All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl
Morgan Rogers
Park Row
2021, 293p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.

This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her father’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows.

When reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood. 

I….did not like this.

I found it to be quite a struggle, especially considering it’s a small, quite slim book. I actually had this on my wishlist for quite a while and had heard some really interesting things about it. I had it requested from my library for most of the year and ended up picking it up almost immediately when it finally came in. It looked like it was going to be a fun love story, lots of diverse representation, etc. And well, one of those things is true. There was a lot of diverse representation: the main character Grace is half Black, Yuki, the woman she marries in Vegas is Japanese-American, there are various other ethnicities and sexualities represented among both Grace and Yuki’s friend groups. But for me, this one was not a fun love story so I definitely had that quite wrong.

I think my biggest problem with this was that it felt like the reader should have background information. You’re kind of just dropped into this story with Grace waking up ‘the morning after’ she marries Yuki in Vegas. Yuki is gone (leaving some sort of card but not her name or something, I don’t know), she’s had to leave already to catch a plane or something and Grace and her two friends are also leaving Vegas that day and her two friends have come to her hotel room to get her up. I felt like I was supposed to know who these people are and what their relationships were to Grace and that sort of carried through the rest of the book. When Grace is discussing her work colleagues or her flatmates or Yuki’s flatmates or even her stepmother, etc, it didn’t feel like there was a clear explanation of how these relationships developed. The whole ‘found family’ idea is very cool but it’s rammed down the reader’s throat to point of being ridiculous, like her and Raj, her work colleague, calling each other big brother and little sister all the time.

Also. There’s a lot of repetition of Grace’s name. People call her Porter a lot, which is her last name. Her father calls her Porter all the time. Her stepmother does too. She calls her father Colonel (his military rank) and so does his wife. It’s really weird. People repeat Grace’s name constantly in the dialogue, her full name, her last name, it takes up a significant word count in this less-than-huge book. And speaking of {the} Colonel, oh wow. I did not like him at all. Look I don’t know what it’s like to be in Grace’s position, I absolutely acknowledge that. But Grace has busted her ass the past I don’t-know-how-many years getting her undergrad degree, her Masters and has now successfully defended her PhD. She is a Dr of Astronomy. That is some not-insignificant shit right there. And now she’s trying to take the next step and she doesn’t know what that holds. She’s a Black woman in a STEM field of what seems to be almost no Black women and a healthy amount of skepticism toward the ones that are there. Grace faces a lot of bullshit and she’s tired. Exhausted actually. And her own father keeps throwing the same “Porters do this” and “Porters do that” and “Porters strive for the best” statements at her all the time and refusing to listen to her when she’s struggling and actually, kind of drowning at what to do next. He’s super disappointed she didn’t do medicine like he seemed to have planned out for her and even a PhD in a difficult field (are there any easy fields for a PhD? I doubt it) hasn’t placated him. She’s a 28yo woman who seems terrified of her father, like his support and pride in her is this almost-impossible thing to achieve and he accepts no actual humanity from her, she’s supposed to be this overachieving robot and what is up with the woman on his military base being horrid to her for no reason? Why was that scene even there? Surely there’s a way to support your Black daughter and preparing her for the harsh realities of the world without completely destroying her self worth? Because it felt like the Colonel’s actions and Grace’s desperate attempts to win his approval, turned her into a person with incredibly high anxiety and depression issues and she can’t function without his approval. And everyone kept defending him which kind of annoyed me. Her mostly-absent mother annoyed me too because it seemed like Grace could’ve definitely used her during those teen and college years. It actually felt like after all these years striving to be the absolute best and collect these academic accolades with what seemed like very little time off (Grace has also worked throughout this time as well) she was entitled to a bit of burnout. A holiday. A chance to regroup and get her priorities straight. But everyone seems to find this a huge sin that she’s committing. I honestly didn’t get that. She should’ve ditched both her trash parents years ago.

I didn’t care about the romance. We aren’t treated to really any of the events prior to the marriage (they’re both drunk I guess that’s why) and I sometimes got a bit distracted by the prose, especially during Yuki’s radio segments. We don’t get to see them fall in love (and I’m a fan of impulse or arranged marriage stories, where the love comes later but this book aint it) and to be honest, both of them behave in some quite childish ways.

When I was 13, I wrote a lot of stories where people talked like this. I’m not 13 anymore.

3/10

Book #230 of 2021

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Review: Seven Days In June by Tia Williams

Seven Days In June
Tia Williams
Quercus
2021, 336p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Brooklynite Eva Mercy is a single mom and bestselling erotica writer, who is feeling pressed from all sides. Shane Hall is a reclusive, enigmatic, award-winning literary author who, to everyone’s surprise, shows up in New York.

When Shane and Eva meet unexpectedly at a literary event, sparks fly, raising not only their past buried traumas, but the eyebrows of New York’s Black literati. What no one knows is that twenty years earlier, teenage Eva and Shane spent one crazy, torrid week madly in love. They may be pretending that everything is fine now, but they can’t deny their chemistry – or the fact that they’ve been secretly writing to each other in their books ever since.

Over the next seven days in the middle of a steamy Brooklyn summer, Eva and Shane reconnect, but Eva’s not sure how she can trust the man who broke her heart, and she needs to get him out of New York so that her life can return to normal. But before Shane disappears again, there are a few questions she needs answered…

With its keen observations of Black life and the condition of modern motherhood, as well as the consequences of motherless-ness, Seven Days in June is by turns humorous, warm and deeply sensual.

