All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful
Kim Lock
Harlequin AUS
2021, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Meet Mercy Blain, whose house has just burnt down. Unfortunately for Mercy, this goes beyond the disaster it would be for most people: she hasn’t been outside that house for two years now.

Flung out into the world she’s been studiously ignoring, Mercy goes to the only place she can. Her not-quite-ex-husband Eugene’s house. But it turns out she can’t stay there, either.

And so begins Mercy’s unwilling journey. After the chance purchase of a cult classic campervan (read tiny, old and smelly), with the company of her sausage dog, Wasabi, and a mysterious box of cremated remains, Mercy heads north from Adelaide to Darwin.

On the road, through badly timed breakdowns, gregarious troupes of grey nomads, and run-ins with a rogue adversary, Mercy’s carefully constructed walls start crumbling. But what was Mercy hiding from in her house? And why is Eugene desperate to have her back in the city? They say you can’t run forever…

Exquisite, tender and wry, this is a break-out novel about facing anxiety and embracing life from an extraordinary new talent.

This was a beautiful story!

I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this even before I read it because I knew someone that had read it and loved it and from what they said, I felt like it would contain a lot of things that I enjoy. Living in Melbourne, I spent a lot of last year in lockdown, and during that time I got into watching people living #vanlife on YouTube. So when I realised that this book contained a road trip up the centre of Australia with the main character in a van, I was pretty sure that it was definitely going to be something I would enjoy. But I didn’t just enjoy it for that.

Mercy Blain, the main character, hasn’t left her house for 2 years before it burns down and is considered to be uninhabitable. Although her ex-husband offers her a place to stay at his house, that for Mercy (and perhaps others) isn’t a workable situation and Mercy finds herself buying a van and just…..leaving. With Adelaide behind her she makes the decision to drive north all the way to Darwin, straight up the middle of Australia. It’s a popular route with “Grey Nomads” – retired singles and couples who have bought a caravan and are road trippin’ their way around the country.

But Mercy is reluctant to join the camaraderie that ensues at each overnight resting/camping spot. She has been living a very solitary lifestyle and even the thought of doing things that others find simple, such as buying groceries or filling up the vehicle with fuel, incite anxiety and high levels of stress. Interaction with people is the same and the more people it seems the more stress this brings. At first Mercy rejects any overtures of friendship, hiding in her van. The further she travels though, the more she seems to unfurl a little, and the trip brings about a way to face her demons, deal with the event that triggered this way of life for her. I adored some of the people she met along the way, particularly Bert, a retiree who is always looking to round Mercy up for “happy hour at ours, silver Cruiser and Jayco” and who doesn’t ever take it personally that Mercy doesn’t turn up. He continues to turn up at the same stops Mercy is at, continues to invite her and eventually Mercy, due to a few incidents, is drawn into the group and togetherness of people doing this trip, accepting of help when she needs it.

I loved being along for Mercy’s journey, all the up and down moments of it. Although Mercy flees in a moment of panic when she realises her house, her sanctuary, isn’t liveable anymore, it takes courage and bravery to keep going, especially when you’re someone who hasn’t been out of your house really, in two years. It involves having to interact with people, to deal with them face to face – can’t order everything online to your van! And it’s quite a trek to undertake on your own (with a dog for company), to drive from Adelaide to Darwin. There are often long stretches where there’s no fuel or place to stop, so sometimes planning is necessary. Mercy’s van is a character, not quite capable of the top speed on these outback roads, so she has to calculate for that too. I really enjoyed being along for the ride, as Mercy negotiates challenges and finds the courage to stand up for herself, as well as face what is coming back in Adelaide. I thought Mercy’s reactions to things that challenged her in the beginning were so well written, so believable. And as the story went on and I pieced together why she had not left her house in almost two years before the fire, I could understand.

I enjoyed every page of this – it definitely made me want to make this trip one day (although I fully admit I’m a bit of a princess, so I’m definitely going to need a more luxurious set up than the one Mercy had!). I appreciated the time and care taken to show Mercy’s struggles and how she tries to overcome them out of necessity and how she gains strength through her trip. You couldn’t help but cheer for Mercy with her every victory and hope for her with every kilometre. Kim Lock is a wonderful writer, who has definitely become an autoread for me.

