All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: You And Me On Vacation by Emily Henry

You And Me On Vacation
Emily Henry
Penguin UK
2021, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

TWO FRIENDS
TEN SUMMER TRIPS
THEIR LAST CHANCE TO FALL IN LOVE

12 SUMMERS AGO: Poppy and Alex meet. They hate each other, and are pretty confident they’ll never speak again.

11 SUMMERS AGO: They’re forced to share a ride home from college and by the end of it a friendship is formed. And a pact: every year, one vacation together.

10 SUMMERS AGO: Alex discovers his fear of flying on the way to Vancouver.
Poppy holds his hand the whole way.

7 SUMMERS AGO: They get far too drunk and narrowly avoid getting matching tattoos in New Orleans.

2 SUMMERS AGO: It all goes wrong.

THIS SUMMER: Poppy asks Alex to join her on one last trip. A trip that will determine the rest of their lives.

You and Me on Vacation is a love story for fans of When Harry Met Sally and One Day. Get ready to travel the world, snort with laughter and – most of all – lose your heart to Poppy and Alex.

Oh my Gosh.

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, ever since I read (well, actually, listened to) Beach Read by Emily Henry last year, became obsessed with it and learned that she had another book out middle of 2021. And for me, this absolutely lived up to my expectations for it and I freaking loved this book.

Poppy and Alex met briefly at university – they’re both from opposite sides of the same town in Ohio and went to the same university in Chicago. They didn’t exactly hit it off but a year later a mutual friend arranges for them to share a ride back to their hometown for break and what starts off awkward ends up being the beginning of an amazing friendship. From there, they’re pretty much inseparable and save every summer for a holiday with each other, firstly doing things cheap and cheerful and later, after Poppy gets a dream job for a travel publication, with someone else’s budget. They are best friends, no matter what else is going on, who else they might be seeing, even if Poppy acknowledges deep down, it’s 95% best friends, 5% “what if”.

The book is told back and forth in time – in the present day, Poppy is experiencing some burnout. She worked so hard to get her present job but after a few years doing it, it doesn’t bring the same ‘zing’ anymore. She can’t understand it. Her friend tells her to go back to a time when she was genuinely happy and work from there and for Poppy it’s before everything “went wrong” with Alex, some two years ago on their last vacation in Croatia. She decides to reach out to Alex and try and fix their friendship. She proposes another summer vacation together so part of the book explores their reconnection and it also goes back in time to showcase their meeting, the car ride home together and various other moments from their summer vacations to different places.

I loved both Poppy and Alex. When we meet them, we know it all went wrong – that this really wonderful friendship has petered out to a couple of “Happy birthday” and “thanks” texts a year. Poppy knows that she still thinks about Alex all the time, that she still mourns what they’ve become but she’s not sure if Alex feels the same. She can’t prevent herself from reaching out though, and Alex responds. What we don’t know, is how and why everything went wrong and it takes a while for everything to come out, because things are told in a way that fleshes out the friendship before it begins to show how it broke down. I sort of guessed what had happened and I think most people will as well. Alex and Poppy have this undertone and it ebbs and flows a bit, depending what is going on but both of them are hesitant about it (or Poppy is – the narrative is all hers, we have to just guess at Alex’s feelings and intentions). I knew I was going to love this after I’d read less than 20 pages – it had me laughing and as I got into it, some scenes made my heart hurt as well.

I thought that Alex and Poppy had awesome chemistry and that the slow burn was really well done – by the time the sexual tension was ready to break, I was soooo ready for it! I love a slow burn and I think that the book excelled at it and I just felt like the flashbacks established their friendship so well – the 95% and the 5% (although sometimes these values fluctuated, depending on what was happening and how Poppy was feeling at any given time, such as the chapter where she’s unwell and the chapter where they’re in Croatia). I was so invested in them, for the first part I was also frustrated at Poppy because I’m like why can’t you see what is happening here, why this is how you are feeling, why this happened, why you’re doing this/saying this/etc but I realised she did see, she just didn’t want to for various reasons. And those reasons were explained and I feel as though both character’s backgrounds were a strong reason in why certain things were an issue for them, in terms of why none of them pulled the trigger earlier. There were also some misunderstandings, where both of them were desperate to preserve the friendship that they gave off the wrong impression, and this is a good example of how those misunderstandings can spiral out of control until they effect the friendship in an entirely different way.

This is so much my jam. A total keeper, think I need the audiobook version as well now. I really love listening to books I’ve already read and loved and I enjoyed the audio of Beach Read so much that I think I’ll definitely love this one too.

And now my wait for the next Emily Henry begins.

9/10

Book #107 of 2021

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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2021, 364p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley/personal purchased paperback copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve’s party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.

Can’t believe it took me so long to read this! I had an eBook review copy but I own the rest of Kayte Nunn’s books in paperback so I had to buy one to match them and it’s sat on my shelf for a couple of months. I’m trying to read from that shelf every so often, trying to balance out my reading a bit.

Anyway this is mostly a dual timeline, taking place partially in 1945 and partially in 1999 with a small scene from 1976. In 1945, it details the story of Bea and a bunch of other women who join the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) known as the Wasbies. They run a sort of canteen where the men can get sandwiches, cakes, treats and tea as well as purchase little luxuries like cigarettes, razors, creams, soaps etc. They’re imperative for boosting the morale of the men and the women also provide a social aspect, attending dances and being friendly faces. The women become very close as they get closer and closer to the front lines and see and experience things that will change them forever. Most are from privileged backgrounds, some have husbands or brothers serving in the war.

