All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Lana’s War by Anita Abriel

Lana’s War 
Anita Abriel
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Paris, 1943: Lana Antanova is rushing to tell her husband she is pregnant when she witnesses him being executed by a Gestapo officer for hiding a Jewish girl in a piano. Overcome with grief, Lana loses the baby.

A few months later, a heartbroken Lana is approached to join the Resistance on the French Riviera. As the daughter of a Russian countess, Lana has the perfect background to infiltrate the émigré community of Russian aristocrats who socialise with Nazi officers, including the man who killed her husband.

Lana’s cover story makes her the mistress of a wealthy Swiss playboy, the darkly handsome and charismatic Guy Pascal, and her base his villa in Cap Ferrat. Together they make a ruthlessly effective team. Consumed by her mission, Lana doesn’t count on becoming attached to a young Jewish girl or falling helplessly in love with Guy.

As the Nazis close in, Lana’s desire to protect the ones she loves threatens to put them all at risk.

I read Anita Abriel’s previous book and quite enjoyed it. I didn’t get a chance to read this one when it was first released but I got through my February TBR pile quite early so I’ve been using the latter part of the month to go back and read a few books from previous TBR’s that I didn’t get time to complete. I thought I’d enjoy this but I have to say, there were several fronts on which I found it quite disappointing.

The beginning is good – Lana is 24, living in Paris and happily rushing to tell her husband, a music teacher, that they are expecting a baby. Instead she witnesses his execution and then, because of the trauma, ends up losing their child. Her motivation for joining the resistance is obvious – she wants revenge on the person who murdered her husband for trying to protect a child and she wants the Nazis defeated. Fair enough. She’s paired with Guy, a wealthy Swiss man and gets to travel down to the French Riviera, which isn’t a place I’ve read too much about during World War II. Down on the Riviera, life is much more comfortable than it was in Paris – those with money are still throwing luxurious parties, the casino is still operating, there’s still food and no one appears to have or need rationing coupons. Life was good while the Italians were in charge but now that the Germans have taken over, there’s a slow tightening up of freedoms and all the Jewish people in the area are being rounded up and sent to camps.

After that, I just really struggled to get into the story down in the Riviera. For a start, Lana is chosen for this role because she’s a blonde Russian, so she’s obviously what the German officers will find attractive.  Luckily her mother married a wealthy Frenchman after fleeing her homeland, so she can provide Lana with an array of beautiful gowns to wear. So of course everyone is immediately besotted with her. The Germans all seem to want her, Guy wants her too (their cover is that they’re lovers reunited after the death of Lana’s husband) plus she meets an Englishman and he falls in love with her minutes after meeting her. Lana has no training in what she’s supposed to do, no instruction on communicating in a playful way which will also enable her to get information out of the German officers but she manages to do this effortlessly and get them to basically forget their duties with very little effort on her part. I didn’t really find any of this believable, that her allure was such that German officers who are to be involved in serious raids forego them just because a pretty woman they’ve talked to like, twice, turns up and distracts them. Also one of the men she must converse with is the man she watched murder her husband and although she does falter occasionally in his presence, she pulls it together better than I would’ve expected for someone who has been a widow for a mere few months when the man who made her such, is in front of her.

Lana’s motivation felt like there should have been a scene in this book where there is some sort of confrontation, something where Lana gets to have the satisfaction of exacting her revenge, or telling the person how/why/etc she’s there and what she’s accomplished. Instead this fizzles out for me in a frustrating manner. The book skips forward in time to well after the war which felt lazy and although I questioned the romantic attachment Lana did make because of its quickness (it did not feel it naturally evolved for me, particularly due the timeline. I understand it’s a different time in the way, things perhaps move quicker because time is short, tomorrow is not guaranteed etc) the direction of it after the romantic attachment was abrupt – it felt very jarring, the excuses very inadequate and it made me wonder why on earth Lana would want to ever get involved with this person again. I’m never a big fan of the “….and so 10 years went by, here’s a recap” and if I’m completely honest, the way this ended felt ridiculous to me. I can’t say more without spoiling it….but I wanted to give Lana a good shake for the choices she made in the final pages.

Unfortunately, the characters in this were not compelling enough for me to make up for the fact that the plot felt held together very loosely and the ending was one of the least satisfying that I’ve read in a while.

5/10

Book #28 of 2021

Lana’s War is the 13th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 7th book completed.

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Review: The Last Truehart by Darry Fraser

The Last Truehart 
Darry Fraser
Harlequin AUS
2020, 406p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.

1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.

Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.

What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed…

I read my first Darry Fraser book last year and I really enjoyed it so I was quite pleased when this one turned up. I don’t read enough Australian historical fiction and given I’m taking part in a historical fiction reading challenge this year, it’s always good to have plenty of choices for it, including some local options that help with variety.

Stella Truehart is the last in her family. Her mother Alice died a few years ago, she never knew her father and her beloved grandparents are gone as well. She’s also a widow, having married a man that was at first charming, but then brutal and many locals eye her with suspicion, convinced she was in on his thievery. The local police seem to be skeptical of her as well, making her reluctant to report a few things that she feels are….unusual.

