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Review: Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

Happy Hour
Jacquie Byron
Allen & Unwin
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Growing older doesn’t necessarily mean growing wiser.

Gin in one hand, paintbrush in the other, Franny Calderwood has turned her back on the world, or at least the world she used to love. Having lost her husband, Frank, in tragic circumstances three years earlier, 65-year-old Franny copes the only way she knows how: by removing herself completely from the life she had before. Franny lives a life of decadent seclusion, with only her two dogs, Whisky and Soda, a stuffed cat, cocktails and the memory of Frank for company.

Then the Salernos move in next door. The troubled but charming trio – beleaguered mother Sallyanne, angry teenager Dee and eccentric eight-year-old Josh – cannot help but pull Franny into the drama of their lives. But despite her fixation with independence, Franny’s wisecracks and culinary experiments hide considerable trauma and pain, and when her eccentric behaviour has life-threatening consequences she faces a reckoning of sorts. Yes, Frank is dead, but did the woman he loved have to perish with him?

A story about one woman, two dogs and the family next door, Happy Hour is a hilarious and uplifting insight into grief, loss, true love and friendship.

This book packed a very emotional punch that I don’t think I was really expecting when I picked it up.

Franny is 65 and she’s grieving still. Three years ago, she lost her husband and best friend Frank, her person, in a horrible, senseless accident and she really has not dealt with it. Franny has withdrawn from life as she knew it when Frank was alive – she shuns her friends, tries to avoid her sister-in-law. Franny spends her days walking her two dogs Whisky and Soda and mixing herself drinks whilst painting and talking to the various photos of Frank she keeps around the house. When the Salernos move in next door Franny’s attempts to keep her distance don’t exactly go to plan and pretty soon they’re entangled in each other’s lives.

Franny and Frank had this incredible marriage. He’s been gone three years at the beginning of the book but you get a sense of who he was and the sort of life they had lived. Not without it’s low points but they truly seemed to be this incredible couple who loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company and their lives together. Frank was a social butterfly, enjoying hosting their friends in elaborate dinner and cocktail nights. Now that Frank has gone, the idea of socialising without him is too painful for Franny to bear. She has retreated from everyone in her life, actively trying to avoid them in elaborate schemes because she cannot bear pity from them about Frank or to be thrust into memories of times she can never get back. Franny is deep, deep in grief and her pain pours off the page. Having always enjoyed a cocktail and a good wine or champagne…..Franny definitely seems to be relying a bit on the drink to numb things.

The arrival of the Salernos shakes her out of her isolation a bit. Dee, a feisty teenager, and Josh a creative and gentle eight year old, both find that they enjoy spending time with Franny for different reasons. Dee enjoys her attitude (and her booze) as well as her beautiful and interesting vintage clothing. Josh is artistic and loves Franny’s studio as well as her two dogs. The two kids are going through a rough time as their parents have separated and they’ve had to leave their home. Everything is new and strange and different and their mother is working hard to provide for them as well as be a strength for them. It’s not without its complications but Franny’s involvement in their lives definitely gets her living again, rather than existing. She’s having people to cook for, she’s got someone to help exercise her dogs as well as teach art to and Dee loves clothes and sewing, something else Franny can contribute to. She also enjoys things like galleries and the ballet (another example I think, of the life she and Frank used to lead).

Franny wasn’t always easy but I loved her. I could understand her wallowing actually, her struggle with the grief. And her anger. I could understand that too as well as her hiding herself away. I don’t drink, so Franny’s imbibing was even more alarming for me but I understood it had been part of her life for a long time, albeit in a different way. I felt strangely protective of her, despite the fact that she’s blunt and forthright and would probably not consider herself in any way in need of protecting! But under that, I felt she had so much fragility and vulnerability and was angry for her at the contact made to her by {I don’t want to spoil it}. Never will I believe that forgiveness is something that should be put upon or demanded of victims and frankly, Franny gave the person making demands of her more than they deserved but probably not as much as they wanted.

I thought this was beautifully written with wonderful characters that will work their way into reader’s hearts for different reasons: Franny for her struggle, Dee for her courage and Josh for simply being Josh and not apologising for it and Sallyanne for always doing the best she can. I will be super keen to see another book from Jacquie Byron in the future.

