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Review: Dear Banjo by Sasha Wasley

Dear Banjo (The Paterson Sisters, #1)
Sasha Wasley
Penguin Random House AUS
2017, 381p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

They were best friends who were never meant to fall in love – but for one of them, it was already way too late.

Willow ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Tom Forrest were raised on neighboring cattle stations in the heart of the Kimberley. As young adults, sharing the same life dreams, something came between them that Willow cannot forget, and now ten years have passed. When her father falls ill, Willow is called home to take over the running of the family property, Patterson Downs. Her vision for a sustainable, organic cattle station is proving hard to achieve. She needs Tom’s help, but is it all too late, and too difficult, to make amends?

A pile of Tom’s heartfelt letters has remained unopened and unspoken between them. Willow must find the courage to finally bring them out. Their tattered pages reveal a love story like no other – and one you’ll never forget. Dear Banjo is a wildly romantic and utterly captivating story about first love and second chances, from an exciting new Australian author.

I had heard some really excellent things about this book but I’d missed out on reading it when it was published. Not that long ago, someone posted in an online book club that I’m in, that this and the 2nd book were greatly reduced on eBook retailers, presumably because the third is soon to be published. I snapped them both up. I haven’t read a lot of rural novels lately – it’s possible that the trend is easing off, because it’s been very strong for quite a number of years now and there’s probably going to be a natural ebb and flow in that. Books like this though, are why this genre attained such popularity and why it is so beloved by a lot of Australian readers.

Willow ‘Banjo’ Paterson grew up on a family farm with her two sisters, older sister Beth and the younger Freya. They lost their mother when Willow was about 11 and since then, there’s been plenty of challenges. Next door on the neighbouring farm was Tom Forrest and he and Willow were the best of friends, always thinking and planning about how they were going to modernise and change the family farms when they both took over. They were like one voice and whilst Willow was thinking of a business merger for the two properties, as they approached adulthood, Tom was definitely thinking of a more romantic proposal. For Willow, this was not supposed to be the way things went and she fled to university. 10 years later and now she’s back to help out (take over) on the farm after her father falls ill. There’s no way to avoid Tom now and Willow wants them to make their way back to that friendship they had.

I really, really loved this. Willow is such a well constructed character – she’s somewhat emotionally stunted and she hasn’t really developed friendships or had any meaningful relationships since she left the farm. She’s very passionate about the farm and she has a lot of ideas based on her study in the city on how to really change their methods and go for organic certification. It will mean some outlay and a drop in profits at first, but later on they will be rewarded. She has some really fresh and exciting ideas but she also knows she has to tread carefully – her dad has run this farm for a long time and he’s not really going to be knowledgeable about some of her ideas and also, he’s been quite ill so she doesn’t want to worry him or have him stressed out unnecessarily. She also knows she needs to tread carefully with some of the men/staff who probably won’t like the change, especially a woman coming in with all these new ideas and changing everything and all their known methods. Willow is juggling a lot of plates and it’s very precarious for her. Just one mistake and everything will collapse.

And then there’s Tom. Things between them are so awkward at first – but soon the connection that has always been there between them is reestablished and they find much to talk about in terms of improvements to the farms, new methods and directions to go in, troubleshooting problems and the like. Tom is a huge help to Willow, providing advice and a sounding board when she feels that she cannot confide in anyone else – she can’t stress out her father, she’s struggling with the farm manager, her sister Beth doesn’t see things the same way. With Tom, Willow is able to get out all her fears, her frustrations and her hopes and dreams for the future. Willow is sure that Tom understands this time around, that he can’t spoil things with feelings anything other than friendship……right?

This is a book that takes a lot of time to really establish the bond that Tom and Willow have, both as children and then again as adults after Willow moves back to the farm. They have so many similar ideas and dreams for their properties and they work together so well. But Willow has a lot of issues with what she’s allowed herself to feel and the sort of ways that she’s seen people in her life. She realises that she never lets anyone in – and that one of the women she was friends with in Perth is genuinely upset at her moving back, whereas Willow hadn’t thought too much about it at all. I like that Willow develops this self-awareness and she does attempt to make some of those changes. She has a lot to learn about feelings and what she wants in life and what is actually waiting for her. The romance is in both ways strong in this and yet not at all, because Willow has to grow a lot as a person to someone who can actually recognise her own feelings and think about being in a relationship. Tom’s feelings are there the whole time, but Willow spends a huge portion of the book denying the existence of hers, especially to herself.

This story overall was just so…..satisfying. I enjoyed every part of it – Willow’s journey taking over the farm and implementing her changes, dealing with staff issues and potential sabotage, her adjustments being back living there and being around her family, her friendship and connection with Tom. I liked both of her sisters and I can’t wait to read their stories too. Also I really loved the inclusion of the letters, such a great core to build the story around.

9/10

Book #58 of 2019

Dear Banjo is book #28 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-in-Law 
Sally Hepworth
St Martin’s Press
2019, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Someone once told me that you have two families in your life – the one you are born into and the one you choose. Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don’t choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.”

From the moment Lucy met Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana is exquisitely polite, but Lucy knows, even after marrying Oliver, that they’ll never have the closeness she’d been hoping for.

But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice, the matriarch of a loving family. Lucy had wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was ten years ago. Now, Diana has been found dead, leaving a suicide note. But the autopsy reveals evidence of suffocation. And everyone in the family is hiding something…

I love the quote at the beginning of the blurb here – you can choose your partner, but you don’t get to choose the family they come with. And yeah, it’s true, you only marry the person. But when you marry someone, a whole bunch of other stuff comes along with it. Their family dramas and dynamics become a minefield to navigate and it’s so easy for misunderstandings and conflicts to arise.

