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Review: The Lost Summers Of Driftwood by Vanessa McCausland

The Lost Summers Of Driftwood
Vanessa McCausland
Harper Collins AUS
2019, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

She remembered this part of the trip during the day time. Her sisters on either side in the back. The sunlight flickering through branches was like looking through a kaleidoscope. How could that be so long ago? How could so much have gone wrong?

Phoebe’s life has fallen apart and there’s only one place left to go. Alone and adrift after a failed marriage proposal, she flees Sydney to her family’s abandoned holiday cottage.

On the slow-moving river Phoebe is confronted with the legacy of her older sister’s suicide, a year before. Why did Karin leave a note written in flowers and walk into the water?

Phoebe’s childhood love, Jez, has moved back to the beautiful old house, Driftwood, one jetty down. He’s married now and the home has become a refuge for an unlikely little community.

As the river begins to give up its secrets, Phoebe finds herself caught up in old feelings and new mysteries.

The Lost Summers of Driftwood is a story of lost loves, rekindled passions, tragedy and betrayal set against the backdrop of an idyllic south coast town.

This book arrived wrapped up like a Christmas present and inside were beautiful flower petals as well, sprinkled all over the cover. This book has a phenomenally beautiful cover – it really draws the eye and the two colours are so striking together. I was looking forward to reading it a lot so I decided to squeeze it in before I left for holidays (today! We are driving north as this post goes up). It’s a relatively quick read and not difficult to get involved in.

Phoebe was supposed to get engaged to her boyfriend. They’ve bought the ring together, they’ve booked the idyllic holiday to Hawaii where it’s supposed to happen. Only he tells her that he can’t go through with it and so upon return to Sydney, Phoebe flees to her grandparents’ home down the south coast of NSW. She spent summers there as a child with her sisters and until a year ago, her sister had been living there. Then Karen walked into the river and Phoebe has been struggling ever since. Perhaps staying at the house Karen was living in might give her some clarity – but all it does is make her sure that Karen didn’t take her own life.

Phoebe’s first love Jez is living in his family home, with his wife and several boarders just a short distance away. Despite the attraction that rises up between them again, Phoebe allows herself to get caught up in the life at Driftwood, spending the evenings eating the food the Texan cooks and drinking copious cocktails. Jez’s wife Asha is prickly and troubled but the cottage is helping heal her, see that her life has not been satisfying of late.

So summer is in full swing here and although I’ve been lucky where I live, many parts of Australia, including where my parents live and the very place we’ll be visiting, are in the grip of an early bushfire season. A lot of books that release around Christmas are northern hemisphere specific and I always find it hard to get excited about reading about snow and wood fires and cosy jackets when it’s 40 degrees and feeling like a furnace outside. So this is a quintessential Australian summer book – hot days, swimming in the river, barbecues outside in the evening, an icy cocktail. It even includes the realistic threat of bushfires and the decision of staying and defending properties.

I really enjoyed maybe the first third of this, which is a glimpse into Phoebe’s life as the social media manager for a champagne company, selling the lifestyle of the brand as also the preparation and trip to Hawaii, how it all goes wrong and her fleeing to the family holiday home. Phoebe is at a real crossroads in both her personal and her professional life. She’s also still grieving the loss of her sister just a year ago. She and her sister were close and Phoebe doesn’t feel connected to either her mother or her other sister. Karen and Phoebe were connected, they saw similarities in themselves and the differences they had from their mother and other sister. Without Karen, Phoebe seems to feel alone and adrift. A part of her is missing. And after spending some time in the house where Karen was living, talking to the people that spent time with her, she becomes convinced that Karen would not have chosen to end her own life. But if she didn’t…..then how she came to be in the river suddenly feels like it’s even more sinister.

I don’t like books about infidelity, as I’ve mentioned before. They’re just not my thing and I’m yet to read one that presents it in a way where I can understand and sympathise with the characters and their predicament. So I was not at all invested in Phoebe and Jez. They’re teenage sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in what must be fifteen years. Phoebe left the holiday cottage behind for a busier and more glamorous life. And now Jez is married and even though the marriage is rocky, his and Phoebe’s actions left me feeling very uncomfortable. Asha, Jez’s wife is openly stand-offish to Phoebe at first, as his ex-girlfriend and teenage love. And it’s obvious that she was right to be. Phoebe basically starts spending every day there, hanging out for meals cooked by one of Jez and Asha’s boarders and even staying there when the fires threaten. It felt quite awkward and rude as heck too. I didn’t buy that it was this huge romance that had stood the test of time apart – it actually didn’t feel like Phoebe had given Jez more than a minute’s thought until he came to see her when she arrived at the cottage. Jez came off as sly and spineless and incredibly untrustworthy. I didn’t enjoy him as a character at all and didn’t see his appeal. I actually felt quite sorry for Asha and even though she was abrupt and prickly, you couldn’t blame her in the end.

It takes rather a long time for the story of if Karen committed suicide or not to go anywhere and I’m not sure the resolution was satisfactory for me, how Phoebe managed to uncover the answers she needed. For me the setting and atmosphere were very good but the actual story itself sort of tailed off and lacked the impact and dramatic closure that I was expecting.

7/10

Book #212 of 2019


The Lost Summers Of Driftwood is book #76 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019. Just 4 books to go in order to complete my challenge!

 

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Review: Return To Stringybark Creek by Karly Lane

Return To Stringybark Creek (The Callahans Of Stringybark Creek #3)
Karly Lane
Allen & Unwin
2019, 328p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When top-flight journalists Hadley Callahan and Mitch Samuals married two years ago, theirs had been declared the celebrity wedding of the year. But, now, Hadley unexpectedly returns to Stringybark Creek alone to tell her parents one major piece of news while determinedly hiding another even more explosive secret.

Hadley’s big society wedding had killed any hopes that Oliver Dawson, the Callahans’ neighbour and Griff Callahan’s best friend, had nurtured since his teenage years when Hadley was his best friend’s little sister and thus out-of-bounds.

