Review: You’ve Got To Be Kidding by Todd Alexander

Title: You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats

Author: Todd Alexander

Published: 3rd February 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

In 2019, Todd Alexander published the story of his and his partner’s mid life tree change where they abandoned inner city living and their highly paid careers, and purchased a hundred acre farm in the Hunter Valley, to grow grapes, olives, and run a five star B&B. Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Named Helga was longlisted for both the 2020 Indie Non-fiction Book Award and 2020 Booksellers’ Choice Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and captured the imagination of a public who dream of escaping to the country.

It’s been seven years since Todd and Jeff took possession of Block Eight and they have created a successful business, but it has not been an easy process and in You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats, Todd again attempts to answer his own rhetorical question…how hard can it be?

It turns out, it can be very hard at times. If the men aren’t battling with broken machinery, sick or dead animals, or predatory business practices, then they are contending with drought, heatwaves, bushfires, and the pandemic. Todd and Jeff are forced to reinvent their plans several times to stay afloat, including culling vines, purchasing a tour bus, and altering their marketing strategy.

But then there are the moments when the couple can’t imagine being anywhere else as they share a glass of their own wine on their deck, or take a stroll around the property with their ever-growing menagerie of rescued farm animals which still includes (the now teenage) Helga the pig, as well as several more goats, sheep, peafowl, and ducks, each with distinct personalities that keeps them both amused and exasperated.

Related with honesty and self-deprecating humour, You’ve Got To Be Kidding is a sincere, funny, warts-and-all expose of country living, a sequel, of sorts, though it’s not necessary to have read Thirty Thousand Bottles before picking this up. I again enjoyed Todd’s anecdotes about both the highs and lows of farm life, and his relationship with his partner, the nominated snake wrangler and cushion obsessed, Jeff. I liked that this time photographs have been included in the book, though most feature their goats. Todd, a self identified ‘foodie’, also provides some more of his favourite vegan recipes, which sound tasty.

While Todd and Jeff remain convinced they did the right thing in following their dream, and are deservedly proud of all they have achieved with Block Eight, the book ends with them deciding it’s time to move on, and it seems they soon will be, since the property is now listed as sold. I look forward to Todd regaling us with the stories of their next adventure.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

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

International Women’s Day and Southern Cross Crime Month

 


It’s International Women’s Day today-March 8th – and March is also Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by ReadingMattersBlog, so to honour both, I’m sharing 8 crime fiction books by women writers from Australia or New Zealand which are published internationally, and therefore should be available in most book markets. 

*Covers may vary between markets – click on the cover to learn more

The Dry by Jane Harper

A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

Gathering Dark by Candice Fox

Bound by Vanda Symon

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

The War Widow/Dead Man Switch by Tara Moss

Shanghai Secrets by Sulari Gentill

The Girl Who Never Came Home by Nicole Trope

 

This March perhaps you’d like to support an Australian or New Zealand female crime fiction writer by reading one of their books and sharing it via #SouthernCrossCrime2021 

Happy International Womens Day!

#ChooseToChallenge

A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.

Review: Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Title: Other People’s Houses

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Published: 3rd March 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

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My Thoughts:

Imagining the life that could have been as she wanders through ‘open houses’ on Sydney’s north shore every weekend is just one of the ways Kate Webb copes with the ‘incident’. So is drinking every night until she passes out. One afternoon, as she pockets a pebble for her collection of mementos, Kate overhears the estate agent talking about an exclusive listing. Walking through the front door of the ‘Harding House’, Kate loses herself in the fantasy of living in the large, beautifully appointed mansion, and for a heart stopping moment when she spies a photograph of the family that lives in the home, she imagines their teenage son is her own, sparking an obsession that soon spirals out of control.

Kate is not a character to admire, she’s a drunk, and as such is self-serving and frequently reckless. However, it’s impossible to condemn her completely, her loss – referred to as the incident- is an unimaginable tragedy. Grief is a personal thing and while ten years mired in self-pity, anger and depression may seem excessive, when you know the full story, I dare you to judge her.

That said there is only the barest of justifications for Kate’s obsession with the Harding family – Pip, Brett and their son, Kingsley – though she is in such a state it’s not like she needs much. In theory her heart could be said to be in the right place, but her thinking is so disorganised that Kate triggers a hellish mess when she interferes. Hawkins builds the suspense as Kate blunders around, making the situation worse for herself, and the Harding’s.