Which is what Sally Hepworth tackles so admirably in this novel. Lucy meets Oliver through work and she hopes that when they become engaged, she can develop a real relationship with his mother Diana. Lucy lost her mother as a teenager and she longs for that maternal bond. Diana however, is a difficult woman to get to know. Oliver comes from a wealthy, privileged background and Diana is every inch the formidable matriarch. Not warm, she holds Lucy at arms length and the two of them never really hit it off. Over the years as the grandchildren appear, things ebb and flow, fleeting moments of understanding contrasting with aggression that even once becomes physical.

Now police officers have arrived at Oliver and Lucy’s house to tell them that Diana has been found dead in the family home and a suicide note discovered as well. Diana has struggled since losing Oliver’s father to illness and although she retains passion for her work helping refugees, she hasn’t been the same. It soon becomes apparent though that everyone in the family seems to be hiding something – whether it be their last known interaction with Diana or something else. Maybe Diana didn’t commit suicide after all…..but with everyone seemingly having motive and opportunity, if someone did help her on her way, which one of them was it?

This book was a ride. It’s told in a back-and-forth kind of way, beginning in the present and then taking the reader back in time to Lucy meeting Diana, when she and Oliver get engaged, the birth of their children and various other moments over the years. It also includes both Lucy and Diana’s points of view, including several of the same incidents told from both perspectives. So at first you get Lucy’s impression of Diana and her feelings on various incidents that happen over the course of her marriage to Oliver and then later on you get Diana’s life story and also her side of the same incidents. I found that really interesting and it really served to highlight how two people can experience the same moment and see it completely differently. I really appreciated that because so often a book will present to you one side of the story and doesn’t always delve into the other side and it’s the same in life. You have your side and how you perceive the other side is feeling but……chances are, you’re probably wrong. This book demonstrates admirably I think, how both Lucy and Diana tried to have the relationships they wanted with each other respectively and how each felt that they were constrained by certain rules or societal customs and the fact that they were just different people with different ideas that prevented them from really developing things more intimately.

I found this such an intriguing mystery – more and more layers unfolded with the plot. Did Diana really commit suicide? I enjoyed the portrayal of her marriage and how it came about and also, how things at first glance were not really accurate! Then you factor in her personal wealth, the way in which she chose to view that wealth and her work and disgruntled family members and all of a sudden, there are a myriad of possibilities for what happened to Diana. This is not a particularly long book, but there’s not a word wasted and I find that this is quite regular in Sally Hepworth’s novels. She is able to tell a really detailed and involved story with intricate plot points and multiple points of view, without getting bogged down in extra details and dragging it out. Everything that happens, happens for a reason and ends up being relevant. It’s the sort of sharp, observant novel that I absolutely adore. Excellent portrayal of realistic family relationships and dynamics and all the complications that come along with them. This ended up being so much more than just the story of a woman whose mother-in-law dies in what perhaps are suspicious circumstances. I found a lot to mull over in this, especially the conditions of Diana’s will and how that would make people feel. I also really liked the inclusion of her work with refugees and how that evolved to become such a key part of the story, particularly looking to the future.

All in all, this was a brilliant story and I loved it. Sally Hepworth’s books always have me hooked from beginning to end and I just admire her storytelling abilities. I always look forward to a new book of hers and they never disappoint!

9/10

Book #54 of 2019

The Mother-In-Law is the 26th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Deadly Politics by LynDee Walker

Deadly Politics (Nichelle Clarke #7)
LynDee Walker
Severn River Publishing
2019, 382p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Reporter Nichelle Clarke’s dream of covering a presidential speech is dashed when she finds herself intertwined in a high-profile murder investigation. While Nichelle is no stranger to facing dangerous situations in pursuit of the truth, the stakes in this story are higher than ever before.

Unsure of who she can trust, Nichelle must unravel a web of secrets behind an elaborate murder plot and dodge legal traps set by corrupt politicians. For if Nichelle can’t uncover the conspiracy in time, an unthinkable disaster will strike the nation.

Okay, I knew it’d been a while, but apparently it’s been 2.5 years since the previous Nichelle Clarke book (then titled the Headlines in High Heels Mysteries). Since then, the author has acquired a new publisher for the series, the series has a new look and also a new name – they’re now the Nichelle Clarke Crime Thrillers. The new covers are edgier and definitely darker than the previous ones, which reflected a much more cosy feel. I binged the previous books over a period of about six months, I think. The first four or five had been released and then I picked up the others. I’ve checked back periodically since reading the 6th, hoping it would continue and the 7th is finally here.

No sooner does Nichelle get the amazing news that she’s being pulled in by the political reporter to help cover a Presidential visit to Richmond, when she gets an interesting tidbit of information – a dead body has been found in the Mayor’s office. Kyle, ATF agent and Nichelle’s long-ago boyfriend, sends a cryptic message hinting at the identity of the victim but then vanishes, giving her the standard ‘no comment’ line.

