Review: Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

 

Title: Birds of a Feather

Author: Tricia Stringer

Published: 29th September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Three independent women of three different generations are at the centre of Tricia Stringer’s 14th novel, Birds of a Feather.

Septuagenarian Eve Monk is not at all pleased when a shoulder injury requiring surgery threatens her highly prized independence, and it’s with great reluctance that she hires registered nurse Lucy Ryan as home help. With her partner, a FIFO worker, often absent, young mother of two, Lucy, is uncomfortable with juggling work and childcare, and isn’t sure working for Eve is good idea. Nevertheless, the two slowly warm to each other, much to the annoyance of Eve’s goddaughter, Julia, who arrives unannounced after finding herself at a professional and personal crossroad.

Exploring the themes of independence, friendship, careers and family, among others, each woman, though at different stages in their lives, struggle with similar issues in Birds of a Feather. This is a character driven story as Eve, Lucy and Julia confront the spectres of their pasts and find the courage to determine new futures.

To be honest it took me a while to warm to all three characters. I initially thought Eve to be brusque and demanding, Lucy overly anxious, and Julia rude and selfish. As the story progresses however each becomes more nuanced and I came to admire their many strengths. The development of their friendship is gratifying, and I was cheered by the supportive bond they formed, and drew strength from.

Set in mid 2021 Stringer doesn’t overlook the impact of the CoVid-19 pandemic, which has affected both Lucy and Julia, but it doesn’t have an active presence in the story per se. Most of the novel takes place in a small coastal town, named Wallaby Bay, on the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. I liked the depiction of the community, whose main industries include tourism and prawn-trawling, and the minor conflicts of its residents add colour and interest to the story.

Warm, sincere and thoughtful, Birds of a Feather is an engaging contemporary novel sure to delight readers, new and old.

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Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital by Joanna Nell

 

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanne Nell

Published: 29th September 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is an endearing and entertaining novel from bestselling Australian author Joanna Nell.

Though the decor is tired, the menu uninspiring, and the coffee bland, The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has served the visitors and employees of St Jude’s Hospital nobly for fifty years, its profits funding a variety of projects to benefit patients. Staffed by volunteers, septuagenarian Hilary Halliday has held the position of manager for a decade and runs a tight ship, but with her personal life recently upended, her role at the cafeteria has become a life raft, which is why she is rocked to discover that management is contemplating closing the cafeteria in favour of a popular ‘whole food’ cafe franchise.

The storyline of The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is told through three characters – Hilary; probationary volunteer Joy, with a penchant for blue eyelash falsies and bright clothing, of similar age to Hilary; and seventeen year old student Chloe Foster-Pearson, reluctantly volunteering at the behest of her surgeon mother. Each slowly reveals their private struggles as they face uncertain futures. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these well drawn characters, very different from one another, who become united by their determination to save the cafeteria.

The themes of family, friendship, change, and identity are prevalent in The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital. Nell also sensitively explores issues related to ageing, particularly for women. There is a little dig at the commercialisation of hospital care, and the Millennial folly of style over substance.

Written with warmth and humour, The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is a charming and cheerful read.

++++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

 

Title: Treasure & Dirt

Author: Chris Hammer

Published: 28th September 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Though there are loose links to his bestselling Martin Scarsdale series (Scrublands, Silver, Trust) Treasure & Dirt is a standalone crime procedural from Australian author Chris Hammer.

“Maybe this is it. The sky is too big, the land is too big. Too many places for secrets.”

When the body of Jonas McGee is found crucified at the bottom of his opal mine in Finnegan’s Gap, Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lucic is sent to the remote town in north western New South Wales to investigate. Paired with Detective Constable Narelle Buchanan, who served the town in uniform, it seems prudent to first consider the rule of proximity placing a handful of suspects in the frame, but it’s not long before the suspect pool widens as their investigation exposes old grudges, new rivalries, and buried secrets.

“The body is stinking, leaking, a horrible parody of Christ.”

Taking place over a period of about a week, Hammer develops an intricate but coherent plot in Treasure & Dirt. Lucic’s murder investigation starts with McGee’s neighbouring claim owner and his son with whom McGee shares a tragic past, the dead miner’s former offsider, and an unidentified team of ‘ratters’, men who steal opals from unattended mines, as suspects, but rapidly expands to assess if a desperate daughter, members of a local religious cult, or a pair of warring billionaires, may have played a part in the man’s demise. The story twists and turns as Lucic and Nell try to reconcile the past with the present to solve the murder, and make sense of the additional crimes they uncover.

“This isn’t an opportunity, he realises, this is a test.”