To be honest I cared more about Kate’s fate than any one else’s, and it was mostly my investment in her emotional turmoil that kept me turning the pages. I didn’t find the major reveal to be a surprise, but the confrontation that followed was tense and the conclusion was satisfying.

Offering a compelling protagonist and an interesting storyline, I really enjoyed Other People’s Houses. This is a well-crafted crime fiction debut from Kelli Hawkins.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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

Review: A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

Title: A Home Like Ours

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 3rd March 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2021, courtesy Harlequin Australia /Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

“Life was an unpredictable lottery. But surrounded by a community and a garden, the future was easier to face.”

An insightful, warm and engaging story, A Home Like Ours is another fabulous novel from award winning Australian author Fiona Lowe.

When Helen arrived in the small town of Boolanga in rural Victoria three years ago, she had been living in her car, searching for work, and a place to call home. Now, having secured a position as a caretaker of the town’s community garden which provides her with a small cottage, her new found stability is threatened when she insists a local group of refugee women be provided with plots.

Jade is a young mother with no family to speak of and a deadbeat, often absent, partner. To supplement her meagre pension, and provide her baby son with organic produce, she reluctantly agrees to assist Helen in the community garden. Though initially distrustful of everyone, especially the refugees, Jade slowly discovers a place she could belong.

Tara doesn’t understand why her husband, hardware store owner, Jon, seems to have lost interest in her. Wrapped up in her own self-pity, she is stunned when he is diagnosed with a debilitating condition, and is forced to consider what community really means.

The central theme of A Home Like Ours focuses on the effects of displacement. Like the protagonists of Lowe’s story, almost all of us are vulnerable to events such as illness, injury, relationship breakdown, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, as well as extreme situations like war, which could result in a complete change of circumstance.

To face these sorts of unexpected challenges requires the support of a community – of family, of friends, and often even strangers. Lowe’s decision to centre the story on the town’s community garden is a clever one. Not only is it a site that allows her to reflect the population of the town at large, but it’s also a setting in which her very different characters can plausibly meet.

Portrayed with a realistic complexity, I really liked Lowe’s characters and found their stories to be engaging. It’s impressive that she is able to credibly depict women who are of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and have diverse concerns. I would have liked for Fiza, a Sudanese refugee, to have had a larger role in the story, though I can understand why Lowe likely shied away from doing so.

Lowe also explores a range of specific issues relevant in Australia at the moment including racist attitudes towards refugees from African countries, the rise of homelessness experienced by women over 55, the inadequacy of current social support payments, the lack of support programs in rural areas, and government corruption. It seems like a lot, but these issues overlap and intertwine, enriching the story, and informing the reader.

I barely noticed that A Home Like Ours was almost 600 pages long, engrossed in the well-paced story I finished it in a day. This is an wonderful read that encourages empathy, compassion and community.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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

Review: The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale

Title: The Paris Affair

Author: Pip Drysdale

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

“Well, it began like any anti-love story. With Chapitre Un.”

Having landed a dream job as an arts and culture journalist for The Paris Observer, Harper Brown is enjoying her new life in the City of Love, though love is last thing she’s interested in. Still nursing a broken heart after the demise of an eight year relationship, Harper doesn’t want normal – she just wants to impress her new boss, work her way onto the features desk, and has just one rule- do no harm.

It’s rare that I’m surprised by the direction a story takes, but Drysdale managed to do so in The Paris Affair. The first quarter or so of the novel reads more like a romcom, so I wasn’t really expecting the twists in this tale that sees Harper caught up in an art world scandal, and become the target of a serial killer. While not a strong thriller, there are certainly moments of tension, and the pace is persuasive.

Harper Brown is a very appealing protagonist. Though not without her flaws, with her generally pragmatic and confident attitude, she stands out from the more typical insecure, capricious, aged 20-something protagonist in contemporary fiction. Though her cynicism about love is a little intense, it’s also understandable, and her obsession with true crime podcasts is a fun trait.

The Parisian setting will likely charm readers (personally I don’t care much for the place), as will the chapters headed in French, though Drysdale does provide a glimpse of the city’s shadows. The story is firmly grounded in the here and now as Harper scrolls through Instagram, browses though Tinder, texts with friends, and makes her way around the city via Uber.

