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Review: The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan
Lisa Ireland
Penguin Random House AUS
2020, 336p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

‘Elderly. Is that how the world sees me? A helpless little old lady? If only they knew. I allow myself a small smirk.’

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back.

For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . . .

When Lisa Ireland began writing this book, The Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care had probably been announced, so aged care was already quite a talking point in the country. However since this book would’ve gone to print, the coronavirus has swept most of the globe and in many places, the elderly in aged care facilities were particularly vulnerable. Here in Melbourne at the moment, aged care is a disaster, responsible for many of the deaths we have experienced in recent times and things have been so bad that private aged care has had to be taken over by government health organisations, at least temporarily. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a lot that comes out of both the Royal Commission and the inquiry into the response to the virus and even though the aged care facility that Frank, Shirley’s husband resides in in this book is neither accused of neglect nor experiencing a pandemic, it’s still very easy to see why Shirley would want to ‘bust’ her husband out.

Frank has dementia – good days and bad, some where he recognises Shirley and some where he doesn’t. This is a death sentence but Shirley doesn’t want Frank to experience his final days in this Sydney aged care centre that their daughter chose. They spent their married lives in Geelong and she wants to take him home, take him back to the places that meant the most to him. She’s constructed a very elaborate plan that will hopefully enable them to get far away from Sydney before it’s even discovered they are missing and from there, she takes further steps to avoid being detected, such as switching cars and changing up the way that they are travelling. Fiona, their daughter, means well but she isn’t listening to Shirley about what is best for Frank, neither does she think that Shirley is capable of making such decisions. And so Shirley feels forced to do things this way. To basically kidnap her own husband and become a fugitive, avoid detection in order to make it some 12 hours south.

Shirley is a force. She’s 79 years old and her whole life has been uprooted in the last couple of years. I’ve done a journey similar to the one she undertakes quite a few times (although I’ve gone a different way) and it’s a tough trip, let alone for a sole driver who is also responsible for another person. Frank is relatively far into his diagnosis and he does require constant care and watching. But Shirley lets nothing stop her, she’s determined to ‘free Frank’ and take him home, so that he might be surrounded by the things that are familiar to him, rather than being locked up in a dementia ward of a relatively soulless aged care facility.

This book is part present day, part historical story where it goes back in time to fill in Frank and Shirley’s backstory – how they met and began dating, the early years of their marriage, the troubles they had having children as well as societal expectations, the wave of feminism and Shirley’s feelings about what she wants vs what is expected of her at the time. Frank and Shirley married in the 1960s – times were changing but slowly. When Shirley makes a friend, a single woman who has carved a career for herself, Frank is suspicious and distrustful of someone not married by choice. This book examines a lot of things, including a particular kind of crippling grief. Shirley is told to basically snap out of it, get back to caring for her husband, home and daughter, rather than dwelling on what has happened. It’s heartbreaking, reading a lot of her struggle and realising how many women had their grief and shock and pain brushed aside during this time. Shirley also has another inner battle, where she cannot confront who she really is and must hide it away for many reasons. It is because of this that she also feels like she might owe Frank as well, that now she must dedicate these waning years to his care, to make him as comfortable as possible surrounded by what is familiar. It’s such a beautiful sentiment and even though it won’t be easy (Frank swings between calm and complicit to often difficult and agitated when things are new or strange to him) and Shirley, although fit and healthy after a medical incident a little while ago, is still an older person where this will certainly be an effort for her.

I’ve been blessed in that I’ve never really had a close family member fall victim to Alzheimers. I’ve had more distant family members have the disease but they were not ones that I spent a lot of time with. However, I feel that Lisa Ireland has done an amazing job with the character of not just Frank here but also Shirley as well. There are some truly beautiful scenes in this book where Frank, unaware of whom he is speaking to, waxes lyrical on his wife and their younger years and how he felt/feels about her. He believes himself to be a much younger man, still in his prime and his thoughts and feelings come to him sometimes, quite powerfully. Other times he’s much different, forgetting things he was told not long prior and requires constant vigilant watching and the ravages of the disease are obvious. It’s obviously very upsetting for Shirley, seeing this happen to him but her plan motivates her and it’s a powerful thing, for someone to have such a determination to accomplish something, giving her focus. Without this, her life in Sydney is not particularly fulfilling – having spent pretty much her whole life in Geelong, it was a huge upheaval to have to move and neither she nor Frank appear to be thriving.

