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Review: Secrets Between Friends by Fiona Palmer

Secrets Between Friends
Fiona Palmer
Hachette Books AUS
2017, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Best friends Abbie, Jess and Ricki are setting sail on a cruise ship, rekindling the excitement of a school excursion they took ten years earlier to the historic port town of Albany, the oldest city on the stunning turquoise coastline of Western Australia. But are they truly prepared for what this voyage will reveal?

Ricki, a dedicated nurse, harbours a dream she hasn’t chased. Is she actually happy or stuck in a rut?

Jess, a school teacher and single mother to little Ollie, had a tough upbringing but found her way through with the help of her closest male friend, Peter. But Peter has bought an engagement ring and is ready to propose to Ricki . . .

Abbie had it all: a career, a loving boyfriend and a future, but a visit to the doctor bears scary news. Her world is tumbling down and she feels adrift at sea.

This is Fiona Palmer’s first foray away from her strong background of rural fiction/romance and more into women’s fiction. Jess, Abbie and Ricki have been best friends since school and Jess and Peter have been best friends since childhood. Peter and Ricki are now dating and the three girls thought it’d be fun to celebrate their ten year anniversary graduating from high school by revisiting Albany, a place they went to for a school trip. They decide to take a cruise – a few days of fun and cocktails. Their girls trip gets derailed slightly when Peter decides to come with them and use the trip as a way to further his romance with Ricki.

Firstly, I loved the setting. Fiona Palmer has been setting her books in rural Western Australia for a long time, which I always enjoy but it was quite fun to board a cruise ship with the characters. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before but the idea of a short cruise is appealing. I’ve never visited WA either so perhaps that is why I always enjoy visiting it so much in fiction. It’s a way to experience it.

Each of the women are hiding secrets – some more serious than others. Abbie is hiding a lot about her life and in particular about something that she’s just discovered which is hanging over her head on the cruise. Ricki is feeling a bit restless, perhaps not even realising what the problem was until someone reignited feelings in her about her job and about her life. And Jess, well Jess is carrying two intertwined secrets which definitely threaten two of the friendships she holds dearest.

Okay so as well as things I did like about the story, there were a few things that I did have trouble with. Some of those revolved around the secrets, which seemed strange. I mean, I understood why some things were kept secret, as difficult as those were but the reasoning behind keeping some of the lesser secrets kind of confused me. Also – there’s some people that behave quite horribly and I didn’t really find it okay because “both of them did it”. That’s not good reasoning to me, especially as they were unaware of each other doing it and it felt quite uncomfortable to read. It’s also a bit of a deal breaker for me generally, depending on the circumstances but I didn’t feel as though these ones felt like enough. One element of the story felt almost too good to be true, like a convenient out for the other to occur in a way. And some of the fallout felt quite one sided, like some of the issues on both sides weren’t really discussed or explored, it was really more focused on one particular side and the people involved in that situation.

I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone but I did have some trouble connecting to or liking some characters because some of their actions were so dramatically unpleasant and unnecessary. But I did admire the friendship between them and the fact that it was built to withstand an awful lot and that they were remarkably understanding about each other’s secrets and indiscretions – but I wasn’t sure if that understanding came from a place of love and friendship or because several of them were doing the same thing and couldn’t really be angry. A lot of drama certainly came out during this brief cruise though, that’s for sure!

All in all this was a bit of a mixed bag for me – loved the setting and some elements of the story. The idea of the four of them going on the cruise was a lot of fun and a perfect place for secrets to come out because they can’t really escape, they have to face each other and sort things out. But some of the secrets made it difficult to really care about the characters, who were being a bit selfish and unfair to those that they cared about. And I wasn’t really expecting a part of the ending, which had some bittersweet elements to it. If you’re looking for a full and total HEA this might not be the sort of story that you’re after.

7/10

Book #155 of 2017

Secrets Between Friends is book #47 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Blog Tour Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That Are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen & Unwin
2017, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A moving debut novel about love and war, and the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, hope and despair.

Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry’s ship is missing.

Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.

Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae’s neighbour and Grace’s boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae’s life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.

Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.

I really enjoy historical fiction and have been particularly interested lately in fiction set around both WWI and WWII. It’s really nice to get an Australian perspective and this, Lisa Bigelow’s first novel uses her family experience and the loss of her grandfather aboard the HMAS Sydney to showcase the strength of the women left behind.

Mae is a young bride about to give birth living in the inner west of Melbourne. I found that the setting was a really fun part of the book for me because I live in the west (a bit further out than the featured Yarraville/Williamstown areas) but I loved getting a glimpse of what it would’ve been like in this area all those years ago. It was great to see such familiar places featured. When Mae gets word of the rumour that the HMAS Sydney has gone down with all on board, she immediately slips into a state of denial. She’s sure that Harry, if anyone, could survive such a thing and the fact that there’s talk the wrecked sub was towed to Asia with some survivors just feeds her belief that Harry will come home one day. She struggles to cope on her own, relying on the family that raised her, an aunt and her two uncles, all getting on a little bit in age now. They are close knit though and Mae also has a strong friendship bond with her neighbour, wife of a newspaper editor and mother to two young children.