That doesn’t wash with Nichelle – he can’t just offer up some information and then vanish after begging her not to print it. Nichelle is determined to get to the bottom of what happened, especially as it seems like the possible victim (apparently identification is an issue) is someone that she knows from an earlier case she investigated and reported on. Nichelle is also confused when she confides in Joey, her boyfriend of dubious employment and it seems he’s much more affected by this death than she expected. What exactly is going on? Joey has also warned her off the Presidential coverage but is vague about the why – just that he doesn’t want her anywhere near it. Nichelle doesn’t really do what she’s told, especially if he’s not going to give her a reason but she’s curious about what Joey knows that she doesn’t. And that’s a whole can of worms right there, given Joey’s line of work and the difficulties of being a crime reporter when your boyfriend is probably in the business of producing it. The deeper Nichelle gets, the more intriguing and dangerous this becomes – and when she takes a gamble, she might not just have blown up her career but she could also have signed her own death warrant.

This was an explosive ride from start to finish, in lots of ways. I feel as though this is a bit of a new direction for Nichelle, perhaps to match the new look. The fundamentals are still the same – Nichelle is still amazing at her job, she still has a great ‘nose’ for trouble and she’s still smart enough to puzzle things through, although this book does lead to her getting it wrong at one stage, but she figures out so quickly why and how. Nichelle has been struggling in her job for a while – it’s not a qualifications issue. It’s more the owner of the newspaper doesn’t really like her and has wanted to replace her for quite a while now. Nichelle’s boss Bob has always been able to back her up and keep her in the crime position but the way that things play out here suggest a very new direction for both Bob and Nichelle and I think I like it. I think it gives her a lot more scope and it might allow her to branch out into some more diverse and complex topics and features. I think the dynamics of the new situation will be really interesting in future books.

Something else that will be interesting is the situation with Joey. I really like Joey and have ever since he appeared in Nichelle’s living room in the first book. I’ve always been curious as to how Walker would progress with Nichelle and Joey given their different….situations and it seems she’s decided in this book. I’m not sure I like one of the complications of this but I hope it’s short term pain for some long term gain. I think the thing I like the most about Joey is that deep down, he knows that Nichelle is always going to do what she’s going to do – and it’s get on board or get out of the way. And he tends to just get on board. He might occasionally try to warn her off (like with the Presidential visit) but ultimately, he knows that it isn’t going to work. Nichelle simply isn’t like that. And he better just roll his sleeves up and try and keep her from getting dead, but in this book it’s kind of Nichelle who keeps Joey from getting dead. They work together so well, I’d really enjoy seeing them in that capacity more in the future.

I think this is probably my favourite in the series.

9/10

Book #50 of 2019

 

 

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Review: 99% Mine by Sally Thorne

99% Mine 
Sally Thorne
Piatkus
2019, 368p
Copy courtesy Hechtete AUS via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Crush (n.): a strong and often short-lived infatuation, particularly for someone beyond your reach . . .

Darcy Barrett found her dream man at age eight – ever since, she’s had to learn to settle for good enough. Having conducted a global survey of men, she can categorically say that no one measures up to Tom Valeska, whose only flaw is that he’s her twin brother’s best friend – oh, and that 99 percent of the time, he hasn’t seemed interested in her.

When Darcy and Jamie inherit a tumble-down cottage from their grandmother, they’re left with strict instructions to bring it back to its former glory and sell the property. Darcy plans to be in an aisle seat halfway across the ocean as soon as the renovations start, but before she can cut and run, she finds a familiar face on her porch: house-flipper extraordinaire Tom’s arrived, he’s bearing power tools, and he’s single for the first time in almost a decade.

Suddenly Darcy’s considering sticking around – just to make sure her twin doesn’t ruin the cottage’s inherent magic with his penchant for chrome. She’s definitely not staying because of her new business partner’s tight t-shirts. But sparks start to fly – and not just because of the faulty wiring. Soon, a one percent chance with Tom is no longer enough. This time around, Darcy’s switching things up. She’s going to make Tom Valeska 99 percent hers.

Two and a half years ago, or thereabouts, I read Sally Thorne’s debut novel, The Hating Game and it became an absolute favourite. I re-read it obsessively – I absolutely adored those characters. I’ve been waiting quite eagerly for her next book although I know it obviously won’t be another The Hating Game. However the weight of expectations plays a role in how we feel about books, so I’m stating upfront that quite possibly that has contributed here.

I didn’t love this. I actually really struggled with it and considered DNF’ing it more than once. It’s not the writing per se, I think for me the biggest problem I had was just the characters. I didn’t connect with either of them (the main two, Darcy and Tom). I found Darcy very abrasive and overly, deliberately quirky, which is something I never enjoy in a character. So much is made of how ‘different’ she is – her hair, her dress, her jobs, her inability to settle down, her free spirit. She’s also very forward and a lot of the way she thinks/talks/acts towards Tom made me think vaguely of sexual harassment and objectification. I tried role switching, making it like Darcy was a man, thinking/saying etc these things towards a female character and it made me pretty uncomfortable. Darcy also has a heart condition, which is referred to every other page or so but don’t ask me what it is because the book never makes it clear because Darcy mostly ignores it. It’s serious enough that she should be having regular visits to her cardiologist but she doesn’t bother because she doesn’t want to know, and she’s a free spirit etc. Everyone keeps talking about how this heart condition could literally kill her but she just pretends it isn’t there for almost the entire book and then at the end it’s fixed mostly off page almost as a by-the-way type of thing, which was a bit weird.

