All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Sisters Of Freedom by Mary Anne O’Connor

Sisters Of Freedom
Mary Anne O’Connor
Harlequin AUS
2021, 350p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote in their new nation’s elections and have a say in the laws that govern them.

Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women’s rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause, never marrying or becoming a mother. She can’t understand her artistic sister Ivy, who wants a life of ease and beauty with her soon-to-be fiance, law student Patrick Earle.

Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, decrying the inequality of Australia’s social classes … and longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy’s burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

I really enjoyed this story, set in an interesting time in Australia’s history, where the nation was being granted independence as its own country (despite there already being occupants when the English arrived), but still tied to the British Empire. Also, women were pushing for the right to vote and a large portion of the story revolves around this fight.

Of the three sisters, middle sister Frankie is the most fervent advocate for women’s rights. Although beautiful, she pays no attention to her looks and seems most adamant in not attracting a man, because she never wants to marry and become beholden to someone else. Women can’t own property, cannot work after marrying, are forced by their husbands to do whatever the husband wishes and it’s still legal for a man to physically ‘reprimand’ his wife and also enforce marital rights. Frankie doesn’t want any of this and for her, the best way to ensure that is to never marry. And to never have children. This sometimes puts her at odds with youngest sister Ivy who just wants to find a husband, have a family and be content. She doesn’t have the drive that her sister does and sometimes Frankie makes her feel silly or inferior, because her wants are more simple. For oldest sister Aggie, she’s somewhere in the middle, both longing for a family and supporting women’s rights.

I spent a couple of years living in Western Sydney, near the Hawkesbury River, so I really enjoyed the fact that this novel took us a part of the way up that river, around the areas of Wiseman’s Ferry. Back at this time, there were no roads to this part of the world, a boat was the only way to reach the settlements that had sprung up along the river. The people living there mostly fished or logged and presented in this story, it’s a mix that includes some more unsavoury characters. When smuggler Riley Logan discovers Ivy Merriweather unconscious in the river, he’s aware that if someone else spots her, she could be in a lot of danger so he whisks her up river to his sister Fiona. They nurse her back to health after a violent fever and this innocent interaction makes Ivy question the life she thought she’d mapped out for herself. She has grown up quite wealthy and privileged, with parents that care for her and her sisters with the freedom to speak their minds, study and learn, see themselves worthy of respect. For Fiona, her life has been quite different since she and Riley lost their parents and now she’s married to a lazy drunk, has young twins and another on the way, living in a shack with whispers of even rougher treatment. Ivy’s eyes are opened in a lot of ways, both by Fiona…and by Riley.

I enjoyed how different all three sisters were – Aggie was already married and wanting to be a mother. Frankie was not married and never wanted to get married, nor have children. She wanted to study law (forbidden) and play cricket and do anything that men could do. She shunned anything to do with fashion and looks and romance and seems surprised when a young man indicates to her that some are still interested, despite her attempts to discourage it. When Frankie does find herself having feelings for someone, it’s in a situation that brings her pain and frustration as well as fear of hurting someone very close to her. This was a bit of a complex situation but I thought it was handled well, particularly as the person she fell for and the one she feared hurting had not really interacted all that much and seemed more drawn to the idea of being together rather than each other. And Ivy, the youngest, was so fun and sort of frivolous, but not in a bad way. She appreciated pretty things and I think often felt inferior to her more intelligent sisters, especially Frankie. She was very artistic, perhaps a little shallow but once she spent time with Riley and Fiona and Fiona’s children, I think she saw a different side of life and also came to realise that she did have something to offer, that there was a way for her to contribute. Riley was interesting too, he’s this sort of….good guy doing bad things for the better of those that can’t get what they need. He’s protective of Ivy when he rescues her but without restricting her. He doesn’t want to coddle her, just make sure that no one can hurt her. He also wants her to be her own person, do what she wants and not what she feels is expected of her. They felt like a sweet match, like they were two that would bring out the best in each other.

This was a good blend of entertaining story in terms of romance and family relationships and the struggle for women at a time when their rights were well, almost non-existent. I always read books like this and realise how many things I tend to take for granted, living in this time in the place that I do.

8/10

Book #69 of 2021

Sisters Of Freedom is the 31st book read for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. It’s the 15th book read for that challenge so far.

Leave a comment »

Review: Trick Of The Light by Fiona McCallum

Trick Of The Light
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Erica, newly widowed, is devastated to discover her venture capitalist husband left their finances in ruins. Determined to save her home while protecting her teenage daughters, she vows to get back on her feet without letting them, or anyone else, know the truth.

When her girls head off on a long-planned overseas adventure, Erica focuses on her much-loved job behind a makeup counter to keep her emotionally and financially afloat – although she is troubled by a peculiar encounter at work.

Then she loses her job, the darkness beckons and Erica’s life spirals downwards, further disturbed by strange occurrences in her house. Missing objects. Stopped clocks. Noises in the night. Should she doubt her very sanity? Can she swallow her pride and make herself reach out to her friends in time? Does she have a choice?

A moving story of loss, change and self-discovery from Australia’s master storyteller.

Whilst I thought this book had the chance to tackle some issues that are prominent for women facing financial uncertainty in middle age, unfortunately the way in which it was told meant that I didn’t at all connect with the story or the characters.