Grace has moved from the country to Melbourne to work as an assistant to Sam Barton, editor of the afternoon paper The Tribune but what she really wants is to be a journalist. Her father ran a country Victorian paper and it’s been a part of her whole life. Grace composes headlines about her daily life in her head constantly as she negotiates the politics of her new workplace and  deals with handsome reporter Phil Taylor who is just becoming something more when he heads overseas to cover the war up close and personal. He is taken hostage during the fall of Singapore and word is slow. He’s been horrifically injured and Grace isn’t sure at times, if he’s even still alive or will ever return to her. And if he does, what will she face? Will he be a broken, shell of a man like her father, still damaged from his time in WWI?

It’s hard to believe, living in the age that I do, that there was a time when you had to wait weeks for word or information from another part of the world about something so serious as a submarine sinking or a hostage situation. In this case, Sam Barton, the newspaper editor, and presumably most of the reporters are aware of strong and probably credible rumours surrounding the loss of the HMAS Sydney but they don’t have permission to print the story just yet. And Mae is his neighbour, so that must’ve been quite an awkward situation for him as well as a stressful one for Mae, with these rumours circulating but no government word or confrontation. It’s an horrific state of limbo to be in. The lack of accurate information also leads to more swirling rumours that give Mae and probably others the hope that their loved ones could have possibly survived this. For Mae that leads to a real deluded state, where she absolutely refuses to believe that Harry could have died and that he is alive somewhere and will make his way back to her and their baby soon. Time rolls on though, with no credible information that anyone did survive and slowly others accept their loss and begin moving on with their lives. Mae isn’t able to do this though and she spends a large portion of the book assuring people and herself that Harry will be back one day. I found it quite sad because she’s a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, who should’ve been making the best of it and at times it was like she wasn’t living at all. Just merely existing and waiting for something that wasn’t ever going to happen.

Likewise, I found Grace’s situation very sad also. I felt like her story was very much unfinished at the close of the book and that a lot of the defining moments in her life might come later on. I admired her dedication and drive and the way in which she didn’t allow anything to stand in her way and that should’ve been celebrated by those that love her rather than viewed with suspicion and derision. If I had a criticism of Grace’s story it’d be that I just didn’t really buy the romance……the pacing was off too, it seemed to start off in one way, go no where for the longest time and then a few things happened and then Phil left to go overseas. I didn’t really get a chance to get to know Phil or experience any chemistry between the two of them at all and the skipping forward in time at the end of the book only further cemented that fact.

Despite the fact that it’s subject matter tended a bit towards the grim, I found We That Are Left to be a very enjoyable read, particularly for its showcasing of 1940s Melbourne and the surrounds. It’s a very promising debut and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Lisa Bigelow’s next book.

7/10

Book #150 of 2017

We That Are Left is book #45 of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017

This review is part of the We That Are Left blog tour. Please make sure you check out the other spots on the tour, featured below.

We That Are Left is published by Allen & Unwin, out now. RRP $29.99

Visit Lisa Bigelow’s website 

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Review: Chrissy And The Burroughs Boy by Cathryn Hein

Chrissy And The Burroughs Boy
Cathryn Hein
Self-published
2017, 164p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}:

No girl forgets her first crush. The least he could do is remember it.

Chrissy James has only been home in small-town Levenham a few weeks when her teenage crush plays hero and saves her from an aggressive drunk. Seven years ago, Nick Burroughs was the school hottie while she was the overweight girl with braces, bad hair, and an unrequited obsession with the sports star every girl in school wanted. Her failed efforts to attract Nick’s attention still burn.

Chrissy sure has his attention now, but she’s older, smarter and focused on settling into her new dream job as wine marketer. No matter how sexy he’s grown, or how keen his interest, Nick will need to do a lot more than see off a drunk if he wants to win her over.

But Chrissy doesn’t count on the determination of a Burroughs boy in love. Nick will do anything to recapture Chrissy’s heart, even if it means acting the romantic fool and embarrassing himself in the process.

Will Nick’s efforts to make amends for the past backfire or will Chrissy’s career thwart everything? Grab this cute small-town romance and find out!

This is a super cute novella set in a familiar world for fans of Cathryn Hein. Chrissy has recently moved back to the area she grew up in and taken a job at a winery working in marketing. She’s very focused and desperately wants to succeed in her career. She also went through a recent break up which makes her wary of men, even when her former high school crush, Nick Burroughs comes around. Chrissy had it bad for Nick in high school but he was a popular sports star and she wasn’t on his radar. Time has changed and now it seems that Nick finds it very hard not to notice Chrissy.

There’s a lot of humour in this – after Chrissy explains the ways in which she believes she humiliated herself attempting to get his attention and failing in high school, Nick realises that the onus is on him to get Chrissy’s attention now and it’s not going to be easy. He’s a pretty down to earth guy, works on his family property, plays footy in the local team and has been best & fairest several seasons but is currently out injured for the present season. It’s obvious he’s popular and probably sought after but he’s single and not afraid to put himself out there once he’s decided that Chrissy is what he wants. I liked that about him – Nick is not the typical aloof hero where the reader nor the heroine can decipher his feelings. He makes them perfectly clear, it’s Chrissy who needs to decide if she can trust in a relationship with Nick.

It can be hard to really feel as though you have enough time to paint a full picture with a novella and I know that I often struggle with them because they can feel a bit rushed, like the characters don’t have enough time to get to know each other. However this book didn’t have that rushed feeling – I felt as though Nick and Chrissy were both given plenty of page time and their fledgling relationship was constructed well. I also liked that the conflict came from an unexpected location.