8/10

Book #119 of 2021

The Other Side Of Beautiful is book #51 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Women’s Circle by Karyn Sepulveda

The Women’s Circle
Karyn Sepulveda
Ventura Press
2021, 240p
Copy courtesy of the author/publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sydney, present day. Anna is released into the world after six years in prison. The entirety of her possessions stuffed into a single plastic bag. The trauma of her past, a much heavier burden to carry. Feeling hopeless, isolated and deeply lonely, Anna attends an alternative support group; The Women’s Circle. But when she touches an ancient crystal, Anna connects to a woman she has never met, in a past she doesn’t recognise.

In 1770, a brutal regime torments the English village of Quarrendon and is determined to keep its women apart. Young villager Aisleen desperately seeks a way to defy the rules, reunite with her sister, and live life on her own terms, without her husband’s permission. The stakes are high and terror of punishment inescapable, but doing nothing comes at an even steeper price…

While separated by generations, Anna finds herself drawn to the spine-chilling and courageous plight of Aisleen and Quarrendon’s women. Can their bond help her to face her past and embrace her second chance at life?

A heart-warming and inspirational portrayal of inner strength and vulnerability, The Women’s Circle shows us the true power of female friendship in all its forms. 

This book arrived beautifully wrapped with a little personal note and a rose quartz crystal attached, which I thought was such a fun touch, such a great connection to the story.

Anna has just been released from prison after a six year sentence. She has a social worker who has found her a place to stay in a boarding house and has provided meals and clothing vouchers for her. Anna has to get a job, save for her own place and undertake some therapy as part of her parole. Her social worker believes in her but Anna has a lot of anger and bitterness inside of her and every day is a struggle against the addiction that sent her on the path that led to jail.

This book is told in several different time periods – there’s the present, where Anna is learning to live life outside of jail again and then, after she attends an alternative therapy group and touches a mysterious crystal, Anna finds herself able to see a woman’s life in England in 1770. There’s also flashes back into Anna’s past, which help show how perhaps, her life went the way it did.

I found myself really liking Anna as a character – she’s tough, but has flashes of vulnerability. She left her home in South America and moved to Australia, after the death of the two women who had taken care of her her whole life. There in Australia, she met Jake and was drawn into his web of drugs. When Anna is released from jail, she has to rebuild the life she came here to make, getting a job and learning to save money and most importantly, resist the temptation to return to using. She is living in a boarding house with other women who have also spent time in prison and part of that is learning to get along with people who are difficult or that you might not like. At times, Anna is not always successful in this!

The glimpses she gets into 1770 showcase a small, cut off village where the women have been completely cowed by a group of men, who exert control over everyone, even executing those that do not comply with their rules. Women are not to speak to anyone, especially other women and are to be accompanied by their husbands. The powers that be decide who the women marry and when and the husbands are also punished if their wives misbehave. The woman Anna is able to connect with is Aisleen, who was separated from her mother and sister and married off. Her husband is kind and desperately wants her to abide by the rules so as to avoid any punishments but that’s not in Aisleen’s nature. She wants to be reunited with her mother and sister and she knows that if the women come together, if they show their strength in numbers, they might be able to rise up against the tyranny of the few and restore their freedoms.

I found this time period fascinating – and also, deeply frustrating and hard to read, because it was too easy to put myself in the position of the women and wonder what life would be like cut off from your family, pretty much every freedom stripped from you, beholden not just to your husband but also a group of men who had decided that they were in charge and could dominate every aspect of society. Aisleen got the spark of an idea, nurtured it and then implemented it, her desire to try and change things outweighing any fear of the repercussions. I felt like Anna had something to learn from Aisleen, even though their lives were very different.

I also really appreciated the way Anna’s struggle was showcased – both with fitting in back in society, in terms of getting a job, living with other people and also, avoiding or trying to avoid, the lure of drugs. Addiction is something that I feel a lot of people (including myself) don’t really understand on a deep level and Anna’s constant day to day resistance was something that I felt came through very clearly. I really liked her burgeoning friendship with Brayden and his earnest overtures and ability to overlook her past. But mostly I liked the way Anna found support and also, her own inner strength to change her life, to grasp a new opportunity and make a future.

8/10

Book #116 of 2021

The Women’s Circle is book #49 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Blog Tour Review: Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West

Catch Us The Foxes
Nicola West
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Ambitious young journalist Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson would do anything to escape the suffocating confines of her small home town. While begrudgingly covering the annual show for the local paper, Lo is horrified to discover the mutilated corpse of Lily Williams, the reigning showgirl and Lo’s best friend. Seven strange symbols have been ruthlessly carved into Lily’s back. But when Lo reports her grisly find to the town’s police chief, he makes her promise not to tell anyone about the symbols. Lo obliges, though it’s not like she has much of a choice – after all, he is also her father.