Tom is mostly pleasant, although sometimes his character seems inconsistent. At first he’s this super nice, shy, blushes-at-everything-Darcy-says sort of guy but at some stage he Hulks out into some possessive, over-protective Alpha male when the book tries to make it super obvious that Darcy can handle herself (she works in a bar frequented by types that need handling) except when she can’t and needs help. There’s a lot of unnecessary drama surrounding Tom’s quote on the renovation and how he’s Darcy’s twin brother’s best friend and the whole ‘my sister is off limits’ thing has never really done it for me. Darcy’s brother is mostly a jerk until suddenly he’s completely not and the random way he turns out to have a relationship with someone is really bizarre. In fact, if I had to think of one word to describe this book, it’d probably be random. Things just happen randomly, things are randomly not explained, the entire conflict for the last part of the book makes no sense and I found the resolution very weak.

There were parts of this that I did enjoy – some of the banter was funny, I liked the home renovation stuff (I enjoy reading books set around that sort of thing) and I really loved Darcy’s friend and her underwear business. That was amazing. But I think for me the book needed more scenes to share the background of Darcy, Jamie and Tom, flesh out their childhood and teenage connection. It didn’t really seem to translate well to the current day setting without that and I just wanted a bit more. I didn’t really feel much chemistry between Darcy and Tom unfortunately and they just weren’t a couple that I felt myself passionately behind. This just wasn’t my sort of story.

6/10

Book #194 of 2018

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Review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)
Fiona Barton
Transworld Publishers (Random House UK)
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The New York Times bestselling author of The Widow returns with a brand new novel of twisting psychological suspense about every parent’s worst nightmare…

When two eighteen-year-old girls go missing in Thailand, their families are thrust into the international spotlight: desperate, bereft, and frantic with worry. What were the girls up to before they disappeared?

Journalist Kate Waters always does everything she can to be first to the story, first with the exclusive, first to discover the truth–and this time is no exception. But she can’t help but think of her own son, whom she hasn’t seen in two years, since he left home to go travelling.

As the case of the missing girls unfolds, they will all find that even this far away, danger can lie closer to home than you might think…

I read the first book in this series, The Widow several years ago now but somehow I missed the second book, The Child. And in fact I was only aware of this one because the publisher offered me a copy. It goes to show how hard it can be sometimes, to keep up with new releases and track a series. Having really enjoyed The Widow and liked this one as well, I am definitely going to have to go back and check out The Child.

Journalist Kate Waters gets the heads up that two young girls have gone missing over in Thailand. They’re supposed to be on the trip of their lives after high school, before getting on with the rest of their lives. It has been meticulously planned and facebook and social media and texting allow the girls to check in every day. When a few days go by with no word, when the girls were supposed to contact their parents to open their school results and their social media has gone dead, the alarm is raised.

This brings in Detective Bob Sparkes and he and Kate have always had quite an amicable working relationship. Kate perhaps feels attached to this case because her own son has dropped out of Uni and disappeared to the other side of the world (Thailand also, to be exact) to ‘find himself’. They hear from him rarely and I think this sort of thing is Kate’s worst nightmare. And something she probably this about every day.

This escalates from a missing person case where mostly people are trying to reassure the parents that kids do this all the time. They get distracted, forget to update their social media. Probably just took off somewhere on an adventure and forgot to inform anyone. And that is probably something that might’ve been the case years ago but in this day of social media where you can basically update your life in real time and communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world in seconds, it’s more difficult to believe. There aren’t too many places you can’t get wifi these days and even remote places in Thailand provide the perfect instagram opportunities. The reality of the girls’ disappearance is far grimmer.

There’s a large portion of this book devoted to the Thai police’s deliberate incompetence in an investigation which results in the UK having to step in and basically take over and start everything from scratch. This just delays everything, means that crucial evidence is probably lost and gives the parents of the girls even more distress. It seems like the Thai police are bought and paid for and they’re willing to write off foreigners as easy come, easy go. Without the dedication of Kate Waters (who ends up personally connected to the case when it seems as though her son may be involved somehow) and Bob Sparkes, it seems as though the parents would never have gotten the answers they needed to help.

Which makes me wonder how often something does go wrong overseas for travellers and how it might just be easier to write it off as an accident or this or that and close the case, rather than highlight the dangers of travelling to what is a highly popular tourist area. Lots of people go to Thailand from all over the world – it’s famously cheap, there are many beautiful beaches and there’s also a lot of interesting cultural stuff as well.

Kate is a journalist who becomes the story in this and I found that part to be very well done. Because of her experience, she’s able to recognise the tricks her colleagues are pulling on her in order to get her comfortable and try and get the story. She suddenly gets to experience what it’s like to be relentlessly door knocked and having people invading her privacy and printing things about her family. Digging into her son’s past – in fact they dig up things about her son that Kate and her husband don’t even know. They’re forced to recognise that much of what he’s told them has been a lie and they really have no idea what he’s been up to the entire time he’s been overseas. Likewise much is made of the ‘social media life’ – where you can make everything look perfect, portray that you are having a fabulous time, that everything is amazing so that all the people at home are envious and don’t realise that the reality can actually be very different. This is what happens with the two girls – because one of them has so many #livingthelife posts, her parents don’t realise that things are going wrong until she completely disappears. It takes time to gather the information they need, because no teen on holiday ever tells their parents what’s really going on!

I really enjoyed this, especially the multiple view points. I felt that way of telling it gave such a good overall picture and the reader was never really left waiting for other characters to finally stumble on things. I also liked the swerve and the way in which Kate was forced to examine her career and what it’s like to be on the other side of a press barrage. I appreciated her professional relationship with DS Sparkes and how that was tested once it became clear that Kate’s son was somehow connected but also how they worked through it, both realising that their jobs are somewhat easier when they cooperate, trade information and work together respectfully.

