Review: Wildflower by Monique Mulligan

 

Title: Wildflower

Author: Monique Mulligan

Published: 8th March 2022, Pilyara Press

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

 

Wildflower is a thoughtful and poignant story by Australian author Monique Mulligan.

In this dual timeline novel, the narrative shifts between that of ten year old Jane Kelly over a six week period during the summer of 1979, and the first person perspective of an anonymous woman 20 years later. Both narratives thoughtfully address the issue of domestic violence -the behaviours and attitudes that contribute to it, and its tragic legacy.

The school holidays have just begun for Jane. She’s glad to be able to escape the daily bullying at school inflicted by Mary Evans, but despairing at spending the summer alone, so when Acacia Miller moves in next door, Jane is determined they will be best friends. To her delight, the two girls are almost immediately inseparable but Jane doesn’t understand why there are questions Acacia refuses to answer, or why she’s never invited to play inside her friends home.

In the latter timeline, related from a first person perspective, an anxious and bruised woman makes the decision to leave her abusive husband and, with nowhere else to go, finds herself at a womens’ shelter. As the woman struggles to rebuild her life from the welcome safety of the refuge, she reflects on the circumstances that has led to her situation, confronting a legacy of violence.

Mulligan writes with insight and clarity about the complex subject of domestic violence. She presents it from the perspectives of several individuals including victims, survivors, and observers with compassion and sensitivity. She also explores the social, cultural and various situational contexts that contribute both directly and indirectly to the problem, like traditional attitudes about gender roles, and alcohol/drug use.

A stand out for me is Mulligan’s portrayal of her characters, particularly her child characters who think, speak and act appropriately for their varying ages, something few authors are able to do well. I thought Jane was a wonderful narrator, while bright and curious, her youthful innocence underscores the poignancy of events.

I also thought it was clever of the author to use the anonymity of the adult narrator to add another layer of suspense to the story. I did not guess her identity until it was revealed, and I liked the way it tied into the main narrative.

Moving and powerful, Wildflower is an engaging story crafted with care.

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Review: The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

 

Title: The Murder Rule

Author: Dervla McTiernan

Published: 4th May 2022, WilliamMorrow

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Offering some startling twists and turns, The Murder Rule is a compelling stand alone legal thriller from best selling author, Dervla McTiernan.

When law student Hannah Rokeby learns that the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is making progress overturning the sentence of convicted rapist and murderer, Michael Dandridge, she leaves her sick mother, Laura, in the care of a neighbour, and relocates to Charlottesville where she convinces Professor Robert Parekh she’d be an asset to the program. But Hannah doesn’t want to save Michael, she wants to ensure the man is never released.

I was immediately intrigued by the premise of The Murder Rule, and why, and how, a young woman might go about undermining a prisoner’s release. With the preliminary hearing for dismissal imminent, the Innocence team, and Hannah, are under pressure to complete their respective objectives, and that tension translates well to the story’s pacing.

Hannah certainly seems convinced that her mission is righteous, and though her ruthless moves to gain a place on the project are not flattering, once her motive is disclosed in the alternating chapters that provide entries from her mother’s diary written 24 years earlier, Hannah’s behaviour seems if not reasonable, then at least justifiable. I liked the ambiguity of Hannah’s character, I was never entirely sure what she’d do, particularly when faced with information that challenged her beliefs.

There are some quite spectacular surprises in the novel, one twist in particular made me gasp out loud as it was so unexpected. There are also a number of tense, and even violent, moments as Hannah, and her colleagues, step on toes during their investigation. As much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit there are some distracting flaws related to the legal elements of the story, and these particularly detracted from the intensity of the climatic courtroom scene, even though the outcome was satisfying.

Though not as sophisticated as McTiernan’s award winning Cormac Reilly, I still found The Murder Rule to be a page-turning, entertaining thriller with a compelling concept.

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Review: Til Death, or a little light maiming, Do Us Part by Kathy Lette

 

Title: Till Death, or a little light maiming, Do Us Part

Author: Kathy Lette

Published: 29th March 2022, Vintage

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The reported death of Jason Riley triggers a madcap revenge caper in Till Death, or a little light maiming, Do Us Part by Kathy Lette.

As sixty year old schoolteacher Gwen Brookes stares grief-stricken at all that remains of her handsome, loving husband of two years, Jason Riley, – a swimming cap and a piece of torn, blood-stained wetsuit – after he was reportedly taken by a shark while training for an Ironman competition, a woman in a bejewelled bustier and leather jacket barrels through the crowd calling her husband’s name. To Gwen’s horror, jazz singer Tish also claims to be Jason’s wife, and though she is loathe to believe it, Tish has their wedding certificate issued a year earlier, as proof. More shocks are to come when the women sit across from Jason’s lawyer and learn that his entire estate, and much of theirs, had been transferred to a female business partner in Egypt just days before his death.