Nick is Danny’s brother from Santa and the Saddler and Danny and Beth make appearances in this novel, as do several other familiar faces from books also set in this world. This is something I really enjoy because I always like getting a little glimpse into the “after” and this is the country, where people tend to run into each other quite often and are very involved in the local community. It feels like each installment builds on that community but they can still be easily read as stand alone stories.

I really enjoyed this – it’s a well written story for those that like sweet romances with plenty of humour and warm fuzzy feelings. Perfect for any time really – it’s so quick and easy to read, the characters are immediately appealing and there’s a charm in revisiting a familiar place.

8/10

Book #136 of 2017

Chrissy and the Burroughs Boy is book #44 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Eye Of The Sheep by Sofie Laguna

The Eye Of The Sheep
Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin
2015, 308p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

“Ned was beside me, his messages running easily through him, with space between each one, coming through him like water. He was the go-between, going between the animal kingdom and this one. I watched the waves as they rolled and crashed towards us, one after another, never stopping, always changing. I knew what was making them come, I had been there and I would always know.”

Meet Jimmy Flick. He’s not like other kids. He finds a lot of the adult world impossible to understand – especially why his Dad gets so angry with him. Jimmy’s mother Paula is the only one who can manage him. She teaches him how to count sheep so that he can fall sleep. She holds him tight enough to stop his cells spinning. It is only Paula who can keep Jimmy out of his father’s way. But when Jimmy’s world falls apart, he has no one else to turn to. He alone has to navigate the unfathomable world and make things right.

Sofie Laguna’s first novel, One Foot Wrong received rave reviews, sold all over the world and was longlisted for both the Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s Awards. In The Eye of the Sheep, her great originality and talent will again amaze and move readers. In the tradition of Room and The Lovely Bones, here is a surprising and brilliant novel from one of our finest writers.

Usually I have a disinterested relationship with prize winners. There’s been very few that I’ve read and really loved but I had heard so many good things about this book from so many different corners and the cover was so lovely that I decided that I absolutely had to give it a go. It appears that August is the month of reading books that have been on my TBR shelf for some time. I chucked this in the car and read it a few chapters at a time at school pick up. My kids’ school is super busy and if you want a good park you’d better get there 30-40m before school even ends. That’s perfect because it gives me some good reading time (and some amusement watching people attempt to reverse park). This is definitely a book to challenge that distant relationship.

Jimmy Flick is definitely an unusual sort of child. He doesn’t really read social cues, he has trouble expressing his emotions adequately and reading tense situations and he tends to kind of explode when he can’t really process what is happening. His father Gavin works in Altona at some sort of plant and doesn’t really possess the patience to cope with Jimmy’s differences. Frustrated with aspects of his life, Gav often seeks solace in the bottle. Days his dad drinks beer aren’t too bad but Jimmy and his brother Ned know that when their dad reaches for the Cutty Sark in the cupboard, it’s going to be a bad night and they’re best to make themselves scarce. Because the narrative is Jimmy’s and he’s a 6yo child with learning and processing difficulties, he’s not really aware of what is happening between his mother and his father after his father has been at the bottle too much. His innocence of the situation makes it all the more hard to read.

Everything that happens in this book is told through Jimmy’s eyes. He provides the insight into his parent’s marriage, his father’s struggles, particularly after losing his job and the tension in the family as his older brother Ned grows bigger and stronger and less tolerant of Gav’s ways after being at the bottle. But it isn’t until something terrible happens to Jimmy that the entire family dynamics alter drastically and Jimmy and his mother are left on their own. His mother is unwell (chronic asthma) and is also floundering with the decisions she has made. Her illness is getting worse but so is her ability to cope with it and she withdraws, keeping her and Jimmy isolated from the world with some devastating consequences.

This book broke my heart in so many ways. Jimmy’s childlike (well he is a child, but his narrative reads younger and less aware than a child of his age, as he grows in the novel) makes everything so heightened, be it his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s illness and the terribleness that comes after. Jimmy is so beautifully portrayed – his innocence, his struggles to deal with things like school and even tense situations at home and the methods Paula (his mother) has developed for coping with his outbursts and for calming him down. Her devotion to Jimmy is never ending and he is the catalyst for a decision that changes everything.

Despite his difficulties…or perhaps because of them? Jimmy is such a brave character. It doesn’t appear that he really processes danger or difficult situations and because of this he can be easily manipulated but he also throws himself into things anticipating the reward at the end. Jimmy’s journey is truly devastating at times, he loses so much and his ability to express how he feels is severely stunted so no one around him is really grasping the severity of his situation (or they don’t care, which in some cases, is also quite possible). This book made me feel so much – I was so sad for Jimmy and at times it also made me blisteringly angry for him as well.

The writing is beautiful and clever – it takes a little while to get used to being in Jimmy’s head (perhaps a bit longer for me because I was reading this in snatches every day) but once you settle into the rhythm it’s such a genuine voice and it enhances the story incredibly. Sofie Laguna has a new book due out next month and after this, it’s a must read for me.

8/10

Book #133 of 2017

The Eye Of The Sheep is book #43 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Road To Ruin by Niki Savva

The Road To Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government
Niki Savva
Scribe Publishing
2016, 326p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Kevin Rudd was given no warning, but even he lasted longer than Abbott. Julia Gillard had plenty of warnings, but even she lasted longer than Abbott.