I really enjoyed this. I liked Stella’s independent, strong-willed character and her feisty sister friends were a lot of fun as well. The beginning of the book, which is about Alice, was a great set up for a story and was about something that I didn’t know had happened – a U.S. Civil War ship named Shenandoah, which was docked briefly in Melbourne. When she left, around 42 Australian men were on board. It was such a fascinating situation, very complicated politically at the time and the ship has a profound effect on Alice’s life.

I also really liked the character of the interestingly-named Bendigo Bennett, his profession, his family and also his ‘secret’ as well. His way of investigation was quite low key, he’s very aware of his approaching Stella and he knows there’s quite a bit more to the story than his client has made him aware of. He and Stella end up teaming up for more information, including travelling to Sydney, when both are accosted by what is probably the same assailant. Someone out there believes that Stella possesses something valuable and it seems like there’s nothing they won’t stop at to get it for themselves.

In both the previous Darry Fraser book that I read and this one, there’s a strong theme of women’s rights and fighting for the vote and independence to live their lives freely, without having to be beholden to men. It’s always interesting to me, to read about how some of the freedoms I enjoy today, were fought for in the past, by those who spent large portions of their lives never enjoying those things. Bendigo’s sisters and Stella provide plenty in the way of stimulating political discussion, early feminism and choices such as women keeping their maiden names after marriage and I loved those inclusions into the story.

This book felt like it was a very well rounded story, but one that also had a little bit of everything: mystery, intrigue, romance, history, politics, perhaps even the chance for one of the other characters to get their own story in the future. I used to live near Geelong and used to visit there every week so it was fun to visit in history and learn a little of late 19th century life there. The suspense was well executed as well, even though the reader is always more aware than both Bendigo Bennett and Stella, there were still a few surprises.

This was such an engrossing read, I was engaged from the first page and it continued on – think I ended up reading in one sitting and barely put it down at all! I really do need to make an effort to pick up Darry Fraser’s backlist, the books I haven’t yet read from her because the two that I have read have been meticulous in their portrayal of Australian history and excellent in creating engaging, realistic characters where you care about their outcome in the story.

8/10

Book #27 of 2021

The Last Trueheart is the 12th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also counts for my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021. It’s the 6th book read for this one.

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Review: The Bit In Between by Claire Varley

The Bit In Between 
Claire Varley
Pan Macmillan AUS
2015, 272p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

There are seven billion people in the world. This is the story of two of them.

After an unfortunate incident in an airport lounge involving an immovable customs officer, a full jar of sun-dried tomatoes, quite a lot of vomit, and the capricious hand of fate, Oliver meets Alison. In spite of this less than romantic start, Oliver falls in love with her.

Immediately.

Inexplicably.

Irrevocably.

With no other place to be, Alison follows Oliver to the Solomon Islands where he is planning to write his much-anticipated second novel. But as Oliver’s story begins to take shape, odd things start to happen and he senses there may be more hinging on his novel than the burden of expectation. As he gets deeper into the manuscript and Alison moves further away from him, Oliver finds himself clinging to a narrative that may not end with ‘happily ever after’. 

Last year we spent 129 days in lockdown and at the beginning of the year, I optimistically had a lot of things to accomplish in 2020: spend 20 nights away from home, do 20 day trips/family outings, etc. None of those ever eventuated but the one thing I did complete was read 20 books from my shelves that I’d owned for at least 12 months. Considering I went no where and did nothing for the better part of the year, my reading was a huge part of what kept me grounded last year. So this year I decided to keep that and added in ‘read 21 books from my shelves that I’ve owned for at least 12 months’ to my personal goals for 2021. And then promptly forgot about it until last week when I realised I’d pretty much completed my February TBR pile and it would still be a little while before I’d have to start on my March TBR. I needed some things to read but luckily…..there’s never a shortage of books in this house!

I was sent this for review over 5 years ago, which is a bit embarrassing but it’s impossible to get to every single book I’m sent some months. However I keep a lot of the ones that I think I will get to one day, just for times like these! I also remember that I really loved Claire Varley’s second novel, which I read a couple of years ago so when I saw this on my unread shelf, I thought it’d make the perfect first choice for my challenge.

However, I didn’t love it as much as I loved that second book. There were parts of it that I found interesting and there were parts of it that I didn’t think worked for me personally. Oliver and Alison meet in an airport when both of them are transiting through there on flights home to Melbourne. Oliver is returning to bury his yiayia and Alison has left a relationship after spontaneously following him to China. When she hears of Oliver’s plans to go the Solomon Islands, where he plans to set his second book, she makes another snap decision to go with him. They connected well and spent a few days together in Melbourne after the quite unfortunate airport meeting (where she vomits all over him) and their savings allow them to live quite well.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in the Solomon Islands before and so that was interesting to me. Oliver’s second book is about the end of colonialism in the area and the emergence of the country as a new, independent one run by its own people (although his book seems to focus not on that, but on the people handing over the power). Oliver wrote one novel which was quite successful but he’s very bitter that the publisher wanted a different ending to the one he envisaged and he ended up writing it but this time around, he wants to do things his way. However at a certain point in the novel, Oliver begins to feel like everything he’s writing is coming true with each person on the island now representing someone from the book he’s writing. He begins writing certain things just to see….not really taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of the people he believes he is subjecting to certain things. That whole plot line didn’t really work for me, it felt like it was more skimmed over, not explored enough and although he and Alison fight over it a few times, it seems like mostly she just dismisses it (until she maybe doesn’t feel she can anymore) and he just furtively writes things to see if they’ll come true. I think it came on too late and wasn’t a big enough part of the novel for what it sort of demanded, to have any impact on the plot.