8/10

Book #156 of 2021

Happy Hour is book #67 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 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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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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Blog Tour Post: ***DOUBLE GIVEAWAY***: The Nancys & Nancy Business by R.W.R McDonald

This post is part of the blog tour – please see the bottom of the post for more details and other stops on the tour.

Thanks to the wonderful people at Allen & Unwin Australia, to celebrate the release of Nancy Business, the second novel featuring intrepid young investigator Tippy and her uncles, I have one copy of each of the two books to give away to an Australian resident.

About the books!

Blurb: Tippy Chan is eleven and lives in a small town in a very quiet part of the world – the place her Uncle Pike escaped from the first chance he got as a teenager. Now Pike is back with his new boyfriend Devon to look after Tippy while her mum’s on a cruise.

Tippy is in love with her uncle’s old Nancy Drew books, especially the early ones where Nancy was sixteen and did whatever she wanted. She wants to be Nancy and is desperate to solve a real mystery. When her teacher’s body is found beside Riverstone’s only traffic light, Tippy’s moment has arrived. She and her minders form The Nancys, a secret amateur detective club. 

But what starts as a bonding and sightseeing adventure quickly morphs into something far more dangerous. A wrongful arrest, a close call with the murderer, and an intervention from Tippy’s mum all conspire against The Nancys. But regardless of their own safety, and despite the constant distraction of questionable fashion choices in the town that style forgot, The Nancys know only they can stop the killer from striking again.

The Nancys is gripping and glorious, a heart-warming novel for anyone who’s ever felt they were on the outside looking in. At its heart it is about the family we make and how we must summon the courage to face the truth, no matter what the cost may be. 

Blurb: Tippy, Uncle Pike and Devon are back for another camp cozy crime mystery from the award-winning author of The Nancys.

It’s been four months since Tippy, Uncle Pike and Devon were together for Christmas. Now back for the first anniversary of Tippy’s father’s death, the Nancys are reformed when Riverstone is rocked by an early morning explosion that kills three people and destroys the town hall.

A new case is born and the Nancys re-form. Is the accused bomber really guilty? Is there a second bomber? And if so, does that mean a threat to destroy Riverstone Bridge is real? And is asparagus a colour? Once again, it is up to the Nancys to go against the flow and ignore police advice to get to the truth.

It’s great to be back in Nancy business again, but this time it’s all different. Uncle Pike and Devon can’t agree on anything and Tippy is learning hard truths about the world and the people she loves the most. Can the Nancys stay together to do their best work and save the town? Or will the killer strike again? When everyone is right, does that make you wrong? And can Tippy ever trust anyone again?

***************************************************************************************************************

Simply CLICK HERE to enter

Thank you to Allen & Unwin! Good luck! Entries will close July 10, 2021 – winners will be emailed within the next 48 hours and you’ll have 48 hours to respond before I draw another winner! Thank you to everyone who enters and good luck!

Make sure you check out some of the other blogs and profiles featured on the tour!

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Blog Tour Review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

Sunflower Sisters (Lilac Girls #3)
Martha Hall Kelly
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 518p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Lilac Girls, the 1.7-million-copy bestselling novel by Martha Hall Kelly, introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbruck concentration camp. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of her ancestor Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse who joins the war effort during the Civil War, and how her calling leads her to cross paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Ann-May Wilson, a southern plantation mistress whose husband enlists.

Georgeanne “Georgey” Woolsey isn’t meant for the world of lavish parties and demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when the war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women a bother on the battlefront. In proving them wrong, she and her sister Eliza venture from New York to Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg and witness the unparalleled horrors of slavery as they become involved in the war effort.

In the South, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, where she lives with her mother and father. Her sister, Patience, is enslaved on the plantation next door and both live in fear of LeBaron, an abusive overseer who tracks their every move. When Jemma is sold by the cruel plantation mistress Anne-May at the same time the Union army comes through, she sees a chance to finally escape–but only by abandoning the family she loves.

Anne-May is left behind to run Peeler Planation when her husband joins the Union Army and her cherished brother enlists with the Confederates. In charge of the household, she uses the opportunity to follow her own ambitions and is drawn into a secret Southern network of spies, finally exposing herself to the fate she deserves.

Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters provides a vivid, detailed look at the Civil War experience, from the barbaric and inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City to the horrors of the battlefield. It’s a sweeping story of women caught in a country on the brink of collapse, in a society grappling with nationalism and unthinkable racial cruelty, a story still so relevant today. 

