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Review: A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

A Home Like Ours 
Fiona Lowe
Harlequin AUS
2021, 542p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/DMCPR Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

As a small town turns on itself, three women discover true friends aren’t always the ones you think you know… A compulsive page-turner from bestselling Australian author Fiona Lowe.

Tara Hooper is at breaking point. With two young children, a business in a town struggling under an unexpected crime wave, and her husband more interested in his cricket team than their marriage, life is a juggling act. Then, when new neighbours arrive and they are exactly the sort of people the town doesn’t want or need, things get worse.

Life has taught Helen Demetriou two things: being homeless is terrifying and survival means keeping your cards close to your chest. Having clawed back some stability through her involvement in the community garden, she dares to relax. But as she uncovers some shady goings-on in the council, that stability turns to quicksand.

For teenage mother Jade Innes, life can be lonely among the judgement of the town and the frequent absences of her boyfriend. A chance encounter draws her into the endangered community garden where she makes friends for the first time. Glimpsing a different way of life is enticing but its demands are terrifying. Does she even deserve to try?

Can these women with such differing loyalties unite to save the garden and ultimately stop the town from tearing itself apart?

I really enjoyed this book.

It’s taking a look at quite a lot of issues but somehow they all work together in the context of the story. It centres around three women at very different parts of their lives – Helen is older, she’s experienced homelessness and even now, has housing uncertainty. This is a real concern for many people who are approaching their ‘winding down’ years – the years where they should be thinking about a comfortable retirement are often spent frantically trying to shore up their future. Helen has a lot of pain in her past and she’s a prickly personality. Tara is in her 30s, married with two kids, she and her husband own a thriving business. She should feel the happiest she’s ever been. But Tara is feeling the disconnect from her husband but her feeling of what was wrong turns out to be very different from the actual problem. And then there’s Jade, still a teenager and a mother now. She spends most of her days waiting for her boyfriend Corey to return and help out. Corey continually tells her they’re going to be better parents to baby Milo than their parents ever were to them but basically, Corey talks a lot and is around none.

The women all live in the same small Victorian town but don’t really know each other until they become involved in the local community garden. Helen is the caretaker and has worked there a while, Jade is interested in exchanging some labour for organic veggies to feed Milo and Tara is happy to offer some sponsorship through their business, supporting the town. When Helen offers a plot to some refugee women, it stirs up a huge amount of controversy. There’s a small community of refugees in this town who are “different” to the locals and the young teens are the first place the local policeman’s eyes go whenever there’s an incident.

Tara and her husband Jon aren’t impressed when their new neighbours turn out to be from Sudan. Fiza and her three children (a teenager and younger twins around the same age as Jon and Tara’s kids) are polite and considerate neighbours, helpful in ways that their own friends are not and it forces them to look at their thinking and change their minds – however they’re still prone to prejudice and societal pressure, questioning whether or not Fiza’s son, who they gave a job to, is the one behind the break-ins at their hardware business.

I really enjoyed the friendship between Helen and Jade. Both of them are a bit abrasive – Helen has seen a lot, experienced a lot of grief and she holds herself away from people. Jade is young and from a pretty disadvantaged background and she’s doing it tough too on a parent’s pension with a boyfriend who spends most of his time away “working” but who doesn’t contribute. Helen and Jade clash often, both of them the sort that doesn’t back down but over time, they do develop a very sweet relationship where both of them fill a role for the other that perhaps they didn’t even know they wanted. I also loved the character of Bob, who bears the brunt of Helen’s brutal tongue quite often but always comes back for more, and his nephew Lachlan, who is very sweet.

I loved the idea of the community garden, a place where people of all different walks of life could have their own plots and not just exchange and share their bounty but also get to know each other, learn about each other’s lives. Many of the women that are refugees share food with Jade, bring her and Milo into their group and give her a sense of community, one that she probably didn’t feel from the ‘locals’. Fiza’s story is heartbreaking and her determination to keep on, her fierce loyalty to and belief in her son admirable. She is constantly putting up with her son being questioned by the police every time something happens, without evidence and he generally has an alibi. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

There’s definitely a lot happening in this book (I haven’t even touched on the happenings with the local council and Jon’s eventual problem in this review!) but it’s all woven together very well and I think all the bits and pieces help to establish the community as a whole. Very enjoyable.

