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Review: The Mystery Woman by Belinda Alexandra

The Mystery Woman
Belinda Alexandra
Harper Collins AUS
2020, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In a small town, everyone is watching… She had thought Shipwreck Bay was simply a remote town where people were bored senseless with their little lives. Now she saw its virtuous facade hid something darker, more sinister.

Rebecca Wood takes the role as postmistress in a sleepy seaside town, desperate for anonymity after a scandal in Sydney. But she is confronted almost at once by a disturbing discovery – her predecessor committed suicide.

To add to her worries, her hopes for a quiet life are soon threatened by the attentions of the dashing local doctor, the unsettling presence of a violent whaling captain and a corrupt shire secretary, as well as the watchful eyes of the town’s gossips. Yet in spite of herself she is drawn to the enigmatic resident of the house on the clifftop, rumoured to have been a Nazi spy.

Against the backdrop of the turbulent sea, Rebecca is soon caught up in the dangerous mysteries that lie behind Shipwreck Bay’s respectable net curtains.

I’ve read one of Belinda Alexandra’s books before and really enjoyed it so I was very keen to read this. Set in a small Australian seaside town after the Second World War, Rebecca has taken a job as postmistress. She needed to get out of Sydney after the end of relationship that would be scandalous if it were to be leaked in the press and so she hopes that the small, quite isolated/insular community is the perfect place to lay low.

From the moment she arrives, Rebecca discovers that life won’t be that easy. The small town is full of people curious about her single state – unusual for a woman in her early thirties. There’s outright hostility from some and her beauty attracts a lot of attention from the men, both single and otherwise. But Rebecca is determined to build a life for herself here and that means befriending the ladies and making sure they have no reason to suspect her of suspicious behaviour with their husbands. There’s also the mystery of why a predecessor, postmistress of Shipwreck Bay some twenty years, committed suicide. And Rebecca soon discovers that it was a double tragedy. As well as that, there’s a brewing feud in the town between the whalers and a man who would see the practice banned, a man of German origin who was arrested and incarcerated for being a spy in the war.

This is part mystery, part social commentary in a lot of parts. Rebecca is a single woman in a time when it wasn’t ‘the norm’ and especially at her age. She’s only early thirties but that in the 1950s was definitely verging into spinster territory although she’s not without a lot of interest from the local men. She needed to escape Sydney in order to protect herself and she’s hoping that this place will be remote enough that she won’t be discovered and exposed for her previous life. There’s rather a lot about double standards in here – how women were/are held to much higher standards. For example, it’s almost expected that a wealthy, connected man would have a mistress but for a woman to be the mistress, there must be something wrong with her for her to engage in such morally bankrupt behaviour. Such women are a threat to the very idea of a family, according to some of the more pious voices.

I have to admit, I didn’t know much about whaling in Australia given as a practice, it stopped before I was born. Now a lot of Australia is concerned with anti-whaling activities, protecting our waters and also even waters further afield. Whale watching is a large tourism industry, attracting both locals and foreign visitors. It was strange to think of it being such a big industry, given they’ve been somewhat protected my entire life. Some species were hunted almost to extinction. From what this book describes it sounds like quite an unpleasant industry, both the harpooning of the whales and the treatment of the carcasses thereafter. But it was a huge part of the town and even to turn a nose up at the smell was seen as being unsupportive of the local community, who relied heavily on the industry. This is something that Rebecca learns when she first arrives in the town and it’s also the reason that Stefan Otto is so much at odds with the town – as well as being of German heritage, he’s also vocal against the whalers and campaigns for the reduction of the practice and the turning from whale oil to other products, such as canola or flaxseed.

This is also a rather frank look at public persona vs private personality and how the person you think is an upstanding member of society can fool everyone and be the very opposite. I thought this part of the book was very well done, particularly the last 100-150 pages where Alexandra ramps up the tension as Rebecca comes to the slow, horrifying realisation that she’s gotten someone completely wrong and now her life is in danger.

I enjoyed this but it did feel a bit slow at the start for me. It’s over 400p and a lot of the early part is descriptions of outfits and meetings with people in the town. The latter part of the book though is excellent and there was a lot in here that I did find really interesting, such as the information about whaling and the exploration of attitudes towards women in the 1950s.

Enjoyable and I definitely have some other Belinda Alexandra novels that I want to read.