In 1999, Aussie ex-pat Olivia is working as an intern for an art dealer and she goes to meet Beatrix for her boss, because the elderly widow has indicated she has something very valuable to sell. A freak snowstorm and an illness traps Olivia in the country with Bea, which leads to her hearing a lot of Bea’s story and attending a reunion of the Wasbies, where many things come to light. And Olivia will make choices about her own future as well, inspired by the somewhat crotchety old lady she’s come to admire.

I found this book so fascinating. The opening scene is intrigue and then both timelines are so equally interesting. I loved reading about Bea signing up for the Wasbies, wanting to contribute, meeting the other women and them forming bonds. There’s plenty of description of their duties as well as the conditions of their surroundings and also the local area – the oppressive heat, the insects, etc as well as the other challenges. It really gives you a clear picture of what it must’ve been like to be involved in the war this way, from the long days preparing and serving often hundreds of men, to the jungle setting. I don’t know much about Burma (which is now known as Myanmar) – it’s pretty limited to the invasion by Japan in WWII, which tore the country apart and the Burma Railway, which was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of Allied war prisoners. It was interesting to see it from a different perspective, not of a prisoner but from someone who was working in a different role, providing comfort and support in the best way they could, to fighting troops. They’re all women that volunteered, some of them giving up quite comfortable lives well away from war zones, in order to help and do their part, to try and give the men a bit of cheer and comfort in what were incredibly horrible times.

In 1999, Olivia is lonely in London, she’s been working non-stop in an industry where it’s hard to get a good position and there’s a lot of competition. Her boss is demanding and thinks nothing of sending her on a trek to visit Beatrix a couple days before Christmas. By now Bea is in her 70s, living alone in a crumbling pile and she desperately needs money to fix the roof, which is why she’s considering selling something that means the world to her. She’s equal parts brusque and caring, tender and abrupt and it’s clear to Olivia she has a lot of stories to tell, which Olivia would love to hear. Especially about her time with the Wasbies and the other women. Olivia gets a chance to meet those remaining from the group and even more chance to understand what sort of things they experienced back in Burma, where some of the dangers weren’t from the local surroundings at all.

I really enjoyed the friendship that built between Olivia and Bea, built in such a short time but with such genuine warmth and feeling. Olivia hasn’t really made any connections since she moved to London from Australia but in meeting Bea, it gives her opportunity to make several different ones, some of which give her personal happiness and others which give her the courage to make decisions to further her career.

And the ending? So wonderfully satisfying.

9/10

Book #93 of 2021

The Last Reunion is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021 and is the 18th book completed.

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Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Second First Impressions
Sally Thorne
Hachette AUS
2021, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

Oy, where to start.

I know you shouldn’t compare books to other books, even (especially?) when they’re by the same author. But I can’t help but still be excited when I hear Sally Thorne has a new book coming out, because I loved The Hating Game so much. 99% Mine wasn’t to my taste but I figured that Sally Thorne could/would always write another book that I would find to my taste as much as her first. But I’m slowly realising that I think that book is an anomaly and just, her other books are not my sort of thing.

This had potential for me, I really love opposites attract stories and this one revolves around the daughter of a pastor who has lived quite a sheltered life. Six years or so ago, she made a huge mistake and her parents quietly shunted her off to work with someone they knew from their church in a retirement home for wealthy people. She’s been there ever since and her life is comfortable, if a bit lonely. She loves the residents, enjoys a routine and finds comfort in a TV show. When she meets Teddy Prescott, he’s everything she shouldn’t want. He’s the son of the owner of the retirement home, who could bulldoze or redevelop it at any moment. He’s got long hair, tattoos, no job, no home, no money and a fed-up family who want him to make something of himself. So he’s installed at the retirement home working as an assistant to the most demanding residents and living in the little apartment next to Ruthie’s.

The thing I think, that bothered me the most about this, was Teddy. Oh gosh was he irritating. Is it possible I’m just too old now, to really find a 27yo who doesn’t know what size sheets to buy, attractive? Teddy was such a mooch, encroaching on Ruthie’s personal space, coming in uninvited into her home, basically demanding to be fed and taken care of like an overgrown toddler albeit a handsome one with excellent hair. He’s got to the stage where he admits he’s run out of couches to surf on and look, it’s great that he doesn’t mooch off his rich daddy but he has no qualms about anyone else and he’s constantly hanging around with a hangdog expression so that Ruthie will feed him and pet him and tell him how pretty he is, because Teddy is hopelessly vain and that got annoying as all heck.

Only two people appear to work at this luxury retirement home, although one is on leave throughout the entire book and Ruthie moves into her position and a temp fills Ruthie’s usual position. She’s 24 or 25 but dresses for some reason, like she’s 90 and it’s framed as being because she shops in op shops due to her low income. But when Mel, the temp and one of the older ladies at the home (who swans around dressed in the most ridiculous designer names you can think of) takes her to the op shop they find perfectly reasonable clothes that fit her and wow, the frumpy dowdy Ruthie actually has a banging body and Teddy can’t keep his tongue in his head. He doesn’t want her to date other people (Mel is trying to get her out there and dating) but he also keeps telling her not to see him as an option because he’s only there temporarily. I just never really saw why Teddy was so hot for Ruthie, other than he wanted a mother? Like he claimed to adore her routine and how soothing it was and calming for him, but he is basically a man child incapable of caring for himself and has been pretty neglected, so it makes sense he’d attach himself to the first person who is able to show him some basic love and attention. But it just….didn’t seem like there would be a lot of longevity in this. Ruthie has one relationship in her past which ended in humiliation for her and Teddy has had an infinite number of what seems like very short relationships and even though I actually found the writing good in the intimate scenes, the chemistry was severely lacking for me. I didn’t care at all about these two people together because the story never gave me a reason to.

