All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

Like Mother
Cassandra Austin
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 293p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Secrets, lies and crying babies, everyone has a breaking point.

It’s 1969 and mankind has leapt up to the moon, but a young mother in small-town Australia can’t get past the kitchen door. Louise Ashland ­is exhausted – her husband, Steven, is away on the road and her mother, Gladys, won’t leave her alone. At least her baby, Dolores, has finally stopped screaming and is sweetly sleeping in her cot. Right where Louise left her. Or is she?

As the day unravels, Louise will unearth secrets her mother – and perhaps her own mind – have worked hard to keep buried. But what piece of family lore is so terrible that it has been kept hidden all this time? And what will exposing it reveal about mother and daughter?

Like Mother explores what is handed down from generation to generation, and asks us whether a woman’s home is her castle or her cage.

For a large portion of this book, I found it very engrossing. I’ve read a few books that feel like they have this sort of vibe recently: exploring those days of early new motherhood and this one is set in the 1960s so it’s kind of this in-between time. In some ways, society is evolving. The contraceptive pill is in its infancy and although (married) women now have the option to plan their families, most women are still filling traditional wife and mother roles.

Louise is one such woman. Her daughter Delores (Lolly) is only a few months old and she’s probably teething so she’s been very unsettled. Louise’s husband Steven is a refrigerator salesman who spends large portions of time on the road so she shoulders the parenting alone. Even when Steven is home, he doesn’t hear Lolly’s nighttime screams. Louise is exhausted. The emotion seeps off the page, you can actually feel the fog she’s in, her confused and as the book goes on, desperate state of mind. Louise seems to have gone several days without much sleep as Lolly cries and requires constant attention. When she falls down exhausted, she wakes to find the house deadly silent. Lolly must be sleeping in her cot….right? But when Louise checks, she isn’t there. No problem, Louise must’ve left her wherever she fell asleep, she’s done it before. No point waking her. Louise convinces herself of this and that searching the house too much will only wake her and it’s best to let Lolly sleep. She needs her sleep.

I started this in the morning before going to visit some family and was so into the early portion of it that I actually took it with me, in case I snatched some time reading after lunch. I didn’t end up doing that but I was keen to get home and get back to it. I found Louise’s portrayal very well done, her tiredness, her grief at previous instances in her life, her desperation to just leave Lolly to sleep, even though she doesn’t precisely know where her daughter is. She’s sure she’s fine and that it’s better if she doesn’t wake her and start her screaming yet again. A crying baby can be a form of torture, especially to someone who is clearly sleep-deprived and struggling so in some ways, you can understand Louise’s thought process, also to protect herself from the knowledge that if Delores isn’t in the house…..or isn’t actually asleep, then how did this occur? She’s the only one there and she’s so tired she might be hallucinating….or, she might not be.

This book is told from 3 points of view: Louise, her husband-on-the-road Steven and Louise’s mother Gladys and whilst Gladys in some ways, provided some background, where the book started to lose it for me, was switching to these other points of view. Especially because it kept delving into this story about Steven where his secretary begins to blackmail him and then this part of the story grows to encompass more people and it just….I don’t know, felt like it was derailing the story for me. It was handy for establishing that Steven was a terrible husband, but honestly, we only needed that first scene for that and yet it kept taking up more and more of the plot as the book got further on and it seems that the more it did, unfortunately the more interest I lost. I found Gladys in particular, tedious to read and her infantilising of Louise become overly frustrating and I thought it was going somewhere but to be honest, it didn’t go that way and it felt like it made even less sense because of it.

The ending was also lacklustre for me and I feel like the book would’ve been a much better read for me if it had just stuck with Louise. It excelled when it was making me query where the heck this baby was and whether or not Louise’s state of mind had gone from just incredibly tired/disorientated to actually psychotic. It builds and builds really nicely and I was in two minds during Louise’s chapters the whole time but unfortunately the grand conclusion was just…a letdown. Deflating. Also the story with Steven completely fizzles out and made me wonder what the heck the entire point of it was.

Excellent idea but for me…..got caught up in too many other things that I just couldn’t be drawn into.

6/10

Book #58 of 2021

Like Mother is the 25th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

I’m also going to count this one towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, as it’s set over 50 years ago. It’s the 12th book read so far for this challenge.

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Blog Tour Review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

Sunflower Sisters (Lilac Girls #3)
Martha Hall Kelly
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 518p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Lilac Girls, the 1.7-million-copy bestselling novel by Martha Hall Kelly, introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbruck concentration camp. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of her ancestor Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse who joins the war effort during the Civil War, and how her calling leads her to cross paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Ann-May Wilson, a southern plantation mistress whose husband enlists.

Georgeanne “Georgey” Woolsey isn’t meant for the world of lavish parties and demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when the war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women a bother on the battlefront. In proving them wrong, she and her sister Eliza venture from New York to Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg and witness the unparalleled horrors of slavery as they become involved in the war effort.

In the South, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, where she lives with her mother and father. Her sister, Patience, is enslaved on the plantation next door and both live in fear of LeBaron, an abusive overseer who tracks their every move. When Jemma is sold by the cruel plantation mistress Anne-May at the same time the Union army comes through, she sees a chance to finally escape–but only by abandoning the family she loves.

Anne-May is left behind to run Peeler Planation when her husband joins the Union Army and her cherished brother enlists with the Confederates. In charge of the household, she uses the opportunity to follow her own ambitions and is drawn into a secret Southern network of spies, finally exposing herself to the fate she deserves.

Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters provides a vivid, detailed look at the Civil War experience, from the barbaric and inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City to the horrors of the battlefield. It’s a sweeping story of women caught in a country on the brink of collapse, in a society grappling with nationalism and unthinkable racial cruelty, a story still so relevant today. 

I read a lot of historical fiction, but it’s very rarely American historical fiction and I’m the first to admit that my American history knowledge is patchy. I know the bare basics of the Civil War background, why it came about and how it still plays into the current landscape of America. This is the third in a series about a remarkable family but each volume can be read standalone as they feature different characters and take place in different timelines.

In this book we have three main protagonists: Georgy Woolsey of a quite well to do New York family who longs for more than just making a good match and having babies. She joins the war effort as a nurse and faces tough situations not just because of the horrific injuries she witnesses but also the attitudes of the male doctors and nurses she works alongside. Anne-May is from Louisiana but inherited a tobacco plantation in Maryland from her deceased aunt and she intends to make sure that she keeps to the Southern way. She treats her slaves abominably, beating and starving them, expecting long days of work. Jemma is a teenager, owned by Anne-May and her life is not an easy one. LaBaron is ever lurking and everyone knows about his more dangerous proclivities. For Jemma and her family, escape and freedom is a longing inside of them but it will take cunning and sacrifice.

This is not easy reading – Jemma’s sections in particular are wrought with violence, dehumanisation and an overall impending feeling of doom centred around LaBaron, the vicious overseer charged with keeping the slaves in line. It’s hard to read about people being whipped senseless, about women barely into their 20s pregnant with their fifth baby, having had all the ones before taken immediately and sold. The violence is one thing, the inner dialogue of people like Anne-May might be worse. The way they view their slaves, the possession they guard so close, the willingness of them to die on the hill of owning others. Despite Jemma’s sections often being the hardest to read, I enjoyed her immensely as a character, her stoic nature, love of her parents and sister Patience, her strength and determination. Jemma’s story was one I was incredibly invested in.

The author’s note at the end of this one provides a lot of interesting information on the real family upon which this is based. The story mimics their real life movements and a lot of the correspondence comes from letters that have survived from this time. It adds another element of interest, to think of these characters as real people, taking part in nursing during the war or raising money or collecting donations. This was a war that I think people expected to be over quite quickly but it dragged out for four years and ended up collecting a huge amount of casualties. Some of the battle scenes in this are quite brutal, as doctors have to determine which men are “worth” saving and for many, there’s simply no resources. The estimation is somewhere between 1,000,000 dead overall in the four years and given the population of America was around 32 million at the time, they are massive numbers. So much infrastructure was destroyed as well and then of course, the President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by a Southern sympathiser. This book is obviously researched so well and does an amazing job at showcasing this tumultuous time, even finding time to weave in stories of compassion during the most ugly of conflicts.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of ways in which this was not an easy read but it was definitely an engrossing one. I found both Jemma and Georgy wonderful to read and Anne-May disturbing. It’s crazy to me, that there were (probably are) people who think like that, who treated people like that, who didn’t even believe that their slaves were people. She’s quite a disturbing portrayal of wealthy, white Louisiana 1800s.

I haven’t read the two other books by this author as yet but after finishing this, they’re going straight to the top of my wishlist.

9/10

Book #55 of 2021

Sunflower Sisters is the 11th book read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

This post is part of the Sunflower Sisters blog tour! Be sure to check out some of the other stops on the tour and find out what they thought of this novel.

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Review: Welcome To Nowhere River by Meg Bignell

Welcome To Nowhere River
Meg Bignell
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 380p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Long past its heyday and deep in drought, the riverside hamlet of Nowhere River is slowly fading into a ghost town. It’s a place populated by those who are beholden to it, those who were born to it and those who took a wrong turn while trying to go somewhere else.

City-born Carra married into Nowhere River, Lucie was brought to it by tragedy, Josie is root-bound and Florence knows nowhere else. All of them, though familiar with every inch of their tiny hometown, are as lost as the place itself.

The town’s social cornerstone — St Margery’s Ladies’ Club — launches a rescue plan that turns everything around and upside down, then shakes it until all sorts of things come floating to the surface. And none of its inhabitants will ever be the same again.

This is the highly original and heartfelt story of a place where everybody knows everything, but no one really knows anyone at all. Brimming with heart and humour, this is a delightful novel that celebrates the country people and towns of Australia.

I think a lot of people in Australia have known a town like Nowhere River, a fictional town in Tasmania which is struggling. Once a thriving community, the numbers have slowly dwindled due to many factors. The local show, which used to be the highlight for many, hasn’t been put on in years. The drought is impacting on the local farmers and it’s severe. The St Margery’s Ladies’ Club is facing its lowest ever numbers and so the President, a rather formidable lady, launches an initiative to both drive up membership as well as rejuvenate the town. Entrants must come up with and implement a project for a year and the winner will get $100,000 to both fund their idea ongoing as well as provide themselves with a stipend for time spent on it if it takes away from their regular paid work.