Lucic is a methodical investigator, inclined to follow every possible lead to its end. He presents as an introvert, self contained and thoughtful, but also determined and dependable. With his partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore, under investigation by Professional Standards, and his own vulnerabilities due to a gambling habit, Lucic feels the weight of the case, and its implications for his own career.

Similarly Nell, an inexperienced but ambitious investigator, is determined to prove her worth, a goal that may be made difficult by her history in Finnegan’s Gap. I liked Nell a lot, as a police officer she is smart with good instincts, though her personal life would suggest otherwise.

“It’s not your average town. Too many men, not enough women. Too much grog, too many crims, too much opal lust. Too bloody hot.”

Hammer deftly captures the starkness of the outback landscape, scarred and barren, seared by the relentless heat, beset by flies. Finnegan’s Gap is a hardscrabble town, slowly dying as opal finds become rarer, its population increasingly made up of an antisocial element. We are introduced to a handful of rough country old-timers and some eccentric characters, however I noticed a lack of racial diversity amongst the cast.

“Time we went to town. Time we started to set things right.”

Skilfully evoking a sense of place, offering realistic characters, and an intriguing storyline, Treasure & Dirt is a brilliant, engrossing read.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert

 

Title: The River Mouth

Author: Karen Herbert

Published: 1st October 2021, Fremantle Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Fremantle Press

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In Karen Herbert’s accomplished crime fiction debut, The River Mouth, a mother resumes her search for answers to the unsolved murder of her teenage son when the decade old case is reopened in the wake of the death of her best friend.

Sandra Davies is stunned when the police advise her that not only has the body of her best friend, Barbara Russell, been found in the Pilbara desert, but that routine tests discovered Barbara’s DNA matched a sample taken from the under the fingernails of her late son. Darren was shot dead by an unknown assailant while swimming in the river with friends ten years earlier, but what possible motive could explain Barbara killing a fifteen year old boy?

As Sandra tries to make sense of this unexpected development, convinced Barbara is blameless, Herbert unravels the past from the perspective of Barbara’s son, and Darren’s best friend, Colin. Darren is a high-spirited teenager, full of teenage bravado, with a sharp tongue, while Colin is more reserved and thoughtful. When Darren is not helping out his dad, a successful cray fisherman, the boys spend much of their time together, at school and on weekends, often joined by Tim, and occasionally Amy. While they occasionally cause mischief, and push against their parents’ rules, the group are fairly typical teenagers. I thought Herberts characterisation of the teens was realistic, and felt that she deftly captured their dialogue, attitudes and behaviours.

It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the insular Western Australian costal community in which Sandra lives harbours more than one secret that could have led to Darren’s murder, and Herbert uses these red herrings to good effect. The novel is well paced, with the suspense managed effectively across both timelines. Though the ambiguous circumstances of Barbara’s passing remains an irritant to me, I think the mystery of Darren’s death is satisfactorily resolved, even if the aftermath is somewhat non-traditional.

The River Mouth is an impressive debut, and a fine addition to the growing oeuvre of rural Australian crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Fremantle Press

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Review: Larrimah by Caroline Graham & Kylie Stevenson

 

Title: Larrimah: A missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other

Author: Caroline Graham & Kylie Stevenson

Published: 28th September 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

“The police poster has all the grim details. Full name: Patrick (Paddy) Moriarty. Approximately 178 centimetres tall. Black and grey hair. Age seventy. Last sighted at dusk on Saturday, 16 December 2017, when he left the Larrimah Hotel on his quad bike with his dog, Kellie. She’s pictured on the sign too -the red-and-brown kelpie looks young, friendly, with her tongue sticking out.”

To be honest I requested this thinking it was fiction, however Larrimah is non-fiction, a true crime investigation into the fate of a missing man, and the town he lived in.

Larrimah is a tiny outback town, spread over an area less than 1kmsq, in the Northern Territory on Wubalawun land, and at the time of Paddy’s disappearance, the population numbered just 12. It was a few days before he was officially reported missing, and wherever he had gone, he had taken nothing with him but the dog, not even the hat that rarely left his head.

Paddy’s disappearance may have gone largely unremarked by the wider world except no one can make sense of it. In essence this is a ‘locked room’ mystery. A thorough forensics investigation turned up no clues, neither did days of searching by foot, or from the air. Despite extensive police interviews, international media scrutiny, and an inquest, there has yet to be any answers.

There are theories of course. One of the most enduring is that 1 (or more) of the remaining 11 Larrimah townspeople murdered Paddy. Fran Hodgetts, whose home and tea house is situated across from Paddy’s house, was immediately a prime suspect. The two had a long history of acrimony – trading barbs and claims of harassment, but Larrimah is no stranger to feuds. At any one time it seems half of the town is at war with the other, whether it’s over the provision of pies to the passing trade, the leadership of local ‘progress’ committees, the massacre of a buffalo, or the theft of Mars Bars. There is also speculation that Paddy was abducted by drug dealers, swallowed by a sinkhole, or simply did a runner and has started a new life elsewhere.

