All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

Dark Rise (Dark Rise #1)
C.S. Pacat
Allen & Unwin
2021, 464p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The ancient world of magic is no more. Its heroes are dead, its halls are ruins, and its great battles between Light and Dark are forgotten. Only the Stewards remember, and they keep their centuries-long vigil, sworn to protect humanity if the Dark King ever returns.

Sixteen-year-old dock boy Will is on the run, pursued by the men who killed his mother. When an old servant tells him of his destiny to fight beside the Stewards, Will is ushered into a world of magic, where he must train to play a vital role in the oncoming battle against the Dark.

As London is threatened by the Dark King’s return, the reborn heroes and villains of a long-forgotten war begin to draw battle lines. But as the young descendants of Light and Dark step into their destined roles, old allegiances, old enmities and old flames are awakened. Will must stand with the last heroes of the Light to prevent the fate that destroyed their world from returning to destroy his own.

I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out because I really loved the Captive Prince trilogy – much more than I anticipated when I picked up the first book. I found it really addictive and the story of Damianos and Laurent so compelling and the backdrop of political intrigue and war was so well done. For fans of that series, I think you are really going to enjoy this one.

The setting is a little more familiar to readers, being London although in the 1800s. It’s a world where magic once was but is no longer, for the most part. There was a great battle previously, between a Dark King and the Lady – a very good vs evil type of battle but now, some of the players are about to rise again. Someone seeks to raise the Dark King and are looking to completely exterminate anyone who has the blood of the Lady.

Will is a teenager who remembers spending years on the run with his mother. He is told to seek out an order who will protect him and it isn’t just protection he finds but friendship and knowledge. Will is preparing for an epic fight, to be able to defeat those that seek to raise the Dark King – and possibly the Dark King himself, should they fail. It’s the sort of fight where they seem hopelessly outnumbered and there are twists and turns in the plot that flip everything you think you know upside down.

Anyone who has read Captive Prince knows that C.S. Pacat is a master of the slow burn and this looks to be no exception. This book contains mostly set up – introducing the reader to their key characters and planting some small seeds to build the anticipation and expectation for what we know will be coming and I am so here for it. I am a big fan of the slow burn, the building of intensity and feelings until the tension basically snaps. I can’t wait to see how things develop with this part of the story because it just has so much potential.

Will has spent so much of his time on the run that he basically hardly knows anything at the beginning of the book, only that he is running from people who want to kill him, the same people that killed his mother. So Will is on a journey of discovery and at the place of refuge, he basically learns about the battle that book place, the Dark vs Light and the plan to raise the Dark King again as the reader does. The world building is good in that it gives the reader time to settle into the timeframe and the parts of the world that are “regular” that C.S. Pacat has chosen before she infuses it with fantasy and magic and potential battles that could destroy humanity. I had a huge amount of interest in the time where the previous battle took place and I feel like there’s a lot of that time period which could still be explored in much more detail in future books. Particularly after the twist at the end of the book, which definitely isn’t entirely unexpected but still flips the main trope in this book on its head. This world could be so richly detailed and I’ve no doubt that it will be expanded upon and delved into, history wise in future books and I’m really looking forward to seeing that development – the development of everything because I know just how much things will evolve and move forward and it will be glorious. Inject this slow burn into my veins.

I also really enjoyed some of the other characters – not really going to say minor as one was a POV character and one is definitely going to evolve into main character status. A little word of advice though – don’t really get attached to anyone in this book. Things….happen.

An excellent start to the series and I am super keen for book 2.

9/10

Book #169 of 2021

Dark Rise is book #73 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Banksia House Breakout by James Roxburgh

The Banksia House Breakout
James Roxburgh
Ventura Press
2021, 315p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Ruth Morris is moved into Banksia House by her workaholic son Michael, she is eighty-one years young, mourning her loss of independence, and missing her best friend Gladys terribly.

So when she learns Gladys is dying a state over in Brisbane, Ruth is determined to say goodbye. Enlisting the help of her fellow residents, Ruth makes a daring departure from Banksia House alongside renowned escape-artist Keith, and her formidable new friend Beryl.

The journey from Sydney is far from straightforward, featuring grimy hotels, hitchhiking, and a mild case of grand theft. This unlikely trio finds themselves on the trip of a lifetime, where new connections blossom amidst the chaos. But the clock is ticking and Gladys awaits – will they make it across the border in time?

In this joyous and captivating read, debut author James Roxburgh delivers a heart-warming tale that will have you cheering for Ruth from beginning to end.

There’s definitely a trend towards books with older protagonists at the moment. This month alone I had 3 for review. I’ve not read a lot of books narrated by people of this age – Ruth is 81, a widow and has just been basically forced by her son Michael to sell her home of 50+ years and enter the Banksia House Retirement Home. She has a little bit of a rough time settling in and when she hears that her best friend of a lifetime is on borrowed time 12 hours north in Brisbane, Ruth is desperate to get to her to say goodbye. But with her son too busy with work and dismissive of her concerns, it’s up to Ruth to take matters into her own hands and what ensues is a crazy road trip north.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to this one is because I know that stretch of coast so well. I’ve lived in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Macquarie and we spent most holidays of my childhood, driving to the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast. The roads have improved over the years and it’s a much easier drive now than it was back when I was a child but it’s still gruelling, especially for people in their 80s, when there’s only one driver.