I read a lot of historical fiction, but it’s very rarely American historical fiction and I’m the first to admit that my American history knowledge is patchy. I know the bare basics of the Civil War background, why it came about and how it still plays into the current landscape of America. This is the third in a series about a remarkable family but each volume can be read standalone as they feature different characters and take place in different timelines.

In this book we have three main protagonists: Georgy Woolsey of a quite well to do New York family who longs for more than just making a good match and having babies. She joins the war effort as a nurse and faces tough situations not just because of the horrific injuries she witnesses but also the attitudes of the male doctors and nurses she works alongside. Anne-May is from Louisiana but inherited a tobacco plantation in Maryland from her deceased aunt and she intends to make sure that she keeps to the Southern way. She treats her slaves abominably, beating and starving them, expecting long days of work. Jemma is a teenager, owned by Anne-May and her life is not an easy one. LaBaron is ever lurking and everyone knows about his more dangerous proclivities. For Jemma and her family, escape and freedom is a longing inside of them but it will take cunning and sacrifice.

This is not easy reading – Jemma’s sections in particular are wrought with violence, dehumanisation and an overall impending feeling of doom centred around LaBaron, the vicious overseer charged with keeping the slaves in line. It’s hard to read about people being whipped senseless, about women barely into their 20s pregnant with their fifth baby, having had all the ones before taken immediately and sold. The violence is one thing, the inner dialogue of people like Anne-May might be worse. The way they view their slaves, the possession they guard so close, the willingness of them to die on the hill of owning others. Despite Jemma’s sections often being the hardest to read, I enjoyed her immensely as a character, her stoic nature, love of her parents and sister Patience, her strength and determination. Jemma’s story was one I was incredibly invested in.

The author’s note at the end of this one provides a lot of interesting information on the real family upon which this is based. The story mimics their real life movements and a lot of the correspondence comes from letters that have survived from this time. It adds another element of interest, to think of these characters as real people, taking part in nursing during the war or raising money or collecting donations. This was a war that I think people expected to be over quite quickly but it dragged out for four years and ended up collecting a huge amount of casualties. Some of the battle scenes in this are quite brutal, as doctors have to determine which men are “worth” saving and for many, there’s simply no resources. The estimation is somewhere between 1,000,000 dead overall in the four years and given the population of America was around 32 million at the time, they are massive numbers. So much infrastructure was destroyed as well and then of course, the President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by a Southern sympathiser. This book is obviously researched so well and does an amazing job at showcasing this tumultuous time, even finding time to weave in stories of compassion during the most ugly of conflicts.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of ways in which this was not an easy read but it was definitely an engrossing one. I found both Jemma and Georgy wonderful to read and Anne-May disturbing. It’s crazy to me, that there were (probably are) people who think like that, who treated people like that, who didn’t even believe that their slaves were people. She’s quite a disturbing portrayal of wealthy, white Louisiana 1800s.

I haven’t read the two other books by this author as yet but after finishing this, they’re going straight to the top of my wishlist.

9/10

Book #55 of 2021

Sunflower Sisters is the 11th book read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

This post is part of the Sunflower Sisters blog tour! Be sure to check out some of the other stops on the tour and find out what they thought of this novel.

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Blog Tour Review: The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez

The Moroccan Daughter 
Deborah Rodriguez
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Morocco: a captivating country of honor and tradition. And, for these four women, a land of secrets and revelations.

Amina Bennis has returned to her childhood home in Morocco to attend her sister’s wedding. The time has come for her to confront her strict, traditionalist father with the secret she has kept for more than a year – her American husband, Max.

Amina’s best friend, Charlie, and Charlie’s feisty grandmother, Bea, have come along for moral support, staying with Amina and her family in their palatial riad in Fès and enjoying all that the city has to offer. But Charlie is also hiding someone from her past – a mystery man from Casablanca.

And then there’s Samira, the Bennises’ devoted housekeeper for many decades. Hers is the biggest secret of all – one that strikes at the very heart of the family.

As things begin to unravel behind the ancient walls of the medina, the four women are soon caught in a web of lies, clandestine deals and shocking confessions . . . 

From the twisted alleyways of the ancient medina of Fès to a marriage festival high in the Atlas Mountains, Deborah Rodriguez’s entrancing new bestseller is a modern story of forbidden love set in the sensual landscape of North Africa. Author of The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul and The Zanzibar Wife.