There are many entries, whittled down to a few considered to be promising. Each of the women behind the ideas have been brought to Nowhere River by different means and each of them are struggling with different challenges. For Lucie, she feels tied to Nowhere River by heartbreak, she can’t leave because of what she lost and her belief of hope or dream that it might somehow be returned to her. Lucie’s daughter-in-law Carra came to Nowhere River because she married the town’s dreamboat Duncan, the local GP and most eligible of bachelors before he chose Carra. Now a mother to 10 month old twins, she finds herself isolated and alone as her dedicated husband works his long hours and contributes almost nothing to parenting. For Florence, she was born here and at her tender age of 16, already knows that this place is in her blood and she wants to remain. If the family farm doesn’t improve in fortune, the choice may be taken away from her.

I really enjoyed this. It’s told from a variety of different perspectives by characters of differing ages: Lucie has a grown up son and is in a retirement-type of age, her daughter-in-law Carra is probably late twenties, Flo is still a teenager and her mother Josie around 40. Each of them have different issues, different things in their lives that they are dealing with. For Carra, it’s isolation, the monotony of taking care of her twins and doing so with very little assistance. The days all blur together as her husband rushes off from one commitment to another, doctoring to the entire town and lending his voice here and there, being the perfect son and community member. But for Carra, despite everyone telling her how lucky she is to be married to such a specimen, she’s not feeling it. Poor Carra! I honestly felt for her so much, she’s got very little in the way of friends in Nowhere River and the friend she did have she has let fall aside, due to the struggle of newborn twin life. A lot of people keep giving Carra postnatal depression quizzes and she seems to pass but honestly, Carra felt so in need of real, genuine help. She has a lot of lament for the life she envisaged for herself and spends time stalking someone she went to university with online who seems to be living the life Carra longs for. She wants fulfilment outside of nap time and washing and the never ending cycle of broken sleep. Lucie, her mother-in-law, has a very raw sort of grief, the sort that never goes away, the sort that one never recovers from. It leapt off the page, the hopelessness, guilt, agony and kind of frozen inability to really speak of it, the automatic hunching whenever it’s mentioned. I also really liked the character of Flo, who hasn’t let bullying and awful behaviour from her peers dampen her love of her home and her connection she feels to it. Flo goes through quite a lot in this book but she grows in strength and confidence, shouldering responsibility of something quite huge for her mother, when tragedy strikes and her mother’s attention is focused elsewhere.

The hot, dusty drought is something I don’t really associate that much with Tasmania, with how far south it is and how often you hear it rains. I loved the setting, the struggle to save the town, so many towns like this must be dotted around the country, once thriving but as society changes and evolves, there are less opportunities for the younger members, who leave for bigger cities to further their education, get jobs. People like Duncan return but there must be many who do not and sometimes, measures are needed such as the one here, to try and rejuvenate the town, create outside interest, bring people there once again. I also really loved the little interviews at the end of the chapter, for Lucie’s History project, which focused on the stories of people from the town, the ones from all walks of life. Those were really interesting and a fun little addition to the story, which fleshed out the town nicely.

A lovely read.

8/10

Book #52 of 2021

This is book #24 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: How To Fake Being Tidy by Fenella Souter

How To Fake Being Tidy
Fenella Souter
Allen & Unwin
2021, 280p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Funny true stories about the everyday dramas that can make or break friendships, cooking, housekeeping and the domestic chaos that always threatens to get the upper hand, written in the tradition of Nora Ephron.

My mother wasn’t much of a housekeeper. She wasn’t much of a cook either, although she tried. She longed to live a more unconventional life. Admirably high-minded, but it meant I never learnt to fold a towel. 

In these funny, sometimes poignant, stories, award-winning feature writer Fenella Souter celebrates the highs and lows of domestic life – from her attempts to run the house like a grown-up, to lessons in good cooking; from accidentally killing her wisteria, divorcing the cat and shirt-fronting bossy tradies, to wondering if the ‘hostess gift’ is still a thing or why some people have impeccable taste. 

With their distinctive wit, they will leave you smiling with recognition at the everyday dramas and dilemmas that can make or break friendships and marriages, turn a house into a home, or let chaos get the upper hand.

If ever I could relate to a book from the title, this one is probably it!

When I was younger, I was super messy. My bedroom was always a pigsty as a teen (although it was just mess, not food or plates or anything like that, my dad was super strict and no food was ever to be consumed in our rooms!) and I enjoyed the mess. Same with my university dorm, same with my first few houses. But the older I get, the less I find I enjoy mess. I really love the look of a clean and tidy house and a clean and tidy bedroom. But I hate housework, so it’s a bit of a dilemma. And there just seems to always be so much of it. My carpet is dark grey, my cat is white and he sheds. A lot. So I’m forever vacuuming. The tiles in our entryway, dining room and kitchen are pale coloured and show everything. My kids are messy – more food seems to regularly end up on the floor than is consumed. It feels like they forever need doing. Also the bathrooms – I knew I had to clean showers and sinks but I never knew how dusty they got. It’s very annoying.

So this seemed like a fun way to learn to appear tidy, even as you have a lot of stuff. And I do have a lot of stuff, my home is definitely not showroom type. I admire those people who never have visible cords and chargers or stray socks or notes home from school lying about the place. My place is not like that! It’s what I like to fondly call ‘well lived in’. Four people live here and a quick glance around the main living room and you can identify each one based on what they’ve left behind!