When Lily’s murder makes headlines around the country and the town is invaded by the media, Lo seizes the opportunity to track down the killer and make a name for herself by breaking the biggest story of her life.

What Lo uncovers is that her sleepy home town has been harbouring a deadly secret, one so shocking that it will captivate the entire nation. Lo’s story will change the course of her life forever, but in a way she could never have dreamed of. 

This is a book that is going to really divide readers. It’s interesting, it’s twisted, it’s equal parts clever and frustrating and it’s definitely one where if you know someone that has read it, when you finish you’re definitely going to be hitting that person up to dissect it in great detail. For many, this will be a love it or hate it book.

It starts with Marlowe “Lo” Robertson about to do an appearance to promote her book about the murder of her best friend Lily Williams, which occurred about seven years earlier. Lo discovered Lily’s body in the stables of the carnival at the local show and is shocked when her father, the local police chief, asks her to keep quiet about what she feels are very important details. When someone delivers Lily’s journals to her, Lo is horrified to discover that the town might be hiding something incredibly sinister – and that some of the most powerful citizens are in on it.

This book is full of twists and turns that will make you query everything. Whenever you think you have the mystery figured out and you definitely know what is happening now and who is doing what, you’ll read something else two pages later that will recalibrate everything and then you’re definitely sure that you know what is happening! There’s a lot about this that is written really well – it’s very much a story where you can’t trust anything anyone is telling you and the narrator becomes more unreliable as the book goes on. The fact that this is a ‘book within a book’ allows the author some liberties with the telling and it’s the sort of story where you need to query everything you learn because chances are, it’s going to be completely different in a few pages anyway!

I enjoyed this – and I found it a riveting read that definitely kept me engaged and I very much wanted to learn what the truth was, and what had really happened to Lily and why. Because there were quite a few scenarios presented and each one would’ve brought about a very different outcome for many of the people we were introduced to in the book. But…..I did have a few issues with the story and I felt that there were things that felt a little glossed over or didn’t perhaps have the sort of impact that they should have.

Firstly, I’m pretty surprised the author chose to use a real place as the setting in this book, because she’s not kind to it. There’s very little positivity in the portrayal of the town at all – and it’s a well known town, quite popular with tourists and day trippers (both of which also attract some scorn) but the worst of it is probably reserved for some of the powerful men in town and the rampant misogyny and blatantly homophobic behaviour. And then of course there’s the suggestion of potentially sinister behaviour happening and everyone turning a blind eye to it, or being complicit. I thought something of this nature would’ve been better in a made up town, even if it was clearly based on a particular town. I just thought it was an odd choice, and I know small towns can be incredibly constricting and difficult – the amount of desperation from Lo in wanting to get out (then why didn’t she?) and the criticism of those that didn’t, felt weirdly bitter without much in the way of actual reason.

The other thing that made me really uncomfortable was the ending – not because of the way it ended, I was all for that choice and the twists and turns that got the reader to the final answer. It was more the fact that the author took something heavily stigmatised and had her characters pretend they weren’t, in order to use it as a scapegoat that benefited them and suited their narrative and allowed them to continue on. Now I mentioned this to a blogger friend of mine who suggested it may have been a commentary on how such things are still stigmatised and even when people are saying not to, there’s still a strong trend towards burying it or using it if possible and that could be the case – the author could be using this a social commentary on this. Or they could not be. It just detracted from everything for me – I think you’re supposed to think how cold, but all I could really think was how unnecessary to make this thing your cover for the big bad.

Occasionally I had trouble believing that Lo was in her 20s – the narration often made her seem quite a bit younger but I don’t know how much of that was the writing or it was what the author was intending. The nature of the the way the story is told means that as I said, you can’t take anything imparted to be anything other than the intentional way that the story was chosen to be presented. It makes for an odd read at times, as you try to pick out what might not have occurred precisely the way you’re being told it did.

A very different read – I don’t think everyone will enjoy it but I thought that for the most part, it was engaging and clever and full of twists and turns that will mean you won’t know what happened until almost the last page. And even then you’ll question what you know!

7/10

Book #117 of 2021

Catch Us The Foxes is book #50 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021 – and with this title, I successfully complete the goal I set for myself, to read 50 books. I’m pretty sure I can get to 80 before the year is out.