9/10

Book #34 of 2021

A Home Like Ours is book #18 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

 

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Review: Home Fires by Fiona Lowe

Home Fires
Fiona Lowe
Harlequin AUS
2019, 487p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/AM Publicity

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From the bestselling Australian author of Daughter of Mine and Birthright. When a lethal bushfire tore through Myrtle, nestled in Victoria’s breathtaking Otway Ranges, the town’s buildings – and the lives of its residents – were left as smouldering ash. For three women in particular, the fire fractured their lives and their relationships.

Eighteen months later, with the flurry of national attention long past, Myrtle stands restored, shiny and new. But is the outside polish just a veneer? Community stalwart Julie thinks tourism could bring back some financial stability to their little corner of the world and soon prods Claire, Bec and Sophie into joining her group. But the scar tissue of trauma runs deep, and as each woman exposes her secrets and faces the damage that day wrought, a shocking truth will emerge that will shake the town to its newly rebuilt foundations…

With her sharp eye for human foibles, bestselling author Fiona Lowe writes an evocative tale of everyday people fighting for themselves, their families and their town – as only this distinctively Australian storyteller can.

Summer has just come to an end (not that the weather thinks so, as we just finished a stretch of 37-40*C days that extended into March) and there are currently bushfires burning down in the south east of Victoria. Bushfires are an inescapable part of life here and the threat and fear of them is something most people can relate to, even when they have no personal experience.

Eighteen months ago, the lives of many populating the small town of Myrtle were changed when a bushfire took lives, houses and businesses. Those left behind are still struggling to recover. Claire lost several of the people dearest to her and now feels the pressure in her relationship with Matt, who just wants to pretend everything is fine. Josh and Sophie lost their dream forever home and insurance laws mean they don’t have the cash to rebuild. Bec and her husband are doing just fine financially, given he’s busy rebuilding everyone’s lost homes and developing land but the state of their marriage is a dark secret. Community leader Julie sees an opportunity to bring the women of the next generation together and strengthen friendships and the town.

There is a lot going on in this story – each of the characters have been affected by the fire and it’s still playing a role in their lives all these months later. Claire and Julie both lost people they love. Claire was supposed to be getting married on the day the bushfire tore through the town and she now bears a large burden of guilt about that. She hasn’t been able to reschedule the wedding and now Matt, her fiance, is pressuring her to have a baby, like they’d planned in the ‘before’. Matt is a tough character to really feel sympathetic to here. The two of them got together in somewhat dubious circumstances, Claire has experienced the backlash of that with Matt’s family, she doesn’t have a support structure of her own and so she’s vulnerable and finds it difficult to express herself for fear of losing what she still has. Matt has what seems like an overly controlling streak, taking it upon himself to track Claire’s cycle, run his mouth about things best kept private between a couple and just generally be completely oblivious to what is troubling Claire. The thing is, it’s not at all a stretch of the imagination to understand what makes Claire reluctant to do some of these things but Matt is the quintessential ostrich. If he cannot see it, it isn’t happening. He doesn’t support Claire in the face of his family, he talks at her rather than to her. That’s not to say Claire is without fault either. She’s super busy in her job but she uses this to avoid her other commitments or chooses it over them. She also cannot talk to Matt about what she wants but this is borne out of fear. Matt says some truly awful things to Claire in this novel, which I do not believe he ever seriously and genuinely apologised for, nor were they dealt with to the level of which they deserved. I appreciated the counselling angle but Matt went into it with completely the wrong attitude and it takes quite a while for him to begin listening and understanding. Claire is pretty quick to forgive hime actually.

Bec wasn’t a character I warmed to in the beginning but I think she probably ended up being my favourite one. Bec is the sort of person who presents one way and it’s a bit pretentious but then you realise just why and how she comes across this way and that part of the novel was very well done. This is insidious and not the sort of way that it’s often portrayed and Fiona Lowe does a great job escalating it throughout the story until Bec is in such danger and the things that are happening to her are so horrific. The tension builds alarmingly well and Lowe chooses a ‘town hero’, someone where it wouldn’t be easy for Bec to be heard because he’s got that ‘good bloke’ wrap that people are so fond of labelling men with, even when they do the most awful things.