I honestly need to keep better track of this series! Time to go back and read The Child.

8/10

Book #17 of 2019

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Review: No Stone Unturned by Julie Moffett

No Stone Unturned (Lexi Carmichael Mystery #11)
Julie Moffett
Carina Press
2019, 374p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Geek girl Lexi Carmichael thought getting engaged would mean calmer days ahead. But when Slash’s past brings up more questions than answers, she’s not going to let anything–or anyone–drive them apart.

Getting engaged is supposed to be a fun, exciting time in a girl’s life. But things are never that easy for Slash and me. Instead, someone is threatening to expose Slash’s past–a past so secret, even I know very little about it.

Before I can get used the weight of Nonna’s antique ring on my finger, he’s on his way to Rome…and we’re farther apart than we’ve ever been. Still, I have no intention of sitting at home and letting him take on the Vatican by himself.

With a little expert-level hacking, I learn Slash is keeping secrets from me. Big ones. Dangerous ones. In fact, the more I dig into Slash’s past, the more I discover things about him I never knew–things that eventually pit us against each other.

From Rome to the Amalfi coast to the highest levels of the Vatican, we both race to discover the truth. No matter what I find, we’re officially a team now, so I won’t let him face this alone. Even if I don’t know if our relationship can survive it.

For the most part, I really enjoy this series. I discovered it a lot of years ago now and I think we get around 2 instalments per year and there are a lot of things that I really appreciate about it. Firstly, how good Lexi is at her job. She’s super awkward and dumb stuff happens to her all the time but she has a really analytical mind and she’s always ready to drop whatever it is she’s doing and help someone. I love her ability with computers and the way she thinks. Also I like her and Slash and how steady they’ve been for the last 7 or so books. It can be rare in a series to have that romantic consistency and not have the main character torn between characters or in a perpetual state of relationship flux.

In this book however, Lexi and Slash face probably their greatest test when someone from Slash’s past starts sending him messages about things he’s done and threatens to spill some secrets, things that Slash doesn’t particularly want Lexi to know. He has a very highly classified past and has definitely done some things that he’d prefer Lexi never have to find out about. There’s also a lot about his background and his unusual upbringing as well that Slash himself doesn’t even know about but he’s about to get some of the answers in the course of investigating just who it is that is threatening to expose him and why.

The book starts with Slash and Lexi’s engagement party, something that Lexi has been coerced into doing. She’s still not at ease in social situations, even when she knows everyone that is going to be there and the situation is only made worse when her mother starts immediately harassing her about wedding details and producing grandbabies. Lexi and Slash just got engaged and even thinking about the wedding right now is too much of a distraction for her – I think it’s almost a relief when Slash is targeted with a message, because it gives her something else to focus on and that is providing support for Slash in any way that she can, letting him know that he’s not alone anymore and she’ll be there for him. For Slash, who comes across as supremely confident, it seems that Lexi is his Achilles heel – he’s constantly worried that she’ll find out about him and that’ll cause her to leave him, when she learns what he’s done in his past.

A large portion of the book is in Italy and revolves around the Catholic Church and the Vatican which is not particularly my sort of thing because I have a lot of issues with the Catholic Church and the blind eye they’ve turned to instances of extreme abuse. There’s just a lot about most organised religion that I really don’t enjoy and I’m not a big fan of reading about it either. But it’s an integral part of the storyline here and Slash was raised in Italy, a country that is heavily devoted to Catholicism and he also worked for the Vatican. There’s some nice stuff that ties into Slash and Lexi’s meeting with the Pope in the third book, No Place Like Rome as well and it’s always good when a series keeps consistent to those prior stories. I like a series that builds, rather than each instalment feeling stand alone.

There’s so much more that the reader knows about Slash now after this book. Before this he had been a mystery for so long – each book had built on that mystery until, to be honest, he was almost barely human. But this book strips it back a bit and lets us get a glimpse of him as a real person with insecurities and fears and a burning desire to know more about his past. His love for Lexi has always been a very strong part of him and his acceptance of her for who she is, weirdness and awkwardness and all but in this book we get a look at the opposite – Lexi’s steadfast support of Slash and her willingness to accept him for all he is, shady past and all. I think this will make them feel more “even” in the future – there’s no longer that feeling that Lexi doesn’t know much about Slash’s past or that he has these secrets and she’s realised that he could be just as vulnerable as she could. Progression!

8/10

Book #4 of 2019

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Review: Mr. Nice Guy by Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer

Mr. Nice Guy 
Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer
St Martin’s Griffen
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home…

Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire’s sex columnist thanks to the boys’ club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate—and unsatisfying—encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.

Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly—that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!—when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, “Nice Guy.” Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together… and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.

It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.

I’m not going to lie, this book was really disappointing.

I requested it based on the blurb because it seemed so funny and that it’d be one of my fave thing, a kind of hate to lovers. Or really I guess sleeping together, to hate, to lovers in this case. I felt like it had so much potential to give me all the angsty feels but it did not pan out like that at all. It’s interesting to note that this has been tagged a romance on Goodreads multiple times because for me, this does not fit the definition of a romance novel (happy ever after for the core couple or at least a strongly defined happy for now with potential for the ever after).