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Review: The Wattle Seed Inn by Léonie Kelsall

The Wattle Seed Inn
Léonie Kelsall
Allen & Unwin
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Three aching hearts, a ramshackle country pub and a tangled web of secrets.

PR executive Gabrielle Moreau knows she has an easy life, but when her business partner claims she lacks career passion she takes ownership of a dilapidated pub in a tiny riverside settlement to prove she can be a success without falling back on her privilege.

Eighteen months ago, Settlers Bridge stonemason Hayden Paech had it all: a job he loved, good mates and a close family. All he needed was the right woman to come along, and he was ready to settle down. But one poor choice stole that chance and he’ll never risk caring for anyone again.

Living at Wurruldi Hotel for … goodness, so many years, Ilse has seen more changes of ownership than she can recall. Clinging to her failing memories, she’s tired of trying to protect the property her grandparents built. With the arrival of the elegant Gabrielle Moreau, however, it seems that finally an owner may recognise the importance of recapturing the grace and dignity of Ilse’s past.

For Ilse to find peace, Hayden forgiveness and Gabrielle her true passion, three aching hearts must reveal their secrets. 

I absolutely adored Léonie Kelsall’s first novel, The Farm At Peppertree Crossing, so I was so excited to read this. It’s set in the same area and readers of that first book will probably be happy to see quite a few familiar faces peppering this story, including Matt and Roni.

Three years ago, Gabrielle Moreau and her then-fiance and business partner, bought an old pub. Since then there’s been an earthquake that caused a little damage but Gabrielle now owns the pub outright and is determined to restore it to its former glory and hopefully, find her passion. On her first night in town, she meets a bunch of locals in a different pub and is drawn into their close knit friendship group. Even better, two of them have skills she desperately needs to help restore her building – her vision is for an inn rather than a pub.

Hayden Paech is damaged in more ways than one. Without his friends badgering him to stay part of the group, to go out, to live, he’d probably be a hermit, just his service dog for company. He and Gabrielle do not hit it off well due to an assumption on Gabrielle’s part and her wariness of his dog but the more time they spend together, the more something simmers between them.

I really loved the way this is told – the narrative is split between three perspectives: Gabrielle, Hayden and also Ilse, who lived most of her life in and around the pub and it was held her in family for generations. Gabrielle is from the city and is also from a wealthy background so she’s used to life being a certain way, things happening when you’re ready to offer money for services. Life in the country is different – contractors are quite happy to say they don’t work out that far or will come out when they’re ready, to give a quote. When she meets the group of locals and is able to hire cabinet maker Justin and stonemason Hayden, she also finds that friendly Sharna is willing to pitch in and Gabrielle can even do some of the work herself.

Gabrielle and Hayden get off to a prickly start, for a few reasons. Hayden is a character that is absolutely radiating with pain – both physically and mentally, which he tries to hide. His friends, especially Taylor, the local doctor, are always checking on his welfare and making sure he’s doing okay and the thoughts and nightmares aren’t getting on top of him. Hayden is suffering from PTSD and he has his service dog, who recognises the signs that Hayden might be experiencing times of high stress, and to wake him from nightmares and provide comfort. The support that the dog provides was showcased so well – he was such a part of the story he was almost a main character himself and not only does he provide that comfort and security for Hayden, looking after him when required but he also helps Gabrielle overcome her fear and wariness of dogs.

Hayden and Gabrielle both had some trauma, grief and loss in their past – and are still dealing with the after-effects of that. Hayden has a lot of guilt, for things that are not his fault. It can be hard to bear but sometimes a tragedy is just that…a tragedy. I think Gabrielle can understand those feelings because she’s had similar ones herself. I really appreciated the way their friendship developed from this snarkiness to this deep understanding of each other and all their parts. Before the end of the book, Hayden and Gabrielle have seen each other’s deep vulnerabilities, scars and raw wounds and are the stronger for it and that was something I really enjoyed reading. There’s no suggestion that this developing relationship will ‘fix’ Hayden, will change things for him but he’ll have support and love from a different direction, when he needs it.

I also really loved Ilse’s chapters. I don’t think her story is hard to discern even in the beginning but I felt it was done in a way that really worked and the slow reveal of all the parts of her story was well crafted. It gave the reader a chance to view the inn’s history, see how it had shaped lives and how Gabrielle was bringing it back.

You don’t have to have read the first book in order to read this one – it stands alone really well. But if you have read one and not the other (no matter which way it is) then I highly recommend you read both because they are both wonderful.