These are a collection of pieces, some of which have been published previously as a column in a newspaper but I hadn’t ready any before receiving this book. Some of them revolve around how the author didn’t really learn domestic skills or routines etc, from her mother and this I can also relate to. My mother did all her housework weekly, vacuumed and mopped and scrubbed the bathroom, changed the sheets etc, without fail. She cooked and put meals on the table every night but she is an indifferent cook at best and most of her meals were either things heated up in the oven or meat and three vegetables. Her mother, my nan, is a wonderful home cook and baker, a woman who both worked in a time when many women her age did not and also fulfilled the role of homemaker. As a teen, I should’ve asked her to teach me how to cook (she did provide many of her recipes for baking, which I do use now) but I wasn’t interested. I muddled along teaching myself easy things at university and beyond and am now married to a man who does 99% of the cooking because he enjoys it. Which means that I basically do not have to. But it meant I never really developed a rhythm or taste for cooking and did it only so I did not starve. Likewise it’s taken me until the last year or so, to really develop a housework schedule that works for me. And I am not shouldering the entire load either, my husband pitches in a lot, apart from doing the cooking he also does a lot of the washing, folding and putting away of things as well as various other jobs.

Whilst this was a well needed break from some more serious reads, (although there are pieces in there that are also have a bit of a serious tilt, particularly ones where the author talks about the loss of her mother at a relatively young age) I’m not sure it does what it actually suggests in the title. There’s a lot of random stories, some of which I enjoyed and some of which the point of kind of passed me by, but I didn’t learn anything about how to actually make my house appear tidier or how to even actually tidy it! But there’s a lot of gentle humour, some relatable things about busy lives and the time, care and attention houses need to maintain some sort of order. The sort of book where so many times you are nodding your head and recalling a moment from your own life where you’ve experienced something really similar.

This was fine – it was a fun way to pass some time on the Easter long weekend.

6/10

Book #51 of 2021

How To Fake Being Tidy is book #23 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane

Last Night
Mhairi McFarlane
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Eve, Justin, Susie, and Ed have been friends since they were teenagers. Now in their thirties, the four are as close as ever, Thursday night bar trivia is sacred, and Eve is still secretly in love with Ed. Maybe she should have moved on by now, but she can’t stop thinking about what could have been. And she knows Ed still thinks about it, too.

But then, in an instant, their lives are changed forever.

In the aftermath, Eve’s world is upended. As stunning secrets are revealed, she begins to wonder if she really knew her friends as well as she thought. And when someone from the past comes back into her life, Eve’s future veers in a surprising new direction…

They say every love story starts with a single moment. What if it was just last night? 

Mhairi McFarlane is one of my favourite authors and books like this are why. She is remarkably consistent in writing things that I just adore and this was one of my most anticipated releases of 2021. I received a copy for review and I honestly consider myself to have exercised such restraint in waiting until just before the release date to devour it.

Eve is in her 30s and she has a core group of friends that she’s been tight with for many years. She and Susie have been friends since they were children, they added Justin and Ed in high school. Separate universities couldn’t divide them and now they are still as close as ever, meeting up regularly for trivia nights. Eve has been in love with Ed since the summer before university and in a sliding-doors type of moment, her chance was lost. But she still cannot help but think that they might make it….until Ed’s girlfriend proposes.

This is a book that deals primarily with soul-wrenching, unexpected, sharp grief. Eve is blindsided by a shocking trauma and her disbelief and heartbreak is amazingly raw. She’s bewildered, struggling to grasp how something like this could happen and what it means for her. At her age, the shock of losing a contemporary is often hard enough, when it’s someone you’re so close to, it shakes everything on its foundations. I have not experienced the loss of someone so close to me but I know the shock of losing people your own age in your 30s, people who make you feel your own mortality as well as make you mourn all that is lost, that they will never experience.

But it’s also about more than that. It’s about friendships and the bonds you form with people and how those friendships change and evolve…and also, how they don’t. I think a lot of people have that ‘one that got away’ like Ed and Eve. It’s this kind of missed communication/star crossed lovers type thing….but it’s been a long time and Eve still hasn’t moved on. Not really. She’s had relationships but they haven’t gone anywhere, she’s still living in the same place she grew up in, doing a job that doesn’t fulfil her. However it’s a comfortable life, her friends around her, the same routine over and over and it’s not until the tragedy does it feel like that might be the catalyst for her, in many ways.

Sometimes we are forced to see people we know and love in a different light and realise that the way they have presented themselves to us is not the way that they have presented themselves to others. And that other people might have very valid reasons for feeling different about them. This is something that Eve definitely learns as after the terrible trauma that she experiences, she learns something that was kept from her and it absolutely tilts her whole world, changes her viewpoint on so many things. She cannot wrap her head around it, cannot see why a) these people did this thing to her and b) why they chose to keep it from her, to make that deliberate decision that it would never be spoken of to her or mentioned in front of her. I honestly felt like all of Eve’s thought processes, her devastation and anger and grief and resentment and bewilderment, were just portrayed so well. You can feel her every emotion and ride it along with her as she tries to piece together why this event occurred and why no one told her. What it meant about her friendship and what other secrets were being kept? She has a lot of questions and needs answers but one person isn’t there anymore and she doesn’t know how to bring it up with the other.

I loved this book – every page. Eve is on a quest to understand a senseless thing and pick up the pieces it has made of her life and she undergoes a big journey, I think. It’s a way for her to reassess where her life is and what she wants. There’s so much happening to Eve in this book, it’s a lot to take in and she finds an ally to muddle her way through it in the most unlikely place and I really loved the way that developed. I found their evolution really appealing and their conversations definitely enlightening – and I think an outsider’s perspective gave Eve a little bit of an idea about how stuck in a rut she had become. It’s not bad to continue spending time with your closest friends but Eve had very rarely struck outside that group and had missed opportunities and not taken chances because of them. You could argue that she hadn’t found the right opportunity and when one came along (like this one) she’d take it but I still think only the fact that there was the tragedy and she discovered the secret, that made Eve realise that she could want more than what she had and that there was someone out there who was willing to give it to her. Who would treat her like she was a priority and not a convenience.

