All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Lady Detective by Ava January

The Lady Detective
Ava January
Escape Publishing
2021, 200p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: London’s lawbreakers and loathsome lords… beware!

How does a wealthy widow avoid the marriage market in 1890s London?

If you’re Lady Theodosia Fortescue-Brown, you hide behind outrageously bad clothing and glasses you don’t need.

After the disappearance of her husband, Theodosia can’t imagine giving up her freedom to marry again and relishes her role as detective to the ladies of the upper echelons of society.

When a priceless necklace on loan from the Royal family is stolen, Theodosia must work with the scandalous Lord Montague to recover it before the theft is discovered.

But somewhere between setting a brothel on fire, being knocked out in a cemetery in the middle of the night, and narrowly avoiding death via Scotch egg, Theodosia and William fall in love…

I really enjoyed this! It was a fun little historical mystery with some romance thrown in.

Lady Theodosia Fortescue-Brown had a less-than-desirable upbringing that was probably common to many young girls during this time, if their father’s were wastrels with a fondness for drink. She was beholden to him until he married her off to the son of their neighbour in a deal that netted him money. Although her husband was kind and treated her well, a real friend to her, theirs was not a romantic marriage. And then her husband went missing, leaving Theodosia at the mercy of her brother-in-law. He’s been very patient but he’s told her that he’s going to need her to vacate the house and that he’ll prepare the Dower residence for her.

This is not what Theodosia wants. She wants to stay in London. She’s developed a little bit of a reputation for herself as a lady detective. She has no wish to marry again and be subject to yet another man although her latest mystery involves searching for a priceless necklace belonging to the Royal Family and she finds the notorious Lord Montague invested in its return as well. He suggests working as a team but Theodosia runs her own race…..but despite declining his offer, she finds their paths crossing on a regular basis.

I loved Theodosia, I thought she was such an interesting character. She disguises a lot about herself, relying on unflattering clothes and glasses she doesn’t need so as not to attract the interest of men. She employs women who would have little chance of employment anywhere else. She’s bright and full of plans and plots and ideas when she’s investigating something and she’s also passionate about women’s welfare and their treatment. I also thought her alter-ego was hilarious.

Lord Montague’s reputation has preceded him and Theodosia is sure she can resist him. After all he’s just another very good looking rake, with the ability to ruin lives with zero consequence, right? But Montague is much more than good looking and the more time Theodosia spends with him, the more she realises that there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. She’s definitely forgetting her resolution not to be charmed and she understands how he might ruin a young debutante – and she’s no impressionable first season girl. But she still doesn’t want to ever be someone’s property again and that reluctance makes her wary to take a step forward with Montague that might lead her to happiness.

I loved Montague – he had this rakish reputation but I really enjoyed how he didn’t really fit that description and his interactions with Theodosia were fantastic. He’s also the more open one of the two of them, in terms of feelings and declarations but he also makes a bit of a mistake which someone is all too happy to inform Theodosia about and that drives a wedge between them and I felt like that conflict was well done. What he did played into Theodosia’s fears too but I felt like there were some extenuating circumstances – but Theodosia just wasn’t in the mindset to hear them.

There were some secondary characters in this book that I felt would make excellent main characters in their own stories, should the author choose to turn this into a bit of a series – especially the man who works for the Home Office and also the man that occasionally does some investigative work for Theodosia trying to find her husband. They didn’t get a lot of page time but the small amount they did was enough to sow some interesting seeds.

8/10

Book #125 of 2021

The Lady Detective is book #52 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Always The Last To Know by Kristan Higgins

Always The Last To Know
Kristan Higgins
Berkley Books
2020, 400p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The Frosts are a typical American family. Barb and John, married almost fifty years, are testy and bored with each other…who could blame them after all this time? At least they have their daughters– Barb’s favorite, the perfect, brilliant Juliet; and John’s darling, the free-spirited Sadie. The girls themselves couldn’t be more different, but at least they got along, more or less. It was fine. It was enough.

Until the day John had a stroke, and their house of cards came tumbling down.

Now Sadie has to put her career as a teacher and struggling artist in New York on hold to come back and care for her beloved dad–and face the love of her life, whose heart she broke, and who broke hers. Now Juliet has to wonder if people will notice that despite her perfect career as a successful architect, her perfect marriage to a charming Brit, and her two perfect daughters, she’s spending an increasing amount of time in the closet having panic attacks.

