All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane

If I Never Met You
Mhairi McFarlane
Harper Collins AUS
2019, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When Laurie’s partner of eighteen years, Dan, dumps her to ‘find himself’ (and leave her on the shelf at 36), she is blindsided. But not as blindsided as when he announces that his new girlfriend is now pregnant.

Working in the same office with Dan is soon unbearable – until the day she gets stuck in the lift with her handsome colleague Jamie. Jamie is looking for a way to improve his reputation in the company and what better way for Jamie to advance and Laurie to give the rumour mill something else to talk about than a fake relationship?

As Laurie and Jamie progress from Instagram snaps to dates, dancing and more, Laurie feels herself falling further for her unlikely hero. But you can’t break your heart in a fake relationship. Can you?

So I love Mhairi McFarlane, I’ve said that before so many times. A new book from her is like a gift and a new book at Christmas time is even better. I grabbed a copy of this one from NetGalley a little while ago but I kept it for my holiday because it would be like a reward. Get through 2 days of driving and then you can read a new book by a favourite author. And this one has one of my very favourite romance tropes – the fauxmance.

Laurie is 36 and has been with her boyfriend Dan since university, when they were 18. She’s been planning to try for a baby soon and she thinks Dan is on board. But after a night out where she realises just how terrifying the dating pool is now, Dan blindsides her by telling her he’s not happy and that he not only wants her not to come off the Pill, but he actually doesn’t even want to be with her anymore and that they should split up. Although he denies that anyone else involved, he eventually has to tell Laurie that he has a new girlfriend just 10 weeks later – and that his new girlfriend is pregnant in a slip up.

Laurie is completely devastated. She faces starting again in her mid-thirties, knowing that her chances of being able to have a child have now been drastically reduced. Dan, whom she loved and whom she thought loved her, has completely eroded her self confidence and belief in herself. She wants to know what she did wrong, so that she doesn’t do it again. And when Dan helplessly tells her that it’s not anything she’s done…..it’s less than helpful. Because if it isn’t, then how can she fix whatever it is about herself that made him leave?

A chance encounter in a lift with a handsome work colleague leads to a crazy idea – Laurie and Jamie will fake a relationship for mutual benefit. Jamie is a bit of a commitment phobe, but one who wants to be partner. The bosses aren’t keen on a man without a stable home life and Laurie is a favoured employee. Dating Laurie will definitely boost Jamie’s stock big time. And Jamie is smart, excellently dressed and beautiful. Laurie wants Dan to hurt like she did.

I enjoyed this a lot. Laurie is a really wonderful, well rounded character. She’s excellent at her job, she’s hard working, and passionate about what she does. She was comfortable and secure in her relationship with Dan, pushing him to be the best he could be professionally. She is completely shocked when he ends it and utterly heartbroken. But slowly, without Dan, she realises that with him, she hadn’t been living her best life. She was more about supporting him and getting him to where he needed to be. When Jamie suggests the fake romance, for Laurie it’s a way to kind of get one back on Dan for the hurt he has caused her. But soon, the fake romance brings Jamie and Laurie close together.

One thing I liked about this was the way in which they got to know each other. This is no insta-romance with insta-chemistry. Laurie is recovering from a real shock and Jamie doesn’t have any interest in the beginning, in being in a relationship or even in a one night stand with Laurie. He wants to advance professionally and he knows how smart and well liked she is at work and how having her on his side, will really help people see him in a new light. At first it’s carefully constructed Instagram photos and fake dates but soon it morphs into them telling each other their deepest feelings, supporting each other through truly deep and distressing personal scenarios. There’s a building of trust and like as well, even though they obviously see each other as attractive people, it’s not about that for the longest time. I felt like they had really built something that would carry them through – both of them had seen the other during some really difficult and emotional times. Laurie had not only the break up with Dan but also other things in her personal life as well and Jamie was very supportive and defensive of her. I also liked that he pulled Laurie up on her misconceptions of him – Jamie had a bit of a reputation that had followed him from his previous job but apart from his first appearance in the book, he rarely acted like what had been said about him. It takes Laurie a little while to judge him as she finds him, not on what she’s heard of him.