Despite the antipathy between the two Mrs Riley’s, and Gwen’s fear of flying, the women fly to Cairo in the hope of recovering their money only to discover Jason, alive and well, in the arms of a younger woman. As Jason flees through the streets of the city, Gwen learns that Skye, a geologist, is not just Jason’s business partner but also his wife of less than a year, and though Skye is sceptical of the women’s claims, when she logs on to her banking account she finds both their business, and her personal account have been emptied.

Now three very hurt, angry and near broke Mrs Riley’s are on the trail of the conman they had the misfortune to marry, and Jason may well wish he was dead if they manage to catch him.

Sure the plot is absurd, but it’s also fun as the reader is led all over the globe while the women give chase, from Cairo to the Maldives, from Tanzania and through Europe, with Jason just barely eluding their grasp several times. Though it’s a whirlwind world tour, geography teacher Gwen insists on visiting at least some cultural sites as the women pursue their quarry by plane, train, ship and even bicycle, uncovering more victims of Jason’s as they go.

Tish’s bold personality and raunchy sense of humour contrasts sharply with Gwen’s sensible, timid manner, and Skye’s crystal loving spirituality. A descending decade or so apart in age (Gwen is the oldest) the women have almost nothing in common so there is plenty of conflict between them, but the bond that slowly develops between Gwen and Tish in particular is warming.

The dialogue consists mostly of wisecracks, innuendo and quips. Though Lette made me laugh more than once, the humour tends to be obvious and get a little one-note after a while.

For all its inanity however, the story does address issues such as the vulnerability of women of all ages and social groups to so called ‘love rats’, and explores the idea that women can choose to embrace the post menopausal period as an opportunity to redefine their lives.

Till Death, or a little light maiming, Do Us Part is a funny, raunchy, fast-paced adventure that you’ll likely either love or hate.

++++++++

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

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Review: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness by Meredith Jaffe

 

Title: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness

Author: Meredith Jaffe

Published: March 2022, HarperCollins Australia 

Stats: Read April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

A novel about love, marriage and redemption, The Tricky Art of Forgiveness is the fourth novel from Australian author, Meredith Jaffé.

While her husband, Will, is overseas on business, Diana Forsyth is left to unpack their possessions in their new seaside apartment. It’s a bittersweet task for Diana who has had to say goodbye to the beloved family home in which they raised their children, and nostalgia strikes as their belongings pass through her hands. When she finds a hand written note among her husbands clothes that says, ‘I forgive you’, Diana is stunned, the phrase dredging up a past she thought was settled between them.

Shifting between the past, and the present, the story represents the truism that marriage is a choice that is not made just once, but every day. The highs and lows of Diana and Will’s relationship are laid bare from the heady days of their first meeting, to the difficult moments that have at times divided them. The timing of their latest marital crisis couldn’t be worse given they expect to host family and friends to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and Will’s 60th birthday in a week.

To be honest I came very close to putting The Tricky Art of Forgiveness aside more than once, as I felt there had been so little advancement in terms of story. I hadn’t really warmed to Diana either, and Will had yet to even make an appearance, but I pushed through and I was relieved to find the last third of the novel more satisfying.

On reflection I think Jaffe presents a thoughtful exploration of the changes in a long term relationship, examining the impact of common challenges such as autonomy, parenting, work/lifestyle balance, and ageing, as well as specific issues like infidelity, loss and individual sacrifice. There were some observations that struck me as insightful, and moments I found tender and poignant, I just wasn’t particularly invested until the couple’s secrets were revealed, curious as to how they would resolve the issues between them.

Though not a story that resonated strongly with me, I’ve no doubt The Tricky Art of Forgiveness will find its audience. And I must mention that the bonus Spotify playlist Jaffe links to that reflects her characters musical interest was an unexpected joy.

+++++++++

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Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan

 

Title: Dinner With the Schnabels

Author: Toni Jordan

Published: 30th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read April courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“Dinner with the Schnabels. It could be the title of a horror movie.”

A contemporary domestic drama, Dinner With the Schnabels is a novel about love, marriage and family from Australian author Toni Jordan.

Simon Larsen is an architect, or rather he was. Unemployed since the pandemic bankrupted his business, he’s now a reluctant house husband of sorts in the cramped 2 bedroom flat he and his family of four were forced to move into after also losing their home. With his beloved wife, Tansy (née Schnabel), working as a real estate agent to support their family, Simon feels useless and so when she asks that he landscapes a friends back yard in preparation for her estranged father’s memorial in a week, Simon is determined to prove himself capable.

What follows is a comedy of errors of a sort as Simon is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to work on the project by a range of situations including an unexpected houseguest, a tardy tradie, an errant sock and an enterprising 8 year old. Yet at its heart this is a story about errant priorities and the quest for happiness.

