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Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

The Bombay Prince (Perveen Mistry #3)
Sujata Massey
Allen & Unwin
2021, 342p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: November, 1921. Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future ruler of India, is arriving in Bombay to begin a four-month tour. The Indian subcontinent is chafing under British rule, and Bombay solicitor Perveen Mistry isn’t surprised when local unrest over the royal arrival spirals into riots. But she’s horrified by the death of Freny Cuttingmaster, an eighteen-year-old female Parsi student, who falls from a second-floor gallery just as the prince’s grand procession is passing by her college.

Freny had come for a legal consultation just days before her death, and what she confided makes Perveen suspicious that her death was not an accident. Feeling guilty for failing to have helped Freny in life, Perveen steps forward to assist Freny’s family in the fraught dealings of the coroner’s inquest. When Freny’s death is ruled a murder, Perveen knows she can’t rest until she sees justice done. But Bombay is erupting: as armed British secret service march the streets, rioters attack anyone with perceived British connections and desperate shopkeepers destroy their own wares so they will not be targets of racial violence. Can Perveen help a suffering family when her own is in danger? 

I have been enjoying this series so much – this is the third instalment and the first two were excellent so I was really looking forward to this one. It’s set in a tumultuous time in India where there’s unrest about British rule and there’s also a lot of differing religions and ethnicities and clashes are becoming more common. The Prince of Wales, Edward VIII is visiting and this causes a lot of feelings. A female student from a local university who is expected to turn out to watch the Prince’s parade approaches Perveen and asks if there would be repercussions for her study if she were to not show up. When that same student is found dead just after the Prince passes by, Perveen knows that it’s her duty to get the answers. She only spoke to her briefly but she admired her and she and Perveen are from the same religious background and so Perveen and her father offer to advocate for her family during the inquest and make sure they can do their burial rites as quickly as possible, which is very important in their customs.

I know so little about India in this time and this is just a bit of a snapshot although Perveen and her family are very wealthy and privileged so there’s definitely a lot that is not particularly showcased here. But even they are dramatically affected in the riots that spring up after the Prince’s procession and are forced to leave their family home for the safety of a hotel after there is looting and violent behaviour. Perveen herself also is accosted by young men who would’ve done her harm, if not for the intervention of someone else, which allows her to escape to safety. But although she’s very shaken up by the experience, she doesn’t allow it to prevent her from continuing her investigating and her advocacy for the young student, especially when her death is ruled a homicide.

In the previous book, a little seed of…something…was planted and there are huge complications involved with it but I got pulled into it anyway. I was hoping that we’d see that person again and this book grants my wishes and even advances it a little, although the complications remain/are increased. Perveen is not a free agent to do as she wishes, for many reasons, not least the customs and restrictions of her time and the fact that she’s a woman. She is the first female solicitor but she still faces a lot of prejudice and derision from many corners, although she also has a lot of people accept her services. But her father is definitely a man who respects tradition and custom and the way he treats Perveen and her brother differ markedly. Her father is an interesting character, there are times when he’s very strict and almost cutting to Perveen but there are other times when he’s very patient and teaches her law things and his pride in her achievements is evident. Apart from her father and the restrictions of her religion and class and position as a female, Perveen also has another reason why she cannot get involved with a man and until this is resolved (which seems unlikely to be anytime soon in India’s current situation) she’s prevented from any official attachment. I really enjoyed this development in the novel as well as the indication that there will definitely be more to come in the future.

This is a hugely interesting political time and it’s one I don’t know much about but I feel it’s explained really well and you get to see a small snapshot of what it was like for those that lived (albeit in a particular set of social circles) at this time. It was also an insight into university life in this time as well, the challenges and peculiarities of it, especially in regards to its female students.

I really enjoy Perveen as a character and her interest in justice and her determination. She manages to find ways to do things, despite the restrictions often placed on her and she sees things that others do not. She’s also good at getting people to confide in her and trust her as well.

Another really great book in this series and I’m keen for more.

8/10

Book #94 of 2021

The Bombay Prince is book #18 for my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2021, 364p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley/personal purchased paperback copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve’s party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.

Can’t believe it took me so long to read this! I had an eBook review copy but I own the rest of Kayte Nunn’s books in paperback so I had to buy one to match them and it’s sat on my shelf for a couple of months. I’m trying to read from that shelf every so often, trying to balance out my reading a bit.

Anyway this is mostly a dual timeline, taking place partially in 1945 and partially in 1999 with a small scene from 1976. In 1945, it details the story of Bea and a bunch of other women who join the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) known as the Wasbies. They run a sort of canteen where the men can get sandwiches, cakes, treats and tea as well as purchase little luxuries like cigarettes, razors, creams, soaps etc. They’re imperative for boosting the morale of the men and the women also provide a social aspect, attending dances and being friendly faces. The women become very close as they get closer and closer to the front lines and see and experience things that will change them forever. Most are from privileged backgrounds, some have husbands or brothers serving in the war.

In 1999, Aussie ex-pat Olivia is working as an intern for an art dealer and she goes to meet Beatrix for her boss, because the elderly widow has indicated she has something very valuable to sell. A freak snowstorm and an illness traps Olivia in the country with Bea, which leads to her hearing a lot of Bea’s story and attending a reunion of the Wasbies, where many things come to light. And Olivia will make choices about her own future as well, inspired by the somewhat crotchety old lady she’s come to admire.