This is my favourite book of 2021 so far.

10/10

Book #50 of 2021

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Review: The French Gift by Kirsty Manning

The French Gift 
Kirsty Manning
Allen & Unwin
2021, 305p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A World War II story of female friendship, longing and sacrifice through war and loss, bringing together the present and the past.

A forgotten manuscript threatens to unravel the past …

Fresnes Prison, 1940: Margot Bisset, a former maid from the Riviera, finds herself in a prison cell with writer and French Resistance fighter, Josephine Murant. Together, they are transferred to a work camp in Germany, where the secrets they share will bind them for generations to come.

Present-day Paris: Evie Black lives above her botanical bookshop with her teenage son, Hugo. Nursing a broken heart, Evie receives an unexpected letter; she clutches at an opportunity to spend a magical summer with Hugo on the Cote d’Azur.

It’s here, on the Riviera, that the past envelops them and Evie attempts to unravel the official story of a famous novelist. If she succeeds, a murder from a lifetime ago may be solved.

Inspired by a true story of iconic French Resistance fighter, Agnes Humbert, whose secret journal shed light on a little-known aspect of World War II, The French Gift will captivate readers from beginning to unforgettable end. 

I really enjoyed this book – it had me gripped just from the blurb and I couldn’t wait to started. I raced through it in a couple of hours in an afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The French Gift is a dual-timeline: in the present day, Evie is responsible for the estate of her deceased husband’s great aunt, managing it for her teenage son. Josephine was a highly successful crime author, survived imprisonment during the German occupation of France in World War II and was even moved to a worker camp in Germany during that war. A museum wants to curate an exhibition on Josephine and Evie is happy to assist. Josephine has kept all her original manuscripts and there are other pieces of interest as well – as well as the whisper of the ‘lost manuscript’ – the first book Josephine ever wrote that was rejected by a publisher. If that could be found and published now, it would provide money for Josephine’s foundation.

In 1940, Margot was a maid arrested for murder, sharing a cell with Josephine. The two women forge a strong and deep friendship during their time together with Josephine assuring Margot that once they are free, she will prove her innocence one way or another, using her connections in the French Resistance and her skills as a journalist.

I really enjoyed both timelines in this story. In the historical timeline, Margot is a young servant caught up in a dangerous game that she has no idea of the ramifications until it is way too late. She is naive and sheltered, aghast at some of the decadence on display by the people that employ her. From seeing that, Margot goes to being imprisoned awaiting trial for murder. After her trial, she and Josephine, as young and relatively healthy bodies, are sent to a workers camp, working with rayon after the supplies of cotton and linen were cut off. They are making material for the German soldiers uniforms and civilian clothes and the conditions are incredibly grim. The women get severe acid burns from their work and they are starved, beaten, degraded and humiliated. Treated as less than human. Whenever I read a book set in a camp in WWII, I think that’s always what gets me the most, the dehumanisation of the workers and imprisoned by those in charge, be they Jewish, French, Russian, etc.

Evie in the current timeline, is struggling with a loss and parenting her almost-adult son Hugo. He is about to finish his secondary education and make his own way in the world but is at that age where Evie is finding it really difficult to connect with him. The chance to spend some time at Josephine’s place on the Cote d’Azur will mean not only will they get to learn about Josephine’s life as they go through her papers and belongings to select things for the museum but also she will get to spend some time with Hugo before he heads off on a gap year and then to university. It also allows her to meet a handsome curator who makes her realise that she still has plenty of living left to do and that things can get better.

There’s a lot of intrigue in the plot – what happened to the first manuscript, what really happened the night Margot was arrested for murder as well as Josephine’s work with the Resistance and also, how both went in and only one came out. Josephine kept a record of her time in prison in France and also in the workers camp in Germany. There are very few personal recounts of WWII from a female perspective and this one has an inspiration by one real such account, which I definitely need to read now. The friendship Josephine and Margot built was truly wonderful to read – that during the bleakest of times they each had the other for comfort, to find a humorous moment, to defend and support each other. Right to the very end. I did guess the twist pretty early but I don’t think that’s unexpected, it’s most about the journey in a way, the how and the why rather than the actual what…well for me anyway!

I really enjoyed this. It’s well written, well researched and has definitely fuelled my desire to read a few more first person accounts of this time, even though I know they’ll be difficult reading. I loved the setting, the juxtaposition of the decadence of the time before Margot’s incarceration with what comes after, the extremes of that period. It’s something I’ve come across in other stories recently, set around WWII, how where you are and your wealth could totally remove you from the devastation, poverty and death taking place in other areas. In the modern day period, Evie is at a crossroads, almost finished “raising” her son, still grieving but also sensing the possibilities and what her life could hold in the future.

Definitely recommend this one!

9/10

Book #46 of 2021

The French Gift is book #21 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also qualifies for my 2021 Historical Fiction Reader Challenge – it’s book #10

 

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Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Second First Impressions
Sally Thorne
Hachette AUS
2021, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

Oy, where to start.