Abbott ignored all the warnings, from beginning to end — the public ones, the private ones, from his friends, his colleagues, the media.

His colleagues were not being disloyal. They did not feel they had betrayed him; they believed he had betrayed them. Their motives were honourable. They didn’t want him to fail; they wanted the government to succeed, and they wanted the Coalition re-elected.

Abbott and Credlin had played it harder and rougher than anybody else to get where they wanted to be. But they proved incapable of managing their own office, much less the government. Then, when it was over, when it was crystal-clear to everyone that they had failed, when everyone else could see why they had failed, she played the gender card while he played the victim.

In The Road to Ruin, prominent political commentator, author, and columnist for The Australian Niki Savva reveals the ruinous behaviour of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Based on her unrivalled access to their colleagues, and devastating first-person accounts of what went on behind the scenes, Savva paints an unforgettable picture of a unique duo who wielded power ruthlessly but not well.

This is not usually my sort of book. For a start, I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction of any description and I generally don’t pick subjects I don’t like. I’m not a Tony Abbott fan by any description, nor am I an (Australian) liberal voter (for the Americans, it’s basically our equivalent of Republicans). But I had to admit, after all the turmoil in Australian politics from 2007 onward, I was curious. Abbott was a ruthless Opposition leader during a tumultuous Labor period and he finally wrested victory in a 2013 election after Labor had become a joke of in fighting and trading the leadership (and therefore, the Prime Ministership) back and forth like a couple of kids arguing over a toy. It was widely believed that a change would bring stability and consistency back.

All of the LOLs because after Abbott sat back and watched as Labor imploded as he waged a vicious campaign, it turned out that the top job wasn’t as easy as the whole pointing out what the top person was doing wrong. Abbott was, quite frankly, probably even more of a disaster than Rudd and Gillard put together. Disclaimer: I like Julia Gillard. She was actually my local member and although there was a savage backlash against her after the leadership spill, I do wonder what might’ve happened if she’d just been left alone to get on with it. Instead she was constantly undermined by Rudd, savaged by Abbott and the Press about personal things as well as professional and little attention was paid to the things she was doing/wanted to do. Instead all the focus was on when she would lose the leadership, if there was going to be a challenge, how come she wasn’t married, why was her partner a hairdresser (that’s weird, isn’t it? No, not really homophobic press), why didn’t she have any children (that’s also weird, hey? Also, not really) and she’s got a big ass and wears horrible clothes.

A brutally efficient Opposition Leader, Abbott proved woefully inadequate as a Prime Minister, dithering around doing little and delegating to his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. This book examines just how dysfunctional the two of them were as a pair and how it brought down their government and led to the situation where a spill for the top 2 jobs (PM and Deputy PM) was enacted and Abbott was shown the door. For all his talk, Abbott lasted less time in the top job than either Rudd or Gillard and arguably had a much kinder time due to the influence of a press sympathetic to the right wing (thanks Rupert Murdoch, Alan Jones et al). Despite numerous warnings from well, just about everyone, Abbott steadfastly refused to sack his Chief of Staff, an apparently domineering woman prone to temper tantrums, screaming abuse, sulks and methods that isolated Abbott from almost everyone, including key members of his party and backbenchers who had concerns. She ran an office where everything had to be routed through her and often concerned herself with things like picking flowers or meals for banquets, meaning that important paperwork piled up on her desk and nothing got done. If someone offended Credlin or she didn’t like them, then that person wouldn’t get an audience with the PM. Quite often Abbott made people apologise to Credlin after she had screamed at them or after she had gotten angry about something.

I’m not really interested in whether or not they were having an affair (ugh) because their personal life isn’t my business. But never before had a Prime Minister and his CoS had a relationship like those two did. She fed him from her plate, fixed his hair and make up, accompanied him on holidays and basically guarded his office like an over zealous guard dog. She tried to do everything but the jobs she was doing are not meant for one person, they’re meant for many, which meant that a lot of things began to slide. It created a toxic working environment and atmosphere and Abbott was told many times, if you do not sack her, you will end up losing. He either could not or would not believe it…..right up until Malcolm Turnbull trounced him in a vote for leadership of the Liberal party and therefore, the Prime Ministership. He seemed to operate under some sort of delusional bubble that everything would be fine – he was the meme of that person you see going “This is fine, this is fine, totally fine” as the entire world goes up in flames around them. He is basically Ross from Friends in the episode “The One Where Ross Is Fine”.

Niki Savva was once an advisor to Peter Costello (former Treasurer in John Howard’s lengthy Liberal government reign) and she seems firmly entrenched in the Liberal Party and its ideals so at times this book seems somewhat sympathetic, even as its critiquing Abbott’s mistakes. There’s also no opportunities lost to take a few snide shots at the previous Labor government and its leaders as well. However the book is still quite savage on Abbott and Credlin with plenty of named sources who were prepared to talk and offer up some examples and stories about what life was like under this regime in the office and I’ve read that zero of the claims made in the book have been publicly disputed since its publication. There’s no comment from either Abbott or Credlin themselves, although Savva does include instances when one or the other or both called for her dismissal from writing a column in a national newspaper and his requests to her to stop criticising his Chief of Staff whilst Abbott was still in power. It seemed throughout this novel that Abbott’s primary concern was always Credlin – who was criticising her, who was upsetting her, who was not respecting her. He deferred to her time and time again like a nervous child checking with his mother for approval before doing anything. Ultimately it seemed that he rated her above his desire to be Prime Minister because he failed to heed the warnings and his devotion to her cost him the thing he had worked so hard to obtain.

