Review: The Wattle Seed Inn by Leonie Kelsall

 

Title: The Wattle Seed Inn

Author: Leonie Kelsall

Published: 5th July 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

To prove a point to her ex-fiancé, whom is also her business partner, Gabrielle Moreau decides that transforming the pub they bought as an investment in the tiny community of Wurruldi into an upmarket B&B would be an ideal project. She plans to be hands on but the building is in worse shape than she expected, and Gabby has no real idea where to start.

Hayden Paech dismisses Gabby as a stuck-up city girl from the moment she walks into the pub at Settlers Bridge, not that it matters given he believes he is no longer has anything to offer to any woman. But the more time he spends in Gabby’s company, particularly as he begins work on the Wurruldi Hotel, the more he wonders if the future he thought he had lost is possible after all.

The Wattle Seed Inn is the second heartwarming contemporary rural fiction novel from Leonie Kelsall set in the Murray River region of South Australia.

Kelsall explores familiar themes such as love, friendship, forgiveness and loss in The Wattle Seed Inn, and also issues such as self acceptance, trust and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Romance is still the key element of the story though, and I enjoyed the way in which the author developed the relationship between Gabby and Hayden.

Gabby and Hayden are drawn together in part because they have experienced the tragic loss of a loved one for which they have held themselves responsible, and recognise that wound in each other, even without knowing the details. The pain is much fresher for Hayden, who also carries physical scars as a daily reminder, and experiences panic attacks. I thought Kelsall’s portrayal of his PTSD was sympathetic and believable, and the inclusion of Hayden’s service dog, Trigger, and his role in supporting him was illuminating. Gabby seems to have it all -wealth, privilege and beauty- but she too carries emotional scars, and harbours hidden insecurities that make her wary of relationships.

The addition of a third perspective in the novel was somewhat of a surprise. Ilse can’t clearly recall how the Wurruldi Hotel, that has been owned by her family for generations, came to be so run down, but she is happy that her home is finally getting the attention it needs, and is eager to offer Gabby advice on how to restore it to its former glory. She drifts around the hotel recalling happier times when her husband was alive, but is also haunted by a sense of something being badly wrong.

I enjoyed the connections Kelsall makes to her debut novel, The Farm at Peppertree Crossing, with the main characters playing a small role in this story. Matt and Roni are two of Hayden’s group of friends which also includes Sharni, who is the first to welcome Gabby to the area, secretly hoping that Gabby could be her ticket off the dairy farm.

Written with warmth, humour and sincerity, offering appealing characters and an engaging story, The Wattle Seed Inn is a lovely read, sure to satisfy fans of the genre.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

 

Title: The Newcomer

Author: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Published: 2nd July 2021, Scribe Publications

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Scribe Publications

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Loosely inspired by the 2002 murder of a woman on Norfolk Island, The Newcomer is a provocative literary crime novel by Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

Paulina Novak, even at 28, is a wild child. Reckless, self absorbed and brazen, with an eating disorder and a drinking problem, she ditched her life in Sydney for a fresh start on the tiny island of Fairfolk, off the eastern coast of Australia. Fairfolk doesn’t take kindly to ‘mainie’s’, especially to someone like Paulina who is wilfully disruptive and openly contemptuous of the insular community, so when two years later, on the day before Paulina’s thirtieth birthday, her body is found under a sheet of black plastic in a field, few are surprised.

Her mother, Judy, waiting in a hotel room to share lunch with her daughter, however is heartbroken, and determined that Paulina’s killer be bought to justice. Given the size of the island community, despite the plethora of possible suspects, Judy expects that the case will be solved quickly, but she it’s two long years before she gets answers.

Moving between Paulina’s past and Judy’s present, the narrative is as much a character study as it is a novel about a crime. Woollett explores interesting questions about mental health, trauma, misogyny, belonging, and victimhood.

