All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Secrets My Father Kept by Rachel Givney

Secrets My Father Kept
Rachel Givney
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 432p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Set in Poland on the eve of the Second World War, Secrets My Father Kept is the gripping story of a young woman determined to uncover the truth behind her mother’s disappearance and the dark secret from her father’s past.

Secrets My Father Kept is a captivating novel about love, sacrifice, secrets and resilience, as the clock inexorably ticks down to a devastating world war.

It’s February 1939. As the Führer edges towards an invasion of Poland, total war looms in Europe.

However in Krakow, seventeen-year-old Marie Karska’s primary concern is the unexplained disappearance of her mother fifteen years ago, and her father Dominik’s unbreakable silence on the matter. Even his wife’s name is a secret he guards closely.

Dominik, a well-respected and innovative doctor at the local hospital, has devoted his life to caring for his only daughter. Yet a black fear haunts him – over the questionable act he committed to keep Marie safe. And with German troops now marching to the border, he needs to find her a husband. One who will protect her when he no longer can…

But Marie has already met the man she wants to marry: her childhood friend Ben. She’s determined that his Jewish faith won’t stand in the way of their future together. And nor will her father’s refusal to explain the past stop her from unpicking his darkest secret. . .

I’ve been enjoying quite a bit of historical fiction lately and this is another title that counts towards my challenge for this year. It’s set in Poland, before the beginning of WWII but with a lot of rumblings and rumours and the like coming from Germany and the country seems half torn about whether or not it’ll really happen – and if it does, how quickly such a thing would be quashed.

Dominik is a doctor and single father to Marie and his sole aim is to protect her. If the worst does happen and Germany does invade, Dominik seems to feel that he may not be in the best position to protect her and so his desire is to see her married into a wealthy, influential family with the hope that might keep her safe. Unfortunately for Dominik, Marie has other ideas.

The only man she wants to marry is Ben Rosen, her childhood friend, whom she has just discovered is back in a nearby neighbourhood after studying at university. Ben didn’t let her know that he was back but when Marie is told by someone else, she can’t help herself and has to go see him. For lots of reasons, the first of which is that Ben’s studies might help her remember something about her mother. But when they see each other again, Marie knows that Ben is the only one she wants to marry but Dominik’s reaction is less than warm. He’s not a bigot or against Jewish people but he knows that being married to one will only place Marie in more danger, not less if/when Germany does invade. He cannot dissuade her from her choice though and so Dominik must look to other methods to try and ensure Marie’s safety.

As well as Marie and Ben’s relationship, another part of this novel concerns a secret that Dominik is keeping and the potential threat of this being exposed (which he seems to feel is inevitable, especially if war arrives) and how this would impact upon Marie and the fallout. I have to admit that I had an inkling about Dominik’s secret – there was something in a couple of his remarks to Marie that made me wonder if it might be a certain thing but I was still very much in two minds about it for much of the book, until it is finally revealed.

I really enjoyed the way this is told, focusing on both Dominik and Marie and in different timelines as well. Marie has always found Dominik a difficult person – he’s not warm or demonstrative and although he’s always provided well for Marie, including cooking her meal each night, he isn’t vocal and Marie realises that she doesn’t even know her own mother’s name. Questions are rebuffed or ignored completely and now that she’s older, Marie has had enough and wants to know things – did her mother really leave? And if so, why? Or did something more sinister happen?

Marie’s search for what happened to her mother is interspersed with Dominik’s story and his quest to set in place things that will hopefully, keep Marie safe. Although Dominik is portrayed in a certain way and Marie has her frustrations with him, you can really see just how much Dominik is focused on his daughter and how much he wants to protect her from any harm. Books I read in Poland are usually set around the time of war being declared or just after – the separation of Jewish people and moving them into certain areas, for example but I really liked this little look at the just before. Where the rumours are circling, the mix of opinions about what might happen, about whether or not Poland could rebuff such an attack if it happened or if Britain and France would slap it down swiftly.

I found this a really engaging story – both Dominik and Marie’s portions although I think I enjoyed Dominik’s slightly more. He was just a very interesting character and had made so many decisions that prioritised others and the further the book dug into the history, the more I found it fascinating.

8/10

Book #100 of 2021

Secrets My Father Kept is book #43 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and is the 20th book completed for that one.