Earnest and well-intentioned, if generally also a bit neurotic and hapless, Simon is a surprisingly endearing character. His perspective is both amusing, and thought-provoking, revealing a man bewildered by the unexpected route his life has taken, and floundering to find a new direction. As Simon attempts to navigate the gauntlet of everyday tribulations, his intimidating in-laws, particularly fractious matriarch Gloria, and his own emotional inertia, he’s challenged by some uncomfortable and surprising insights.

Witty, perceptive and moving, Dinner With the Schnabels is a well-written, entertaining read.

++++++++

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Review: Her Fierce Creatures by Maria Lewis

 

Title: Her Fierce Creatures {Supernatural Sisters #8}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 8th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Her Fierce Creatures is the breathtaking conclusion of Maria Lewis’s award-winning Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series.

Since my very late introduction to this series with The Rose Daughter, I’ve tracked down the earlier instalments but regrettably not had the time to read them, so I was hesitant to jump into the finale. I was relieved to find my lack of familiarity with the series overall proved not to be a hindrance, and I quickly found myself absorbed in Her Fierce Creatures.

After centuries of oppression and increasing cruelty by the Trieze, the ruling class of the supernatural that live hidden among modern society, the time has come to revolt. The balance of power hinges on the safe delivery of banshee Sadie Burke’s triplets, and the best way to protect them is to disrupt and divide the forces of the Praetorian Guard, uniting races and clans in the fight.

Supernatural emissaries from all over the world gather in the Australian dessert to plan their rebellion. Vankila, the Scottish underground prison from which sprite Dreckly Jones is the only one to have ever escaped, is a priority target and they devise a risky plan in which werewolf Tommi Grayson gets herself arrested, to stage a break out, rather than a break in.

There’s lots of fast paced, high tension action as Tommi enacts the plan with plenty of help, while groups of volunteers simultaneously attack other Trieze facilities around the world. Dreckly Jones and Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, also play major roles in the battle. The clashes are dangerous and violent, and there are losses that will weigh heavily on them all.

Meanwhile Sadie is hidden from the Trieze in a remote New Zealand stronghold, guarded by her family and Tommi’s Māori werewolf relatives. Sadie is struggling with both the physical and emotional pressures of her pregnancy, and her anxiety grows after a vision suggests that the Trieze will come for her. Werewolf Simon is tasked as Sadie’s personal guard, and I was surprised and delighted by the heartwarming romance that developed between the two.

Her Fierce Creatures is a must read for fans of the series, those familiar with the Supernatural Sisters will appreciate the elements of closure for the characters they’ve grown to know and love, and the ending is as dramatic and climatic as could be hoped for.

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Review: Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell

 

Title: Daughters of Eve

Author: Nina D. Campbell

Published: 1st March 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Daughters of Eve is a spectacularly provocative thriller from debut author Nina D. Campbell.

When a high profile defence barrister is shot dead by a sniper on the courthouse steps in front of her, Detective Sergeant Emilia Hart is eager to take the lead on the investigation, but instead finds herself sidelined, and assigned a ‘floater’ discovered in the Sydney Harbour. It surprises everyone when an autopsy reveals the man in the water was shot by the same weapon that killed the barrister. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between the two, but as a third, and then a fourth man are killed, each from a sniper shot with the same grouping, Emilia sees a pattern her colleagues prefer to ignore, until the Daughters of Eve, and their manifesto, makes it impossible.

A thrilling tale of revenge, I raced through Daughters of Eve. The mystery is intriguing as Emilia tries to piece together the motive and the identity of the vigilante sniper, chasing leads that seem to go nowhere. It’s Emilia who identifies the link between the victims, all too familiar with the violence men wreak on women and children, like that she, the two girls she claims as daughters, and the names listed on her refrigerator, have endured. Emilia is painfully aware as to how rarely these men are held accountable for their behaviour, but as a police officer she can’t condone vigilantism and commits herself to solving the case, no matter where it leads.

I can’t deny that it was somewhat satisfying to imagine the tables turned, for abusive men to be afraid as the Daughters of Eve reveal themselves, launching an app that invites women to name their unpunished tormentors, sparking a wave of copycat murders across the nation. Campbell imagines a response that seems infuriatingly plausible-of a government mobilising every resource available to put an end to the killings, despite its failures to provide even the bare minimum to ensure the protection women and children victimised by domestic abusers and rapists. Exploring themes such as justice vs vengeance, prevention vs protection, the plot is as thought-provoking as it is sensational.

I thought the author deftly balanced the professional and personal aspects of Emilia’s life, ensuring a well rounded character who engenders both affection and respect.  As rabidly anti-male as the story may seem to be, Campbell acknowledges good men too. Emilia’s investigative partner, Robbo, is, by and large, a decent guy. So too is Melbourne detective Matt Hayes with whom Emilia becomes involved despite her wariness.

