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

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Tour Review: The Wattle Island Book Club by Sandie Docker

Title: The Wattle Island Book Club

Author: Sandie Docker

Published: 31st August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Wattle Island Book Club, the fourth book from Australian author Sandie Docker, is a bittersweet story about love, loss, courage, passion and hope.

Seven years after the last meeting of the book club on Wattle Island, octogenarian artist, Anne Sato, is determined to revive it, hoping in part that it will provide her grandson, Sam, with the impetus to move past the tragedy that haunts him. Reaching out to a library on the mainland, Anne is put in contact with Grace Elliot who is happy to help, despite the logistical challenges. When Anne reports a lacklustre participation in the first book club meeting, Grace proposes attending the next gathering. Not only is she eager to encourage the success of book club, but visiting the island will fulfil an item on her bucket list, which Grace is running out of time to complete.

Anne is a delightful character with a little of the sass that comes from no longer worrying much what others think of you. A recent stroke is her motivation for reviving the book club, which she hopes will not only bring the community together, but also help her grandson. Further insight into her character comes through Anne’s reminiscing about the past, from arriving on the island as an orphan to be placed in the care of her aunt, through to her unconventional (for the times) courtship and marriage to Tadashi Sato.

Grace is initially a bit of an enigma. When we are first introduced she seems to be like any twenty something year old, indulging in adventures like bungee jumping and skydiving with her best friend, though there are early hints that not all is as it seems. I liked the idea of Grace’s evolving bucket list (I’ve never put together one of my own, suspecting it would just say ‘Read more often’) and her determination to live on her terms. Grace is a character that garnered both my admiration and sympathy.

Docker touches on some serious issues in The Wattle Island Book Club including misogyny, racism, mental illness, suicide and cancer, but the power of literature to change lives is a theme that unifies the characters, as well as the past and the present. Readers will no doubt enjoy references to cultural classics such as Anne of Green Gables, Bridget Jones Diary and Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

Combining history, romance, literature, art, and a touch of mystery, there is plenty to engage with in The Wattle Island Book Club. However, It would be remiss of me not to mention there is a fairly major element of the story I have mixed feelings about, and though I was somewhat mollified by the epilogue, it would definitely be something I’d raise for discussion in a book club.

The Wattle Island Book Club is a captivating, wistful, and poignant novel, and would make a wonderful selection for your next book club meeting.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

 

Title: Happy Hour

Author: Jacquie Byron

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Written with warmth, sensitivity, and humour, Jacquie Byron explores grief, guilt, forgiveness and atonement in her debut novel, Happy Hour.

In the three years since the sudden death of her beloved husband, Franny Calderwood has created a solitary life that suits her. Avoiding the company of those she and her husband once called friends, she passes the time with painting, solo excursions, gourmet cooking, and caring for her dogs, Whisky and Soda, often with a glass of wine or a cocktail at hand.

When the Salerno family – newly single mother Sallyanne, teenager Dee and eight year old Josh move in next door, Franny surprises herself by welcoming them in her life, but bad habits are hard to break, and when Franny reverts to her old ways, she must finally confront everything she has lost, to keep what she has gained.

I feel the storyline of Happy Hour is somewhat reminiscent of Fredrik Backman’s ‘A Man Called Ove’, but it definitely has its own unique tone, and doesn’t suffer in the comparison. Happy Hour offers heartfelt emotion and light, funny moments, but Bryon also explores difficult feelings associated with loss, and touches on serious issues including domestic violence, addiction and neonatal loss. I was worried that Byron would favour forgiveness over atonement , and I was very glad that this was not the case.

Franny, a 65 year-old artist and children’s book author, is an appealing character. Despite her heartbreak, she is quick-witted, cultured, generous, as well as a touch eccentric, particularly after a drink or three. It’s said that there is no wrong or right way to grieve, but it’s clear that Franny’s way of coping is not exactly healthy, and her behaviour could even be construed as selfish. Byron successfully walks the line though, so that Franny evokes sympathy, even when she acts badly. I loved the relationships Fanny formed with the Salerno family, encouraging self-belief in both the rebellious Dee, and sensitive Josh.