And now Barb and John will finally have to face what’s been going on in their marriage all along.

Last week I had a book to pick up at my local library and there were rumours going around that we’d be going into lockdown again so I thought while I was there picking up my reserved book, I’d grab a few others as well. It wasn’t supposed to be a long lockdown, hopefully just a short one to get contacts of positive cases into isolation and allow contact tracers time to find everyone. I always find reading a perfect escape in lockdowns and although I don’t lack books at home, I love having variety. So I walked the fiction shelves and grabbed a few off the display shelf that looked interesting. I’ve read a few Kristan Higgins books before, some I’ve loved, some have been okay and this one looked recent and I didn’t know anything about it but the blurb had me sold.

And I loved this book! I picked it up late that same afternoon and I was sorry I had waited so long because it meant that I didn’t get time to finish it in one day. This is such an excellent study of relationships and family and how different people in the same family just see and experience things very differently.

John and Barb have been married for over fifty years but for a long time, they’ve just really been going through the motions. They suffered years of infertility before Barb fell pregnant with Juliet and motherhood was such a perfect experience for her. Barb and Juliet were a team from the very beginning and she’s Barb’s pride and joy. Sadie came along 12 years later and that was a very different and unexpected experience and she never really felt that she bonded with her the way she did with Juliet. Sadie felt like she was John’s rather than Barb and the two of them never came to see eye to eye, even as Sadie came into adulthood. In contrast, Juliet and Barb just grew closer and closer and Barb couldn’t be prouder of her: Ivy League education, excellent job as an architect, wonderful husband, two beautiful daughters, lives close by. Sadie in contrast, wanted to be an artist, a career Barb didn’t really rate and moved to New York for college and lives in a 1-bedroom apartment. Not married, no children. Barb feels like she can’t relate to Sadie and their relationship is very distant. Sadie and John however, remain incredibly close and John’s stroke brings Sadie home in a way that Barb suspects an accident to her would not.

This is told from multiple perspectives: Barb’s, Juliet’s, Sadie’s and even John’s as he recovers from his stroke and tries to make sense of things with a mind that is no longer what it was. I really loved reading from these different perspectives and seeing how Sadie viewed her relationship with Barb vs how Barb saw her relationship with Sadie and the factors that both thought had contributed to this. I thought this was done so well, likewise we get the same sort of insight into Juliet and Sadie’s relationship. With 12 years between them they’ve never been particularly close and both feel certain ways about the other: Sadie nicknames Juliet “Perfection from Conception” due to their mother’s feelings about Juliet and Juliet feels that Sadie just sails through life and things work out for her, she never has to work for anything.

Being back in her hometown also brings Sadie back into the orbit of her teenage/college boyfriend, a man who broke her heart (and whose heart she broke) when they couldn’t see a way forward with their incompatible dreams and lifestyles. I really enjoyed Sadie and Noah. None of their issues from years ago have been resolved (and their are several other complications) but there are still residual feelings and the way this played out felt really believable. Especially with Sadie’s recognition of what she wants versus what she can actually have.

I just found this so engrossing on all levels – all of the characters were interesting and the way in which their different perspectives were shown were just such an insight into family dynamics and their complications. Likewise we get a lot of insight into the marriage of John and Barb (mostly from Barb, as John is less capable of deep reflection) but there’s enough from both sides, to show how marriages can stall, how things like struggling with infertility (which is often a struggle Barb feels like she faces alone) and differing parenting roles, can play a part in driving distance between a couple.

This was an excellent start to my lockdown 5.0 reading.

9/10

Book #224 of 2021

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Review: The Boy From The Mish by Gary Lonesborough

The Boy From The Mish
Gary Lonesborough
Allen & Unwin
2021, 288p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A funny and heart-warming queer Indigenous YA novel, set in a rural Australian community, about seventeen-year-old Jackson finding the courage to explore who he is, even if it scares him.

‘I don’t paint so much anymore,’ I say, looking to my feet.

