All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Sisters Of Freedom by Mary Anne O’Connor

Sisters Of Freedom
Mary Anne O’Connor
Harlequin AUS
2021, 350p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote in their new nation’s elections and have a say in the laws that govern them.

Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women’s rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause, never marrying or becoming a mother. She can’t understand her artistic sister Ivy, who wants a life of ease and beauty with her soon-to-be fiance, law student Patrick Earle.

Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, decrying the inequality of Australia’s social classes … and longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy’s burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

I really enjoyed this story, set in an interesting time in Australia’s history, where the nation was being granted independence as its own country (despite there already being occupants when the English arrived), but still tied to the British Empire. Also, women were pushing for the right to vote and a large portion of the story revolves around this fight.

Of the three sisters, middle sister Frankie is the most fervent advocate for women’s rights. Although beautiful, she pays no attention to her looks and seems most adamant in not attracting a man, because she never wants to marry and become beholden to someone else. Women can’t own property, cannot work after marrying, are forced by their husbands to do whatever the husband wishes and it’s still legal for a man to physically ‘reprimand’ his wife and also enforce marital rights. Frankie doesn’t want any of this and for her, the best way to ensure that is to never marry. And to never have children. This sometimes puts her at odds with youngest sister Ivy who just wants to find a husband, have a family and be content. She doesn’t have the drive that her sister does and sometimes Frankie makes her feel silly or inferior, because her wants are more simple. For oldest sister Aggie, she’s somewhere in the middle, both longing for a family and supporting women’s rights.

I spent a couple of years living in Western Sydney, near the Hawkesbury River, so I really enjoyed the fact that this novel took us a part of the way up that river, around the areas of Wiseman’s Ferry. Back at this time, there were no roads to this part of the world, a boat was the only way to reach the settlements that had sprung up along the river. The people living there mostly fished or logged and presented in this story, it’s a mix that includes some more unsavoury characters. When smuggler Riley Logan discovers Ivy Merriweather unconscious in the river, he’s aware that if someone else spots her, she could be in a lot of danger so he whisks her up river to his sister Fiona. They nurse her back to health after a violent fever and this innocent interaction makes Ivy question the life she thought she’d mapped out for herself. She has grown up quite wealthy and privileged, with parents that care for her and her sisters with the freedom to speak their minds, study and learn, see themselves worthy of respect. For Fiona, her life has been quite different since she and Riley lost their parents and now she’s married to a lazy drunk, has young twins and another on the way, living in a shack with whispers of even rougher treatment. Ivy’s eyes are opened in a lot of ways, both by Fiona…and by Riley.

I enjoyed how different all three sisters were – Aggie was already married and wanting to be a mother. Frankie was not married and never wanted to get married, nor have children. She wanted to study law (forbidden) and play cricket and do anything that men could do. She shunned anything to do with fashion and looks and romance and seems surprised when a young man indicates to her that some are still interested, despite her attempts to discourage it. When Frankie does find herself having feelings for someone, it’s in a situation that brings her pain and frustration as well as fear of hurting someone very close to her. This was a bit of a complex situation but I thought it was handled well, particularly as the person she fell for and the one she feared hurting had not really interacted all that much and seemed more drawn to the idea of being together rather than each other. And Ivy, the youngest, was so fun and sort of frivolous, but not in a bad way. She appreciated pretty things and I think often felt inferior to her more intelligent sisters, especially Frankie. She was very artistic, perhaps a little shallow but once she spent time with Riley and Fiona and Fiona’s children, I think she saw a different side of life and also came to realise that she did have something to offer, that there was a way for her to contribute. Riley was interesting too, he’s this sort of….good guy doing bad things for the better of those that can’t get what they need. He’s protective of Ivy when he rescues her but without restricting her. He doesn’t want to coddle her, just make sure that no one can hurt her. He also wants her to be her own person, do what she wants and not what she feels is expected of her. They felt like a sweet match, like they were two that would bring out the best in each other.