Firstly, it’s quite slow. There’s a lot of background about Lucas and how he fulfilled his dream to move to New York, leaving behind his southern family and their social climbing ways and his former fiancee. He works as a fact checker on a big magazine for a pittance and looks up to the editor, generally referred to as “Jays”. Lucas wants to move into writing features but his ‘break’ comes when he unknowingly has a one night stand with the magazine’s sex columnist and finds out that he’s the topic of her column. His roommate, not knowing that the column is referencing Lucas, suggests that “Nice Guy”, which is what the column refers to him as, should write a rebuttal. Incensed, Lucas does and it’s published after he proves that he is the “Nice Guy” although he keeps his actual identity a secret. This segues into Jays deciding that the columnist, Carmen, and Lucas should meet up weekly, have sex and then write about it from their opposing sides.

This had so much potential – I liked a sort of role reversal, where Carmen was the one who appeared to have all the power and the experience. She’s an actual well known columnist, love her or hate her she brings in business and her frank portrayals of her sex life seem to give women a power over their own sexuality and an attempt to smash through the double standards of sexual interaction. Lucas is very inexperienced, has only really been in one relationship and he’s the one in the invisible job, slaving away in a cubicle fact checking articles on Manhattan restaurants and boring socialites.

Lucas and Carmen had zero chemistry. Nothing. They honestly just did not work for me at any stage of this book, not when they first met before Lucas knows who and what Carmen is/does for a job, not afterwards when they’re doing the experiments. Lucas even gets some sort of ‘sex tutoring’ to try and impress Carmen and it falls spectacularly flat as she rips him to shreds basically in column after column (Lucas rebutting in his ‘Nice Guy’ way) until randomly, for no real reason, she doesn’t. And to be honest, Lucas isn’t particularly a very ‘nice guy’ at all. He’s horrid to his former fiancee (and the true callousness of his actions towards her isn’t revealed until quite late in the book, after Lucas has acted in appallingly jealous and small minded ways), he’s selfish and entitled and actually, pretty boring.

The one thing that was sort of interesting was the shenanigans Lucas uncovers about the magazine and the profiles it was doing on prominent New York identities but this was kind of done in such an over the top manner about people that were complete caricatures that I think it lost its impact. I spent a large portion of the book wondering if I was supposed to take anything seriously or if it was just satirising a city and industry I don’t know well enough to be sure about. I didn’t really get the whole point of Jays and Carmen, or Lucas and Sonia. Overall this was just really not what I was expecting and what I got was not for me.

4/10

Book #180 of 2018

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Review: The Lost Valley by Jennifer Scoullar

The Lost Valley (The Tasmanian Tales #2)
Jennifer Scoullar
Pilyara Press
2018, 361p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}:

Tasmania, 1929: Ten-year-old-twins, Tom and Harry Abbott, are orphaned by a tragedy that shocks Hobart society. They find sanctuary with their reclusive grandmother, growing up in the remote and rugged Binburra ranges – a place where kind-hearted Tom discovers a love of the wild, Harry nurses a growing resentment towards his brother and where the mountains hold secrets that will transform both their lives.

The chaos of World War II divides the brothers, and their passion for two very different women fuels a deadly rivalry. Can Tom and Harry survive to heal their rift? And what will happen when Binburra finally reveals its astonishing secrets?

From Tasmania’s highlands to the Battle of Britain, and all the way to the golden age of Hollywood, ‘The Lost Valley’ is a lush family saga about two brothers whose fates are entwined with the land and the women they love.

This is the second in rural lit author Jennifer Scoullar’s Tasmanian Tales series. The first book introduced us to a part of Tasmania that had remained mostly untouched – old growth forest teeming with wildlife, including the elusive thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. It gave us a love story that spanned decades of heartache and separation and this book picks up into the future with the grandchildren of Isabelle, 10 year old twins Tom and Harry who unexpectedly come into her care after a family tragedy.

Belle has to adjust to having two young children to care for, at a time in her life when it wouldn’t be particularly expected. She takes to the task with enthusiasm however, wanting to give them safety and sanctuary, a place to heal their grief. They retreat to country Tasmania, to her family’s old property and there the boys explore and play, scaring off private tutor after private tutor. It’s not all fun and games though – the boys have their challenges and Harry in particular has a darkness that lurks inside of him, shadowing his relationship with his brother into their adulthood.

Woven into the story of Tom and Harry is that of Emma, a young girl the twins meet when their grandmother takes them to the city. Emma has passion for wildlife and spends her days trying to bulk up the feed of animals at the local zoo, which has fallen into mismanagement. The animals are starving, pacing their cages. Nocturnal animals have their burrows or hidey holes shut off in the day, forcing them to stay out in the open for people to observe them. It seems that no one wants to pay to go to the zoo and then have all the animals be sleeping and out of sight. This messes with their body clocks and makes them miserable and this part of the story was truly hard to read. I’ve been to zoos plenty of times, when animals haven’t been visible. One of my favourite animals is a wombat – try spotting any of them when you visit a zoo or sanctuary! They’re always asleep and so they should be, because that’s how they are. Thankfully zoo-type conservation has moved on and the animals are given habitats and routines as close to their wild and native habitats as can be perfected. There are still plenty of issues surrounding zoos and the like but the way they are run has definitely changed for the better.