‘Oh. Well, I got a boy who needs to do some art. You can help him out,’ Aunty Pam says, like I have no say in the matter, like she didn’t hear what I just said about not painting so much anymore. ‘Jackson, this is Tomas. He’s living with me for a little while.’ 

It’s a hot summer, and life’s going all right for Jackson and his family on the Mish. It’s almost Christmas, school’s out, and he’s hanging with his mates, teasing the visiting tourists, avoiding the racist boys in town. Just like every year, Jackson’s Aunty and annoying little cousins visit from the city – but this time a mysterious boy with a troubled past comes with them… As their friendship evolves, Jackson must confront the changing shapes of his relationships with his friends, family and community. And he must face his darkest secret – a secret he thought he’d locked away for good. 

I really enjoyed this book – the other night I was scrolling Borrow Box late at night, looking for a few reads that were different to what I had on my shelves and this one ticked a few boxes I was interested in exploring. It has an Aboriginal main character (actually pretty much all the characters are) and is written by an Aboriginal author. The main character is also questioning many things about themselves, so there’s some other representation as well.

So, Jackson has finished year 11 and summer holidays stretch in front of him on the “Mish” where he lives with his mother and brother. His friends and girlfriend also live on the Mish as well and Jackson’s Aunt is about to arrive from Sydney with a barrage of cousins as they do every summer. Jackson isn’t interested in going back to school but his mother has made it very clear that if he doesn’t he’ll be getting himself a job. School is a minefield of racism and micro aggressions and Jackson has definitely found some trouble there in recent times. To complicate matters, when his Aunt arrives, she brings someone unexpected – Tomas is Koori like them all, around his age and fresh out of juvie. And making Jackson wonder a lot of things about himself.

Jackson and his friends are living a typical Australian summer lifestyle – parties, swimming, the beach, the carnival that comes to town each year. Jackson has a girlfriend but things are not exactly good there as Jackson has been having a few issues in the…physical department. Issues that may be more explained when Tomas arrives with his aunt and gives Jackson many more thoughts.

Jackson is torn over his feelings because he definitely fears how other people, especially his friends and even his mother, will perceive him should he be honest with them and himself about how he feels. He wants to explore but he also wants it to be kept very secret and is often terrified of others finding out. A lot of this book is about Jackson coming to terms with who he really is and how that relates to his Aboriginality and the views of those around him on the Mish. Jackson has definitely been suppressing thoughts and feelings he’s had for a little while now, having made a decision to ‘not be like that’ and to invest in a future that looks a certain way: marrying, having children, etc. But the arrival of Tomas definitely shakes those determinations.

I really liked Jackson and Tomas together, they’re thrown into this situation of sharing a room when Jackson was not expecting an older teen to be part of the crew. They have to get to know each other and this is definitely complicated for Jackson by some of this thoughts and feelings being more than friendly. He tries to hide it but Tomas is interested too, which gives Jackson the sort of thoughts about what this might lead to. How it could be. It’s different to his girlfriend for sure, giving him more clarity of who he is but it’s not something he adjusts to right away. He doesn’t really want to face this aspect of himself or take it public just yet. This causes some tension with Tomas, because who wants to be a secret? Hidden away like it’s something to be ashamed of? But Jackson has to come to terms with this himself, before he feels like he can be exposed in that way to people he cares about.

Jackson and his friends also have “run-ins” with some of the local white teens as well as the cops, who are quick to flick the lights on and pull them over for any perceived misbehaviour. This book shows how teens of colour can and are targeted and how when they are the subject of racist abuse and retaliate, they are often the ones who wear the penalty with the aggressors going unpunished. Jackson’s mother is always telling him to walk away, to not react, to not give anyone else the satisfaction of him reacting exactly as (white) people would predict he would. But Jackson is still young and hotheaded and reacting to abuse and discrimination and racism by lashing out and wanting to defend himself and teach the aggressors a lesson.

This is really fantastic own-voices story telling.

8/10

Book #123 of 2021

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Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Ever After
Kacen Callender
Faber & Faber
2021, 354p
Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: From award–winning author Kacen Callender comes a revelatory YA novel about a transgender teen grappling with identity and self-discovery while falling in love for the first time.

Felix Love has never been in love – and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalisation too many – Black, queer and transgender – to ever get his own happily-ever-after.