This is a very slow moving book. Erica’s husband passes away just before it begins of cancer and she then learns that their finances are not what she expected them to be. The house is heavily mortgaged, he cancelled their insurance policies, there’s nothing in the way of savings or superannuation. Erica does work full time as a make up artist/representative at a department store so whilst she has a steady income, it’s not really at the level that would make her comfortable. For about at least the first third of this story, it’s simply Erica catching the bus to work basically and going through her days, her inner thoughts about her situation and her determination not to tell anyone and to “sort it out herself” almost like it’s her punishment for allowing her husband to solely control their finances all their married life and taking no interest in it.

Erica’s reluctance to confide in either her friends or her (pretty much adult) daughters means that she backs herself into a hard place. The answer to her problem is actually relatively obvious but she’s unable to do it because of her children and the promises she made them before they leave for a gap year overseas. If she’d told them, then she probably wouldn’t have been in such a stressful situation, trying to juggle everything herself. This is something that’s only made worse when she loses her job and then faces unemployment as a woman of almost 50 who although has had steady employment prior to this, has little in the way of marketable skills.

This is a reality for many women, who often have lower paying and less easily-transferable jobs that they take breaks from in order to have and raise children. Unemployment in later years is harder to overcome for women – hard for anyone over a certain age really and if/when a person does find themselves later in life without work, it’s often when the state of debt or commitments are at a high: mortgage, children, car, etc. Benefits aren’t enough for most people to get by as they search for work and the search can be long and fruitless. I imagine the stress would be enormous – and this is something that for some reason, Erica feels she must shoulder all on her own. Even if she doesn’t want to tell her children the bare bones of the situation (there’s ways she could’ve done it without destroying her children’s image of their father), she chooses not to tell any of her close friends either, even her cousin. Someone she’s known her whole life. I found her desire to bear this burden alone a bit baffling, because there’s no real logical explanation for it, nor does it really fulfil any purpose other than Erica deciding she must fix this all on her own. This is revealed as pointless much later in the book where she FINALLY confides in people and they immediately brainstorm to help her solve certain issues, something that honestly could’ve been done much earlier in the story.

There’s also a bit of a mystery element in the latter part of the book, designed to make the reader wonder if Erica might be losing her mind to grief or even going the way of both her parents or maybe a supernatural element but it’s actually quite obvious what’s going on and that’s also something Erica puts her head in the sand about and just chooses to ignore it like it’s not happening or explaining it away with various things that actually make little sense. The conclusion to this was a bit more dramatic than I was expecting but at least it was the catalyst for Erica finally taking control – and by that, I mean actually allowing other people in.

This came to a quiet ending after all that excitement and maybe it’s a duology, like Fiona McCallum’s two previous books ended up being. But for me a lot of the story was very slow in the beginning and possibly could’ve been condensed down a bit and it just made it quite difficult to really get into it. It felt like a good opportunity to really explore financial uncertainty in people who are in middle age, especially a recently widowed woman but a lot of this is really just internal repetitive thoughts and Erica’s day to day routine. It didn’t feel deep enough to me and several of the characters felt awkwardly shoehorned into the plot in a ‘this will be relevant later on’ way. I also never really warmed to Erica as a character to carry this story, she just never seemed to really have much in the way of personality. I know she’s grieving but I could barely tell you a single thing about her: her interests, her desires, her dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses (apart from not knowing what their finances were). I just felt like she never really came across on the page to me.

Not really my sort of story, unfortunately. There are people out there who might appreciate this much more low-key, quieter sort of read but I prefer more proactive main characters and a bit more plot in my reads.

Book #68 of 2021

Trick Of The Light is book #30 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

Leave a comment »

Review: Half Life by Jillian Cantor

Half Life
Jillian Cantor
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In Poland in 1891, Marie Curie (then Marya Sklodowska) was engaged to a budding mathematician, Kazimierz Zorawski. But when his mother insisted she was too poor and not good enough, he broke off the engagement. A heartbroken Marya left Poland for Paris, where she would attend the Sorbonne to study chemistry and physics. Eventually Marie Curie would go on to change the course of science forever and be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

But what if she had made a different choice?

What if she had stayed in Poland, married Kazimierz at the age of twenty-four, and never attended the Sorbonne or discovered radium? What if she had chosen a life of domesticity with a constant hunger for knowledge in Russian Poland where education for women was restricted, instead of studying science in Paris and meeting Pierre Curie?

Entwining Marie Curie’s real story with Marya Zorawska’s fictional one, Half Life explores loves lost and destinies unfulfilled—and probes issues of loyalty and identity, gender and class, motherhood and sisterhood, fame and anonymity, scholarship and knowledge. Through parallel contrasting versions of Marya’s life, Jillian Cantor’s unique historical novel asks what would have happened if a great scientific mind was denied opportunity and access to education. It examines how the lives of one remarkable woman and the people she loved – as well as the world at large and course of science and history—might have been irrevocably changed in ways both great and small. 

I thought this was fascinating.

Everyone knows who Marie Curie is, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (shared with her husband), she also won a second Nobel Prize for a different science after his death, on her own. She discovered polonium and radium and developed mobile X-ray technology to bring the machines to injured soldiers in the fields so that they might be diagnosed and helped much sooner. This book is a Sliding Doors type of story, which splits the narrative into alternating chapters – one set where Marya doesn’t get on the train to go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and instead marries her Polish boyfriend, when he decides she means more to him than his wealthy family. In the other, she does get on that train and her life plays out mostly as Curie’s does in reality.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this was that the same people populated both narratives. For example, obviously Marie (known as Marya in the chapters where she stays in Poland to marry) doesn’t marry Pierre Curie in one half of the story, but she still meets him. Her life still becomes entwined with his albeit in a very different manner. Without Marie as his wife, Pierre doesn’t win a Nobel Prize in this section of the story and his life is also very different than the life they build in the chapters where Marie chooses Paris, the Sorbonne and furthering her education.