I thought this was a cute, fun read, perfect for summer and being on holidays and relaxing. It’s not my favourite Mhairi McFarlane – I honestly think that will forever be It’s Not Me, It’s You – but it was highly enjoyable and something I’d probably read again in the future.

8/10

Book #214 of 2019

 

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Review: The Only Plane In The Sky: The Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane In The Sky: The Oral History Of 9/11
Garrett M. Graff
Monoray (Hachette UK)
2019, 480
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The first comprehensive oral history of September 11, 2001—a panoramic narrative woven from the voices of Americans on the front lines of an unprecedented national trauma.

Over the past eighteen years, monumental literature has been published about 9/11, from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which traced the rise of al-Qaeda, to The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s definitive factual retrospective of the attacks. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through the voices of the people who experienced it.

Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff tells the story of the day as it was lived—in the words of those who lived it. Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Beginning in the predawn hours of airports in the Northeast, we meet the ticket agents who unknowingly usher terrorists onto their flights, and the flight attendants inside the hijacked planes. In New York City, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker underneath the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard the small number of unarmed fighter jets in the air, pilots make a pact to fly into a hijacked airliner if necessary to bring it down. In the skies above Pennsylvania, civilians aboard United Flight 93 make the ultimate sacrifice in their place. Then, as the day moves forward and flights are grounded nationwide, Air Force One circles the country alone, its passengers isolated and afraid.

More than simply a collection of eyewitness testimonies, The Only Plane in the Sky is the historic narrative of how ordinary people grappled with extraordinary events in real time: the father and son working in the North Tower, caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; the operator of in-flight telephone calls who promises to share a passenger’s last words with his family; the beloved FDNY chaplain who bravely performs last rites for the dying, losing his own life when the Towers collapse; and the generals at the Pentagon who break down and weep when they are barred from rushing into the burning building to try to rescue their colleagues.

At once a powerful tribute to the courage of everyday Americans and an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky weaves together the unforgettable personal experiences of the men and women who found themselves caught at the center of an unprecedented human drama. The result is a unique, profound, and searing exploration of humanity on a day that changed the course of history, and all of our lives.

I think I first heard about this book when I was voting in the Goodreads Choice Awards. It sounded interesting and I requested it from my local library. The book begins with the statement that all Americans of a certain age, remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard what was happening on 9/11. And to be honest, that’s probably true in many places outside of America. I will never forget where I was and what I was doing in those first moments where I heard about it. I was living at university in a residential hall and I had Wednesday (9/11 was a Tuesday, but I woke up to the news on Wednesday as it occurred overnight for us) off classes and I spent that day in the common room with all of my residential buddies, watching the footage. At the time I was doing a degree in tourism, so it ended up being incorporated into our studies, given not only was the World Trade Centre a place of work for thousands of people but huge numbers of visitors made the pilgrimage there each day also.

What I really like about this book, is that it’s not about the politics, or the foreign policy or choices of countries or groups that led up to the attack. All of that has been rehashed a million times I suppose. This is purely what the title says – an oral history of the day, in the words of the people that experienced it. It’s told in chronological time order, so it begins early in the morning on the 11th and slowly moves forward, hopping back and forth between people and locations to paint the entire picture. It’s people who were going to work, people who were EMTs, first responders, people who were at home with loved ones either heading to work in those locations or who had the unfortunate fate to board one of the four planes. It’s people who narrowly escaped being caught up in by a twist of fate – and people who might not have normally been caught up in it but were. It’s almost a minute by minute account of what happened from those who were closest to it from such a variety of perspectives. It gives you such a feel of the atmosphere in so many different places, from so many different people: workers trying to get out of the towers, people on the ground watching the horror unfold, the helplessness of people when they realised the towers were going to come down, the devastation at the people that didn’t make it out, the people waiting by the phone desperate for news, the politicians who were being evacuated to bunkers and safe locations in case the threat wasn’t over, the people on Air Force One and the confusion about what to do/where to go with the President, where was safe. They didn’t know who they could trust, what other threats might still be lurking. The logistics of closing the air space and grounding the planes in the sky after it became apparent that it was a calculated attack and there could be more coming. There’s a lot going on in this but it’s put together so flawlessly that it never feels confusing, even though you’re reading about true chaos.

