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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

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Review: The Long Road Home by Fiona McCallum

The Long Road Home 
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2020, 412p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

You can’t find where you truly belong until you discover who you really are…

Alice Hamilton is enjoying her new life in Ballarat with the freedom to explore her future now she’s stepped away from the constraints of her upbringing. She’s learnt the hard way that knowledge is power, and is looking forward to her legal studies, then making a difference as a lawyer with heart.

But whilst Alice’s life is looking up, back in Hope Springs the world of her former husband Rick Peterson is unravelling. After a chance meeting a few months earlier, Rick and Alice have reconnected. And it’s fortunate they have, because Rick is about to need Alice’s friendship like he’s never needed it before.

Rick has always felt a bit lost – as a farmer, he could never admit he didn’t feel the deep connection to the land that the only son and third generation farmer should. And now he’s suddenly being forced to come to terms with just why his heart isn’t in it and what’s behind his fractured relationships. Has his whole life been a lie – and if so, where did that lie begin?

I quite enjoyed the novel prior to this one – I connected a lot with Alice’s lack of direction, her getting to almost 30 and not knowing what she wanted to do with her life. I said in my review that I felt like that book was set up for a follow up and here it is. Alice is living and working in Ballarat. She’s been accepted to do law and she’s excited about her future. But there are still things hanging over her head, such as the settlement from ex-partner David and her relationship with her mother and sister.

After enjoying the previous book I was disappointed with this one. I thought Alice had turned a corner, had accepted certain things about the reality of her relationship with her mother and sister but the first part of this book was a never-ending cycle of Alice crying about something, making a resolution not to let it bother her anymore and then crying about it yet again. I can’t remember how many times she cries in the first part of the book, but it’s quite a lot. And it’s about things that she’s already resolved to let go of, or to move on from. She keeps having this hope about things and it’s honestly completely and utterly futile. She understands that her mother is a narcissist and that she’s probably never going to connect with her and if she hasn’t figured out that zero contact is for the best by now, she might honestly never figure it out. I found Alice quite tedious in the early part of the book and there was very little about her goals in life actually moving forward. She seems to start studying on her own at one point “dipping in and out of textbooks instead of reading one cover to cover (which bores her)” and honestly, who reads a textbook from cover to cover anyway. She’s created a good support network for herself in Ballarat, with her friend Lauren, Lauren’s boyfriend Brett (who Alice was at university with), Lauren’s parents, Ashley that she works with and Ashley’s parents. And then there’s Blair. Alice, you have all the tools to be happy. Use them.

Then inexplicably, the book switches halfway through to the story of Alice’s ex-husband Rick, whom she married when she was quite young. They divorced and then she fled Hope Springs and moved to Melbourne, where she met David, the partner she leaves in the first book. Rick and Alice had reconnected in the first book (as friends) at the funeral of someone who meant a lot to Alice and they continue on that friendship here. Rick discovers something about himself and he decides to immediately bolt to Ballarat because he seems to have a connection there and it also allows him to visit Alice. From there, Rick’s life takes many unexpected turns and the lack of plausibility of this was enormous for me, unfortunately.

I don’t know why I read 1.5 books on Alice, just to have her relegated to a background character for the second half of this book. Some of Alice’s complications actually resolve off page here, during Rick’s portion of the story, which didn’t work for me. To be honest, I didn’t really care for Rick’s story to be shoehorned into this book and I found large parts of it ridiculous. The ease at which he discovers everything that he needs to know, the smoothing away of the difficulties of fleeing his only home for a strange city with nothing but his clothes and car. He slides right into Alice’s friendship group, which is fine. The two of them had build a decent friendship and he had turned to her for support, plus I think the friendship group is rather nice, but then there’s a lightning fast romance that was very uninspiring as well. They interacted maybe two or three times on a very superficial level, there was no build or even them getting to know each other in a meaningful way. It felt very rushed, and this book is 400p but I think trying to pack Rick’s entire story into the second half of a book about Alice, was probably a mistake. It could’ve been done in a better way – if the author wanted to tell Rick’s story then she probably should have devoted an entire book to it and then drew it out so that it felt like more of a journey, rather than a rush to a new town and getting all the answers in five minutes. There could’ve actually been a story there, I think, with a bit more preparation and planning and some time taken to really explore more of the aspects of it. There was a lot that for me, felt very unfinished, such as Rick’s relationships with Danni and Matilda.

I didn’t enjoy the format of this, the way that the story was told. I wanted a better resolution with Alice and although I wouldn’t have minded Rick popping up, I’m not really sure telling his story in the second half of this book, was an effective way to do it. It would’ve been better to use his arrival in Ballarat as a launching pad for his own book. Because everything in the second part of the book felt incredibly rushed and was basically reader whiplash.