When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages – after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned – Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle . . .

But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.

Felix Ever After is an honest and layered story about identity, falling in love, and recognising the love you deserve.

I’ve heard a lot about this book in the past few months and seen it around quite a bit – it definitely had a lot of buzz generated prior to publishing and because I think it was published first overseas, between that and it being released here in Australia.

It has a large and varied amount of representation: Felix, the main character, is Black, queer and trans. His best friend is also a person of colour and their friend group at St Catherine’s, a school in New York also contains lesbian, bisexual and gay students.

Felix is well down the road of transitioning – he’s had top surgery and takes hormones. He lives with his father, a single parent after his mother left years ago, before Felix transitioned. Felix’s father is supportive but also confused and sometimes has trouble remembering the correct pronouns and Felix’s name. It’s not because of bigotry or a reluctance to accept this new version of his child, but I think, simply it takes time to undo years of one way of thinking. He tells Felix that sometimes, Felix is still his “little baby girl” which makes Felix’s skin crawl. I really liked the way the relationship between Felix and his father was written – it wasn’t perfect. Felix’s father often struggled with various things in relation to Felix’s transition but he tries to be as supportive as possible, he tries to be the sort of parent that Felix can rely on. Perhaps especially because Felix hasn’t had any contact with his mother since she left. He writes her draft emails, which sit in his inbox unsent. She has a new family now and seems to have zero interest in knowing anything about the child she left behind, which is definitely something that weighs Felix down. Felix readily acknowledges the things his father does for him, such as working multiple jobs to send him to St Catherine’s, even moving somewhere cheaper. I feel as though it’s not unrealistic for a parent to struggle with the child they’d known for over a decade as one particular thing, becoming another thing and even though it’s not from a place of disappointment or anger or fear or anything negative, it still has an impact on Felix when his father calls him “kid” rather than his name or accidentally uses an incorrect pronoun.

During the summer program at St Catherine’s, which Felix is taking to help pad out his application for Brown, someone creates a gallery of Felix’s old photographs along with his deadname. It’s a punch in the stomach to Felix, who not only finds that vision hard to look at but why would someone do that? He’s determined to find out who did it and humiliate them, make them feel the way he did when he saw those blown up images. He’s pretty sure he knows who it is…..but it’s when he starts on his project to find out, that things start to get really complicated.

And I enjoyed the complications. Felix is forced to reassess his own judgement and image of people, seeing them for who they are, rather than who he assumes they are. He is negotiating a complex, stressful time. He really wants to go to Brown and he’ll need a scholarship to realistically be able to do so – at times he resents his best friend Ezra, whose parents are incredibly wealthy. He’s a talented artist but is struggling to come up with a portfolio topic that, lacking in motivation and inspiration – and he really needs to nail it, to help on his college application. It’s a suggestion from a teacher, that he turn a negative into a positive, to showcase himself as he wants to be seen, how he sees himself, that helps pull him out of this artistic slump and I felt like that was exactly what Felix needed.

I really enjoyed this and I feel like it’ll provide a way for many teens who are questioning themselves (because Felix is also still questioning things) and who are experiencing things that Felix is, to feel as though their experiences are important and are represented. There will be many out there that will see Felix living his existence and working through things and realise that they can do it too. That even though there will be people that won’t accept them, that will use hate and fear, there will be many that will. Felix has several really wonderful supportive friends who step up and defend him against the deadnaming and the gallery issue and want to help him find the coward that did it and hid behind anonymity. The eclectic group was really fun to read, they had their dramas and ups and downs but I think in the end, Felix really knew who he could count on. And the romance in this was really cute.

8/10

Book #120 of 2021

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Review: King Of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

King Of Scars (King Of Scars #1)
Leigh Bardugo
Orion
2019, 511p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Face your demons…or feed them.

The people of Ravka don’t know What Nikolai Lantsov endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet each day a dark magic in him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he built.

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary and she will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne.

Far north Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha destroyed. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face her past to have any hope of defeating the dangers that await her.