Originally I planned to put a review of this book in with a post that contained quite a few others, that I was using to wrap up loose ends for the year. But when I started writing the review for this I realised that it was going to be pretty long, probably the same length that I’d write for all the solo reviews I write and that it deserved its own post. For a lot of reasons.

I can’t remember where I first heard about this, but I do remember reading or hearing several reviews that said it was their surprise/stand out of the year. It also made the Goodreads final for best romance and I’ve read quite a lot from that category this year so I decided to read this one too. And I thought it was beautiful. 

Eva and Shane had seven days together back in high school and it’s been over a decade. Both are now successful authors – Eva of a paranormal romance series that has a cult following and Shane the sort of ethereal literary fiction that wins awards. Both of them have been writing each other into their novels the whole time. Both of them have also read each other’s novels and recognise themselves so when they meet again, sparks fly.

Shane and Eva both had shit childhoods in different ways and were self-destructive in different ways too. Eva is chronically ill – she suffers from incredibly debilitating migraines and it takes a high concentration of pain medication just to function. Shane is a recovering alcoholic who is several years sober now and hasn’t written since. Doesn’t even know if he can write sober.

There’s just so much in this. Their connection as teens, how their separation coloured their adulthoods, how the powerful feelings have been dormant but not gone. It’s also a testament to Black experience in so many different ways. Eva isn’t exactly rolling in it despite writing a 14-book series and the movie rights have been optioned. However the director wants to whitewash her characters for financial reasons which means that Eva has an ethical dilemma. Does she take the money to support herself and her daughter even though it goes against everything she stands for and believes in? This is the world she lives in, where people can suggest this and it’s just okay, like it doesn’t matter that these characters are representative of things that Eva has experienced, that she’s made this way for reasons and how important it is for see themselves represented in different types of media.

Eva was raised by a single mother and now she is a single mother. The father of her daughter is in the picture but lives in California, so her daughter spends the summer with him. I felt like Eva tried to be a very different sort of mother than the one that had raised her, the one that had often placed Eva in quite dangerous situations. Eva sacrifices so that her daughter can have opportunities, so that she can be safe and secure and have a roof over her head and food on the table. Shane was in and out of foster homes and now he has found a niche in mentoring troubled teens. Creative writing workshops at private schools earn the dollars but Shane likes to volunteer in the worst parts of town. I felt like we learned a lot about who they had become as adults in the way they supported and prioritised minors.

But so much of this is just about the powerful love story that starts in a place of loneliness and isolation and spirals into something powerful and devastating. When Eva and Shane reconnect, the feelings are still there but a lot of the pain is as well, there are still things that need to be dealt with and accepted if this can turn into a healthy future.

In many ways, this is not your typical romance. A lot of what Shane and Eva go through is deep and dark – abuse, grief, self-harm, drugs and unimaginable pain, both physical and emotional/mental. There’s a lot. But there’s also a lot of humour and hope in this story too, sometimes it’s so funny I was laughing out loud. I also really adored that it was set around the publishing world, that both the main characters were authors writing very different things and some of the descriptions and kind of inside jokes about writing and publishing and the like, were so good.

Tia Williams is definitely a person I need to read more from.

8/10

Book #237 of 2021

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Review: Game On by Janet Evanovich

Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight (Stephanie Plum #28)
Janet Evanovich
Simon & Schuster UK
2021, 286p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Stephanie Plum returns to hunt down a master cyber-criminal operating out of Trenton in the 28th book in the wildly popular series by #1 New York Times bestselling author Janet Evanovich. 

When Stephanie Plum is woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of footsteps in her apartment, she wishes she didn’t keep her gun in the cookie jar in her kitchen. And when she finds out the intruder is fellow apprehension agent Diesel, six feet of hard muscle and bad attitude whom she hasn’t seen in more than two years, she still thinks the gun might come in handy. 

Turns out Diesel and Stephanie are on the trail of the same fugitive: Oswald Wednesday, an international computer hacker as brilliant as he is ruthless. Stephanie may not be the most technologically savvy sleuth, but she more than makes up for that with her dogged determination, her understanding of human nature, and her willingness to do just about anything to bring a fugitive to justice. Unsure if Diesel is her partner or her competition in this case, she’ll need to watch her back every step of the way as she sets the stage to draw Wednesday out from behind his computer and into the real world.

Well I’m going to take full responsibility for this one. I read it knowing that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it but I was curious and I had a copy sent to me. I used to love this series so much. I’ve talked a lot on here previously about how much I loved it. I discovered it when I was 18 and for probably the next 10 years, it was my absolute favourite. Every year, a new instalment coming out was my bookish highlight. But around the mid-teens I started to get quite frustrated with this series. It wasn’t just the endless back-and-forth between Joe and Ranger, although that was tedious too at times. I understand that though, why Evanovich doesn’t want to make a firm decision there. She knows the fanbase is split pretty 50/50 and having Stephanie completely burn bridges with one of the love interests would alienate a significant portion of the readership even though I think sometimes most people now don’t care who Stephanie actually chooses as long as she chooses someone. No for me, it was the fact that these books just got more ridiculous. More Lula, more Grandma Mazur, more stupid animal moments that literally do not make sense. Stephanie never got any better at her job, she never changed in any way. And some of the things that are played for laughs for me, aren’t really that funny anymore (see: Stephanie’s mother’s clear problem with alcohol, using it as a coping mechanism). I think this series is long past its sell-by date but I must be in the minority. Evanovich signed an 8-figure, 4-book deal almost two years ago and no one would’ve offered that to her if they didn’t plan on making a significant profit. Clearly many people still buy her books.