The plot is just an unevenly paced mess. So much is invested in Ruthie’s routines and checklists because of the reason behind them and it’s made her basically hide herself away, giving up on her dreams and whatever and the ‘mistake’ from her past is uncovered and there’s literally no pay-off scene with her parents, who patronised her, humiliated her, punished her and basically crushed her self-esteem. There’s no apology, no acceptance of their wrong assumptions, their lack of faith and belief in her. She needed some serious therapy but it’s sort of like an afterthought and there’s so much she doesn’t realise because she was young and naive and I think, grateful to be given a chance after her indiscretion that she doesn’t even understand what is happening around her. There’s a lot about tortoises and it’s so obvious why they’re shoehorned into the plot and after rolling along like molasses trickling down a hill, everything happens in the last 5% of the book, which reveals and deals with many things at speed.

Unfortunately, I just found this very mediocre – characters that severely lacked in personality (what even was Teddy’s personality, apart from long hair and pretty), a plot that meandered along so slow it almost tripped over itself before it decided it had better wrap everything up immediately and just large portions of nothing happening except people sitting around an office and “bantering” with each other. There’s no chemistry, very little development and no stakes.

4/10

Book #49 of 2021

Second First Impressions is book #22 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The French House by Helen Fripp

The French House 
Helen Fripp
Bookouture
2021
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The vineyards stretched away in every direction as he plucked a perfect red grape, sparkling with dew. “Marry me,” he’d said. “We’ll run these vineyards together.” But now he is gone. There is no one to share the taste of the first fruit of the harvest. And her troubles are hers alone…

In sleepy little Reims, France, grieving Nicole Clicquot watches her daughter play amongst the vines under the golden sun and makes a promise to herself. Her gossiping neighbours insist that the rolling fields of chalk soil are no place for a woman, but she is determined to make a success of the winery. It’s the only chance she has to keep a roof over her head and provide a future for her little girl.

But as the seasons change, bringing a spoiled harvest and bitter grapes, the vineyards are on the brink of collapse. Without her husband’s oldest friend, travelling merchant Louis, she’d truly be lost. No one else would stay up all night to help count endless rows of green bottles deep in the cellars, or spread word far and wide that Nicole makes the finest champagne he’s ever tasted. One magical night, as a shooting star illuminates their way under a velvet sky, Nicole gazes up at his warm smile and wonders if perhaps she doesn’t need to be quite so alone…

But when Louis shrinks from her touch after returning from a long trip abroad, Nicole fears something is terribly wrong. And as an old secret about her husband – that only Louis knew – spreads from the cobbled village streets all the way to the Paris salons, her heart and fragile reputation are shattered. Was she wrong to put her trust in another man? And with Napoleon’s wars looming on the horizon, can she find a way to save her vineyards, and her daughter, from ruin?

Due to medical reasons, I don’t drink so what I know about alcohol is, well, miniscule. But even I know about Veuve Cliquot, a famous label of champagne. This is fact blended with fiction about the story of Nicole Cliquot, aka Veuve Cliquot or ‘the widow Cliquot’. Before reading this, I didn’t know that Veuve was French for widow and that the brand was basically named for her. Her life makes for fascinating reading, I did a bit of googling whilst I was reading this. She was born to wealthy parents and lived throughout an incredibly tumultuous time in France. The French Revolution reset the calendar, did away with religion and many previously privileged went by way of the infamous invention, the guillotine. Nicole married Francois Cliquot although he was troubled and he died some 6 or 7 years after they married, leaving her a widow at 27. There’s some ambiguous circumstances surrounding his death – it may have been typhoid but it could’ve also been suicide, which at the time would’ve meant burial at the crossroads and severe implications for those left behind, especially Francois and Nicole’s young daughter Clementine. Without Francois, Nicole is determined to make a name for their wines and champagnes, to export their product to Russia where the wealthy long for French vintages. There’s a lot of things in her way though, including but not limited on going war, poverty, distrust at a woman in charge and rival vintner Jean-Remy Moët.

I really enjoyed reading this. Nicole is such a strong, determined rebel – from the time she’s a child, she is very stubborn, she doesn’t want to marry just to become an ornament, someone in charge of directing a houseful of servants. She loves freedom and being able to visit the vineyards her father has and when she meets Francois, it’s love at first sight. And Francois is happy for Nicole to work beside him, he admires and appreciates her for all her headstrong tendencies, although Francois is very troubled. Nicole is the strong one and when she’s left alone, she goes on in such a determined manner even when it would’ve just been so much easier to sell to Moët and live a comfortable, privileged life, the one that she’d always known. Instead she perseveres, facing setback after setback. She constantly has to deal with Moët’s underhanded tactics, his pressure to get her to sell and lots of other different struggles, especially with how tumultuous the situation is in France and the fact that very few have the money to buy what they are making. Nicole also comes up with a way that enables her to turn a lot of champagne bottles swiftly and store them in a way that means the sediment, which can ruin a bottle, gathers at the neck and when opened, is released swiftly, leaving a crystal-clear vintage behind. Even when everything seemed hopeless, when she kept facing devastating setbacks, she never gave in. In the background are the constant struggles for power in Europe and the wars that go along with it.