I found this book so fascinating. The opening scene is intrigue and then both timelines are so equally interesting. I loved reading about Bea signing up for the Wasbies, wanting to contribute, meeting the other women and them forming bonds. There’s plenty of description of their duties as well as the conditions of their surroundings and also the local area – the oppressive heat, the insects, etc as well as the other challenges. It really gives you a clear picture of what it must’ve been like to be involved in the war this way, from the long days preparing and serving often hundreds of men, to the jungle setting. I don’t know much about Burma (which is now known as Myanmar) – it’s pretty limited to the invasion by Japan in WWII, which tore the country apart and the Burma Railway, which was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of Allied war prisoners. It was interesting to see it from a different perspective, not of a prisoner but from someone who was working in a different role, providing comfort and support in the best way they could, to fighting troops. They’re all women that volunteered, some of them giving up quite comfortable lives well away from war zones, in order to help and do their part, to try and give the men a bit of cheer and comfort in what were incredibly horrible times.

In 1999, Olivia is lonely in London, she’s been working non-stop in an industry where it’s hard to get a good position and there’s a lot of competition. Her boss is demanding and thinks nothing of sending her on a trek to visit Beatrix a couple days before Christmas. By now Bea is in her 70s, living alone in a crumbling pile and she desperately needs money to fix the roof, which is why she’s considering selling something that means the world to her. She’s equal parts brusque and caring, tender and abrupt and it’s clear to Olivia she has a lot of stories to tell, which Olivia would love to hear. Especially about her time with the Wasbies and the other women. Olivia gets a chance to meet those remaining from the group and even more chance to understand what sort of things they experienced back in Burma, where some of the dangers weren’t from the local surroundings at all.

I really enjoyed the friendship that built between Olivia and Bea, built in such a short time but with such genuine warmth and feeling. Olivia hasn’t really made any connections since she moved to London from Australia but in meeting Bea, it gives her opportunity to make several different ones, some of which give her personal happiness and others which give her the courage to make decisions to further her career.

And the ending? So wonderfully satisfying.

9/10

Book #93 of 2021

The Last Reunion is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021 and is the 18th book completed.

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Review: Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

Echolalia
Briohny Doyle
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Set in a fictional regional city beset by drought, Echolalia follows a family in the advent and aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, the narrative moving fluidly between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’. When we first meet Emma Cormac, she’s a young mother barely coping with her three children under five; Emma in the After is a broken women with no familial ties, struggling through a twelve step program.

Before, Barbara Cormac is as much CEO as matriarch, the relentless pursuer of financial and social success for her family; After, she is reduced to the keeper of what was, and what could have been. Before, Clementine is a wilful four year old; After, a fragile young artist returning obsessively to the same dark subject. In the Before, Arthur is a not-yet verbal, difficult child. In the After, he is finding his neuro-atypical way at MIT. And in the Before, Robbie is a baby, the longed for male heir and hope for the Cormac legacy. He hasn’t survived into the After. 

As the central mystery at the heart of the novel-what happened to baby Robbie?-unfurls, Echolalia swings readers to align and realign ourselves with different characters, provoking tough moral questions of culpability and forgiveness. It explores, with clear eyes but unwavering empathy, what might drive a mother to do the unthinkable.

Doyle touches on environmental anxieties, the refugee crisis, class-consciousness, and inter-generational rifts. Echolalia is a portrait of a woman, a family, and a country in crisis. It is a deeply moving and memorable story and Briohny Doyle is a real talent.

This is a hard book to review.

It’s one of those books where I didn’t love it, but I didn’t dislike it either. It had a lot of really positive points – the writing was really good. And a lot of the relationships were written really well. But there were also some things that I really struggled with and made me feel a real disconnect from the story.

Emma and Robert seem like they have it all. Robert is the prize son of the richest family in town, the heir, the golden child. He and Emma met at university and although she’s from the same area, she’s not from the same social circle or background. They marry and get to starting a family and building a huge family home that overlooks what was a beautiful lake – the drought however, has reduced it to a dustbowl. For a while, everything is idyllic. They welcome daughter Clem and then that’s followed by a son – however all is not well as their son is non-verbal and shows some worrying traits. After they get a diagnosis that squarely places the blame on Emma, it’s another quick pregnancy, which results in the healthy son and heir to continue the Cormac dynasty.

Where I think the book excels, is the portrayal of Emma in the before, as she clearly struggles through parenting 3 children, one of whom is non-verbal and requires certain concessions, one of whom is still a baby under 12 months and is still incredibly needy and the last of which, is a 4yo girl who is beginning to parrot Emma’s mother-in-law, the formidable Pat.

Pat is a very capable woman, who definitely likes her social status and likes to project the image of this very perfect family who has everything. Emma not being able to cope is definitely not in her vision for her son and nor is a child that is anything less than perfect. Pat’s snide mutters that the middle child Arthur not “be coddled” and just understand the fact that he has to learn and deal with things is a very outdated view on a child that has a medical diagnosis and clearly has some challenges that need to be dealt with. He is still non verbal at almost three and Emma has tried to teach him sign language. He also cannot abide noise of any kind and will scream incessantly if there’s anything loud and Emma has transformed his room so that he cannot hurt himself on anything. Robert, Emma’s husband, sees this as entirely unnecessary and although I sort of got the feeling he wasn’t trying to be a bad husband or father, he clearly doesn’t want to understand or concede to Arthur’s differences and he’s a distant dad in the way of 1960s types of parenting roles. In fact if this book didn’t mention a mobile phone screen and drop a brand name or two, I actually would’ve thought this was set in the past, so traditional is the Cormac family. It’s got huge “dad works 9-5 and does little parenting while mum stays at home, pops out babies and keeps the house” vibes.