It’s a very…..incident packed road trip and I’ll admit that at times, I found it to be just…too many things happening in such a period of time. The humour wasn’t necessarily my sort of humour although there’ll be plenty of people that enjoy the hijinks the elderly people get up to. It namechecks some lovely places along the coast, such as Forster and Coffs Harbour (mentions to the Big Banana and Marine Conservation Centre) as well as places like Yamba and Byron Bay. There’s a bit of a detour out west inadvertently after a wrong turn at what has to be the biggest round-a-bout in the world (seriously, how did that happen, haha, there’s a huge difference between the road they should’ve taken and the one they did).

But where I think this book shines is the way it looks at agency and how it can be stripped from the elderly. Even in the cases where the reasoning behind it is not necessarily malicious and that the person who is granted Power of Attorney, etc, believes they are doing the right thing it can be incredibly limiting and crushing on. Particularly when the POA uses the excuse of protecting them from themselves, even when they’ve shown no indication that they might be deteriorating in mental ability to think for themselves.

This is what happens to Ruth. She does have a fall and so her son believes that the best thing to do is to sell her home in Ryde and put her in a nursing home where she can move through the levels of care as required. This is against what Ruth wants but Michael is far too busy and stressed about his own life to listen and her other son lives overseas and is happy to go along with what Michael has suggested. Not only is he oblivious or uninterested in how Ruth feels about moving and how much she misses the idea of her house, he’s not happy to facilitate her going to see her oldest friend when she learns that he’s dying and then he deliberately obstructs her when Ruth takes matters into her own hands.

I think the thing that concerned me was that someone like Ruth, should be allowed to come and go as she pleased. She’s still physically and mentally healthy – the idea of her “running away/escaping” from the nursing home seemed wrong somehow. She should’ve been allowed to go out any time she liked, not kept locked inside. I didn’t realise she was in an area that specified such a high level of restriction, considering her health. What would’ve been more suitable for her would’ve been an independent living apartment or something, where she could’ve moved into the nursing home later when she was perhaps not so mobile and required more assistance. But this was another thing Michael seemed unwilling to consider, wanting to wash his hands of anything. He’d “done the right thing” by placing her somewhere to be looked after, ignoring the fact that this was not what Ruth wanted. And when she tries to explain things to him, he is uninterested and frustrated with her lack of just….doing what he tells her. Both my parents have filled POA roles for their own parents and it’s made me realise what an important role it is and how it can be abused, both blatantly and deliberately as well as inadvertently as well. In particular, Michael’s opinion on what POA meant about Ruth’s money, was very wrong to me.

Although most of the action actually takes place away from the nursing home, this book also includes the staffing issues and also how elderly people can be vulnerable even within a place that should be safe to them. There’s been a lot about nursing home care lately, especially with the Royal Commission into Aged Care and the impact that the corona outbreak had on the community also. The decision for a family member to go into one wouldn’t be easy and there’s a lot to consider with unfortunately, cost being one of the biggest determining factors. These days, many aged care homes are run for profit as businesses, leading to the inadequate staff to patient ratios and sometimes indifferent care. It’s also a low paying industry as well with a high turnover of staff.

I enjoyed this – a lot of humour on the surface but there’s a lot of serious undertones that I feel could provoke many conversations about how family members can and should be cared for in their older years and how we might be able to do better.

7/10

Book #162 of 2021

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Review: The Raffles Affair by Vicki Virtue

The Raffles Affair
Vicki Virtue
Penguin Random House
2021, 291p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The classic whodunnit gets a modern makeover.

Fresh from a gruelling three-month assignment in East Africa, beautiful former MI6 agent Victoria West arrives at Raffles Hotel in Singapore to attend her friend’s wedding. But Victoria’s plans for a relaxing break end abruptly with news the groom has been kidnapped. Warned not to contact the police, Victoria sets out to find him. But in this glamorous setting nothing is quite what it seems. 

As the deadline to pay the ransom draws near, events take a deadly turn. Victoria suspects murder. But which of the wedding guests did it? They all have a motive… and a talent for lying. With time fast running out, Victoria must untangle the web of domestic squabbles, red herrings and false alibis before it is too late.

I actually didn’t really read much about this before I opened it so I was expecting it to be a historical fiction until the main character was using an iPad in the opening line! It very much has a classic feel about it, very “well-to-do people living the high life in the colonies” type of feel.

It’s set in the Raffles Hotel Singapore and I strongly urge anyone who isn’t familiar with it to google it. It’s a very grand building and the home of the “Singapore Sling” which was created there at the Long Bar in 1915. The hotel is also quite famous for the artistic types it has attracted over the years, the likes of Joseph Conrad and William Somerset Maugham. The hotel now also offers a writers in residence program and this book was written during one of those programs.