5/10

Book #71 of 2020

The Long Road Home is book #24 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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Review: A Life Of Her Own by Fiona McCallum

A Life Of Her Own 
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2019, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/AM Publicity

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When knowledge gives you the power to change your life …

Alice Hamilton loved being a mature-age student, but now she’s finished her university degree she needs to find herself a career. But the job market is tough and it doesn’t help that her partner David keeps reminding her about their sizeable mortgage. When she’s offered a role in a major real estate agency, she jumps at the opportunity. David is excited by her prospects in the thriving Melbourne housing market, and Alice is pleased that she’ll be utilising her exceptional people skills.

But Alice quickly realises all is not as it seems. What is she doing wrong to be so out of sync with her energetic boss, Carmel Gold, agent extraordinaire? Alice is determined to make it work, but how much will it affect her values?

As everything starts to fall apart, a sudden visit home to the country town Alice escaped years ago provides an unexpected opportunity to get some perspective. Surrounded by people who aren’t what they seem, or have their own agendas, can Alice learn to ask for what she really wants … on her own terms?

In her latest novel, Australian author Fiona McCallum tackles something I can relate to – a woman in her thirties who isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life. After the breakdown of her first marriage in her small hometown, a chance meeting led Alice Hamilton to undertake the university degree she’d never gotten the chance to do when she was younger. She discovered that she really loved study and now armed with her bachelor, she is interested in going further. But partner David has ambitions and he needs Alice in the workforce to pay down the large mortgage they’ve just undertaken, buying a house in Melbourne.

Alice struggles with really finding something that she’s greatly passionate about. She applies for jobs but nothing about them really excite her, although when she secures one as an assistant to a mover and shaker real estate agent, she’s determined to do her best at it. But I can relate to Alice’s struggle to find that thing that speaks to her. When I was in high school (forever ago now) I thought I’d have that magic moment where I’d come across the career I was ‘meant’ to do. A couple of university experiences later, I still haven’t found it and probably never will. I don’t think it works like that for a lot of people – work is necessary to pay the bills and sometimes you don’t have the luxury of waiting for that dream opportunity to come along. You take what is on offer and under pressure from David to contribute to the household, Alice does just that. She lands what sounds like a great job – but the red flags present early and it isn’t long before the job is stripping any confidence she had in her abilities and leaving her dreading it.

I enjoyed the story of this book but I think there were a couple of things that threw it off for me – the first is the pacing. It’s a bit uneven, the situation at Alice’s new job seems to escalate really quickly in a way that I think would’ve been much more impactful if it’d been over a longer period and really showed the gaslighting that can take place by people in positions of money and influence who are enabled in their bad behaviour. Also David is quite obviously a dill from the first page but Alice either cannot or does not see it for far too long and then when things do happen, it’s again, at a really rapid pace and things fall into place in this magical way that does not really seem to reflect how difficult it can be to start over on your own and uproot and change your entire life. Basically, Alice experiences a lot of horrible people doing horrible things to her, from her mother and sister in childhood, to her first husband, to her best friend, to her partner, to her boss, and she tolerates this for a long time and honestly, it got a bit wearying at times, like here is another person making things difficult for her.

But this is a journey – and Alice I suppose, has to learn how to stand up for herself and put herself and her self worth first. Firstly with her professional life, figuring out what she wants to do and also facing her fears and the terrible experiences she had and learning from them, addressing them and being able to move on from them so that she can basically be ‘at peace’. And also in her personal life, not tolerating being unhappy because someone else is pressuring her about something she isn’t particularly invested in. It’s quite obvious that Alice isn’t happy for quite a long time and that her and her partner have two very different outlooks on life and desires for their future but it can still be quite difficult to make that break. So in that case, everything Alice experiences here becomes part of who she is and how she decides to shape her future. She’s lucky in that she has a supportive friend, who actually turns out to be rather helpful in more than one way but apart from that and a kind stepfather who does his best, Alice does not have the largest circle, which I think she needs to perhaps work on (there’s evidence of this at the end of the book, so I think she’s on the right track). I appreciated the overall arc of Alice’s journey and I feel as though I could definitely relate to her because of that search for who she is and what she wants to do.

I had the feeling on finishing this, that it was set up for a sequel. Alice has made some decisions, but she hasn’t really begun living them yet and there’s obviously plenty left for her to do and experience. I’m actually quite curious about what happens next and how she gets to where she has decided she wants to be.

7/10

Book #49 of 2019

A Life Of Her Own is the 22nd book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Making Peace by Fiona McCallum

Making Peace
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2018, 362p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Does one simple act of kindness have the power to completely turn someone’s life around?