While Hadley’s in town, the shocking suicide of one of their old school friends brings them together as they mourn their loss. Hadley and Ollie begin a campaign to raise awareness of rural mental health, both wanting to make a difference.

With Mitch putting pressure on Hadley to keep quiet, and the secret she’s keeping causing her great anguish, Hadley’s feelings for Ollie take her by surprise. But her life is so messed up at the moment – what future could they possibly have together?

Return to Stringybark Creek concludes the Callahan family trilogy with a delightfully irresistible story of loyalty, hope and the importance of staying true to yourself.

I’ve read and enjoyed the previous two books in this series and I was quite interested in this one because in the previous book, it was discovered that Hadley’s husband was cheating on her but although that was a shocking revelation, an even more shocking one was precisely who he was cheating with. And so with this final book being Hadley’s I wanted to see the fallout, because it was clearly going to have an adverse effect on the entire family.

Hadley returns to her family home after the separation from Mitch, her husband. She’s being ‘kept out of the way’ by the network so that they can spin the separation and eventual divorce in a way that won’t impact negatively on Mitch, their golden boy. Hadley finds herself taking a break from work and becoming back involved in life with her family and neighbours, through good times and bad. She also finally learns about the crush that Oliver Dawson, from the neighbouring farm, has had on her since they were in school.

Oliver was around plenty in the previous book as he’s both Griff’s best friend and also Olivia’s twin. I have to admit, there’s a fair bit of hypocritical posturing from both Oliver and Griff that got a bit annoying after Hadley found out Ollie had feelings for her and they start to make a few tentative steps towards taking their friendship to another level. It’s very ‘how dare you touch my sister’ which, coming from Griff, is quite laughable as he spent the entire previous book doing an awful of of touching to Oliver’s twin sister. In 2019, it’s a bit old fashioned to be reading about brothers going the overprotective route of women who are well into adulthood. I can understand the Griff perhaps thought that Hadley was in a vulnerable place – but does he also not know his own best friend? This is not some random from the pub, it’s a man he’s known probably his entire life. And pretty much everyone except Hadley seemed to know how he felt about her, although even if Griff was perhaps oblivious to that, he should still be able to recognise what sort of man his own best mate is. Also the way in which Hadley is referred to as ‘back on the market’ the second she arrives in town after separating from her husband is a bit of a distasteful term. She’s not a good for purchase.

Where this book does excel is tackling rural depression and suicide. A friend of Oliver’s takes his own life and the entire town are in grief and shock about it. He was a young man and even though he’d had a few setbacks, no one could’ve predicted that this would be the action he would take. Oliver is devastated and angry and he wants to do something about it, to make it so that people don’t have to feel like this is their option. It’s an admirable goal and he’s willing to do whatever it takes in order to spread the word, to try and make it so that people can talk about the things that are bothering them. Change the mindset of country or farming people that you keep that inside, don’t tell anyone if you’re struggling or feeling down. It’s about encouraging conversation, removing the taboo of it. Opening up a dialogue so that hopefully people can realise they are not alone in feeling this way and that there are things they can do, coping mechanisms. That’s a really great part of the book, how involved the community gets and the cheeky idea Olivia comes up with to raise awareness and try and shine a light on the issue.

For me though, the resolution of Hadley’s marriage and the way it ended, lacked something. Maybe I’m just a meaner person than Hadley but I felt her reluctance to tell her parents (so they ended up finding out on public tv….) was childish, she allowed her ex-husband to basically walk all over her and there was a lot of seemingly attempting to frame the culprits as victims, one in particular and although I know things are complex, you can’t ignore how it started and the absolute hurt and betrayal of that. The unapologetic “sorry you felt hurt by it but I saw my attempt for happiness and took it and I’d do it again no matter what” felt incredibly off to me and Hadley’s attempt to make nice at the end, because she still loves the person that hurt her, was selfless but also felt a bit wrong. Like she made all the concessions and the people who acted selfishly and hurt her, made none. Mitch is a complete tosser and although Hadley is well rid of him, she’s not really, is she? And I feel like having to put up with him in her life still, is a poor outcome.

Overall I enjoyed this series but I feel like this one for me personally, wasn’t the strongest instalment.

6/10

Book #211 of 2019

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Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend
Charlotte Wood
Allen & Unwin
2019, 272p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

People went on about death bringing friends together, but it wasn’t true. The graveyard, the stony dirt – that’s what it was like now . . . Despite the three women knowing each other better than their own siblings, Sylvie’s death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.

Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her?

They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house – not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold.

Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface – and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.

The Weekend explores growing old and growing up, and what happens when we’re forced to uncover the lies we tell ourselves. Sharply observed and excruciatingly funny, this is a jewel of a book: a celebration of tenderness and friendship that is nothing short of a masterpiece.

This is a difficult review to write because it’s one of those books where I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I enjoyed some aspects of it but some others really left me cold and overall I think that when I was finished, there were no lasting feelings about it, it’s the sort of book I’ll probably forget I’ve read until it wins a plethora of awards next year and I’ll go to read it and then suddenly remember that I already have.

It’s the story of Jude, Wendy and Adele, three women in their seventies who meet over Christmas at the holiday home of their recently deceased friend Sylvie. Sylvie’s partner has already sold their Sydney flat and left to go back overseas so the job of cleaning up the holiday home and getting it ready for sale falls to the three friends. Without Sylvie their dynamic of four is suddenly three and now it’s out of whack. She was a calming influence, someone who seemed to understand each of them and when they link up for the house sale, the whole structure of their friendship suddenly feels uncertain.