Ravka’s King. Ravka’s General. Ravka’s Spy. They will risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

So I had a big reading binge at the beginning of July when my kids were on school holidays and made it through pretty much all of my publisher review pile well before halfway through the month. So I thought I’d use the time remaining in July to read a few books that I had on my longer term TBR pile for months just like this one. So this book and its sequel, Rule Of Wolves were high on my priority list after I recently finished both the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology. I wanted to tackle these while the Grisha universe was still pretty fresh in my mind.

Our three core characters are Nikolai, newly installed as King of Ravka, his general Zoya, who readers will remember well for her abrasive nature and also Nina, who after the Six of Crows duology, is still suffering from heartbreaking grief. She’s in Fjerda for several purposes, to both return someone she loves to their homeland and also as a spy. She helps smuggle Grisha out of the place that would murder them for their abilities.

But it’s Nikolai that seems to be experiencing the most amount of trouble. His country is in a precarious situation and to everyone’s surprise (and horror) what he suffered during the war hasn’t completely gone away simply because the reason for that suffering, is no longer around (or are they?). He finds himself having to be chained to his bed at night but the measures taken to keep the darkness that still lurks inside him contained, are having to be more and more powerful and Nikolai knows that long term, it’s not going to work. He needs answers and so he sets off on a pilgrimage to the place that was the Fold, hoping he can find the answer.

There’s no denying that this was a bit of a slow start. The book takes quite a bit to find its way and get going with the story and I found that in the first half, my attention wandered quite a bit and I found it hard to focus. However when I got into the second half of the story, I was more engrossed and felt like it had finally settled into a groove. So it probably took me longer to read this than I expected, given it took me so long to trek my way through the first 50% but I think the second half goes a long way to make up for that slow start and I was a fan of the ending (which I think will divide people into love it or hate it camps). I’m glad that I waited until I had Rule Of Wolves to read this (I actually purchased them together) because waiting after that cliffhanger ending would’ve been awful!

I think Zoya, who was actually a character I despised in previous books, goes a long way to carrying this story. She becomes more than just the “bitchy one” who seems mean for the sake of meanness and this book takes the time to flesh her out, giving her an actual character and a reason for why she can be the way she is and why she often treats people the way she does. There’s a lot of pain in her past and she has a huge amount of growth to go through in this story and her arc is probably the best one by far but I don’t know if I buy what’s going on with her and Nikolai (which is admittedly nothing so far, but there’s hints. Suggestions. Maybes).

Speaking of Nikolai, I read a few reviews that said he’s not the character they remember from Ruin & Rising and…well, obviously? What happened to him in that war has changed him and he’s still dealing with it. It hasn’t gone away, like they thought it would and now they have to undertake some pilgrimage, of sorts, to see if they can….eradicate it? Exorcize it? Any and all of the above I guess and Nikolai is a King now. The King of a troubled nation that is under a lot of pressure and there are….other circumstances that make his reign precarious as well. Of course he’s not the same person Alina met as Stormhund right now – I actually liked Nikolai more in this book than in previous books. I found him shallow and too interested in being amusing and clever and funny and in this book he felt more like he knew what and who he was and what and who he needed to be and what he needed to do. Also I really love Genya and David and they appear quite often in this and the amount of time David pauses in reading to query something (and once, to threaten someone, which made me laugh) is amazing. And for those of you have already read Rule Of Wolves, yes I know.

My least favourite portion of this (and it pains me to say it) was Nina’s. I was really keen to see where she was at after what happened in Crooked Kingdom but I just did not love her chapters. And the further into them I got, the less I enjoyed what I was reading. And when she meets Hanne and develops a friendship with her, of course her father turns out to be the person he is, and it just felt….I don’t know, contrived.

But actually, what did really work for me, was the ending, as I mentioned before. It made me really interested in what comes next and definitely elevated the story a little although I do understand a lot of others will not feel the same way. But I’m here for it! This is not my favourite Grishaverse book but it’s not my least favourite either.

7/10

Book #122 of 2021

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Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity #3)
Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion
2013 (originally 2012), 332p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy? 

I am so late to this party. In fact, when I added this book to my goodreads, it showed me that I had originally listed it under wishlist/TBR in 2012! So 9 years later, I finally got around to reading it after hearing so many people say how much they loved it and seeing it mentioned among lots of people’s favourite books.