And so I read this. The blurb did not excite me. The Baked Potatoes? Seriously? But anyway, putting that aside, there is nothing here that we haven’t read before. In fact I feel like I have read parts of it before. Evanovich is recycling character descriptions now (there’s a guy in this who is described pretty much the same way she described Albert Kloughn, the guy that ends up marrying her sister Valerie. Is he still a thing? I remember they were in most books for a while but I haven’t read the last 5 and they weren’t in this one) and also, Diesel definitely throws a line here and there that brings to mind Ranger from the earlier books. Because oh yeah, Diesel is back. Now it’s been a long time since Visions Of Sugar Plums and I didn’t read any of the Diesel books but honestly, the last thing this universe needs is another man who thinks Stephanie would be excellent to go to bed with. We already have two of those: her mostly-on again boyfriend Joe Morelli and Ranger, the guy who doesn’t want a relationship but is happy to act on their sexual attraction whenever Stephanie indicates that she’d be into it. I’ve always unashamedly been a Ranger fan – I don’t dislike Joe, but for me, I just find Ranger a lot more interesting. I had to wait for over half the book for him to even appear here, which was disappointing.

I know I’m reading way too much into these books but I find Stephanie’s actions at times, baffling. It makes me wonder why anyone would want to be with her, let alone everyone. Having a dude turn up, break into your apartment, take their clothes off and get into bed with you who is not your boyfriend (or even your sometimes-lover) is not hot. Diesel and Stephanie also have zero chemistry – it’s almost like he says these random things out of habit and he should really stop. Also I laughed out loud at the appearance of his cousin Wulf and not in a good way. That was one of the more ridiculous things I’ve read recently and by ridiculous, I mean really bad. Also Stephanie never really tells Joe about her houseguest, which…..doesn’t sit well with me. Let’s face it, I think there’s a lot Stephanie doesn’t really tell Joe which is why their relationship never really feels like it’s genuine to me. They’re just adults who sleep together and go to events together sometimes. There’s nothing more to it than that. Yet they keep talking about maybe getting married even though Stephanie spends more time with literally every other character in this story, than she does with Joe.

Anyway, like I keep saying – it’s not that deep. I think I want it to be, but it’s never going to be. It’s always going to be dumb skips doing dumb things (and sometimes, smart skips who make everyone look like idiots), Lula being Lula, weird and random animal moments that have no business being anywhere and Stephanie being terrible at life in general.

3/10

Book #232 of 2021

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Review: The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren

The Soulmate Equation
Christina Lauren
Gallery Books
2021, 360p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Single mom Jess Davis is a data and statistics wizard, but no amount of number crunching can convince her to step back into the dating world. Raised by her grandparents–who now help raise her seven-year-old daughter, Juno–Jess has been left behind too often to feel comfortable letting anyone in. After all, her father’s never been around, her hard-partying mother disappeared when she was six, and her ex decided he wasn’t “father material” before Juno was even born. Jess holds her loved ones close, but working constantly to stay afloat is hard…and lonely.

But then Jess hears about GeneticAlly, a buzzy new DNA-based matchmaking company that’s predicted to change dating forever. Finding a soulmate through DNA? The reliability of numbers: ThisJess understands. At least she thought she did, until her test shows an unheard-of 98% compatibility with another subject in the database: GeneticAlly’s founder, Dr. River Pena. This is one number she can’t wrap her head around, because she already knows Dr. Pena. The stuck-up, stubborn man is without a doubt not her soulmate. But GeneticAlly has a proposition: Get to know him and we’ll pay you. Jess–who is barely making ends meet–is in no position to turn it down, despite her skepticism about the project and her dislike for River. As the pair are dragged from one event to the next as the “Diamond” pairing that could make GeneticAlly a mint in stock prices, Jess begins to realize that there might be more to the scientist–and the science behind a soulmate–than she thought.

Funny, warm, and full of heart, The Soulmate Equation proves that the delicate balance between fate and choice can never be calculated.

This was highly recommended to me and I loved the sound of it. I have a bit of a hit and miss relationship with Christina Lauren. I’ve read a few from them that I would definitely say weren’t my thing but I have also read one I really loved and one I really enjoyed. And because this synopsis seemed so much my sort of thing, I was very keen for this.

And I did enjoy it. I think it’s a really fun story, especially if you an enjoy an opposites attract, semi-haters to lovers type of vibe. I especially liked the interactions between Jess and River quite early on, when she sees him in the same coffee shop she works in most days and also, in the early days after they match incredibly highly on the app River basically invented. I’m paraphrasing but the scene where she tells him that his default energy is “cardboard cutout” is great.

I also liked the way that Jess ended up sending in a DNA sample to be analysed after not really being into it. She’s a single mother of a seven year old, struggling to make ends meet with her child’s father not in the picture having long ago signed away his parental rights. She was raised by her grandparents (who are adorably awesome supporting characters) and her mother is problematic. She’s had a very bad day, is having a weak moment when she breaks down and sends in the sample. It was incredibly relatable. A “Diamond Match” is the last thing she expects, especially with someone that she’s already interacted with.