Emma is soon forced to return home to care for her mother and her story takes such an interesting turn. She’s motivated by a need to earn money to care for her mother, who needs round-the-clock nursing. Her brothers are mostly unhelpful and useless and it falls to Emma to assume responsibility for not just herself but her mother as well. She crosses paths with one twin or the other over the years, her destiny tied to theirs in the most complicated of ways. I thought Emma’s story was handled remarkably well, providing a different insight into a certain sort of life that I don’t think many authors have portrayed so well. I think the reader was really given the chance to understand Emma’s position and her motivations and the ways in which she was able to make these choices for herself. It perhaps may not have started that way but she did use what happened to take control and power for her own destiny. She really does use what happened to her, the position she was put in, to better her own life and to be the one in charge. She goes from being very helpless to financially independent, reclaiming herself and her ability to choose her future. She is a really interesting character and I enjoyed the time devoted to her a lot.

As always, conservation is a strong thread running through this book, from the beginning of the boys exploring their new home to Belle confiding her secrets so that they may be preserved for many years to come. This creates conflict between the two siblings, amplifying the chip Harry seems to have on his shoulder regarding his brother and his confused and muddled feelings after their parents’ deaths. This builds so well throughout the novel novel, Scoullar expanding on the tension that has simmered between the boys since their childhood until it explodes.

This was a fantastic follow up to the first book – these books just flow so well and they’re so readable. I read both on my iPad and sometimes it can be difficult to judge how long you have to go until the finish but these simply fly by so fast I don’t even get time to wonder. I fall into the story of this family so easily – their loves and losses, the passion for the land that underpins everything. I think there’s another book to come and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

8/10

Book #167 of 2018

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Review: Kiss The Girl by Tara Sivec

Kiss The Girl (The Naughty Princess Club #3)
Tara Sivec
Swerve (St Martin’s Press)
2018, 304p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A struggling antiques collector finds herself falling in love with a millionaire playboy; but can she ever be a part of his world?

Meet the Naughty Princess Club, a series from USA Today bestselling author Tara Sivec that brings readers to Fairytale Lane and the hilarity—and romance—that three women fall into once they decide to strut their stuff and bring on their own happily ever after.

While her friends have broken free of their insecurities, Ariel Waters is struggling to come out of her shell. Her ex-husband took away her voice and her self-confidence, and Ariel is drowning under a sea of debt to afford the alimony she has to pay him. She refuses to ever fall for a man’s charms again, and is determined to make her own way.

When her house and her beloved antiques are taken by the bank after too many missed payments, Ariel finds herself adrift until the infuriatingly charming Eric Sailor comes to her rescue. Although she can’t stand the millionaire playboy, Eric’s kindness and unconditional support reveal hidden depths and a love that Ariel never imagined she could find.

But there are outside influences who will stop at nothing to keep them apart; can Ariel and Eric weather the storm and find a way to be together?

This is the third and final novel in the Naughty Princess series and I absolutely loved the first two so I was really looking forward to this one, especially as we’d seen glimpses of Ariel and Eric’s dynamic throughout the other two books. Eric had made plain his interest and Ariel had made equally plain that she didn’t want anything to do with the playboy so it was always going to be full of sparks.

The previous books have detailed some of Ariel’s struggles but she hits rock bottom at the opening of this novel, as sheriffs move in to take her house because she’s behind on her mortgage payments, crippled by the alimony she has to pay her ex-husband. Forced to leave her beloved antiques behind, Ariel is thrown a lifeline by the one person she doesn’t want to be indebted to – Eric Sailor, part owner with PJ in the strip club. Both Cindy and Belle have danced at the club and are now booking parties through the Naughty Princess Club but Ariel, despite being the most outwardly confident of them all, has yet to take that step. She claims to be holding back to let them find their groove but it’s clear that there’s a lot more to Ariel’s story.

In previous books I had wavered in liking Ariel – she’s funny and very straightforward, often brusque and sometimes quite rude. In this book, her own story, she’s even worse, dialled right up and unfortunately I found her a bit difficult to read at times. She’s always swearing, which is fine, I swear a lot but I don’t construct whole paragraphs out of just swear words, some of which don’t even really make sense when put together. A lot of Ariel’s speeches are angry speeches and her swearing and I have to admit, it got quite wearying.

I’ve long wondered about Ariel’s marriage, which has only been vaguely referenced prior to this. Finally the answers are given and it definitely wasn’t what I expected but definitely made a lot of Ariel’s hang ups kind of fall into place and make sense, such as the reason why she hasn’t danced yet. I really enjoyed the character of Eric and how supportive he was of Ariel (and how appreciative) but at times he just appeared almost too good to be true in a way. He doesn’t make any mistakes and to be honest, he’s pretty removed from the main conflict even though it’s about him in a way. I wasn’t a big fan of the main conflict, I don’t think it makes a huge amount of sense in the contemporary framing and everyone in this story is an adult and should be able to be given the chance to make their own decisions, rather than have them made for them. So that didn’t really work for me and seemed only thrown in because Eric, the way he was written, was never going to do anything in this story to create any conflict between him and Ariel directly.

For me, this wasn’t a strong finish to the series, which is unfortunate. I found the first two much funnier and also, much sexier in terms of the chemistry between the two characters. I had thought I’d enjoy Ariel and Eric’s banter and dance but it was kind of over before it started and they were loved up really quickly before the book moved into the conflict from an external source. So all in all, this was a mixed bag for me. The writing is still good and I enjoyed the Naughty Princess idea a lot but Eric and Ariel as a couple just didn’t really do it for me.

6/10

Book #154 of 2018

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Review: The Right Place by Carla Caruso

The Right Place 
Carla Caruso
HQ Fiction
2018, 320p
Copy courtesy Harlequin AUS via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Can the past show you the way home? Charming and memorable, The Right Place is an Australian novel, combining warm romance with family drama and the longing to fit in. Perfect for readers who love The Missing Pieces of Us by Fleur McDonald and Josephine Moon.