I quite enjoyed the rest of the characters – Josh and Sophie were very interesting and that was another great look at how the strain of the fire had continued to have financial and emotional impacts well after it had burned out. Josh and Sophie are struggling – Sophie has had to go back to work, something moving to Myrtle was supposed to avoid so she could devote herself to their two small children. She’s finding it very hard because Josh does things in a different way to her – not wrong, just different. And that’s a really good thing to explore I think, because I know of couples who argue over how things get done, depending on who is the ‘at home’ parent because they have different standards of cleanliness and what they expect the non working parent to be able to achieve in a day. Sophie also doesn’t realise what is truly happening with Josh, because he’s never told her and that is well done too. Sophie and Josh’s situation also explores just how difficult it can be to rebuild after such a devastating incident – it’s not just a simple matter of the insurance company going oh yes, here’s the value of your house, good luck. Bushfires often mean changing classifications, changing standards and building and industry codes. And that means rebuilds cost more money.

I do feel as though this book, which comes in at close to 500p, is a fraction too long and some of the back and forth jumps in time felt a bit all over the place and I actually think I would’ve preferred a linear narrative. Apart from that and the character of Matt, who just wasn’t at all my sort of thing (nor were his family, who were also thoughtlessly insensitive and could be quite rude), the rest of this book was a satisfying read with a very realistic experience to what I think it must be like, rebuilding and recovering after a fire. It’s not easy, it leaves lasting effects and this reflects that in many ways.

8/10

Book #39 of 2019


Home Fires is the 18th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Birthright by Fiona Lowe

Birthright
Fiona Lowe
Harlequin AUS
2018, 473p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Australian author Fiona Lowe returns with a juicy family saga, set against the backdrop of Victoria’s high country, about unforgettable characters tangled together by a wealthy inheritance, secrets and betrayal.

Is an inheritance a privilege or a right?

Does it show love? Margaret, the matriarch of the wealthy Jamieson family, has always been as tight-fisted with the family money as she is with her affection. Her eldest daughter, Sarah, is successful in her own right as a wife, mother and part owner of a gourmet food empire. But it’s not enough to impress her mother. Always in the shadow cast by the golden glow of her younger brother, Sarah feels compelled to meet Margaret’s every demand to earn her love.

Does it give security? After a poverty-stricken childhood, Anita has claimed the social status she’s worked so hard to achieve by marrying Cameron Jamieson. Although they have a comfortable life, she’s never able to fully relax, fearing everything could change in a heartbeat.

Or does it mean freedom? Ellie, the youngest, has lived a nomadic and — according to her siblings — a selfish life, leaving them to care for their ageing mother. For her, freedom means staying far away from the strings attached to her inheritance, but she needs to consider her young son’s future as well.

As their mother’s health deteriorates, will long-held secrets and childhood rivalries smash this family into pieces?

An addictive and page-turning story of the relationships between siblings and of deceit, betrayal and revenge.

This book actually raises a few interesting questions. Are we entitled to all the things our parents have worked for and accumulated, simply because they are our parents? Should people be able to choose what they leave to people and in what proportions? If you leave your fortune to your children, should you divide it equally? Or should you take into account the fact that some might be wealthier than others and need your assets, less, in a way?

Margaret is the formidable matriarch of a wealthy family – country aristocracy. She lives in a very large house and has various investments which have made her more than comfortable. Her health is deteriorating rapidly and her three children are faced with not only questions over how to manage her ailing health but with how the family assets will be divided. Some more than others, are determined to get their fair share….or more than their fair share.

Now a lot of people say you should never talk about money – and in fact one of Margaret’s children is reluctant to ask about or look at the will, because that breaches her privacy. I think for the most part there’s an understanding in a family that anything in terms of assets or money will be left equally to any children. Looking at the will isn’t necessary or something that even crosses some people’s mind until it’s necessary – but what if you felt like you were being left out or another sibling or person was favoured? Would you want to look then? Would you feel entitled to an equal share? Would you be willing to contest a will if you felt you’d been treated unfavourably? It’s a long messy process complicated by grief and feelings of anger and hurt.