It’s been a year since Hannah Ainsley lost her husband and parents – her whole family – in a car crash on Christmas morning. Despite her overwhelming loss, she’s worked hard to pull the pieces of her life together with the help of a group of dear, loyal friends. But while Hannah is beginning to become excited about the future again, she’s concerned that her best friend and talented artist Sam is facing a crisis of her own. It’s now Hannah’s turn to be Sam’s rock – can she save Sam’s dreams from unravelling?

When Hannah returns to work after her holidays, she can’t settle. She’s loved her job for a decade, and it’s been her lifeline during her grief. But something’s changed. She’s changed. And for all this time she’s avoided knowing the details of the accident or investigation – what would be the point, she’d thought, when nothing will bring her loved ones back? But after a chance meeting, it’s all there in front of her – and, like ripples in a pond, it extends beyond her own experiences. Could knowing be the key to her recovery? Could her involvement be the key to someone else’s?

This is the sequel to Finding Hannah but it could probably stand up well enough read alone in most ways. It’s been a year since the tragic incident that changed Hannah’s life – a year of grieving intensely and now it seems that Hannah is ready to put a foot forward and although she’ll never forget what happened to her or those she lost, her life must go on. She’s still very young (32 I think) and has a lot of opportunities ahead of her.

Hannah finds herself caught up in her best friend Sam’s crisis and I think she probably embraces the fact that now it gets to be her that is the strong one. Sam and some of Hannah’s other friends provided strong shoulders for Hannah to lean on during her tragedy and now she gets to repay that in a way, by being there for Sam and helping her out. Not only does Hannah be a sounding board for Sam and a support base but she’s also a motivator. Sam is a gifted artist but lacks confidence in her own work. Hannah and their other friend Jasmine get to really push Sam, trying to make her see her talent and embrace it, wield it with confidence. She could really make something of it, if only she could believe in herself and her abilities. But Sam’s self-esteem has taken a pretty severe beating and that seems to be leaking into all areas of her life so Hannah has to take it upon herself to step up for Sam and help encourage her and push her to live up to her potential.

One thing that really came through in this book for me was the whole “build your tribe” thing. It’s become a bit of a hashtag on social media etc but it’s an idea I’ve always liked. Hannah had some of her tribe taken from her but she still has some other real core members, such as Sam and Jasmine (the wife of her boss). In this book, Hannah finds more people and befriends them, building relationships with them and bringing them into her tribe. It creates a group of women who are unfailingly supportive of one another, who would drop anything when one of them needed something and who can always be counted on for a sympathetic ear (but also a bit of a kick in the pants when required) or a good catch up. Hannah has an incredibly forgiving nature, something which is expanded upon greatly in this book. She has a capacity to see the whole picture, even when it’s about something that altered her entire life and her generous heart is definitely a huge part of this story. It probably also greatly enhances her ability to be able to move forward and begin to heal, even as she’ll never forget. Hannah does occasionally feel a bit too forgiving….in ways where she gets a bit too involved with things that don’t really concern her…but it all seems to work out very well. This is a very positive book in that pretty much all of the interactions and events are beneficial and there are not any real conflicts or setbacks, other than the one that Sam experiences, which even though she is a victim of, it’s not really about her as such. It’s part of the other main component of this novel, which is the ripple effect.

I did struggle a little with Finding Hannah and the quietness of the story, I kept looking for more. But with this one I thought I was more aware of how the story would go so I didn’t have those expectations and I was able to enjoy this a lot more. It’s a journey of healing and friendship and creating your own destiny. Hannah is obviously a much more confident person in this book, time has helped her even though what occurred is always going to leave a permanent scar. It was good to see Hannah providing support for others and strengthening her circle of friends, creating her own family. The title of this book is very apt.

8/10

Book #69 of 2018

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Review: Finding Hannah by Fiona McCallum

Finding Hannah
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2017, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Hannah Ainsley has the perfect life — an adoring husband, a close relationship with her parents, a wonderful job, and amazing friends. Best of all, it’s Christmas — her favourite day of the whole year! It’s a time to share with her family and friends, and enjoy the festivities.

But this year will be like no other. Tragedy strikes and Hannah’s world is shattered. If she’s going to cope, she’s going to need all the support she can gather and draw on every bit of her strength. Life will never be the same again but it’s soon clear she has no alternative but to pull together a future from the remaining fragments.

As Hannah heads towards the next festive season she will have to make a decision — should she stay with the people who have supported her or should she leave? Could the answer lie in a delayed gift?

Fiona McCallum’s most touching novel so far is a rich tapestry of deep emotions that is sure to capture the hearts of many.