There’s so much available for discussion here, the role that aged care plays and how it might be improved upon is just the beginning. Dementia patients and how they are treated is like a subset of that as well, because keeping them safe in aged care often means keeping them behind locked doors with little to stimulate them mentally or physically and although the staff may be passionate they are often overworked and underpaid with too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there’s also so much about Shirley’s early life as well, that brings up discussions on the role of friendships and how important they are, feelings about children, family, expectations vs societal pressure and how someone can love in different ways and be torn in many directions.

I think this book is brilliant – funny and heartwarming to balance each time it’s also devastatingly sad and thought provoking about women’s issues. Shirley is a beautiful, strong, complex character (my grandmother is also a Shirley, can confirm, they are very headstrong!) and Frank is – well, Frank will win your heart even though you might not love him for his 50s and 60s husband/wife views at some stages in the book. He’s realistic though, and I adored how much I felt connected to the setting of this book as well. I don’t live in the area anymore but when I first moved to Victoria we lived close to Geelong and spent a lot of time there. Everything was familiar to me, I know where the suburb Frank and Shirley bought their house is, where they ate their take away on Eastern Beach shorefront, the streets mentioned, where Frank worked. I felt like I could imagine their lives, even though they were taking place years before I came to the area.

This is one of my favourite books of 2020.


Book #155 of 2020

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan is book #53 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020



Local Author Event: Lisa Ireland & Sally Hepworth

Last Thursday I went to one of the branches of my local library for an event with Australian authors Lisa Ireland and Sally Hepworth. I’ve seen Lisa before, she is a regular at my council library and launched her previous book, The Shape Of Us at another of the branches. I’ve read almost all of Sally’s books but this was the first time I’d had an opportunity to hear her speak.

Now I didn’t take any notes or anything, I did jot a few key things down on the Notes app on my phone but most of this is just going from memory so any mistakes are mine and I may miss things or recap their discussion slightly out of order. I will say however that Sally is a very organised person! After an event they did recently went over time by an hour, she had her phone set to a timer and cue cards and everything! Everything was going to be timed to the minute as the event started at 6.30 and the library shuts at 8 so definitely couldn’t risk running so far over!

The event was in support of both author’s most recent releases, The Art Of Friendship for Lisa and The Family Next Door for Sally. Both authors write around sort of similar themes, that exploration of relationships and friendships. They actually met only last year, which is surprising when you see how close they obviously are. They were both invited to do an event at a bookshop, by someone who thought their books would fit together well in terms of those themes. They talked a little about how that event had spawned their friendship which segued into how differently they write.

It seems that there is generally three types of writers: the plotter. The pantser. And the one in-between, the “plantser”.  Now Sally is most definitely a plotter. She’s organised, she knows the plot and often comes back and fills in the details about characters later. Lisa is a pantser – she generally knows about the characters but the plot might be something that comes together much later. Both of them use their opposite styles to bounce ideas off each other. Both said that their friendship has helped them perhaps refine and modify their writing style a bit so that they might be slowly meeting in the middle, a sort of “plantser”. Lisa shared some of the difficulties in being a writer when she mentioned that she’d recently trashed 45,000 words of a manuscript that she wasn’t getting along with. She shelved it for the time being, rather than continue with what she described as a “mediocre novel” and decided to work on something else. There was a noticeable gasp in the room when she said that – it’s about 40-50% of a standard paperback, so a huge amount of work! Made me wonder how many unfinished and partial manuscripts authors out there have floating around on hard drives or usb sticks!