When this book begins, a woman has been captured by the Gestapo in France for looking the wrong way when crossing the street, indicating that she’s probably from Britain. She has faced quite a long period of torture and freely admits to telling those interrogating her, a lot of things, much to the chagrin of her fellow captives. She has negotiated a deal – she’ll write down all she knows about British airfields, missions, training operatives, equipment etc and well, she’ll live a little while longer. And maybe she will get a quick death, instead of being subject to experiments or worked and starved to death in a camp. But also, maybe she won’t.

The young woman weaves her story in with another – the pilot of the crippled plane she had to parachute out of. It’s a story of friendship and how two women from very different backgrounds met and forged this friendship when, without the war, they’d probably never have crossed paths, nor built up this friendship. Recruited to the war effort for skills in flying and in languages, the two women end up in dangerous places, sometimes doing dangerous things that they cannot talk about, even to each other. They understand each other, and find ways to be supportive even when they can’t really unburden themselves.

I loved the way this was told. It doesn’t seem to have worked for everyone, but it really did for me. The way in which the story is written, a story within a story and the fact that a lot of the information is alluded to rather than bluntly described. We know how much trauma and torture “Verity” has experienced but she rarely makes more than a passing comment about it. Somehow those comments are just as chilling as if it were described in detail. And anyone who has read anything about the Nazis knows what they were capable of, your mind fills in the rest.

I appreciated the way this story went in terms of making you think one thing about what Verity is saying and doing, before it flips it on its head later on. The narrative changes about 3/4 of the way through and everything slowly starts to recalibrate and you realise how clever Verity was, how well she thought on the fly, even after everything she’d been through. And what she was really doing there and what she was prepared to do in order for it to go ahead, even with her having been captured.

For me, this definitely lived up to everything I’ve heard about it and I got the read that I was expecting. I found myself hooked from the first page, invested in “Verity” and whether or not she might somehow, miraculously escape the fate that seemed to be waiting for her, seeing as she’d been captured. She is like a WWII Scheherazade, bargaining more time with tales of what she knows and she’s also not afraid to sometimes add in a dig to her German captors either. I definitely wondered at her tactic but the further I got into it, the more I needed to know and the more the book surprised me. Especially when the little connections began to make themselves known and I realised who certain people were and who they were connected to. I enjoyed the part that featured the French resistance and the work they were doing getting people in and out of France and the various missions and acts of sabotage they were involved in. It was satisfying to read, even when it came with heartbreak.

I ended up finishing this late at night, when I don’t usually read, because I had to know what happened and how it ended. It’s definitely the sort of book you want to read in a single sitting, the fate of these characters becomes something you get so invested in, even though I think on a deeper level, you know that it’s so unlikely that there’s going to be a fairytale ending. The ending is rough, in a lot of ways, but it’s the ultimate act.

Definitely need to read the others.

9/10

Book #121 of 2021

This is book #24 of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a beautiful story!

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #119 of 2021

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

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Review: The Little French Bridal Shop by Jennifer Dupee

The Little French Bridal Shop
Jennifer Dupee
Allen & Unwin
2021, 291p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Larisa Pearl returns to her small seaside home town to manage her beloved great aunt’s estate, she’s an emotional mess. Larisa has just lost her job and her boyfriend and she’s struggling to cope with her mother’s failing health. But as she walks past the bridal shop window, a beautiful ivory satin wedding gown catches her eye…

Now, to the delight of everyone in town, Larisa is planning her wedding. She’s bought the dress, made floral arrangements and set the date. The only thing she doesn’t have is the groom. How did this happen? All she did was try on a dress and let her fantasy take flight.

Lost in a web of her own lies, Larisa must first face some difficult truths, including her mother’s fragile future, before she can embrace her family, straighten out her life and open her heart to finding love.

I have to admit, I struggled with this book a bit.

The first reason is, I think my own misconceptions. The cover and the description make it sound like it’s going to be a fun little rom com maybe – main character Larisa is tempted into a bridal shop despite not being engaged and suddenly finds herself buying a dress, planning a wedding. Only thing missing is a groom! But it’s not really like that at all…..