I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this blog tour because I love exploring new places through reading and I have not read many books set in Morocco before! I actually realised a little way into this that it is connected to one of Deborah Rodriguez’s other books, which I have not read, but it didn’t matter and it didn’t affect my enjoyment. I was able to piece together things that had happened prior to this book pretty easily.

Amina has been living abroad for a while – studying first in Paris and then moving to America where she married Max. Her family doesn’t know about her husband and Amina has been terrified to tell them, knowing her strict, traditionalist father will not approve. A marriage to Max would not be seen as beneficial in his eyes. Max isn’t from a prominent family who will bring pride and honour to her family. Amina has been putting it off for as long as possible but now that she’s returning to Morocco for her sister’s wedding, she knows that she has to finally confess. Max is getting impatient as well, tired of being kept a secret. He wants Amina to just tell her father, not understanding how difficult that is for her and the fact that things in Morocco are done very differently to what Max is used to in America.

Amina’s best friend Charlie and Charlie’s grandmother Bea are accompanying Amina on the trip. Bea is almost blind but loves an adventure and is ready to embrace everything that Morocco has to offer, especially the markets and apothecaries and even the more mysterious side. Charlie on the other hand, has quite a secret from her past involving a man from Morocco and she seeks to reconnect with him.

I really loved the descriptions of Morocco – Fès, the Medina, Amina’s father’s riad. It was all so noisy and busy and colourful – all of that came through on the page. I also really loved the character of Bea, who was throwing herself into everything about Morocco, even though she cannot really see any longer. She uses her other heightened senses – her hearing, sense of smell etc – to experience everything in a slightly different way. I found that really interesting – Bea was highly entertaining. Pretty much everything rolled over her and her developing friendship with Samira, who worked for Amina’s father helped some of the secrets Samira had come out.

This book definitely went in some unexpected directions with those secrets! Samira was holding onto a lot of some very serious pieces of information, things that definitely helped some issues and interactions make more sense as I got further into the book. I couldn’t help but sympathise with Amina – it’s easy for someone like me to say hey, just tell your father that you’re married! But she’s had a very different upbringing and the rules in Morocco for women vs men are quite different. Amina’s quite spoiled younger brother Tarik makes that quite clear with his behaviour and it’s no wonder that he’s often resented a little for the freedom he has. Marriages are viewed differently too. Amina knows that her father is going to feel betrayed and angry when she confesses her secret and her fear of disappointing him runs deep. She needed to just finally confess though as the stress of keeping the secret was doing such damage to her – especially as her father was using the fact that Amina had returned home to think about perhaps setting up a marriage for her, blissfully unaware that she’d been married for a year! You can see everything kind of heading towards a big confrontation: Max and his impatience and frustration, Amina and her stress, her father and his determination that she come home and settle into the life he would have mapped out for her. It takes a few earth-shaking secrets coming to light to change things dramatically.

Sidenote: Moroccan weddings sound incredible. Amina’s sister’s wedding is a huge celebration that sounds amazing.

I enjoyed this! I’ve read a couple of other Deborah Rodriguez books before but I think I definitely need to catch up on the ones that I’ve missed.

8/10

Book #16 of 2021

This review is part of the blog tour for The Moroccan Daughter, organised by Penguin Random House Australia. Be sure to visit the other stops and see what they had to say about this book.

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Blog Tour Review: Letters From Berlin by Tania Blanchard

Letters From Berlin
Tania Blanchard
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 415p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Berlin, 1943

As the Allied forces edge closer, the Third Reich tightens its grip on its people. For eighteen-year-old Susanna Göttmann, this means her adopted family including the man she loves, Leo, are at risk.

Desperate to protect her loved ones any way she can, Susie accepts the help of an influential Nazi officer. But it comes at a terrible cost – she must abandon any hope of a future with Leo and enter the frightening world of the Nazi elite. 

Yet all is not lost as her newfound position offers more than she could have hoped for … With critical intelligence at her fingertips, Susie seizes a dangerous opportunity to help the Resistance.

The decisions she makes could change the course of the war, but what will they mean for her family and her future? 