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Review: Small Acts Of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts Of Defiance
Michelle Wright
Allen & Unwin
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: May, 1940: After a bitter tragedy, young Australian woman Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are forced to leave home and seek help from the only family they have left-Lucie’s uncle, Gerard.

As the Second World War engulfs Europe, the two women find themselves trapped in German-occupied Paris, sharing a cramped apartment with the authoritarian Gerard and his extremist views.

Drawing upon her artistic talents, Lucie risks her own safety to engage in small acts of defiance against the occupying forces and the collaborationist French regime, where the authorities reward French citizens for denouncing so-called ‘traitors’ in their community.

Faced with the escalating brutality of anti-Jewish measures, and the indifference of so many of her fellow Parisians, Lucie must decide how far she will go to defend the rights of others.

I really enjoyed this.

It starts in country Australia with a family who escaped Europe after the First World War. With their relative safety threatened and his mental state affected, Alfred does something drastic, leaving his wife Yvonne and daughter Lucie homeless and almost penniless. Yvonne, who is French, writes to her brother for help and he suggests she return home, that the war will amount to nothing, that France will stand strong. With no other options, Yvonne and Lucie board a ship and end up in Paris.

Thankfully, Lucie can speak French thanks to Yvonne instilling it from a young age. Paris cedes to the Germans and occupation begins, causing a mass exodus of the city and then a return. Things get tough with rations and the like and eager to contribute, Lucie uses her artistic talent to get work drawing French landscapes on postcards. Through that she meets Samuel and then his granddaughter Aline, who are Jewish and building a burgeoning friendship means that Lucie learns first hand the slow escalation of hostilities against Jewish people. Soon, it’s a city divided and even those who are French are denouncing Jewish neighbours to the Germans. Even her own uncle proves to have strident views supporting the decision to surrender and Lucie realises that he probably is anti-Semitic as well. Lucie’s disgust and horror at what is happening to her friends and their compatriots leads her to decide to help in any small ways she can: small acts of defiance that show that not all of France is ready to give up to the Germans just yet.

It’s a strange time to arrive in Paris and it’s very different to what Lucie would’ve been used to but meeting people helps her feel connected I think, to develop something with Paris. She adores both Samuel and Aline and really struggles to understand the growing ostracisation of Jewish people – removing them from study, from owning businesses, making them wear a yellow star….until finally vast swathes of them are rounded up and simply removed from the city. Lucie is motivated to help where she can, trying to use words and images as a way to subvert the Germans. Aline, Lucie’s friend, gets more frustrated as time rolls on and she and Lucie often fall out over the best way to ‘rebel’ against the Germans, with Lucie favouring more subtle methods and Aline’s thoughts that it might be more effective to try some more forthright ones.

I don’t really know much about Paris during WWII, but whilst this felt like it showcased some things really well, I also never really got the feeling that Lucie and Yvonne were in any danger from anything or struggled in any meaningful way. They had a place to live, seemed to have enough to eat and both of them found jobs and moved around the city relatively easily and only had minimal interaction with any German soldiers. Lucie pretty much does whatever she wants, goes to protests and things and gets drawn deeper and deeper into committing these small acts of defiance but without really any feeling of potential danger. With the amount of people seemingly turning on their own neighbours and people they knew, it felt unlikely that someone wouldn’t have reported all her movements and visits from Jewish people, especially after some of them were deliberately evading authorities. Sometimes, things just felt a little too easy or convenient – Lucie turns out to have this skill they need for this one important thing or her uncle is conveniently away when they need a vehicle for something.

That small quibble aside though, I really did enjoy reading this. It’s incredible to read back on things that happened in WWII and see how insidious the attempt was to wipe out Europeans of Jewish faith, to see how quickly places became divided into “us” and “them”. Even French citizens were being carted away, prevented from earning a living, etc and now, with hindsight, we all know where they were sent when they were rounded up and taken to those “working farms”. I’ve never been to Paris and this is Paris in a very difficult time but I enjoyed the portrayal, seen through Lucie’s eyes. She quickly comes to have strong feelings for France and Paris in particular, even though she has only really seen it during this time of turmoil. She makes some strong friendships and her values and beliefs are very apparent as well – she’s not afraid to become involved in helping in small ways (and is often asked to help further) and her devotion to her friends and determination to help them is admirable. I also liked the character of her mother, who is a conflicted woman: she dragged Lucie to a warzone (even if there is no actual fighting due to Paris’ surrender, there is Allied bombing) and her brother’s values and opinions are difficult to engage with. She hadn’t seen him in decades but is reliant upon him for support and a place to live. Yvonne is supportive of Lucie’s activities and even becomes something of a perpetrator of small acts of defiance herself.