8/10

Book #115 of 2021

The Wattle Seed Inn is book #48 of the Australian Women Writer Challenge 2021

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Blog Tour Review: The Eighth Wonder by Tania Farrelly

The Eighth Wonder
Tania Farrelly
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The Suffragette meets The Greatest Showman in this story ofpassion and courage, as a young feminist fights against the rules of society to find her place in the world.

New York, 1897. The richest city in the world.

Beautiful, young and privileged, Rose Kingsbury Smith is expected to play by the strict rules of social etiquette, to forfeit all career aspirations and to marry a man of good means. But she has a quietly rebellious streak and is determined to make her own mark on Manhattan’s growing skyline. When the theft of a precious heirloom plunges the Kingsbury Smiths into financial ruin, Rose becomes her family’s most tradeable asset. She finds herself fighting for her independence and championing the ideal of equality for women everywhere.

Enigmatic Ethan Salt’s inglorious circus days are behind him. He lives a quiet life on Coney Island with his beloved elephant Daisy and is devoted to saving animals who’ve been brutalised by show business. As he struggles to raise funds for his menagerie, he fears he will never build the sanctuary of his dreams … until a chance encounter with a promising young architect changes his life forever.

Just when Rose is on the verge of seeing her persistence pay off, the ghosts of her past threaten to destroy everything she holds dear. In the face of heartbreaking prejudice and betrayal, she must learn to harness her greatest wonder within.

From Fifth Avenue mansions to Lower East Side tenements and the carnivals of Coney Island, The Eighth Wonder explores the brilliance and brutality of one of the world’s most progressive eras and celebrates the visionaries who dare to rebel.

This book had a little of everything!

Rose Kingsbury Smith is young, beautiful, intelligent and her mother’s hope for their family. Although she’s known wealth and privilege growing up in New York, things have recently been getting tight financially and Rose’s mother Edith is desperate for Rose to catch a wealthy husband – preferably Chet Randall, and she’s determined to do everything she has to in order to orchestrate the match. But Rose would rather lose herself in architecture – she’s working as an apprentice with her father and it’s her passion. She has no desire to marry, to give up her independence and become a society wife and she definitely has no desire to marry someone her mother wishes to thrust upon her, with little in the way of feelings involved.

The opposite of Rose’s privileged upbringing, Ethan Salt grew up on the streets but a chance encounter with elephants walking across the Brooklyn Bridge mostly reformed the pickpocket and now he lives on Coney Island with an assortment of animals, mostly rescued from a life of pain. It’s his dream to build a sanctuary for him but Ethan’s reputation has preceded him and one of his animals is a lion that makes people nervous. There’s not a lot of donations forthcoming to fund his dream….and when Ethan and Rose cross paths, their connection stirs the ire of a man who would destroy them both.

I really enjoyed Rose as a main character – her determination and want to prove herself. She was so interested in architecture and making a difference, having her name be something people recognise and admire. Her mother was an awful society social climber, desperate to see Rose married to someone wealthy and influential, thereby stopping the family’s slow slide down the wealth scale. She was prepared to ruin her daughter’s life to achieve her goals (among other things) and her underhanded manipulation and bullying of her daughter was incredibly off-putting. It made me want Rose to stand up for herself and what she wanted – even if it meant the family wouldn’t be able to have servants or whatever else was so important to her mother. Rose and her father were definitely different – neither seemed interested in ascending the heights of Manhattan society and it seemed both would be pleased with enough to live comfortably and work to keep them engaged.

Daisy the elephant is a character in her own right in this novel and I enjoyed all of the scenes she was in, from the very first one as she is one of the elephants to cross the bridge, to the potentially devastating one. It made me think about how cruel to animals people have been (well, are still being, in many cases) and how accepted that behaviour was, how people viewed it as entertainment. Elephants are one of my favourite animals and although I’ve only seen them in zoos, the zoos of today at least try to mimic their natural habitats and provide them with space to roam, with the ways of cages and bars gone. Ethan’s love and care for his animals is wonderful to read – and even though he’s done things in his past that many people would probably not approve of, it’s a show of the haves vs the have nots…. what he had to do to survive. Even now he relies on donations from wealthy New Yorkers and is subject to their whims and trends in order to scrape together enough to care for his animals.