The positives for the book is that there is a lot of very nice and real stuff about friendship here – even as the three women are negotiating a different stage in theirs. It’s been an enduring friendship for them all, evolving over different stages of their lives encompassing successes, failures, grief, joy. The grief for Sylvie is all-encompassing too, something that all of them are struggling with. They’re all getting to ‘that age’ too, where their own mortality is staring them in the face. They’ve lost people along the way and one of them is even a widow, but the inevitability of their lifespan is something that is unavoidable now. And I think a lot of people will relate to that, that fear of getting older, of becoming infirm and relying on others to do the simplest things. The idea that one day we all just cease to exist and may even be forgotten.

But unfortunately for me, the story felt meandering, circular and like it was going nowhere. They’re supposed to be cleaning out this house but really only Jude is doing much work. Adele is worrying about her future as a probably homeless 70+ woman living Air BnB check to pension check and look, that’s a real concern for many people in the future. Housing prices have pushed many people away from ever being able to own their own property and when they’re not earning, housing insecurity will be a real issue in the next generation or so. But she’s so self-involved and lazy – assuming she will get the good bedroom, taking easy tasks as her due and then really barely doing them. Wendy is concerned with her dog who is 17 and struggling with pretty much every facet of life. The story of the dog made me uncomfortable and I’m aware it was probably supposed to. The dog is deaf, anxious, probably mostly blind, unable to control too many bodily functions and arthritic. I know how much pets can be a part of the family, how much they can tether you to memories and events. But honestly, that poor dog just came across like it was suffering rather than living and Wendy’s steadfast determination to hang onto him felt more cruel than loving owner. It was about her, not about the dog and what was best. And many people might argue that life is always better….I would differ. Sometimes it’s not. And part of owning a pet is assuming that responsibility too. Making that decision when the suffering outweighs the living. I felt like the dog honestly took up far too much of the story and there was far too much involvement of dog piss for me. Like I got it the first time, I didn’t need it repeated as a recurring plot point. And where I might have liked Wendy I found myself resenting her. Even though I got why she was so attached to the dog. But every time the dog was on the page, it was like here we go again, another lengthy description of the dog and its suffering and trembling and weird pacing.

There felt for me, a lack of depth here….the weirdness of Jude’s situation, the mystery of Wendy’s widowhood and academic lifestyle, even Sylvie seems more of a shadow than a character that brought them all to the house to clean it out. The writing is very good and Charlotte Wood is a wonderful writer so that’s to be expected. There were things in the story I could appreciate but overall, the direction felt lacking. Like for a large portion of the book very little of note happened except some cleaning, bickering and backstory and then it all kind of came to a head quite suddenly. And then it was over. I wanted more from them, more meaningful interactions. Most of this felt like it took place in the character’s own heads.

6/10

Book #206 of 2019

The Weekend is book #74 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

The Blue Rose
Kate Forsyth
Vintage (Penguin Random House AUS)
2019, 368p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.

Viviane de Faitaud has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau’s orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau’s new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.

David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family. Angry and embittered, David sails away from England with Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, who hopes to open up trade with Imperial China.

In Canton, the British embassy at last receives news from home, including their first reports of the French Revolution. David hears the story of ‘The Blue Rose’, a Chinese fable of impossible love, and discovers the blood-red rose growing in the wintry garden. He realises that he is still in love with Viviane and must find her.

Viviane escapes the guillotine and returns to the ruin of Chateau de Belisima to rebuild her life. David carrying a cluster of rosehips finds her there, and together they decide to grow the fabled red rose of China in France.

Historical fiction is actually a new genre for me, relatively speaking in terms of my reading. I’ve mostly started reading a lot more of it since I began blogging but I haven’t read a lot set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. This book centres around a difficult time in France – the monarchy is struggling for popularity and a starving general population are clamouring for more rights, a bigger slice of the pie. Aristocrats like Viviane and her father are on a collision course with a new machine known as the guillotine, named for the man who invented it.

Viviane is the only child of a Marquis who spends much of his time at Court, ingratiating himself with the King. Viviane embarrassed herself the only time he took her to Court and so she’s been banished to the country estate she will inherit from her deceased mother through the female line. The Marquis has little interest in the estate, other than to take the money it earns but he leaves an Aunt of Viviane’s to keep an eye on her and report back any transgressions in behaviour ill-fitting of the daughter of a Marquis. When he marries again, his new wife has a hankering for an English garden, all the rage with the wealthy in France at the time, so the Marquis employs David Stronach, a Welsh gardener to create a masterpiece. Viviane and David fall in love during his time on the estate, despite Viviane knowing that a future can never be theirs. Her father would never permit her to marry someone not of equal status and this is proven when her father eventually returns to the Chateau with news that Viviane will wed a man he is in debt to, an ageing Duc with a cruel temper.

I really enjoyed the character of Viviane and I think if she’d been left to manage her Chateau the way she wished, she probably would’ve had a lot of very happy people who relied on her. She is quite daring and a bit of a tomboy, she’d much prefer to play with her ‘milk brother’ than sit and embroider or whatever young ladies are supposed to do. She enjoys walking through the woods, riding her horse and raising her doves. When David comes, she’s eager to learn about plants and the gardens and also where he’s from and what his life is like. She has been sheltered I suppose, other than her briefly disastrous time at Court and having him around is something of a novelty as she doesn’t seem to associate with many people her own age. David is sweet and quite lovely but he’s also a bit naive and thinks them being together is just as easy as Viviane telling her father no or running away with him. It takes him a long time to realise exactly what her father will do to separate them and make sure that Viviane lives her life according to his bidding.

After they are separated, the book takes a grim turn. Viviane ends up in Court and has a front row seat as the revolution starts and the ending of the monarchy is called for and gathers steam. She witnesses its downfall, the callous way in which the King and Queen are treated and sees countless people being sent to the new blade. The streets just about run red with blood as anyone deemed an aristocrat or sympathiser is beheaded, often all their families and associates are beheaded as well. Viviane however, manages to survive the relentless purging. In a moment of orchestrated chaos she is able to escape and eventually find her way back home, where her aim is to rebuild her beloved Chateau and restore it and its surrounds to their former glory, free from the tyranny of her father. This part of the book felt like Forsyth built the tension very well, the descriptions of the jail and the uncertainty of every day were very well done. No one knew what their fate was until their name was called, so there was a real sense of hopelessness and doom hanging over every one. Some would try to be stoic but generally most lost their composure when faced with the new weapon.