In the book Lisa is working on now, she mentioned that she needs to take a road trip to decide where it might be set. She thought about Sydney, decided it was a bit far and changed her mind to maybe consider Canberra. That brought up a lot of research issues – what happens when someone commits a crime in Canberra (which she needs to know)? She had to investigate the policing and discovered it was the Australian Federal Police and all of a sudden that seemed like it might require a lot of research and plotting to get the details right so maybe she’ll set it somewhere else. I found that interesting too, in that it doesn’t have a setting yet and that is something that I guess can be dropped in later.

Sally comes from a Human Resources background and has no training in creative writing. She thought she’d write a book whilst she was on maternity leave and had nothing but her experience as a reader going into that process. As you do when you’re trying something new, she googled it and discovered some sort of method (I think she said the snowflake method but I’m not sure) which she’s never used again and has never seen since and can’t even remember now. She finished that novel but then wondered how she could get better/faster at the craft and became a little bit obsessed. She described her second finished novel as “dreadful” but her third was the first one that was actually published. Since then she’s written four more books and trusts the process a lot more now, and doesn’t need to refer back to craft books or style books quite so frequently. Some of her favourite authors are more “organic” writers (a term they used for a more pantser style, allowing the plot to develop as the writing process takes place), and she’s trying to incorporate that a little more into her writing.

The talk went for around 45m and then they opened up for a few questions. I can’t really remember the questions to be honest, although there was one about whether or not they’d ever write an idea that someone else had and came to them with and the answer to that was a no. Neither are interested in writing people’s memoirs or fictional ideas that other people have had, because they belong to someone else. This question actually ended up referencing Heather Morris’ The Tattooist Of Auschwitz which is the fictional embellishing of a real life story. One of the library employees interjected at this point to mention that Heather Morris would be doing an event at one of the branches in August, so I’m definitely going to see if I can get to that. I haven’t read The Tattooist Of Auschwitz yet but it’s been on my Wishlist for a while now.

Actually I do remember another question, which was about editing. So both Lisa and Sally talked through the process of structural and copy edits and how many times a book goes through the process before it’s published. They also mentioned how it comes to be that final copies can still contain typos and mistakes, despite being read through so many times. It’s something I’ve wondered before actually, so that was good to get a bit of insight into. Sally also mentioned that she has several different publishers, being quite popular overseas (fun fact: Sally’s first book was pitched to me by the American publisher, who offered it to me on NetGalley, long before I even knew she was Australian) and that she’s quite big in Texas, which is a very conservative state. Her American published baulked at a same sex kiss in The Family Next Door and it had to be taken out, which I found really interesting because it’s a really important moment in the book.

I think that is about it for my memory….there was time for signing directly after as well. I just want to say that this was one of the most fun events I’ve attended for a long time. It felt really laid back and casual and like two good friends chatting about their processes. They would finish each other’s stories or interject with remembered bits and pieces from past events they’ve done or interactions between them but not in a way that disrupted the flow of the event or meant that one person more dominated the conversation. It was a great mix of craft and life, sort of in keeping with the friendship theme of their books!

Kudos to my library for hosting! Seems they’re doing more and more events lately, which is great. Next week there’s another one, with Mark Brandi, author of Wimmera.

You can check out my review of Lisa’s The Art Of Friendship here and The Shape Of Us here.

And my review for Sally’s The Family Next Door is hereThe Things We Keep here and The Secrets Of Midwives here.

Once again, any mistakes or inconsistencies are due to my memory.



Review: The Art Of Friendship by Lisa Ireland

The Art Of Friendship 
Lisa Ireland
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 387p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

We all expect our friendships from childhood to last forever…

Libby and Kit have been best friends ever since the day 11-year-old Kit bounded up to Libby’s bedroom window. They’ve seen each other through first kisses, bad break-ups and everything in-between. It’s almost 20 years since Libby moved to Sydney, but they’ve remained close, despite the distance and the different paths their lives have taken.

So when Libby announces she’s moving back to Melbourne, Kit is overjoyed. They’re best friends – practically family – so it doesn’t matter that she and Libby now have different …well, different everything, actually, or so it seems when they’re finally living in the same city again.