This is another difficult book to review because there isn’t really a bunch of things that happen to construct the plot. It’s about a woman named Hannah who has everything going for her – wonderful parents, great husband who is also a best friend, job she enjoys, lovely house, good close friends. Then on Christmas Day almost everything she loves is taken from her and she’s left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.

This is an exploration of a deep grief, the sort of devastation that could easily destroy a person and from that standpoint it’s quite interesting because grief is something that is very individual and it’s something that people experience in very differing ways and to degrees. I haven’t experienced the sort of gut-wrenching loss that Hannah has, thankfully but perhaps because of that I did find it a little hard to immerse myself in the story because that’s basically it. Hannah learning to live again after her loss, learning to cope and take each day at a time, adjust to this new existence that has become her life.

Despite her loss, Hannah still has very good people around her – a supportive boss and his wife, who becomes a friend, as well as a longtime family friend who lives across the road. There are also other wonderful people who provide her with strength, security, love and a sense of family. She is able to take time and space to breathe, reassess, decide what she wants to do. When she’s ready to go back to work, they welcome her although she feels the awkwardness of moments with colleagues who just don’t know what to say to her.

I think everyone has imagined themselves in various horrible scenarios at some stage or other – I know I’ve thought about how I would cope if certain things were to happen and these were things I had to think about realistically as well. They’re things you don’t want to think about but at the same time, they creep in. Books like this are a good way to explore that sort of fear I think, by identifying with characters currently experiencing tragedy. And I think that’s good because grief and loss are an important part of human nature.

But – and this is kind of a big but – I found myself wanting a bit more from this book. A bit more than Hannah just trying to put her life back together. It would probably make quite moving reading for many people but at the same time, it’s also a teeny bit repetitive and not very much really happens throughout the story after that initial tragedy. By the time I had read through 200-odd pages of that, I was ready for a bit more, a conflict or something meaty to flesh out the story. But obviously it wasn’t going to be that sort of story because it was very even in tone, a quiet kind of story, very much character driven rather than plot driven. It was about Hannah’s journey in self-healing.

Because of this, I did find that my attention wandered occasionally whilst I was reading it, especially during the New York section, which felt a bit jarring – I wasn’t sure why it was there because it felt like Hannah could’ve been anywhere. The essence or culture of New York wasn’t really coming across on the page and Hannah’s lack of real enthusiasm, a just ‘going through the motions’ might’ve taught her something but it seemed like such a long and expensive lesson to learn.

Ultimately this one was just an okay read for me – I just found myself seeking more from it and that’s probably on me.

6/10

Book #58 of 2017

Finding Hannah is book #19 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: Leap Of Faith by Fiona McCallum

Leap Of FaithLeap Of Faith
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin AUS
2015, 323p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Jessica Harrington is a veteran of the horse circuit, having competed since she was a child. Spurred on and trained by her ambitious father, Jessica has traded up for better mounts constantly all in pursuit of one day representing her country. Now her father and instructor is gone and Jessica is left to prepare for events alone. She has talented horses but without his input and mentoring, she finds herself questioning her choices and preparation.

When a fall at the Adelaide International Horse Trials leads to Jessica breaking her ankle, she finds herself facing a crisis of confidence. She makes a snap decision to sell her two mounts, claiming that she is retiring from the sport forever. Without her dad, she just can’t make it.

Jessica is irritated when her farmer husband, who has never been into the horses brings home a malnourished and forlorn looking mare from a clearing sale. At first she wants nothing to do with the horse, who is named Faith but yet she doesn’t see the point of her just being a paddock ornament. For Jessica, horses have a purpose and that purpose is to get you higher up the grades of competition. When she is able to ride again, Jessica is tempted into working with Faith and now that she’s stronger, finds a well trained horse with lovely gaits. But it isn’t until a terrible thunderstorm threatens the stock on the farm that Jessica comes to truly appreciate how brave and special Faith really is, if Jessica can trust herself and Faith together as a team.

I’m not a competitive rider but I like horses and my high school years were spent being friends with horsey and pony clubber types and going to watch their various T-shirt days, gymkhanas, local shows, etc. I always enjoyed watching the events and I also really like watching the equestrian at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. A couple of years ago I discovered quite a few European circuit events are televised on ESPN and I watch them when I remember they’re on. To be honest, girls like Jessica were always kind of the worst.