This was a good blend of entertaining story in terms of romance and family relationships and the struggle for women at a time when their rights were well, almost non-existent. I always read books like this and realise how many things I tend to take for granted, living in this time in the place that I do.

8/10

Book #69 of 2021

Sisters Of Freedom is the 31st book read for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It’s the 15th book read for that challenge so far.

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Review: Trick Of The Light by Fiona McCallum

Trick Of The Light
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Erica, newly widowed, is devastated to discover her venture capitalist husband left their finances in ruins. Determined to save her home while protecting her teenage daughters, she vows to get back on her feet without letting them, or anyone else, know the truth.

When her girls head off on a long-planned overseas adventure, Erica focuses on her much-loved job behind a makeup counter to keep her emotionally and financially afloat – although she is troubled by a peculiar encounter at work.

Then she loses her job, the darkness beckons and Erica’s life spirals downwards, further disturbed by strange occurrences in her house. Missing objects. Stopped clocks. Noises in the night. Should she doubt her very sanity? Can she swallow her pride and make herself reach out to her friends in time? Does she have a choice?

A moving story of loss, change and self-discovery from Australia’s master storyteller.

Whilst I thought this book had the chance to tackle some issues that are prominent for women facing financial uncertainty in middle age, unfortunately the way in which it was told meant that I didn’t at all connect with the story or the characters.

This is a very slow moving book. Erica’s husband passes away just before it begins of cancer and she then learns that their finances are not what she expected them to be. The house is heavily mortgaged, he cancelled their insurance policies, there’s nothing in the way of savings or superannuation. Erica does work full time as a make up artist/representative at a department store so whilst she has a steady income, it’s not really at the level that would make her comfortable. For about at least the first third of this story, it’s simply Erica catching the bus to work basically and going through her days, her inner thoughts about her situation and her determination not to tell anyone and to “sort it out herself” almost like it’s her punishment for allowing her husband to solely control their finances all their married life and taking no interest in it.

Erica’s reluctance to confide in either her friends or her (pretty much adult) daughters means that she backs herself into a hard place. The answer to her problem is actually relatively obvious but she’s unable to do it because of her children and the promises she made them before they leave for a gap year overseas. If she’d told them, then she probably wouldn’t have been in such a stressful situation, trying to juggle everything herself. This is something that’s only made worse when she loses her job and then faces unemployment as a woman of almost 50 who although has had steady employment prior to this, has little in the way of marketable skills.

This is a reality for many women, who often have lower paying and less easily-transferable jobs that they take breaks from in order to have and raise children. Unemployment in later years is harder to overcome for women – hard for anyone over a certain age really and if/when a person does find themselves later in life without work, it’s often when the state of debt or commitments are at a high: mortgage, children, car, etc. Benefits aren’t enough for most people to get by as they search for work and the search can be long and fruitless. I imagine the stress would be enormous – and this is something that for some reason, Erica feels she must shoulder all on her own. Even if she doesn’t want to tell her children the bare bones of the situation (there’s ways she could’ve done it without destroying her children’s image of their father), she chooses not to tell any of her close friends either, even her cousin. Someone she’s known her whole life. I found her desire to bear this burden alone a bit baffling, because there’s no real logical explanation for it, nor does it really fulfil any purpose other than Erica deciding she must fix this all on her own. This is revealed as pointless much later in the book where she FINALLY confides in people and they immediately brainstorm to help her solve certain issues, something that honestly could’ve been done much earlier in the story.

There’s also a bit of a mystery element in the latter part of the book, designed to make the reader wonder if Erica might be losing her mind to grief or even going the way of both her parents or maybe a supernatural element but it’s actually quite obvious what’s going on and that’s also something Erica puts her head in the sand about and just chooses to ignore it like it’s not happening or explaining it away with various things that actually make little sense. The conclusion to this was a bit more dramatic than I was expecting but at least it was the catalyst for Erica finally taking control – and by that, I mean actually allowing other people in.