I’ve read many individual stories coming out of 9/11 but I’ve never read something that so comprehensively captures the experience as a whole. It really is an unforgettable moment in history for those of us that were of an age to experience it and this book does such a good job of giving the people a voice. It’s informative but the focus is on human experience and the reactions and actions of those that were so close to it, be it in New York, Washington or Pennsylvania. It’s a really powerful, emotional read and perhaps enjoying it isn’t the right word, because this is first hand accounts of people’s grief and suffering. But it was brilliant and confronting and I am absolutely glad I read it.

9/10

Book #213 of 2019

 

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Review: The Lost Summers Of Driftwood by Vanessa McCausland

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Book #212 of 2019


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

 

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Review: Return To Stringybark Creek by Karly Lane

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Book #211 of 2019

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Review: Making Up by Lucy Parker

Making Up (London Celebrities #3)
Lucy Parker
Carina Press
2018, 254p
Purchased person copy via iBooks

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Once upon a time, circus artist Trix Lane was the best around. Her spark vanished with her confidence, though, and reclaiming either has proved… difficult. So when the star of The Festival of Masks is nixed and Trix is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, it’s exactly the push she needs. But the joy over her sudden elevation in status is cut short by a new hire on the makeup team.

Leo Magasiva: disgraced wizard of special effects. He of the beautiful voice and impressive beard. Complete dickhead and—in an unexpected twist—an enragingly good kisser.

To Leo, something about Trix is… different. Lovely. Beautiful, even though the pint-size, pink-haired former bane of his existence still spends most of her waking hours working to annoy him. They’ve barely been able to spend two minutes together for years, and now he can’t get enough of her. On stage. At home. In his bed.

When it comes to commitment, Trix has been there, done that, never wants to do it again. Leo’s this close to the job of a lifetime, which would take him away from London — and from Trix. Their past is a constant barrier between them.

It seems hopeless.

Utterly impossible.

And yet…

Recently I have been really enjoying this series as a little break to read on my phone when I’ve been out doing some health sessions. The first two were wonderful – right up my alley with grumpy hero types and sassy heroines. Trix is Lily’s (from the second book) room mate and she was quite fun in that scene. She’s an acrobat, performing in a show in London. She and Lily were at LIDA together, as well as boarding school. In the second book we met Trix’s ex, a London financial type named Dan who used words to belittle and bully her, stripping her of her self confidence and belief. She’s free of Dan now but his words still linger, creeping in insidiously every time Trix thinks she might be getting good at something.

Leo Magasiva went to school with Trix before she got a scholarship to boarding school. The two of them were friends until Trix overheard something Leo said and now they constantly come in and out of each other’s orbit and squabble and bicker incessantly. Leo has just been hired as a make up artist in Trix’s production at around the same time Trix gets a temporary promotion from a minor role to one of the leads.

I did not enjoy this one as much as the previous two. I understand the long lasting effects that Trix’s former relationship had on her psyche and emotional abuse and that sort of bringing someone down in order to make someone feel better, is quite an important thing to explore in fiction. It definitely happens and it can be quite difficult for someone to extract themselves from such a situation. Dan had isolated Trix from almost everyone in her life – he’d almost even managed to drive a wedge between her and Lily, something that Trix still feels guilty for. Dan is gone now (although he turns up occasionally, like a bad penny) and Trix is trying to move on. But his voice in her head is still so present. And it becomes a facet of her everyday professional life, to the point where it’s affecting her performance. Trix pre-Dan would’ve given her eye teeth for a lead role and smashed it out with confidence and skill but Trix post-Dan is unsure and nervous and questioning her ability, which leads to her making little mistakes. She enters into something physical and casual with Leo when they decide that kissing is much more fun than bickering.