I know you shouldn’t compare books to other books, even (especially?) when they’re by the same author. But I can’t help but still be excited when I hear Sally Thorne has a new book coming out, because I loved The Hating Game so much. 99% Mine wasn’t to my taste but I figured that Sally Thorne could/would always write another book that I would find to my taste as much as her first. But I’m slowly realising that I think that book is an anomaly and just, her other books are not my sort of thing.

This had potential for me, I really love opposites attract stories and this one revolves around the daughter of a pastor who has lived quite a sheltered life. Six years or so ago, she made a huge mistake and her parents quietly shunted her off to work with someone they knew from their church in a retirement home for wealthy people. She’s been there ever since and her life is comfortable, if a bit lonely. She loves the residents, enjoys a routine and finds comfort in a TV show. When she meets Teddy Prescott, he’s everything she shouldn’t want. He’s the son of the owner of the retirement home, who could bulldoze or redevelop it at any moment. He’s got long hair, tattoos, no job, no home, no money and a fed-up family who want him to make something of himself. So he’s installed at the retirement home working as an assistant to the most demanding residents and living in the little apartment next to Ruthie’s.

The thing I think, that bothered me the most about this, was Teddy. Oh gosh was he irritating. Is it possible I’m just too old now, to really find a 27yo who doesn’t know what size sheets to buy, attractive? Teddy was such a mooch, encroaching on Ruthie’s personal space, coming in uninvited into her home, basically demanding to be fed and taken care of like an overgrown toddler albeit a handsome one with excellent hair. He’s got to the stage where he admits he’s run out of couches to surf on and look, it’s great that he doesn’t mooch off his rich daddy but he has no qualms about anyone else and he’s constantly hanging around with a hangdog expression so that Ruthie will feed him and pet him and tell him how pretty he is, because Teddy is hopelessly vain and that got annoying as all heck.

Only two people appear to work at this luxury retirement home, although one is on leave throughout the entire book and Ruthie moves into her position and a temp fills Ruthie’s usual position. She’s 24 or 25 but dresses for some reason, like she’s 90 and it’s framed as being because she shops in op shops due to her low income. But when Mel, the temp and one of the older ladies at the home (who swans around dressed in the most ridiculous designer names you can think of) takes her to the op shop they find perfectly reasonable clothes that fit her and wow, the frumpy dowdy Ruthie actually has a banging body and Teddy can’t keep his tongue in his head. He doesn’t want her to date other people (Mel is trying to get her out there and dating) but he also keeps telling her not to see him as an option because he’s only there temporarily. I just never really saw why Teddy was so hot for Ruthie, other than he wanted a mother? Like he claimed to adore her routine and how soothing it was and calming for him, but he is basically a man child incapable of caring for himself and has been pretty neglected, so it makes sense he’d attach himself to the first person who is able to show him some basic love and attention. But it just….didn’t seem like there would be a lot of longevity in this. Ruthie has one relationship in her past which ended in humiliation for her and Teddy has had an infinite number of what seems like very short relationships and even though I actually found the writing good in the intimate scenes, the chemistry was severely lacking for me. I didn’t care at all about these two people together because the story never gave me a reason to.

The plot is just an unevenly paced mess. So much is invested in Ruthie’s routines and checklists because of the reason behind them and it’s made her basically hide herself away, giving up on her dreams and whatever and the ‘mistake’ from her past is uncovered and there’s literally no pay-off scene with her parents, who patronised her, humiliated her, punished her and basically crushed her self-esteem. There’s no apology, no acceptance of their wrong assumptions, their lack of faith and belief in her. She needed some serious therapy but it’s sort of like an afterthought and there’s so much she doesn’t realise because she was young and naive and I think, grateful to be given a chance after her indiscretion that she doesn’t even understand what is happening around her. There’s a lot about tortoises and it’s so obvious why they’re shoehorned into the plot and after rolling along like molasses trickling down a hill, everything happens in the last 5% of the book, which reveals and deals with many things at speed.

Unfortunately, I just found this very mediocre – characters that severely lacked in personality (what even was Teddy’s personality, apart from long hair and pretty), a plot that meandered along so slow it almost tripped over itself before it decided it had better wrap everything up immediately and just large portions of nothing happening except people sitting around an office and “bantering” with each other. There’s no chemistry, very little development and no stakes.

4/10

Book #49 of 2021

Second First Impressions is book #22 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Mumlife by Paula Kuka

Mumlife: Witty And Pretty Musings On The Truth About Motherhood
Paula Kuka
Tiller Press
2020, 160p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A witty, empathic, and beautifully illustrated look at the roller coaster ride that is modern motherhood.

Mum, mom, momma, or ma—whatever you’re called, being a mother can be hard, filled with stress and anxiety. But of course, it also delivers its own unique joy.

Instagram sensation @Common_Wild, the popular account run by Australian artist Paula Kuka, channels that heady stew of anxiety and love in a series of relatable, warm, and funny cartoons that are eagerly shared by women around the world.

Kuka features moments instantly recognizable to any parent, from new mom to experienced toddler-wrangler. Scenes like cooking an elaborate meal only to have it swept to the floor by a picky child, or dragging strollers home from the playground in the rain, bring parenthood to life on the page. She also winks at the societal expectations that ask women to do it all, including “taking care of themselves,” with a smile.

But most importantly, she highlights the huge love that underpins the journey of parenthood, and the sometimes-surprising things you learn about yourself while watching your children grow up.