Funny, charming and poignant, Happy Hour is a sparkling novel.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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

Review: Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

 

Title: Cutters End

Author: Margaret Hickey

Published: 17th August 2021, Bantam Australia 

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

When public pressure results in a thirty-two year old case being reopened, Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is recalled from long service leave and tasked with reinvestigating the death of Michael Denby on a lonely stretch of the Stuart Highway. Discovered by his fire damaged car with burns and a broken leg, the original finding was one of accidental death, and there is no real expectation Ariti will learn anything new after all this time. Re-interviewing witnesses certainly seems to be a dead end, but Ariti along with Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, stationed at Cutters End, stumble upon some information that paints the dead man in a new light and changes the direction of the investigation.

Though touted as a thriller, I feel Cutters End is better described as a police procedural. The prologue introduces some suspense with a harrowing scene, but there’s no real sense of urgency related to what may have really happened to Denby during the novel given he has been dead for several decades. There is an intriguing mystery though that unravels at a measured pace as Ariti and Kaur piece together disparate pieces of information and the reopened investigation prompts questions about a range of other suspected historical crimes.

I’d say a key theme examined by Hickey in Cutters End is the difference between the application of law and the administration of justice, particularly in regards to the poor response of police and courts to crimes against women, especially those involving sexual assault and domestic violence. This issue has relevance both in the present, as Ariti’s wife prosecutes an abusive husband, and the past, as Mark and Jagdeep learn about its secrets.

I’m not sure how I feel about Mark Ariti to be honest. Seemingly in the midst of a midlife crisis, with a failing marriage, an apathetic attitude towards his children, and shallow concerns about ageing, I felt he was quite a morose, self involved character. He is a dedicated investigator though, which I admired, and to be fair, he surprised me somewhat in the end.

Offering a well crafted mystery that takes place in an atmospheric rural Australian setting, Cutters End is a solid crime fiction debut from Margaret Hickey.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: The Attack by Catherine Jinks

 

Title: The Attack

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 31st August 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Text Publishing

 

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My Thoughts:

 

“I took one look at him and it all came flooding back. Otford. Joyce. The lies. The police. I’d fled to a deserted island, but I couldn’t seem to escape Aaron Rooney.”


Robyn Ayres is the caretaker of Finch Island /Buangan Pa, a former leper lazaret, repurposed for the use of campers and organised groups. The basic facilities and lack of phone/wifi service dull the island’s appeal to holidaymakers, but Vetnet, a boot camp for troubled teen boys run by ex military officers, are one of the island’s few regular bookings. When Shaun and his staff arrive with the latest group of delinquent recruits, Robyn is shocked to realise she recognises one of the boys. He is ten years older than the last time she saw him, and using a different name, but she is sure it is Aaron Rooney, who indirectly led to her self-imposed exile on the island. The knowledge leaves Robyn on edge and her anxiety worsens as she is targeted by a series of malicious pranks.

The story of The Attack unfolds over over two timelines, Robyn’s past as a kindergarten teacher in a small town caught between two warring families locked in a custody battle, shows why the sudden appearance of a now sixteen year old Aaron is so destabilising.

There is tension as Robyn wonders if Darren/Aaron remembers her, which builds with a series of worrying incidents, among them rubbish dumped on her bed, deliberately broken plumbing, and a kitchen fire. Robyn considers Aaron the most likely suspect, but there are fourteen other troubled teens on the island who might think that harassing Robyn would force the VetNet operators to send them home.

Though the pace for much of the book is quite restrained, there is a definite sense of anticipation that develops in both timelines. Everything comes to a head in the last quarter of the novel where Jinks provides a thrilling, action-packed climax as Robyn is forced to confront the past.

I really enjoyed The Attack for its original premise, interesting setting (inspired by Queensland’s Peel Island) and characterisation. This is a well written, absorbing and satisfying thriller.

++++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

 

Title: Once There Were Wolves

Author: Charlotte McConaghy

Published: 3rd August 2021, Hamish Hamilton

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“Not long ago, not in the grand scheme of things, this forest was not small and sparse but strong and bursting with life. Lush with rowan trees, aspen, birch, juniper and oak, it stretched itself across a vast swathe of land, coloring Scotland’s now-bare hills, providing food and shelter to all manner of untamed thing.

And within these roots and trunks and canopies, there ran wolves.”

In Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, biologist Inti Flynn is leading a controversial rewilding project to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. The scheme has proved to be of great environmental benefit in other countries but Inti and her team are struggling to overcome the local farmers fears of decimated livestock. As the wolves begin to make themselves at home in the forest, Inti surprises herself by becoming involved with the local police chief, but when a man goes missing in the woods, she finds everything is at risk.