This came to a quiet ending after all that excitement and maybe it’s a duology, like Fiona McCallum’s two previous books ended up being. But for me a lot of the story was very slow in the beginning and possibly could’ve been condensed down a bit and it just made it quite difficult to really get into it. It felt like a good opportunity to really explore financial uncertainty in people who are in middle age, especially a recently widowed woman but a lot of this is really just internal repetitive thoughts and Erica’s day to day routine. It didn’t feel deep enough to me and several of the characters felt awkwardly shoehorned into the plot in a ‘this will be relevant later on’ way. I also never really warmed to Erica as a character to carry this story, she just never seemed to really have much in the way of personality. I know she’s grieving but I could barely tell you a single thing about her: her interests, her desires, her dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses (apart from not knowing what their finances were). I just felt like she never really came across on the page to me.

Not really my sort of story, unfortunately. There are people out there who might appreciate this much more low-key, quieter sort of read but I prefer more proactive main characters and a bit more plot in my reads.

Book #68 of 2021

Trick Of The Light is book #30 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Ripping Tree by Nikki Gemmell

The Ripping Tree
Nikki Gemmell
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: An illustrious family. A beautiful home. A shipwrecked young woman left on its doorstep. 

Don’t think they’re going to save her. 

Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she’s never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She’s saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.

Tom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she’s drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren’t quite as they seem. She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum – and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.

The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell’s signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.

This is an interesting novel to try and review.

I have read a few of Nikki Gemmell’s books and have enjoyed most of them so I was quite interested in this one. It’s quite different to other things I’ve read from her – this is a dark historical, an almost gothic tale of warning for young Thomasina Trelora, aka Tom. Raised by a widower father, Tom was given an education and allowed run a bit wild but after his death, her older brother, who has made his life in ‘the colonies’ arranges a marriage for Tom with a vicar also in Australia. Tom isn’t keen on this mapped-out future but with her father gone, there’s no other option for her. Tom is then the sole survivor when the ship wrecks on rocks just off the Australian coast. She is rescued by one of the local indigenous men and deposited on the doorstep of a large home owned by a wealthy colonial family. Tom uses the accident to wipe out her previous existence, to “reset” and hopefully, find a new future. But as she settles into the family, with a lady of the house desperate for female companionship and three very different sons as well as a formidable patriarch, she discovers some truly disturbing secrets and her persistence at knowing the truth could be her undoing.

So there was a lot I liked or found interesting about this book – I really enjoyed the premise. The idea of Tom being forced by a male relative to do something she doesn’t want to, and isn’t even consulted about, is very indicative of the time and the powerlessness of women. Her brother threatens her with an asylum if she doesn’t comply and he clearly doesn’t understand or approve of the upbringing their father gave her. The fact that she gets a chance to be a blank slate, is really fascinating and you can see why she would choose this option. It’s made even more interesting I think, by someone she crosses paths with after she recovers from the ordeal of almost drowning. Tom has a natural curiosity – she’s only about sixteen, which I kept forgetting when I was reading this, so much was she going around demanding to know things and challenging people, which probably would’ve been quite unusual for a girl of her age, especially one who’d had such an ordeal and who didn’t really know the people she was staying with. What she uncovers is horrific and shines a light on some of the truly terrible and dehumanising behaviour displayed by some of the people that invaded this country and made it their own, regardless of who was already here. Tom has a really mature and definitely very unusual for the time attitude about these things and she simply cannot let it go, even though it places her position as being accepted by this wealthy, influential, respected family, in much jeopardy. I admired her for that, even as I feared for her because as a woman -well, she was almost more a child really- she has no agency, no independence and her future can be decided for her.