But honestly, I thought Jess and River had more chemistry in the early days than they did when things started to move along. And the conflict at the end of the novel is honestly I think, one of the most terribly written resolutions I’ve read in well, a long time. I know River is presented as deeply nerdy and dedicated but he’s not supposed to be a fool. And the way he acts towards the end, is deeply foolish rather than deeply nerdy. I know his livelihood was threatened and whatever but it’s not enough of an excuse. And then at the end he was basically like oh whoops, I didn’t realise, sorry. And although Jess does make him grovel a bit, it’s definitely not enough for his actions, for me.

This was a solid, enjoyable read without being groundbreaking for me. I actually appreciated the side characters a bit more than I did the main characters actually, which is probably not saying much for the romance. But Fizzy, Jess’ best friend, Jess’ grandparents and even Jess’ daughter were all written really well. Getting kids and single parents right can be difficult in books (or at least, in ways that I enjoy reading about) but I felt that was one of the stronger parts of the book. But in terms of Jess and River themselves, they’re generically fine but won’t live on in my memory.

7/10

Book #217 of 2021

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Review: The Garden Of Hopes And Dreams by Barbara Hannay

The Garden Of Hopes And Dreams
Barbara Hannay
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 336p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Can love and friendship blossom on a rooftop? 

The residents in Brisbane’s Riverview apartment block barely know each other. They have no idea of the loneliness, the lost hopes and dreams, being experienced behind their neighbours’ closed doors.

Vera, now widowed, is trying her hardest to create a new life for herself in an unfamiliar city environment. Unlucky-in-love Maddie has been hurt too many times by untrustworthy men, yet refuses to give up on romance. Ned, a reclusive scientist, has an unusual interest in bees and worm farms. Meanwhile, the building’s caretaker, Jock, is quietly nursing a secret dream.

When a couple of gardening enthusiasts from one of the apartments suggest they all create a communal garden on their rooftop, no one is interested. Not at first, anyway. But as the residents come together over their budding plants and produce, their lives become interconnected in ways they could never have imagined. 

From award-winning novelist Barbara Hannay, The Garden of Hopes and Dreams is a timely and uplifting story about the importance of community and the healing power of connection.

This was such a lovely story.

I’ve never really been much of a gardener although at various stages I’ve had a go. I don’t have much of a backyard anymore, the way houses are built in my suburb leaves little in the way of backyard space and the whole area was built during a drought. There are native plants but no grass – any space was covered in stones or wood chip. But in the past, when I had better yards, I’ve grown flowers and vegetables for a while before losing interest. At the moment I have an indoor plant that sits on my desk and I’m quite fond of it. It thrives on neglect and continues to flower regularly no matter how often I forget about it. But this book made me want to go out and buy more plants. I know it became a popular thing for people in lockdown. Many people I know cultivated indoor plants, brightening up their space and giving them things to take care of.

This story predominantly takes place in a small (5 stories) apartment block in Brisbane. The residents are an eclectic mix – Vera is widowed and has moved to Brisbane from the remote family property, leaving her son and his wife to take over now, make it their own. She’s had mixed feelings about moving. There’s Maddie, who hasn’t had the best luck in romance, and Ned, an academic who is the driving force behind the idea to create a community rooftop garden. There’s also Joe and Dennis, a couple who enjoy cultivating indoor plants and using their balcony space and Jock, the building maintenance man as well as a few other residents. All of them don’t really know each other that well, other than to politely say hi or something as they collect their mail but that is all about to change.

This just sounded like a really lovely place to live! I loved the idea of the communal rooftop garden – there’s probably a lot of apartment buildings out there with space like this that could be used in such a beneficial way. The residents were mostly all keen as well, doing working bees and contributing. There is a lot of enthusiasm from people in age from Vera, all the way down to her young grandson who she has care of for a week. For Vera, the garden is a way to help establish a bond with Harry. She has gone from living on the same property as them, albeit in a different house, to living five hours away and feeling somewhat forgotten. She feels that she and her daughter-in-law have never quite seen eye to eye and now it might be out of sight, out of mind.

I really enjoyed Maddie’s portion of the story as well. Maddie hasn’t had the best luck in love – she thought she’d found a wonderful man only to discover he wasn’t so wonderful. She turned to Tinder and had a few lacklustre dates before meeting someone that she thought might be promising and in her vulnerable state, I really do feel that Maddie does not pay attention to the red flags. The person that’s perfect for her is right in front of her but past experiences and having been a fodder for gossip before when a relationship ended means that Maddie refuses to think of it, even though the two of them have wonderful chemistry.

Sometimes I just really a desire a calm, low conflict read that is….soothing. And this was absolutely perfect for that. It was just such a feel good read, I enjoyed every page of it. The characters were really well done, there were unexpected depths to characters like Nancy. I’d be surprised if anyone could read this and not want to immediately start a garden or surround themselves with plants. The way the garden brings the residents together and creates these deep friendships and the way they rally around for each other, like with Jock, was just really heartwarming.

So enjoyable.

8/10

Book #222 of 2021

This is book #92 of my participation in The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Bear And The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear And The Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1)
Katherine Arden
Del Ray Books
2017, 319p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.

Sadly, if I were to have to name a book that might be the most disappointing read of 2021, this one would probably be it.

I’ve seen it around a lot over the past few years, read it on a lot of recommendation lists and occasionally it’s popped up when someone I know has read it. I’m not sure why it took me so long to request it from my library – I ended up requesting this recently when I read a review of For The Wolf (which I did not like and DNF’d) that said the person should’ve just read this instead, because it was so much better.

Was it though?