In an attempt to understand the case, and hopefully solve the mystery, journalists Graham & Stephenson spent five years investigating the story (before this was a book, it was a Walkley award winning podcast called Lost in Larrimah), spending time with the residents of Larrimah, while also endeavouring to piece together a clearer picture of who Paddy was. In trying to answer their questions, this book develops into a portrait of both the missing man and the town of Larrimah, the two seemingly inseparable.

Rich with detail, whimsical and poignant, Larrimah reads like an Aussie yarn with its abundance of colourful, eccentric characters and unlikely sounding events, except this is a true story… well, in so far as the truth can be known.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

 

Title: Apples Never Fall

Author : Liane Moriarty

Published: 14th September 2021, Macmillan

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

Unfolding from multiple viewpoints, Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is an engrossing, intimate domestic drama.

Sixty-nine year old Joy Delaney hasn’t been seen or heard from for a week before her four adult children, Amy, Troy, Logan and Brooke, notice. Their father, Stan, has no good explanation for her absence, or the scratches on his face, and the siblings, aware things have been tense between their parents for some time, struggle to defend him when the police suspect he has murdered her.

As the timeline moves between the present and the past, Moriarty unravels the complex dynamics of the Delaney’s, it’s disruption by a mysterious interloper, and the puzzle of Joy’s absence.

Though the intrigue regarding Joy’s disappearance is central to the story, Apples Never Fall is a very much a character driven novel. I always appreciate how authentic and grounded Moriarty’s characters are, each with distinct and nuanced personalities. I found Joy’s frustrations, worries and hopes to be relatable, while Stan is more of a traditional patriarch. Their children, despite a rather extraordinary childhood, are fairly ordinary adults, with an interesting mix of strengths and flaws, accomplishments and regrets.

As with most family’s, the Delaney’s relationships are a mix of love and rivalry, secrets and lies, resentments and guilt. I really liked the way in which Moriarty shows how each member has differing perspectives on the same incidents, and how that plays into how they define themselves, and each other. It’s with keen insight that Moriarty also explores a wide range of issues from empty-nest syndrome and domestic violence, to the pressures of elite sport, and the weight of family expectations.

This is not a fast paced story, but there are plenty of surprises in Apples Never Fall. I’ve read more than a few complaints about the ending(s) of the novel (especially with its reference to the pandemic) but I thought there was a subtle and clever implication in it.

Offering compelling characters, authentic emotion, and sharp wit, I found Apples Never Fall to be an entertaining, incisive and absorbing novel.

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Available from Macmillan Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer by Ilsa Evans

 

Title: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer

Author: Ilsa Evans

Published: 1st September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a heartfelt, thoughtful and witty novel from Ilsa Evans.

Shirley Conifer has given her youngest son Daniel the benefit of the doubt as he struggles with single parenthood, but on discovering deep bruises on her four year granddaughter’s body she makes the snap decision not to return Avery to her father until he commits to making some changes. Worried that she won’t have the fortitude to follow through, Shirley seeks the support of Beth Patterson, Avery’s maternal grandmother, knowing that even though they agree on little, Beth will be similarly motivated to protect Avery.

Beth thinks Shirley should call the police, but with Avery’s mother, Cleo, serving a three month sentence in prison as a result of the couple’s tumultuous marriage, neither want to run the risk of Avery being placed in foster care.  Shirley is confident Daniel will do the right thing but to prove they are serious, the women, with Avery, Shirley’s 89 year old mother, Winnie, and Beth’s beloved schnauzer, Harthacnut, in tow, decide to leave the city for the week.

Daniel is furious when he learns of his mother’s actions, and refusing to accept any blame for the situation, demands Avery be returned or he will report them for child abduction. Determined to protect Avery no matter the cost to themselves, Shirley and Beth reconsider their plan, and go on the run, intending to stay ahead of Daniel, and the police, until Cleo is released from jail.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer, is a complex family drama that primarily explores issues around parenting, mother guilt, domestic violence, relationships, family dynamics, and ageing. Evan’s writing is sensitive and thoughtful, but there is plenty of humour too.

Though the police are confident the women will be found quickly, Beth, Shirley and Winnie prove to be craftier than anyone expects. While Beth lays careful plans to keep them all off the grid, Winnie reveals a surprisingly useful grasp of tech and social media, and Shirley ensures Avery is entertained. I enjoyed the dynamics at play, it’s not easy for the three very different women to spend 24/7 confined in the same space however, and the mood is often tense between them given Beth’s judgemental attitude, Shirley’s love of wine, and Winnie’s bluntness, but they also have the opportunity to learn from each other as they progress from reluctant allies to friends.