But my biggest issues were the main characters themselves. I couldn’t relate to Alison, who followed a man to China on a whim, left him when things weren’t going so well, met Oliver in an airport on her way home and then followed him to the Solomon Islands. I just don’t really relate to that sort of impulsiveness and I found her quite inconsiderate. She’s supposed to be met at the train station in her country town by her parents after her flight lands in Melbourne but she misses the first train and then just decides to spend days with Oliver. Her parents turn up to meet the train for days and she can’t even be bothered to call them and tell them she isn’t coming. To be fair, her parents didn’t seem that concerned (I feel like mine would be, if I were flying in from another country, didn’t turn up when I was supposed to and couldn’t be contacted for days) but obviously hers are used to this sort of thing. I liked Oliver more but found his friendship with the irritating Rick a bit tedious and every time Rick appeared in the narrative I wanted him to go away. Ed is a complete bonehead and Alison’s actions between him and Oliver are at times, a bit baffling to understand. Towards the end, there was a melting pot of incidents that just felt thrown in for comedy but for me, didn’t really work.

The one thing I did love is that every time we meet someone new in the story, no matter how small their role, the book breaks to insert their backstory and how they came to be where they were. That, I loved. It for me, was the best part of the book.

6/10

Book #26 of 2021

The Bit In Between is book #11 in The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Snowy Mountains Daughter by Alissa Callen

Snowy Mountains Daughter 
Alissa Callen
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Welcome to Bundilla. A new close-knit community where romance can blossom. A compelling story of homecoming and family secrets from bestselling Australian author Alissa Callen.

The road home isn’t for the faint-hearted…

Peony flower farmer Clancy Parker was born and bred in the Australian high country. Small-town Bundilla is the only place she will ever truly belong, even if staying means remaining alone. The man she’d loved is long gone and single men are as rare as a summer snowfall.

As soon as he could, street artist Heath MacBride escaped his complicated family and traded mountain peaks for city concrete. Now a commission to paint a mural on Bundilla’s water tower brings him home. It doesn’t matter how long he’s been away, the animosity of his cattleman father hasn’t waned. As soon as the water tower is painted, he will be gone.

But between steadfast Clancy, who’d once been his muse, a free-spirited kelpie who becomes his shadow and a corrosive family secret, his best laid plans disintegrate. When life again backs him into a corner, will he have no choice but to leave or will he and Clancy have the second chance they’d each thought would forever remain out of reach? 

I really loved Alissa Callen’s Woodlea series and I’m super excited that she’s kicking off what is sure to be a new series here, set in the high country of New South Wales. Centring around the town of Bundilla, this book introduces us to Bundy, a kelpie who drifts around the various residents of the town, going where he’s needed. When Heath McBride returns to Bundilla for the first time in many years, it’s to paint the town’s water tower with a mural. An artist of renown, Heath left Bundilla many years ago after being disowned by his father for choosing to study art, rather than agriculture. His resulting success hasn’t softened his father’s feelings towards him but family brings him back and the water tower is a good excuse to be in town. It also brings him back to Clancy, the girl he’s always wanted, but never thought he could have.

I really enjoyed this. I loved Clancy and her profession of having a flower farm. It’s peony season (or just about to be) and I loved her devotion to them. I’ve been really keen to visit some flower farms around here, in fact I was supposed to go to one just before we were sent back into lockdown so that’s definitely something for very soon. Clancy is stricken by grief still after a family tragedy and her brother Rowan is overseas, plying his profession as a stonemason but the two are still very close. For Clancy, Bundilla is home and even though she’s had strong feelings for Heath for a large portion of her life, he left without looking back and his job takes him all over the world. How could they possibly make anything work when their lives are so different?

Heath and Clancy were great characters, friends but friends made awkward a bit, by their feelings for each other but who want to support each other through difficult times. Clancy knows Heath is going through something with his family and wishes he’d open up to her about it but Heath wishes to respect his mother’s desire for privacy as well as not burden Clancy with his problems. Clancy however, would love to be burdened and have an opportunity to provide some emotional support to Heath, with whatever is happening.

There was so much of this that was super fun. Loved the idea of the water tower mural – we have a lot of similar things, usually on silos, in rural Victoria and presumably elsewhere, and they are a huge drawcard for tourists and day trippers. I adored Bundy (actually all the animals: the horses, beautiful old Jasper, the duo of Iris and Primrose. This is how to do animals as characters but not overbearingly, in a book) and his way of finding the person in town who needed him the most and keeping them company but also taking himself off around town to fulfil his various roles and duties. The town had a real lovely feel to it, I enjoyed the two sisters who took an interest in the town, as well as the various ‘things’ that Clancy and her best friend Brenna did: book club, quilting, etc. I also feel that there’s potential for anywhere between 3-6 people to get their own story, depending on if any of them pair up with each other!