Not for me. Although I did finish this, so I guess in a way that must mean it was a bit better but honestly, I wanted to DNF this quite a few times, it was only the fact that I’d slogged my way through quite a bit of it and it wasn’t super long, that kept me going. But man oh man, was I bored in this.

It’s so slow. Which, for a book of 319p, is unforgivable. But it takes so long to get to the point. I actually really liked the first chapter or the prologue thing, which was Vasilisa’s mother telling her husband that she’s pregnant and her impending bad feeling about her own future, which she’s willing to risk for the safety of delivering a daughter “like her mother”. But the part of the book that deals with Vasilisa being young, before the main part of the story, is meandering and slow and tedious.

I am very much in the minority about this book. It has a very high average rating on Goodreads and seems very universally well received but I just could not settle into the story. There were parts of it that I didn’t mind and I think the latter part of the book was quite interesting, as Vasilisa grew into a confident young woman who was willing to stand up for herself and to undertake this task and who had this self-belief that she could do it. But it took a lot to get to that and there’s a lot of religious tones in this. A priest is sent to the area where Vasilisa and her family live and I guess basically tasked with making sure they are worshipping as they should be and not going the “old ways” and of course he’s an absolute creep with a weird obsession with Vasilisa. The way her stepmother treats her is so horrid, I just got tired of reading it. This coincides with terrible things happening – wild weather, crops failing, deaths, other things. Only Vasilisa seems determined to keep to these old ways. Her being like her mother’s mother seems to give her some gifts – she can see the small creatures others cannot – except for her stepmother. But whereas Vasilisa embraces this, her stepmother is terrified of the things she can see and seeks religious redemption, trying to drive them away. She was ordered to marry Vasilisa’s father when she would much rather have gone to a convent, the ‘visions’ do not bother her there.

I don’t know why, because it’s on the GR page, but I didn’t realise this was a series, which is perhaps why I found the ending a little abrupt. I thought that it was actually just starting to get interesting towards the end of this book but even finding out there’s another book which may address some of the questions I ended this one with, I know I’m just not interested enough to find out what happens next. Although I can acknowledge the poetry of the writing at times, the story is just not really for me.

3/10

Book #221 of 2021

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Mini Reviews {13} And Some DNF’s – What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Down In The City
Elizabeth Harrower
Text Classics
2013 (originally 1957), 280p
Personally owned copy

Blurb { from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Stan had seldom seen Esther cry, and her tears had never gratified him more. They put her in the wrong, made his defection very understandable. At the same time, he complained, ‘So this is the high-and-mighty thing I married!’

Esther Prescott has seen little of the world outside her family’s Rose Bay mansion – until flashy Stan Peterson barges up the drive and into her life. Within a fortnight they are sharing his Kings Cross flat. Esther tries desperately to please him, but Stan – moody, manipulative, cruel – is bitterly resentful of her privilege. 

My husband gave this to me to read from his pile as he really liked it and was curious to see what I thought of it. I found the portrayal of Sydney to be so incredibly real and vivid. It’s been a long time since I spent much time there and this is set a significant amount of time ago but the descriptions of the different areas were so incredible.

It’s about a somewhat sheltered woman of a wealthy family, who grew up in Rose Bay who by random chance, meets a man named Stan from Kings Cross when he comes to the Rose Bay house looking for the gardener. Esther’s mother died, her father was somewhat absent and although her father married again, she seemed to lack a motherly influence in her life. She’s somewhat old for the time, to be unmarried and it seems she’s no match for Stan’s charm and is soon living in his Kings Cross apartment with him, but it’s not at all an easy life. Stan’s a man of dubious employment, a drinker and then there’s his ex, a barmaid who might not be so much of an ex. But Esther enters this steadily increasingly bleak world of domestic violence, a fishbowl of an apartment building and a husband who resents where his wife comes from.

I found this really interesting with the portrayal of Sydney the highlight.

7/10

Book #192 of 2021

The Lost Apothecary
Sarah Penner
Thorndike Press Large Print
2021, 500p
Accessed via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.

Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating exploration of women rebelling against a man’s world, the destructive force of revenge and the remarkable ways that women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Unfortunately, this was a DNF. My first one of the year. I can’t remember how much I read now, around 100p and I just realised that I honestly didn’t care about either the historical setting or the present day one. Also because the version my library had was the large print, it was 500p and it honestly felt like it was going to take forever to get through it. I put it down to go and do something else and decided that I really didn’t want to pick it up again and so…I didn’t.

Book #193 of 2021

If The Fates Allow
Rainbow Rowell
Amazon Original Stories
2021, 39p
Read via Amazon Unlimited

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}: Social distancing came easily to Reagan. Maybe a little too easily. She’s always liked people better from afar. But Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for Christmas this year—he’s already spent too much time on his own in 2020. So she heads back to her hometown with a dish of holiday Jell-O salad, hoping they can have a little normalcy. Hoping it will be safe…

She isn’t expecting to run into the boy next door. Mason is all grown up now. He’s considerate. He’s funny. He doesn’t mind how prickly Reagan is—he maybe even likes it. And it makes Reagan feel like her defenses are falling. She needs her defenses, doesn’t she? In a time when six feet is close enough, how long can they keep their distance?

This was a cute, very short story featuring Reagan, who readers of Fangirl might remember as Cath’s abrasive roommate. It’s Christmas 2020 and the pandemic has ravaged America. Regan has spent a large amount of time working from home and socially distancing but she doesn’t want her Grandpa to spend his Christmas alone and her family aren’t as strict as she is about being careful so she bunkers down for 2wks and then heads to his house to celebrate with him. Escaping outside for a breath of fresh air, she finds neighbour Mason doing the same thing.