Susanna Göttmann’s parents and brother were killed in a car accident but she was unharmed. She was taken in and raised by friends of her parents, her Onkel George, an aristocratic German and his wife Tante Elya, a Russian Jewish woman who had fled her homeland. There’s also their son Leo, who is a friend to Susanna during the hardest time in her life. The family live on a large property that provides well and when WWII breaks out, the fat contracts they have supplying things like timber, meat and produce keep them relatively removed from the harshness of war and protect Elya and Leo from being persecuted as a Jewish person and a mischling, a sort of slur used against what Germans call “half-breeds”, offspring of a German who is married to someone of the Jewish faith. Susanna’s parents were both well-to-do Germans and as such she is protected from the dangers of work or prison camps but she’s incredibly concerned about her aunt, a woman who was a mother to her and also Leo, who has become the great love of her life. He returns her feelings but to protect her, says nothing can come of it because of his status and the fact that things could change and he could be placed in a camp at any time. Instead, Susie accepts the help of a family friend who promises to protect her and her family if she agrees they are seen as “courting” – he’s quite high ranking with some power and influence and Susie sees this decision as a necessary evil to protect those she loves and who gave her a warm, loving home and upbringing after the loss of her parents and brother.

I’ve read quite a few books set during World War II, it’s a period in time which is incredibly popular in fiction but I haven’t read a lot that focuses on Berlin itself, where a lot of people were still going about their lives. They’re removed from the fighting and although there are air raids, people are still doing things like going to the opera. Susanna is at college, something that many people don’t approve of as women should be looking to make good marriages and any women working will stop once Germany win the war anyway and all the men come home. For a large part, Susanna’s life is not particularly touched by the ins and outs of the war and probably if her aunt was not a Russian person of Jewish faith, there would’ve been even less impact. But although Elya’s protected by her status as someone married to a German, there’s always the chance this could be changed and more and more Jewish people are removed from the country. Susanna has such fear that something will happen to Elya and Leo and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect them, even though it means she’ll sacrifice the one thing she desires the most. I think because of this determination she has to do whatever she can to help protect them, it does mean that she overlooks some things or doesn’t want to see how potentially she has tied herself to someone who has ulterior motives in their offering of protection.

I started this intending to read just 100p because I knew my tour date was coming up soon and I wanted to get it started. I ended up reading the entire book in an afternoon/evening, because I couldn’t put it down. It really sucked me into the story and Susanna’s decisions kept me invested. You know from the prologue that a certain thing happens but not the how/why etc of it happening. Although Nazi politics are always horrifying to read about, the casual way they condemned people to dire conditions and fates, I find it really interesting how they managed to accomplish what they did. There’s quite a bit in this on the changing views of some in the village where Elya lives. She’s someone who has always been kind to the others, considered many of them friends and their property employed or benefited many as well but when Elya is ordered to wear the Star of David, marking her as Jewish, a lot of whispers begin about her life of privilege and how she should be deported with all the rest of them. It escalates to outright hostility and this is indicative I think, of how people turned on former friends and neighbours, maybe even reported them or dobbed them in out of fear or jealousy. No one wanted to be seen as consorting with Jewish people, lest it fall back negatively on them.  George and Elya were wealthy and even during the war for a large portion of time, didn’t particularly seem to be feeling much in the way of hardship which would definitely make some people feel angry. By dividing people, creating a clear us and them, you could change the way people thought about others who had previously been people they liked or admired, or at least stoke their fear enough for them to push those feelings aside. Of course there are people who didn’t agree with Nazi politics and this book has a strong resistance vibe to it, where people become involved with trying to help prisoners of war escape, or with plots to assassinate Hitler. But it’s scary when you realise how many people probably did support it, either enthusiastically or because they feared what would happen if they didn’t.

I really enjoyed this story, I found it incredibly gripping, the sort of book that has you hooked from the first page. It’s got a little bit of everything – danger, mystery, romance (including a sort of forbidden one), strong family relationships and loyalties set against the backdrop of a city and country going through a time of upheaval. I definitely need to read this author’s other books.

8/10

Book #205 of 2020

Letters to Berlin is book #78 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

 

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Blog Tour Review: The Bush Telegraph by Fiona McArthur

The Bush Telegraph
Fiona McArthur
Penguin Random House AUS
2020, 360p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

‘Small towns and gossip go together like trees and birds.’

It’s been more than ten years since Maddy Locke left Spinifex, the small outback town where she gave birth to her daughter, Bridget. Now she’s back to prove she’s got what it takes to run the medical centre and face the memories of that challenging time in her life. But everything’s changed – the old pub is gone, her new colleagues aren’t pleased to see her, and it’s drier and hotter than ever.