Woollett doesn’t present a flattering portrayal of the victim. Paulina is a character that really doesn’t invite sympathy, and I found myself in the uncomfortable position of thinking to myself that her murder seemed almost inevitable given her behaviours. I think that in large part this is the point of The Newcomer, to have the reader confront their unconscious bias with regards to victimhood, because of course it’s not Paulina’s behaviour that is responsible for her death, it is the behaviour of her killer.

Judy too is a complex character, with her own history of trauma, though she is far more sympathetic. A caring mother who has done her best to support her mercurial adult daughter, she’s devastated by Paulina’s death. Woollett portrays her grief in what I felt was a realistic, if sometimes uncomfortable, manner.

Challenging, bold, and poignant, The Newcomer is not an easy read, but it is definitely thought-provoking.

+++++++

Available from Scribe Publications

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Review: When You Are Mine By Michael Robotham

 

Title: When You Are Mine

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: 1st July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Michael Robotham draws from recent news headlines to create a timely, gripping crime fiction novel dealing with domestic violence, toxic relationships, obsession, and police corruption in When You Are Mine.

Called to a complaint of domestic violence, London police constable Philomena (Phil) McCarthy is unimpressed when the abuser, who claims he is detective, threatens her career will be finished, and then takes a swing at her. Though his mistress, who Phil is surprised to recognise, refuses to press charges, she follows protocol and arrests him, only to be reprimanded by her superiors for her poor judgement in arresting a decorated officer, and then suspended. Phil is both disappointed and angered by the cover-up, and despite being ordered to leave it alone, she digs a little deeper into the Detective Goodall’s history, and learns that Tempe is not his only victim.

I’m always impressed that Robotham demonstrates such astute insight into his female characters. Determined and principled, with a touch of youthful righteous idealism and naivety, Phil sincerely wants to do good as a police officer, and has worked hard for the right to do so. Unfortunately her motives will always be considered suspect because her father, from whom she is estranged, is linked to organised crime. This means she is especially vulnerable when she refuses to accept the official line.

In refusing to back down, Phil risks not only her career, but her safety, especially when she offers support to both Tempe and Goodall’s family. As recently as last month, a Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner stated that domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers was at epidemic levels, and victims report a culture of minimisation and coverups. I thought Robotham very effectively showed how intensely vulnerable women, and children, in that position can be. Goodall is not about to simply let go, but then neither is Phil.

There’s a twist in the tale as Tempe, grateful to Phil for her help, tries to repay her. She offers to help with Phil’s impending wedding to her firefighter husband, Henry, then she begins to take care of the everyday tasks Phil, intent on helping Alison Goodall, doesn’t have time for. I really liked how Robotham subtly developed this thread which presents some of the biggest surprises.

Robotham is an accomplished author who knows how to hook his readers and keep them interested not only with a fast pace and the twists expected of the genre, but also characters that are dynamic and interesting. When You Are Mine is a exciting and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock

 

Title: The Other Side of Beautiful

Author: Kim Lock

Published: 7th July 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Harlequin

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My Thoughts:

 

The Other Side of Beautiful is a wonderfully engaging contemporary novel from Kim Lock.

“It was almost midnight. It was the eve of Mercy’s thirty-sixth birthday. None of these things—not the orange flames nor the agog neighbours, not the birthday nor the deafly ringing ears—were Mercy’s biggest problem, either.”

Watching her home burn to the ground, her pet Dachshund, Wasabi, cradled in her arms, Mercy Blain fights to hold herself together. Panic attacks have prevented her venturing further than her driveway for two years, and now she is standing on the road, surrounded by neighbours and emergency service personnel, her sanctuary destroyed. Desperation forces her to turn to her not-quite ex-husband as a temporary refuge, but his new live-in boyfriend is not exactly welcoming, leading Mercy to impulsively purchase a vintage (read small and dingy) camper van. With no desire except to be anywhere else, Mercy impulsively decides to leave everything behind, and drive from Adelaide to Darwin.

“She wanted it to be over—she wanted to be on the other side of it all.”