When Rose and Ethan come together, it’s the resurgence of a connection that was forged many years ago during a chance meeting. Ethan lives an unusual life and Rose definitely doesn’t want the sort of life that her mother would carve out for her. She wants to live her own life and I think despite his financial reliance on benefactors and donors, Ethan has a sort of freedom that Rose hasn’t experienced before. She cares about the same things he does, becomes devoted to the animals as well and wants to showcase her talents in a way that benefits everyone. And Ethan isn’t the sort of man who would want his wife at home overseeing staff, obviously, or having lunches with other important, influential wives. They both have things that they are passionate about and together, want to see each other succeed in those things. And help in any way that they can.

Like I mentioned previously, a little of everything – the wealthiest and poorest of New York, obligation vs passion, breaking the chains that held women during this time, love, friendship, mystery, even a little bit of a sinister thread and threat to people’s wellbeing. It kept me very entertained – an excellent debut.

8/10

Book #114 of 2021

The Eighth Wonder is book #24 towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

It also counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021 and is the 47th book read so far.

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Blog Tour Review: The Missing Girl by Kerry McGinnis

The Missing Girl
Kerry McGinnis
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 326p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The darkest secrets are buried the deepest.

Meg Morrissey has just lost her job, and her partner to an overseas assignment, when she is called back to the family home of Hunters Reach in the picturesque Adelaide Hills. Her ailing grandmother, who raised her when she was orphaned as a child, has always been a formidable figure in her life, and this is hardly a welcome summons.

When Meg arrives at the ramshackle old homestead, she learns that the place is up for sale. She is expected to care for the property with its extensive garden, while packing up the contents of the house. As she begins the arduous work of bringing the grand old homestead back to its former glory, she is forced to examine the question that has plagued her all her life – why nobody loved her as a child.

As the house unfolds the history of an earlier age, it also spills out secrets Meg had never imagined – in particular, the discovery of an aunt she never knew, her mother’s twin sister, Iris. The discovery brings horror in its wake, as Meg learns the secrets of the missing girl and the truth behind a wicked heart where love simply never existed. The more she uncovers, the more questions she has. With her grandmother unwilling to share what she knows, Meg must seek out the truth for herself.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the Australian bush in summer, with the ever-present threat of bushfire at its back, this is a highly evocative story of secrets and betrayal.

I really enjoyed this.

It’s set in 1990 and I am always surprised by how different books set in 1990 feel. Many things have evolved so much since then, particularly technology. 1990 is an entirely different time, before the commonality of mobile phones, before the internet.

Meg is in her mid-20s and has successfully escaped a life dominated by people who didn’t care about her: her parents were always much more interested in each other than they were in her, their only child, and life was a rotation of boarding school and being left with her cold grandmother on school holidays. Her parents died when she was still relatively young and that meant her grandmother became solely responsible for her care. She did the bare minumin: Meg was fed, clothed and educated but she was always aware that there was never any love there and her grandmother was such a difficult woman that when Meg was able to leave, she did so without ever looking back. Now however, her grandmother has summoned her back to prepare her large house for sale and having recently lost her job, Meg doesn’t have a reason to say no and she can’t bring herself to either. She’s always been rather frightened of her grandmother and seemingly anxious to please her, despite this never being possible.

I found myself really drawn into this from the very beginning. I loved the setting (regional South Australia during the summer) with Meg cleaning out the old house, arranging to sell some of the antique furniture, dispose of her grandmother’s belongings and getting the garden into shape. Being back there brings the one person who did care about her as a child, Betty, back into her life as well as a taciturn man arranged to bring the garden up to scratch. The old house is beautiful and even though it’s not been the source of good memories for Meg, it does present an opportunity for her to be able to delve into the past and perhaps learn the answers to questions she’s always been too scared to ask.

Meg’s grandmother really is an unpleasant, bitter person and it’s not difficult to see why Meg hasn’t been back. Perhaps if I were Meg, I wouldn’t have even bothered to come back at all but Meg does feel some duty and she’s not doing anything else – and her grandmother, who is very wealthy, is willing to pay her. She’ll never be able to return to her home after a fall she recently took (she’s close to 89) and Meg’s partner, photographer Phillip is away on an assignment in Papua New Guinea. When Meg has to contact him, she has no phone number for him so she has to ring his editor with a message for him to relay to Phillip when Phillip gets in contact with his editor. Phillip often travels to remote places and without a 24 hour news cycle, Meg tends to remain blissfully oblivious of potential hazards of Phillip’s job. After a natural disaster, Phillip does turn up at the house to convalesce – and help in his own way, providing the sort of stoic, unwavering support, kindness and love that few people have ever shown her in her life.