I also really liked the way that Doyle portrayed the relationship between Pat and Emma. Pat is “helpful” – turning up most days, feeding the children, trying to feed Emma, who is still breastfeeding the third baby, a demanding child. Pat is this busy matriarch who has risen really high in social status and is definitely pretty determined to keep it. She doesn’t seem to like or approve of anything that might threaten that and her attitude towards Emma is definitely not one of sympathy. More like one of “pull yourself together and snap out of it” clearly missing that Emma isn’t able to do that and she has some real deep issues going on. Pat is either “tough love” or just scathing and maybe she thinks she’s helping, trying to shock Emma into functioning again but honestly, Emma gives off some real signs that she’s in a situation she can’t just snap out of and no one really seems to recognise it or want to. Or they think she’s like this deliberately for some reason, Robert’s internal thoughts get less and less supportive the more the book moves on. It’s clear this is not what he signed up for. No one really seems to sense where things are going until it’s way, way too late and then there’s only disgust and horror and anger, no attempts at understanding. And that’s not completely outside the realms of reality, because women who do what Emma do are not large in number but they do seem to attract the most amount of hatred.

However the back and forth didn’t really work for me, I didn’t find it seamless or smooth and a lot of the time it felt jarring and confusing, I already knew what happened, the book tells you before you even begin it, but I just wanted to know how it happened and the why and the circumstances and it was drawn out for the longest time. The After segments fell quite flat for me, they weren’t as compelling as those in the Before and I disliked the jump back and forwards in time. It’s actually a technique I often enjoy in literature but it can be difficult to achieve in a way that feels organic and not just like it’s an attempt to dribble out information and in this book, it felt lacking in some way. Disjointed and not whole.

Things I felt were done really well, others I felt just didn’t work for me personally. But overall, an interesting and strong story that just lost its way a fraction towards the end.

7/10

Book #92 of 2021

Echolalia is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Vet From Snowy River by Stella Quinn

The Vet From Snowy River
Stella Quinn
Harlequin AUS
2021, 408p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Vera De Rossi no longer believes in love …

And thanks to her ex-boyfriend- she’s also broke, jobless, and staring down the barrel at a court case that could land her in prison. Turning to her talent for baking, Vera opens a cafe in Hanrahan, a cosy tourist town in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains.

Josh Cody, once Hanrahan’s golden boy, escaped sixteen years ago with gossip hard on his heels and a pregnant girlfriend in tow. Now he’s back: a qualified veterinarian – and a single dad with a lot to prove. A new start and a grumpy teenage daughter … it’s a lot to juggle, and there’s no room in his life for further complications. But that’s before he walks into The Billy Button Cafe and meets its prickly owner …

Reeling from the past, Vera has no intention of being sidetracked by the hot vet with his killer smile. But fate has a way of tripping up our best intentions and between a stray cat and a busybody with a heart of gold, this is a town – a family – unlike any other. And, whether Vera wants it or not, is there anything a family won’t do to help one of its own?

Funny, feel-good and entertaining, a stellar romance debut from an award-winning new talent. 

After finishing Spring Clean For The Peach Queen I really felt like another rural romance to read and this one was the only one that’s on my June TBR pile that fit the bill. I didn’t really know much about it but the setting intrigued me – the snowy mountains have been popping up a little in rural fiction recently and I was keen to get into this one and see how it was.

Vera De Rossi is new in the small town of Hanrahan and she’s opening a cafe which she helps will provide enough income to pay for her aunt’s fees at a hospice. Vera has definitely had a rough time of it lately and she has a court case pending over her head, the outcome uncertain. Josh Cody grew up in Hanrahan and is back after 15 or so years away, to work in a veterinary practice with his sister. There’s definitely an attraction between Josh and Vera but Vera is very reluctant to become involved: she can’t trust her judgement at the moment and she’s been let down (and believes she’s let people down) so her self-confidence and esteem is at rock bottom. She’s prickly but that doesn’t put Josh off at all.

There was a lot about this that I really liked – the idea of Josh returning to his hometown, the veterinary practice setting and Vera opening the cafe. All the baked treats and meals described in this sounded absolutely delicious and the character of Graeme, who becomes Vera’s barista/front of house person was amazing – I thought he was fabulous. I also really liked Poppy, Josh’s daughter and also the way in which Josh and Poppy’s mother had a really great relationship. Josh’s relationship with Poppy too felt realistic and fraught with the tension of parenting a teenage girl and negotiating feelings of abandonment. The animals were excellent little characters in their own right – Jane Doe and all her pups as well as the stray cat that befriends Vera.

But there were a few things that I thought needed some work, plot wise – such as the development of the relationship between Josh and Vera. Josh’s first move felt very premature and there were times he came across as a bit pushy when Vera was giving some clear signals that she wanted him to back off. Even if her thoughts were conflicted, Josh should listen to what she was saying. There were times when Josh came across a bit younger than I think he was supposed to be, almost like an eager puppy. Also there’s a bit of the later part of the book devoted to a sort of sabotage attempt on his and his sister’s business and it kind of flares up and then fizzles out and goes no where but there’s a bit about Hannah, Josh’s sister in this book and whatever she may have going on or not going on with a high school friend of Josh’s. So perhaps there’ll be another book about those two and there’ll be more about that in the future because I felt like it took up quite a bit of page time for something that felt well, honestly, a bit like filler. It felt like drama for drama’s sake rather than advancing the plot in a meaningful way.