I knew the bare basics about Marie Curie before this and have actually read books where characters come across her – not long ago I read one set in WWI where the main character meets Marie Curie as she’s driving around her mobile X-ray machine and Curie organises for that character to receive one to use. But this gave me so much more about this absolutely remarkable family. Marie -then Marya- was born in a part of Poland under Russian rule and at her time of young adulthood, it wasn’t permitted for women to enrol in further study, hence why her father was saving to send Marya to Paris, to live with one of her sisters, who had already completed her studies there. Marya’s father was a man who seemed determined to give his daughters every opportunity, even though he had experienced situations that meant he was now of reduced means. He believed in their abilities and that they could do anything they wanted to – medicine, science, etc. This meant they had to leave to complete their studies and Paris was a very different place to Russian Poland, although Marie (as she was known in France) was often still the only female in her science classes. Her mind was so brilliant I can barely understand it – I’m not scientifically or mathematically minded so no matter which “version” of her life I was in (in the life she chooses to stay in Poland, the man she marries is a mathematician, quite brilliant in his own right but probably not as much as his wife, who cannot study officially in that life for many years) there were large parts of what people were studying that I didn’t particularly understand! I loved the symmetry of the two timelines – when Marya stays in Poland, she obviously doesn’t win the Nobel Prize, like Pierre doesn’t…but who does keeps things consistent, continues to be a reflection of the story that is grounded in her real life choices and experiences. This is repeated throughout the two portions of the book as the same characters continue to show up in different roles, shaping Marie or Marya’s life in different ways.

I thought this was a really unique idea and a wonderful way to tell a story. I love a ‘what if’? type of story and imagine if the world didn’t get Marie Curie and her husband making the discoveries that they did. Makes you think about the decisions you make in a split second (such as Marya choosing whether or not to get on the train to Paris or whether to choose love as she knew it then) and how they impact on the rest of your life. I appreciated all the little details here, especially at the end. I thought that was really well done.

8/10

Book #67 of 2021

Half Life definitely counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 14th book completed so far.

Leave a comment »

Review: Shipped by Angie Hockman

Shipped
Angie Hockman
Gallery Books
2021, 336p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Between taking night classes for her MBA and her demanding day job at a cruise line, marketing manager Henley Evans barely has time for herself, let alone family, friends, or dating. But when she’s shortlisted for the promotion of her dreams, all her sacrifices finally seem worth it.

The only problem? Graeme Crawford-Collins, the remote social media manager and the bane of her existence, is also up for the position. Although they’ve never met in person, their epic email battles are the stuff of office legend.

Their boss tasks each of them with drafting a proposal on how to boost bookings in the Galápagos—best proposal wins the promotion. There’s just one catch: they have to go on a company cruise to the Galápagos Islands…together. But when the two meet on the ship, Henley is shocked to discover that the real Graeme is nothing like she imagined. As they explore the Islands together, she soon finds the line between loathing and liking thinner than a postcard.

With her career dreams in her sights and a growing attraction to the competition, Henley begins questioning her life choices. Because what’s the point of working all the time if you never actually live?

I thought this was a lot of fun and the perfect sort of read for when you just want something engaging and relaxing.

Henley (named after The Eagles member) is very driven in her career. She’s taking night classes and putting everything into her day job and hoping to advance in the company she works in, which runs cruises on smaller ships. When a promotion opens up, Henley is desperate to get it only to realise she’ll be going up against the company social media manager, Graeme Crawford-Collins, whom she doesn’t exactly have the best working relationship with. Graeme works remotely from across the country so they’ve not met but their emails and phone calls are heated (Henley) and brief (Graeme). Their boss comes up with the idea to send them on a cruise to the Galapagos and then pitch the perfect promotion to win bookings.

This was my jam. I love an enemies to lovers, I love an interesting location. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book set in the Galapagos before, so props for that one! This is pitched as an enemies to lovers but it’s really only Henley that considers them to be enemies and it’s a surprise to her, that Graeme doesn’t see her that way, nor does he know why she’s been so antagonistic towards him and the more she gets to know him in person, the more Henley is forced to realise that Graeme might not be the person she thinks he is, in her mind.

I found this so engaging and really enjoyed the banter between Henley and Graeme. She’s really focused – so much so at times that she misses other things that are going on around her, such as things with her sister, etc. I have never been on a cruise (to be honest I tend to view them as huge floating Petri dishes of germs) but the ones the company have are smaller, capacity of around 150. It seemed like a lot of fun, particularly as they spend huge amounts of time off the boat exploring the various places around the islands. There’s a lot of beautiful description, fun activities and also, a bit of an ecological tourism message as well as the author uses the stop at a research facility to impart a bit of information about some threats that the island faces (both in the book and also, in real life) and it’s done in a way that feels incredibly natural to the plot, not shoehorned in. Henley is in the area learning, she’s also looking for an angle to promote tours and get people to sign up, so it makes sense that she’d be getting information about various different things and how as a tourism promoter, they can even do their part.