I admired Meg for going back there and for having the courage to dig into the past for answers when the entire family had never treated her very well. What she discovers is a big shock – but also goes a long way to explaining quite a lot of her treatment (although to be honest, not all of it). No one should ever have to experience the sort of upbringing that she did and Betty provided the only solace in what was a very lonely and miserable existence. Some of the twists I guessed, others I did not and I appreciated each reveal as it came. The tension in the novel grows with the threat of a looming bushfire and as with many people it’s not until the danger is right on top of them that they realise just how serious the situation is.

I was really invested in Meg learning the story of her origins and past and her getting all the answers she needed that might help give her some closure – to be able to move forward without her life being shadowed by her feelings of abandonment and emotional neglect. And it was very well done, I ended up reading this in a single sitting.

8/10

Book #113 of 2021

This review is part of the blog tour for The Missing Girl with thanks the publisher, Penguin Random House Australia. Be sure to check out the others taking part and learn their thoughts on this story.

The Missing Girl is book #46 for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Review: One Hundred Days by Alice Pung

One Hundred Days
Alice Pung
Black Inc. Books
2021, 288p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: One day, a boy in a nice silver car gives sixteen-year-old Karuna a ride. So Karuna returns the favour. 

Eventually, Karuna can’t ignore the reality: she is pregnant. Incensed, her mother, already over-protective, confines her to their fourteenth-storey housing-commission flat for one hundred days, to protect her from the outside world – and make sure she can’t get into any more trouble. Stuck inside for endless hours, Karuna battles her mother and herself for a sense of power in her own life, as a new life forms and grows within her. 

One Hundred Days is a fractured fairytale exploring the fault lines between love and control. At times tense and claustrophobic, it also brims with humour, warmth and character. It is a magnificent new work from one of Australia’s most celebrated writers.

This book gave me claustrophobia.

And I mean that in the best possible way that someone could mean that.

Karuna is a teenager, living with her mother, after her parents separate, in a block of housing flats. Her mother is from the Phillipines, very strict and determined that Karuna live her life a certain way, adhering to her suffocating rules. Karuna cannot help but act out and when her mother sends her along to some sort of tutoring group in the school holidays, she meets a boy on his way to university and one thing leads to another in the back of his car. By the time her mother discovers that she’s pregnant, Karuna is pretty far along.

This was so frustrating to read sometimes. Karuna is so dominated by her forceful mother, always has been. Her mother has a lot of traditional ideas from her own country that don’t translate so well for a teen growing up in Australia and ever since she can remember, Karuna has been subject to her mother’s views on beauty and what she should do in order to preserve it. Her mother’s disappointment and shame about the pregnancy is palpable and she immediately takes over, ordering Karuna to do this or that, locking her in the apartment and saying that once it’s born, she will assume the role of the baby’s mother and Karuna its sister, so that she can go back to school and get the education her mother so wants her to have.

Karuna’s mother is a very controlling person and some of her treatment borders on abuse – well actually, I think crosses the line into abuse. Not just her words, but some of her actions, especially later on after the baby is born. Her determination that Karuna do everything as she wants it done, not listening to anything Karuna has to say, assuming that she cannot take care of this baby, using the argument that she was careless enough to get pregnant, she could not possibly be responsible enough for another human. Karuna’s frustration and feeling of being trapped is so well constructed on the page that reading this gave me a sort of anxiety, like I was experiencing what she was. Like I was feeling trapped, just as Karuna was in a small apartment, subject to her mother’s commands and whims. Some of the things she wants Karuna to do in terms of traditional things that must be observed either during pregnancy or after the birth for some reason or other due to her traditions, are very difficult for Karuna to accept because they are very different to the way things are done here in Australia, where she’s been raised. Karuna wants the chance to take care of this baby but in order to do so, she’s going to have to find the courage to stand up to her mother – and overcome a lifetime of domination.

The thing that makes this book so well done is that yes, you can’t help but feel for Karuna and want her to triumph, to find her voice. But it’s not just as simple as the fact that her mother is controlling or abusive because she wants to hurt Karuna. She doesn’t. I think she’s really trying the best she can to protect her or to make things easier for her in life, in the ways that she thinks will work. She is well-meaning, even when she’s saying things that sound horrible or trying to restrict Karuna in different ways. But she doesn’t explain things so for Karuna, it’s difficult to see anything other than just rules for the sake of rules and criticism for the sake of criticism. She demands unquestioning obedience and even though there are things that come to light late in the book, it’s after a lot of stuff that really makes the reader want to help Karuna. To protect her. To give her the chance to live her own life, whatever choices she may make, be it going back to school voluntarily or taking some time to spend with her newborn child, to establish that bonding and enjoy those early, special moments.