Overall I mostly enjoyed this, especially parts surrounding the building of the community and Vera’s journey in the cafe and her growth as a character. But I didn’t really love Josh and I think some of the pacing in the relationship needed a little bit of work, for me it just felt a bit rushed, especially because of Vera’s personality. I liked this and found it enjoyable but I didn’t love it. However, if there does turn out to be a book about Hannah I’d definitely read that because I found whatever was or wasn’t going on with her, interesting and I’d like to know more.

6/10

Book #91 of 2021

The Vet From Snowy River is book #39 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Spring Clean For The Peach Queen by Sasha Wasley

Spring Clean For The Peach Queen
Sasha Wasley
Pantera Press
2021, 471p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Twelve years had passed since the last Harvest Ball.

I was just eighteen when my hometown crowned me their Peach Queen with a blossom coronet. And I was eighteen when I left.

One tanked career, one badly timed glamour shoot and one dead boyfriend later, thirty-year-old Lottie Bentz is finally going home.

Back in the orchard town of Bonnievale, Lottie embarks on a radical declutter of her life, Marie Kondo-style. She casts out everything that got her into trouble: her phone, socials, make-up and a tendency to tell little white lies – to herself and others. But home has its own issues, not least Lottie’s staunchly feminist mother, who is furious with her.

When Lottie lands herself a place to stay in exchange for helping kindly Mrs Brooker try out the Kondo method, it seems like the perfect farm escape. That’s until Angus, Lottie’s former Peach King and heir to the Brooker orchards, makes it clear she’s not welcome – especially when Lottie’s declutter begins to stir up long buried memories and half-truths.

As Lottie finds her way back to herself, can she use her talents to coax Bonnievale and the Brookers out of the past? After all, everyone deserves to feel love, hope and the occasional spark of joy.

A deeply moving story about forgiving, finding joy and falling in love with life again. 

I absolutely loved this book.

Recently, just before I read this, Melbourne entered Lockdown 4.0 after a corona outbreak – a 7 day “circuit breaker” to keep people from moving around until everyone who had potentially come into contact with a positive case had been put into isolation and tested. Many people have mixed feelings about lockdown but I arm myself with lots of books and get ready to hole up for the duration. I decided to document my “ISO reads” on instagram and this was the second book I read during the isolation period.

Lottie (known as Charlize in her city acting life) is back in her hometown, reassessing her whole life. She was caught up in a terrible incident and the fallout has been invasive in the press and now Lottie isn’t sure what she wants to do but she thinks she’s done with acting. She was the last Peach Queen in her hometown and she finds herself on the committee to stage the event again, after a 12 year gap.

There’s just so much about this that I loved – Mrs B! The mother of Angus, who was the Peach King to Lottie’s Peach Queen, who opens her home to Lottie when she feels she cannot live at home, due to discord with her staunchly feminist mother, who doesn’t approve of a lot of Lottie’s choices. I loved the way Lottie and Mrs B developed this beautiful rapport, bonding over the art of tidying up. In Mrs B, Lottie finds true acceptance of who she is and the space to work through the ‘list’ she has created of things she wants to change or cut from her life. I saw what was happening to Mrs B before Lottie does but I thought the whole way it played out felt so realistic, especially from the points of view of Angus, her son and Lottie.

Ah Angus. I loved Angus and Lottie too. I felt like they had so much chemistry – it’s a slow burn, both Lottie and Angus have had things happen that make them gun-shy. Angus has some hang ups and has made some vows and Lottie isn’t sure what she really wants or where she’ll be in the future. But they find common ground a lot and I really loved the way Lottie’s presence definitely gives Angus some sleepless nights about his “policy” and the fact that sometimes, he really cannot hide how much he’s into her and how conflicted he is. Angus has buried a lot deep down but he feels he can be himself around Lottie, he likes her “no faking, no lying” vow and I appreciate the things they tell each other, the lack of artifice.

Lottie has a really difficult relationship with her mother, who always tends to be quite judgemental of her choices, especially one posing for a magazine. I really felt for Lottie, every time she felt the brunt of her mother’s snubbing of her after she returned to town. It was so uncomfortable at her family home that she took up an offer to basically stay in a decrepit caravan, because it was more welcoming. I think in the end the two of them did come to an understanding about each other but yeah, I still really felt for Lottie for a lot of the book because it’s obvious she’s quite upset at the broken relationship and that she feels like she can’t really do a lot to repair it and that it has to come from her mother, when her mother is ready.

This one has definitely earned a spot on my favourites shelf and I can see myself re-reading it in the future. I’ve really like Sasha Wasley’s other books too so she’s definitely an autoread author for me.

9/10

Book #90 of 2021

Spring Clean For The Peach Queen is book #38 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Falling by T.J. Newman

Falling
T.J. Newman
Simon & Schuster
2021, 288p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: You just boarded a flight to New York.

There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.

For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.

The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.

Enjoy the flight.

What an absolutely fascinating premise for a book.

The one thing that you understand when you board a plane, is that basically, you’re placing your life in the hands of the pilot{s}. And I’ve watched enough episodes of Air Crash Investigation to know that sometimes, that trust is entirely misguided and a lot of those crashes? Are filed under “pilot error” in the records. This is a good way to ensure some people might never fly again as in this story, Captain Bill Hoffman is ready for a pretty standard flight LAX to JFK when he receives a message that someone has his family: wife Carrie, 10yo son Scott and 10 month old daughter Elise. And if he doesn’t follow specific instructions and crash this plane into a designated target, the man will blow up Bill’s family and his entire life along with it.