Not going to lie, I was a bit put off by the inclusion of Henley’s sister into the story, especially when she also finds her way onto the boat and she just felt like a character I’d read so many times before at first. But as the cruise went on, there was another side to her and I appreciated the way she helped Henley (even if her methods were a bit unusual) and also the way, once back at work, Henley’s friends gathered around her to help her with something. There’s quite a bit in here about women in the workplace – Henley’s boss refers to her as “sweetheart” and basically does everything but pat her on the head and say good girl and when Graeme says she shouldn’t take that, he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not as easy as telling a male superior not to call you a certain thing, or do something that makes a female worker uncomfortable. Henley sees Graeme, afforded respect as just a voice on the end of a phone and knows she doesn’t get the same and it makes her irate.

What I would’ve liked, was more romance. I thought that Henley and Graeme had pretty good chemistry and I would’ve liked that to be explored more. The romance is written in a way where things almost happen and then they get interrupted or Henley gets cold feet or something else happens and it got a bit frustrating as I just wanted to see them get it together already! Also it’s a bit closed doors, which is fine but I prefer a bit more heat/spice in my stories. But that’s a little quibble and I did really enjoy this and will be certain to keep an eye out for Angie Hockman’s next book!

8/10

Book #66 of 2021

Leave a comment »

Review: The Ripping Tree by Nikki Gemmell

The Ripping Tree
Nikki Gemmell
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: An illustrious family. A beautiful home. A shipwrecked young woman left on its doorstep. 

Don’t think they’re going to save her. 

Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she’s never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She’s saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.

Tom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she’s drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren’t quite as they seem. She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum – and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.

The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell’s signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.

This is an interesting novel to try and review.

I have read a few of Nikki Gemmell’s books and have enjoyed most of them so I was quite interested in this one. It’s quite different to other things I’ve read from her – this is a dark historical, an almost gothic tale of warning for young Thomasina Trelora, aka Tom. Raised by a widower father, Tom was given an education and allowed run a bit wild but after his death, her older brother, who has made his life in ‘the colonies’ arranges a marriage for Tom with a vicar also in Australia. Tom isn’t keen on this mapped-out future but with her father gone, there’s no other option for her. Tom is then the sole survivor when the ship wrecks on rocks just off the Australian coast. She is rescued by one of the local indigenous men and deposited on the doorstep of a large home owned by a wealthy colonial family. Tom uses the accident to wipe out her previous existence, to “reset” and hopefully, find a new future. But as she settles into the family, with a lady of the house desperate for female companionship and three very different sons as well as a formidable patriarch, she discovers some truly disturbing secrets and her persistence at knowing the truth could be her undoing.

So there was a lot I liked or found interesting about this book – I really enjoyed the premise. The idea of Tom being forced by a male relative to do something she doesn’t want to, and isn’t even consulted about, is very indicative of the time and the powerlessness of women. Her brother threatens her with an asylum if she doesn’t comply and he clearly doesn’t understand or approve of the upbringing their father gave her. The fact that she gets a chance to be a blank slate, is really fascinating and you can see why she would choose this option. It’s made even more interesting I think, by someone she crosses paths with after she recovers from the ordeal of almost drowning. Tom has a natural curiosity – she’s only about sixteen, which I kept forgetting when I was reading this, so much was she going around demanding to know things and challenging people, which probably would’ve been quite unusual for a girl of her age, especially one who’d had such an ordeal and who didn’t really know the people she was staying with. What she uncovers is horrific and shines a light on some of the truly terrible and dehumanising behaviour displayed by some of the people that invaded this country and made it their own, regardless of who was already here. Tom has a really mature and definitely very unusual for the time attitude about these things and she simply cannot let it go, even though it places her position as being accepted by this wealthy, influential, respected family, in much jeopardy. I admired her for that, even as I feared for her because as a woman -well, she was almost more a child really- she has no agency, no independence and her future can be decided for her.

What I found a bit less engaging, were some of the characters and the fact that the book takes place over the course of basically, 7 days with the prologue and epilogue excepted. Tom is nicknamed Poss by a child (the youngest of the house) watching over her when she wakes up – the child is known as Mouse to the family. There just seems to be this weird bond between them immediately and it felt very forced to me, like it should’ve been allowed to develop. Likewise her interaction with the eldest son, which takes place on day 2 I think, also felt incredibly jarring. Also Tom/Poss wakes up from this incredibly taxing physically and traumatic ordeal, is battered and bruised and is basically traipsing around everywhere that day and the next. She’s forever sneaking out of places, sneaking into places and the whole family just give the weirdest vibes. The mother of the three boys, the lady of the house for want of a better term, comes across as not very well perhaps, mentally, having experienced grief. She’s desperate for female companionship and determined to shape Tom into this proper young lady which is everything Tom is trying to avoid. The mother swings between sharp and cutting, almost scary, to petting and cosseting and it’s a bit jarring but not sure if Tom is just so desperate to avoid her fate that she’s willing to put up with anything, or she doesn’t see it. She has the chance to leave several times to go to the town and provide more information on the shipwreck which she decides not to do. The eldest son is a spoiled waste of space that I wanted to warn Tom against when she seemed to have very giggly, dreamy thoughts about him two seconds after meeting him. Which also seemed just….out of place, especially given the details dribbled out about her time on the ship and various other things. She’d known this guy five minutes literally. She’s very young, which is probably contributing but she seems so sensible about certain things and then giddily loses her head at first meeting and really doesn’t seem to be able to determine the games being played.

I felt like this nailed atmosphere and story but just….I found some of the character interactions really odd and honestly? Time pondering them pulled me out of the overall story. I also felt like some of the more interesting stuff would’ve occurred after the main part of the story ends, but before the epilogue (it’s sort of mentioned, but in zero detail). I did like that the epilogue gave some closure….but it also left me with lots more questions.