I found Leo and Trix together quite hard work to read. Their background isn’t really explored enough for me during their teens and as adults, the bickering is quite annoying. They’re both supposed to be professional adults and the point scoring gets a bit tedious, rather than the fun, chemistry-filled witticisms of the first two books. Leo is a talented make up artist who was working in America but accidentally used a product a famous actor was allergic to so his name is mud there now, he’s back in London taking a relatively low paying gig at Trix’s show until he can restore his reputation. He comes with a sister named Cat, who is a heinous bitch to everyone and I don’t know how she doesn’t get fired (from her wardrobe job, also on Trix’s show) in three minutes. She’s rude, arrogant and just so unlikeable. However she keeps popping up so I can only assume she’ll get her own book one day, somewhere down the track, especially as towards the end some steps to redemption were taken when she confides in Trix just why she was so horrid to everyone because they are Kindred Spirits with Something in Common. Mmm, wasn’t good enough for me. Yeah okay, a shitty thing happened to you. It doesn’t mean you get to be shitty to people half a world away who had nothing to do with it and who are just trying to do their jobs. And although I liked Jono, Trix’s partner in the show, when Cat was around it was like he’d had a lobotomy, which made me not like him.

Trix and Leo just didn’t really do anything for me I’m afraid. I wasn’t invested in their romance, I didn’t really enjoy them in scenes together (or in scenes separately to be honest). I’d liked Trix in book 2 but I got quite bored at times during this – it’s super short and it took me 3 days to finish it. The best thing about it is getting to see Lily and Luc from book 2 get married, although that’s framed in and around not only Trix and Leo, but Cat as well, who uses it as a way to hurt and humiliate people. Publicly.

Disappointing, after the height of the first 2. But I’m going to still read book 4 because it’s Freddy, who was one of Lily’s cast mates in the show she was doing with Luc in book 2. And I want to see what happens to her, because she was great in her brief scenes in that book.

5/10

Book #210 of 2019

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Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Book #206 of 2019

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

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Review: The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife 
Molly Greeley
Allen & Unwin
2019, 288p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A moving story of unexpected love featuring Charlotte from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In this Pride and Prejudice-inspired novel, not everyone has the luxury of waiting for love. Charlotte Collins knows this well …

Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, is the respectable wife of Hunsford’s vicar, and sees to her duties by rote: keeping house, caring for their adorable daughter, visiting parishioners and patiently tolerating the lectures of her awkward husband and his condescending patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Intelligent, pragmatic and anxious to escape the shame of spinsterhood, Charlotte chose this life: an inevitable one so socially acceptable that its quietness threatens to overwhelm her. Then she makes the acquaintance of Mr Travis, a local farmer and tenant of Lady Catherine.

In Mr Travis’ company, Charlotte feels appreciated, heard and seen. For the first time in her life Charlotte begins to understand emotional intimacy and its effect on the heart-and how breakable that heart can be. With her sensible nature confronted and her own future about to take a turn, Charlotte must now question the role of love and passion in a woman’s life, and whether they truly matter for a clergyman’s wife.

When I read the description of this, I had to request it for review. I have read a lot of Austen-inspired work, adaptations, modern day depictions, and of course, books that deal with the same characters after Pride & Prejudice ends. I’ve read books about Darcy and Elizabeth, a book about Bingley and Jane, books about Mary Bennet and Georgiana Darcy as well. But I’ve never read a book about Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas and I thought that would be really, really interesting.