I enjoyed this. Even if it was just for the perverse pleasure of reading about the downfall of a politician I didn’t like and whose values I do not share.

7/10

Book #134 of 2017

 

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Review: The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

The Way Back
Kylie Ladd
Allen & Unwin
2017, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

All she wanted was to escape. But why does she still feel trapped. A gripping psychological drama by the author of Mothers and Daughters and Into My Arms.

Charlie Johnson is 13 and in her first year of high school. She loves her family, netball and Liam, the cute guy who sits next to her in Science – but most of all she loves horses and horse-riding. Charlie’s parents have leased her a horse, Tic Tac, from the local pony club, but one day they go out for a ride in the national park and only Tic Tac returns…

Four months later, long after the police and the SES have called off the search, Charlie is found wandering injured and filthy, miles from where she was last seen. Her family rejoice in her return, but can anyone truly recover from what Charlie’s been through? When a life has been shattered, how do you put the pieces back together? 

I’ve read a lot of police procedurals and psychological thriller/suspense novels about the race to save someone from an abductor or a vicious serial killer. This isn’t one of those sorts of books.

Instead this book is more focused on the ‘after’ – the what happens after a young teenager is taken against her will and held captive for almost four months in a remote area of a national park by a reclusive and troubled man. That Charlie would return isn’t a question when the reader picks up this book (unless you don’t read blurbs, but in that case you’re probably not reading reviews either) but it’s more how she will return….mentally. How will she cope with what has happened and be able to move on? How will her parents and brother deal with what happened to her while she was taken and the resulting media frenzy that always accompanies such a thing.

Charlie is a horse-mad teenager who spends most of her free time at the stables where she leases a pony named Tic Tac. She’s just started high school and is struggling through the newness of that, of being a high schooler and the negotiating of new friendships, boys, etc. Charlie is a really strong character, she never stops fighting, despite the fact that she is the one in the position of victim, of vulnerability, of relying on someone else who is keeping her captive for the very basics to keep her alive. Still though, she is thinking, trying, planning even as she’s being beaten down and trapped and starved. She backs herself time and time again which for a 13 year old girl was amazingly brave.

Charlie’s parents experience an utter nightmare and the ways in which they cope with her disappearance (or the ways in which they don’t cope, I suppose) were quite fascinating to read about. Charlie’s dad is a fireman, a man of action and he never stops. He spends hours searching, making posters, just constantly doing things in order to get through the days where she’s missing. I found it really easy to put myself in their place, to examine what I would do in such a situation. To be honest I don’t think I’d be the active, always doing things type, always certain that there was still hope. I’d probably the one that fell apart but I guess that would work in my favour, as this book bitingly observes the Australian public like their women openly messily grieving, sobbing in public on television and looking like shit. No calm Lindy Chamberlain or even Rosie Batty types thanks – that makes people uncomfortable because they’re not doing grief “right”.

The role of the media in this book deserves a mention. The media can be a useful tool in a missing persons case in getting the word out to a huge number of people. In the current climate, social media and the immediacy of the 24/7 news cycle means that precious little time is wasted. Photos can be circulated state wide in moments and everyone is walking around looking at twitter or facebook – you don’t even have to be near a televison or watching the news. But the media is very much a double sided sword because they can also be incredibly invasive and unkind in some of the things that go to print, especially when they can’t get their hands on an exclusive story. Some of the media-related things that occur in this story are horrible – psychologically damaging to someone already psychologically damaged. It’s a frustrating element that I think people might not really think about – yes the person is home. Life can go back to “normal”….but it can’t. Because there are so many things that are preventing it from going back to normal and just one of those things are the media packs camped out on the lawns/at the front doors and the stories appearing in various glossies about “What Really Happened!” except they don’t really know what really happened and mostly what’s inside will be whatever some “source close to the family” made up that day. This book is such a thoughtful examination of the after (the title after all is, The Way Back) and it made me think about how detrimental it all must be to continue seeing versions of what happened, some of which bear little or no resemblance to the truth, everywhere you go for people who go through things like what Charlie and her family did. And it’s not just limited to abductions or cases where children are missing but anything really newsworthy. It makes it even harder to return to some sort of ‘normal life’.

I really enjoyed the characterisation in this – Charlie and her more introverted older brother Dan, their mother Rachael who balances hovering somewhat protectively with a full time job and the fireman/stay at home father Matt who is less concerned about homework and asking how things are going. The relationships were intimate but also realistic: the comfortable marriage not without its issues, the breakdowns, the love, the grief. All of the emotions were so well nuanced and made it so easy to connect with both the people and their stories.

Another clever, amazingly well written book from Kylie Ladd examining the intricate thought processes during an unthinkable event from every angle surrounding it.

8/10

Book #130 of 2017

The Way Back is book #42 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Lone Child by Anna George

The Lone Child
Anna George
Penguin Books AUS
2017, 265p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Neve Ayres has always been so careful. Since her mother’s death when Neve was seven, she’s learned to look after herself and to keep her cards close. But now her deliberately constructed world has collapsed: her partner’s left her when she was eight months pregnant. And so, alone with her newborn son, she’s retreated to her cliff-top holiday house in coastal Flinders.

There, another child comes into her life. 