There was really only one thing that I was a bit unsure about here and it’s a bit hard to talk about in depth without spoiling some things so I’ll just gloss over it. Heath and his father had obviously parted on poor terms and his father had been it seemed, quite hard on him for all of his life. He’d disowned him and made it clear he wasn’t ever to darken the doorstep of the family farm again and when his mother calls him back, she wants him to make amends with his father. Now, there are some circumstances as to why she wants Heath to do this but it didn’t sit well with me that Heath was asked to make such overtures after the poor treatment he received at the hands of his father throughout most of his life. The book does take some pains to clear up a lot of the reasoning behind Heath’s father’s attitudes and issues but I’m not sure it was enough to really justify what he did and said and it made me uncomfortable that Heath had to be the one to make amends (yes, there were reasons it had to be him, but his father had had many years himself, to try and fix what had occurred between them and had shown zero interest in doing so and I’m a big believer in blood not being enough for someone to excuse intolerable behaviour). That’s just a personal thing, just made me feel like a lot of pressure was put on Heath to right something he’d had no part in making wrong in the first place.

Apart from that one issue I really did love this and I can’t wait to read another book set here.

8/10

Book #25 of 2021

Snowy Mountains Daughter is the 10th book read for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Review: A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville

A Room Made Of Leaves
Kate Grenville
Text Publishing
2020, 319p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

What if Elizabeth Macarthur – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney-had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? In her introduction Kate Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of discovering a long-hidden box containing that memoir. What follows is a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented.

Grenville’s Elizabeth Macarthur is a passionate woman managing her complicated life-marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her own heart, the search for power in a society that gave her none-with spirit, cunning and sly wit.

Her memoir reveals the dark underbelly of the polite world of Jane Austen. It explodes the stereotype of the women of the past- devoted and docile, accepting of their narrow choices. That was their public face-here’s what one of them really thought.

At the heart of this book is one of the most toxic issues of our times- the seductive appeal of false stories. Beneath the surface of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life and the violent colonial world she navigated are secrets and lies with the dangerous power to shape reality.

A Room Made of Leaves is the internationally acclaimed author Kate Grenville’s first novel in almost a decade. It is historical fiction turned inside out, a stunning sleight of hand that gives the past the piercing immediacy of the present. 

Recently I read Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a book that detailed a friendship between two very well known Elizabeths in New South Wales history – Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of soldier and farmer John Macarthur, credited with the establishment of Merino sheep here in Australia. I found that book really interesting and although I’d like to read some non-fiction about either or both one day, I was pointed towards this book, which is a fictional telling based on the pretend discovery of papers at Elizabeth Farm, the farmhouse where the Macarthurs lived after John Macarthur was granted his first 100 acres. Kate Grenville fleshes out the facts with fictional tellings of what Elizabeth might’ve been thinking or feeling during her life time, such as when her mother remarried after the death of her father and left her in the care of her grandfather or when she became the first soldier’s wife to arrive in New South Wales.

Elizabeth arrived in New South Wales in 1789, which is just the following year after the colony was established. By all accounts, Sydney Town was already a rough place (what else could you expect I suppose, in a place to which criminals had been sent). It would surely have been a great culture shock for someone such as her, to come from Devon in England, to Sydney when it was basically still a camp. Her position as wife of a Lieutenant did grant them a house and as John moved up currying favour with the right people their living quarters improved too. As well as Sydney, a colony was being established about 20km to the west at Parramatta, generally considered to be better in terms of soil and fertility. The English early on, spent a lot of time treating Australia as though it were Britain, planting crops that thrived in the motherland and having them not do so well in the warmer climates and less than ideal soil near the coast of the harbour. They also faced sabotage from the local Aboriginal communities, who often burned crops and melted back into the bush without being seen.

In both books, John Macarthur is portrayed as a difficult, blustery man with ambitions of power. This book takes place before some of the events later in his life that lead to him being court-martialled and spending about 12 years back in England on two separate occasions,  defending himself. Once from injuring a superior officer and then the latter charge is about his role in the infamous Rum Rebellion. It is during this time I think, that the farm out at Parramatta (and several others) take off and are grown successfully by her and any managers and they are a regular supplier of wool. Elizabeth is often said to have been calm and even-tempered, a foil for her husband’s more volatile personality and it’s her good nature that kept them in good standing when John was often difficult. In NSW, she regularly held salons to which an invitation was sought after, with music and conversation and high spirits. It’s clear she’s clever and has been quite well educated and in this book, she seeks to educate herself further in terms of things like astronomy. She must’ve been a person of very high tolerance for poor conditions, to survive and thrive in New South Wales in those early days, before the establishment of Elizabeth Farm (Elizabeth Farm house still exists and is heritage listed. My cousin was married there in 1994, so I’ve been but don’t have much memory of it other than how lovely the gardens were).

I really enjoyed this….but I felt it ended a little early. I think I would’ve liked it to continue through the years when John wasn’t there. I understand that a lot of it was establishing the events around their marriage, the voyage to Australia and the difficulties in that and how she found her footing and something to contribute here. But I just would’ve liked to see it continue on through some of those years. Still this was a really interesting read. I’ve found a non-fiction book about Elizabeth Macarthur that looks promising so I’m going to look into that.

8/10

Book #24 of 2021

A Room Made Of Leaves is book #9 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s book #5

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Review: Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow And Bliss
Meg Mason
Fourth Estate
2020, 352p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

This novel is about a woman called Martha. She knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband Patrick thinks she is fine. He says everyone has something, the thing is just to keep going.