Even though this is ridiculously short, I just really like anything Rainbow Rowell writes. She weaves in a lot of the fear people felt about the pandemic, as well as the loneliness, the frustration as well when others didn’t take it seriously. Despite the fact that it’s now almost 2022, the pandemic is still here, albeit posing a less dangerous risk to most vaccinated citizens. I do wish this was a little longer because I like Reagan and could’ve definitely read more about her and Mason. But this was perfect for something to dive into for a short time, to prevent me ending up in a reading slump. And yes, an offhand remark of Reagan’s does indicate just how Levi and Cath are going now.

6/10

Book #213 of 2021

For The Wolf (Wilderwood #1)
Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books
2021, 437p
Accessed via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The first daughter is for the Throne.
The second daughter is for the Wolf.

For fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale comes a dark fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom. But not all legends are true, and the Wolf isn’t the only danger lurking in the Wilderwood.

As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he’ll return the world’s captured gods.

Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can’t control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can’t hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn’t learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole.

My second DNF of 2021. I struggled to 50% in this and found it boring and annoyingly vague about….well, everything. I had no idea how this world worked or why the people in it did what they did and yeah, after a while, I did not care anymore so I tossed this aside and went on with my day. I originally picked it up because I heard it was a great fantasy romance – I didn’t get far enough for any of that but I had zero interest in either of the characters and did not feel any chemistry.

Book #214 of 2021

The Blackwater Lightship
Colm Tóibín
Picador
2000, 273p
Personally owned copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora have come together to tend to Helen’s brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan’s two friends, the six of them are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is a deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn an untimely death. In spare, luminous prose, Colm Tóibín explores the nature of love and the complex emotions inside a family at war with itself. 

My husband found his copy of this when he was searching his books for the copies of the Pat Barker books he has that I asked for after reading her 2 most recent books. Because I read and enjoyed The Magician so much a couple of months ago, he added it to the pile and I ended up picking it up just to have a look and reading the whole thing in a single sitting.

It’s the story of a broken family – centring around Helen, married with two young children who gets news when a stranger turns up to tell her that her brother is desperately ill. This forces Helen to reunite with the mother she hasn’t seen in years, who didn’t go to her wedding, who doesn’t know her children. The four family members, plus two of Declan’s friends head to Helen and Declan’s grandmother’s house where Helen and Declan spent some time when they were children. Declan is dying and he wants to spend some time out of hospital – that house is where he asks to be. Whilst there too, Helen must come to terms with losing her brother, with the secrets he kept from them and with being in close proximity to her mother and facing all that has torn them apart.

The writing in this was so evocative – the hurt and resentment from Helen to her mother, the flashbacks to her childhood and what had happened, the ways in which Lily had failed Helen as a mother. But some of the best scenes were about Declan. It was raw in a really sad and uncomfortable way, I felt like I was there watching him dying slowly, myself and it was brutal. There was so much pain and anguish and frustration in this and it was mostly between Helen and her mother. I felt in contrast, Declan’s friends often provided a calmer outlook, a voice of reason often enough especially during his illness and the side effects thereof.

Just excellent writing and a compelling look at family dynamics.

8/10

Book #215 of 2021

The Deep End
Jenna Guillaume
Pan Macmillan AUS
2021, 96p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: It was a new level of loserdom, even for me

When Rosie humiliates herself in front of the whole school at the swimming carnival, she vows she’ll never step foot in the water again.

Well, until Jake Tran, the best swimmer (and hottest boy) in her year says he will give her swimming lessons.

Against all the voices in her head screaming that it’s a bad idea, she takes him up on his offer.

As the pair bond over failed freestyles and parental pressures, they learn more from each other than they ever could have anticipated.

This book opens with the stuff that nightmares for teenage me were made of. I cannot swim, which is something of a travesty having lived within 5 minutes of the beach for all of my adolescence and early adulthood. The idea of being forced to compete in something at a school swim carnival, would’ve been horrific. I think I went to one swimming carnival in high school and honestly, I should’ve just not gone to that one either. I didn’t have to compete in anything but the day ended with me getting six stitches in my head. So let’s just say even though my high school years are far behind me now and I even have a kid in high school, I could absolutely relate to the opening scene and Rosie as a character.

This was very enjoyable and actually felt like it was the perfect length for the story it was telling. There’s a lot packed in but not in an overly busy way – body image, diversity and mental health as well. The romance is very sweet and I liked how Rosie found her confidence through swimming and gradually came to trust Jake with more of herself.

Jenna Guillaume writes such beautifully authentic characters and this was an excellently constructed short story and I thought it was wonderful (and it’s only $4.99!).

8/10

Book #216 of 2021


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Review: Cold Coast by Robyn Mundy

Cold Coast
Robyn Mundy
Ultimo Press
2021, 272p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work, is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

As soon as I saw a description of this book, I knew I had to read it. Anyone who knows even just the smallest thing about what I can’t resist – settings that are either of the Poles! Whether it be Antarctica or somewhere up in the Arctic Circle, it’s an automatic read for me. This book mostly takes place in Svalbard in northern Norway and is a fictionalised account of a real life pioneer, Ivana (Wanny) Woldstad, the first female trapper.