Jessica is a product of what seems like an overly ambitious parent who didn’t realise his own potential due to circumstances outside of his control and has now taken that and shaped his daughter to be an efficiently obedient competitive machine. Jessica seems to hold little to no opinions that aren’t a reflection of her father’s and most of those tend to be pretty elitist. She’s derisive about her friend, who competes purely in dressage, mentally berating her for being gutless and a wimp, not having the get up and go to do cross country although she tries to temper it by claiming that she knows dressage has a point and is much more than making your horse go forward and backward. Jessica doesn’t have much respect for someone who is supposed to be her best friend, someone who competes for fun, who loves her horses and more importantly, someone who would do anything for her. In being an eventer, you’d think Jessica would be quite used to tumbles and falls – they happen at every level, the Olympics included. Instead she falls off after mistiming/judging a jump at the Horse Trials and lands in the water at the water jump. She breaks her ankle but her horse is fine. However within days she’s made the decision to sell both her horses and quit the sport forever. That seemed the reaction of a young girl having her first fall than a mature, experienced competitor. Yes her father is no longer around but if she hasn’t learned enough to make some of her own judgement and acknowledge and learn from the wrong ones then her father wasn’t all that good of a mentor. She’s so negative and down on everything, even when her husband Steve brings home a horse badly in need of TLC. She’s resentful of it – even though it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with her. He’s never been interested in her competition horses but he’s quite happy for Faith to recuperate on their farm and spend her days in leisure. Jessica doesn’t see the point of horses as pets, you buy them to get the best out of them and trade up to better ones when you’re ready.

The story does improve when Jessica begins to work with Faith and kind of pulls her head in and begins to realise that some things might be different to the way she’s always believed them to be but even her judgement about Faith after she learns a piece of information about her past does tend to read like she’s very inexperienced with horses. No one else is particularly bothered by it (most people are already aware of it) and it’s really only Jessica that freaks out about it although thankfully it’s rather short lived. I think it takes too long for Faith to arrive into the story and I would’ve liked more scenes with Jessica and her once Jessica begins to decide working with her. Instead everything almost pretty much falls into place with one lunging session and riding session even though Faith would probably have needed more work to build up her fitness again after being so emaciated when she arrived.

I think I’d have enjoyed this more if Jessica were less negative and there had been more of an emphasis on spending time establishing a bond between her and Faith, rehabilitating them both.

6/10

Book #74 of 2015

aww-badge-2015

Leap Of Faith is the 28th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

 

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Review: Meant To Be – Fiona McCallum

Meant To BeMeant To Be (The Button Jar #3)
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2014, 424p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

For Emily Oliphant, life is finally looking up. She’s settled back onto the farm and boyfriend Jake has come over from Melbourne to spend some time as he needs rest and recuperation. After such financial uncertainty, Emily is grateful and happy that security will soon be hers and with careful management, she’ll be able to live quite comfortably, something that not so long ago didn’t look possible.

But she’s still a little restless – although her life is going well she still needs something to do. A hobby. Or a job. But Emily really isn’t sure what she wants and whatever it is, she doesn’t want it to be too expensive. She’s been too careful for too long to start blowing money now. Jake suggests they rebuild the cottage on the farm that her ex-husband John reduced to rubble and although apprehensive, Emily is immediately intrigued. She was always drawn to the cottage and always wanted it to be a part of her future and now it actually can be. Plus rebuilding the cottage will help promote Jake’s career locally as well which will help him being able to move there permanently.

Emily is incredibly busy but not too busy not to be there for her best friends, Barbara and David when they’re going through a horrible crisis. She wants to be there for them the same way they’ve always been there for her, through her good times and bad. However right in the middle of supporting them, Emily gets unexpected news that she’s terrified to confess to them. She’s worried that it will drive a wedge between them, something she couldn’t bear.

Meant To Be is the third and (I think) final book in The Button Jar series which began with Saving Grace and continued with Time Will Tell. Over the course of the three novels, a lot has happened to main character Emily Oliphant. Even though I know she went through a lot of difficult things, Emily’s early tendency towards self-pity and negativity often made her quite a frustrating character to be in the head of. Now that everything has turned around for Emily and she has a home, financial security, an income and a new boyfriend who adores her I hoped that her outlook would be much more positive, more of a what can she do rather than what isn’t going well for her. Emily transfers her negativity into a paranoia about money and spends the first portion of this book agonising over every single purchase because she fears not having any money. It got a bit tedious after a while because the reader can see just what an advantageous position Emily is in and her griping about whether or not she can afford towels is a bit ridiculous.

Emily needs direction, something to focus her energy on and thankfully Jake gives her something when he suggests they rebuild the cottage her ex-husband John bulldozed. Emily always loved the cottage and always wanted to do something with it and the idea of having it back again quickly becomes something she can get behind. She knows she doesn’t want a B&B anymore which was her original idea but once she gets a new idea she’s off and running and she does have some really good ideas. The book turns a corner when Emily finds her direction and thankfully it seems that this focus flows over into her personal life.