My only real complaint was that there was a section maybe just over halfway where things started to feel a bit repetitive. Nicole facing similar adversities over and over again and it just kind of made that part of the book feel like it was dragging. If this had been tightened up a little, I think it would’ve made the adversity she faced feel more compelling rather than just ‘oh here’s another obstacle in her way again’ and often it’s the same obstacle and sometimes, it’s even in the same way. But that’s a small quibble really, it just got to feel a bit long.

8/10

Book #36 of 2021

 

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Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

The Good Sister
Sally Hepworth
St Martin’s Press
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one, with a home and a husband and a fierce desire to become a mother. Fern is the quirky one, the free spirit, the librarian who avoids social interaction and whom the world might just describe as truly odd. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

Spine tingling, creepy, utterly compelling and unpredictable, The Good Sister is about the ties that bind sisters together…and about the madness that lurks where you least expect it.

Sally Hepworth always writes compelling stories and this one is no exception. It’s told as a dual narrative – Rose tells hers in the form of diary entries whereas we get Fern’s inner thoughts and daily life as she’s living it. The two are twins (not identical) and from the beginning, it’s quite obvious that Rose protects Fern, has always protected Fern, from when they were children to even now, as adults. Fern processes things a different way to most people – she’s very literal, she often has difficulty picking up certain cues. For example, she won’t answer someone if the person doesn’t phrase their speech in the form of a question. For Fern, questions require answers but statements do not. So when her boss often says something that for her requires Fern to respond, Fern often doesn’t see the need to.

Rose looks like she has her whole life together. Lovely house, wonderful husband although at the moment he’s working abroad. And now she and her husband are trying for a baby and when Fern discovers that it may not be that easy for Rose, she’s willing to help out. After all, Rose helped Fern years ago, many years ago and Fern has felt like she’s owed her ever since. This might be her chance to help Fern the way Fern once helped her….

I don’t have a sister. So I don’t know what that sort of relationship is like – I’ve witnessed a lot of sister relationships, some more toxic than others. I think it’s a very complex relationship, some I’ve seen where the sisters are so close they’re almost one person. Others where they can’t even be in the same room and almost everything in-between. I don’t really know any sets of twins but I’d imagine that adds a whole new layer to that dynamic.

The book builds well in the beginning, describing the life of the twins growing up, dividing up the story between Fern and Rose, dripping it out to the reader. For a while, you’re pretty convinced that you have the story and I did wonder if the book actually tipped its hand a bit too early. Recently I read another book about twins, where there are some complications of a pregnancy (in this case, for an inheritance) and although it was structured in a very different way, it was, in some ways, similar in vibe. However, this book was more subtle, more realistic I’d say, in terms of the characters and the situation. But I don’t think this one really kept me guessing for as long as I would’ve liked. Instead, things shifted sideways and then it became about who would triumph I think, the so-called long game of which story you chose to believe and who would be believed in the end. There were a lot of complications and the twins were fleshed out well, with added depth as the story went on but I do think that for me, some of the tension (not all, but some) went out of the plot a bit early.

I really enjoyed the setting, especially the fact that a large portion of Fern’s part of the story takes place at the library where she works. Fern avoids anything to do with helping people use the photocopier or the computers but she has such an excellent knowledge of books and also takes part in the story times that the library runs as well. It reminded me quite a lot of my own library (which is still closed) and I liked how Fern came into her own when she was there. I also liked the dynamic between her and the man she meets there, whom she assumes is homeless. I actually didn’t realise until covid hit and a lot of libraries closed, just how much of a resource they were for people in insecure accommodation. I read an article about it actually, how many people come in and use the bathrooms, showers if the library has them, read the papers or use the computers to apply for jobs or places to stay. They are a huge resource for people who are vulnerable and even though the character in the story isn’t actually homeless, it does showcase that in the community, a library is much more than just a place to borrow a book.

This was a good, solid read with some twists and turns.

7/10

Book #230 of 2020

The Good Sister is the 85th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

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Review: Return To Virgin River by Robyn Carr

Return To Virgin River (Virgin River #19)
Robyn Carr
Harlequin MIRA
2020, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Kaylee Sloan’s home in Southern California is full of wonderful memories of the woman who raised her. But the memories are prolonging her grief over her mother’s recent death. A successful author, Kaylee hoped she could pour herself into her work. Instead she has terrible writer’s block and a looming deadline.

Determined to escape distractions and avoid the holiday season, Kaylee borrows a cabin in Virgin River. She knows the isolation will help her writing, and as she drives north through the mountains and the majestic redwoods, she immediately feels inspired. Until she arrives at a building that has just gone up in flames. Devastated, she heads to Jack’s Bar to plan her next steps. The local watering hole is the heart of the town, and once she crosses the threshold, she’s surprised to be embraced by people who are more than willing to help a friend—or a stranger—in need.

Kaylee’s world is expanding in ways she never dreamed possible. And when she rescues a kitten followed by a dog with a litter of puppies, she finds her heart opening up to the animals who need her. And then there’s the dog trainer who knows exactly how to help her. As the holidays approach, Kaylee’s dread turns to wonder. Because there’s no better place to spend Christmas than Virgin River.

Well it’s been a long time between books for the Virgin River series – book #18 was released in 2012. I binged this series big time back then, thanks to Marg @ The Intrepid Reader. Robyn Carr moved onto other series’ but the popularity of Virgin River on Netflix perhaps, means we get to travel back to that small town in California and catch up with some favourites as well as get introduced to some new people.