Meanwhile David was in China, supposedly searching for a red rose but I found this part of the book to be a bit of a drag – a lot of it revolves around their party just waiting for an audience with the Emperor and then not much happening as their efforts of friendship and trade don’t go to plan. Then at the end David makes a very convenient friend which grants him access to the very thing he seeks and makes his quest quite easy to complete. It felt quite out of step with the other parts of the book as this is happening as Viviane is watching France descend into chaos around her so to be yanked out of that and go to China where not much is happening at all wasn’t so much of a respite as it was jarring.

Overall I enjoyed this but it’s not my favourite Forsyth book.

8/10

Book #193 of 2019

The Blue Rose is book #73 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

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Review: Up On Horseshoe Hill by Penelope Janu

Up On Horseshoe Hill
Penelope Janu
Harlequin AUS
2019, 390p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A kiss can change your life …

Jemima Kincaid loves her home, her horses and her job as a farrier. Life has not been kind to her, but Jemima is happy in the close-knit rural community of Horseshoe Hill, which rallied around in her hour of need. Even so, she is fiercely independent and will never rely on anyone again.

Particularly a man like Finn Blackwood.

An infuriatingly attractive geneticist and wild animal vet, Finn threatens not only the serenity of Jemima’s present, but that of the future she has so carefully mapped out. But as their paths continue to cross, she finds her attraction to Finn impossible to counter, even as the trauma of her past threatens to undo her. Finn is fascinated by Jemima’s solitary nature and unique vulnerabilities. But Jemima knows all about loss, and how to avoid it. Don’t let anyone get close in the first place …

As the past begins to cast long shadows, Jemima and Finn discover that a kiss can bring worlds together-or tear them apart. Will they finally face their fears and find love on Horseshoe Hill?

I love Penelope Janu’s books. I’ve read four of them now and every single one of them appeals to me like they were written for me. They’re also the sort of books I like to re-read and I don’t re-read a lot these days.

Jemima (known as Jet) lives in a small rural town out of Dubbo in Western NSW. She’s lost a lot in her life and she lives in a mostly solitary way now, with only a few friends or people she connects with regularly. She works as a farrier for ponies/horses and local animals – things like alpacas. And occasionally she gets called in to Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, to help take care of some of the animals there that have hooves.

Jet’s rather comfortable life is turned upside down with the arrival of Finn Blackwood, an international big animal vet and animal geneticist. Her uncle has hired him to get to the bottom of the mysterious death of a handful of his prize thoroughbreds years ago. Jet has tried to put that traumatic incident and her role in it out of her head for a long time now and Finn’s presence and questions stirs up bad feelings and the nightmares that plagued her after the event. She doesn’t want to talk to him, especially about that night. She definitely doesn’t want him renting the property close to the small cottage where she lives. And she definitely doesn’t want him to make her fear losing him either.

There are some similarities in these books – the male love interests are foreign, incredibly capable and often in a position of authority or investigating something the female character did or has done in the past or may have done or is pretending they didn’t do or know about. The women have usually suffered loss, trauma or both (sometimes those two are deeply connected) and tend to live that sort of more solitary life. But for me, that’s what I love about them. Because the male love interests are always characters I really enjoy reading about – their jobs, their histories, how they came to be involved in the heroine’s life. They always have such interesting jobs and Finn’s is no different. He’s worked in Africa on conservation with rhinos and is currently working for the Western Plains Zoo as well as helping out Edward, Jet’s uncle. And the ways in which they get tied up in knots around the main characters are totally my thing!

I went to Western Plains Zoo a long time ago now – I was about 12. It was a 7hr drive I think, from where I lived and my dad doesn’t believe in wasting a day driving, so we left at like, 1 or 2am. Got there at 7am, left our stuff at the hotel and went to the zoo. Look the zoo is BIG. So big it’s recommended you take your car around it (which we did) or hire bikes. We were there all day and fell into a coma in our hotels that night before 8.30pm. What I remember about the zoo is minimal – I attended the lion feeding. I remember walking. Everything else is a bit of a blur, but I’d love to back one day and take my kids. So I loved the inclusion of the zoo in this story and the fact that Finn and Jet both do work there. Giraffes and rhinos and elephants are actually 3 of my favourite animals, just behind little penguins. We are members of the Zoo here in Melbourne and try and visit all 3 regularly. Despite the fact that I can see the argument for not keeping these sorts of animals in captivity, there’s also the reality that without it, they all won’t exist at some stage in the future. They’ll just be a picture in a history book. Rhinos are hunted relentlessly for the properties their tusks are supposed to possess. Elephants are hunted for their ivory tusks too. And other animals like giraffes and lions are hunted just to be big game trophies, heads mounted on rich people’s walls. Zoos have moved away from animals in cages and places like Western Plains and Werribee Zoo (and many others around the world) have tried really hard to replicate a more open, savannah like experience for their big animals where they can roam but without the threat of predators. Or hunters. There’s an emphasis on minimal keeper interaction as well, just enough for them to be able to do necessary medical checks. I’ve fed giraffes at Melbourne Zoo as a part of their behind the scenes experience and the emphasis is very much on the giraffes only coming over if they want to (we have food, so they usually do) and not ever touching them. Giraffes look so inviting, with their big brown eyes and their long eyelashes and docile expressions. But for me, it was just enough to be able to be that close to one, I didn’t need to have to touch it to make the experience real.

I digress! What I really loved about this book was we get to see a vulnerable side of Finn as well when he suffers a medical emergency. I really like how time is taken to show some of these capable, intimidating men in positions of weakness and relying on the female character albeit reluctantly! Finn is also an exercise in patience and persistence because Jet really does have a lot of trust issues and she’s also traumatised by the incident at the barn and potentially her own contribution and how that will make her feel, if it all comes out. She stonewalls Finn again and again but he can’t walk away from her. And watching Jet realise that she doesn’t want him to is so good.