Charlotte is of course, Elizabeth’s best friend, a 27yo plain spinster from a family that has neither a lot of money nor strong connections. When Elizabeth refuses Mr Collins’ proposal, he goes to stay with the Lucas family after the humiliation. And just a short time later, Charlotte accepts his proposal. When Lizzy is horrified for her friend, Charlotte is tired of uncertainty and just wants a secure home, the respectability of being married. Mr Collins has a good living as the parson for Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself and of course, the unspoken thing is that one day, he will inherit Longbourne from his cousin Mr Bennet and Charlotte will be mistress of Lizzy’s family home.

This was really, really enjoyable. It gives an unflinching glimpse into Charlotte’s married life to Mr Collins, an odious bore but at least one who means well and isn’t cruel or violent towards her. He’s just incredibly boring, incredibly stifling and obsequious to his most generous patron. Charlotte has a comfortable life, even if she’s not entirely confident in her role of that of wife to a clergyman. She has a young daughter that she dotes on, that Mr Collins mostly leaves her alone to parent and she can endure frequent dining at Rosings with Lady Catherine because Charlotte has always been the embodiment of demure grace and respectability. She knows precisely how to deal with the difficulties of her talkative husband and the snobby and demanding Lady Catherine. But that doesn’t meant that she doesn’t have a lot of inner frustration.

Charlotte gets a glimpse of the sort of marriage she might have made, had she made another choice or met someone in a different way when she encounters Mr Travis, a farmer tenant of Lady Catherine’s, engaged to help plant and care for roses that Lady Catherine gets in her mind to install at the parsonage. Mr Travis is amiable and friendly and he and Charlotte share an early morning connection as she soothes her fractious, teething daughter. He is intelligent but not a gentleman, his hands are rough and often filthy in the way of a farmer. He’s more introspective than her husband and Charlotte perhaps is made aware through this connection (or even more aware) of the lack of emotional intimacy in her life. She’s quite far from her family, she has no friends in this new life and she and her husband share a cordial relationship but not one that is warm or affectionate. It’s merely duty and responsibility and Charlotte sees what it might have been like to perhaps share something more in a marriage – genuine love, affection and even sexual attraction.

It was interesting seeing familiar characters through new eyes – Darcy and Elizabeth do visit Rosings in the book (I’m honestly not sure how likely that would’ve been to happen, given the last interaction of Lady Catherine and Elizabeth) and Charlotte provides an unflinching look at her friend and also her friend’s marriage. Charlotte wasn’t around for the actual development of Darcy and Elizabeth although she’s heard about it in letters. This is her first chance to observe them as a couple and it takes her a while to see through Darcy’s rather brusque manner but she comes to witness their emotional intimacy too. Elizabeth has the type of marriage she always desired (luckily her husband is also incredibly wealthy and Elizabeth never needs to worry about the future).

This is one of the better books I’ve read that takes a character from a famous book and expands upon it. Charlotte’s internal monologue felt so honest and even though she’s not given to bouts of self pity and she knows exactly what the consequences are of the decision she made, you can feel her loneliness, her longing. Her examination of her life and the choices that led her to where she is isn’t self indulgent, more just…..stoic acceptance of the way her life has played out but in some ways, with a bit of fanciful dreaming of ‘what if’. Even though Charlotte was always portrayed as sensible and pragmatic, I suppose everyone is prone to some fanciful dreaming at some stage in their lives. I wasn’t sure how this was going to end – or how I wanted it to end, actually. It’s a much more complex time with more rigid marital and societal rules. It ended up feeling very realistic for me though.

I think this was a wonderful read. It didn’t feel perfect for Austen’s time and place but it was close, written with empathy and compassion and a real sense of human emotion.

8/10

Book #207 of 2019

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Review: Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

Pretty Face (London Celebrities #2)
Lucy Parker
Carina Press
2017, 222p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The play’s the fling

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie—and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance—if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad-tempered and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately, their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career, it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

A little while ago, I bought and read the first in this series, Act Like It on a whim and loved it! I’d heard some good things about the series as a whole and the first one was 100% my jam. Recently I’ve been doing these salt therapy sessions for my allergies, hayfever and asthma and it’s a mostly darkened room so I download a book onto my phone and read during the session. I picked this one last week because I wanted something with fun and romance but also feels and it delivered just like the first did.