7/10

Book #65 of 2021

The Ripping Tree is book #29 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

It also counts towards my participation in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 13th book read for the challenge so far, which puts me over halfway in my goal to read 25 books for it!

3 Comments »

Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

The Road Trip
Beth O’Leary
Quercus
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy Hachette AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Addie and her sister are about to embark on an epic road trip to a friend’s wedding in the north of Scotland. The playlist is all planned and the snacks are packed.

But, not long after setting off, a car slams into the back of theirs. The driver is none other than Addie’s ex, Dylan, who she’s avoided since their traumatic break-up two years earlier.

Dylan and his best mate are heading to the wedding too, and they’ve totalled their car, so Addie has no choice but to offer them a ride. The car is soon jam-packed full of luggage and secrets, and with three hundred miles ahead of them, Dylan and Addie can’t avoid confronting the very messy history of their relationship…

Will they make it to the wedding on time? And, more importantly… is this really the end of the road for Addie and Dylan?

This was definitely one of my most anticipated releases for 2021. I really adored Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare and I also enjoyed her follow up, The Switch. I also really love road trip books. I love road trips in real life and I love reading about people who are undertaking one. There’s something about the forced proximity and adventure as well as getting descriptions of the scenery that I just really enjoy. It’s also a chance to live vicariously, when you read about road trips that take place where you’ve never been. This one brings an added complication when Addie and her sister Deb, on their way to a friends wedding in Scotland, are forced to offer Addie’s ex-boyfriend Dylan and his friend Marcus a lift. Addie and Dylan haven’t seen in each other in almost two years. Their break up was messy, devastating. Their relationship had been intense and fraught with complications. Mostly those complications came in the form of Marcus, Dylan’s best friend who is “part of the deal”.

I expected a lot of humour in this but I actually didn’t expect how dark parts of it were. It’s told in a Now and Then format, with the Now comprising of the trip from London to Scotland, for the wedding and the Then going back to when and how Addie and Dylan met as well as various points in their relationship and ultimately, how it fell apart. I really liked this format and thought it was an excellent way of keeping the suspense of what had happened to bring about the demise of Addie and Dylan and also build the tension and awkwardness in the present day, where the four of them, plus Rodney, a random who Addie and her sister Deb offered a lift to, are crammed into a tiny car with no escape. None of them know Rodney or how he knows the bride and groom and at first, he seems like a fairly innocuous (and kind of pointless) addition to the story but his character arc is quite amusing.

The characters are all well developed and showcased in all their flawed and messy glory. Addie and Dylan are young when they meet (a couple of times I forgot how young) and there’s added external complications in their relationship as well as negotiating the hurdles they themselves bring in and put up. Dylan is from a difficult, wealthy family who pressure him (his father) to Do Something Worthy with his life but Dylan has a poet’s soul and isn’t interested in big business or a financial career. He also comes with Marcus and well….not going to beat around the bush here. Marcus was a real challenge to read, both in the present and in the past. In the present, Addie obviously has a huge issue with Marcus and Dylan insists a few times that he has changed. In the past, it is slowly revealed why Addie has such a huge problem with Marcus and I actually picked Marcus’ motivation well before it was revealed. I can’t say for sure whether Marcus had honestly changed that much but I did feel by the end of the book he had some sort of understanding about what he’d done being wrong and why. But Marcus was one of those “haha I’m so amusing and fun” type of people where it feels like a lot of his amusement and fun comes from disrupting other people’s lives and telling those that do not live up to his expectations how boring they are and they should be more like him. I did not like Marcus, in the past or in the now. Even with his clarity and attempts to actually be better. I still felt like he was way more trouble than he would ever be worth.

Addie and Dylan go through a lot, in this book. They have a very intense relationship which has some issues and they lack the maturity and knowledge to deal with them, I think, without it causing arguments. Part of it is their different backgrounds, part of it is Marcus, part of it is probably the timing and speed of the development of their relationship. I wanted them to be happy but if I’m 100% honest, I’m not sure that what was best was them with each other. A lot of toxic stuff had occurred and none of them were innocent of it and their feelings were intense but they weren’t always kind to each other. And that happens in relationships, it can bring out the best and worst in you. I think a lot of the air being cleared late in the book helped them on the way to finding harmony but I don’t think I was ever really satisfied with their relationship potential. Just felt like a lot of stuff had happened to come back from.

Still, I enjoyed this a lot. It’s very readable – I read it in a single sitting in an afternoon. Five people crammed into a mini on the road trip from hell with secrets and clashing characters and plenty of surprises. There’s humour but also this book is deeply serious, with a lot of issues covered including depression and anxiety and the crushing expectation placed on someone who isn’t sure what they want out of life. It definitely wasn’t as light and funny as I was expecting but I think the serious topics were very well done.

8/10

Book #42 of 2021

Leave a comment »

Review: Close To Home by Janet Gover

Close To Home
Janet Gover
Harlequin AUS
2021, 358p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Two houses, both alike in dignity…

Aunt Alice Dwyer loves her small Australian town. She’s rarely left its comforting embrace. She knows everyone in it; in fact, she’s related to most of them. All she wants is to keep her family safe and the town running exactly the way it always has. Her way. But when an exotic French artist comes to town, her hold begins to weaken…

Lucienne Chevalier, once the toast of Europe, has come to Nyringa after a tragic loss to hang up her sequins and create a place for her circus family to rest between tours. With her is Simon, her grandson, recovering from an injury so damaging he can no longer perform. Lucienne fears he’ll never embrace a new future. That is, until she notices the chemistry between him and the new schoolteacher… All they need is a push.