I found The Paris Affair to be a quick, entertaining and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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

Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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

Review: Sargasso by Kathy George

Title: Sargasso

Author: Kathy George

Published: 3rd February 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“The last thing I remember is the screaming. I remember that because I wasn’t the one doing it…. It was the house. Sargasso. The house was screaming,….”

Inspired by her love of classic gothic fiction, Sargasso is an entrancing, eerie tale of mystery and passion from debut Australian novelist, Kathy George.

Upon her grandmother’s death, Hannah Prendergast inherits Sargasso, the impressive house of glass and stone designed by her late father, built on a headland just outside Shepherd Cove, a holiday town two hours’ drive down the west coast of Melbourne. It’s been twenty years since Helen last crossed the threshold of her childhood home, the family having abandoned it when she was twelve after her father’s body washed up on the beach below.

The narrative shifts smoothly between the past and the present. ‘Then’ Hannah is a bright and imaginative child who delights in the eccentric aspects of Sargasso, one of which is the inscrutable boy who becomes her best and only friend, Flint. ‘Now’, Hannah plans to rejuvenate the house while she decides what to do with it, and is stunned when Flint reappears, a grown man, as enigmatic as ever.

It is the relationship between Hannah and Flint that is at the heart of this story, an obsessive, possessive, all consuming love forged in childhood and reignited with their reunion as adults. Hannah barely hesitates before ending her three year relationship when Flint demands it, and grows ever more reluctant to even leave his side, as Flint has a habit of disappearing for hours, days, even weeks, particularly when she displeases him. The sense of uncertainty and dread steadily escalates as the secrets of Sargasso, both past and present, begins to unravel.

George develops an extraordinary atmosphere that blurs the line between what may be real and what may be imagined. The initial impression of Sargasso is one of light and strength, but slowly, particularly in the present timeline, the atmosphere of the house becomes oppressive and sinister. Rather than protect Hannah, it seems to trap her in a space between waking and sleeping.

The influence of novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca are obvious in terms of both plot and character but I think George provides her own modern Australian twist. Sargasso is an enthralling, haunting, gothic tale.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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

Review: The Second Son by Loraine Peck

Title: The Second Son

Author: Loraine Peck

Published: 4th January 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Second Son is Loraine Peck’s impressive, thrilling crime fiction debut.

‘One. No friends. Two. No feelings. Three. No conscience. Only family. Everyone else is enemy.’

When Ivan Novak is shot dead in his driveway, his father, Milan is certain the leader of a rival Serbian gang is responsible and insists his younger son, Johnny exacts retribution. Johnny isn’t a killer and, not convinced the Serbs are responsible, is reluctant to perpetuate the war that began in Croatia on the streets of Sydney. Looking to deescalate the situation, Johnny develops a brilliant plan that he hopes will satisfy his father’s lust for revenge, and allow he, his wife, Amy, and son, Sasha, to finally escape his family’s stranglehold and start a new, legitimate life. But if the plan fails, Johnny risks losing everything.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Johnny and Amy, The Second Son is an action-packed, (mostly) fast paced crime thriller that explores the themes of family, heritage, loyalty, revenge, and trauma.

Set in the western suburbs of Sydney, where the criminal underworld, often divided by ethnicity, competes for territory and illegal trade, Peck focuses on the animosity between the Serbs and Croats, their conflict imported from the Balkans civil war in the 1990’s. Milan Novak heads a gang of around 25, mostly family members, whose business involves drug trafficking, protection rackets, grand theft, armed robbery and money laundering, their territory abutting the Serbs, Italian, Asian and Bikie syndicates.

With his brother dead, Johnny is expected to step up and take his place as the second-in-command. Peck has given us a complex character, while his devotion to his wife and son are admirable, he is not exactly a good guy. He may not have a taste for killing, but he is not adverse to intimidation, or administering a beating, and his income is largely derived from illegal means. His relationship with his brutal father is complicated, and defying his orders seems impossible unless he can find an alternative. Peck cleverly plots a solution for Johnny, which I won’t share because it would spoil the surprise, but there is still great risk involved, especially in regards to keeping his marriage.