I loved this. It makes me want to reread all Penelope Janu’s books again in a row and just indulge myself in the dynamic.

9/10

Book #189 of 2019

Up On Horseshoe Hill is the 72nd book for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

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Review & ***GIVEAWAY***: Dead Man Switch by Tara Moss

Dead Man Switch (Billie Walker Mystery #1)
Tara Moss
Harper Collins AUS
2019, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Meet PI Billie Walker – smart and sexy, with a dash of Mae West humour, she’s a hard-boiled detective with a twist.

She’s a woman in a man’s world …

Sydney, 1946. Billie Walker is living life on her own terms. World War II has left her bereaved, her photojournalist husband missing and presumed dead. Determined not to rely on any man for her future, she re-opens her late father’s detective agency.

Billie’s bread and butter is tailing cheating spouses – it’s easy, pays the bills and she has a knack for it. But her latest case, the disappearance of a young man, is not proving straightforward …

Soon Billie is up to her stylish collar in bad men, and not just the unfaithful kind – these are the murdering kind. Smugglers. Players. Gangsters. Billie and her loyal assistant must pit their wits against Sydney’s ruthless underworld and find the young man before it’s too late.

This new series from prolific Canadian-Australian author Tara Moss is set in Sydney in 1946, right in the fallout of the Second World War. Those that survived are returning home and walking straight back into jobs that women took over during the war. Women are expected to head back to the home and the kitchen now that the men have returned, although Billie Walker isn’t one of those. The daughter of an ex-cop and former Private Investigator, Billie worked as a journalist overseas during the war and now that she’s back in Sydney, she’s opened her father’s former office and is working as a PI herself. Infidelity cases are mostly how she keeps her head above water but then she gets an interesting assignment about the disappearance of a young man, a boy almost really.

Everything Tara Moss does is meticulously researched and I’ve read a lot about what she put herself through to authentically write the Makedde Vanderwall books. This probably involved less trauma but the streets of 1946 Sydney and its surrounds feel very real. I enjoyed Billie as a character – it feels as though she’s had an interesting life but one that is not without its tragedy. She lost her father, obviously a very important and admired influence in her life. During the war she was lucky enough to fall in love amidst all that horror but now her photojournalist husband Jack is missing, believed to be dead. Nothing has been heard from him in the longest time and Billie is struggling with that. She’s being urged to move on, especially from her mother but it’s not that easy. She doesn’t have any definitive proof that Jack is dead, apart from the fact that no one has heard from him and the war has been over for a while now. I think there’s always hope when there isn’t proof and maybe Billie feels he’ll come striding down the street toward her one day. At the same time, she’s also a realist and if that has not happened already in this time since the war ended, it probably isn’t likely to.

I really enjoyed the mystery element to the novel. Billie is fun to observe doing her job and I love her assistant Sam, who has layers and layers to explore there. There’s a police detective who has all the possibilities of being someone interesting as well. Billie has a lot of hidden talent and depth and she does occasionally I think, take all of that and put herself into situations she should definitely not. Sometimes it’s much better to wait for back up, or the novels tend to stray into this varieties where the main characters end up being far too capable to really be believable but also you feel that they might be a bit thick for continuously believing themselves able to do the things on their own that really only a team of experts should be taking on.

I think that the story went in a really interesting direction and it’s not something I’ve really thought about much before in connection with Australia. Definitely in stories of post-WWII Europe and even places like South America, where it’s well known that a lot of Nazis fled to escape prosecution but I haven’t really read many books that involve Australia in this way so it felt fresh and well written. What started as a seemingly innocuous disappearance of a teenage boy, who might’ve found a girlfriend his parents wouldn’t approve of or been on a bender with some mates escalated in some really unexpected and intriguing ways and Billie put the pieces together really well. There are some truly chilling scenes in this book as well, definitely the one where Billie sleeps (or is more like unconscious) through something. But even in a fog, she can think really quickly and has good instincts on what is going to come next and how it’s going to affect her and how she can manoeuvre to get herself out of such situations.

All in all, this was a promising start to a new series and quite a few things about it have me intrigued and interested to read more. I definitely hope there’s more about Jack, Billie’s missing husband in the future. I am also interested in the progression of her working relationship with Sam and perhaps also a mutually beneficial working relationship with the police detective. I’m definitely interested to read the next book and see where it goes from here.

7/10

Book #188 of 2019

Dead Man Switch is the 71st book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

***GIVEAWAY***

Thank you to the fabulous people at Harper Collins for providing me with 2 copies of Dead Man Switch in order to give away! To enter, simply click the link below and fill out the form with your name, email and postcode. Due to restrictions, this giveaway is open to Australian residents only. Thanks for your understanding. Entries will remain open until 28th November with winners contacted by December 1 2019.

Enter here

 

 

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Review: Long Way Home by Nicola Marsh

Long Way Home (Brockenridge #1)
Nicola Marsh
Harlequin AUS
2019, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A prodigal daughter returns to Brockenridge…

Eleven years ago Ruby Aston left Brockenridge – and its small-town gossip – for the anonymity of the big city. Now, a grieving Ruby is forced to come home to the place she loathes. But it also means returning to someone she’s always regretted leaving behind…

Connor Delaney is determined to prove himself and not get by on his family name alone. To do this he needs to acquire the local roadhouse. He never anticipated the owner would be the same ‘bad girl’ who ditched him at the high school ball and was never heard from again.

For Alisha Nathieson, the grief of suddenly losing her dear friend and employer Clara Aston has forced her to examine her choice to stay to support her aging parents. As she battles a growing need to explore her past, temptation wars with duty. And then there are her feelings for handsome chef Harry, who has secrets of his own…

If Ruby follows her heart and saves her mother’s legacy, will she lose the one man she’s longed for all along?