The perfect gift for first-time parents—or for yourself, when you need to remember that you are not alone, and it’s okay to relax and enjoy the moment.

This is a delightful little book.

I have two kids but as most people who know me know, those kids are well beyond the stage of mothering that this book is really aimed at. They are 12 and 9 and even though some things don’t change exactly, the haze of those early days with a newborn, are well behind me. I was also pretty lucky with my kids as they both enjoyed sleep quite a bit as babies. In fact in some ways, some of their best sleeping was when they were tiny. It was when they became toddlers that they started messing up night and day. My husband still tells the story of getting up at 3am for some reason, seeing a glow coming from the living room and finding our oldest happily on the couch, watching cartoons, thinking it was nearly morning time. “Didn’t you notice it was still dark?” my husband said. He shrugged. It was winter in Melbourne, to be honest, it’s dark a lot. And my youngest went through a pretty lengthy stage beginning when he was about 3, where he didn’t spend a whole night in his own bed. Thankfully he’d climb in and go to sleep but it’s still sleep disrupted by a little person kicking you, laying on you, etc. He grew out of it when he was probably at kinder/preschool and honestly? Whilst I never enjoyed that stage at the time, I kind of miss it now.

There’s a lot of stuff I could relate to in this, either dredging up memories from the time my children were much younger, or things that are still relevant now. I might not be sleepless because my kids are awake but you still lay awake at night worrying about things. You still wonder if the choices you make are the right ones, if you’re feeding them properly and agonising over screen time or how much McDonalds you might’ve consumed recently because of long busy days and not a lot of free time.

The drawings are really well done and there were a lot that I connected with about different facets of parenting and also self-worth and opinion, before and after children. There was stuff about how hard it can be to meet and befriend other mums, who all seem like they know each other already. Just so many things where I was like “Yes, I remember that!” and “Oh, I’d actually forgotten that I felt that way”. There’s also the reassurance that you don’t have to love every facet of parenting every moment of every day. There are things that are frustrating, mind-numbingly boring and things that will infuriate you and make you wonder if your kids might actually be demon spawn. I remember before I had kids, I thought I’d really enjoy imaginative play. I like writing, I think I have a pretty good imagination. Oh wow, do I ever hate imaginative play and I would do anything to avoid having to do it for any length of time. Kid #1 enjoyed it but kid #2 was very solitary and preferred playing on his own. One of the things in this book are thoughts from other mums and there’s one here about someone who had a 10 month old and one day was like “did I even speak to you today?” after they’d spent a large portion of the day in solo exploration and play. That was me with child #2.  It’s incredibly reassuring actually, to read the same perspective from someone else!

This would be a sweet read for any new mum….or a wonderful trip down memory lane for those that have moved past that stage.

7/10

Book #43 of 2021

This is book #20 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Grace Under Pressure by Tori Haschka

Grace Under Pressure 
Tori Haschka
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 403p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Grace Harkness looks like she has it all – two beautiful children, four cookbooks under her belt and an idyllic beachside home #blessed. But add another baby on the way (oops), a spouse that is nowhere to be seen and a relentless list of things she ‘should’ be doing, and Grace is starting to unravel.

When the madness of modern-day motherhood finally pushes her to the brink, Grace and her friends decide to ditch the men in their lives, move in together and create a ‘mummune’ – sharing the load of chores, school pick-ups/drop-offs and endless Life Admin. The new set-up seems like a dream, but is life in this utopian village all it’s cracked up to be?

Grace Under Pressure is a deliciously hilarious, honest and heartfelt portrayal of modern-day motherhood and the saving grace of female friendship.

It feels like I’ve read a few books lately that deal with this sort of idea – women who band together to form a community where they share the load of both physical and mental labour. In this book, Grace is 38 and struggling with the two children she has when she finds out she’s pregnant with a very-definitely-unplanned #3. Her husband doesn’t seem on board and so Grace begins to look elsewhere for support: her longtime friend Petra, struggling with her own marriage as well as young single mum Shelly who is about to be homeless. Also Grace’s next-door neighbour Christine who is older and struggling with the phase of life she’s in now. The four women decide they can create the perfect scenario if they all work together: they can provide emotional support because they all know what it’s like. There’s always someone around to watch the children while someone else cooks. It’s the very definition of creating their village….but is it as perfect as they think?

I feel like in a lot of books, women are married to Very Busy Men who are often very absent doing their Very Important Jobs and providing no practical parenting input and the women are left to carry the entire load at home and the men are far too busy to understand that basically what equates to solo-parenting is very difficult, time consuming and not the life of leisure they assume it is. Grace also works too, she works from home mostly, testing recipes and doing cookbooks. Grace, everywhere delivers these days. There’s nothing you can’t get online. And stop allowing your husband to get away with the idea that any childcare costs would come out of your wage – childcare is a SHARED HOUSEHOLD EXPENSE. Grace’s desire to avoid any sort of confrontation with her husband means that she soldiers on until she is quite literally, at breaking point while he keeps swanning off overseas and even after that her husband still takes a while to understand, which was enormously frustrating.