Kaylee Sloan is heartbroken at the devastating loss of her mother. It’s affected her whole life. Upon her mother’s death she inherited her mother’s house but Kaylee isn’t ready to live in it yet. She’s also behind in finishing her latest book for her publisher so her intention is to escape to a cabin in Virgin River, a place she spent time at growing up. It will give her privacy to grieve and peace and quiet to meet the deadline hanging over her head. Her plan is scuppered though when the cabin is on fire as she arrives. Kaylee’s revised plan is to travel a little further out, but popping into Jack’s Bar & Grill means that Jack is pretty sure he can find her a rental that will suit.

In Virgin River, Kaylee finds more than just a place to hole up away from the world so that she can finish her book. As a writer she also finds herself fictionalising her life, which is a new genre for her, it’s good therapy and after a while, she thinks she might actually have something. She also finds a community – she’s welcomed by Jack and his wife Mel and embraced by the other locals who step in to help her find somewhere to stay, introduce themselves and offer up things they have or make or produce that she may need. Kaylee finds a tiny kitten and rather than surrender it to the vet to go to a shelter, she decides to adopt it. And even though she’s deathly terrified of dogs, she also finds a mother and her puppies in the woods and makes the decision to rescue them as well, with the help of dog trainer and her somewhat casual landlord, Landry. Kaylee and Landry bond during their time of shared proximity, having meals together and sharing tidbits of their lives. Landry has also experienced the grief of losing a parent and he’s further down the road than Kaylee and can offer some insight on the healing and moving forward process. He’s also determined to help Kaylee with her fear of dogs as well and it isn’t long before their friendship is burgeoning into something more.

It was really good to return to Virgin River! And this is a book that makes sure it gives you a glimpse of as many previous couples as possible – if they’re still living there, then chances are they appear in this book at least once, even if it’s just the briefest of mentions! Mel and Jack are prominent of course and Bree, Jack’s sister. There’s also Colin and Jillian, as well as quite a few others. Kaylee really embraces joining the local community, even though her grief is very raw and it’s affecting her day to day life at times. She and her mother were very close, she was an only child (on her mother’s side, her father has married again and has other children from other marriages) and her untimely death has left Kaylee so bereft. Slowly however, Kaylee finds herself learning to cope with her loss, taking comfort in a life that she’s building in Virgin River. She’s not sure if it’s the sort of place she would live permanently but it’s certainly a soothing balm – and the fact that Landry is there definitely doesn’t hurt! I really enjoyed Kaylee and Landry together, they had this laid back, easygoing kind of relationship, there’s not a dramatic conflict or anything. Landry does have a bit of baggage that needs resolving and his situation was a bit unusual but he’s a kind, caring and gentle person. They went well together also – you could see them building something together. They both worked in creative fields and enjoyed a quiet life, meals at home and the like.

There’s something very comforting about returning to a familiar place with familiar people like Virgin River. Everything is still kind of the same – Jack has a bit of grey in his hair but he’s still manning the bar and meddling in things when he can, Preacher is still cooking, Mel is still the most random midwife. I really need to get watching Virgin River on Netflix before season 2 drops and sink back into the world a little more.

8/10

Book #204 of 2020

 

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Review: I Give My Marriage A Year by Holly Wainwright

I Give My Marriage A Year 
Holly Wainwright
Pan Macmillan AUS
2020, 432p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

How far would you go to save your marriage?

Lou and Josh have been together for 14 years. They share two kids, a mortgage, careers and plenty of history. Now, after a particularly fraught Christmas, Lou is ready to ask herself: is this marriage worth hanging on to?

Every month for a year, Lou sets a different test for their relationship – from daily sex to brutal honesty – to help her decide if she should stay or go. Secrets are exposed, old wounds reopened and a true-to-life suburban love story unfolds.

I Give My Marriage a Year paints a sharply accurate, often hilarious picture of a modern Australian marriage. Lou and Josh are a couple on the edge, and their efforts to bring their relationship back from the brink will resonate with anyone who has ever asked themselves: is this enough?

Whose side will you take? Who deserves a second chance? And will Josh and Lou stay together or split for good?

I have some complex feelings about this book. I found it quite a hard read – it was difficult to read two people in such a bad place and watching pretty much one person punish another, whether intentionally or not, was definitely difficult.

Lou and Josh have been together or married for fourteen years and they have two children, around 8 & 5. Lou is a teacher and Josh wanted to be a musician but fell into carpentry to pay the bills and he’s still doing it, all these years later. They have a lot of the usual pressures of those who are married with children and living in Sydney – financial, distribution of the emotional load, differences in what they want out of life, especially now. It feels like Lou has really hit a wall – after being Josh’s wife for so long, she’s wondering if she wants to go another fourteen years being his wife and then another fourteen years after that and etc. Plus they have something that they’ve never really dealt with, a decision they made a few years ago that Lou is struggling with, that she blames Josh for and she’s been pushing him in certain ways ever since. Whether she realises that’s what she’s doing or not, it’s basically what it boils down to. And Josh, although he has come to know about it, has chosen to bury his head in the sand about it and refuse to really acknowledge it or discuss it. Lou makes a decision on New Year’s Day, that she’ll give the marriage a year, trying a different thing each month to help try and resurrect it. And if she still feels the same at the end of the year, she’ll let the marriage go.

My problem started with Lou making this decision, despite what she was doing, or had been doing, at the time. Also the first choice she makes is for them to have sex every day, despite the fact that she seems to really not want Josh to touch her and it has to happen every day. No matter what. Josh also doesn’t know she’s doing the whole ‘giving my marriage a year’ thing at first and he’s sort of dragged along on a ride that he doesn’t really know has an end date/destination.