Lily Lamprey looks and sounds a bit like Marilyn Monroe – she’s all blonde curves and a breathy, porn star voice that works for her villainous character in a soap opera but less so on the stage. When she’s suggested to director Luc Savage for a role in his new play, the role of Elizabeth I no less, his response is an emphatic no way. She doesn’t have either the look or the vocal range he’s after and she won’t be able to handle a theatre run, performing night after night with that voice. But he’s more or less forced to watch more than the reel of her soap opera glory and he has to admit, there’s something there. Except the voice. The voice is a problem.

What’s more of a problem is how Luc feels when he meets Lily in person. And when he hears her mimic him pitch perfect then he knows she can possibly work on the voice. Despite everything working against them from their age gap to the fact that Luc is now her boss and the rumours will be well, as savage as his name, there’s something between them that they just can’t ignore.

This is just the right blend of humour and seriousness for me. Luc is a bit of a dick at the beginning – he makes a few remarks about Lily based specifically on her appearance as he sees her acting on the soap and he realises when he hears others talk about her how wrong that is. Lily isn’t afraid to call him out on it either and he sees very quickly that she is much more than just her stunning looks and has a real character as is capable of much more than she’s been doing. Spending time with her makes him realise just how much people talk about her as if she isn’t there and can’t hear them and how much they assume she is chronically stupid because of the type of look she has. A lot of the story does deal with the perception of Lily by strangers and the assumptions they make about her without knowing her and the way they talk about her. The way the press talk about her, because she’s beautiful and plays a femme fatale on screen. Through this, Luc examines his own actions as well and realises what he said wasn’t kind or called for, even though he was speaking as a director and that he shouldn’t judge her on what he has.

I really loved the interactions between Luc and Lily. In some ways they are a bit similar to the ones between Lainie and Richard in the first book in that Richard is a cynical dick and Lainie calls him on all of his bullshit and he sort of loves it. Similarly, Lily is quick to call Luc out on a lot of his as well, regarding his comments to and about her as well as his sometimes grumpy mannerisms and attitudes. It was quite refreshing to read about Luc and Margo, a couple recently separated but not with animosity and who weren’t trying to score points with each other or hurt each other. Their relationship isn’t shown as such in this book but a lot is conveyed and the interactions between both Luc and Margo and Lily and Margo were really interesting and it was nice to read women supporting each other in acting roles and wanting the best and believing in each other for the good of the production rather than the other actresses serving to play only stereotypical bitch fodder to Lily as the theatre newcomer and coming from soap opera no less. The cast interactions were fabulous and I am looking forward to a book for Freddy in the future.

The age gap between Lily and Luc didn’t bother me much but both of them were aware of it and it was Luc that was more concerned about it, at 10+ years older than her. Especially as her director and even though they weren’t involved when he cast her, that wouldn’t be something that would concern the tabloid press, particularly the one with the vendetta against Luc and his whole family. The family dynamics in this book were really well fleshed out as well. Luc has a tight knit and quite traditional family that he’s close to and they are lively and a lot of fun. It’s Lily with the unusual childhood and loving although somewhat distant and fractious relationship with her parents. I found it quite amusing that both Luc and Lily’s family seemed to know from their first interactions with the other exactly where the two of them were heading.

This series is so fun and I already want to read the next one, which is about Lily’s flatmate, so someone we encountered in this book. Also we got a cameo by Lainie and Richard and it always makes me happy to see couple previously read about pop up in other books!

8/10

Book #204 of 2019

 

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Review: How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

How To Train Your Dragon (How To Train Your Dragon #1)
Cressida Cowell
Hodder Children’s Books
2009 (originally 2003), 224p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III is a truly extraordinary Viking hero known throughout Vikingdom as “the Dragon Whisperer”…but it wasn’t always so. Travel back to the days when the mighty warrior was just a boy, the quiet and thoughtful son of the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans. Can Hiccup capture a dragon and train it without being torn limb from limb? Join the adventure as the small boy finds a better way to train his dragon and become a hero!