A part of the book is dedicated to posts made on the local Facebook group and some of these highlight the issues with online communication – the one statement can be taken many different ways. Such as a simple one about a place selling apple slices: the responses can range from grateful for the info, to judgement for the plastic packaging to derision for the mum who doesn’t have the time to slice up their child’s apples themselves and that back in their day they’d never buy sliced apples. Even as this book is about women trying to help and support each other, there’s a highlight of just how much judging of women is also done by other women. I feel that it honestly showcases how a lot of these groups go from something started to be helpful and supportive or informative to judgement, shaming, arguing, self-righteousness and the like. The comments on basically anything on the internet these days feels like there’s a strong chance of it being a total cesspool. The saying “never read the comments” doesn’t exist for nothing! However I feel like it did a great job in highlighting how it can be just another element of pressure that women face: the pressure to be doing it all. Breastfeeding, providing your toddler/children with organic, home cooked food that’s gluten free/dairy free/nutritious and free of sugar, the list goes on and on. The pressure to be “insta” perfect, to almost be the envy of others around you.

I enjoyed parts of this book and the writing was very good but honestly, at times it felt like there was an awful lot crammed into it. Not only do all the women have relationship issues (Grace and Petra are both married but separate for different reasons, Shelly is a solo mother with the father of her baby vanishing into the ether and Christine’s husband is off “finding himself” somewhere) but there’s a lot of other things going on as well and at times it felt like it was just one thing after another being revealed as part of backstory or as complicated current-timeline events. Towards the end I felt like things had been brought up that weren’t really addressed adequately – like mentioned once and then kind of not explored in depth, nor brought up again. Where I thought the book did excel was showcasing Grace’s mental state in the latter part of the book which was so well done that it gave me anxiety reading it.

I have children but didn’t really relate to any of the characters as having shared their experiences personally but a lot of people will find both humour and identity within the pages. I liked this but for me, felt like there were a few things that didn’t resonate. However I’d be interested in reading the author’s next book.

7/10

Book #38 of 2021

Grace Under Pressure is book #19 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

 

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Review: Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara And The Sun 
Kazuo Ishiguro
Allen & Unwin
2021, 307p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From the bestselling and Booker Prize winning author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a stunning new novel – his first since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature – that asks, what does it mean to love?

This is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

A thrilling feat of world-building, a novel of exquisite tenderness and impeccable restraint, Klara and the Sun is a magnificent achievement, and an international literary event.

I’ve only read one Kazuo Ishiguro book before and I had very mixed feelings about it. I thought it was very interesting and a great discussion piece but I couldn’t say that I loved it. And I think that this book might give me very similar feelings.

Klara is an “AF” (which is Artificial Friend) in a future America. AFs are like highly developed androids that act as companions to children in a future-America where children school from home and can be “lifted” in their intelligence in an undescribed procedure that means they are basically guaranteed to go to college. Klara is in a shop waiting for the perfect child to come and choose her. She’s solar powered and worships the Sun and the patterns it makes across the floor as well as its nourishment. Klara enjoys being a good representative of her kind and she observes and learns, often expressing thoughts that seem to be beyond the capabilities of her model. Josie is the child who chooses Klara and although she has been lifted, she is also chronically ill (this may be from the lifting process? I’m not sure). Klara’s job is to provide support and companionship to Josie as she’s mostly isolated. Her only contact with other kids her age are through carefully orchestrated events, where she learns to build friendships and interact with people her age before college. Josie also has a childhood friend Rick (who is not lifted) and they are divided by the fact one has had this process and the other hasn’t, which will most likely separate them in their college years. Klara discovers somewhere along the way that Josie’s mother has a secondary plan for Klara.

I found a lot about this really quite clever. Klara has some incredibly interesting thoughts on humans and she’s very curious in regards to everything that’s happening around her, both in the store before she is purchased and also after. She’s very devoted to Josie, so much so that she avoids being purchased by someone else between first seeing Josie and Josie and her mother coming back to purchase her. Klara’s every desire is to be useful to Josie, to make her life easier and more enjoyable and to make her happy.

The writing in this is very subtle and there’s a lot of beauty in it. Klara is very insightful – I’m not quite sure how much the AFs are supposed to observe and learn and absorb but it seems that she is capable of more than some of her fellow creations. Even before she is purchased by Josie and her mother, Klara learns and observes in the store, particularly when she is placed in the front window where it’s her role to do her kind and the store (run by a woman Klara calls Manager) proud. She responds very well to praise and often likes to discuss the things she sees, hears and thinks with either her fellow AF or Manager herself. This capacity of Klara’s means that Josie’s mother (referred to by Klara as ‘the Mother’, her pattern of speech means she always refers to people in the third person, even herself) eventually takes Klara into her confidence and trusts her with what she has planned.

I have to admit though, after the big reveal….I thought this book would end in an entirely different way and I think if it had of ended that way, it would’ve had a more powerful impact on me and I would’ve felt differently about it. I think that because Klara provided our sole perspective, there was a lot I never really got to learn about the world, its happenings and the roles of the characters within it. We only know what Klara knows and we see what Klara sees and we analyse what Klara notices. There was more I wanted to know about Josie as well and Klara’s more innocent, childlike sort of outlook, sometimes hampered the development of the plot. And you could say well, that’s not as important as what Klara learns, or her own journey and that’s probably true. But I always want to understand the world I’ve been placed in as a reader and I felt though that at times, I was definitely left in the dark deliberately, which feels like a bit of a pattern. It was an issue I had with the previous book of his that I’ve read (and it’s interesting that most people feel if you do love that book, this one is probably something you will love too).

This is interesting – and the sort of book I feel you could talk about for hours with people who have read it. But it didn’t strike me in a powerful way, didn’t move me nor did I connect with the characters within it. But I did enjoy the writing.

7/10

Book #37 of 2021

 

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