What I found a bit less engaging, were some of the characters and the fact that the book takes place over the course of basically, 7 days with the prologue and epilogue excepted. Tom is nicknamed Poss by a child (the youngest of the house) watching over her when she wakes up – the child is known as Mouse to the family. There just seems to be this weird bond between them immediately and it felt very forced to me, like it should’ve been allowed to develop. Likewise her interaction with the eldest son, which takes place on day 2 I think, also felt incredibly jarring. Also Tom/Poss wakes up from this incredibly taxing physically and traumatic ordeal, is battered and bruised and is basically traipsing around everywhere that day and the next. She’s forever sneaking out of places, sneaking into places and the whole family just give the weirdest vibes. The mother of the three boys, the lady of the house for want of a better term, comes across as not very well perhaps, mentally, having experienced grief. She’s desperate for female companionship and determined to shape Tom into this proper young lady which is everything Tom is trying to avoid. The mother swings between sharp and cutting, almost scary, to petting and cosseting and it’s a bit jarring but not sure if Tom is just so desperate to avoid her fate that she’s willing to put up with anything, or she doesn’t see it. She has the chance to leave several times to go to the town and provide more information on the shipwreck which she decides not to do. The eldest son is a spoiled waste of space that I wanted to warn Tom against when she seemed to have very giggly, dreamy thoughts about him two seconds after meeting him. Which also seemed just….out of place, especially given the details dribbled out about her time on the ship and various other things. She’d known this guy five minutes literally. She’s very young, which is probably contributing but she seems so sensible about certain things and then giddily loses her head at first meeting and really doesn’t seem to be able to determine the games being played.

I felt like this nailed atmosphere and story but just….I found some of the character interactions really odd and honestly? Time pondering them pulled me out of the overall story. I also felt like some of the more interesting stuff would’ve occurred after the main part of the story ends, but before the epilogue (it’s sort of mentioned, but in zero detail). I did like that the epilogue gave some closure….but it also left me with lots more questions.

7/10

Book #65 of 2021

The Ripping Tree is book #29 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also counts towards my participation in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 13th book read for the challenge so far, which puts me over halfway in my goal to read 25 books for it!

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Review: Close To Home by Janet Gover

Close To Home
Janet Gover
Harlequin AUS
2021, 358p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Two houses, both alike in dignity…

Aunt Alice Dwyer loves her small Australian town. She’s rarely left its comforting embrace. She knows everyone in it; in fact, she’s related to most of them. All she wants is to keep her family safe and the town running exactly the way it always has. Her way. But when an exotic French artist comes to town, her hold begins to weaken…

Lucienne Chevalier, once the toast of Europe, has come to Nyringa after a tragic loss to hang up her sequins and create a place for her circus family to rest between tours. With her is Simon, her grandson, recovering from an injury so damaging he can no longer perform. Lucienne fears he’ll never embrace a new future. That is, until she notices the chemistry between him and the new schoolteacher… All they need is a push.

Both grande dames think they know what’s best, but with equal amounts of stubbornness on both sides, peace looks unlikely. Then a relationship between Alice’s rebellious great-niece and a teenage acrobat sets the two communities on a collision course. But when the bakery starts making patisseries over lamingtons, the battle lines are truly drawn…

A story of community and family. Of the love that brings them together … and the fears that would tear them apart.

Recently I’ve had a run of bad sleep and when I don’t sleep well I get headaches, which means I can’t read. My first good day, with no headache, I picked up this because I thought the cover looked lovely and that it might be just the sort of read to get into – something familiar, almost comforting even though I haven’t read this author before.

And for the most part, that’s pretty much what I got! Close To Home is set in the (fictional) small town of Nyringa in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, not too far from Glen Innes. It’s an area I’m vaguely familiar with as I had relatives living in Glen Innes for a while and I’ve been to Armidale a couple of times. In the beginning we get a glimpse of Alice at 15 and the dreams she has of her future before skipping forward to the present day where Alice is in her 80s, a widow and with a vast amount of relatives surrounding her, ready to do her bidding whenever she requires it. Alice is thrown into remembering things she’d rather forget when Lucienne Chevalier buys a local property to use as a base for her circus – somewhere they can rest and practice new routines. With her comes her grandson Simon, who has some healing of his own to do. For Alice, the circus in town can only be bad news and cause pain and she fears for one of her great-nieces, still a teenager, when one of the boys from the circus catches her eye.