Both grande dames think they know what’s best, but with equal amounts of stubbornness on both sides, peace looks unlikely. Then a relationship between Alice’s rebellious great-niece and a teenage acrobat sets the two communities on a collision course. But when the bakery starts making patisseries over lamingtons, the battle lines are truly drawn…

A story of community and family. Of the love that brings them together … and the fears that would tear them apart.

Recently I’ve had a run of bad sleep and when I don’t sleep well I get headaches, which means I can’t read. My first good day, with no headache, I picked up this because I thought the cover looked lovely and that it might be just the sort of read to get into – something familiar, almost comforting even though I haven’t read this author before.

And for the most part, that’s pretty much what I got! Close To Home is set in the (fictional) small town of Nyringa in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, not too far from Glen Innes. It’s an area I’m vaguely familiar with as I had relatives living in Glen Innes for a while and I’ve been to Armidale a couple of times. In the beginning we get a glimpse of Alice at 15 and the dreams she has of her future before skipping forward to the present day where Alice is in her 80s, a widow and with a vast amount of relatives surrounding her, ready to do her bidding whenever she requires it. Alice is thrown into remembering things she’d rather forget when Lucienne Chevalier buys a local property to use as a base for her circus – somewhere they can rest and practice new routines. With her comes her grandson Simon, who has some healing of his own to do. For Alice, the circus in town can only be bad news and cause pain and she fears for one of her great-nieces, still a teenager, when one of the boys from the circus catches her eye.

Alice is a tough old character, who often comes across as demanding! She seems to secretly enjoy playing games with her relatives, graciously bestowing the honour of taking her to church of a Sunday or having her over for tea on random people and watching their reactions. At times she’s abrasive but there’s a lot of layers to her and there’s an age old pain and regret colouring her life too. She does tend to have people’s best interests at heart, even if the way she goes about things sometimes, ends up alienating them rather than drawing them closer to her. She quite enjoys the feistiness of one of her many great-nieces Jenny, a teenager of 15, which is why she’s concerned when Jenny and Finn, a boy of 16 from Lucienne’s circus, find a mutual attraction. For Alice, such a connection could only end in heartbreak for Jenny and she desperately wants to protect her from that.

Alice is determined not to like Lucienne, a woman of similar vintage and wants her gone from the community. Lucienne is ready to retire and she knows that things will be easier, especially for her grandson Simon, if she’s accepted by the locals and makes some friends. At first it’s definitely quite a frosty reception from Alice, she might be ‘polite’ but it’s definitely in a way that says she wants to keep her distance. Lucienne is quite undaunted though and I really enjoyed her as a character. Both she and Simon are still in the throes of early and quite deep grief – and on Simon’s part there’s quite a lot of guilt too even though what happened was at his fault. It doesn’t stop the nightmares though or the thoughts and when he meets Meg, the new schoolteacher in Nyringa, they are kind of kindred spirits. Meg had something awful and traumatic happen to her and in a way she’s been running ever since. Nyringa however, is helping her heal as she settles back into teaching and becoming a part of the small community. She finds herself somewhat of a confidant for young Jenny and she keeps bumping into Simon as well.

I enjoyed this. It was a lovely way to pass a morning, getting to know this community and the people that live in it. I ended up liking Alice, although she’s a bit much at times – the sort of relative you’d probably avoid occasionally in real life, lest she get busy passing judgement on some aspect of your life that she didn’t approve of. She had a lot in her life that I think she hadn’t dealt with and that she’d allowed to really colour her opinion of things and it took the events that happen later in the book to help her move past that. I also liked the burgeoning friendship between Simon and Meg and enjoyed Finn and Jenny stumbling their way through a first relationship and learning to make mature decisions and how to help each other in times of need. I thought the circus stuff was quite fun and interesting too, including the inclusion and acknowledgement of how circuses have changed over the years.

7/10

Book #64 of 2021

Close To Home is book #28 read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

2 Comments »

Review: You Need To Know by Nicola Moriarty

You Need To Know
Nicola Moriarty
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The holidays are here. The extended family has gathered. The cars are packed and the convoy sets off. The cottage is a few hours’ drive – but not everyone will live to see it …

For Jill, her three sons, their wives and children, a terrifying road crash will tear apart their family.

The crash will be an accident but the shattering that follows has been long coming.

Because at the heart of this family lies a secret – concealed, wrestled with, festering and harmful – and nothing now can stop it coming out.

But will any of them survive it?

I have always really enjoyed Nicola Moriarty’s novels so I knew this was definitely going to be a must-read for me. It was perfect for an afternoon curled up on the couch as this is a story that it’s easy to get lost in.

It’s told from several points of view: Jill is a relatively recent widow, who writes letters to her late husband Frank. In them she alludes to certain things, things that she’s reluctant to dive into or examine too deeply. Jill and Frank had three sons together: their oldest Tony, was an accountant who recently sold a novel for a large amount of money and it’s tipped to be a best-seller. He’s married to Andrea, a teacher and they enjoy a childfree life by choice (or do they?). Middle child Pete has been married to Mimi for a long time. They have a 16yo daughter, an 8yo daughter and recently welcomed twins after Pete convinced Mimi for “just one more”. They got 2 girls instead of Pete’s longed for boy and things aren’t working out exactly as Mimi hoped. She’s worried about her oldest daughter, who is completely disengaged. Her middle daughter seems to have left her childhood behind to help parent the twins. Mimi finds herself reaching for the wineglass a lot these days. And youngest son Darren is struggling with his second novel and a break up when his ex asks him a very complex question…..