While Mercy’s journey is an impulse, it’s a brave move to drive the 3000km+ from southern to northern Australia, anxiety or not. Having left Adelaide with not much more than the clothes on her a back, Wasabi, and, rather unexpectedly, the boxed cremains of a stranger, she has no choice but to endure the stress of interacting with strangers to source supplies. The route is also popular with ‘grey nomads’ and other travellers, and though the camper van, adorned with a message ‘Home is wherever you are’, provides Mercy with privacy, she’s rarely truly alone. Her road trip ‘companions’ are charming, kind and persistent, and eventually Mercy responds when they reach out.

“A panic attack was her body preparing to run for its life. Digestion halted, all rational cognitive function ceased and she became a helpless passenger in a runaway body.”

Panic disorders are often misunderstood. When not in the middle of an attack, Mercy, a doctor, is aware her fears are irrational but she feels powerless in its grip. her crippling ordeal with anxiety, triggered by three traumatic incidents which occurred in a single week, has an authenticity which is borne of the author’s own experience. I found Mercy to be a very sympathetic character, especially as I learned more about her circumstances, and I was invested in both her emotional and physical journey.

“Or she could find somewhere in that great in-between, that place of nuance and clarity and balance. That place where she could do her best, do what she needed to do, and not let the fear of pain and hurt, all the infinite what ifs, crowd her mind until she could do nothing….”

Written with heart, humour and compassion, I enjoyed being a passenger on this journey through Australia’s stunning interior landscape, alongside a character I really came to care about, and her sausage dog. The Other Side of Beautiful is genuine, gracious and entertaining.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West

 

Title: Catch Us The Foxes

Author: Nicola West

Published: 7th July 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

 

Catch Us the Foxes is a dark, enthralling thriller from debut Australian novelist, Nicola West.

The novel opens with a prologue where Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson, is being introduced to an audience at the Sydney Opera House. She is to speak about her best selling true crime book, ‘The Showgirl’s Secret’, an account of the tragic death of a young woman, Lily Williams, seven years previously.

Marlowe was a 22 year old intern at the local paper when she found Lily’s body in the stables of the town showground. When her father, the town police chief, asked Lo to lie about some of the details of the crime, including the symbols carved into the young woman’s flesh, she reluctantly agreed, but then she is given Lily’s journals which suggest Lo’s father, and other prominent citizens, may have a reason to have wanted Lily dead.

West presents a compelling, intricate mystery where the truth is shockingly elusive to the very last page. Lily’s diaries suggest a frightening cult is operating in their small coastal town, and while the allegations seem absurd, Lo is prompted to dig further when a carnival worker is arrested for Lily’s murder on threadbare evidence. If what Lily has written is true, there are plenty of possible suspects among the townsfolk, and West cleverly portrays them with an interesting ambiguity. Suspense builds as trust is eroded, and Lo attempts to ascertain the truth.

Lo presents as smart, resourceful and ambitious but there is an edge to her character that is disquieting. Doubt is thrown on the validity of her investigation when other characters suggest Lo is suffering from PTSD, and the possibility is a nag as she continues to piece information together, so that her reliability as a narrator is in question. It’s a clever conceit that West manages well.

The plot makes good use of the setting, small towns seem capable of hiding secrets behind their bucolic facades. I’ve been to Kiama (on NSW’s south coast) where Catch Us the Foxes takes place, and it’s a pretty coastal town, not so different from the one I live in now, but West successfully paints it as a claustrophobic, corrupt community.

With its clever structure and twisting, gripping plot, Catch Us the Foxes is an impressive read. The stunning final reveal seems to divide readers, but I thought it was terrific.

+++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Others by Mark Brandi

 

Title: The Others

Author: Mark Brandi

Published: 30th June 2021, Hachette

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette

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My Thoughts:

 

The Others is a haunting coming-of-age novel from award-winning Australian author Mark Brandi.

On his eleventh birthday Jacob’s father gifts him a diary, encouraging his son to write about their life on an isolated farm in rural Tasmania. The boy writes of the sheep they tend, the goats they hunt and eat, the drought that destroys their crops, the foxes that lurk in the hills. Of his dead mother, whom he misses but can’t remember, of the whites of his father’s eyes, of the questions he has about ‘the town’, the plague, and the Others.