Alice is a tough old character, who often comes across as demanding! She seems to secretly enjoy playing games with her relatives, graciously bestowing the honour of taking her to church of a Sunday or having her over for tea on random people and watching their reactions. At times she’s abrasive but there’s a lot of layers to her and there’s an age old pain and regret colouring her life too. She does tend to have people’s best interests at heart, even if the way she goes about things sometimes, ends up alienating them rather than drawing them closer to her. She quite enjoys the feistiness of one of her many great-nieces Jenny, a teenager of 15, which is why she’s concerned when Jenny and Finn, a boy of 16 from Lucienne’s circus, find a mutual attraction. For Alice, such a connection could only end in heartbreak for Jenny and she desperately wants to protect her from that.

Alice is determined not to like Lucienne, a woman of similar vintage and wants her gone from the community. Lucienne is ready to retire and she knows that things will be easier, especially for her grandson Simon, if she’s accepted by the locals and makes some friends. At first it’s definitely quite a frosty reception from Alice, she might be ‘polite’ but it’s definitely in a way that says she wants to keep her distance. Lucienne is quite undaunted though and I really enjoyed her as a character. Both she and Simon are still in the throes of early and quite deep grief – and on Simon’s part there’s quite a lot of guilt too even though what happened was at his fault. It doesn’t stop the nightmares though or the thoughts and when he meets Meg, the new schoolteacher in Nyringa, they are kind of kindred spirits. Meg had something awful and traumatic happen to her and in a way she’s been running ever since. Nyringa however, is helping her heal as she settles back into teaching and becoming a part of the small community. She finds herself somewhat of a confidant for young Jenny and she keeps bumping into Simon as well.

I enjoyed this. It was a lovely way to pass a morning, getting to know this community and the people that live in it. I ended up liking Alice, although she’s a bit much at times – the sort of relative you’d probably avoid occasionally in real life, lest she get busy passing judgement on some aspect of your life that she didn’t approve of. She had a lot in her life that I think she hadn’t dealt with and that she’d allowed to really colour her opinion of things and it took the events that happen later in the book to help her move past that. I also liked the burgeoning friendship between Simon and Meg and enjoyed Finn and Jenny stumbling their way through a first relationship and learning to make mature decisions and how to help each other in times of need. I thought the circus stuff was quite fun and interesting too, including the inclusion and acknowledgement of how circuses have changed over the years.

7/10

Book #64 of 2021

Close To Home is book #28 read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: You Need To Know by Nicola Moriarty

You Need To Know
Nicola Moriarty
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The holidays are here. The extended family has gathered. The cars are packed and the convoy sets off. The cottage is a few hours’ drive – but not everyone will live to see it …

For Jill, her three sons, their wives and children, a terrifying road crash will tear apart their family.

The crash will be an accident but the shattering that follows has been long coming.

Because at the heart of this family lies a secret – concealed, wrestled with, festering and harmful – and nothing now can stop it coming out.

But will any of them survive it?

I have always really enjoyed Nicola Moriarty’s novels so I knew this was definitely going to be a must-read for me. It was perfect for an afternoon curled up on the couch as this is a story that it’s easy to get lost in.

It’s told from several points of view: Jill is a relatively recent widow, who writes letters to her late husband Frank. In them she alludes to certain things, things that she’s reluctant to dive into or examine too deeply. Jill and Frank had three sons together: their oldest Tony, was an accountant who recently sold a novel for a large amount of money and it’s tipped to be a best-seller. He’s married to Andrea, a teacher and they enjoy a childfree life by choice (or do they?). Middle child Pete has been married to Mimi for a long time. They have a 16yo daughter, an 8yo daughter and recently welcomed twins after Pete convinced Mimi for “just one more”. They got 2 girls instead of Pete’s longed for boy and things aren’t working out exactly as Mimi hoped. She’s worried about her oldest daughter, who is completely disengaged. Her middle daughter seems to have left her childhood behind to help parent the twins. Mimi finds herself reaching for the wineglass a lot these days. And youngest son Darren is struggling with his second novel and a break up when his ex asks him a very complex question…..