Not the sort of thing I’d normally read!

The other week my older son and I were in a salt therapy session for his croup and my hay fever and we were the first there so they asked him what he wanted to watch. I have never seen How To Train Your Dragon but I’ve always wanted to, so we watched that. Unfortunately the sessions are only 45m so I only saw the first half of the movie but I thought that it was really cute and quite enjoyable. I know there’s a couple of movies floating around and I’m going to have to watch the rest of it on Netflix when I get a chance.

I needed a children’s or middle grade book by a female author for my Reading Women Podcast Challenge and I didn’t really want to spend a huge amount of time looking for something or buying something etc, I just wanted something I could pick up and read. So I raided my kids’ bookshelves and ended up finding this. I had totally forgotten that I’d bought it for my youngest son for Christmas either last year or the year before. Given I’d just watched half the movie, it seemed like a good choice.

Except it’s not really the same as the movie. The basics are kind of the same – Hiccup is the son of the Viking chief but he’s not at all like his big, burly, strong father. Hiccup is more gentle and soft and he’s a bit accident prone and generally seen as a bit of a liability around the village. In the book you have to capture your dragon (in the movie you are supposed to kill them, which seems like a bit much for a kid’s movie but okay) and all of the young Vikings go together to capture a baby dragon while they’re sleeping/hibernating. Hiccup does capture a dragon but he gives it to one of his friends and snatches another on his way out – a very small dragon who appears to have no teeth, so he’s called Toothless.

Toothless in the book and Toothless in the movie area also quite different. Toothless in the movie seems quite sweet whereas Toothless in the books is a bit of a – well, he’s a bit of a jerk, really. Hiccup is supposed to train him and generally you can motivate a dragon in some way or another (bribery, flattery, etc) but Toothless is difficult to train and motivate and kind of acts like a spiteful and also clueless puppy at times, until Hiccup finally finds the key to getting him to listen. But even then he sort of only listens when he wants to.

Hiccup’s differing personality comes into its own when a sleeping dragon wakes up from under the sea and threatens the entire village. While the elders can’t decide what to do to rid the island of their threat, Hiccup comes up with a plan (he can speak dragon, which for some reason, seems to be forbidden) and he gets the other dragons to all cooperate so that they can work together to eliminate the threat. He might not be a physically strong, strapping lad, which means he’s seen as weak and pathetic in the eyes of others but he has intelligence and empathy and he wants to communicate with dragons and build something with them, rather than just yell at them (which is what the textbook assures is the best method).

This was fine, it was cute and a bit of a lesson in how there’s nothing wrong with being different to your peers and getting things done in a different way. The bullies get shown up, Hiccup gets to showcase his brains over brawn style of dealing with problems and I think by the end he’s earned his respect as a potential future Chief and that his methods might not be his father’s but they’ll be no less effective or heroic. There’s still lots of books in this series to go I think, maybe a dozen or more all up and I’m sure Hiccup continues to grow and overcome adversity.

I’m going to go finish the movie and see how that plays out.

6/10

Book #203 of 2019

How To Train Your Dragon is the 22nd book read for my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019, ticking off prompt #5 – a children’s book.

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Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You 
Celeste Ng
Blackfriars (Hachette UK)
2014, 305p
Purchased personal copy via iBooks

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue – in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the centre of every party. But Lydia is under pressures that have nothing to do with growing up in 1970s small town Ohio. Her father is an American born of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his ethnicity, and hers, make them conspicuous in any setting.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, James is consumed by guilt and sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to make someone accountable, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is convinced that local bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest in the family – Hannah – who observes far more than anyone realises and who may be the only one who knows what really happened.

Everything I Never Told You is a gripping page-turner, about secrets, love, longing, lies and race.