Martha told Patrick before they got married that she didn’t want to have children. He said he didn’t mind either way because he has loved her since he was fourteen and making her happy is all that matters, although he does not seem able to do it.

By the time Martha finds out what is wrong, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It is too late to get the only thing she has ever wanted. Or maybe it will turn out that you can stop loving someone and start again from nothing – if you can find something else to want. 

So this was recommended to me by an author friend who had just read it and was curious to see what I would think of it. I’d seen it around, glanced over a few reviews but I honestly wasn’t sure I was in the frame of mind for it. I requested it from my local library and it was available so it came in right away. Curiosity got the better of me, so I ended up picking it up, reading it in and around the announcement that we would be heading back into a snap 5 day lockdown.

Martha is not a well person – mentally, she has had many struggles, dating back to her teenage years. She has periods where she’s incapable of really doing anything and then, she will recover a little, be able to participate a little more in what is going on around her. The book begins with the wash-up of her 40th birthday and an argument she’s having with her husband, who at the end of it, finally admits that he’s had enough and packs a bag and leaves. The book then goes back to various times in Martha’s life: her teenage years, a bad relationship in her 20s, how she came to be with her current husband as well as snippets of their relationship as well as her complex family and the interactions that have seemingly shaped some of the events of Martha’s life.

This is a novel that makes your heart ache. My heart ached for almost everyone in this book. It ached for Martha because it’s awful that someone would live this way, to feel this way for so much of her life. It ached for her sister, honestly the character of Ingrid, Martha’s sister, was incredible and the two of them together are a fantastic showing of unconditional love and support, especially after Martha realises that Ingrid already knows her deepest wish and how it’s affected her. It ached for Patrick, Martha’s husband, who had sacrificed for her and to be frank, put up with quite a lot. Loving someone with a mental illness must be very difficult in some circumstances and for Patrick, it seems like it’s difficult quite often. I think there were times when my sorrow for Patrick was very deep, the more Martha’s deepest thoughts were revealed to the reader. She’s brutal in some of her assessments and there’s sometimes a frank, cold detachment to it as well, which is probably related to her illness. It’s not easy to read, this book, but the writing makes it easier than it probably should be. It’s incredibly compelling, I was sucked into this story and everyone in it.

There’s a lot about familial relationships – the relationship between Martha’s mother and her sister is incredibly complex, as is Martha’s relationship with her own mother. Her relationship her father is lovely and although Martha’s aunt and her husband seem to have varying degrees of success in their relationships with their children, Martha and Ingrid, particularly Martha, seem very close to their cousins. I really enjoyed Martha and Nicholas’ closeness, which I think, comes from both of them being troubled, albeit for different reasons.

There’s a lot about this that I thought was wonderful – the portrayal of Martha’s unnamed illness and not just its effects on her after years of misdiagnosis and various medications, but also on those around her, especially those that love her the most. But there were a few things that I thought perhaps weren’t as well orchestrated as other parts of the book. For example, I feel much of Martha and Patrick establishing a relationship and heading into marriage explains her feelings somewhat (although I never really felt like she had a lot of feeling for Patrick, to be honest) but I feel like there wasn’t much about why/how Patrick had such strong feelings for her. There are times when I wasn’t sure why Patrick didn’t leave sooner, with how honestly cruel Martha is. I know she’s unwell and struggling with many complex feelings and emotions and he clearly loves her dearly but I spent a lot of the book wondering what life must’ve been like for Patrick, in the time before he did finally leave. It illustrates the difficulty and toll taken on those around Martha, like also her father, who made sure she was never alone at one point in her life and her sister, who quite frankly had her hands full with her growing family, but was still a huge support to Martha, always ready to be there when needed. Until she too, finally lost her patience.

This is a powerful read – the back describes it as sad and funny but I didn’t find it particularly funny. I’m not sure if enjoyed is the right word, upon finishing it. But I definitely was glad that I read it.

8/10

Book #23 of 2021

Sorrow And Bliss is book #8 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Just Another Silly Love Song (Audiobook) by Rich Amooi

Just Another Silly Love Song 
Rich Amooi
Tantor Audio
Narrated by Tim Paige & Stephanie Rose
2021, 6hrs 59min
Purchased via Audible.com

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Two rival radio personalities. Lori Martin is a positive and upbeat DJ, known for playing love songs and dedications. Ben Baxter dishes out no-nonsense, in-your-face relationship advice. Total opposites. Never in a million years would they want to work together.

Fired for losing her cool after her boyfriend breaks up with her on the air, Lori surprisingly receives a job offer for the coveted morning show at the radio station across town where Ben works. She thinks she’s replacing him but finds out they want to team up Lori with her archenemy to set the air waves on fire and boost ratings. Financially strapped, she can’t turn down the job.

While their on-air fireworks and explosive chemistry make for great listening, what in the world will happen after work hours?

This was……okay. Mostly. I had some issues, primarily with the narration but also with the writing, plot and character development.