The first time Neve sees Jessie, the small girl is playing on an empty stretch of beach. On the cold autumn day, she is bare-legged and alone, while her mother is distracted by her own troubles. At once, almost despite herself, Neve is intrigued and concerned, and Jessie is drawn to Neve’s kindness – and to her home. 

To Neve’s surprise, Jessie becomes an unlikely source of much needed care for her and her baby. Having been lost in the sleepless haze of new motherhood, Neve is touched, and finds herself grappling with how to best help the forgotten girl. She has the spacious house, the full pantry, the resources . . . But how much can you – should you – do for a stranger’s child?

Hmmm.

This is an interesting book but I have mixed feelings about it.

Neve is a new mother. Her baby son Cliff is only nine weeks old and things have not been easy. Her former partner left her in the last month of her pregnancy, her family are distant and her friends are mostly without children. Neve is using her father’s coastal house to try and establish herself at this parenting thing and hopefully come to terms with how she feels about being a mother.

Parenting any newborn is hard, doing it on your own with zero support is even harder. Cliff is not sleeping well and Neve’s hopes of feeding for an hour and then sleeping for three are fast becoming dashed. Instead she finds herself feeding constantly and struggling to piece together more than a few moments of sleep. She is also struggling emotionally, not really feeling connected to her baby or with being a parent at all. A lot of people speak of the instant bond they have with their baby, the immediate rush of overwhelming love but it isn’t like that for everyone. It’s not uncommon for some people to feel detachment or even resentment, for the small being that has interrupted their lives so thoroughly and is either permanently attached to some part of your anatomy or screaming to be.  Neve at times does seem to be blindly going through the motions – she doesn’t even refer to the baby by his name in the narrative until a scene in the book where someone asks her what the baby’s name is. In fact Neve shows more interest in the young girl she sees on the beach, perhaps because she’s alone and then Neve ends up having to save her but it’s something that she feels more connected to than her own son. Later on, when she discovers the child near her home and invites her in, she’s incensed at the child being neglected.

Neve snaps to judge “Jessie’s” mother (Leah) from their first interaction and it’s admittedly true that their first two encounters aren’t positive. However the narrative unfolds to share Leah’s story as well and reads as almost a gentle warning against those immediate judgements based perhaps on someone’s appearance and possessions (or lack thereof). I actually found Leah’s story far more engaging than Neve’s struggles to bond with her son in her immaculate piece of modern real estate overlooking the beach and I wanted to know more about Leah’s life. It had come to such a desperate point and she needed support and praise because she was doing the best she could in an utterly bleak situation and still it was not enough, for her or her kids. With threats of services hanging over her head, Leah is in a panic and makes several quite terrible mistakes.

Neve’s state of mind is questionable at the time – she’s sleep deprived and possibly depressed, struggling to cope. She doesn’t seem particularly attached to anything or anyone. Even talking about the ex who left her she seems more annoyed that now she’s on her own rather than grieving a loss of a relationship. She does seem to latch on to “Jessie” quite quickly and there’s a bit of almost woo-woo about Jessie being almost some sort of baby whisperer that magically calms Cliff. Neve is so uneven in her behaviour that it even causes people to question whether or not Jessie even exists, after she confides in someone – almost to the point where Neve herself begins to question it. I think this could’ve been a really good thread if it had been run with a little longer, to the point where everyone was questioning it but it’s over and done with very quickly and the reader knows Jessie is real because they also read the point of view of her mother searching for her. So it serves little point in the narrative other than for someone to interfere by bringing in someone else and for the both of them to begin making decisions for Neve, which I found a bit arrogant.

If this is to be psychological suspense I can honestly say that I found the suspense part lacking and therefore it left me with a bit of “is that it?” at the end of the book. I was expecting a more dramatic conclusion I think, perhaps a longer and more drawn out type of suspense. However it just seemed to be over quite quickly and left me feeling a bit like I was missing a final chapter. But then again, that’s my personal preferences coming in to play perhaps. I’m not a big fan of abrupt endings which don’t address certain things or give you answers you’ve been looking for for the past 200 pages.

However I liked the exploration of motherhood and the ways in which women can be judged on their mothering skills, even by other women. Other mothers.

7/10

Book #126 of 2017

The Lone Child is book #41 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: Daintree by Annie Seaton

Daintree (The Porter Sisters #2)
Annie Seaton
Pan Macmillan AUS
2016, 326p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The Daintree breeds survivors, those who can weather the storms, heat and floods that come hand-in-hand with its beauty. Doctor Emma Porter is one such survivor, dedicated to her patients and to preserving this precious land where she has made a home.

Emma’s quiet life is disrupted when Doctor Jeremy Langford starts working at the hospital, bringing back painful memories: Jeremy was her first love and embodies all that she left behind in Sydney. Jeremy has demons of his own, however, and the tight-knit community of Dalrymple seems to promise the peace he has been looking for.

But while some come to the Daintree to find shelter, others are here to exploit the rainforest’s riches. And they will stop at nothing to get their hands on its bounty.

For the middle book in this trilogy, we move away from the Northern Territory to north Queensland and the tropical rainforest setting of the Daintree. Emma works as an emergency doctor and also has a practice in town where she focuses on her passion of a holistic approach. The local area has been understaffed for some time but it appears that finally they are getting someone to help share the load. It’s hard to say who is more surprised at seeing the other – Emma or Dr Jeremy Langford.