There’s a lot of squabbling in this book. The three siblings (oldest Sarah, middle and only son Cameron and the youngest, free spirited Ellie) are constantly fighting like my two children, bickering back and forth about the most trivial of matters, even before anything complicated begins. Margaret it seems, is a narcissist who has raised her children to regularly compete for her love, frequently withholding it for various ridiculous reasons and her three children have paid the price of her vicious character in various ways. Sarah is a doormat, desperate for her mother’s approval or love, never receiving it no matter how far backward she bends for her. Cameron is grasping and spoiled, raised to believe that he’s perfect – the quintessential country heir. He’s selfish and scheming, jealous of Sarah and her husband’s success with their goat’s cheese and bitterly scathing of Ellie. He’s condescending and shitty to his wife and believes that the world owes him. Only Ellie was a character I had any real interest in and sympathy for. Her childhood was by far the worst and only the prospect of the most perfect job had brought her anywhere near her childhood home. Ellie tries to distance herself from her mother as much as possible, much to the chagrin of Sarah, who feels as though Ellie should assume some of the responsibility now that Margaret is becoming forgetful. Personally, I didn’t blame Ellie for not wanting much to do with any of them, coming to only the family dinners she couldn’t get out of for the sake of her young son to spend some time with his cousins. Sarah is sanctimonious and Cameron sneering.

As well as the stress with Margaret, most of the siblings have other things going on in their lives. Sarah’s husband is distant and soon she discovers the reason. Cameron’s wife Anita is desperate for security and although she’s willing to contribute, she’s unaware of the lengths her husband will go to in order to secure what he wants. And Ellie is facing being homeless with her young son and questioning a burgeoning friendship. There’s quite a lot of story in this book and it makes for an engrossing, easy read. Despite the fact that this is quite a chunky book at almost 500p, I read it in a day. I did feel that the beginning was a tiny bit slow and the ending felt a bit rushed – some of the really interesting stuff happened off page and I would’ve liked that to have been included because it felt a bit important after a long lead up.

I don’t have any of the answers to the questions this book poses really (every family situation will be different and I only know how it is in my family and how I feel about it) but I have to say I struggled with Margaret as a character and her attitude towards her children and towards others. She was a very difficult person to like – the book talks a lot about how she was charismatic and seemed to be well liked within the community but I mostly saw her interacting with her own children and her remarks were acerbic and bitter. I have no trouble believing how much she would’ve probably enjoyed the drama and hurt feelings that would result from an uneven distribution of wealth. It was interesting that so many women in this novel forged a strong connection as a result of one woman who had spurned all such connections with other women. Perhaps that was the best outcome from so much negativity.

I enjoyed this story but the characters (I really only liked Ellie and her love interest) made it difficult to connect with them for a large portion of the book and made it seem like a pack of spoiled children fighting over lollies. It was just enough to make this a book I liked but ultimately, didn’t absolutely love.

7/10

Book #57 of 2018

 

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Review: Daughter Of Mine by Fiona Lowe

daughter-of-mineDaughter Of Mine
Fiona Lowe
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2017, 512p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When your world falls apart the only person you can depend on is your sister.

The three Chirnwell sisters are descended from the privileged squattocracy in Victoria’s Western District — but could a long-held secret threaten their family?

Harriett Chirnwell has a perfect life — a husband who loves her, a successful career and a daughter who is destined to become a doctor just like her.

Xara has always lived in Harriet’s shadow; her chaotic life with her family on their sheep farm falls far short of her older sister’s standards of perfection and prestige.

Georgie, the youngest sister and a passionate teacher, is the only one of the three to have left Billawarre. But is her life in Melbourne happy?

Despite all three sisters having a different and sometimes strained bond with their mother, Edwina, they come together to organise a party for her milestone birthday — the first since their father’s death. But when Edwina arrives at her party on the arm of another man, the tumult is like a dam finally breaking. Suddenly the lives of the Chirnwell sisters are flooded by scandal. Criminal accusations, a daughter in crisis, and a secret over fifty years in the making start to crack the perfect façade of the prominent pastoral family.