It’s an interesting moral dilemma – which do you choose? To save the lives of those that mean the most to you, the people you love more than anything, and therefore deliberately end the lives of 140+ others? Or maintain his professional integrity and safely land his plane, thereby sacrificing his family and destroying his life as he knows it anyway? And if he doesn’t comply with the demands, the man that has his family assures Bill that some sort of “back up” is on board the plane anyway, presumably someone who will carry out several of the tasks Bill is supposed to before crashing the plane and any steps he may take to save the plane may be sabotaged anyway.

I liked Bill – clearly a dedicated, competent pilot, the sort that picks up an extra shift when asked by a superior despite the fact that it’s his son’s opening Little League game and he promised he’d be there. This causes a little friction with his wife and when Bill leaves for the shift that includes the flight that will go so wrong, they’re out of sorts. After seeing evidence of his family in their terrible hostage situation, Bill has only minutes to decide which of the remote hijacker’s commands he will obey – and which he will not, risking retribution, should it be realised.

The author is a flight attendant (furloughed curing COVID-19) and the insider knowledge definitely helps drive this. A lot of cockpit and cabin procedure flesh out the situation, people charged with the job of keeping people safe 37,000 feet above the ground. The way in which they pull together as a team to accomplish things and the clear and concise ways that procedures and movements of the cabin and cockpit staff are explained, really help. It’s also written and paced pretty well (one thing aside, which I’ll mention later) and I felt like it definitely built the suspense and hooked me as a reader with the sense of impending doom and there were a couple of reveals later in the piece that felt really well done. Bill’s stress level increases but he also still, in a way, has a part of him that remains detached enough to plan and keep planning, even as he’s seemingly faced with one impossible choice with two terrible outcomes. It’s a short novel, which works in its favour I think, because even with that, there’s a part where the plot starts to drag, just slightly, around the time of the reveal of the real target of the plane.

However. Where it didn’t really work for me is the story of the hijackers and their motivation. I’m not American but even I knew the second one of them said their name, where it was going. And it’s at the moment, the ‘flavour of the month/year/decade/etc’ I guess and even though they’re “the bad”, there’s an attempt given to humanise them and try and get the reader to sympathise with them and look, in some ways, it almost works until you remember that there’s a bunch of random people on that plane who have nothing to do with anything and how does this make it any better? They may feel they have no other options but all this does is demonise their cause, for the average person at home who would read about this tragic accident on the internet or watch it unfold on CNN in real time, or something. It felt clunky, inconsistent at times (Sam’s behaviour with Carrie) and done before, many times, with only slight variation in specific geographical background. Unfortunately it’s too easy to do because America has had their fingers in so many foreign pies, where people live or die by the whim of whoever decides they’ll go in or pull out at any given time. The other thing that felt odd, and entirely off, pacing-wise, as I mentioned earlier, was the opening of the book which is quite horrifically gruesome but evident almost immediately that’s separate from the actual plot *and then he woke up* which….are people still toting this as a literary device? I’ve no doubt pilots have nightmares, this is not something you really need to establish.

Also the baseball scene is weird. Maybe you have to be American and overly patriotic to appreciate that. It’s very “band playing on while the Titanic sinks but”…..yeah, did not work for me.

This was an undoubtedly excellent premise and it’ll surprise no one I think, that the movie rights have sold. It has all the makings of a big budget Hollywood blockbuster: average, all-round American good guy dude with beautiful family and wonderful job faced with horrific moral dilemma with the ability for the movie to play out all the scenarios for the viewer’s pleasure in the pilot’s mind’s eye. And I did enjoy the read – as I said, the suspense was built well, I liked Bill and appreciated the dilemma and his inner thoughts. But there were some things that did not feel fresh and others that felt shoehorned into the plot a bit awkwardly.

6/10

Book #87 of 2021

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Review: Love, In Theory by Elodie Cheesman

Love, In Theory
Elodie Cheesman
Pan Macmillan AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When 24-year-old lawyer Romy learns that she is at her ‘optimal stopping point’ (the mathematically designated point at which one should select the next ‘best person’ who comes along in order to have the best chance at happily ever after), she knows it’s time to get serious about her love life.

Ruthlessly rational, with a belief in data over destiny, Romy knows that reliability and consistency are dependable options, while passion and lust are transitory and only bring pain and disillusionment.

That’s why sensible Hans the engineer is the right choice, as opposed to graphic designer James who exhibits the kind of behaviour that has got her into trouble before. Isn’t he?

The twenty-first century may have brought technological advances in how we communicate, but this warm and funny novel shows us that the search for love is as fraught as ever.

I thought this was mostly, a lot of fun.

Romy is a lawyer working for quite a large firm, under one of the partners. Even though she’s only 24, her mother draws her attention to an article describing the mathematical perfect time to find her life partner and it’s been a little while since she’s dated anyone and I think the science of the idea appeals to her. She joins Tinder for the first time in an attempt to find ‘The One’. After a few disastrous dates, she meets Hans, a German who is new to Sydney and is everything that Romy thinks she wants (her 3 characteristics). He’s kind and steady and definitely the sort of person she should be building a future with – even if there’s no spark. And she can’t stop thinking about James, a laid back guy who doesn’t ‘do’ relationships and seems to collect one night stands. James doesn’t have future written all over him, so Romy should definitely be concentrating on Hans.

Really enjoyed the premise, the study of different ways that people find love and how and if that love is maintained. I also like the idea of building something, something that grows but that’s not to say it has to be without the spark, or the chemistry. There are times when Romy does seem to take this extreme viewpoint – she’s willing to put a lot of time and work in with Hans, which is great, even when there’s no spark and things do not particularly seem to be developing. Likewise, she’s attracted to James, there’s chemistry between them but she thinks that isn’t going to last, it’ll fade and that they wouldn’t be able to build something. It’s pretty obvious there’s some flaws in her thinking but she needs to work that out for herself, with a bit of trial and error I suppose.