Years ago at university in Sydney the two were in an intense relationship which ended abruptly with the death of Emma’s father when she had to go back to the Northern Territory. A series of {deliberate} misunderstandings lead them both to think that the other has ended things suddenly. The two were very different – Jeremy comes from a very prominent and wealthy Sydney family of private practitioners with a private school upbringing and Emma’s family always struggled to make the mango farm profitable. She had plenty of insecurity about whether or not she would fit in in Jeremy’s world. After a long period of no contact, the two will be working closely together and living in close proximity.

As well as dealing with the reappearance of Jeremy in her life and what that might mean for her both professionally and personally, Emma has noticed that there’s something weird going on in the forest. There are definitely people up to something in there and when she stumbles across something that gives her a clue, it could threaten her life.

This was another really solid story with a combination of romance and suspense that blended together really well in an exotic location. Emma is a very solitary person at the book’s opening – she lives in an isolated cottage accessed by a punt across a river with temperamental amenities. Although she works with people and occasionally socialises with a group, she seems to shun close relationships and seems to enjoy keeping her distance. I enjoyed her approach to medicine and the way in which she looks to traditional methods to supplement her modern knowledge.

Jeremy was an okay character, I didn’t really love him. I felt his assumption that Emma had dropped out because she couldn’t cope in Sydney quite arrogant and also unfounded. She got excellent marks – in fact Emma remembers to herself how Jeremy used to sulk if she got a better mark than he did. Jeremy’s background was a bit of a cliche – rich doctor dad, socialite mother, over-achieving brothers. Jeremy wants something different for himself and after a really traumatic event that he witnessed that touched him personally, he wants to approach his career in medicine quite differently. That was interesting although I do feel that he overcame his obstacles about practicing in an emergency department sort of magically, merely by telling Emma about it. That felt a bit of an easy way out for me and I’ve liked to see him do a bit more work to overcome this almost a form of PTSD. There was also little resolution with the actions of one of his family members that I felt could’ve been addressed for the sake of closure.

The mystery of what was going on in the forest was a really strong part of the story. At first I definitely thought the culprits were up to something else and I didn’t even consider the possibility of what they were actually doing. It’s plausible and I have to admit that although I was right in my suspicions about a couple of people that were involved, I was definitely surprised by the identity of the final person. It felt like the suspense built really nicely and there were a couple of really dangerous events that raised the tension level a few notches.

Although this is the second book in the series, for me it’s the final one as I read the third one first. All together they are a really nice trilogy. I thought all the sisters were great, they were all strong, independent women with interesting careers (chopper pilot, doctor, engineer) and the romances weren’t super strong parts of the plots, more like a complimentary piece of the overall picture. I’d love to read more romantic suspense novels set in rural Australia – we have such a broad array of settings that are ripe for this sort of genre and Annie Seaton has utilised some of them really cleverly in this trilogy.

8/10

Book #124 of 2017

Daintree is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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Review: Fatal Mistake by Karen M. Davis

Fatal Mistake (Lexie Rogers #3)
Karen M. Davis
Simon & Schuster AUS
2017, 342p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Detective Lexie Rogers is tough, smart and at the top of her game. She’s seen it all, from bikies, blood and betrayal to drugs, deviants and deception … and the violent knife attack that almost killed her as a young cop on the beat.

Lexie’s sent on the job of a lifetime — to go deep undercover, as beautiful Lara Wild, a drug distributor, to expose a huge dealing ring among Sydney’s most treacherous criminals. What she discovers is that being undercover is the safest place to be, especially when you’re a cop with target on your head, but one false move means she’ll die. And creeping from the shadows is the darkness of her past, something she can never outrun.

Lexie knows she can’t trust anyone — but the trouble is, she’s not even sure if she can trust herself.

This is the third book in the Detective Lexie Rogers series and it’s been one of my most anticipated books for a couple of years now. In fact I’ve just looked and realised that the second book came out in 2014. I hadn’t realised it had been that long.

Lexie is about to start her first undercover operation, working with a familiar face in Rex Donaldson. Lexie is posing as Rex’s niece to get close to a drug supplier and she’s playing the role of a beautiful, confident but unattainable woman in order to get their target’s attention. While she’s working this job her boyfriend Josh is in northern NSW working another job looking for drug plantations. Soon not only do both of them discover far more than what they bargained for but also threats to their relationship from different directions. Then Rex faces a challenge of a different sort leaving Lexie without his protection and backup in meetings. This forces her to take a more confident role and places her even closer to the target.

I have really enjoyed this series. This one gave a really interesting glimpse into what it might be like to be an undercover operative and I liked reading about the tactics and how everything came together, especially when several separate operations begin to blend into one large one. The book starts with a big bang and to be honest that kind of sets the tone for the whole book. Between Josh, Lexie, her colleagues at her station and also Rex, there’s so much going on here that it feels fast paced, even when Lexie is only laying the groundwork and gathering information. The action revolves between 5-6 or so key players, including a couple of new characters. As well as her undercover operation, Lexie also has an up and coming court case hanging over her where she will have to give evidence against the man that tried to kill her. Her life is pretty stressful at the moment, she has to make sure she plays her role to perfection. One slip and she will be dead. And if someone else has their way, she’ll be dead anyway, blown or not.