Both Lou and Josh have made a lot of mistakes and have some significant flaws in how they approach things but man did I find it hard to connect with or sympathise with Lou. I think because of the way she reacted after the issue revolving around that decision they made a few years ago. I couldn’t really get on board with that and I found myself strongly resenting her as a character because of the choices she made. She had a lot of opportunities to stop what she was doing and she chose not to, and perhaps you could argue that she punishing herself as well as Josh, for both the decision and her reaction to it but it made me look at her and think why are you doing this and also, why are you even still married? There are times when it seems like she really can’t bear Josh and the whole ‘I give my marriage a year’ thing feels honestly, more like she’s torturing him than anything else. It actually felt like Lou checked out a little while ago and the year is just dragging out something. Josh always makes it very clear that he loves Lou, that all he wants is to be married to her and nothing else. He’s not a perfect husband by far – and it takes him a very long time to realise how much of the emotional load Lou carries in their lives, regarding both the home and the girls and this is often a very common gripe in marriages. A lot of the ins and outs of the life of people married with children fall to the women and they know things – the precise schedule of their children, what items they need from the grocery store, when the shower needs to be cleaned, etc whereas men, even if they’re more than willing to pull 50/50 need to be told what to do, rather than just seeing something and doing it. This is Lou’s constant complaint about Josh. He will say to her “what can I do to help” which infuriates her because telling him is just one more thing that she has to do. But I sort of also felt like hey, fourteen years has gone past and you haven’t sat down and had a conversation about this? About how Josh needs to really familiarise himself with the ins and outs of what it takes to maintain a busy home life with two children. Lou is one of the “it’s just easier if I do it myself but then I’ll complain about it because I’ve had to do it all myself”. I also felt the way her mother treated Josh was absolutely appalling and Lou was no where near as supportive of her husband as she should’ve been, nor did she dress her mother down enough when she was horrifically rude to him. It’s okay not want something different, to not want the suburban house with the backyard. It’s okay to not have a fancy city career as well. Annabelle was a horrible person, be it to her own children or their partners. What she said to Josh at his own birthday was inexcusable and the attempts to justify it quite pathetic.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really buy into the ending of this. It just didn’t seem logical to me, after everything that had happened and been revealed. I also think the book didn’t really take the opportunity to showcase the effects of this “year” on the children either. I feel as though this was very well written, because it elicited  a strong emotional response from me and it honestly felt like I was in the middle of this miserable marriage and I could see and feel very well how the characters were feeling. But I didn’t enjoy the experience, to be honest. I hated almost everyone in the end, I didn’t actually feel like I was rooting for Josh and Lou to stay a couple. I couldn’t see it. Actually, I didn’t want to see it, after everything they’d done to each other. I did not feel supportive or connected.

5/10

Book #171 of 2020

I Give My Marriage A Year is book #63 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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Review: The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland

The Night Whistler
Greg Woodland
Text Publishing
2020, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

It’s 1966. Hal and his little brother, newly arrived in Moorabool with their parents, are exploring the creek near their new home when they find the body of a dog.

Not just dead, but recently killed.

Not just killed, but mutilated.

Constable Mick Goodenough, recently demoted from his city job as a detective, is also new in town—and one of his dogs has gone missing. He’s experienced enough to know what it means when someone tortures an animal to death: it means they’re practising. So when Hal’s mother starts getting anonymous calls—a man whistling, then hanging up—Goodenough, alone among the Moorabool cops, takes her seriously.

The question is: will that be enough to keep her safe?

Nostalgic yet clear-eyed, simmering with small-town menace, Greg Woodland’s wildly impressive debut populates the rural Australia of the 1960s with memorable characters and almost unbearable tension.

I feel sort of obliged to give a content warning on this – mutilated animals and pretty graphic descriptions thereof.

Hal Humphries and his family – dad, mum, younger brother – are new to the town of Moorabool, where they’ve moved for their father’s job. Their mother is not very happy with the move, even less so when it seems that her husband’s new job will take him on the road for large stretches of time, leaving her isolated in this small town with two young boys.  Shortly after they arrive, Hal and his younger brother find the mutilated body of a German Shepherd, which they do their best to bury.

Mick Goodenough (pronounced Good-no) was once a detective in Sydney. However a case went very wrong and he finds himself demoted severely. He’s now a probationary Constable in this town, under the jurisdiction of a less-than-ideal Sergeant boss who has no time for what he deems to be Mick’s whims and fancies. In disgrace, Mick should be making coffee and sucking up, not trying to rock the boat in their small town by asking questions and definitely not poking around in the business of respected local residents.

Mick finds plenty to get involved in – not only is his dog one of the animals that is brutally murdered but he also finds himself tangled up with the Humphries family when he’s the only one who takes seriously the call by Mrs Humphries about a man making frightening phone calls to her, as well as the fact that she’s seen a prowler outside her house at night. The rest of the police staff mostly dismiss this as the pranks of a “harmless pervert” but Mick isn’t so sure. And the more he investigates, the more he thinks the person making the phone calls, nicknamed the Whistler because of the fact that he whistles a song down the line, is connected to other, more sinister happenings in the town.