In terms of the narration – I’m pretty new to audiobooks and I don’t really know how they’re recorded. I assumed that the book was read in full by the narrator, for tone and context but this one felt like the female narrator in particular, recorded things repeated throughout the book once and then that one way of saying it was just dropped in wherever it came up in the next. The emphasis was exactly the same in every instance of small fragmented sentences like “I laughed”, “I smiled” or “I smirked”. It actually felt very jarring and a lot of the time, the tone felt….off…..in the section. It is really hard to explain. Either these parts were just recorded once or the way the narrator said it every single time was exactly the same, with no deviation in tone or which syllable was being emphasised. Also because I noticed this, I also noticed how often those three aforementioned sentences appeared within the book. Lots. And I mean lots. If I were reading this, characters would be doing all of those things multiple times on almost every page. No one smirks that often.

In terms of the plot – Lori works a nighttime love songs and dedications radio show….or she does until her boyfriend breaks up with her on air and also manages to trash the radio station’s main sponsor, who happens to be listening and demands Lori be fired. And Ben is “Dr Tough Love”, a morning show host for a rival station, who tells his callers the truth, no matter how blunt. His ratings have stagnated and the show want to mix it up and draw in female viewers, who tend not to listen in. So when Lori is fired from her nighttime gig, she’s called up by Ben’s station and immediately offered a job cohosting his show. Lori and Ben have had one interaction over a parking spot where they both buy their coffee but Lori is aware of Ben’s show and thinks his advice is bogus. And Ben cannot stand Lori’s saccharine love songs show and definitely does not want that stuff played on his show.

The radio station loves their arguing and the fact that Lori doesn’t let Ben get away with anything. She’s a more reasonable voice when Ben’s primary advice is for people to dump their partners and move on. Their boss Kyle sends them to have lunch “on the station” so they can get to know each other a bit better and play off each other more on air but it only really takes that one lunch for these enemies to realise that they actually have quite a bit in common and that Ben’s Dr Tough Love is really just an on air persona that is used for comedic effect. This for me, felt like a really fast development, considering the animosity both had had, prior to that lunch. And even that animosity felt quick, they fought over a car space. How is drive through coffee not a thing in San Diego? Anyway. Ben doesn’t really want a cohost but the radio station plays Tough Love with him, basically tell him it’s cohost or they’ll be letting him go. Their first show or two is kind of awkward, there’s a lot of bickering and ignoring the caller on the line so they can fight with each other (actually that kind of continues even after they stop disliking each other off air). Some of their interactions are funny, others felt a little childish.

I do think if I’d read this as opposed to listening to it, I probably would’ve liked it more. Narration is such a key aspect for me, it really affects overall how I feel about a book. However I still don’t think I would’ve loved it. A lot of the changing opinions they had felt too rapid and it felt like there should’ve been a bit of a longer period for their relationship to evolve as they realised their initial thoughts about the other had been wrong. Also there’s a bit of drama with the evolving relationship, especially when it’s obvious they’re attracted to each other and the radio station doesn’t want them to like each other. I found the characters of Ben’s grandpa and Lori’s grandma a bit meh, particularly Lori’s grandma who is pretty much the standard grandma from every book I’ve ever read. “Sassy” and “full of life” and “bored with other people her age” and “liking hotties” type of thing.

All in all this was….fine. I listened to it all and didn’t feel the need to DNF it but I didn’t love it. If felt very predictable and quite cookie cutter – what defined either of Ben or Lori’s personalities? All I really learned about them was that they enjoyed where they lived and Ben donated to charity. There was really little else to them and they didn’t really have a lot of chemistry for me. I think that as a radio show, I could understand why they’d be found entertaining, playing off each other. But they weren’t really a couple where I felt invested in their outcome.

5/10

Book #20 of 2021

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Review: Space Hopper by Helen Fisher

Space Hopper 
Helen Fisher
Simon & Schuster UK
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

This is a story about taking a leap of faith
And believing the unbelievable

They say those we love never truly leave us, and I’ve found that to be true. But not in the way you might expect. In fact, none of this is what you’d expect.

I’ve been visiting my mother who died when I was eight.
And I’m talking about flesh and blood, tea-and-biscuits-on-the-table visiting here.

Right now, you probably think I’m going mad.
Let me explain…

Although Faye is happy with her life, the loss of her mother as a child weighs on her mind even more now that she is a mother herself. So she is amazed when, in an extraordinary turn of events, she finds herself back in her childhood home in the 1970s. Faced with the chance to finally seek answers to her questions – but away from her own family – how much is she willing to give up for another moment with her mother?

Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life. 

Time travel novels are a tricky beast. For the most part, it involves just simply leaving any sort of attempt to rationalise the how and just going with it. It’s not like other worlds or space or things that could exist in places beyond our capability to explore. Time travel is a different sort of surrendering of skepticism because it involves going back and watching things that have already unfolded and the possibility of altering events that will potentially cause a ripple in the present timeline. There’s any number of ways that authors have sent characters back in time and this one involves a childhood box and a fervent wish.

Faye is a woman in her thirties who is happily married with two young daughters. When she was about eight, her mother died and as there was no father in her life, nor any other family, she was taken in and later adopted by married and childless neighbours. They loved Faye as if she were their own and provided her with a lovely and comfortable life but the space her mother left behind is something that Faye has never gotten over. Then she is sent abruptly back in time and realises that she has the opportunity to befriend her own mother and maybe finally find out what happened to her.