Johnny’s wife, Amy, has always turned a blind eye to the unsavoury elements of the family business, but when her safety and that of their son are threatened, she gives Johnny an ultimatum, demanding they move up north, far from the influence of her in-laws. Amy’s behaviour shows some naivety with regards to understanding the Novak family dynamic (though just enough nous to keep a dark secret), and she underestimates the danger her husband’s rivals presents. I liked her much more in the second half of the story, than the first.

In fact Amy was the cause of my only real issue with the novel as I found her perspective to be repetitive during the first half, which was a detriment to the pacing for me. The sag around the middle was soon forgotten though as Peck ups the stakes for both of her main protagonists, and the suspense drew me eagerly towards the conclusion.

There is quite a lot of violence in The Second Son but there are also flashes of humour. Peck’s writing is confident and engaging and I thought she showed a good understanding of both people, creating interesting, well-rounded characters, and setting, capturing a different aspect of Australian urban life.

The Second Son is an entertaining, tense and gritty crime novel, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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

Review: Crackenback by Lee Christine

Title: Crackenback

Author: Lee Christine

Published: 1st February 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Crakenback follows Lee Christine’s bestselling debut, Charlotte’s Pass, featuring NSW Homicide Squad Detective Sergeant Pierce Ryder. It’s not necessary to have read the former however, as I found this story works very well as a stand-alone.

With the start of the ski season still a few weeks away, Golden Wattle Lodge proprietor Eva Bell is alone with her three year old, Poppy, when Jack Walker, bruised and bleeding, bursts through the door. Eva is terrified as he strips her of her phone and keys, irrationally convinced he has come for his daughter. Learning that Jack has instead come to protect them from a killer bent on revenge gives her only the smallest sense of relief.

Meanwhile DS Ryder and his small task force are searching for a new lead in the hunt for Gavin Hutton who is suspected of beating two men to death. Joined by Detective ‘Daisy’ Flowers, and new team member, Nerida Sterling, the investigation takes them from Sydney, south to Jervis Bay, north to the Central Coast and west to the Snowy Mountains, where their quarry is finally in sight.

Christine immediately captures the reader’s attention in Crackenback with a dramatic prologue, the relevance of which is revealed later in the story, but there’s plenty of action and tension to follow in this tightly plotted, exciting story.

I was as interested in the progress Ryder and his team were making in the search for their fugitive, as I was in Jack and Eva’s nervous wait for their attacker, though it quickly becomes clear they are one and the same. Both perspectives advance the plot and are neatly complimentary while building suspense. I thought the pacing of the story was very good, and I read it easily in one sitting.

Both Eva and Jack were appealing characters. I admired Eva’s determination to protect her daughter and her practical, sensible way of coping with the frightening situation she was thrust into. Jack has an interesting background, and he is obviously capable and resourceful. Though their relationship, which resulted in Poppy, was not much more than a one night stand, it’s obvious the pair are still attracted to each other, though Christine plays down the romance angle in favour of the action.

Unfortunately I hadn’t the opportunity to read Charlotte’s Pass so I’m not terribly familiar with Ryder, but I liked what I saw of him. It was his girlfriend Vanessa, who is also Eva’s sister, who had a larger role in that story. It seems likely to me that the third book will feature one of Ryder’s team.

While the main action takes place at the Lodge in Thredbo, and the deepening snow plays beautifully into the action, one of things I liked was the way in which Christine’s characters moved within the state of NSW. I was particularly delighted that my town of Taree even got a mention (though it wasn’t very flattering and, as far as I know, not true, given the Officer in Charge of our station is a woman).

With an intriguing storyline, fast paced action, and strong characterisation, I thought Crackenback was a great book, and I’ll definitely be reading Christine Lee’s next.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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

Giveaway: With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan

I’m delighted to be able to offer you the chance to win With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan. With My Little Eye is a fascinating biography by Sandra Hogan of a suburban Australian family of spies. READ MY REVIEW HERE, then enter below.

Courtesy Allen & Unwin

I have 1 print edition of

With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan

to giveaway to one lucky Australian resident.

Please leave a comment on this post and then

ENTRY CLOSED

Congratulations Kate C

*PLEASE NOTE: Only Australian residents are eligible to enter*

Entries close 20th February 2021

The giveaway will be random drawing on February 21st and the winner will be notified by email within 48 hours

**********

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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

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