The whole family are gathering to head to Jill’s beach house, which is where they’ll spend Christmas. The book begins with an incident from that trip and then goes back in time to show how everyone got to the place they were in at the beginning and I loved the way this was told! Especially the snapshots of the “current” time which are told from the differing perspectives of strangers as they come across it. During the main bulk of the story we are treated to the points of view of Mimi, Jill, Andrea and Darren which fleshes out the entire family and the differing relationships within it. All of the sons are involved in creative pursuits: Pete has written children’s stories for many years and his wife Mimi illustrates them. Darren wrote a book that was expected to do well but tanked and was the recipient of a savage review and now he’s completely blocked on his second novel because of it. Tony, always a numbers man, surprised the family when he sold a manuscript no one was aware he was working on, for an exorbitant amount. Mimi has been in the family a long time, close to 20 years whereas Andrea is much newer. Darren is the only brother unmarried, still mourning the demise of his most recent relationship although he and his ex are still friends, Darren still harbours the hope that she’ll realise she made a mistake and they can reconcile, even though deep down, he knows it’s futile.

I thought Moriarty built the tension and suspense expertly here, in terms of leading up to the dramatic event. Everything is timed perfectly to come to a head as the family sets off in many separate cars, but travelling together in a convoy. Some of the struggles the characters are dealing with are not a secret – such as, for example, the reliance Mimi is coming to have on alcohol to simply get her through the day. I know there’s a lot of jokes and the like about “wine time” for mums and how many cannot wait to get the kids off to bed to get stuck into a glass to relax and unwind after a busy day. But for Mimi, it’s becoming much more than that and no one really seems to be noticing, especially husband Pete. Even after several close incidents (such as seeing a booze bus when giving her teen daughter a driving lesson, etc) isn’t really enough for Mimi to do anything more than think about it. For Andrea, meeting a neighbour has made her question the life she’s chosen for herself and she’s wondering just how much input she had in the decisions she and Tony made “as a couple”. I also enjoyed the scenes from Jill’s point of view as she worries about her children, their partners, her grandchildren and laments the loss of her husband as well as the feelings of guilt she has about it. When the story unfolds, it becomes obvious why Jill makes some of the choices she does and why she insists on certain things.

This was a highly enjoyable family drama with plenty of twists and turns in the story, some of which the reader was expecting and others that were more of a shock as they unfolded. I was invested in so many of the characters and wanted to learn how certain things were going to affect them all, once revealed. And I really did enjoy the switching back and forth of the time/perspective, that I felt, created a clever sense of urgency, with the characters being so unaware of what was coming but the reader was not.

Another fantastic read.

8/10

Book #62 of 2021

You Need To Know is the 27th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

Leave a comment »

Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Beartown (Beartown #1)
Fredrik Backman
Translated by Neil Smith
Atria Books
2017, 418p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. 

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place. 

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have been meaning to read a book by Fredrik Backman for so long, I’ve seen and heard so many good things about them. Randomly there was one on the display shelf at my library and when I looked at the blurb, it was about ice hockey so I had to grab it. That book was Us Against You which is the second in the Beartown series so I had to order this in from another branch.

I’m a new ice hockey fan, I’ve been following the NHL somewhat loosely for about four years. Living in Australia, it’s not particularly popular here although there does seem to be a growing number of fans. We don’t see many games here and the ones shown are rarely even the conference my team plays in, let alone my actual team so this year for my birthday, my husband paid for an NHL subscription, whereby you can watch every single game. It’s been really good, even if my team are playing particularly bad this year! It’s made me feel much more connected to the sport.

I loved this book. And the ice hockey is only a small part of it, it’s just the catalyst, it could honestly have been any sport really. It’s about human nature and relationships and a small, dying down that desperately needs something to rejuvenate it, to make it relevant again. That something is an ice hockey team that threatens to win the national championships and it’s really down to just two players: Kevin, who has it all. He’s been dedicated to the sport from a young age and he has the talent to go all the way, to make his way to the NHL draft. And his best friend Benjy, an enforcer who makes sure that no one takes Kevin out, that he’s free to glide through and do what he does best.

This is such an insightful story, there’s so much in here about the insular nature of small towns, their view of outsiders, the ways in which they latch onto things. The team has seen success in the past – now General Manager of the Beartown facility, Kevin Andersson was one of those promising kids two decades ago and he found himself with a contract in Canada. Injuries meant it didn’t work out and he dragged his wife and kids back to Beartown to “give back” to the community in a mostly thankless job that means he’s stuck between the Board, who demand success and results, and the ageing coach they want to force out. The coach who has made this club, devoted his whole life to it, nurtured players in ways that went far beyond just teaching them plays on the ice.

The cast of characters is so wonderful, I loved so many of them. Especially Amat, son of a widow, born in a place that doesn’t even see snow. Amat’s mother works as a cleaner at the ice hockey rink and he faces bullying and ridicule from those in the team above him – until someone notices that the 15yo’s speed is what the junior team lacks and soon he’s playing with kids 2 years older than him and for the first time he’s part of it, part of the team, included. It’s a huge rush…..but that comes at a price and Amat has to decide if he wants to pay it.