Station owner, Connor Fairhall, thought he’d left the drama behind in Sydney, but moving back to Spinifex with his rebellious son, Jayden, hasn’t been the fresh start he’d envisioned. His brother, Kyle, is drinking too much and the only bright spot on the horizon is meeting Nurse Maddy, who’s breathing new life into the weary town up the road, little by little.

Can Maddy ignore the rumours about Connor and risk her heart again? Or will the bush telegraph spread along the wire fences and stand in the way of trust?

From Australia’s renowned midwife and bestselling author of The Desert Midwife, The Bush Telegraph is a romantic drama about love, friendship, community and the joys and challenges of life in the outback.

If you’ve read Fiona McArthur’s The Baby Doctor then you may recognise Maddy here. Over 10 years ago, Maddy left Spinifex in outback Queensland and has raised her daughter Bridget mostly between Lord Howe Island, off the coast of New South Wales, and Sydney. However opportunity sees Maddy return to Spinifex as a way to almost redeem herself after everything that went wrong the first time she was living there. Now she’ll be running the medical centre but already things are not looking as positive as she might’ve hoped – her daughter Bridget has not fallen in love with the changed landscape. She’s used to the lush tropical beauty and sea breezes of Lord Howe and Spinifex, with its lack of trees and red, dusty land as far as the eye can see, is not an adequate substitute. Also Maddy’s new coworkers were hoping for one thing but getting Maddy was definitely not it and one of them in particular is quite combative to her presence.

I enjoyed every single thing about this book. I really enjoyed Maddy’s journey back to Spinifex, a place that doesn’t hold a lot of positive memories for her and one that she feels she needs to revisit. As a nurse, she wants to work in remote communities and Spinifex is the first step in that. It’s many hours from pretty much everywhere (five or six to Mount Isa I think) and she’s taking her 11yo daughter along for the ride, who isn’t really all that enthusiastic about it. On her first day she meets single dad Connor, who has a son similar in age to Maddy’s daughter Bridget. Connor and his son have also only been in the area a short amount of time – Connor grew up there but his son Jayden has spent very little time there and deeply resents being there. To Connor’s dismay, he’s spending far too much time with Connor’s brother Kyle, who is hitting the bottle way too hard these days.

Both Maddy and Connor have similar single parent issues that they can bond over, although Connor’s are more serious than Maddy’s. Jayden is definitely being influenced by his uncle in some very negative ways and Maddy provides not only a sounding board but also a fresh voice, some suggestions of ways to maybe help strengthen and repair his bond with Jayden. Connor and Maddy build a really nice friendship (with the simmer of something more just under the surface) but given her history, Maddy is very wary. And there are some rumours circling about Connor that definitely make her feel as though she needs to tread carefully, lest she make the same mistake a second time.

Fiona McArthur is a nurse by profession (midwife) and she always incorporates a lot of medical procedures, routines and information into her books and this one is no exception. Maddy deals with a lot of different things at the clinic from the seriousness of a cardiac arrest to prenatal check ups to the standard assessment and treatment of suspected broken limbs. Everything is woven into the story in such seamless ways, a natural progression of the character’s medical qualifications combined with the reality of rural living. Maddy faces several dangerous scenarios here and for the most part she’s a calm, steady professional but it’s the last medical emergency that tested her in every single way possible and for me, it was that part of the story that pushed this book from very enjoyable into absolutely amazing. The way in which the tension escalated and the danger was described, the urgency of the situation was all so excellently conveyed and it had me totally gripped.

I loved this book, it was so perfect for the sort of reads I’m just craving at the moment. It’s feel good but with a seriousness throughout the plot that means you’re invested in the characters and their outcomes. I enjoyed revisiting the town of Spinifex and appreciated some of the complexities of living in such a small, outback town with quite punishing weather. I really also enjoyed the exploration of Bridget and Jayden, their feelings about their separate moves to Spinifex and in particular, Jayden’s complex and mixed up feelings about his dad and how and why Connor is a single parent. I found the situation with Kyle and Belle intriguing as well – Kyle had his problems and had made a lot of very wrong choices but he had redeeming features.

Highly recommend this.

9/10

Book #173 of 2020

The Bush Telegraph is the 64th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

This review is part of the blog tour for The Bush Telegraph organised by Penguin Random House Australia. Make sure you check out the other stops on the tour and see their thoughts on this lovely book!