In this story, Raffles is the setting for a glamorous wedding. Main character Victoria is formerly with MI6 and has flown into Singapore from East Africa to attend the wedding of her best friend Peyton. It’s to be a small affair, only a few family members and very close friends of the bride and groom and it’s been kept under wraps from any press which means when the groom disappears and there’s a kidnap ransom note, Victoria is immediately suspicious.

This book harks back to a very old world sort of glamour – wealthy people (often behaving quite badly) wearing designer clothes, taking in cocktail hour and hosting elaborate dinners in their luxurious suites at one of the world’s most famous hotels. Although this appears to be the first book in a series, it mentions the last time Victoria was in Singapore quite often and the service she provided to the government and it seems she’s long been a regular there, used to excellent service and she knows the staff by name. This also gives her the ability to basically conduct an investigation when the groom is kidnapped and basically it seems like someone who is there for the wedding must be involved and the more Victoria inquires the more she uncovers that pretty much everyone there might have a motive for being involved in this.

Whilst I enjoyed the setting – the author really does capture the hotel, even for someone who has obviously never been there before, like myself – the mystery didn’t feel the strongest. I think the problem was we didn’t know James, the groom and Peyton, the bride, before Victoria arrives at the hotel and meets James, so there was no way to be invested in them, to feel sorry for Peyton when he disappears or to wonder at potential motives. Unfortunately, they seem quite obvious almost immediately and I think it would’ve been better to have a bit more ambiguity. Also most of his family are so unpleasant it’s all too easy to cast them in the role of villains immediately.

I haven’t actually read any Agatha Christie (not sure how that happened) so I can’t say for sure if that is the sort of vibe the book is going for but it’s the one I feel like it might’ve been emulating in a modern-day setting. It’s a quick read, paced relatively well and there’s enough skeletons in the closets of those in attendance for the wedding (except for Victoria, obviously) to give the reader reason to ponder over each one of them being the potential culprit.

If this does turn out to be a series, I’d be curious to see where Victoria goes next. I’d like to know more about her – we only get the bare minimum here and it feels like there’s definitely more that could be elaborated upon as she moves on from MI6 and travels.

6/10

Book #166 of 2021

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Review: Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

Cutters End
Margaret Hickey
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A scintillating crime thriller, set in the South Australian outback town of Cutters End. A mysterious death on New Year’s Eve 1989 leads to a shocking murder investigation 32 years later…

A desert highway. A remote town. A murder that won’t stay hidden.

New Year’s Eve, 1989. Eighteen-year-old Ingrid Mathers is hitchhiking her way to Alice Springs. Bored, hungover and separated from her friend Joanne, she accepts a lift to the remote town of Cutters End.

July 2021. Detective Sergeant Mark Ariti is seconded to a recently reopened case, one in which he has a personal connection. Three decades ago, a burnt and broken body was discovered in scrub off the Stuart Highway, 300km south of Cutters End. Though ultimately ruled an accidental death, many people – including a high-profile celebrity – are convinced it was murder.

When Mark’s interviews with the witnesses in the old case files go nowhere, he has no choice but to make the long journey up the highway to Cutters End.

And with the help of local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, he soon learns that this death isn’t the only unsolved case that hangs over the town… 

The Australian outback is such a perfect setting for a crime novel. It’s probably the perfect setting for crime in real life. There are parts of this country where it’s probably possible to go days, maybe even weeks, without coming across another soul. There are no doubt, loads of places to bury a body and have it not be discovered for years – maybe never.

This is a dual timeline beginning in 1989 with Ingrid waiting for her friend Joanne so they can continue hitching north from South Australia into the Northern Territory and Alice Springs. It’s incredibly hot, dusty and bored of waiting, Ingrid accepts a lift. And then in 2021, a strange case of “accidental death” from that time period in 1989 is reopened and Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is put in charge of examining whether or not the correct decision was reached all those years ago. He’s chosen because he went to school with both Ingrid and Joanne and there’s feeling that perhaps they know more than they let on all those years ago.

I was a bit young, but from what I can remember, hitchhiking used to be pretty common in the 80s. And probably into the 90s. I definitely feel that Ivan Milat most likely is the reason it definitely became less popular but I forget that it probably was very prevalent, even in these remote areas – maybe especially in them, where other modes of transport were few and far between. The idea though, of a couple of girls just out of school hitchhiking their way up the middle of the country is, in this day and age, very troubling. And for good reason.

I did enjoy this but I thought that it might’ve been better to choose a woman as the main investigative viewpoint. Mark is, to be honest, the sort of character I’ve read in a thousand previous crime novels: middle aged, going ‘through some stuff’ in his marriage, certain things in his past that have contributed, etc. He’s on annual leave and is basically strong-armed into this with promises of potential to move up the ladder and not being sent back to where he was working before his leave. Mark had background with both Ingrid and Joanne, having gone to school with both and even been in a relationship with Ingrid for a time. I actually think that Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur would’ve been an interesting perspective to read from, particularly as a character like Mark arrived from elsewhere. Her attitude towards him was quite amusing at times and she had some pithy comments about police hierarchy. It also kind of astounded me that as a cop, Mark once asked his wife in the present day if she’d ever felt afraid in the presence of a man or because of one. It seemed a terribly shortsighted sort of question in 2021 in general, especially from someone who had been a police officer for 20+ years. This book did have some really interesting things to say about violence towards women and the ways in which certain crimes were/would’ve been looked at by the police in 1989. Back then, it was very much an attitude that domestic issues were personal business and most people looked the other way when a woman had a black eye or a bruise. And in the present day, Mark’s wife is a lawyer attempting to prosecute violent husbands, often with disastrous results. How much has really changed?