Romy is working in a two year rotation and she’s finding the work quite unfulfilling – she’s learning to apply the law as it stands and as her boss often tells her, they’re not the moral police. Romy often struggles with this, that the fact that someone can be doing something morally wrong but the company doesn’t have the ability to fire them. Or that a company can be doing something wrong but it’s a their word vs an employee’s word and often there’s no justice for the employee. It’s clear her work doesn’t make her happy but she’s not sure what, exactly, she wants to do with her law degree. To be honest, the firm where she and several of her friends work, sounds quite depressing – her friend Cameron is basically borderline bullied by his direct partner and even though Romy’s partner in charge is boorish, he’s at least not a person who belittles her publicly and insults her. This is a sort of culture in law firms that is probably quite traditional and the author is a lawyer herself so has presumably some experience in the area, if not herself then someone she knows. I liked learning about the hierarchy of a big firm though and the way in which the work trickles down to the juniors.

I also liked Romy’s group of friends and their differing opinions on various things such as getting married and relationships. They seemed like fun – although it’s been long time since I was 24 and to be honest I’m not sure I was ever a 24yo who thrived on being as busy and out as much as these ones are (introvert here)! This is set in Sydney and you do get quite a clear sense of the city, which I really enjoyed. I’ve never lived in inner-Sydney but it is one of my favourite places to visit and this book definitely reminded me it’s been a long time since I was there.

I did find Romy a little frustrating in the latter part of the book – and very stubborn. People seemed to be trying to tell her that the studies are all well and good but you still have to factor actual feelings into it and you cannot force something that isn’t there but she seems to just persist with the theory for quite a while, even though it’s making her miserable and she has the power to fix it. I was really ready for her to have her epiphany!

I did enjoy this though – it was fun and humorous and well written. A really clever debut and I hope to read more from Elodie Cheesman in the future.

7/10

Book #85 of 2021

Love, In Theory is book #35 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Unsheltered by Clare Moleta

Unsheltered
Clare Moleta
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: As the resourceful, relentless Li tracks her lost daughter across a disintegrating country, the journey will test the limits of her trust, her hope and her love. Unsheltered will leave you wrung out and gasping.

Relentlessly propulsive and profoundly moving, Unsheltered taps into some of our worst fears and most implacable motivations, marking the emergence of a fully-formed and urgent literary voice.

Against a background of social breakdown and destructive weather, Unsheltered tells the story of a woman’s search for her daughter. Li never wanted to bring a child into a world like this but now that eight-year-old Matti is missing, she will stop at nothing to find her.

As she crosses the great barren country alone and on foot, living on what she can find and fuelled by visions of her daughter just out of sight ahead, Li will have every instinct tested. She knows the odds against her: an uncompromising landscape, an uncaring system, time running out, and the risks of any encounters on the road. But her own failings and uncertainty might be the greatest obstacle of all. Because even if she finds her, how can she hope to shield Matti from the future?

At times tender, at times terrifying, Unsheltered is an engrossing, unpredictable novel that keeps the reader in suspense all the way to the end. A brilliant feat of imagination that asks if our humanity is the only protection we have left, Unsheltered will affect you in ways a book hasn’t done in years.

This is really not an easy book to review. I’ve been mulling over what I might say since I finished it yesterday and although I have some thoughts, none of them are particularly coherent.

A message at the front of the book says this book’s setting is “Australian but not Australia. Geography, distance and time have been altered, some things moved around and others invented entirely“. So whilst some things may seem familiar in some ways, it’s not supposed to be the country we know, even though the message is at times, indicative of things we’ve seen and heard before.

Main character Li lives in a ghost of a town with Frank, and their daughter Matti. They had an olive farm but Weather (so much a force that it’s capitalised) has sent them trial after trial and their only option is to leave. There are camps much like refugee-style camps outside walled cities and there are ballots to try and get entry. After Frank is lost to them, Matti is in one of these camps but Li is outside the boundaries, trapping for trade when the camp catches fire and is broken down by some Authority group. She is separated from her daughter Matti and from then on, everything Li does is about finding Matti and getting her back.

It’s a story of survival, of desperation. Li has a lot of complicated feelings about being a mother – in this world, it seems there is a Quota and parents are restricted to one child. Frank was definitely more enthusiastic than Li and she thinks openly of moments in Matti’s babyhood and younger days, where she failed to connect with her daughter, lost her temper or struggled. Now that Matti is lost to her, the unaccompanied minors herded onto a bus and taken somewhere, Li can only follow on foot, trying desperately to reclaim her. She meets people along the way – some will be helpful, offering up information or sharing resources or trading. Others will betray her, take the meagre possessions she has. She will see and experience some of the worst Weather has to offer and the desperation and hopelessness of what seems to be some sort of internment/prison camp.

There’s a lot in this that mimics recognisable parts of society today – bushfires, what seems to be either cyclones or tornadoes (although disconcertingly, one is mentioned from coming up from the Southern Ocean) indicate a land absolutely ravaged by climate change. In the opening chapter it rains where Frank and Li live for the first time in years. Matti is 5 or 6 and had never seen rain in her life. It’s not too much of a stretch to picture this as Australia in the future. We’re already a climate of extremes and the changing weather patterns are impacting more and more on farming belts and rural areas. And then there’s the vague mention of Wars (also capitalised) going on elsewhere, the fact that children go into some sort of draft ballot at 15 and the treatment of people who live “outside the walls”. The camps, the struggle to make claims to be allowed in, the waiting and nothing happening, seems a pretty strong reference to refugees attempting to come here and being stuck in camps for years and years, their claims going nowhere, the catch-22 situation of it being illegal to seek asylum but there being no real ‘legal’ way to wait in a hypothetical queue that doesn’t exist. Li is often stuck in similar situations: credit is required to call and check on claims or when she wants an update on Matti’s missing minor status but the waiting times are such that the credit just runs out and she’s stuck in a loop, unless someone she knows “inside” the wall will agree to help her.