This the first in a new series revolving around the town of Brockenridge, up in the north of Victoria. In this book, Ruby Aston left town over ten years ago after years of bullying and abuse from her fellow students. She planned a bigger, better life for herself in Melbourne getting herself a marketing degree and starting her own company. She never returned to the small town she grew up in and experienced such cruelty, preferring to catch up with her mother in the city and spoil her there.

But now Ruby has to return for perhaps the worst reason of all. All the memories come flooding back of how she was treated, even though there are people that worked with her mother that care for her like she’s part of their families. And then there’s Connor Delaney, who is also returning for the first time in a long time. Connor asked Ruby to the graduation dance but she stood him up when she left town. There’s still a lot of feelings left though but there’s also a lot of hostility considering Connor wants to acquire Ruby’s new inheritance.

There was a lot about this that I really enjoyed. I think Ruby’s background and the treatment she experienced is showcased really well and it also demonstrated how that type of treatment in formative years can have a long lasting effect. It bothered her so much that in eleven years, she never returned to Brockenridge and when she has to return, she still feels sick about going back, about the people she might see, about what they might say to her. It’s something that I think a lot of people could relate to, facing people that have treated them poorly in the past. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, the wounds are still fresh.

I really enjoyed the local community, particularly the trio that work for the roadhouse that Ruby’s mother managed. Tash, Alisha and Harry have worked there for a long time, throughout probably most if not all of Ruby’s childhood and are still there. They’re like a family to her and each other, although there are some rising complications between Alisha and Harry, which I found to be a great secondary romance storyline. Especially as they’re a little older than most people in romances (Alisha is in her early 40s, Harry is almost 10 years older). I also loved Alisha’s background and her quest to discover more about her heritage and how she dreamed to travel and explore the world. She and Harry had great chemistry and his backstory was really interesting and unexpected too. I think there’s definitely more to learn about Tash, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the main character of a future book in this series.

When Ruby and Connor cross paths again, there’s a lot of conflict between them not just about Ruby standing him up a decade ago (which honestly, felt a bit ridiculous to me) but also because Connor is back in town to work on his first project for his family company, which will involve developing the land that Ruby’s new inheritance sits on. Ruby was originally going to sell and go back to her Melbourne life but she feels her childhood home get under her skin and soon she changes her mind, deciding to use her marketing skills to make the road house even more profitable. When she doesn’t want to sell, Connor tries to both make her and manipulate her into it and occasionally he came across as quite overbearing for me. I wasn’t really a big fan of Connor, although he kind of got a bit better by the end. There seemed to be a general assumption that if Connor’s family company took Ruby to court they’d win, which I wanted a bit more information about. I know the government can acquire private property for their interests, especially if what they’re doing is in the public interest, like to build new roads or train lines. But this was a private company so I was curious to see how they could legally force Ruby to sell. Perhaps because they could prove the development would benefit the local community more? Providing more jobs, etc? I’m not sure. Not sure I agree with it as an idea, the thought that someone could be made give up something they own. And I didn’t blame Ruby for being pretty fired up about it and determined to try and hang onto it.

This was an engaging read, a good start to a new series.

7/10

Book #186 of 2019

 

 

 

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Review: Wearing Paper Dresses by Anne Brinsden

Wearing Paper Dresses 
Anne Brinsden
Pan Macmillan AUS
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

You can talk about living in the Mallee. And you can talk about a Mallee tree. And you can talk about the Mallee itself: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees. Silent skies. The undulating scorch of summer plains. Quiet, on the surface of things.

But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.

Discover the world of a small homestead perched on the sunburnt farmland of northern Victoria. Meet Elise, whose urbane 1950s glamour is rudely transplanted to the pragmatic red soil of the Mallee when her husband returns to work the family farm. But you cannot uproot a plant and expect it to thrive. And so it is with Elise. Her meringues don’t impress the shearers, the locals scoff at her Paris fashions, her husband works all day in the back paddock, and the drought kills everything but the geraniums she despises.

As their mother withdraws more and more into herself, her spirited, tearaway daughters, Marjorie and Ruby, wild as weeds, are left to raise themselves as best they can. Until tragedy strikes, and Marjorie flees to the city determined to leave her family behind. And there she stays, leading a very different life, until the boy she loves draws her back to the land she can’t forget…

This is a bit of a tough one, in terms of trying to articulate how I felt about it. I love the cover – it’s incredibly detailed and eye catching. I’ve never read any Rosalie Ham, so the comparisons weren’t a draw for me. I liked the sound of reading about the Mallee and the tough farming community that populated it. I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be an easy sort of read but it ended up being quite a bit more difficult than I anticipated.

It begins with the story of Bill and his wife Elise. Bill had left his family farm deep in the Mallee in northern Victoria to work in Melbourne and send money back to his parents, struggling to keep the farm afloat. Elise is a city girl and they meet, marry and welcome their two girls living in the city as well. But then Bill’s mother dies and Bill’s father, the taciturn ‘Pa’, summons him back to the family farm to help out. There’s no one else after all – Bill’s two sisters are married to farmers with their own properties, and anyway they’re women. Everyone knows that farming is man’s work. So Bill takes his wife and two daughters up to the Mallee where Elise struggles to be accepted by the local women, who are deeply suspicious of her different ways. She doesn’t know how to cook the hearty meals and snacks the shearers want, she doesn’t know the right sort of food when asked to ‘bring a plate’. The women are confused by her gloves, make up and dressy appearance. Her French meringues are met with disdain and disbelief. Elise spirals downwards into a depression, the harsh landscape of the Mallee sucking the life out of her. For Rose and Marjorie, Bill and Elise’s two daughters, Elise’s fragile nerves become something to not only navigate with delicacy at home but also something that local kids use as bullying tools.