I did really enjoy the setting of this, which is important in a rural crime novel. I haven’t read a lot set in South Australia, but the desolate country, dusty and barren landscape with its small towns and cast of characters, many of whom are probably hiding something or other, worked well for me. I wasn’t super taken with Mark as a main character though, mostly just because it felt like he had nothing else that set him apart from others in the genre. There’s a real emphasis on middle-aged male detectives who are either divorced or about to be or hanging onto a failing marriage grimly and wondering why whilst spending endless days and nights away doing the job. I did however, enjoy the dynamic between both Joanne and Ingrid and why things were the way they were.

A quick and easy read.

7/10

Book #157 of 2021

Cutters End is book #68 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Road Tripping With Pearl Nash by Poppy Nwosu

Road Tripping With Pearl Nash
Poppy Nwosu
Wakefield Press
2021, 264p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The summer is finally here, and Pearl Nash is on a mission to save her slowly disintegrating friendship with a whirlwind end-of-year road trip that is definitely absolutely most positively going to solve all her problems.

Except, instead of her best friend Daisy’s feet on her dash, suddenly Pearl ends up stuck in the middle of the desert beside Obi Okocha, a boy with a mega-watt smile and an endlessly irritating attitude. Tasked with delivering him to the most epic end-of-year party ever, located in a beach shack in literal middle-of-nowhere woop woop, Pearl Nash is certain that nothing could be worse than this.

She’s wrong.

Add in a breakdown, multiple arguments, an AWOL nana and a kiss that was most definitely a huge mistake, and suddenly Pearl has the perfect ingredients for the perfect disaster.

Road Tripping with Pearl Nash is a story about home and family, about breaking apart and fusing together, and, of course, about love. 

Recently I have read both Making Friends With Alice Dyson and Taking Down Evelyn Tait by Poppy Nwosu. They’re all set at the same school but you can read any one of them without having read the others as the characters, although some from other books may be mentioned, they don’t really interact.

Pearl Nash moved to the city four years ago and she’d been friends with Daisy that whole time. Daisy rescued her when she felt out of her depth. But in the last year, Daisy has grown up faster than Pearl, gotten a boyfriend and left her behind. Now Pearl feels like a consolation prize – Daisy is only interested in spending time with her when her boyfriend Lachlan is busy elsewhere and discovering that Daisy has left her to drive to a beach house party with Obi Okocha and gone on with Lachlan instead, Pearl is less-than-impressed. Especially as she and Obi do not get along and now she’s stuck with him in her ancient car.

I love road trips and I love road trip books. It has forced proximity, which is one of my favourite romance tropes so I especially like it when the people road tripping don’t really like each other (but then end up liking each other a lot). And that is definitely the vibe between Pearl and Obi.

They’re forced into travelling together when Lachlan and Daisy leave Obi at the petrol station where Pearl is supposed to meet them and he’s forced to beg a lift with her. She’s not entirely enthusiastic about it, because as I mentioned, they don’t get along. But she also can’t leave someone abandoned in the rain at a petrol station – as Obi plainly states, that’s how horror movies start and he’s a black man – he’ll be first to die! Obi has an obsession with true crime podcasts and he is very preoccupied about the ways in which people can die that include but are not limited to: being left alone at a service station, hitchhiking, camping in the desert, a drunken high school party and many other things. It adds a lot of humour to the story.

But at the core of the book is friendship: Pearl’s changing friendship with Daisy and how she feels about it as well as Obi’s friendship with Lachlan and the friendship between Obi and Pearl which is tentative at first and more because they’re forced together but soon they start choosing to stay together when they could’ve easily split up. Pearl looks at Obi’s actions in a different light and she seems through the bright smile he often uses. There’s no denying though, that these two say some really cruel things to each other and sometimes it feels like one step forward followed by two steps back.

This time in high school is such a difficult one, especially when like Pearl, you feel you’re being left behind by your best friend. But this situation also makes Pearl think about the fact that really, she’s put a lot of effort into her friendship with Daisy and it’s been at the extent of really making friends with anyone else and she might not be as alone as she thought she was. There are other options for her, people who don’t treat her as Daisy has begun to treat her: cancelling plans if her boyfriend calls, saying nothing when her boyfriend says offensive and nasty things about Pearl (often to her face and most definitely behind her back). If that is Daisy’s idea of friendship I think Pearl realises that she could do better than putting her life on hold for when Daisy is next free to hang out with her.

