from Subhash and Udayan’s childhood to his journey studying overseas at the time of the Vietnam war as one of very few Indians in that part of America, the relationship he has with various members of his family and how that changes with Udayan’s involvement in the Naxalite movement. There are several narrators (others I don’t want to mention, because it will spoil the direction that the novel takes) but it deals with a few generations over a lot of years.

I always find books that tackle motherhood in different ways quite interesting to read. Motherhood is a very complex thing and so many books portray it as this moment of instant wonder and if that happens, that’s great. But a lot of people don’t really find it to be that way and for some, that moment of connection can never come. It can be a burden, the wrong choice, something that they just don’t connect with. And the emotions revolving around just reading that can be complex too because children are innocent and they didn’t ask to be born. They exist because two people created them. The way that people behave can be so damaging to children psychologically and it doesn’t even have to be physical or emotional abuse to be traumatising. A child can grow up in a safe and comfortable environment and yet still be isolated, rejected and feel like they don’t belong or aren’t wanted. There is a child in this book that is deeply scarred by their mother’s actions, her distance during childhood and then the fact that she vanishes completely (by choice) in their pre-adolescence. Those years are so formative and these deep scars manifest in so many ways much later on in that child’s life.

There’s a lot of sacrifice in this book. Different types of sacrifice too. Political, familial, love, happiness, ones sense of self, etc. There’s also a lot about duty. Subhash desires very much to be a good son and yet it seems that in some ways, he can never quite measure up, despite everything he’s worked hard to achieve. He also makes decisions that cost him personally in order to do the right thing, to protect people and perhaps there’s a tiny bit of selfishness in there too. He gets rewarded in one way but his decision costs him dearly in another.

I really enjoyed this. I felt that for someone like me, it gave a lot of Indian cultural background about families and customs and expectations as well as some political history. The relationships were intricate and the plot went in some unexpected directions. I enjoyed Subhash’s experience as an Indian student in America in a time and place where there were few as well as Gauri’s desire for further education and how it conflicted with the cards life had dealt her. Even though I didn’t agree with a lot of her choices, I actually found that I understood some of them.

Definitely going to read more Jhumpa Lahiri.

8/10

Book #115 of 2019

This covers bonus prompt 2 of the Reading Women Challenge – Book by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s the 9th prompt I’ve completed for the challenge. Still need to lift my game a bit so I’ve been going back to the prompts and looking at books I have and what I can make work. I’ve requested a couple from my local library for a few prompts where I don’t have anything that fits. Some of the categories like series, romance/love story etc I have a lot of options. I’m pretty confident I can get most completed by the end of the year. The ones that are really going to trouble me is prompt 14 and prompt 8.

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Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth
Julia Phillips
Scribner
2019, 263p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls – sisters, ages eight and eleven – go missing. The police investigation that follows turns up nothing. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger of their disappearance is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place.

Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called “natives” are often suspected of the worst. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas.

Disappearing Earth is a multifaceted story of the intimate lives of women – their vulnerabilities and perils, their desires and dreams. It speaks to the complex yet enduring bonds of community as it offers startlingly vivid portraits of people reaching out to one another and, sometimes, reaching back to save each other. 

Spellbinding, moving – evoking a fascinating region on the other side of the world – this suspenseful and haunting story announces the debut of a profoundly gifted writer.

This starts off really promising. Firstly it was set in an area which I’m unfamiliar with, the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia. I’ve never read anything set there before and actually, I don’t read much set in Russia at all. What I have read has been more focused on the western parts, around Moscow and St Petersburg. It begins with two young girls, sisters 11 and 8, who are amusing themselves during their summer holidays. Their single mother has to work so often she leaves money for the girls to go to the movies or the zoo or to the beach. As they are about to go home from the beach, a man asks them for help and the two girls disappear.

After that there are a plethora of narrators who are connected to the crime somehow or the girls or connected to someone else connected to someone else connected to what happened, or from the same area or something else. Just as I would begin to get into each new part of the story, it would end and we would switch to someone else, which, as the book went on, I have to admit became quite annoying. I rarely felt like I got any sort of conclusion from any of these characters and some of them added very little, if anything, to the story. It was in some ways, an interesting portrayal of life in this part of the world but I don’t know how accurate it is, or if it evokes the feeling and character of eastern Russia. I don’t know anything about eastern Russia but the author isn’t Russian, although she did spend a year in this area presumably to research and write this. One of the characters is a native who resented her childhood spending summers herding with her family who seem to uphold a lot of the traditions. She’s now studying at a university and has a white Russian boyfriend who keeps tabs on her but finds herself drawn to another native student when she joins a dance class with her cousin. Also there is the contrast in police investigation between the two younger white girls that go missing compared with a native girl a bit older, where it’s just assumed that she ran away and never got in touch with her family. I know that the two girls further south were much younger, which also influenced an investigation but it seemed everyone was dismissive of the 18yo that disappeared. Because she was older, but also seemingly, because she was native.

Each of the individual chapters/sections were well written and also contained narratives I enjoyed but I think overall, the weaving together of them as a whole didn’t really work for me. I kept wondering too much about characters I’d seemingly left behind and whether or not I was ever going to get answers about them from the questions that were raised within their chapters. And sometimes things in there were seemingly just random. It’s a large cast of characters and I did have to constantly refer back to the list of characters at the beginning of the novel to remember who was related to who and why they were relevant. Some stages the book felt like it was starting to get bogged down and not know where to go which is a bit concerning when it’s under 300p. And I wasn’t really a big fan of the ending. Some people love an ending like that but overall, it wasn’t for me.