Wanny, a widow, convinces trapper Anders Sæterdal to take her as his partner on his trapping expedition. It’s a year long job in very remote territory, covering a specified parcel of land that Anders has a right to, trapping mostly bears and foxes but also collecting other animals. If something goes wrong, they’re out of luck as there’s no way to contact help or exit the area until the ship returns for them. They harpoon seals for bait and food and look, if you’re a vegan or a very militant animal rights person, this is not easy reading. This is a long-ago time, it’s brutal and harsh and very descriptive. I’m not vegan or vegetarian but I do not enjoy animals being killed for their pelts and clubbing baby seals and the like is abhorrent to me.

Wanny is such an interesting character – ahead of her time in more ways than one. When she meets Anders, she is driving a taxi, the first woman in Tromso to do so. When she convinces Anders to accept her as a trapping partner, she also changes the game of women being accepted into this world. Although Anders mentions of knowing men who have taken women with them, they are bedwarmers, not partners. Wanny works as hard as any man and grudgingly earns Anders’ respect and admiration as they build themselves into a team.

As well as gaining perspective of the humans intruding into this environment, we meet a fox that Anders and Wanny come to name Little Blue, for the colour of her coat. The book is interspersed with chapters from Little Blue’s perspective, first as a young kit playing rough and tumble with her siblings and learning from their parents how to survive and then later, Little Blue on her own carving out territory, hunting for herself and learning to avoid the traps Anders has set. As well as Little Blue, there are insights into the other animals as well, chapters about a family of polar bears as well as plenty of information about the birds that inhabit this area. Little Blue becomes a beloved character – in order to preserve their pelts, foxes are trapped in a specific way so neither Anders nor Wanny will shoot her, even as she lurks around. Foxes are pests here, introduced by the British and they cause havoc on the native animal population but I have to admit, the Arctic Foxes are quite beautiful. I found myself quite hoping that Little Blue would make it through the season of Anders and Wanny, living to produce her own litters and teach them much as her own mother had taught her and her siblings.

A few times Anders tells Wanny she’s too soft to be a trapper, when she sometimes laments the loss of life. But I didn’t particularly find Wanny “soft” at all. I found her incredibly brave – what a life that would’ve been, far away from medical assistance if required, the difficult conditions. For me here in Australia, I very much find a polar winter impossible to imagine and I definitely don’t want to live through one and work outside during it! I did enjoy the slow emergence of a friendship for Anders and Wanny. It is a tough life, one that requires a certain amount of sacrifice, and we find out just how much Wanny has sacrificed to do this, throughout the story. Wanny’s determination is admirable, her ability to adapt to this environment and in some ways, actually thrive, is incredible. And Anders, despite his gruff exterior and often snap judgements, is a good teacher.

I really enjoyed this. Such an excellent portrayal of this stark, isolated environment and those who populated it. Must read something else by Robyn Mundy, who really does seem to have lived the most fascinating life!

8/10

Book #228 of 2021

Book #95 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also qualifies for my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and is book #37

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Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance #1)
Naomi Novik
Del Ray
2020, 336p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: From the leading talent in fantasy, a magical coming-of-age trilogy with a hilarious female anti-hero – a darker more intelligent Harry Potter for adults.

In the start of an all-new series, the bestselling author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver introduces you to a dangerous school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death – until one girl begins to rewrite its rules. Enter a school of magic unlike any you have ever encountered.

There are no teachers, no holidays, friendships are purely strategic, and the odds of survival are never equal. Once you’re inside, there are only two ways out: you graduate or you die. El Higgins is uniquely prepared for the school’s many dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out untold millions – never mind easily destroy the countless monsters that prowl the school. Except, she might accidentally kill all the other students, too. So El is trying her hardest not to use it… that is, unless she has no other choice.

Wry, witty, endlessly inventive, and mordantly funny – yet with a true depth and fierce justice at its heart – this enchanting novel reminds us that there are far more important things than mere survival.

I have seen this series mentioned quite a lot ‘around the place’ – blogs, instagram, book tube, that sort of thing, especially after the second book was released relatively recently. I thought it sounded intriguing so I requested both of them from my local library and this one came in right away.

I have to admit, I found the first part of this book somewhat confusing. It took me a little while to come to grips with the world building and what the magic in it means and the whole mana vs malia thing. The book kind of jumps in like you are already familiar with it in some ways but then just imparts a bunch of information at once. Eventually I got to the stage where I felt comfortable understanding a lot, because our main character is not particularly typical in this world. She describes her affinity as “laying waste to multitudes” which means when she “asks” for a simple spell, she tends to get a lot of other things.

El (short for Galadriel) has a certain something about her that causes people to be wary of her or even flat out dislike and mistrust her. She was raised by a single mother but is not aligned to any sort of “enclave” which are like power groups of magicians, I suppose. She is granted a place at a school for their kind and it’s basically a trial by fire. If you survive to graduation year, probably at least half will die in the graduation process which is basically fighting your way out of a bunch of beings call “mals” which will try to kill you. A lot of children in enclaves will share resources and team up and others who are perhaps not aligned but gifted, will be offered the security of place within one upon graduation in return for assistance during the leaving process. El should’ve been trying to shore up as much goodwill as she could with fellow students as those who are alone rarely make it out. She had intended to show off her abilities but somehow, the opportunity never came up. And she doesn’t make friends easily and that wariness people have around her extends to her classmates with the exception of a rare few.