The way that Alice Pung writes about new motherhood, especially new teen motherhood, is really something else. It’s so beautifully done – Karuna goes through a lot of emotions, from sort of pretending that her pregnancy isn’t happening, to deciding what she wants to do, to feeling fiercely protective of her child and resentful of her mother for wanting to take that from her. Karuna clings to ideals and her ideas about her father and her mother and she does have her thoughts realigned throughout the course of the novel and it ends in a way that made me somewhat hopeful for her future. And her child’s.

Really well done – but a tough read. Do not read it if you’re in lockdown!

8/10

Book #104 of 2021

One Hundred Days is book #44 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Secrets My Father Kept by Rachel Givney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #100 of 2021

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

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

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Review: Small Acts Of Defiance by Michelle Wright

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

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

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

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

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

I really enjoyed this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #97 of 2021

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

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

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2021, 364p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley/personal purchased paperback copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve’s party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.

Can’t believe it took me so long to read this! I had an eBook review copy but I own the rest of Kayte Nunn’s books in paperback so I had to buy one to match them and it’s sat on my shelf for a couple of months. I’m trying to read from that shelf every so often, trying to balance out my reading a bit.

Anyway this is mostly a dual timeline, taking place partially in 1945 and partially in 1999 with a small scene from 1976. In 1945, it details the story of Bea and a bunch of other women who join the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) known as the Wasbies. They run a sort of canteen where the men can get sandwiches, cakes, treats and tea as well as purchase little luxuries like cigarettes, razors, creams, soaps etc. They’re imperative for boosting the morale of the men and the women also provide a social aspect, attending dances and being friendly faces. The women become very close as they get closer and closer to the front lines and see and experience things that will change them forever. Most are from privileged backgrounds, some have husbands or brothers serving in the war.

In 1999, Aussie ex-pat Olivia is working as an intern for an art dealer and she goes to meet Beatrix for her boss, because the elderly widow has indicated she has something very valuable to sell. A freak snowstorm and an illness traps Olivia in the country with Bea, which leads to her hearing a lot of Bea’s story and attending a reunion of the Wasbies, where many things come to light. And Olivia will make choices about her own future as well, inspired by the somewhat crotchety old lady she’s come to admire.

I found this book so fascinating. The opening scene is intrigue and then both timelines are so equally interesting. I loved reading about Bea signing up for the Wasbies, wanting to contribute, meeting the other women and them forming bonds. There’s plenty of description of their duties as well as the conditions of their surroundings and also the local area – the oppressive heat, the insects, etc as well as the other challenges. It really gives you a clear picture of what it must’ve been like to be involved in the war this way, from the long days preparing and serving often hundreds of men, to the jungle setting. I don’t know much about Burma (which is now known as Myanmar) – it’s pretty limited to the invasion by Japan in WWII, which tore the country apart and the Burma Railway, which was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of Allied war prisoners. It was interesting to see it from a different perspective, not of a prisoner but from someone who was working in a different role, providing comfort and support in the best way they could, to fighting troops. They’re all women that volunteered, some of them giving up quite comfortable lives well away from war zones, in order to help and do their part, to try and give the men a bit of cheer and comfort in what were incredibly horrible times.

In 1999, Olivia is lonely in London, she’s been working non-stop in an industry where it’s hard to get a good position and there’s a lot of competition. Her boss is demanding and thinks nothing of sending her on a trek to visit Beatrix a couple days before Christmas. By now Bea is in her 70s, living alone in a crumbling pile and she desperately needs money to fix the roof, which is why she’s considering selling something that means the world to her. She’s equal parts brusque and caring, tender and abrupt and it’s clear to Olivia she has a lot of stories to tell, which Olivia would love to hear. Especially about her time with the Wasbies and the other women. Olivia gets a chance to meet those remaining from the group and even more chance to understand what sort of things they experienced back in Burma, where some of the dangers weren’t from the local surroundings at all.

I really enjoyed the friendship that built between Olivia and Bea, built in such a short time but with such genuine warmth and feeling. Olivia hasn’t really made any connections since she moved to London from Australia but in meeting Bea, it gives her opportunity to make several different ones, some of which give her personal happiness and others which give her the courage to make decisions to further her career.

And the ending? So wonderfully satisfying.

9/10

Book #93 of 2021

The Last Reunion is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021 and is the 18th book completed.

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