7/10

Book #179 of 2020

The Mystery Woman is book #68 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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Review: Southern Ruby by Belinda Alexandra

southern-rubySouthern Ruby
Belinda Alexandra
Harper Collins AUS
2016, 519p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In New Orleans – the city of genteel old houses and ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss, of seductive night life, of Creole culture, voodoo and jazz – two women separated by time and tragedy will find each other at last.

Amanda, orphaned as a child and suffering the loss of her beloved grandmother, has left Sydney in search of a family she never knew.

Ruby, constrained by the expectations of society and class, is carrying a lifetime of secrets. Amanda’s arrival sparks revelations long buried: a double life, a forbidden love, and a loss that cannot be forgotten.

Southern Ruby is a sweeping story of love, passion, family and honour. Alternating in time between the 1950s and the eve of Hurricane Katrina, it is also a tribute to a city heady with mystery, music, and superstition, which has borne the tumults of race and class and the fury of nature, but has never given up hope.

Southern Ruby is one of my favourite types of story – a blend of contemporary and historical where both threads of the plot are equally as interesting. In the modern day setting we have Amanda, an orphan who was raised by her grandmother in Sydney after the death of her parents in her father’s homeland America. When her grandmother passes away, Amanda finds some letters in her belongings that state that her father’s family desperately fought to be in her life, something her grandmother never indicated and deliberately hid from her. Grieving and yet also experiencing anger and frustration about the things that were kept from her, Amanda flies to New Orleans to meet her other grandmother, her father’s mother Ruby as well as her father’s sister.

Ruby is very much a Southern belle, well bred but experienced poverty as a child. As Amanda gets to know her second grandmother and falls in love with her beautiful house, she learns that it houses some of Ruby’s deepest secrets. The reader is taken back to Ruby’s life as a young girl, struggling to care for her ill mother when there was no money. Ruby had been raised to be pretty, always looked turned out well and hopefully catch herself a wealthy husband in order to improve the family fortunes. Women of her class certainly didn’t work but Ruby finds herself with no offers from men and in a dire situation.

I haven’t read much set in New Orleans but it always seems like such an interesting place with its unusual landscape and its deeply troubled history. Southern Ruby spans from the time of segregation right up until Hurricane Katrina devastated the state in 2005 and it’s a really interesting journey through time. Ruby hits adulthood around the time where there is increased campaigning to end segregation and promote integration but it’s not something that is welcomed by everyone and there are some really ugly moments.

Ruby is such a progressive character…..some of this seems to be through necessity and some of it seems to just be part of her character. She holds a very forward-thinking view on integration and is willing to actually stand up for what she believes in and be involved. Her circumstances mean that she has to make some very tough decisions and although I enjoyed her process, I would’ve liked a bit more adjustment to her completely changing lifestyle. She just seems to sail through all these different challenges effortlessly. I understand she’s both determined and motivated but it’s quite a change from the lifestyle she would’ve been raised to partake in.

Amanda really has quite an emotional journey to go on. She has to deal with her feelings over her nan’s deception during her life as well as meet and get to know the American branch of her family. She will finally learn about her father as a person, rather than someone who her nan just believes is the reason for her mother’s death. She feels at home in New Orleans, connected to that side of her heritage almost immediately. I really loved the scenes where Amanda gets to go exploring or where parts of the history are discussed or shown. Ruby lives through some very turbulent and fascinating times for Louisiana/New Orleans and it was really interesting to be immersed in those periods.

This is a decent chunkster of a book – over 500p and I’ve got to be honest, I don’t read a huge amount that are this size anymore! It’s probably a little too long – there are a few parts that do seem like they could maybe have been snipped down a bit but I have to say that I was enjoying the story far too much to really care. It seemed to take no time at all to rip through it – both Amanda’s story and Ruby’s story were equally interesting and I never wished the narrative would switch back to the other. I really felt like I was visiting New Orleans in all its glory (and it’s not so glorious too). There were a few surprises I didn’t expect or guess which I felt were revealed really nicely.

This is the first Belinda Alexandra book that I have ever read, but I do have another one on my TBR shelf that I picked up ages ago. Definitely going to have to bump it up my list because this was one of my most enjoyed books of the year. I just really loved the story and the way in which history and culture were weaved into such an enjoyable narrative.

9/10

Book #212 of 2016

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