El is a tough character to be in the head of. It’s a first person perspective and she’s abrasive and bluntly forthright as well as….sometimes a little bitter. I took a while to warm up to her, she’s often so rude to people and continues to do so long after it seems pointless doing it, to be honest. When it’s warranted, such as directed towards enclave people that look down upon her, I quite enjoyed it but when it’s towards people who have not actually done anything to her, it’s a little more off-putting. I did really enjoy the portrayal of her relationship with her mother, who despite not actually appearing in this story and we are only treated to information about her through El’s thoughts, comes across as an incredibly interesting person who has made endless sacrifices and chooses to use her gift generously.

I didn’t love this -it took me a while to get into it and there are, I have to say, a few moments that are best described as “problematic” within the story and the description sometimes of people from other backgrounds, is less than flattering and a lot of people seem to be quite blatant stereotypes. Also the romance doesn’t do much for me – I’m not against it but it doesn’t excite me either. But I found the school really interesting (even though I literally have no idea what they did to fix the thing that was broken at the end) and I am curious to see what happens in the next book. So I will definitely read it when my hold on it comes in.

A mixed bag but okay.

6/10

Book #219 of 2021

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Review: Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Unforgiven
Sarah Barrie
Harlequin AUS
2021, 480p
Uncorrected advance copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Once a victim, she’s now a vigilante. An addictive and suspenseful thriller for readers of Candice Fox and Sarah Bailey.

Lexi Winter is tough, street-smart and has stood on her own two feet since childhood, when she was a victim of notorious paedophile the Spider. All she cares about now is a roof over her head and her long-term relationship with Johnny Walker. She isn’t particular about who she sleeps with … as long as they pay before leaving.

Lexi is also an ace hacker, tracking and entrapping local paedophiles and reporting them to the cops. When she finds a particularly dangerous paedophile who the police can’t touch, she decides to gather enough evidence to put him away. Instead, she’s a witness to his death …

Detective Inspector Rachael Langley is the cop who cracked the Spider case, 18 years earlier – but failed to protect Lexi. Now a man claiming to be the real Spider is emulating his murderous acts, and Rachael is under pressure from government, media and her police colleagues. Did she get it wrong all those years ago, or is this killer is a copycat?

Lexi and Rachael cross paths at last, the Spider in their sights … but they may be too late …

Well. This was an absolute screamer.

I’ve read all of Sarah Barrie’s previous books and loved them. So when this turned up, I knew I was going to be in for another fantastic story. This is a little different to the books she’s been writing lately, a natural progression perhaps. It’s still set in Australia, more regionally than remotely, focusing around the Central Coast/Gosford area.

We’re introduced to Lexi, a traumatised adult with an alcohol problem and patchy employment history. In her spare time, Lexi helps her sister Bailee, a child protection officer, by posing underage online and gathering data on predators for Bailee to pass on to the police. Lexi doesn’t do police – not anymore.

Detective Inspector Rachel Langley was just a young cop when she helped put the notorious child sexual predator the Spider away. It’s 18 years later and a special TV series has aired, detailing the investigation and Rachel’s success. Now Rachel finds herself on the receiving end of truly terrifying calls, someone telling her she got it wrong. She got the wrong man. And now the “real” Spider is going to make her pay…and the pattern will start all over again.

This is just a rollercoaster of a ride from start to finish. It’s one of those books where I picked it up and thought I’d just get started over breakfast but after the first like, couple of pages of this, I knew I wasn’t going to be putting it down until I’d finished it. It sucks you in and holds you in the whirlpool.

Lexi is tough – she’s had to be. She’s survived things that most people could not even bring themselves to imagine. A despicable childhood, her teenage years spent on the streets, Lexi has a home now but she’s not what you’d call stable in some ways. However, in others, she’s become a functioning adult, independent and more adjusted than you might expect given what she’s experienced. Her income is a bit dubious and a lot of her time is spent helping to unofficially catch child sexual predators. She has managed to have a good relationship with her sister Bailee, which after everything Lexi did to protect her when they were children, must be somewhat gratifying for her. She even has a friend, Dawny, who lives in the same complex (side note – Dawny is just the best character, I adored her right from the beginning, even before I knew anything about her and I only liked her more, the more I found out).

When it gets out that the original man convicted as the Spider might’ve been the wrong one (something Lexi definitely disputes) it does throw her into the path of the police, namely Detective Inspector Rachel Langley, who has unfinished business with Lexi and also Rachel’s nephew, Detective Senior Sergeant Finn Carson. They’re surprised with not just the intimate knowledge that Lexi can bring to their investigation but also her computer skills as well and Rachel wastes no time securing her official assistance, even though this puts the back up of another officer, who has a chip on his shoulder. The way this officer treats Lexi is probably quite common for people within her line of work and even Finn sometimes has to remind himself early on in their acquaintance, not to be that guy. That she’s where she is because of a very specific set of circumstances and it’s really not for anyone else to pass an opinion on that, without having first been through what Lexi has.

The suspense in this built so well as more things pointed towards the fact that maybe Rachel had been wrong all those years ago and now people were going to pay the price for that. It is something that would be every detective’s worst nightmare, especially given the nature of the crimes. Look, there were times when it felt a bit improbable that Lexi was everywhere, doing everything but it’s not exactly unknown in the genre. What I did like was the way that the ending leaves it open for Lexi to pursue this as a legitimate career….and that there are a few loose ends that suggest future novels with Lexi, which I’d really love to see. I think she has real potential as a character that can evolve and grow as well and there’s some differences to her that make her an interesting choice as a lead to carry a series.

If you want something fast paced and addictive, can highly recommend this one.

9/10

Book #224 of 2021

Book #94 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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