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Blog Tour Review: Sticks And Stones by Katherine Firkin

Sticks And Stones
Katherine Firkin
Penguin Random House AUS
2020, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

It’s winter in Melbourne and Detective Emmett Corban is starting to regret his promotion to head of the Missing Persons Unit, as the routine reports pile up on his desk.

So when Natale Gibson goes missing, he’s convinced this is the big case he’s been waiting for – the woman’s husband and parents insist the devoted mother would never abandon her children, and her personal accounts remain untouched.

But things aren’t all they seem. The close-knit Italian family is keeping secrets – none bigger than the one Natale has been hiding.

Just as the net seems to be tightening, the investigation is turned on its head. The body of a woman is found . . . then another.

What had seemed like a standard missing person’s case has turned into a frightening hunt for a serial killer, and time is running out.

But to really understand these shocking crimes, Emmett and his team will need to delve back through decades of neglect – back to a squalid inner-city flat, where a young boy is left huddling over his mother’s body . . .

This is a debut novel from Australian Katherine Firkin, who as a crime reporter, has covered some of Australia’s most high profile and gruesome crimes. It introduces us to Detective Emmett Corban, a Melbourne police officer who has been promoted to the head of the Missing Persons Unit. It’s not exactly the Homicide Squad and Emmett does seem a little reluctant and unenthusiastic about his new post, especially when it’s cases like free spirited traveller Rosemary Norman who has been reported missing by her brother Daniel after failing to attend their other brother Tom’s birthday party, apparently the one date the family never misses. Emmett isn’t too concerned, she probably has just set off on another adventure. But when Melbourne mother Natale Gibson fails to pick her children up from a holiday program, alarm bells start ringing. At first glance, the women don’t appear to have anything in common….is it possible that Rosemary didn’t disappear to travel again after all? Does Melbourne potentially have a serial killer of women at work? And if so….how is he finding his victims? Emmett needs to establish a connection.

I really enjoyed this. There are a lot of characters and at times the perspective changes which allows the plot to twist and turn and throw the reader some clues, some of which will most certainly be red herrings. Along with Emmett, we also get inside the head of his wife Cindy, a disenchanted mother who is excited to be returning to work after taking time off to raise their son, who is now in school. Emmett works long hours. Presumably this promotion has only exacerbated that and then there’s this case, which soon takes up all his time and his wife is left to pick up all of the “mental load” of not only doing the day to day caring for their son but also remembering things like football practice, school concerts, parent teacher interviews, things which Emmett will miss probably a significant portion of, due to his work. Through her return to work, she’s looking to reclaim her identity as something other than a wife and mother, to fulfil herself in ways that motherhood simply doesn’t.

One thing I found interesting in this was the different way Emmett reacted to the disappearances of Rosemary and Natale. Rosemary is unmarried, only held down temporary or casual jobs, spent a lot of her life travelling overseas, visiting amazing places. She’s bohemian-looking, and Emmett basically dismisses her brother’s concerns at first with the belief that she’s probably just taken off again on another holiday/adventure. But when Natale is reported missing, a married mother of two children, it’s quite different. It’s ‘out-of-character’ for Natale to not pick up her children and even though Rosemary’s brother asserts that it’s definitely out of character for his sister to miss their brother Tom’s birthday, it’s not treated the same way. Because she liked to travel and didn’t particularly have a career or what one would determine as a traditional family life, it was deemed unlikely at first, that harm had been done to her. I understand that police have limited resources and probably occasionally have to prioritise and make judgement calls, especially in the early hours and days of a missing report of a grown woman.

As well as Emmett and Cindy and the perspective of another young woman, we also get snippets from the killer’s childhood, which lay his traumatic background bare. It made me think a lot about nature and nurture and the impact of abuse, grief, drugs, the system, etc on very young children. Which is not to say I think that it’s an excuse for heinous acts – definitely not. But it makes me wonder how hard it is to break a cycle, especially when you are not given the tools to process and cope with the trauma that life has dealt you, when you slip through the cracks of a flawed system.

This was a gripping read – everything weaves together really well and meshes together in a clever and cohesive story. I hope that it might be the first in a series and it doesn’t seem like I’m alone there! I think the character of Emmett has a lot more to offer and I’d be curious to see what other stories the author could use her background to create.

8/10

Book #107 of 2020

Sticks And Stones is the 35th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

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