While the Grandmothers keep a low profile, Shirley’s very pregnant daughter tries to manage the situation at home, and Cleo is forced to face her mistakes. We’re also given some insight into the lives of the two female police investigators on the case, and a behind scenes look at a tv panel show following the abduction story. While personally I didn’t think the latter two perspectives added much value to the story, they do work within the themes of the novel.

As a fan of Ilsa Evan’s Nell Forrest Mystery series, I was especially delighted that the women ultimately took refuge in Majic, and that a character I had the fortune to win naming rights to in Forbidden Fruit (Grace June Rae) made a cameo appearance!

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a thought-provoking, emotive and entertaining novel offering a wonderful mix of drama, adventure and comedy.

+++++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown

 

Title: Sweet Jimmy

Author: Bryan Brown

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

You’ve probably seen Australian actor Bryan Brown on the big screen, perhaps in Hollywood blockbusters like F/X, Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist, Breaker Morant, or in any of the other dozen movies he has made an appearance in, particularly if you are of a certain age. Sweet Jimmy, an entertaining collection of crime fiction short stories, is his first foray into publishing.

Primarily set within the streets of suburban Sydney, Brown’s stories combine humour, violence, and pathos. There are seven in all, and include an angry father seeking the man responsible for his daughter’s death, a thief who steals more than he bargains for, a cop investigating a serial killer, and a man hunting for the woman that betrayed him. Vengeance, betrayal, redemption, and survival are common themes, exposing men pushed to their limits. There was actually not a single tale I didn’t find engaging.

I’m not sure Sweet Jimmy would translate well to an international audience, but for me there was a definite sense of cultural familiarity. I feel Brown captures an aspect of the elusive essence of the Australian character particularly well, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of the characters and events are inspired by real people Brown has known.

The writing strongly reminds me of the late Robert G Barrett’s work, it’s spare but still expressive, and perhaps more importantly, honest. The audio version of of the book is narrated by Brown himself, which I think would be a real treat with his distinctive voice.

Sweet Jimmy is colourful, bold, and cheeky collection of suburban Aussie noir stories.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

 

Title: The Housemate

Author: Sarah Bailey

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

The Housemate is a standalone crime novel from Australian author Sarah Bailey, best known for her popular series featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock.

When the body of a woman is found on a property in rural Victoria, interest is revived in a decade old mystery. Olive Groves was a junior reporter when the ‘Housemate Homicide’ – where a dispute among three young housemates led to the murder of one and the disappearance of another – occurred, and now rumour suggests that the missing woman has resurfaced. Given her familiarity with the case, Oli is eager to investigate further, but annoyed when her editor insists she works with a young podcaster, Cooper Ng.

In what is a well-conceived and interesting plot, Oli, aided by Cooper, digs into what really happened between the housemates on the night of the murder, and slowly uncovers a cabal whose elite members are willing to kill to keep their secrets. While I found the complex mystery intriguing, I did feel the pace of the first two thirds or so of the novel was quite slow, with much of the tension and action being confined to near the end.

Oli is an intuitive, driven investigative journalist, her methods to unearth the story are sometimes uncomfortable, but I appreciated her determination to uncover the truth. I liked how Bailey explored the tension between old and new media through the relationship between Oli and Cooper.

Oli’s personal life is a bit of a mess though, and becomes more complicated when elements of the Housemate case forces her to face some difficult truths about her relationship, and herself. I wasn’t always sympathetic to her issues, but I thought she was a well-realised, complex character.

With its cleverly plotted, absorbing mystery, The Housemate is compelling crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Australia Reads 2021

Australian Reading Hour 

September 14th 2021


Australia Reads is on a mission to get more people reading more books, more often. Research shows that reading books can be a great way to improve your cognitive abilities, relax your body and lower your heart rate, and enhance how happy you are with life.    

This year’s theme is #StoriesThatMatter

It’s about sparking passionate conversations exploring how the stories that matter to us, in the books we read and write and discuss, help shape our sense of identity, belonging and wellbeing – as individuals and as a nation.

There are various online events happening for children, teens and adults…click here to learn more.

I’m looking forward to the Zoom Australia Reads event being hosted by the Northern Beaches Readers Festival with guest authors Chris Hammer, Cassie Hamer, Maya Linnell, Tabitha Bird, Monique Mulligan and Sandie Docker. It’s on Tue 14 Sep 2021 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM (UTC+10), it’s free and you can register HERE

You can also participate via social media by either sharing an Australian book that matters to you, or an Australian book you are currently reading. Use the tags @AustralianReadingHour #StoriesThatMatter @australiareads #australiareads #Morebooksmoreoften #Australianreadinghour


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