Gripping, bold and sharp, I’ve rarely been so impressed by a debut novel, and recommend Daughters of Eve without hesitation.

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Review: Those Who Perish by Emma Viskic

Title: Those Who Perish {Caleb Zelic #4}

Author: Emma Viskic

Published: 1st March 2022, Echo Publishing

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:


“He’d done the worst he could, the best he could, just had to find a way of living with it.”

Those Who Perish is the final Instalment in the outstanding crime series by Emma Viskic featuring deaf security consultant Caleb Zelic.

Following the tumultuous events of Resurrection Bay, And Fire Came Down, and Darkness for Light, Caleb seems to be in a better place. Business is steady, he’s reconciled with his wife, Kat, and with the birth of their first child imminent he is making plans for the future, but it all begins to come undone when Caleb receives a text warning him that his estranged brother, Anton, is in trouble. After rescuing an ungrateful Anton from the attentions of a sniper, Caleb vows to untangle his brother from whatever he’s gotten himself into, and is drawn into the strange goings on in the insular community of Muttonbird Island, a short ferry ride across Resurrection Bay.

Viskic develops a complex plot that has Caleb struggling to make sense of the links between a new rehabilitation facility on the island, a sniper with a growing body count, shipping invoices, blackmail, Neo-Nazi’s, and a cheese maker. Even with Anton’s grudging cooperation, Caleb doesn’t feel as if he is making much progress, but he must be stepping on someone’s toes because his family’s house is blown up, and very nearly Caleb too, more than once. There are plenty of red herrings, and personally I was as stumped as Caleb, not sure what was really going on or who was involved, until almost the same moment it all came together for him.

While there has been plenty of action over the course of the series, Viskic has never neglected Caleb’s character development, and I was cheered by his emotional growth in Darkness for Light, so it’s almost painful to witness Caleb backsliding in Those Who Perish. His concerns about impending fatherhood, Anton’s presence, and being back in Resurrection Bay reopens old wounds and insecurities, and overwhelmed, Caleb shuts down. By the time he is able to acknowledge that mistake his relationship with his brother, and Kat, may be past saving.

I’ve always appreciated the sharpness of Viskic’s succinct prose, reflecting in part, I think, Caleb’s own experience of understanding speech, and suited to the fast pace of the plot. Though descriptions are brief, they are enough to conjure images of the characters and landscape. Those Who Perish could be read as a stand alone but I recommend investing in the prior books for an enhanced experience.

I’m grateful for the epilogue that provides a semblance of closure, yet that still leaves the possibility of revival open. Those Who Perish is an exciting, tense and compelling finale to a stellar series.

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Available in the US July 2022 from Pushkin Vertigo

Review: A Family of Strangers by Fiona Lowe

 

Title: A Family of Strangers

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 2nd March 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The sixth contemporary novel from Australian author Fiona Lowe, A Family of Strangers is an appealing story that features three women- college lecturer Addy Topic who views her return to her late parents home in Rookery Cove, Tasmania, as a temporary convenience; Stephanie Gallagher who, along with her husband, toddler son and, unexpectedly, her teen step-daughter, has relocated from Melbourne in hopes of a better work/life balance; and mother, grandmother, and recent widow Brenda Lambeck, who is reluctant to reveal to her family, especially her narrow minded daughter Courtney, that her ‘boarder’, Marilyn, is actually her lover.

Strangers to one another, the catalyst to their meeting is the reformation of the Rookery Cove Choir at the behest of Marilyn. Stephanie is excited for both the opportunity to make friends and escape the rising tensions at home, and though neither Brenda, nor Addy are initially enthusiastic about the idea for their own reasons, the camaraderie of the choir proves to be a salve for them all. That is, until the night of their first performance, when an indiscreet comment exposes secrets that trigger confrontations and self examination.

Relationships-particularly those between mothers and daughters, escape, and being true to yourself are the main themes of A Family of Strangers, represented in different ways among the characters. Each struggle to find a balance between what others want from them, and what they need for themselves, in the way that is familiar to many women.

Brenda, Addy and Stephanie are well drawn, complex characters. They make good decisions, and bad, at times I found them sympathetic, at other times frustrating, but it’s their flaws make them realistic. Representing different ages and stages of life, it’s likely the experiences of one or more characters will resonate, their thoughts or actions reflecting your own.

Lowe addresses several topical issues, and in particular the ways in which they impact on women including alcoholism, sexual assault, sexual identity, workplace harassment, misogyny, the burden of domestic ‘mental load’, work/life balance, miscarriage, and infertility. Drawing on her experience as a counsellor, the author’s portrayal of the drama and emotion surrounding these challenging issues is genuine and sensitive.

A Family of Strangers is an engaging, thoughtful and astute novel.

+++++++++

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