Or does it?

As an adult, friendship feels like such a tricky thing. Far more so than when I was a child. I’m not really sure what it is – perhaps it’s moving interstate as an adult without knowing anyone. I still have friends from my high school years but we are spread out all over the globe now, contact restricted to liking each other’s photos on facebook. I would imagine that were some of them to suddenly move close to me, it would be almost like getting to know them all over again. And I’d imagine that there’d probably be a few teething problems, much like Libby and Kit experience.

Libby and Kit became close friends through proximity, which is often how you meet and become friends with someone as kids. Their friendship survives attending different high schools and Libby’s moving away to Sydney during the university years. Although they do get to see each other in person each year during a Boxing Day tradition, the majority of their interactions have been by phone, letters, emails. They are also leading quite different lives – Libby is married with a son and Kit is quite determinedly single with a job she devotes herself to. Libby has never really carved out a career niche for herself and has no regrets leaving her job behind to move to Melbourne.

I loved so much about this book – firstly, it’s set pretty close to where I live! Libby moves to an area not far from where I am now when she’s a child and when she moves back as an adult to an exclusive new development ‘community’ it’s not unlike where I live, in a way, which is in a newly developed area of what used to be market gardens and farmland. A lot of what Libby sees around her is familiar to me and like Libby, I’ve never really known what I’ve wanted to do with my life in terms of a career. And although I don’t think I’m quite as involved a parent as Libby, I understand that reaction to protect your child, to perhaps look for the excuses and to automatically assume that they’re the victim. I think that’s only natural, to a certain extent. But Libby definitely goes a lot further with this than I believe that I would! I really liked the way Libby’s issues with her son played out, especially as it bled into her friendship with Kit – entrusting her with his care but then being very upset with the way Kit had handled things, which angers Kit.

I think both Libby and Kit feel as though it will be easy to pick up this friendship when Libby moves back to Victoria but the reality is very different. Libby is living in a rather exclusive area, a gated community with its own golf course, country club and it comes with the wives of her husband’s work colleagues, who demand her social inclusion in events and planning. Kit has moved, she’s still in the western suburbs but not this new version. She has little time for Libby’s new friends and the lives they lead and seems confused about Libby’s lack of focus and desire to find a job. One of the incidents I felt best demonstrated a divide in their personal lives was when Kit suggested they return to Paris for their 40th birthdays. Libby immediately says she needs to discuss it with her husband and think about the implications of leaving their son and Kit can’t believe this, derisively wondering why she needs to ask her husband’s permission. She doesn’t, but I was curious that was the conclusion she jumped to. If my husband made a snap decision to go overseas without consulting me to work out logistics (even if money wasn’t an issue at all) I would be really annoyed. Likewise I wouldn’t do the same to him. We discuss everything, even if it’s just me going to the football with a friend or him needing to go to a work dinner. Kit seems to see Libby’s husband as quite controlling or demanding from the outside looking in. Which to me, was interesting – is that what marriage looks like to people that aren’t and don’t really do relationships? Who don’t have to….not answer to someone else, but at least think about them and consult them or use them as a sounding board for decisions and opinions.

I think this was a really strong, believable look at the world of adult friendships – not only negotiating that entire world of them but also making them, keeping them and trying to hold onto those ones that have been important to us for years. The characters are sharply realistic – down to earth but also flawed. This book is mired in the day to day routines of busy people and the juggling that involves as well as the various domestic issues that come into play. And it’s also not a neat and tidy finish either….there’s no magic solution for the fact that these two people are very different to how they were as children, nor for the fact that some horrible things get said. Instead I would describe the ending as ‘cautiously optimistic’ and I feel as though that’s a really good choice, in keeping with the story that has been constructed. Life isn’t neat and tidy, it’s messy and full of awkward moments, broken connections and tough times. Lisa Ireland’s last two books have absolutely excelled at portraying that uncertainty and I’ve loved them both.