I also enjoyed Pearl’s family in this – in all their messy glory. They felt so real and I often feel that families are missing in YA novels – parents that make rules, annoying younger siblings. And look, Pearl and Obi are on a road trip so the family is absent for a large portion of the story but they are always in the background, particularly as Pearl has promised to look in on her Nana, who seems to have disappeared, worrying her father. There’s some great stuff about grief in this book too and how differently Pearl and her Nana see the time since Pearl’s grandfather died. The character of Pearl’s Nana is a bit of a hoot and in some ways, she reminds me of one of my grandmothers. It’s not that they have much in common, it’s more….their manner in some circumstances. My Nan is very forthright as well. We don’t meet Obi’s family but we get to glimpse a bit of their dynamic through his comments about them and it’s actually enough to give you quite a picture. And Pearl and Obi really did have lovely chemistry, when they weren’t trying to hurt each other.

I really enjoyed this. A wonderful read that was a lovely way to pass a morning in lockdown.

8/10

Book #152 of 2021

This is book #66 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

Happy Hour
Jacquie Byron
Allen & Unwin
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Growing older doesn’t necessarily mean growing wiser.

Gin in one hand, paintbrush in the other, Franny Calderwood has turned her back on the world, or at least the world she used to love. Having lost her husband, Frank, in tragic circumstances three years earlier, 65-year-old Franny copes the only way she knows how: by removing herself completely from the life she had before. Franny lives a life of decadent seclusion, with only her two dogs, Whisky and Soda, a stuffed cat, cocktails and the memory of Frank for company.

Then the Salernos move in next door. The troubled but charming trio – beleaguered mother Sallyanne, angry teenager Dee and eccentric eight-year-old Josh – cannot help but pull Franny into the drama of their lives. But despite her fixation with independence, Franny’s wisecracks and culinary experiments hide considerable trauma and pain, and when her eccentric behaviour has life-threatening consequences she faces a reckoning of sorts. Yes, Frank is dead, but did the woman he loved have to perish with him?

A story about one woman, two dogs and the family next door, Happy Hour is a hilarious and uplifting insight into grief, loss, true love and friendship.

This book packed a very emotional punch that I don’t think I was really expecting when I picked it up.

Franny is 65 and she’s grieving still. Three years ago, she lost her husband and best friend Frank, her person, in a horrible, senseless accident and she really has not dealt with it. Franny has withdrawn from life as she knew it when Frank was alive – she shuns her friends, tries to avoid her sister-in-law. Franny spends her days walking her two dogs Whisky and Soda and mixing herself drinks whilst painting and talking to the various photos of Frank she keeps around the house. When the Salernos move in next door Franny’s attempts to keep her distance don’t exactly go to plan and pretty soon they’re entangled in each other’s lives.

Franny and Frank had this incredible marriage. He’s been gone three years at the beginning of the book but you get a sense of who he was and the sort of life they had lived. Not without it’s low points but they truly seemed to be this incredible couple who loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company and their lives together. Frank was a social butterfly, enjoying hosting their friends in elaborate dinner and cocktail nights. Now that Frank has gone, the idea of socialising without him is too painful for Franny to bear. She has retreated from everyone in her life, actively trying to avoid them in elaborate schemes because she cannot bear pity from them about Frank or to be thrust into memories of times she can never get back. Franny is deep, deep in grief and her pain pours off the page. Having always enjoyed a cocktail and a good wine or champagne…..Franny definitely seems to be relying a bit on the drink to numb things.

The arrival of the Salernos shakes her out of her isolation a bit. Dee, a feisty teenager, and Josh a creative and gentle eight year old, both find that they enjoy spending time with Franny for different reasons. Dee enjoys her attitude (and her booze) as well as her beautiful and interesting vintage clothing. Josh is artistic and loves Franny’s studio as well as her two dogs. The two kids are going through a rough time as their parents have separated and they’ve had to leave their home. Everything is new and strange and different and their mother is working hard to provide for them as well as be a strength for them. It’s not without its complications but Franny’s involvement in their lives definitely gets her living again, rather than existing. She’s having people to cook for, she’s got someone to help exercise her dogs as well as teach art to and Dee loves clothes and sewing, something else Franny can contribute to. She also enjoys things like galleries and the ballet (another example I think, of the life she and Frank used to lead).

Franny wasn’t always easy but I loved her. I could understand her wallowing actually, her struggle with the grief. And her anger. I could understand that too as well as her hiding herself away. I don’t drink, so Franny’s imbibing was even more alarming for me but I understood it had been part of her life for a long time, albeit in a different way. I felt strangely protective of her, despite the fact that she’s blunt and forthright and would probably not consider herself in any way in need of protecting! But under that, I felt she had so much fragility and vulnerability and was angry for her at the contact made to her by {I don’t want to spoil it}. Never will I believe that forgiveness is something that should be put upon or demanded of victims and frankly, Franny gave the person making demands of her more than they deserved but probably not as much as they wanted.

I thought this was beautifully written with wonderful characters that will work their way into reader’s hearts for different reasons: Franny for her struggle, Dee for her courage and Josh for simply being Josh and not apologising for it and Sallyanne for always doing the best she can. I will be super keen to see another book from Jacquie Byron in the future.

8/10

Book #156 of 2021

Happy Hour is book #67 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate
Sarah Bailey
Allen & Unwin
2021, 464p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Three housemates. 

One dead, one missing and one accused of murder. 

Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, it’s a mystery that has baffled Australians for almost a decade. 

Melbourne-based journalist Olive Groves worked on the story as a junior reporter and became obsessed by the case. Now, nine years later, the missing housemate turns up dead on a remote property. Oli is once again assigned to the story, this time reluctantly paired with precocious millennial podcaster Cooper Ng.

As Oli and Cooper unearth new facts about the three housemates, a dark web of secrets is uncovered. The revelations catapult Oli back to the death of the first housemate, forcing her to confront past traumas and insecurities that have risen to the surface again.

What really happened between the three housemates that night? Will Oli’s relentless search for the murderer put her new family in danger? And could her suspicion that the truth lies closer to home threaten her happiness and even her sanity?

A riveting, provocative thriller from the bestselling author of The Dark Lake, Into the Night and Where the Dead Go.

Well, this was a ride.

I haven’t read Sarah Bailey before although she’s very highly acclaimed and I’ve read many glowing reviews of her previous books. Just hadn’t had an opportunity to try her so when I saw this one I knew it was the perfect chance.

It’s told in two timelines – 2005, with the ‘Housemate Homicide’ where university student Evelyn is found stabbed to death in the house she shares with two other students. One of the students is missing and the other is arrested for the murder. In 2015, it’s believed that the missing housemate has finally been found – but no longer alive.

Journalist Olive (Oli) Groves covered the case in 2005 and now, ten years later, she’s still working in journalism and because of her previous coverage, she’s chosen to take the lead again. This time she has to work with Cooper Ng from the digital portion of the publication, who is starting a podcast. Oli, despite being only about 39, is very much a ‘traditional’ print journalist and sees little point in the digital cycle or podcasts, believing that the truest form of news is print journalism. Cooper is talkative and annoying and at first, Oli seems to want nothing more than to shake free of him and continue on her own but the news that Cooper has secured an interview with Alex, the one convicted for the original murder, changes her mind. There might be something in this podcast after all.

This was an addictive read. I only intended to read half of it, because I started it quite late in the day but I was sucked into the story immediately and ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. It’s not a short book either, but the story was so engrossing that I had to keep going so that I could find out what really happened. There were mysterious circumstances that surrounded the original murder and Oli, trying to dig up information from ten years ago, finds herself with questions and eyeing things that don’t seem to add up. What were the girls involved in that might’ve led to this? She doesn’t buy that it was over a boy or even too many drugs taken that night. There’s definitely something else that was going on and she wants to know what it is. Add in a dead cop that was a lead investigator and how that ties in to Oli’s very messy private life and it all makes for a gripping read.

Oli is a messy character – there’s a difficult childhood that is alluded to several times throughout the story and although she clearly justifies some of her actions in her quest for a story, it’s clear that she’s willing to lie, misrepresent herself and do many things in order to get the story and get people to talk to her. She has strong opinions about her job and the role news plays. Her private life is….well. Interesting. A lot of the developments happen ‘off page’ before the story resumes in 2015 but the background dribbles out and some of the current events definitely make Oli question some of the choices she has made that have contributed to the way things are. I really enjoyed how she and Cooper interacted – he’s very young, very fresh with these enthusiastic ideals about things and is a great contrast to Oli’s definitely more jaded and cynical air, as well as her abrupt manner. I didn’t always like Oli as a character and there were times when I questioned why she did some of the things she did but she was certainly very dogged and used several different forms of motivation to keep her going, even when it seemed like everything was crumbling around her.

Absolutely loved this – smart, compelling and so intriguing. You just found yourself wanting to know everything. Am definitely going to have to go back and read Sarah Bailey’s previous novels now.

9/10

Book #159 of 2021

The Housemate is book #69 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves

The Heron’s Cry (Two Rivers #2)
Ann Cleeves
Macmillan
2021, 382p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: North Devon is enjoying a rare hot summer with tourists flocking to its coastline. Detective Matthew Venn is called out to a rural crime scene at the home of a group of artists. What he finds is an elaborately staged murder–Dr Nigel Yeo has been fatally stabbed with a shard of one of his glassblower daughter’s broken vases.

Dr Yeo seems an unlikely murder victim. He’s a good man, a public servant, beloved by his daughter. Matthew is unnerved, though, to find that she is a close friend of Jonathan, his husband.

Then another body is found–killed in a similar way. Matthew soon finds himself treading carefully through the lies that fester at the heart of his community and a case that is dangerously close to home.

DI Matthew Venn returns in The Heron’s Cry, in Ann Cleeves powerful next novel, proving once again that she is a master of her craft.

Last year, the first book in this series, The Long Call was my first introduction to books by Ann Cleeves, which is honestly, a travesty. I loved The Long Call and I was very keen for the next instalment – this was definitely one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

We return to North Devon where Detective Jen Rafferty is attending a party thrown by her magistrate friend Cynthia where she meets a man who wishes to speak to her. They arrange to meet another time, when Jen has had less to drink as his interest in her seems to be professional and the man leaves the party. The next morning, that same man, Dr Nigel Yeo, is found by his daughter, murdered with a piece of his daughter’s own glasswork.