On one hand, this is a very in depth look at what I think it must’ve been like to have a mental illness at a time when it was not particularly well understood and also in a location where isolation and ostracisation were rampant. Elise is deeply snubbed by local women, one even going out of her way to constantly berate and belittle her, telling her bluntly to her face that she doesn’t fit in or belong here. Elise is like the flowers she so desperately wants to grow, suffocating and dying in the scorching and unforgiving landscape. And Bill, her husband is so infuriating it hurts. Especially late in the book, when a terrible tragedy strikes that he immediately lays blame for. So much of Elise’s illness management falls on her two young daughters, who are pre-teens and teens during the bad times, as Elise worsens. A lot of the book is from Marjorie’s point of view and she doesn’t have the gentle knack of placating Elise and letting things slide by. Marjorie is more combative and she often finds herself on the receiving end of Elise’s mood swings, which bring scorn and criticism. This makes Marjorie even more belligerent and it turns into a cycle.

The pressure placed upon Rose and Marjorie (and Marjorie alone after Rose leaves for teachers college) is immense. They are two young girls and then teenagers, who don’t really know what they’re dealing with. Or why it’s happening. They have little in the way of support, given the way the locals treat Elise and the fact that the two men in their lives mostly seem to feel as though this is “women’s business” of fragile nerves and eventually Elise will be fine. I didn’t really like the character of Pa for a lot of the book – he’s a typical sexist traditionalist. But he actually kind of grew on me throughout the story and it seemed as though in the end, he was doing better at trying to understand and help Elise than her own husband was. Pa cares for his two granddaughters in the best way that he can when Elise is unable to, making Marjorie breakfast (even though he’s typically useless), keeping her out of the hot sun when she’d have waited there all day for Elise when she was in one of her manic phases, just generally trying to make sure life kept going even though it wasn’t his forte. Bill however, gave me the irrits especially at the end. His cruel, thoughtless words had such severe consequences and it didn’t even seem like he recognised this, or was sorry for it. Especially because it wasn’t true and what happened was a product of his own negligence and ignorance. He may not have known what to do, and he wouldn’t have been alone. But dumping this on his own children, saying it was their ‘job’ to look after their mother, was about the worst thing he could’ve done in terms of helping basically anyone in this equation.

For the first part of the book, I was mostly ambivalent about it but I ended up with a lot of anger and sadness towards Marjorie and Rose towards the end. I also really felt that the wider community were portrayed like mostly a bunch of jerks and then decided to be nice at the end and everyone felt they should be thanked for basically acting like actual decent human beings. If someone had literally ostracised and cruelly baited a family member of mine, one where it was quite obvious they were in a struggling situation as well and then decided like 10+ years later they might do one nice thing for them because they feel differently now, my overwhelming response wouldn’t be one of gratitude….

6/10

Book #181 of 2019

Wearing Paper Dresses is the 69th novel read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019. Just 11 titles to go and I’ll complete my goal.

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Blog Tour Review: Weapon by Lynette Noni

Weapon (Whisper #2)
Lynette Noni
Pantera Press
2019, 407p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

I already knew he was a psychopath. But now?
He’s more dangerous than ever.
And I have less than twenty-four hours to stop him.

After escaping Lengard and finding sanctuary with the Remnants, Alyssa Scott is desperate to save those she left behind ─ and the rest of the world ─ from the power-hungry scientist, Kendall Vanik. But secrets and lies block her at every turn, and soon Lyss is left questioning everything she has ever believed.

When long-lost memories begin to surface and the mysteries of her past continue to grow, Lyss battles to retain her hard-won control. Allies become enemies and enemies become allies, leaving her certain about only two things: when it comes to Speakers, nothing is ever as it seems… and the only person she can trust is herself.

Recently Lynette Noni has become one of my favourite YA authors with her series The Medoran Chronicles which got simply better and better with each book. Last year she released something totally new and different, Whisper, which was the first book in a duology. This concludes the series and I was really excited to find out what was going to happen to Alyssa after she escaped Lengard and was able to find some sort of freedom and sanctuary with the Remnants in the catacombs under Taronga Park Zoo.

I’ve read a lot of books since Whisper but it was so easy to settle back into this world and pick up precisely where I left off. Alyssa has spent almost a week recovering after her escape and the first thing she wants to do is go back to Lengard and rescue those that were left behind. But with Kael seemingly uninterested in fulfilling his promise of helping her at the present time, Alyssa is forced to wait and assess and try and come up with a new plan. She also needs to hone her skills using her ability.

This is a wild ride of a book. It’s absolutely packed with twists and turns, shocking reveals and revelations that leave Alyssa reeling on both a personal and ‘professional’ level concerning her powers and the powers of those around her. She will be forced to realise and deal with the fact that seemingly, everyone is lying to her. Even those she cares about the most. Another she cares about is lost to her, under the power of true evil and although she’s desperate to rescue them, she needs to bide her time and wait. With waiting comes information and Alyssa is going to need every single bit of information that she can gather in order to be able to defeat her nemesis and free the people of Lengard.

I absolutely love the world that Noni has created here, it utilised the setting of Sydney’s CBD so well and the ferries/harbour and locations around the zoo. This book gives the reader more background, especially concerning Alyssa and her upbringing and her family, which was something I always wanted more from in Whisper. It’s explained how she came to be in Lengard and why and all of this is woven together in a really expert way. It’s like the longest con ever and the way in which the pieces fall into place is very well done. Even though for me, there were some personal disappointments in how things panned out but the way in which they did were surprising and unexpected and I really enjoyed that about the story, that it gave me that shock value, made me question what I’d read in the previous book and reassess everything.

Alyssa really does go through the wringer here emotionally. She had a lot to deal with anyway in the previous book and this one just continues to pile things on, really and it’s up to her to try and sort out what she’s finding out and deal with it, as well as trying to decide who is lying to her, what they’re lying about and why they’re lying to her. Who has something that they want to hide so much that they’ll do anything and say anything to prevent her from finding out their secret? The pace in this is slower in the beginning as Alyssa recovers from her escape and tries to regather herself as well as find her role within the Remnants. But as you move through the book it picks up to breakneck pace and there’s just so much going on that it becomes about finding out those answers as quick as you can, putting everything together and wanting Alyssa to be the one who gets there first before she ends up in a situation that she can’t extract herself from. It’s amazing to realise who has been working against her from the beginning and who actually proves to be an ally, even when it seems like they might be an antagonist.