With her dreams of dominating Melbourne’s fashion scene in tatters, Nella Martini has returned to the last place she wants to be – Torrente Blu, the market garden inherited from her late nonna. She just needs to clean up the property, sell it quickly, and avoid run-ins with her neighbour: surly Adrian Tomaso. But when Nella comes across her nonna’s cookbook things start to change. The place, with its endless tomato plants and gallons of olive oil in storage, gets under her skin, as does Adrian with his passion for this life. But her dreams have always meant being anywhere but here – haven’t they? Or has the right place been here all this time? For Esta Feliciano in the 1950s, the right place was her Italian village. But in search of a better life than war-torn Italy has to offer, her husband has moved Esta and their daughter to this alien country, settling on a small, flat piece of land that he calls Torrente Blu. Can Esta come to grips with the harsh Australian sun and strange culture?

Woven with traditional Italian recipes, The Right Place is the heartfelt story of two women’s journeys, as they discover how the right place to call home can be where you make it…

The cover of this book is beautifully eye-catching but I also read it because fellow blogger Theresa Smith absolutely sang its praises and we do like quite a lot of the same books so I thought this was something I might enjoy. Also as I’ve mentioned lots of times before, my husband’s family are Italian and although my father-in-law didn’t have a market garden, he turned most of their standard quarter acre block into a huge family garden, growing enough vegetables to feed his large extended family and enough Roma tomatoes to make 200 long neck bottles of their own passata-style sauce every year. At last count there was probably a couple thousand bottles in his garage! So I knew a lot of this would be familiar and relatable as well. I’ve always envied my father-in-law’s garden and the idea of inheriting something similar to what Nella does in this book is very appealing.

When Nella inherits the property, she’s not really interested in keeping it. She’s long left the suburbs of Adelaide behind for Melbourne and a career in fashion. The house her grandmother left her will be just the kick she needs to reboot her career after her last venture didn’t go quite right. So she plans to briefly stay to clear out the house of her Nonna’s things and get it ready for sale. Unfortunately it comes with a slight complication – her Nonna’s land is leased to the next door neighbour to double his market garden and Adrian Tomaso is someone Nella wants to avoid but not disadvantage. But the longer she spends at the place that holds so many memories for her, the more it begins to get under her skin. Soon she is enthused with ideas on how to help Adrian spread the word of his organic vegetables and bring in more business. She cannot cook but when she finds a book of her Nonna’s recipes, she’s inspired to learn using the freshest of produce grown right outside her back door. And then there’s Adrian himself, definitely a drawcard once they put their differences aside.

This is a beautifully written book that showcases not only Nella’s story of returning home and discovering herself all over again, but also the story of her grandmother, Esta who came to Australia as a young bride after WWII. Actually probably similar to the time in which my mother-in-law made the journey out here as a young, unaccompanied teen to join her older sister who was already living here, married and with several children. Because I’ve heard my MIL tell her story so many times, I could relate to Esta as well, who struggled in this completely alien environment with little in the way of support. She also faced several devastating personal losses which were heartbreaking but I enjoyed seeing her friendship with her neighbour grow and flourish and last years. Nella spent many summers with her grandmother, much the way I did as a child and it’s the sort of thing that forms a pretty tight bond and Nella’s grief is evident on every page as she faces a life without this woman that shaped her. I loved the way she connected with her grandmother again through cooking her recipes – and all of those recipes I’ve seen grace my mother-in-law’s kitchen on numerous occasions. I feel as though that generation of women, no matter where they are from, cook in an entirely different way. My own nan, in her 80s now, is an amazing cook with a stack of tried and true recipes she probably learned from her mother and grandmothers that reside in her head ready to be pulled out at any relevant moment. She honestly wouldn’t ever consider chucking something frozen into the oven and she’s never ordered take away in her life. She’s written down a few of her baking recipes for me and I’ve started a book myself because my mother doesn’t know and to be honest, isn’t really interested in any of these recipes.

I enjoyed this so much – in fact I really only had one tiny bother and that was what Adrian uses as a base to criticise Nella. The fact that she left town and moved to Melbourne and also that she comes back at first wanting to sell the inherited property and go back to her life, which to be honest, I don’t think is anything to be critical over. Not everyone is destined to stay where they grew up. Some fly away and return, having discovered that where they’re meant to be is where they started. But it’s not fair to judge her because she wanted something different and went after it. Adrian seems quite bitter about it and what does it matter? She tried something she thought she was passionate about, maybe it didn’t quite work out for her and inheriting her Nonna’s property gave her some different priorities and she learned quite a lot about herself. She’s only about thirty in the book, so that’s really still quite young and you’re still learning so much about yourself at that age. So it did actually bother me quite a bit, him saying like she thinks she’s too good for that area. When Adrian wasn’t retreating to that, I really did quite like him and the conflict around him and his brother was really well done. I sort of understood perhaps his feelings of rejection but it just seemed like a really snarky thing to try and pick on and judge her for.

But that’s a small thing really. For me, this was all about Nella’s journey and that acceptance of herself and what her dreams were and that coming home feeling. I really enjoyed all of the recipes, the focus on the fresh ingredients and Esta’s story woven in was lovely as well. This was very enjoyable and although I’ve read and enjoyed Carla Caruso’s books before, this was my favourite so far and I’ll be looking forward to her next book.

8/10

Book #141 of 2018

 

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