I was intrigued by this to start with – the idea that Faye could travel back and forth (as long as she had the box containing her childhood treasures) was interesting, especially as no matter how long she seemed to spend in the past, only three hours would pass in the present. However, the further I got into it, the more I questioned Faye’s choices and motivations, especially when it became to the idea that she could somehow change what happened and ‘save’ her mother, despite the fact that the way she was travelling back and forth was tenuous and could be destroyed at any moment.

A lot of Faye’s character and the like, had been shaped by the hole her mother’s death/absence left in her life and it seemed so bizarre that her own children barely rated a thought in terms of her continuing to want to return to the past. What if she were trapped there? She’d be dooming her own daughters to the same fate and you’d think that she’d want to do anything to prevent that, given how it had affected her. What had happened, had already happened to her. A lot of the book talks about how she’s a helicopter parent, that she’d be much more vigilant with her own children than her mother was (Faye as an adult, watching her mother parent young Faye is quite eye opening because what we see as children, especially in regards to our parents, is much different to what an adult would see and notice). But Faye seems to almost disregard that, it really takes up very little mental time and considering how much it affected her, you’d think she’d want to do anything to prevent her own children from possibly suffering that same fate. She’s still so determined to return to the past even though she’s given several very strong cautions against it and reasons not to, because of how she doesn’t know what could potentially happen.

A lot of this also felt very much like I was trapped in a cycle where the same thought process or argument, played out several times, particularly between Faye and her husband Eddie. They have a wonderful marriage, which is supposedly built on them never lying to each other. However Faye cannot tell her husband about her trips back to the past and she keeps sustaining injuries during the process and she’s being vague and is quite crap at lying, so her husband sees right through her. He draws his own conclusions about her secretive, unusual and out of character behaviour and the fact that she clearly will not tell him what is going on with her and it ends up playing out several times. Faye is aware that her actions are hurting Eddie, that he’s confused and upset and struggling to trust her when she won’t tell him what’s happening. He tells her he doesn’t want to hear a lie, so she says nothing, often just staring at him in silence, which was actually incredibly frustrating. And then this kind of all plays out for no reason, because she eventually tells him and it’s literally fine (*insert the shrug emoji here*). Also Eddie has felt the calling by God to devote his life to the church and study to become a vicar and that’s awkwardly shoehorned into a lot of the story. I sort of get what the author was trying to do with it and the comparison that she was trying to make, I just don’t think it was as successful as it could’ve been. Or that the two things were really that similar.

Also for me, the ending didn’t really work, it felt way too neat.

5/10

Book #20 of 2021

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Review: The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale

The Paris Affair 
Pip Drysdale
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

She thinks love can kill you. It turns out she might be right.

Meet Harper Brown …

Occupation: Arts journalist
Dream job: Hard-hitting news reporter
Location: Paris
Loves: True crime podcasts, art galleries, coffee, whiskey
Does not love: fake people, toxic positivity, being told how to live her life by smug workmates who have no life (that’s you, Stan), her narcissistic ex
Favourite book: 1984
Favourite artist: Noah X. Sometimes.
Favourite painting: Klimt’s Schubert at the Piano
Special skills: breaking out of car boots, picking locks and escaping relationships.
Superpower: She can lose any guy in three minutes flat. Ask her how.
Secret: She’s hot on the trail of a murderer – and the scoop of a lifetime.

That’s if the killer doesn’t catch her first 

Harper is in her late 20s and she’s living in Paris with a new job, writing for a features magazine. Her knowledge of art got her the job and Harper is desperate to please her formidable boss who sends her to cover an exhibition by artist Noah X. Harper wants to get ahead, not having much of a deadline, so she pops into the space beforehand and snaps a few pictures and look, to be honest, that’s probably all you need to know about Harper’s personality.

She’s come out of a very long term relationship (8 years) where she devoted herself to supporting her musician boyfriend who then dumped her when he finally made it. This has really scarred her and she feels like ALL love is a joke and it’s better to just use men and disappear – but in a very specific way lest they get their egos wounded and react. So she picks men up, has one night stands, uses dating apps….and then has a couple methods to basically make them feel like they are the ones ending it when really, she’s ghosting them. A rather large portion of the story is dedicated to Harper’s antics with mostly random men and I’m going to be honest, I didn’t particularly enjoy that. It felt a bit over the top, her aggressive thoughts after the relationship breakdown and her determination to have a sequence of brief encounters with different men. I’ve no problem with women who choose this as their preference, I’m just not really interested in reading about it, I don’t find it an enjoyable topic. I did enjoy her interactions with Noah X and always wanted him to be a somewhat bigger part of the story than he was at any given point.

The workplace Harper was working at felt very high school – perhaps that’s indicative of a cutthroat journalism environment but some of her colleagues felt really immature and childish and when Harper is given a chance to write a feature based on her close proximity to a crime, it really puts the reporter who would usually cover that, out of joint. His tactics are so juvenile and irritating and Harper is also so appallingly sillythat it’s actually hard to pity her when her ‘big break of a story’ basically gets stolen away from her. Her boss felt like a character I’ve read many times before and I felt like no one was really addressing the fact that Harper put scotch in her coffee most mornings, least of all Harper. She dismisses it with a “what even is time?” comment and that’s basically it.