Set in a small town in New South Wales during a scorching hot summer, this is a stellar debut compromising everything that a lot of people will find familiar about Australian rural life. It’s set before my time (the 1960s) but with a complex history and tension between the white and local Aboriginal population that still seems familiar. When the Humphries family moves to the town, it’s at the behest of Dad John and his wife Corrie isn’t particularly pleased. There’s the boss to impress as well as some subtle indication from his wife about who in the town Corrie should and shouldn’t be directing her attention to. Their young sons, particularly Hal enjoy a freedom that was probably common of the time – out riding bikes and scooters, exploring the local area, particularly a place with a caravan which was the site of a gruesome crime some years before.

There is a lot going on here but without the plot feeling overcomplicated. A lot of the story is seen through Hal’s eyes – he’s about 12, and sometimes this shines through as he watches incidents without really understanding a lot of what he’s seeing. In some cases, he’s probably trying not to as he’s negotiating the adult relationships of people he cares about where he’s set in what he wants to see vs what he is actually seeing. The rest of the story is told from Mick’s perspective as he deals with his humiliating probation, forced to do general dogsbody duties for a bunch of mostly incompetent at best, country cops when he used to be a detective in Sydney. Mick isn’t a snob however – he treats this case in Moorabool, which starts with a mutilated animal, as seriously as he would’ve treated a case in Sydney. He doesn’t seem to consider this demotion beneath him and he develops a real rapport with Hal. He’s the only one that really takes anything seriously and the deeper he digs the more he wonders what secret is being kept in this town. His ‘superior’ officer definitely knows more than he’s letting on and is almost doing backflips to order Mick to leave it alone, which makes Mick even more suspicious. Mick also has quite a few personal demons that plague him throughout the story as well. His dogs are really all he has in Moorabool. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have been able to get up every day and go to work to be treated like a nuisance who doesn’t know anything, like Mick was but obviously he knows and wants nothing else than to be a cop. He is clever, he listens, he doesn’t let things go.

There’s a lot to his backstory that is yet to be filled in so if this ends up being a series, I’m sure there’s ample opportunity in the future to explore more of Mick’s Sydney career as well as what awaits him. I found him a very intriguing type, one that could easily carry more books. I enjoyed the way that this played out and thought that the author handled various topics such as racism, sexism, rural policing in a way that felt uncomfortably real.

8/10

Book #158 of 2020

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Review: Deadman’s Track by Sarah Barrie

Deadman’s Track 
Sarah Barrie
Harlequin AUS
2020, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A tragic accident, a terrible crime, an unknown threat …

Scarred by a recent tragedy on Federation Peak, Tess Atherton is reluctant to guide a group of young hikers in the wild Tasmanian winter, but it seems safer than remaining amid the violence that threatens them in Hobart. Little does she know that she has brought the danger with her …

Detective Senior Sergeant Jared Denham is closing in on a serial killer, but someone doesn’t want him getting to the truth and the case is becoming personal. He already owes Tess his life, and wants to return the favour – but when it comes to enemies, Jared may be looking in the wrong direction.

Time is running out, and death is stalking them both …

This book is connected to Sarah Barrie’s two previous novels, Bloodtree River and Devil’s Lair but can really be read stand-alone. Tess, the main character in this one is a sister to two of the previous main male characters and has appeared before but this is the first time she really takes full focus. She works guiding guests from the family eco-lodge and other tourists on guided hikes around Federation Peak and surrounding areas. She also works with search and rescue and at the beginning of this book she experiences a tragedy after someone she is guiding doesn’t listen to her instructions and is determined to do something when the conditions are too dangerous. Her experience has a marked effect on her and she is struggling with some of the aspects of her job, particularly the parts that revolve around heights. All of this is a normal experience but it’s giving her boyfriend Aaron a chance to smother her. Suffering a crisis of confidence, Tess isn’t sure whether or not Aaron is right and maybe she should be just letting him dictate her future.

Detective Senior Sergeant Jared Denham started with a string of burglaries that escalated suddenly when two prominent, wealthy people were murdered on a yacht and a large amount of jewellery stolen. He is under enormous pressure to solve this murder and with it, the burglaries as well, especially as the deeper he goes, the more bodies he finds piling up. He’s getting close to Tess for a couple of reasons, the two of them crossing paths, making Tess realise that maybe she has other options and Aaron and his smothering ways might not be for the best.

This book was such a ride!

And I should be used to that by now, because I know how excellent Sarah Barrie is at crafting a book that takes the reader on a journey of suspense that lays careful groundwork, builds slowly but expertly until all of a sudden you realise that your heart is in your mouth and the atmosphere is frantic and dangerous and incredibly compelling as well. She excels at using the wilderness in Tasmania, the remoteness of parts of it as well as a living, breathing character as well that often works both with and against the main characters as they fight to keep themselves out of danger.

There are a couple of stories running parallel through the book for the most part, before they merge towards the end. Tess and her recovery from tragedy is one part of the story as well as her relationship with her boyfriend Aaron and how it’s not going particularly well. She’s been trying to feel things, wanting to feel things but it hasn’t necessarily been working and Aaron has been displaying a red flag or two as well which is concerning some of the people closest to her. Tess is close to both of her sisters-in-law – detective Indy and also Callie as well and they are supportive toward her as she works through the tough situation. Indy working with Jared also means that Tess and he cross paths quite often and they have an interesting rapport.