A thought provoking novel about family expectations, secrets and lies.

I’ve never read Fiona Lowe before but she is the winner of multiple awards (including a RITA) so I was pretty intrigued by this one. It’s quite a complex story line featuring several generations of the same family who hail from wealthy, privileged and respected landowners – the “squattocracy”.

Harriett, Xara and Georgie couldn’t really be more different. Harriett has always been the rigid one, very driven and dedicated. Not only does she push herself hard to always be successful and almost perfect in a way, but she also pushes her daughter hard as well.  Xara has had to learn to be adaptable – as the mother of a child with a lifelong debilitating disability and also twin boys, her life is total chaos where they’re always just scraping buy compared to Harriett’s organised life and quiet wealth. Georgie is a primary school teacher (seemingly stuck with a “difficult” sort of class) and the only one to have made her home away from the local area where they all grew up and their names are an integral part of the history and make up of the town. Who they are and where they came from is of varying importance to them – unsurprisingly Harriet is the most attached the family name and reputation and it is her that reacts in the worst way when she is first betrayed and then confronted with some unexpected news.

In a way I felt for Harriett because the more rigid someone is, the harder it is for them when terrible things happen. And there’s no doubt that Harriett’s life implodes. Someone she loves, someone she respected, does something utterly horrible and she is blindsided by it and then the response to her hurt is perhaps even worse. She is also ostracised, shunned, labelled as a co-conspirator by the locals and her practice suffers greatly as a result. But it was hard to completely sympathise with Harriett because so much of what happens after that first betrayal is of her own making. She’s so rigid and so demanding on what must be done that she overlooks so many important things. She’s concerned with image and how things look and the fact that things like this just don’t happen in their family. Because they are better than that and that was an attitude that I couldn’t sympathise with at all. Despite people attempting to reason with her, she really did stay frustratingly stubborn and judgemental for the longest time. Harriett for me felt like a very interesting study for “nature vs nurture” – there’s no doubt her fractured relationship with Edwina was a product of the distance between them when Harriett was very young and also Edwina’s illnesses. However Harriett also aspired to be very much like her father, wanted to emulate him in every way. She adored him clearly and it’s very difficult for her when she’s forced to confront some of his faults, long after his death. It did make me wonder how much of her nature was because she wanted to be that way, that she thought being that way was more superior than being more like Edwina.

I don’t have a sister but everyone I know with one says that it’s a very complex relationship and these three definitely have that. Georgie and Xara are more mellow personalities, more alike probably and more able to sit and just chat. Harriett is always doing something or going somewhere and she doesn’t seem like she’s as close to the other two as they are to each other. They do rally around in times of crisis, but it’s a lot of things that pile on top of one another – Edwina’s new man friend, the betrayal Harriett experiences and resulting fall out (it also affects Xara and her husband Steve quite personally as well) as well as what happens after that and it isn’t long before fractures in the relationships Harriett has with everyone are showing.

I really loved Edwina’s story, which is told in bits and pieces throughout and I actually think that could’ve made a great book on it’s own – following her from a teenager up until the age she is at the beginning of this novel. She’s experienced a lot of heartache juxtaposed with a lot of privilege and the Edwina that is presented to the world is different from the Edwina that lies beneath the surface. Loved the character of Doug and I loved the fact that they were able to reconnect after so many years and still find something there. There were many surprises that came out of that which made for very interesting reading and added many layers to the complexity of the story.

For the most part, this is a really engaging multi-generational family story with plenty of drama, intricate relationships (some connections are very intricate!) and intriguing reveals. However there were times when for me, it felt a little bit long and Harriett’s hysteria and stubbornness over something was quite irritating. I don’t really know much about the whole squattocracy thing but sometimes the family reputation thing felt a little outdated, something that people would’ve focused on earlier but shouldn’t really seem as relevant now.

Those are little things though and this is still an excellent read.

7/10

Book #38 of 2017

aww2017-badge

Daughter Of Mine is book #12 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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