This was okay – in that I found it an easy read that mostly held my attention but I think at times, it felt confused about what it wanted to be. The overall look of it and the description, made me think that the thriller component was going to be a much bigger part of the plot than it actually really was. Like there would be a cat and mouse game going on or something but the ‘thriller’ aspect of the plot really only takes up a handful of pages and to be honest, never once did I actually feel like Harper was in any danger. Far too much had been made of her true crime obsession and the article or whatever it was she wrote, about how not to get murdered. I don’t think the book ever built the perpetrator up as a threat, as someone the reader (and Harper) should be genuinely scared of, although at the same time, it was sort of obvious who the perpetrator was to the reader. By the time she realises, it’s basically almost all over and the action is wrapped up in just a few pages. Harper’s rage at being dumped, her social media stalking of her now relatively-successful ex felt relatable, up to a point. Then after that it was honestly….well, it made her seem like she actually might be more than a bit volatile. At one stage in the novel, when she’s executing a plan to flee from a hookup, she tells herself she needs to dial down her bunny-boiler act and that part of her is an act but there honestly feels like there are parts of Harper where she runs before she can get attached (or they can) in any fashion because it will always end in pain (which actually felt like more of a 17-year-old-dumped-for-the-first-time mentality) but if she did get attached, it would be in a very big way. It was a bit odd, how deeply this mentality went.

A bit predictable and with a main character I think could be polarising but it was okay.

6/10

Book #19 of 2021

The Paris Affair is book #6 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

 

 

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Review: The World At My Feet by Catherine Isaac

The World At My Feet 
Catherine Isaac
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 423p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The secrets that bind us can also tear us apart…

1990. Harriet is a journalist. Her job takes her to dangerous places, where she asks questions and tries to make a difference. But when she is sent to Romania, to the state orphanages the world is only just learning about, she is forced to rethink her most important rule.

2018. Ellie is a gardener. Her garden is her sanctuary, her pride and joy. But, though she spends long days outdoors, she hasn’t set foot beyond her gate for far too long. Now someone enters her life who could finally be the reason she needs to overcome her fears.

From post-revolution Romania to the idyllic English countryside, The World at My Feet is the story of two women, two worlds, and a journey of self-discovery that spans a lifetime.

Ellie is an instagram influencer who hasn’t left the confines of her garden in two years. She’s built a career out of her garden, sharing photos and knowledge. She’s grown her followers up to almost 60k and has been doing sponsored posts for a while now. It’s all she needs – the thought of stepping out the front gate sends her into a panic and although her life is very confined, she’s happy. Right?

Ellie suffers from agoraphobia, not particularly the open spaces that you might think of, but the idea of being away from the safety of her home. Her home is her sanctuary. She lives in an annexe previously occupied by her grandmother on the property of her parents and she tends a quite luxurious garden. Ellie hasn’t always been like this, although it’s something she has struggled with on and off for large portions of her life. But a few years ago she was managing to live and work in London until the most recent flare up of her phobia. She’s undertaken therapy at various points in her life but she turned her back on that when her therapist suggested a sort of immersion therapy: exposing herself to the things that terrify her in order to help her deal with them. Ellie doesn’t want that – she’s well aware of where the trauma started and that’s something she buries so far down she wants to never examine it.

I loved this. I’ve read a Catherine Isaac book before and really enjoyed it and so I had been looking forward to reading this. I really liked Ellie from the first page, her creating of a life for herself, that worked with her mental illness, even if it wasn’t the sort of life that others might want for her. Her parents are wonderfully supportive, although they do want Ellie to not be hurting or frightened of the thought of leaving the confines of the property and her sister Lucy is amazing too. Ellie knows that it’s difficult for her to maintain friendships – few people are understanding of her inability to meet for drinks, go out for dinner, even visit them in their homes. Most of her interaction is online, answering comments on her instagram posts and engaging with the community to continue to drive up her followers. Her income depends on the success of her sponsored posts and it’s also a way to interact with people and have conversations without having to leave her property. At the same time, delivery driver Jamie enters her life as does yoga instructor Guy. Ellie wants a relationship, but like with friendships, the amount of people who are understanding of her limitations are quite few and far between.

I had a bit of trouble figuring out some of the timeline, briefly in the book but then I realised why things didn’t add up. I have actually watched a documentary on Romania post-Communist fall, in particular around the orphanages and state care facilities and it is harrowing stuff. The deeper this book got into exploring the background of Ellie’s trauma, the more things made sense – where it had come from, how deep and ingrained it was and how it was something so buried for her own self-preservation. But in burying it, Ellie had also made difficulties for herself and I understand her reluctance to confront it head on. To not want that sort of closure from that time in her life because of how truly painful and damaging it was. Ellie got terribly lucky in a situation where many did not and I think there’s also a deep-seated guilt about that as well.

I really enjoyed the way this book explored methods of therapy, Ellie’s journey with her illness and also social media – the pressure for every post to be perfect, to not show the messiness behind the posts, the things that went in to creating the ‘look’. Ellie often takes hundreds of photos to just get that one shot to post and there’s a portion in the book where she also has a run in with a troll, which is always the danger whenever you put anything out there on social media. Ellie has a battle about authentic vs created and ends up making a decision about what she posts which I really liked. I felt it came at a time when she was making quite a lot of decisions about her future and how her life was going to work going forward.

I thought this was really wonderful and enjoyed every page of it.

8/10

Book #18 of 2021

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