This was okay. Interesting in some parts but the constantly changing narrative and introduction of new, often unimportant and irrelevant characters got tedious after a while.

6/10

Book #112 of 2019

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Review: Those People by Louise Candlish

Those People
Louise Candlish
Simon & Schuster AUS
2019, 384p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Could you hate your neighbour enough to plot to kill him?

Until Darren Booth moves in at number 1, Lowland Way, the neighbourhood is a suburban paradise. But soon after his arrival, disputes over issues like loud music and parking rights escalate all too quickly to public rows and threats of violence.

Then, early one Saturday, a horrific crime shocks the street. As the police go house-to-house, the residents close ranks and everyone’s story is the same: Booth did it.

But there’s a problem. The police don’t agree with them.

Lowland Way in the south of London, is like a suburban paradise. The street is full of friendly people – some of them are even family. Every Sunday they close the street to traffic, block it off and let their kids play in the street on bikes, scooters, etc. They’re tight knit, often socialising together and things have always been done a certain way. Then the previous occupant of #1 dies and her nephew Darren Booth inherits the property. It’s clear Darren isn’t really like them. He’s probably come up from somewhere else, maybe from one of the housing estates. A disagreeable man in his 50s with his wife Jodie, he’s not interested in the way things have been done in the street before. He wants to knock front walls down and renovate the house as well as running a used car yard from the front of the property. The rest of the residents are horrified but reasoning with Darren Booth is impossible. Between loud music at all hours, his cars taking up all the street parking and his attitude, things between him the other residents don’t get off to a good start and they only get worse.

I think most people have probably had neighbours they didn’t see eye to eye with at some stage or other. We’ve had some interesting ones, but probably the worst was a house of young blokes who had four quite large and aggressive dogs in a very small backyard. The dogs barked incessantly, often for hours at a time in the middle of the night. If we walked along our shared fence, they would throw themselves at it repeatedly, barking and growling. They ripped away lower parts of the wooden fencing. It got to the stage where the kids couldn’t go outside because walking down the shared fence terrified them. I was also quite worried that they might put a hand down where dogs had ripped parts of the fence away, or have a toy go there or something. We tried our best to block up the parts the dogs had ripped away with spare roof tiles and rocks. At one stage, several of the dogs turned on each other and had a vicious fight which the owners struggled to break up. One of the dogs disappeared after that and was never seen or heard of again. I never had anything to do with the people living there but they weren’t receptive to fixing the fence and it was a relief when the house was put up for sale and they moved out. The dogs had trashed the inside too, so the house underwent some pretty extensive repairs before being sold. It wasn’t a pleasant time but it could’ve been much worse in that we never had any interaction with the people themselves. I’ve never had a neighbour dispute but I can imagine that seeing someone daily when there’s a disintegrating relationship would be very difficult.

The book opens with someone’s death and then goes back to show you how it came to be. The narrative revolves between a few people living on Lowland Way – Sissy, a woman in her 60s living across the road from #1 who runs a B&B, Ant a young father who lives next door to #1 and shares a wall, Ralph a well-to-do resident several doors down from #1 who is incensed about Darren and his activities and Tessa, who lives next door to Ralph and is married to his brother Finn. This is a bone of contention for Tessa, who wants to sell and move and get out of the influence of Ralph and his wife Naomi whom Tessa often feels inferior too. Each of them have run ins with Darren and his partner Jodie that escalate and when there’s an incident of sabotage it honestly seems like any or all of them could be responsible. It’s become about more than just Darren and the unsavoury look he’s brought to Lowland Way and the fact that he won’t play nice or join in or even observe the Sunday tradition of clearing the street of cars. It’s become about winning, about not letting Darren succeed in bringing them down, especially for Ralph. And I felt especially for Ant, who with his wife and young child, shares a common wall with #1 and has to put up with incessant rock and metal music at deafening volume well into the night, every night, which takes its toll on his baby and also on his wife Em. Their marriage disintegrates under the strain, the constant noise and the fact that Ant is more a pacifist and won’t stand up to Darren or do anything about it. I found it quite interesting that for a man portrayed as he was, Darren rarely ever raised his voice, rarely ever got angry and almost never instigated anything. The longer it goes on, the more the other residents begin to seem unhinged, like Darren and his ways are quite literally driving them to the brink of mental instability. That here are these well to do, seemingly rational grown up people who are getting more and more erratic while Darren just calmly carries on doing as he’s always been doing. He doesn’t retaliate, he doesn’t shrink from the group of people that often accost him. He wasn’t likeable at all, but there was something about that way in which he didn’t rise to the bait that I found interesting.

This was a fun read although it did lag a bit in the middle after a dramatic reveal where things just kept kind of muddling along without really going anywhere and everyone kept being implicated and then not. It felt a fraction too long in parts, like a lot of it was just filler and repeated conversations that had kind of already taken place and the same two police officers wandering around and asking pointed questions and giving nothing away at the answers. The story got a little frustrating at times because I didn’t feel like it was moving forward, like all the characters were just a bit stagnant and stuck in the same pattern. Also if this is an accurate representation of how councils operate in London, it’s a sad state of affairs! The residents try very hard at first, lodging objections and complaints about what Darren is doing and it seems the whole car yard thing he’s running is definitely illegal but they get no where. And ultimately things escalate to the fact where tragedy is the outcome.

I did appreciate the ending. Something very poetic in that.

7/10

Book #111 of 2019

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