Jacob’s voice is captivating, Brandi pitches it perfectly to project the curiosity and innocence of a young boy whose understanding and experience of the world is limited to what his father tells him, supplemented by a dictionary, an incomplete encyclopaedia, and a faded Women’s Weekly magazine.

Jacob is reluctant to ask his father too many questions, wary of his father’s temper or alternatively afraid that the ‘soft eyes’ will return, which means his dad may not talk or move for days. There are subtle clues for the reader that what Jacob’s father tells him about life outside the farm may not be true, small details that the boy doesn’t recognise as incongruous. Tension builds as Jacob’s curiosity grows, and he secretively begins defying his father’s edict to remain within the confines of the farm. Brandi conjures dread and anxiety as a confrontation, either between Jacob and his father or Jacob and the ‘others’, seems inevitable.

The writing is spare, yet evocative, I was clearly able to visualise the farm and it’s immediate surrounds. Some of the graphic scenes in the novel have more impact because the description is so stark. Unexpectedly, the story is also enhanced by small sketches, drawn by Jacob in his diary.

Powerful and unsettling, The Others is a gripping novel with an ending that left my heart pounding.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Lily’s Little Flower Shop by Lisa Darcy

 

Title: Lily’s Little Flower Shop

Author: Lisa Darcy

Published: 5th May 2021, Bloodhound Books

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

 

Lily’s Little Flower Shop is an engaging contemporary romantic comedy from Australian author Lisa Darcy (aka Lisa Heidke).

Passed over for a promotion she deserved, and unwilling to follow her boyfriend overseas, Lily impulsively decides to ditch the corporate rat race and become her own boss by opening a florist on the south coast of NSW.

I liked Lily, who throws herself into making the flower shop a success. Lily, whose floristry experience comes from helping her aunt in the flower shop she once owned and a long ago completed course, faces a steep learning curve as she launches her business. I think becoming your own boss is a dream that often tempts people, but it’s hard work that requires a huge ongoing investment of time and money. Lily is often exhausted and stressed about the financial viability of the decision she has made, and I like that the author doesn’t downplay the challenges Lily faces in following her heart.

Lily is supported by well-drawn, relatable characters. While her mother is certain that Lily’s sea-change is a mistake, her slightly eccentric aunt Iris, is always there to cheer her on, as is Lily’s former colleague and friend, Taylor, who becomes a regular visitor. The townspeople of Clearwater are largely welcoming, and Lily quickly befriends hairdresser Zena, and artist and picture framer, Andy. I really liked the genuine sense of community that Darcy evoked, and the diversity represented.

Lily tries to maintain a long distance relationship with Matt, who has relocated to Hong Kong, but it’s clear the two are incompatible. This leaves the way clear for Darcy to introduce romance in Clearwater, and Lily finds her self with two admirers, Ben – the owner of a local winery, and the aforementioned Andy. The men are quite different from each other, and Andy’s unusual backstory adds drama to the story in introducing the issues of domestic violence and mental health.

Lighthearted but with pleasing depth, told with warmth and humour, Lily’s Little Flower Shop is a bloomin’ good story.

++++++

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Blog Tour Review: Someone I Used To Know by Paige Toon

 

Title: Someone I Used To Know

Author: Paige Toon

Published: 16th June 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

I had tears in my eyes when I turned the last pages of Someone I Used To Know, the fifteenth contemporary romance novel from bestselling author, Paige Toon.

Shifting between the past and the present, this is a heart wrenching tale of first love and second chances.

Then, Leah was fifteen when George and Theo came into her life. George the latest to be added to her parents brood of fostered teens, Theo expelled from his third exclusive boarding college and doing penance by attending the local secondary school. Unexpectedly the three form a close bond, one Leah is wary of jeopardising by revealing her deeper feelings for George.

In the now, Leah returns home to the farm with her young daughter, but without her husband, Theo. She is stunned when George reappears after an absence of nearly fifteen years to repay the kindness his foster parents showed him, and wary of renewing their friendship, especially when old feelings begin to resurface.