Larisa has recently lost her job and ended her relationship so it makes sense that she be the one to ready her great aunt’s house for sale after her recent passing. It’s a house she knows well, she visited often and learned a lot by spending time with her great aunt, who lived a very formal life. For some reason, Larisa walks into the bridal shop on her first day in town and it’s run by a former teacher of hers who is thrilled that Larisa is getting married. Except Larisa isn’t – but she tries on every dress in the shop anyway and finds the perfect one.

My biggest problem was, I really did not like Larisa as a character at all. The way in which she describes what she says to her former boyfriend when they split up, is awful. Her lying is incredibly problematic and her mother has dementia, which Larisa does her best to make all about her. I understand that people react to terrible things in different ways….but Larisa’s way is incredibly hard to read. Or make excuses for. She avoids her mother, leaving the entirety of her care to her father, and even perpetuates the lies to her father as well. The thing is, he knows she’s lying also.

Rounding out the reasons I didn’t enjoy this book is Jack – the caretaker of the house, who has worked there since he was a teenager. He’s now in his late thirties, married with eleven year old triplet boys and Jack is a walking cliche. His marriage has lost its excitement to him, so he leaves his wife to do the bulk of the childcare and the taking care of the home whilst he stays out later and later. Jack treats his wife horrifically – and when they separate he goes to live at the house Larisa is fixing up because in his mind, it’s his house too given he’s worked there for so long. Jack and Larisa have known each other since they were teenagers and they embark on this will they or won’t they hook up sort of thing, while each of them are perpetuating the lie about getting married (Larisa) and just generally being terrible at the fathering and husband thing (Jack).

Jack was such an awful person to read about. His thoughts about his wife and marriage, the back-and-forth in his mind, his determination to be a better husband and father that lasts about five minutes every time he thinks it, he just needed to grow up and stop resenting the choices that had gotten him to where he was. He doesn’t come across as a particularly hands-on father, preferring to take his boys out in a boat rather than help with the day-to-day life. He complains internally about his wife’s form of employment and how it takes over their house and how it’s all she talks about, he dislikes the fact that she has always resented the time he spent caretaking the house for Larisa’s now deceased great-aunt. When separated from his wife, he pursues Larisa but forgets about that when something happens to his wife and then realises that perhaps that wasn’t what he wanted either.

The only people I liked in this whole book were Larisa’s parents – her poor, dedicated father who took such wonderful care of his wife, his patience and gentleness with her. He doesn’t reproach Larisa for the fact she hasn’t been to visit in a while and Larisa is too embarrassed to explain to people that her mother has demential now so she lies and says they’re hiking in the Himalayas or holidaying in Palm Beach. She has a real aversion to acknowledging the illness and its effect on her mother, which, you know, I might’ve excused in a person in their teens or even early 20s. But Larisa was 38 or 39 (the same age I am actually) and it just made it seem really ridiculous, especially the denial and lying.

I really like the cover but the story inside didn’t match it unfortunately.

5/10

Book #118 of 2021

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Review: The Women’s Circle by Karyn Sepulveda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #116 of 2021

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

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Review: Talk Bookish To Me by Kate Bromley

Talk Bookish To Me
Kate Bromley
Zaffre
2021, 326p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Inspiration can come from the most unlikely – and inconvenient – sources.

Kara Sullivan’s life is full of love – albeit fictional. As a best-selling romance novelist and influential Bookstagrammer, she’s fine with getting her happily-ever-after fix between the covers of a book. 

But right now? Not only is Kara’s best friend getting married next week – which means big wedding stress – but the deadline for her next novel is looming, and she hasn’t written a single word. The last thing she needs is for her infuriating first love, Ryan Thompson, to suddenly appear in the wedding party. But Ryan’s unexpected arrival sparks a creative awakening in Kara that inspires the steamy historical romance she desperately needs to deliver. 

With her wedding duties intensifying, her deadline getting closer by the second and her bills not paying themselves, Kara knows there’s only one way for her to finish her book and to give her characters the ever-after they deserve. But can she embrace the unlikely, ruggedly handsome muse—who pushes every one of her buttons—to save the wedding, her career and, just maybe, write her own happy ending?

******Please beware that this entire review will contain SPOILERS******

I don’t often write reviews that are riddled with spoilers but for me, it’s really hard to talk about this one without addressing several things in the plot that I think are definitely a dealbreaker for a lot of readers, particularly those that are romance lovers. I’ve read a lot of romance in my time and this book contains something that had I known about it going in, I’d never have read it. And even though I didn’t like this book anyway before that….it definitely made it irredeemable and unsalvageable as a read for me.