Detective Inspector Matthew Venn and his team begin the investigation which is complicated with the discovery of another body, killed in the same way. Things become difficult for Matthew when a friend of his husband is the daughter of the first victim and she leans on Jonathan for support, making Matthew feel as though lines are being blurred.

I love the relationships in this – Matthew and Jonathan are complete opposites. Matthew has been very much shaped by his upbringing with the Brethren and also the rejection of them, when he renounced his faith. He’s very regimented, the job he has presents a comforting order and he appreciates the armour of his daily suit, his polished shoes. He’s reserved but very dedicated. Jonathan is artsy, social and all feeling, in contrast to Matthew’s all logic. I really like the two of them together and the scenes showcase their differences. Their relationship is really interesting to me and even though they never sit down and have these long, in depth conversations, you can definitely see how each of them are feeling, when they are at odds and the steps they take to make sure it doesn’t last.

As well as Matthew and Jennifer, another core member of the team is Ross. He’s the Boss’ protégée (the Boss is not far off retirement) and Matthew has learned to play up Ross’ abilities and involvement to him. Although Ross had a lot of thoughts about Matthew being appointed, his work on solving the previous case means he has Ross’ grudging respect although I think Ross definitely wants to undertake more meaty, senior tasks in the investigation and often is inwardly disappointed about following up phone records, etc. But Matthew is very thorough and part of that is definitely leaving nothing not investigated or followed up, no matter how minor it might seem. I liked the glimpse into Ross’ private life as well, and the way in which that played out. We also get to spend some time with Jen and it focuses on how much this job can demand of her: she’s a single mother with two teenage children and she’s very aware that she can be away from home more often than she’s there and that her children are left to fend for themselves. Her daughter is very capable but the way this investigation goes causes Jen to ponder what her son is up to all those hours in his room on his computer. The investigation also causes Jen’s job to have an impact on one of her friendships when she’s forced to query a friend and her husband on their movements and a matter from their past.

I have to admit, I did find the final culprit a little underwhelming but I think it says a lot about how much I enjoy the characters in this series that I didn’t really care. This is being turned into a television series, like two of Ann Cleeves’ others (Vera and Shetland) and I’m 100% looking forward to seeing how this plays out on the small screen. I’ve already had a bit of a look at the casting and I can’t wait for it to be finished. Should be potential for some stunning scenery as well.

I really enjoyed this and I’m already very keen for the next one. The characterisation is absolutely brilliant.

8/10

Book #155 of 2021

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Review: The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

The Echo Chamber
John Boyne
Doubleday
2021, 414p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: What a thing of wonder a mobile phone is. Six ounces of metal, glass and plastic, fashioned into a sleek, shiny, precious object. At once, a gateway to other worlds – and a treacherous weapon in the hands of the unwary, the unwitting, the inept.

The Cleverley family live a gilded life, little realising how precarious their privilege is, just one tweet away from disaster. George, the patriarch, is a stalwart of television interviewing, a ‘national treasure’ (his words), his wife Beverley, a celebrated novelist (although not as celebrated as she would like), and their children, Nelson, Elizabeth, Achilles, various degrees of catastrophe waiting to happen. 

Together they will go on a journey of discovery through the Hogarthian jungle of the modern living where past presumptions count for nothing and carefully curated reputations can be destroyed in an instant. Along the way they will learn how volatile, how outraged, how unforgiving the world can be when you step from the proscribed path. 

Powered by John Boyne’s characteristic humour and razor-sharp observation, The Echo Chamber is a satiric helter skelter, a dizzying downward spiral of action and consequence, poised somewhere between farce, absurdity and oblivion. To err is maybe to be human, but to really foul things up you only need a phone.

I really enjoyed this.

I’ve not read John Boyne before, although funnily enough, my 13yo is currently also reading a book by him at the same time I was reading this. So I wasn’t really sure what to expect and I only glanced at the blurb before starting so about a chapter or two in, I realised that that this was satire and that it was going to be quite over the top.

It revolves around a wealthy family – George, who hosts a sort of interview show on the BBC, his wife Beverley who wrote a few novels but now hires a ghostwriter, and their three privileged children, at least 2 of which are currently giant wastes of space: Nelson, Elizabeth and Achilles. A lot of the members in the family are quite addicted to their mobile phones and it’ll end up being the downfall of most of them.

Although the characters are ridiculously over the top (Beverley Cleverley….haha) there’s actually a lot of interesting stuff when you dig into the plot. George, who prides himself on being “Woke” before it was a thing, makes a tweet that he thinks was supportive but a mistake he makes means it goes viral for precisely the opposite reason, enraging the Twitter left, who try to “cancel” him. George refuses to be cancelled, calling out the “POOTs” as he calls them (the Permanently Outraged of Twitter) and there’s a lot of clever and quite relevant stuff about intention and the why of some of the outrage. Also about how rarely ever to the consequences end up being faced by the person who made the fault when they are rich and powerful and almost always, someone else will have to fall on the sword.