Emily finally becomes the character I’ve wanted to see her be in this book. She grows in strength and confidence as the build begins to come together, realising that she does have ideas that can work and she can make a real go of this. She also addresses some issues in her personal life, particularly with her mother which is something that has long plagued her. Emily has never really had the ability to stand up for herself before, to assert herself and make herself heard and to have it happen was actually brilliant to see. That scene made a lot of things make sense and although perhaps the aftermath and reconciliation did feel a little rushed it does help bring about the closure that the last book of a series demands. Emily’s life has many facets, not just Jake and the farm so it was good to have that conflict finally play out and be on the way to resolution as well.

Emily has always had a strong friendship with Barbara, who took her under her wing after Emily left John. Barbara is a wonderful character, she’s always been incredibly supportive of Emily, even when I felt that Emily needed a rather swift kick up the backside to jolt her into life. Emily gets the chance to repay that here when Barbara suffers a rather devastating loss and Emily does her absolute best to be the wonderful friend and confidante to Barbara that Barbara was to her. I feel as though that portion of the book once again gives Emily her time to grow and shine – she has to be the strength in the friendship, although it’s coloured by the unexpected news that she gets when she’s trying to be supportive. Although Emily does panic and have some freak outs, they felt very natural, something that most people in her position would and not a slide back into negativity. And as she has support from many avenues, particularly Jake, it’s not something that lingers.

All in all, I enjoyed Meant To Be. For me it’s definitely the strongest book in the trilogy, the book where Emily really comes into her own and stands up for herself finally and also looks forward to being happy. I thought the idea she had for the cottage was really good and it’s the best of her and Jake put into it. It’s a fitting end to the series.

8/10

Book #224 of 2014

AWWW2014

Meant To Be is book #83 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

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Review: Time Will Tell – Fiona McCallum With Author Q&A

Time Will TellTime Will Tell (The Button Jar #2)
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin MIRA
2014, 395p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Emily Oliphant has made big changes in her life. She’s left her abusive husband after several years of an unhappy marriage and is forging a new life for herself in a gorgeous old property that she’s renting from two elderly brothers. Recently the brothers made Emily an offer – she could purchase her beloved house from them for an excellent price. There were a few conditions and Emily was taking the time to think it over. It’s a wonderful offer and she knows it – she just wants to make sure that she is financially able to make her obligations in the future, especially as the house does need some things done to it.

Emily is also making other changes, cultivating friendship with Barbara and distancing herself from her judgmental mother and those who don’t understand her decision to leave her husband. She’s undertaking a fledgling new business that she has high hopes for and is accepting the help and friendship of Jake, a man from Melbourne who she’d like to be closer to. Emily’s life is changing in so many ways but to her disappointment, it’s not done changing yet.

Several incidents beyond her control leave Emily’s future up in the air. All of a sudden the beautiful house she longed to make her home in, might be snatched away out of her hands. And she’s also dealing with an unexpected death as well as a potentially ugly fall out from that. What Emily doesn’t know is that the answer to all of her dreams lies within her grasp…but she has to choose to use it.

Time Will Tell is the second novel in Australian author Fiona McCallum’s first series, following on from Saving Grace. In this novel in the beginning, Emily is much more settled, having found herself a new place to live with her dog Grace. She has the friendship of Barbara and Barbara’s husband and she has plans. She knows that some of them might be dreams, but there are some that are also very achievable if she works hard and Emily is very ready for the next phase of her life.

In Saving Grace Emily has a bit of a negative attitude, probably from her upbringing and her abusive marriage but it was nice to see in this novel, she has begun moving forward with more positivity. She has had a lot to overcome in her personal life and Time Will Tell begins to signify a real fresh start for her and gives her time and space to think about how she wants to move forward. However just as she is about to make some firm decisions, she is rocked by the news of two unexpected deaths, one of which has some interesting consequences for her and the other of which has a more devastating impact on her newly chosen life.

I’d have liked to see Emily get herself some legal advice in this book as she proved in Saving Grace that ignoring a request to get legal advice doesn’t end well and she ended up allowing herself to be royally screwed over. However she doesn’t and luckily in this book she benefits from something which helps soothe the sting of having something else taken away from her but it also suggests that Emily still has quite a way to go on her journey of independence and making strong and wise, informed decisions. I can’t fault her for getting out there and having a go, at various different things and making the most of the skills she has but sometimes she needs to be a bit smarter and a bit more ruthless. She needs to look after herself first, put herself first and not just go along with what people are telling her. The time for that was done when she left her husband and now she needs to protect herself first and foremost. However I do think that this novel does represent a good deal of personal growth for Emily, in several different ways. She has the possibility here to grow the seeds of a new romance, something that she has come to feel that she is ready for and the man she has chosen seems to complement her well and they are supportive of each other.