The author is a former detective and undercover operative herself and I think she takes care to portray the difficulties involved in each role and the danger that officers constantly face in their day to day lives. Lexie over the course of the three books has been attacked in various ways, other officers are killed in explosions or on the job in some way, there are constant threats to their safety. Despite this, they go on doing the job, dedicated to trying to make a safer environment for people. Lexie lost a brother and has suffered from that and her other experiences but she keeps picking herself back up and getting back into it. I find dedication like that admirable – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I also find it a tad bit crazy!

Even though I’m sure Lexie could be revisited in the future if desired, things at the end of this book felt quite final – well wrapped up so it’s possible that this is the last Lexie Rogers novel and the author may move on to something else. If that’s the case then I think this has been a very well executed trilogy and I’ve loved each of the books for the insight into police procedure, a glimpse at a seedy underworld I’ll hopefully never be acquainted with in reality and a protagonist that was entertaining and gutsy. My personal favourite character has always been Rex Donaldson, for many reasons, I just think he felt so unique and layered from the very beginning and I’ve really been invested in his story arc.

I’d happily recommend this book (and the entire series) to anyone who enjoys a good gritty crime novel.

8/10

Book #121 of 2017

Fatal Mistake is book #39 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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Review: Secrets Of The Springs by Kerry McGinnis

Secrets Of The Springs
Kerry McGinnis
Penguin Random House AUS
2017, 353p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When Orla Macrae receives a letter asking her to return to the family cattle property where she grew up, she does so grudgingly. Her estranged uncle Palmer may be dying, but he is the last person she wants to see, not when she’s made a new life far away from where she lost so much. But on his deathbed he utters a few enigmatic words about a secret locked away and a clue as to its whereabouts. 

Intrigued, Orla decides to stay, reconnecting with old friends and taking a chance on a long-time dream of opening the homestead to tourists. Continuing the search for her uncle’s elusive secret, she discovers far more than she bargained for – a shocking truth about her parents’ marriage, and the confession of a chilling murder. 

Set in the stunning countryside north of the Barrier Ranges near Broken Hill, this is an authentic tale of life on the land and a gripping mystery about old family secrets and finding love in the harsh Australian bush.

This is the third Kerry McGinnis book that I’ve read and I’ve really enjoyed them all. They all have quite remote, very unusual settings. This one takes place near Broken Hill in very outback New South Wales and revolves around an old farming family. When she was still just a teenager, Orla left the home she was raised in after the death of her parents but a letter has summoned her back. Her former guardian, her uncle Palmer is dying and he has expressed a wish to see her before he dies. Although reluctant, Orla travels back from where she’s been living, mostly to put affairs in order. But a few muttered words from her uncle about an old secret have Orla rethinking her plans to leave as quickly as possible. Instead she finds more reasons than she could’ve imagined to stay.

Interestingly this book is set some time ago – around the late 1970s, so it takes some time for Orla to be found as she’s living on an island off the coast of South Australia. No one has cell/mobile phones and travel and communication is slower and more laborious. Technically it’s not that long ago but technology has come so far that it feels a very different time, in terms of communicating with people and also advertising and marketing a business.

After the death of her parents in a car accident, Orla went to live with her uncle Palmer, her father’s brother. He was not a demonstrative person and although he fed and clothed her, he didn’t show her affection or love and she got the feeling she was an inconvenience he couldn’t escape due to familial duty. Instead Orla found comfort and affection from her uncle’s cook/housekeeper who is still in residence when she arrives back when her uncle is dying. Also still working on the family farm is a man Orla once loved, a man she also left but it’s a love that’s so tied up in pain that she’s not even sure how to act around him.

This book was really way more than I expected in terms of mystery and intrigue. Orla had always thought the death of her parents was a tragic accident, until her dying uncle muttered a few words and then all of a sudden she found herself investigating what turned out to be a murder. I really enjoyed Orla returning to the town she grew up in, reconnecting with some of the locals, shunning some others and struggling with the desire to tidy things up and go versus the idea that maybe she could actually make her home here again. For financial reasons it makes no sense to sell the family farm and so she must come up with a way to make it profitable and her ideas are very good.

The romance in this is unusual but I found that it really worked for me. The beginning of it, before Orla fled, was certainly different and in the time that Orla has been gone, both her and Mark have known terrible grief and loss. They have something of a second chance, once Orla stops allowing her pain to hold him at arms length, almost like she’s punishing him. Orla, whether she likes it or not at the beginning, fits into this community. I felt that it really showed that she still belonged there, even after the time she’d spent away. Circumstances forced her back, forced her to address the aspects of her past that were so difficult for her and it just felt like she should always stay. Her ideas for how she can support herself are innovative and clever, making the most of herself and people she knows. She begins building relationships and friendships, links with people. I loved the setting as well. I’ve never been to Broken Hill or the surrounding area, it’s an interesting in town in that it is located in one state but actually shares more with another, including taking on the timezone of its neighbouring state. I haven’t read too many books set there or near there either so I really enjoyed being able to ‘visit’ somewhere new and learn a bit about what living there would be like.

I really enjoyed this and found it a refreshing take on the rural genre. The choice to set it in the past but not back in the early 1900s set it apart for me and I found the story riveting. I was invested in Orla’s attempts to unravel the mystery her uncle left as well as find her place. It reminded me that I have still a half dozen or so of Kerry McGinnis’ back catalogue to read and I really need to get around to fitting them in because I like her books so much.

8/10

Book #104 of 2017

Secrets Of The Springs is book #34 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

 

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