Most of the characters are pretty awful people – Achilles in particular and Elizabeth, I feel, definitely deserved to face the consequences of their actions. They’re the epitome of rich and spoiled children, who believe that they can go through life doing little of worth, using people for their own amusement and getting away with it with no consequence. It was immensely satisfying towards the end of the novel, when the consequences began coming for everyone and these two found themselves outsmarted (Achilles) and outgunned (Elizabeth). They weren’t irredeemable though, just young stupid and raised by parents with little to no idea, I think. The only character I think I actually felt sorry for in this whole book was Nelson, the eldest of the three children. He’s quite a basket case in the beginning but he kind of grows throughout the book in many ways (although unfortunately, not in others which is why he ends up also facing consequences for his actions) and he felt like the only one at the conclusion who had much of an idea about how to map out his future.

There’s a lot of really funny stuff that happens in this, throwaway lines and little observations about social media. Whilst I believe in people being called out for problematic and offensive comments, the reality is, many people (trolls) take advantage of this and go too far with it and use death threats and other violent comments in retribution, which helps no one – no one is educated by people telling them to kill themselves or that they hope their family dies violently. Social media can be an absolute cesspool – the best and worst of humanity at times. It can rally around a person and help in the most powerful and moving of ways or it can, like in this book, “cancel” people or be used to troll and threaten people in horrific ways. People can say anything behind anonymous profiles and it can be just another way to bully, an easier way as there’s no face to face component.

I also really loved the last line of the book. It’s something that gets mentioned throughout the story, this certain thing but it isn’t until right at the very end that the irony or punchline of it, is revealed and I thought that was so clever.

8/10

Book #149 of 2021

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Review: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

The Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient #3)
Helen Hoang
Allen & Unwin
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A woman struggling with burnout learns to embrace the unexpected—and the man she enlists to help her—in this heartfelt new romance by USA Today bestselling author Helen Hoang.

When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She’s going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.

That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

Oh my heart.

This book was one of my most anticipated books of 2021. I really enjoyed both of Helen Hoang’s previous books, The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test. But even I underestimated the impact this book would have.

Anna is a professional violinist who went “viral” in a video on YouTube which led to a composer writing something especially for her. Now she’s struggling big time with the pressure – she’s taken leave from her chair at the orchestra, she’s stuck in a rut playing the same piece over and over and stopping and restarting every single time she makes a mistake. And then her boyfriend of five years tells her he wants an “open relationship” to play the field a little before they settle down and in a moment of assertiveness, Anna decides that if he can see other people, so can she.

Anna is significantly younger than her only sister and she grew up in a household that placed a lot of pressure on her. Anna isn’t the same as the rest of them, she’s always known that. So she tries very hard to be – smiling when she thinks she should be, saying yes to things when she doesn’t want to, allowing people to do things that she isn’t comfortable with. She’s been seeing a therapist, which she’s kept secret from her family and her therapist gently suggests something to her and gives Anna a book to read and all of sudden, Anna has some understanding about herself. But it’s not something that others, particularly her sister, will accept about her.

This book goes to some dark places. Some really dark places. Anna isn’t in the best of places when the book begins and as it goes on and she learns things about herself and has to deal with a family tragedy and the fallout of that plus family pressure and people’s refusal to accept things about her, to accuse her of being lazy or difficult, it just gets worse. She also cannot play her violin – she’s lost her love of the music, there’s pressure there too which has become too much and she’s become almost compulsive about it, trapped in a cycle of starting again every single time she makes a mistake, spending hours attempt to play the same piece over and over.

The one bright spot in her life is Quan Diep, a tattooed guy with a motorcycle who Anna meets on a dating app after her boyfriend Julian says he wants the open relationship. It’s supposed to be a one night stand but Anna’s anxiety gets the better of her and so it becomes a sequence of dates, a friendship, and eventually, something much more. Quan and Anna together were just….amazing. I loved them. He’s so understanding of every single thing about her, he takes the time to see her and he’s so supportive at time where Anna has very little support in her life. Her family are the source of great stress and heartache and my heart ached for her. She’s been raised in this way that makes her shut herself down, acquiesce to everything others want, to mould herself into their expectations. Her therapist even gives her a term for what she does and why she’s doing it and Quan is perhaps the first person that she never has to do that with. That she can be herself with, no matter the situation. Sometimes it takes her a while and her first instinct is to please others, but Quan is very determined that her comfort (and pleasure, in certain situations) be of utmost importance as well and he patiently waits until she’s ready to embrace that part of herself with him.

This book hit a certain way when reading it – it was so raw, so open and the Author’s Note at the end of the book really showcased why Helen Hoang was able to show Anna so bare like that with such authenticity. This book touches on something that I think is really important, the role of caregiver burnout on a person’s psyche. You can really feel Anna’s spiral during this time and the way she struggles with what they are doing and who it is really for as well as how much it puts her at odds with her sister.

I feel as though I have not said a lot about Quan and my review focused a lot on Anna and her feelings and the things that are all happening to her at once. Quan is not without his problems as well. He plays such a steadying, supportive role in this for Anna, being the one that truly listens to her (I love so much that their first few interactions are watching Netflix documentaries together but separately) and encourages her to express herself and be herself. He loves her, not the person she thinks she needs to be in order to inspire love. Which is beautiful! I love them together.

9/10

Book #153 of 2021

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