Book #86 of 2018



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Review: The Shape Of Us by Lisa Ireland

The Shape Of Us
Lisa Ireland
Pan Macmillan AUS
2017, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Four different women. The same big problem. One magical solution?

Mezz is overweight and overworked: she’s convinced it’s only a matter of time until her husband starts to stray.

Jewels is fat and fabulous, but if she wants the baby she craves, the Tim Tams have to go.

Ellie’s life looks perfect to her London friends on facebook: she keeps her waistline out of the photos and her loneliness to herself. 

Kat will do anything to keep her daughter Ami happy and safe. If she can just lose that baby weight, she’s usre Ami’s dad will stick around. 

In this heartwarming, heartbreaking story, four women who meet online in a weight loss forum learn that losing weight might not be the key to happiness, but believing in the ones you love -and yourself- just might be. 

It’s hard to know where to start with this amazing book. I’ve read Lisa Ireland before, she’s an author of several rural romance novels but this is a step into the women’s fiction or “life lit” genre that has become one of my absolute faves to read. It’s the story of four women who have little in common other than joining a weigh loss initiative (called WON or Weight Off Now!) and coming together in the section on the forum for those who have 30+ kg to lose. After a condescending couple of posts from a WON-veteran who is at her “goal weight” after losing far less than any of the four women have to lose, they take their burgeoning friendship off the official forums to a private blog where they can talk freely.

The way in which these four women develop a friendship really spoke to me. I have been an internet addict since around 1998, when we first got dial up (oh the days) in my parent’s house. Over the years I have made so many great friends online – some of whom I’ve been friends with for over a decade and a half and we’ve still never met physically. Others I’ve met in person as well and catch up with or hang out with on a regular basis. I enjoyed the way several of the women didn’t really intend to “get personal” with the others but the blog becomes an outlet for them to spill out things from their personal lives which they perhaps cannot share with anyone else. Mezz has insecurities about her fit husband straying with one of the Lycra-clad “Pony-tails” at school drop off, Jewels has insecurity issues against her seemingly perfect sister, Ellie finds herself alone in a country not her own with a partner she may never be able to truly be a family with and Kat just wants to give her beautiful daughter the dream childhood she never had after the Bosnian war, with a home of her own. All of their lives kind of start to come apart in different ways even as the women are knitting together this strong, honest friendship which isn’t without its imperfections as they all try different things in order to lose those kilos.

I’ve read books tackling weight loss issues before and so many of them involve characters finding the “magic” combination that works for them but this book serves up some grim realities when it comes to the statistics for losing weight and keeping it off. I felt that each of them had reasons for wanting to lose weight that revolved around another person – Mezz wanted to feel as though her husband would find her attractive again, having no idea that it wasn’t her size that was keeping him distant from her, Jewels has been told to lose weight in order to get pregnant so it’s her desire for a child that fuels her but her love of baking makes it quite difficult for her to even get started, Kat wants to keep her boyfriend and Ellie likewise is determined to look better for her fit other half. What I enjoyed was the realism that sees them struggle, fail, backslide, try radical things etc. It felt genuine, including the usage of one of those fad shakes/cleanse things where you consume only a certain brand of liquids and it can only be bought through a consultant that feels almost like some sort of cult. What the underlying message is for these women is that they need to come to terms with themselves, the problems in their lives and ‘love the skin they’re in’ before they will ever be happy. Losing weight isn’t going to magically make the other problems they have go away. Mezz will still feel as though people look sideways at her and ask what her husband sees in her, Jewels will still feel as though her sister steals the spotlight….unless they have that self confidence to stand in their own spotlight.

I was forewarned about the darker turn the book takes in the final quarter or so as it’s a topic I often struggle with but I felt as though it was very well handled and really did help to not only cement the way in which the women had built this friendship but also explore the different ways in which they dealt with such a serious topic. It was really heartbreaking and it’s something that I think about a lot, it’s probably my greatest fear. I had a lot of admiration for the character it concerned – actually she was probably my favourite of the four although I loved them all to be honest.