The whole family are gathering to head to Jill’s beach house, which is where they’ll spend Christmas. The book begins with an incident from that trip and then goes back in time to show how everyone got to the place they were in at the beginning and I loved the way this was told! Especially the snapshots of the “current” time which are told from the differing perspectives of strangers as they come across it. During the main bulk of the story we are treated to the points of view of Mimi, Jill, Andrea and Darren which fleshes out the entire family and the differing relationships within it. All of the sons are involved in creative pursuits: Pete has written children’s stories for many years and his wife Mimi illustrates them. Darren wrote a book that was expected to do well but tanked and was the recipient of a savage review and now he’s completely blocked on his second novel because of it. Tony, always a numbers man, surprised the family when he sold a manuscript no one was aware he was working on, for an exorbitant amount. Mimi has been in the family a long time, close to 20 years whereas Andrea is much newer. Darren is the only brother unmarried, still mourning the demise of his most recent relationship although he and his ex are still friends, Darren still harbours the hope that she’ll realise she made a mistake and they can reconcile, even though deep down, he knows it’s futile.

I thought Moriarty built the tension and suspense expertly here, in terms of leading up to the dramatic event. Everything is timed perfectly to come to a head as the family sets off in many separate cars, but travelling together in a convoy. Some of the struggles the characters are dealing with are not a secret – such as, for example, the reliance Mimi is coming to have on alcohol to simply get her through the day. I know there’s a lot of jokes and the like about “wine time” for mums and how many cannot wait to get the kids off to bed to get stuck into a glass to relax and unwind after a busy day. But for Mimi, it’s becoming much more than that and no one really seems to be noticing, especially husband Pete. Even after several close incidents (such as seeing a booze bus when giving her teen daughter a driving lesson, etc) isn’t really enough for Mimi to do anything more than think about it. For Andrea, meeting a neighbour has made her question the life she’s chosen for herself and she’s wondering just how much input she had in the decisions she and Tony made “as a couple”. I also enjoyed the scenes from Jill’s point of view as she worries about her children, their partners, her grandchildren and laments the loss of her husband as well as the feelings of guilt she has about it. When the story unfolds, it becomes obvious why Jill makes some of the choices she does and why she insists on certain things.

This was a highly enjoyable family drama with plenty of twists and turns in the story, some of which the reader was expecting and others that were more of a shock as they unfolded. I was invested in so many of the characters and wanted to learn how certain things were going to affect them all, once revealed. And I really did enjoy the switching back and forth of the time/perspective, that I felt, created a clever sense of urgency, with the characters being so unaware of what was coming but the reader was not.

Another fantastic read.

8/10

Book #62 of 2021

You Need To Know is the 27th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: All We Have Is Now by Kaneana May

All We Have Is Now
Kaneana May
Harlequin AUS
2021, 464p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Healing others is their calling, but what happens if they can’t fix themselves? A richly nuanced and empathetic examination of life, loss and courage from a talented new Australian author.

Health and wellbeing brought Olive, Elsie and Bree together. After five years, their bustling wellness centre is demanding expansion. A beautiful federation house nestled among the picturesque backdrop of their small town is the perfect place to grow their business. But they don’t count on their personal lives getting in the way.

Practical and pragmatic, Olive keeps her past hidden from her friends. But when an old high-school flame shows up, the secrets she’s worked so hard to bury threaten to tear her carefully constructed world apart.

Bree is the fun-loving one, although family tensions lurk behind her free-spirited facade. The reappearance of her troubled sister Winnie brings Bree’s priorities into sharp focus. Will she have to shelve her own happiness to save her sister?

Kind and maternal to all those around her, Elsie’s role as the practice’s counsellor comes naturally. But when tragedy strikes, her world tumbles down like a house of cards.