Emily still has a way to go on her journey and her decision about what to do with the legacy that has been left to her by her grandmother. I’m curious to see where she goes with the way her journey has changed in this book and I think there’s a lot left for her to do and experience. She has grown in confidence and accepted change with more grace and adapted more readily to new circumstances. However I’m very interested to see what happens with her legacy and how she continues to grow in strength and determination in her new life.

7/10

Book #61 of 2014

AWWW2014

Time Will Tell is book #24 read and reviewed for AWW2014

Fiona McCallum

[photo credit]

Thanks to the fab folks at Morey Media I got to ask Fiona McCallum a few questions about life and writing.

Q1. Hi Fiona and welcome to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for me. To begin – how long have you been writing and what was the road to publication like for you?

Hi there! You’re welcome, thanks for having me on your blog!

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was younger I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories. In my mid-twenties I started studying a Certificate of Freelance Writing through TAFE by correspondence while working an office job, and got a few of my assignments paid for and published in a South Australian newspaper. This set me on the path to wanting to become a freelance journalist. After my marriage ended and I left the farm, I ended up in Melbourne and decided to put myself through uni. I got into Deakin University’s Bachelor of Arts (professional writing). In second year the lecturer for non-fiction seemed to take a dislike to me. I changed to fiction because the lady who took it was warm and friendly. It’s amazing how things happen to totally change the course of your life!

The road to publication was long and hard – spanning nearly ten years, four manuscripts, and many rejections.

Q2. Share a little about your writing routine: do you write full time or balance it with another job? Do you have a favourite place to write (ie study or café) and is there anything, such as coffee or music, which you consider necessary to the creative process?

I am now a full-time novelist, and am truly grateful to be able to live my dream. I have a very strict morning writing routine. My writing days start at eight a.m., and I write propped up in bed, by hand in an unlined notebook using a mechanical pencil. I check which scene I am to write next (which I write down at the end of each writing session), drink one cup of tea and read whatever novel I’m currently reading whilst letting the subconscious ponder the scene I am about to write.

After my second cup of tea and a bit more reading, I find the opening sentence and begin writing. It depends how long the scene is or how long the words keep coming. I usually write until 11.30 or noon. Sometimes, if I’ve run out of words or the scene is done, I’ll fill the time in with some more reading. I love reading and it’s an important and enjoyable part of my routine. After a lunch break, I go into my office to type up my morning’s work and deal with emails and all the other things that running a business entails.

Q3. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Definitely a plotter. I won’t start writing a manuscript until I’m very clear on the beginning, middle, and end. Though, having said that, I’m not so rigid that I don’t let the characters and/or story evolve along the way – some of the best ideas come when, and from where, you least expect them.

Q4. What made you decide to try your hand at writing a trilogy after writing several very successful stand-alone novels?

I didn’t actually set out to write a series. The manuscript I was writing got too long and there was a logical split. And then I realised that there was a third part to the story, so carried on. I haven’t completely ruled out there being a fourth book…

Q5. The rural romance genre has exploded in popularity in recent times. Is there anything in particular that you attribute this to? And do you consider your books to be romance books with a rural setting? Or rural novels with a little bit of romance?

I don’t have a simple answer to the question of why the rural fiction genre has exploded in popularity recently. Most things go in cycles over time. I’m content to not give it too much thought. I think readers will always enjoy a good story with believable characters they can relate to, regardless of setting. Having spent the first twenty-six years of my life on farms in rural South Australia, I’m just writing about what I know and love. The saying, ‘you can take the girl out of the country but not the country out of the girl,’ is certainly true for me!

No, I do not consider my books to be romances – any romance is secondary to my main storyline. To date, I have written what I call heart-warming journey of self-discovery stories with a rural setting.

Q6. If you found the buttons….what would you do? 🙂

Keep them hidden! I’m very sentimental.

Q7. What do you like to do to relax away from the keyboard?

I enjoy reading, walking, visiting art galleries and antique shops, pottering in the garden… Oh, and watching TV – I’m in a love triangle with my TV and PVR!

Q8. Share a few of your favourite authors and/or novelists

Maeve Binchy, Robert Connolly, Barbara Delinsky, Jane Green, Erica James, Debbie Macomber, Monica McInerney…

Q9. And lastly…what’s next for you?

The finishing touches are being put on book 3 of The Button Jar series, Meant To Be. Then it’s back to writing. I’ve always got a story on the go and plenty of ideas fighting for attention. My head is a very busy place! At this stage, I’m not sure which of two manuscripts I’ve written will be published next after Meant To Be.