I enjoyed the story of Jared investigating the burglaries and how that scenario escalated sharply. Barrie constructs a situation where you can see a vulnerable person being taken advantage of, because they’re struggling to make ends meet and they have responsibilities that require money. They’re working what is no doubt a minimum wage job with little in the way of chance for progression but something that pays just enough for them to scrape by and provide the bare bones. It’s easy for many people to spot a weakness there and exploit it and not only that, to craft a situation where suddenly, that roped in person becomes not just an unwilling accomplice, but something much more dangerous. I felt a lot of sympathy for his person even though he was led astray into doing some incredibly terrible things. The situation was really not black and white and I thought this was addressed very well.

The latter part of the novel, which involves Tess leading a group on a hike through southern Tasmania and merges the story of Tess with the story of the burglaries, is amazing. Tess is experienced, although she was kind of roped into taking this job at a time of year when she normally would not have and it doesn’t start the best, with several of the young men not really being prepared to listen to her and thinking they know better. That soon becomes the least of her problems though as strange things start to happen, sinister things and it gets more and more terrifying. I spent most of my time reading this section in a high state of anxiety as things escalated and Tess is cut off from being able to communicate their terror and distress to the outside world. There are two potential perpetrators and the stress was real waiting for Jared to figure out who it was and whether or not they’d be able to orchestrate something in time.

This was brilliant. Absolutely loved it, another incredible romantic suspense from Sarah Barrie.

9/10

Book #148 of 2020

 

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Review: Water Under The Bridge by Lily Malone

Water Under The Bridge (Chalk Hill #1)
Lily Malone
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2018, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Ella Davenport hasn’t been in a swimming pool since a bad decision ruined her chance of Olympic gold. So when Ella decides on a new career selling property, she chooses Chalk Hill. The country town is a long way from the water, with no pool in sight. Perfect!

Jake Honeychurch doesn’t want to sell his Nanna’s house, but circumstances force his hand. Listing the property with the rookie real estate agent in town, and asking a hefty price means it shouldn’t find a buyer. Perfect!

But determination and persistence are traits Jake admires, and Ella has them in spades. After all, no one ever made an Olympic team by being a quitter.

When news breaks of a proposed waterski park, a local developer starts sniffing around Honeychurch House. Ella’s first sale is so close she can taste it, until a sharp-eyed local recognises her.

Between sale negotiations with Jake that keep getting sidetracked, and a swimming pool committee hellbent on making a splash, Ella has more to contend with than kisses and chlorine.

Can she throw off the failures of the past and take the chance of a new start? Or will her dreams of a new life be washed away again?

Recently I decided to try and add in books I had from NetGalley and not gotten around to, into my current reading. I have in the past, occasionally “bitten off more than I can chew” in regards to NetGalley, particularly as bunches of books go up at once. It’s super easy to click on a lot of them and then quite often, the eBooks languish neglected while I turn to the physical books I have. Given that I picked up the third in this series recently in a sale and I knew I had this one, I thought it would be a good place to start!

Ella has moved to the small town of Chalk Hill in south-west Western Australia for a fresh start. She’s working as a real estate agent and has one listing – an overpriced house that has seen better days. She’s doing her best to spruce it up but the owner is reluctant to sell and Ella suspects that her rival real estate agent might be attempting to sabotage her by giving her false advice.

Ella is a single mother of a 10yo and my oldest son is almost 12. When I read some of this, it was like reading about my own child. My firstborn is at times, a challenge to parent. He has an attitude that started to develop at about 9 or so where he resented anything asked of him, even the tiniest of things and in Sam’s sullen reluctance, I saw a lot of my own child. And in Ella’s frustration to connect with Sam, to make him understand about why she’s asking him to do this or that, I saw myself. I’m not a single parent, I have someone else to ‘back me up’ if required, share the discipline and reasoning. But I’ve had the phone calls from school about incidents in the playground, backchatting the teacher. I know the weariness of it, the feelings that it evokes. And so I sympathised with Ella. In her case though, it’s obvious why Sam is resentful and acting out (not that that makes dealing with it any easier).

Jake Honeychurch is the executor of his grandmother’s will and therefore he has final say over the sale of the house. He’s not actually interested in selling it, but he’s using the fact that it is for sale as leverage against someone, to get information that he wants. Things get complicated when he and Ella start to connect and all of a sudden Ella isn’t just the new, anonymous real estate agent but someone that he gets to know. He starts to see the desperation of her situation, her determination to change her life to do something, to succeed. And that brings conflict and awkwardness, as Jake doesn’t intend to sell the house. Ella is doing the best she can, bringing him good, reasonable offers and Jake has to keep rejecting them each time. I thought that Jake should’ve explained his situation to Ella a bit earlier than he did, this was her livelihood. She had a small retainer from her boss but real estate agents need to sell houses to make money. The effort Ella was expending was never going to be rewarded and I felt that was quite cruel of Jake, especially after they become friends (with obvious potential for more).

I really enjoyed Ella’s background in this – she was an Olympic level swimmer, who had done all the hard work and had big things ahead. One moment ripped it all away but it also gave her something precious. Her relationship with Erik was interesting and added a depth to the backstory. I understood why Ella had kept her secret all these years, even from Sam – how does someone confess something like that positively, talk about it? After what she had been through, it was easier to protect herself, to keep both of them safe from prying eyes, a hungry media, and who knows what else. Ella was very young and probably not the most mature emotionally, given the insular life of a swimmer attempting to make an Olympics.

I also really liked the small town of Chalk Hill and the residents we got to know through Ella. The three books in this series will be based around the Honeychurch brothers, and we met the brother who will take centre stage in the second book, in this one. His story was very interesting (not something you’d expect actually) and so I’m quite looking forward to reading the second book very soon!

8/10

Book #134 of 2020

Water Under The Bridge is book #44 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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