With everything they’ve built in disarray, their friendship is on the line…

I really enjoyed this.

Firstly, it’s set not far from where I grew up, around an hour south for the most part and several of the characters are from a place around half an hour south. So many of the places are familiar to me, it references the place my brother was married, a town we went to for family breaks, a waterfall that everyone who has ever lived in that area has visited, etc. It’s really nice to see my local area represented in fiction, it works very well for it in many different ways (it has a lot of beaches, several very large rivers, also slightly inland is a rich farming area, particularly dairy cattle).

Friends Olive, Elsie and Brie buy a beautiful Federation property to run their wellness centre out of. They each have different specialities: Olive is a dietician and offers cooking classes as well. Brie runs Pilates classes and Elsie is a counsellor with a full book of clients. They also add in massage therapist Tom, who knows Olive from when they were in high school and his addition threatens to bring up the past that Olive has kept buried a long time. Brie’s struggling younger sister has shown up but Brie knows it’s only a matter of time until she disappears again and Elsie finds herself awaiting something that she has long desired, only for the worst of tragedies to occur.

I felt like each of the characters were quite well developed and the story devoted time to carefully constructing their backstory and the struggles they were dealing with in the present. What is an exciting and wonderful time for them all is slowly eroded as their personal lives overwhelm them in different ways. Olive is also dealing with a mother who is in failing health and her father’s desperation in clinging to the woman he married, was done so well. I think it would be a horrible thing, to go through what Olive and her father are dealing with, the realisation that they can’t fix this or even prevent it from getting worse. Olive has also buried something from her past down very far and I could kind of relate to her because I tend to respond to grief in a similar way.

Grief is something this book does well (and by that I mean with believable care and sympathy) – it’s showcased in many ways and each of the main characters are experiencing things that are causing it. For Brie, it’s her worry and stress over her younger sister Winnie, who is a recovering addict who often disappears for years at a time. Their parents are constantly in a state of worry over Winnie as well, and Brie hates the fact that Winnie will most likely vanish again, causing them yet more concern at a time in their lives when they should be relaxing, now that years of having tumultuous teenage girls are well past. Brie also has a lot of guilt about Winnie, which is something she has never really dealt with. Winnie was a character that I felt was so complex – in some ways, she’s so frustrating and if she were my sister, it’d be really difficult to turn a blind eye to a lot of her behaviours, especially some that violate Brie’s privacy so utterly. But when the alternative is her disappearing to who-knows-where for up to years at a time, your tolerance is probably much greater. Brie really wants a relationship with Winnie and she really wants their parents to have some security in her safety and presence as well. Brie is a fan of casual relationships with men, keeping things moving quickly but all of a sudden she’s looking at someone she’s known forever in an entirely different light. I loved that part of the story.

And then there’s Elsie’s story, which broke my heart actually. Elsie and I are the same age and we’re also both stepmothers. I really felt the grief and hopelessness and heartbreak that Elsie experienced, her withdrawal from her friends and loved ones, her apathy that nothing really mattered anymore. She went through a very dark time and I also thought Olive and Brie’s frustration at being unable to help her (that there really was no helping her) was well portrayed as well. Also her husband Frank’s grief, which Elsie doesn’t really see, is shown to the reader through her eyes even as she perhaps isn’t seeing it in the same way that the reader is. She’s too caught up in her own pain and has to move through that first, before she can see how others around her are hurting as well.

This was a wonderful story, underpinned by the friendship of the three very different women.

8/10

Book #60 of 2021

All We Have Is Now is the 26th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Book #58 of 2021

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

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

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Review: How To Fake Being Tidy by Fenella Souter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Book #51 of 2021

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

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Review: The French Gift by Kirsty Manning

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

A forgotten manuscript threatens to unravel the past …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely recommend this one!

9/10

Book #46 of 2021

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

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

 

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Review: Grace Under Pressure by Tori Haschka

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Book #38 of 2021

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

 

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