There are many themes at play in Once There Were Wolves, while it has a strong environmental focus, examining rewilding and the conflicts between ecological and agricultural concerns, it also explores issues including domestic violence, trauma, trust and empathy with a raw honesty. There is also mystery that surrounds not just the fate of the missing man, but also Inti’s sister, Aggie.

The timeline shifts between the past and present, giving the reader glimpses of Inti and Aggie’s life before their arrival in Scotland, including a childhood shared between their Australian mother, a homicide detective, and their American father, a logger turned reclusive environmentalist. The sisters close relationship (it’s never exactly clear if they are twins but I suspect so) continues into adulthood. In the present, Aggie has accompanied Inti to Scotland, but it’s clear Aggie, whom remains hidden in their rented home, is experiencing the effects of severe trauma.

“I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.”

Inti is a complex character with a rare condition known as ‘mirror touch synesthesia’, this means that she ‘feels’ any touch that she observes, whether that be a gentle stroke of an arm, or the pain of a brutal blow. This trait could have come off as a contrivance but McConaghy uses it judiciously and the effect is haunting. Though Inti is often abrasive and a poor decision maker, I found her passion, anger and hope to be compelling.

I’ve never given much thought to wolves to be honest, and I was surprised to find myself invested in the fates of the fourteen relocated animals. McConaghy’s descriptions of the wolves, their behaviours and their contribution to environmental health are affecting and fascinating. Though no such project exists in Scotland, McConaghy makes an eloquent case for it.

Lyrical, moving and profound, Once There Were Wolves is a stunning novel.

+++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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Review: Trouble is My Business by Lisa Walker

 

Title: Trouble is My Business {An Olivia Grace Mystery #2}

Author: Lisa Walker

Published: 1st August 2021, Wakefield Press

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Wakefield Press

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My Thoughts:

 

Trouble is My Business is the second engaging mystery from Lisa Walker featuring Olivia Grace, a teen wannabe Private Investigator on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

(More to come…)

+++++++

Available from Wakefield Press

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Review: CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

 

Title: CSI Told You Lies

Author: Meshel Laurie

Published: 3rd August 2021, Ebury

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie, the host of the Australian True Crime podcast, is an interesting, informative and sometimes confronting account of forensic investigation in Victoria.

 

(More to come…)

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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

Review: The Garden of Hopes and Dreams by Barbara Hannay

 

Title: The Garden of Hopes and Dreams

Author: Barbara Hannay

Published: 3rd August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Barbara Hannay’s The Garden of Hopes and Dreams is a delightful, uplifting story of love, friendship, connection and community.

Centering around an apartment block in central Brisbane, neighbours become friends as the residents of Riverview bond over the creation of a rooftop garden.

 

(More to come…)

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

 

Title: The Last of the Apple Blossom

Author: Mary-Lou Stephens

Published: 28th July 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens is a sweeping Australian tale that begins in 1967 as bushfires ravage southern Tasmania. Braving smoke and flames, school teacher Catherine Turner rushes from Hobart to her family’s apple orchard in the Huon Valley, devastated to find her younger brother has been killed and their crop razed. Despite her father’s objections to women working the land, Catherine is determined to contribute to reestablishing the orchard.

The dramatic start to The Last of the Apple Blossom immediately captured my attention, and it held as Catherine fought for the future she wanted in an era where women were allowed few options. All Catherine has ever wanted is to work alongside her father in the orchard, and eventually take over the running of it. That her dad denies her the opportunity is a continual source of frustration and sadness for Catherine which Stephens portrays well. I admired Catherine’s determination and resilience.

Stephens also gives voice to two other characters. Annie, Catherine’s neighbour and closest friend, is a loving wife and busy mother. After five boys, she finally has the daughter she’s always longed for but she harbours a secret she is terrified will tear her family apart. I guessed what Annie was hiding easily, but there was suspense involved in waiting for it to be discovered. Mark, and his young son Charlie, are guests of Annie’s husband. Mark has an interesting background, which throws up challenges when he and Catherine develop a romantic relationship.

I found the history, and operation, of the apple growing industry in Tasmania to be surprisingly interesting. Stephens deftly integrates fact gleaned from her meticulous research into the story, and honours the contribution of the industry to Australia.

Well-written, I felt the author captured the setting beautifully, vivid description led me through a landscape scarred by fire, and under shady trees laden with apples. Much of the story takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s and the attitudes of the era are accurately represented.

A story of family, love, tragedy, and resilience, The Last of the Apple Blossom is an engaging, accomplished debut novel.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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

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