I found myself utterly captivated by Someone I Used To Know, charmed by Leah’s busy household and generous hearted parents who offer sanctuary to children in need, warmed by the intense bond that develops between Leah, George and Theo, and heartbroken when the trio are separated. I delighted in alpaca’s with personality, giant fluffy bunny’s, and a wood planted with love and hope for the future.

I was shocked by the tragedy that called Leah home, devastated when I finally learnt the truth behind Theo’s absence from Leah and her daughter’s life, hopeful when she was reunited with George, and teary-eyed as I read the epilogue.

Someone I Used To Know offers #allthefeels. I loved it.

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Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

 

Title: Who Gets To Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge

Author: Bri Lee

Published: 5th June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Read: June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

In Who Gets To Be Smart, Bri Lee explores the relationship between education, privilege, power and knowledge.

 

“Knowledge is power, and when powerful people are allowed to shape knowledge and restrict access to knowledge, they are able to consolidate and strengthen their hold on that power.”

 

Lee’s focus is primarily on the gatekeepers of educational access and success in Australia, and their role in determining who gets to be ‘smart’, rather than the contribution of raw intelligence to the equation. The majority of Lee’s observations about the ways in which knowledge is controlled by those with privilege and power seem obvious to me so I don’t feel the book offered me much personally in the way of unique insight, though I’m sure there are some who have never considered the correlation.

It seemed to me that Lee occasionally followed paths that didn’t really connect to the central premise. There were relevant topics I felt Lee didn’t acknowledge such as Australia’s secondary and tertiary scholarship options, and I think the HECS-HELP and VET schemes merited more discussion.

Lee’s own anecdotes and asides keeps Who Gets To Be Smart from being dry. Her research seems sound, and the information is presented in an accessible manner.

I found Who Gets To Be Smart to be an interesting read, I hope it sparks discussion about inequality in educational access and success that will lead to change.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

 

Title: Echolalia

Author: Briohny Doyle

Published: 1st June 2021, Vintage Australia

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

I’m not sure how best to describe Echolalia by Briohny Doyle, perhaps as a literary domestic suspense. Set in an outer suburban Australia the timeline of Echolalia shifts ‘Before’ and ‘After’ the night Emma Cormac left her infant son alone by a dried up lake.

In the before, Emma is married to Robert Cormac, the princely only son of local wealthy construction developers, and installed in the expansive home he built for them. It’s the stuff of fairytales for Emma, who is from a far less affluent background, which only begins to sour with the birth of their second child, a son who is quickly diagnosed with a hereditary disorder, and viewed as a blot on the Cormac family name. Seeking redemption for what is perceived as her failure to provide a suitable heir, barely eighteen months later Emma presents her husband wth a healthy son, Robbie.

After, Emma’s children, Clem and Arthur, are young adults who have not seen their mother since the night baby Robbie died. While Arthur has made a life for himself far from the influence of the Cormac’s, Clem remains haunted by all she does not know.

Echolalia is a bleak tale, commenting on climate change, capitalism, class, privilege, legacy, patriarchy, trauma and motherhood. I found the ‘Before’ to be more compelling than the ‘After’, which feels somewhat unresolved.

Emma’s emotions are viscerally portrayed as she becomes increasingly fragile, both emotionally and physically. Her sense of self already vague, it disintegrates under the expectations of the family she has into married to. Drifting unheeded towards the inevitable tragedy, it’s clear Emma is suffering from post natal depression which tips into psychosis.

In their relationship with Emma, while her husband Robert is perhaps at best myopic, his mother Pat is wilfully insensitive, and Robert’s cousin, Shane, is pointedly cruel. These attitudes are also echoed in their business dealings as the wield their wealth and power in ways which are both careless and deliberate. In the aftermath the Cormac’s accept no responsibility, Emma and the loss of Robbie, a convenient scapegoat for everything that then befalls them.

With its crisp and evocative prose, Echolalia is a raw, poignant and unsettling novel that left me uncomfortable, but thoughtful.

+++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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