****

Thanks for your time Fiona! Best of luck with all the stories fighting for space in your head.

Thanks to Harlequin AUS & Morey Media I also have 1 copy of Time Will Tell to give away to a lucky AU resident. Simply fill in the form below. Entries close 8th April

 

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Saving Grace – Fiona McCallum

9781743560273-0413_SavingGrace_CVRSaving Grace (The Button Jar #1)
Fiona McCallum
Harlequin MIRA
2013, 386p
Copy courtesy of Harlequin AUS

Emily Oliphant thought that the rest of her life was going to be so fabulous after she married John Stratten, son of one of the largest wool producers in the district. John had been so charming and Emily saw herself working beside him on the farm, making it a success, sharing their lives together.

But the reality turned out to be much different. Instead Emily found herself little more than a slave, cooking John his meals and cleaning the house and providing him with a willing body each night in his bed. She was locked out of the farming life, deemed “not for women”, yet John would not let her get a job either and contribute to their somewhat dwindling finances. And to top it off, the loving man she knew before the marriage turned into a selfish and abusive one.

Finally gathering the courage to leave three years later, Emily finds a friend in local woman Barbara who encourages her in every dream that she has. For a while she stays with Barbara and her husband Dave, ignoring her overbearing mother’s pleas to reconsider her actions. Emily has dreamed of opening a little country B&B, collecting a scrapbook filled with ideas. She and Barbara find an abandoned farmhouse, something that would’ve once been grand in its heyday and Emily arranges through the local bachelor owners, two brothers, to rent it for a very cheap fee. As she throws herself into painting, cleaning, sanding and fixing up the old place, she dares to allow herself to dream just a little.

But Emily doesn’t have a job and her foolishness in signing her husband’s financial settlement document to swiftly end things between them means that she has been nicely played out of a much bigger settlement. In order for Emily’s dream to come true, she’s going to need income but the financial crisis is still affecting her small rural town and Emily has found herself the victim of local gossip as well. What she doesn’t know is that she’s in possession of what she needs to make her dream come true…she just needs a little bit of luck to find it, that’s all.

This novel is the first in a series and I read an uncorrected proof copy which didn’t state that either in the title, nor did it have a To Be Continued on the last page. The only reference I found to the fact that it was a series book was one line on the About The Author page, which I often don’t read. I hope that the finished copy does state that it’s the first book in a series because reading this as a stand-alone, you’re waiting for things to happen that quite frankly, never do.

There were parts of this novel I really liked: I’m always a big fan of rural fiction novels that depict women learning to stand on their own two feet and I rather like it when renovations are included. I’m a nerd for ‘do it yourself’ stuff and enjoy fix-up housing shows on TV and I like to read about it as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that the main character is ridiculously stupid and I find it hard to tolerate stupid main characters.

Firstly, she leaves a man who is verbally abusive to her and threatens her new puppy with a shotgun. Good enough reasons to get out in my book but her moping at him not coming after her or displaying emotion at her leaving was irritating. She married a man who expected a slave, not a wife and it was clear he didn’t care about Emily so long as she cooked his meals and warmed his bed. Also, she was given strong, repeated and very smart advice not to sign a financial settlement that her husband drew up for them until she’d had someone look it over. Her ex-husband’s not a lawyer. He’s not an accountant. She chose to ignore this advice and then was bothered when she found out she’d been screwed. What did you expect, Emily? When someone offers you a homemade financial settlement and wants it signed ASAP, you can guaran-damn-tee that they are not out to look after YOU. They are out to look after THEM. She was also, at times crushingly negative and it made me applaud Barbara, who dealt with it all so patiently. I understand that Emily was timid and probably beaten down after her difficult marriage and wanted to sever ties with a man that made her unhappy quickly – but then once you have done that, don’t complain about it! Even if you did get screwed, you chose to take that as a way to speed up the process. The other thing was, Emily told us several times that John was fabulous before they married, but the reader never got to see this. All they got was how he was after and it made it extremely difficult to understand how he’d managed to have a relationship with her and get her to marry him in the first place.

I think that hopefully, this book got a lot of that out of Emily’s character and that the second book might be more positive. I’m really interested in the storyline about her gran and the jar of buttons that she left to Emily (it’s referenced a lot in this book and the reader knows something that Emily does not and waiting for her to discover it when I thought this book was stand alone was somewhat painful). So on that hand, I am looking forward to the next one because I do want to see what happens and how Emily discovers what she needs to, what that will mean for her and what she will do with it. I just hope that she’s a bit more positive.

6/10

Book #61 of 2013

AWW2013

Saving Grace is the 27th book read for my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013

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