There is an incident that occurs at a party in this book – it’s something we’ve all heard about, maybe even we know someone that it happened to. If not, we’ve certainly read about similar stories in the news and this book examines the way people view the story, how it’s always a “one person’s word against the other” but the words are not given equal weight – there’s always a tilt towards one side, especially when that person is an incredibly highly promising athlete. This is a snapshot of a societal response, especially when something is threatened as a result of it.

I just really loved the writing and the way this story was told. Every now and then the author would toss in this one liner about marriage or relationships or some sort of observation about human nature and it was so insightful. There’s also a lot of foreshadowing – the book opens with a declaration of an event and then shows how everyone got there and also, towards the end, there are snapshots of the future as well, how the events that played out, shaped the characters after it.

I’m so glad this is a series. I honestly cannot wait to read the second book and I want to own and read everything Fredrik Backman has ever written.

9/10

Book #61 of 2021

2 Comments »

Review: All We Have Is Now by Kaneana May

All We Have Is Now
Kaneana May
Harlequin AUS
2021, 464p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Healing others is their calling, but what happens if they can’t fix themselves? A richly nuanced and empathetic examination of life, loss and courage from a talented new Australian author.

Health and wellbeing brought Olive, Elsie and Bree together. After five years, their bustling wellness centre is demanding expansion. A beautiful federation house nestled among the picturesque backdrop of their small town is the perfect place to grow their business. But they don’t count on their personal lives getting in the way.

Practical and pragmatic, Olive keeps her past hidden from her friends. But when an old high-school flame shows up, the secrets she’s worked so hard to bury threaten to tear her carefully constructed world apart.

Bree is the fun-loving one, although family tensions lurk behind her free-spirited facade. The reappearance of her troubled sister Winnie brings Bree’s priorities into sharp focus. Will she have to shelve her own happiness to save her sister?

Kind and maternal to all those around her, Elsie’s role as the practice’s counsellor comes naturally. But when tragedy strikes, her world tumbles down like a house of cards.

With everything they’ve built in disarray, their friendship is on the line…

I really enjoyed this.

Firstly, it’s set not far from where I grew up, around an hour south for the most part and several of the characters are from a place around half an hour south. So many of the places are familiar to me, it references the place my brother was married, a town we went to for family breaks, a waterfall that everyone who has ever lived in that area has visited, etc. It’s really nice to see my local area represented in fiction, it works very well for it in many different ways (it has a lot of beaches, several very large rivers, also slightly inland is a rich farming area, particularly dairy cattle).

Friends Olive, Elsie and Brie buy a beautiful Federation property to run their wellness centre out of. They each have different specialities: Olive is a dietician and offers cooking classes as well. Brie runs Pilates classes and Elsie is a counsellor with a full book of clients. They also add in massage therapist Tom, who knows Olive from when they were in high school and his addition threatens to bring up the past that Olive has kept buried a long time. Brie’s struggling younger sister has shown up but Brie knows it’s only a matter of time until she disappears again and Elsie finds herself awaiting something that she has long desired, only for the worst of tragedies to occur.

I felt like each of the characters were quite well developed and the story devoted time to carefully constructing their backstory and the struggles they were dealing with in the present. What is an exciting and wonderful time for them all is slowly eroded as their personal lives overwhelm them in different ways. Olive is also dealing with a mother who is in failing health and her father’s desperation in clinging to the woman he married, was done so well. I think it would be a horrible thing, to go through what Olive and her father are dealing with, the realisation that they can’t fix this or even prevent it from getting worse. Olive has also buried something from her past down very far and I could kind of relate to her because I tend to respond to grief in a similar way.

Grief is something this book does well (and by that I mean with believable care and sympathy) – it’s showcased in many ways and each of the main characters are experiencing things that are causing it. For Brie, it’s her worry and stress over her younger sister Winnie, who is a recovering addict who often disappears for years at a time. Their parents are constantly in a state of worry over Winnie as well, and Brie hates the fact that Winnie will most likely vanish again, causing them yet more concern at a time in their lives when they should be relaxing, now that years of having tumultuous teenage girls are well past. Brie also has a lot of guilt about Winnie, which is something she has never really dealt with. Winnie was a character that I felt was so complex – in some ways, she’s so frustrating and if she were my sister, it’d be really difficult to turn a blind eye to a lot of her behaviours, especially some that violate Brie’s privacy so utterly. But when the alternative is her disappearing to who-knows-where for up to years at a time, your tolerance is probably much greater. Brie really wants a relationship with Winnie and she really wants their parents to have some security in her safety and presence as well. Brie is a fan of casual relationships with men, keeping things moving quickly but all of a sudden she’s looking at someone she’s known forever in an entirely different light. I loved that part of the story.

And then there’s Elsie’s story, which broke my heart actually. Elsie and I are the same age and we’re also both stepmothers. I really felt the grief and hopelessness and heartbreak that Elsie experienced, her withdrawal from her friends and loved ones, her apathy that nothing really mattered anymore. She went through a very dark time and I also thought Olive and Brie’s frustration at being unable to help her (that there really was no helping her) was well portrayed as well. Also her husband Frank’s grief, which Elsie doesn’t really see, is shown to the reader through her eyes even as she perhaps isn’t seeing it in the same way that the reader is. She’s too caught up in her own pain and has to move through that first, before she can see how others around her are hurting as well.

This was a wonderful story, underpinned by the friendship of the three very different women.

8/10

Book #60 of 2021

All We Have Is Now is the 26th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

Leave a comment »