Almost two years ago, I read Little Fires Everywhere, and absolutely loved it, like pretty much everyone else. I ended up buying this book, her previous, in either one of those cheap or freebie deals iBooks have, as a promo. I can’t remember now if it was free or if it was discounted down to a couple of dollars but I snapped it up as soon as I saw it, probably not long after I read Little Fires Everywhere. And I’ve only just gotten around to reading it, even though I’ve been meaning to ever since I bought it.

It starts with the best line – “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.” And the Lee family are going about their early morning routine: Dad James is driving to his office where he’s a professor at a local college, mother Marilyn is preparing breakfast for her children Nath, Lydia and Hannah. Only Lydia doesn’t come downstairs and when Marilyn heads up to her bedroom to look for her, her room looks untouched, her bed not slept in. It’s several days later when Lydia’s body is found after they drag the local lake and from then on, it’s about finding out what happened to her. As the police investigate, what they turn up about her daughter doesn’t match the image her parents have of her. And her disappearance and death reveals cracks in her parent’s marriage that have been there for years.

The story then delves into Marilyn and James – how they met, became involved, married and had children. They’re a mixed race couple – Marilyn is white from Virginia or somewhere equally conservative and James is ethnic Chinese but born in America. His parents travelled to the midwest when he was small in order to take up jobs at a boarding school and James received an education at the same school and was accepted to Harvard. He was the only person of Asian ethnicity at his school and when he meets Marilyn at college, mixed marriages are not at all common. In fact when they get married, their marriage could be illegal in several different states. Their children have James’ colouring apart from Lydia, who has his hair but in a genetic lottery, her mother’s blue eyes. They are also the only children of Asian heritage at their school as well in 1970s Ohio and they experience the standard questions and childish bullying in regards to their Asian features.

Lydia’s disappearance highlights the way in which her parents interacted with her and her siblings. James is desperate for his children not to have the same isolated childhood that he did. He wants them to fit in, have friends, be normal teenagers. He’s happiest when he believes that Lydia is giggling on the phone to one of her friends or picking a dress to wear to a dance, or when Nath is playing a game at the local pool with some neighbourhood kids. Like James, Nath has been accepted to Harvard and is only weeks or a few months away from leaving the home when Lydia disappears. Their own relationship is explored in this novel as well, how they both cope with their parents frustrated ambitions for them. While James wants them to fit in, Marilyn has much more ambitious plans for Lydia. She wants Lydia to be her, to complete what Marilyn was not able to. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and she bonds with Lydia when Lydia is a young child by tutoring her in maths and science, honing and shaping her knowledge so that one day, Lydia might be pre-med. Lydia is so keen to actually spend time with her mother, be the focus of her attention that she says yes to anything, because of a pact she made when Marilyn vanished briefly from their lives when Lydia was eight. And Hannah, she was the reason Marilyn’s dream was thwarted a second time and she’s largely ignored by everyone. They had to turn their attic into a bedroom for her when she was born and so she lives mainly up in the roof or in the background, almost forgotten, raising herself. She’s much younger than her siblings and although they are kind to her, she doesn’t share the closeness they had with each other, the bond of getting each other through the expectations. With Nath soon off to college, she feels abandoned by him, like he cannot wait to escape and leave everything behind, including her.

Although the book begins with Lydia’s disappearance and the discovery of her body and there’s a running question of what happened to her – was it accidental/misadventure, did someone harm her or was it self inflicted, the book is about the complex relationships between the family members and the way that James and Marilyn’s own childhoods have affected the way they parent their children and what they want for them out of life. It’s about racism and small town ostracisation and not fitting in. I really liked this and I can’t wait to read more from Celeste Ng in the future.

8/10

Book #201 of 2019

I’m counting this one towards my participation in the Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. I’m using it to check off the first prompt, mystery or thriller by a WOC. Although a domestic drama, there’s definitely a mystery running through this book of what happened to Lydia and how/why she came to be in the lake. This is the 21st novel completed for the challenge…..can I actually manage to finish this?!

 

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