This had a really strong atmosphere but the fact that I didn’t know where anything was or where Li was going in relation to places she’d been before, made it difficult to picture a lot of things in my head. A map would’ve been really handy – she walks for days but I don’t know where that took her in relation to where she was, or where certain cities were, it sort of made it hard to connect with Li’s journey in that I mostly had no idea where she was going and how long it was going to take. Likewise I didn’t really understand the governmental structure either: who was in control and why and what exactly, they were preventing from happening. There’s some vague explanations but it wasn’t enough for me, I wanted a bit more to back up the situation that Li had found herself in.

I enjoyed this – Li’s desperation, her survival skills, honed years before Matti’s birth and how she’d tried to teach Matti to survive as well, perhaps feeling that this would one day happen. I also liked her thoughts on motherhood, her frank admittance that she hadn’t really wanted it, that she’d done it because Frank had wanted it and her struggle with connecting with her daughter. The clear obvious difference between Matti’s relationship with Li and her one with Frank. The way in which Li felt guilty over some of the ways in which she’d struggled in the past, but the singleminded determination to find her daughter once they were separated, no matter what it took, what it cost her. But I also found Li remote, as a character and perhaps that’s deliberate because of the harsh setting, the way she has to be in order to do what she needs to do to survive. But it did mean that sometimes, I struggled to stay grounded in the story and my mind wandered a bit.

A grim story and perhaps a warning – some of it felt hopeful but also like it was just out of reach.

7/10

Book #83 of 2021

Unsheltered is the 35th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz

Before You Knew My Name
Jacqueline Bublitz
Allen & Unwin
2021, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: This is not just another novel about a dead girl.

When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city’s latest Jane Doe, an unidentified murder victim.

Ruby Jones is also trying to start over; she travelled halfway around the world only to find herself lonelier than ever. Until she finds Alice’s body by the Hudson River.

From this first, devastating encounter, the two women form an unbreakable bond. Alice is sure that Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her life – and death. And Ruby – struggling to forget what she saw that morning – finds herself unable to let Alice go. Not until she is given the ending she deserves.

Before You Knew My Name doesn’t ask whodunnit. Instead, this powerful, hopeful novel asks: Who was she? And what did she leave behind? The answers might surprise you.

This was a really interesting novel.

Both Alice Lee and Ruby Jones arrive in New York on the same day, from very different areas and via different means although in some ways their reasoning for being there is similar. Alice is barely 18, having met that milestone on the bus from Wisconsin. Alice is thirty-six and has quit her job in Melbourne Australia, to live in New York for six months to escape a romantic entanglement that has always been toxic. Although they will never meet, the two will be tied together inextricably forever when Ruby, jogging in a park early morning, discovers Alice’s dead body just weeks after they both arrive in New York.

A lot of the time, novels featuring a crime like this are focused on who did it, or the police trying to solve it. This isn’t the focus in this novel. Instead it’s much more on Ruby’s discovery of Alice’s body and the impact on her. Alice has no ID on her and is new in the city so for several weeks, she becomes a Jane Doe. Ruby feels really strongly about finding her identity, as well as finding out who did this to her and why but it’s more tied to justice for Alice herself, knowing who she is and what her story was. How did she come to be in New York, why was she in that fatal place? For Ruby, it leads her to a circle of people that become friends in a foreign city and also empowers her to change her life, shed the chains of her toxic love and move forward.

Mostly this book is told from Alice’s perspective, even after she’s murdered She’s the presence in the background, steering and guiding best she can, so that she might be known. She unfolds her tragic past for the reader, her nomadic childhood, the trauma of loss and then behaviour that can only be described as deeply predatory. When that goes wrong, it’s why Alice flees to New York with just a stolen vintage camera and $600 to her name. When Alice’s body is found, she’s “young, pretty and white enough” for it to make significant headlines, especially as she is not easily identified. There’s quite a bit about that phenomenon in the book, which I’ve actually read about before as well, how murder cases or instances are violent crime, are much more likely to gain media traction if the victim looks a certain way and fits a certain narrative.

For quite a bit of this book, I found it incredibly gripping and the interesting way that it was written definitely made me want to know more. But there were also other times where I felt the story was lagging a little or struggling to move forward. A lot of Ruby’s struggle not related to finding Alice became tedious – especially the dilemma of the lover back in Australia which she knew she needed to move on from. It takes Ruby so long to realise that not only is this situation not good for her, has never been good for her but the person himself, isn’t worth it either. I’m not sure if Ruby had dreams of him leaving his fiancee and declaring that she was the one all along and I just lost a bit of patience with her allowing him back into her life – what’s the point of going all the way to New York and literally not getting a number he didn’t have? She might as well have just stayed in Melbourne.

What I did like was the focus on Ruby’s trauma after finding Alice’s body, which is quite under-represented in fiction dealing with murder. What must it have been like, to find that battered body in the river and wonder if only you’d gotten there a bit earlier, pointless thoughts but ones that would haunt a person nonetheless. Alice (as Jane Doe) haunts Ruby, giving her nightmares and consuming her thoughts, so much so that the thought of seeking help, delivered by a well-meaning police officer, eventually becomes an option that Ruby acts upon. It introduces her to the Death Club, and I really liked the inclusion of that.