This is a superbly written, very powerful book that I think will find a home on many people’s favourites shelf. I know it definitely has on mine. It’s the sort of book where I’m still thinking about the characters days later, mulling things over in my head and reflecting on different parts of the story. Definitely one that will stick with me.


Book #74 of 2017

The Shape Of Us is book #23 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017


Review: Breaking The Drought – Lisa Ireland

Breaking The DroughtBreaking The Drought
Lisa Ireland
Harlequin Escape Publishing
2014, eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Melbourne magazine editor Jenna McLean is a city girl, no doubt about that. So when she gets roped into attending a matchmaking ball in a small country town by her best friend, it’s very reluctantly. Having just learned that her ex is engaged, Jenna could do with some distraction. However she knows she won’t meet the man of her dreams in the country. Jenna is not really cut out for farm life. And cowboys and farmers definitely don’t gain a good score on her Marriage Material scoresheet.

Luke Tanner is hosting Jenna and her best friend for the weekend and although he finds her attractive, he’s met city girls like her before and it never ends well. They can’t wait to get back to their apartments and lattes and aren’t interested in the land or the problems surrounding working it. Luke is helping out with the ball and willing to do whatever it takes to make it a success to help their dying local community. And also, he owes it to someone very close to him to make sure that everything goes smoothly from here on in.

But the attraction between Jenna and Luke becomes more powerful each time they are together. Despite the fact that Jenna can’t see herself trading in her city lifestyle for the farm and Luke has an obligation to his property, they can’t deny that they both feel it. But with bushfire season on the way and many other obstacles hindering their path, can two people living totally different lifestyles find a happily ever after?

Breaking The Drought is a fun novel that takes a city girl totally out of her comfort zone and places her in a small country farming town that is slowly dying for a multitude of reasons. Local woman Maggie Tanner has been instrumental in planning the matchmaking ball and trying to get women into the town to hopefully bring business and maybe even make a connection with one of the local men. Jenna is talked into attending by her friend Brooke, even though Jenna knows that none of the men she meets will be for her. She has a strict set of criteria that designates men husband material. Although to be honest, that didn’t work out so well with her previous boyfriend, who scored excellently on her Marriage Material sheet but turned out to be a prize jerk.

I really enjoyed the chemistry between Luke and Jenna which is almost immediate although it is complicated by an amusing misconception that Jenna makes – kind of an understandable one. I do enjoy the whole opposites attract thing even though deep down, this novel isn’t quite about that as it appears at first glance. Jenna is a very stereotypical city girl though, I find – all about Jimmy Choos and an inner-city lifestyle and she does display a pretty high degree of ignorance about country life. Given so much of Australia is rural, I did find this a bit unusual. I found Jenna’s best friend much more down to earth and aware. Her enthusiasm for the weekend in the country was really fun and she embraced it obviously in the way in which it was intended. I liked Brooke, at times she was a much more palatable character than Jenna who started off the novel whining about basically everything in the country town. However thankfully Jenna at some stage, did sort of “suck it up” and begin to appreciate what was around her and she really did dig in and help when a dangerous situation occurred.

I do have to say that there is quite a lot of drama packed into this book – there are several life threatening situations and nothing is straightforward at all. It did get a bit much as the second half of the book does feel quite crammed full with so many things happening and it’s almost like a race to the finish line after a much more sedate first half. There’s only so much drama and unexpected events I can take in so much time! But I did like the way that Jenna pulled herself together and really did kind of stand up and be counted when the time came. I think it served to show her the uncertainty of living in the bush, the sort of thing that these people can face everyday, threats which you don’t really have to worry about living in the inner-city. I liked Jenna’s evolution as a character and the way in which she came to realise what was important – without that arc of growth I’m not sure she would’ve been deserving of Luke. I really liked his character, he was very protective and caring and he had sacrificed much in order to right a wrong that he felt he had committed. He had to come to terms with his past and let it go in order to be able to embrace his future.


Book #131 of 2014


Breaking The Drought is book #49 of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge





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