Kara is about 30, she’s an author who is experiencing writers block. About to be maid of honour for her best friend, she’s horrified (or is she?) when the best man turns out to be her old college boyfriend, whom she broke up with in acrimonious circumstances about 10 years ago, when she was 20 and he was 22. She believed Ryan was cheating on her, if not physically, then definitely emotionally during a long distance period in their relationship when he’d graduated and moved for work.

I hated Ryan. He’s one of those smarmy characters that’s supposed to be charming but for me, he was just a complete jerk. He shames Kara for reading romance, both in the past when they meet in college and in the present day. He calls it “literary porn” and basically insinuates it’s all the same and even though he doesn’t suggest only those lacking in intelligence would continue reading the same book, it’s generally what people mean when they say that. The two of them are toxic in their first interactions upon reintroduction and I honestly couldn’t understand why Kara’s best friend was attempting to throw them together in ways that were both rude and stupid. She seemed to think that these people who hadn’t seen each other in ten years and had broken up in very upsetting and hurtful circumstances, were “exuding a vibe” or something. It was ridiculous. And then because seeing Ryan means Kara is able to write one chapter of the book that’s due very soon that she’s been completely blocked on, she invites Ryan to stay with her in her one bedroom apartment with his dog when he’s thrown out of his hotel. This is despite all the words coming out of her mouth are that she doesn’t want to spend time with him or be reminded of him and what happened. Not only are there break up feels but it’s also tied up in her father’s death and Kara is very messed up over that still. Then Kara is immature and arranges to go out on a date…..which Ryan then crashes and I hate things like this because this sort of behaviour is not normal and should never be accepted as such.

Yikes. Oh God, yikes. Honestly, this would probably have been enough for a poor rating, because Ryan is awful, Kara is spineless and her friends are pushy and disrespectful. But after they “get back together” because the chemistry/feelings haven’t gone away, Kara discovers in the worst possible way, that Ryan oops, forgot to mention that he’s engaged. To the woman she once thought he was cheating on her with, ten years ago. This renders Kara the ‘other woman’ and I cannot properly express the howl of rage this induced and if I hadn’t been reading this on an iPad, I’d have hurled this book at the nearest wall. For me, cheating is a hard no and the side characters do utter backflips to justify it, one of Kara’s friends even basically telling her “it’s okay, he didn’t cheat on you.” What in the actual fuck is that? Girl, if he did it with you, he’ll do it to you. We’re supposed to just ignore this poor other character (who never did anything wrong because they actually weren’t involved many years ago) and accept that Ryan and Kara have some sort of higher love that transcends other commitments. Oh to the hell no. Ryan is such a garbage human that he equates the secret he kept with the fact that Kara booked a 6 month sabbatical in Italy to write her next novel twelve months before he came into her life again and didn’t mention it immediately. One of these things is not like the other Ryan. Also Ryan didn’t speak to his dad for ten years after he cheated on Ryan’s mother…..and then cheated on his fiancé with Kara. Hello hypocrisy. And although it’s made clear that Ryan didn’t physically cheat on Kara ten years ago, I don’t think the emotional aspect of it is adequately addressed and seems best forgotten because of the fact there was no physical activity. But he was clearly pulling away from Kara and choosing this other person to confide in and spend time in (and stay at her house).

Kara goes to Italy and meets someone else and I thought, it would 100% redeem this book for me if she fell in love with this dude and forgot all about Ryan but, alas no. She gets some counselling from her friend who tells her that it was fine, Ryan explains why he did what he did and also, he was totally Kara’s first and he didn’t cheat on her like I mentioned above. Her other friend interferes as well and these two starstruck lovers are reunited. Bless.

Public Service Announcement: If he cheats on you or with you, he’s still a cheater.

Also I got so mad that I forgot to mention the fatshaming which is also gross.

A huge nope for me.

2/10 (solely for the argument Kara makes to Ryan to express how her reading different romance novels are like him watching different baseball games. The only part of the book I felt was well written or made any sense).

Book #112 of 2021

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