The book provided me with a satisfying ending, which came together well (with even a bit of suspense to raise your heart rate although Ruby, honestly took way too long to come to the conclusion she needed to) and I enjoyed the idea a lot. However there were those times where I felt it definitely stagnated a little, a few times with Alice describing her relationship with Noah (a part of the book I’m still not 100% sure about, it definitely gave me a few weird feelings) and also Ruby’s laying around New York doing nothing, thinking about her lover and her occasional dips back into this after she finds the body.

A debut with a really intriguing premise and the writing was certainly beautiful in parts. I’d definitely be interested in reading more from Jacqueline Bublitz in the future.

7/10

Book #82 of 2021

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Review: Take Me Home by Karly Lane

Take Me Home
Karly Lane
Allen & Unwin
2021, 344p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Elle Kinnaird takes the plunge and travels from her rural small-town life to the misty legends of her ancestors in the Scottish highlands, she finds that it’s a big world after all. A heartwarming novel about new beginnings, from the bestselling author of Fool Me Once.

It was a straightforward request. Take her gran home to her beloved Scotland.

In the space of a few days, Elle loses her job and her home and faces moving back in with her parents-where she knows she’ll hear a lot about how she is wasting her life, unlike her three siblings . . .

Then Gran’s will is read and everything changes.

It seems simple: a road trip across Scotland, a country Gran loved, to locate the family castle; meet some long lost cousins; oh, and work out what she wants to do with the rest of her life before returning home. Not a problem.

That is unless the family castle is a ruin that has pretty much been lost in time; the family Elle has never met seem to be hiding a mysterious secret; her over-achieving parents are breathing down her neck, and she’s running out of time to make a decision about her future.

Take Me Home is a glorious lesson in life, love and finding your true destiny.

There was a lot about this book that I really liked! It begins in rural, northern NSW just a short time after Elle Kinnard’s beloved grandmother passes away. Elle lived with her gran for the last few years, providing the necessary care and company that allowed her to remain in her own home. Elle has never really felt like she fits in with her family, full of degree-earning over achievers. She tried university but it wasn’t for her and now she avoids conversations with her mother, who constantly pushes her to return, to get a “real” job and not just the one she has at the local independent supermarket.

I really appreciated that this was an attempt to normalise not knowing what you want to do with your life. Elle is about 24, she’s tried uni doing something she didn’t love, to please her parents, and couldn’t finish it. She loves drawing and art, but her mother doesn’t see that as a viable career. Elle believes that she’s actually quite happy with her life, until her grandmother’s will requests that Elle return her ashes to her home in Scotland and provides the funds for Elle to do so.

I also loved the Scotland portion. I’m always drawn to books set or partially set in Scotland because a lot of my family (several generations back now) are from there and I also have the recessive red hair gene from those ancestors – much better suited to the highlands than to Australia’s much harsher climate! So I loved reading about Elle exploring Scotland, visiting castles and ruins and meeting members of her family that she barely knew existed. With her redhaired cousins, one of whom is very artistic, Elle actually finally feels like she might belong somewhere. She connects to them much better than she does her own family, with their busy lives and clever jobs. And then she meets Stuart, a lawyer turned farmer and well, the sparks fly. Despite the fact that she’s supposed to be finishing up her holiday/chore and heading back to Australia soon, Elle finds herself questioning the reasoning. There’s nothing waiting for her in Australia – no job, casual or otherwise. Just her mother trying to talk her into university courses and getting a real job and “growing up” and being responsible in order to one day take care of the family she will have.

I also loved the story of Elle’s gran, which is woven into her journey to Scotland. Her gran came to Australia as a teenager and until going to Scotland, Elle was completely unaware of the circumstances surrounding why she’d left her home. Her gran’s sister Moira is still alive, although has dementia and fades in and out of lucidity and mistakes Elle for her gran once or twice, dropping hints about some of the tragedy behind her gran’s leaving. All of those portions of the novel were fantastic (except the way some of the information is imparted, more on that below), I enjoyed them immensely and I liked Elle, as well as her family in Scotland. I felt like in leaving, she might’ve finally found a place where she could fit in and the longer she spent there, the more she seemed to realise things about herself and finally, grow in confidence regarding her art, that it could be more than just a hobby.

But. There were a few things that didn’t work for me with this book and it’s just personal preference really – there’s a pretty strong supernatural element in this and I’m just too much of a skeptic to be honest, to really enjoy that portion of it and often it felt quite intrusive in the plot. Especially when Elle would forget her surroundings and talk out loud, making people near her think she was a bit unstable. Probably played for laughs, but for me it was just a bit embarrassing/awkward. Also it’s to be expected I suppose, but this book references Outlander a lot. Like an awful lot. And I know they’re in Scotland, which is the setting for Outlander and there’s a successful TV series and all that jazz but….if you haven’t read the book (or like me, don’t like it) it ends up taking up quite a bit of page space as the characters reference it over and over again. I’d probably feel the same way about anything that was referenced that much in a book, I wish I’d counted them because it feels like an awfully high amount of mentions and yes, it’s Scotland, I know. But Scotland is much more than just references to this one book/TV show.

Look, those are two small things but honestly they were enough to affect my immersion in the story a little. I still really enjoyed this but it didn’t end up on my favourites list.

7/10

Book #81 of 2021

Take Me Home is book #34 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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