I felt this ended with some unanswered questions, makes me wonder if there’s another book in the future.

8/10

Book #97 of 2021

Small Acts Of Defiance is book #41 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021.

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and is book #19 read for that one.

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Review: Someone I Used To Know by Paige Toon

Someone I Used To Know
Paige Toon
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: So much can change in half a lifetime… 

Then

At fifteen, George is the foster brother Leah never asked for. As the angry, troubled boy struggles to come to terms with his circumstances, Leah finds herself getting drawn closer to him.

Theo’s wealthy family have mysteriously pulled him out of boarding school and he’s now enrolled at the local state school with Leah and George. When their worlds collide that summer, the three teenagers form a bond they believe will be unbreakable. But life doesn’t always go to plan…


Now

Shocking news brings Leah back to Yorkshire, baby daughter in tow. But Emilie’s father Theo isn’t with them, and George has unexpectedly returned. After half a lifetime, have they healed the scars of their pasts? Will coming back home set their hearts in a different direction? 

I was really excited to read this, Paige Toon has written books that I’ve really loved recently and this was definitely one of my most anticipated reads. I picked it up late in the afternoon and intended to just read 100 pages – I’ve been trying to read every day of this lockdown 4.0 and posting what I’ve been reading on instagram. I 100% did not expect to churn through this whole book in just a couple hours, but honestly, I should not be surprised that I did!

It’s told in mostly two timelines, the then and now. In the then, Leah is a teenager, around 15 and part of a big, noisy, very changing family. Her parents have opened their home to many foster children over the years, choosing mostly to focus on older children, the teenagers who have trouble securing permanent or long-term homes. Leah is their only biological child but they are all treated the same. Leah has some complex feelings about her often chaotic home – she often wishes her parents had more time for her (she’s the ‘well-behaved’ one, the least squeaky wheel so to speak), but she understands why they truly do this. And many of the children they foster stay family – such as her ‘brother’ Jamie. George arrives, sullen and resentful, during a particularly tumultuous time and Leah does her best to befriend not just George, but also Theo, who has recently been expelled from his expensive boarding school and enrolled by his father in the local. The three become inseparable for a short time.

In the now, Leah is back at her family home with her young daughter. It’s the first time she’s seen George in over a decade. Theo, Leah’s husband and her daughter’s father, is not here. Leah and George have an opportunity or two, to heal their pain, both from their abrupt separation and the other things that have happened in their lives.

Loved, loved, loved this book. I loved both the timelines, the busy and noisy family house that Leah was raised in, the heartbreaking stories of the various children that were offered shelter under her parent’s roof. Leah has realistic, mixed feelings about the fostering – these children are often hugely troubled, hurting and sometimes, their lives are even in danger. It can bring about difficult situations but despite sometimes the struggle, it’s truly the calling of both her parents. They love it, even when children leave and go back to situations that are less than ideal or, in the case of some of the younger ones, are adopted out. The way that the family is written is so beautiful, I fell in love with all of them. Even Joanne. There’s so many little details that I thought were such good touches – like the alpacas and the reason they have the rabbits. Leah’s parents are endlessly, endlessly patient, trying to truly provide a safe space for these children. Very little behaviour raises an eyebrow.

I really enjoyed the way Leah, George and Theo became friends. They’re all very different and it’s circumstance that throws them together. And the trio is not without its complications. George has a lot of issues stemming from his difficult childhood – Theo is rich and privileged but shows Leah and George that just because you have money, it doesn’t mean you have an easy life. In the now, George is long gone and Leah and Theo are married. This book totally did a number on me about the story of Theo, it was one of those lightbulb moments where everything clicks into place. But then George returns, drawn back by a newspaper story done on Leah’s parents and praising them for all the children they gave homes to. And perhaps by something else.

This is the sort of book that I felt would really pack an emotional punch and it does, for lots of reasons. There’s so many scenes in here, in both timelines. I was just so drawn into this story – all the characters have things going on and there’s questions in the now that you have to wait for the then to answer. Some of them are shocking but others will provide closure, a way forward…..even the brightest hope.

Definitely one of my favourite books read this year.

9/10

Book #95 of 2021

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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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