This was what I’ve come to expect from Lynette Noni novels and honestly, it’s too long until she’ll have another book out.

8/10

Book #178 of 2019

Weapon is the 69th book read for my participation in The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

It was also the 7th and final book in my Mate-A-Thon Challenge.

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Review: Just One Wish by Rachael Johns

Just One Wish
Rachael Johns
Harlequin AUS
2019, 436p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Three women, three secrets, one life-changing journey. Alice has always been a trailblazer as a scientist, activist, and mother. She knew her choices would involve sacrifices, but now, on the eve of her eightieth birthday, she’s beginning to wonder if she’s sacrificed too much.

Alice’s daughter Sappho rebelled against her unconventional upbringing, choosing to marry young and embrace life as a homemaker, but her status as a domestic goddess has recently taken a surprising turn.

Ged has always been the peacemaker between her grandmother and mother. A tenacious journalist she knows what she wants in life and love, yet when everything in her world starts falling apart, she begins to question whether she really knows anyone at all.

At a crossroads in each of their lives, Alice, Sappho and Ged embark on a celebratory trip together, but instead of bringing them closer, the holiday sparks life-changing consequences and lifts the lid on a fifty-year secret.

Can Ged rescue her family if their story is built on a betrayal?

In the interest of full disclosure, Rachael Johns is not only one of my favourite authors but she’s also what I’d call a close friend. We’ve talked on a regular basis for many years – from just before her first book, Jilted, was released. I’ve read all her books. I also help moderate her online Book Club on Facebook and so, I readily acknowledge that for me, I’m probably not the most impartial when it comes to reading her books. But I also had the chance to read this before it was published and provide some feedback with a few questions she was having about parts of the story, as a reader and as someone who regularly reviews books. So I like to think I’m also pretty honest too.

Just One Wish revolves around three generations of women from the same family – staunch feminist and grandmother Alice, her daughter Sappho (who goes by Marie), a proud purveyor of “new domesticity”, aka being a very traditional housewife, and Marie’s daughter Ged, a journalist. When Alice turns 80, she surprises her daughter and granddaughter with tickets to an Elvis cruise and for each of them, it reveals something very different in their lives. For Alice it’s about catching a glimpse of what she turned her back on many years ago, Marie comes to a shocking revelation about herself and Ged’s life takes a new turn both professionally, as she seeks to write Alice’s memoirs and also personally as she moves on from a relationship that has broken down.

Each of the women are at different stages in their lives – Alice has recently retired, for reasons that become clear later in the story and Marie is discovering a career for the first time, growing her social media following about new domesticity. Ged is looking forward to a promotion but soon finds that life has other plans for her. The thing that I so enjoyed about this was the complex issues the three women are facing that blend together perfectly to create a cohesive narrative that doesn’t feel too crammed or overcrowded. The women are very different and at times there is conflict but the relationships they have despite their differences and the decisions they sometimes make, hold the story together. Alice was one of the early feminists, well known for raising Marie as a single mother holding down a full time job and also finding time to campaign for women’s rights. She’s lived a fascinating and worthy life but it hasn’t been without its downsides. Her daughter felt the sting of being raised in a situation that was still frowned upon and instead of embracing the rights that Alice fought so hard for, has seemingly regressed back to a 1950s housewife, cooking and cleaning for her husband. Her two children are grown and have left the nest and seemingly by accident, Ged’s hooking Marie up on instagram has made her a sensation. She’s now well known and does YouTube videos on how she keeps her happy home. Alice and her have definitely had their differences – Alice never married and Marie is the very definition of a traditional housewife. But at the very core of it, Alice did everything she did for Marie so that she and other women like her might have the choice. What Marie/Sappho discovers about herself rocks a lot of people I think, and it’s something that I think was portrayed very well, both with Marie’s back and forth over it and internal agony and also the views and thoughts of those around her, as she goes through it.

Ged’s relationship with Alice is very special too and this was something I could relate to because I’m very close to the grandmother I have left in my life. She was a huge part of my childhood, I credit her for the reason I am the reader I am today. She always bought me books as a child and an avid reader herself, always encouraged me in the pursuit when others were telling me to get my head out of a book. Although probably not what would one would define as a feminist, she always worked, even during a time when it was unusual. Alice is clearly such a role model for Ged, someone that she really looks up to and admires as well as loves and she’s desperate to tell her story, for other people to be able to read about her and see her the way Ged does. I really enjoyed their bond, which is not without its little squabbles that family members have but ultimately Alice, Marie and Ged all support each other during the difficult times that come about in this story, even when they perhaps don’t agree with decision that have been made or are being made.

There’s romance here too (in several different forms actually) and not gonna lie, when I read this earlier I felt like I really knew where I wanted Ged to end up in the end and who with. I enjoyed it for the difference of it – two people who didn’t have that much in common, who had some arguments, who had some differences in what they wanted out of life. It wasn’t all smooth sailing and it’s definitely complicated by forces from other areas also but I liked the way it grew and changed and adapted and almost snuck up on them both. For me, it gave a real sense of realism, genuine connection that is made from working at it, listening to each other and growing and changing in ways that aren’t necessarily expected. And even though I enjoyed the romance, it’s not the core part of the story, it’s just like the glazed veggies that accompany your meal. Delicious, but not the bit that’s the most important. The three women, that’s the crucial part of the story. This book also contains the most perfect scene and I can’t talk about it because it’s such a spoiler. But it’s the incredible blend of happiness and heartbreak, old and new and love and grief.

9/10

Book #176 of 2019

Just One Wish is the 68th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

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