Review: The Farm at Peppertree Crossing by Leonie Kelsall

Title: The Farm at Peppertree Crossing

Author: Leonie Kelsall

Published: July 2nd 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Told with heart, humour and candour, The Farm at Peppertree Crossing is Leonie Kelsall’s first contemporary rural romance novel.

When Veronica is told she is to inherit an 800-acre farm in South Australia she is at first convinced it is a scam, and then certain it’s a mistake. Growing up within the foster care system she learnt the hard way to trust no one, and believing in the generosity of an aunt she never knew is difficult, so Roni is not surprised when she learns there is a catch. In a series of letters, her late aunt explains that to freely inherit the Peppertree Crossing Roni must complete a number of tasks. Single, pregnant and with few other options, Roni, with her beloved cat Scritches in tow, decides to accept the challenge, and perhaps find the home she’s always yearned for.

Kelsall explores familiar themes such as family, friendship, and love in The Farm at Peppertree Crossing. The themes of forgiveness and redemption are also strongly represented in a way I particularly appreciated. Several sensitive issues are also raised in the novel, among them sexual assault, addiction, suicide, and pregnancy loss, in a manner that feels genuine rather than contrived. These subjects add depth to the story, pushing it a little beyond the borders of the genre.

Romance is still a key element in The Farm at Peppertree Crossing though, with a twist on the ‘enemies to lovers’ trope between Roni and share-farmer, Matt. Roni’s first instinct, particularly around men, is to be wary and defensive and she misconstrues Matt’s genuine offer of advice, help and friendship as manipulative and devious. I appreciated that Matt is not cast as her saviour, Roni must reach the conclusion that she is worthy of love on her own before their relationship can progress.

Roni is a prickly character to begin with, nursing a deep hurt she is closed off, mistrustful, and stubborn. I really liked Kelsall’s development of her character, which is somewhat slow, but authentic. She’s destined to learn lessons the hard way it seems, but she does learn and grow. Her journey is supported by several charming characters, most notably her late aunt’s dearest friend/partner, Tracey, and Matt, but also of the four-legged variety which includes her cat, a sheep named Goat, and a calf named Baby.

Well written, thoughtful and engaging with an ideal balance of romance and drama, I am impressed by The Farm at Peppertree Crossing and look forward to more from the author.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Silk House by Kayte Nunn

Title: The Silk House

Author: Kayte Nunn

Published: June 30th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Silk House is an entrancing novel from Kayte Nunn, unfolding over two timelines from the perspectives of three women.

The novel begins in the present as Thea Rust reports for work at her father’s alma mater, Oxleigh College. The exclusive English boarding school has accepted its first ever class of girls, and Thea, a history teacher, is to live in with them at their campus residence, known as Silk House.

In 1768, Rowan Caswell is an orphan employed as a maid-of-all-work by the owners of Silk House, silk merchant Patrick, and his wife Caroline Hollander. The home is not a happy one, for the master’s moods are mercurial and the mistress longs for a child.

Mary-Louise Stephenson is a spinster facing penury with her widowed sister. She believes she is capable of creating unique silk designs that will assure her a fortune, but the male dominated industry is uninterested until silk merchant Patrick Hollander offers her a commission.

Nunn weaves links between the past and present as Thea bears witness to the echoes of tragedy. Troubled by her experience of mysterious occurrences in Silk House, Thea investigates the building’s history discovering it’s reputation for being haunted due to a series of deaths, beginning with that of Caroline Hollander.

The story of Caroline’s haunting demise is revealed primarily through Rowan, who is an unwitting contributor to her mistress’s fate when her knowledge of herbal medicines, passed down to her by her late mother, is ill-used. A suggestion of witchcraft, an omen of bad luck, and a doomed love affair all contribute to the inevitable tragedy that stains Silk House.

To be honest I felt the third perspective of Mary-Louise introduced by Nunn was the only real flaw in the novel, as I thought it superfluous, even though Mary-Louise’s silk fabric design is of some significance in the story. Thea and Rowan are definitely the more compelling characters.

Nevertheless, part ghost story, part mystery the pacing is excellent as the story unravels. Nunn skilfully develops a sense of foreboding and unease as she weaves in and out of the past and present. The story is enriched by historical detail, enhanced by its feminist themes, and enlivened by interesting characters.

Atmospheric and intriguing, with gothic sensibilities, The Silk House is a finely written, spellbinding tale.

++++++

 

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon

Title: The First Time He Hit Her: The shocking true story of the murder of Tara Costigan, the woman next door.

Author: Heidi Lemon

Published: June 30th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Twenty-eight-year-old Tara Costigan was one of 103 women who died violently as a result of family violence–related homicide* in Australia during 2015. The hardworking, loving, mother was holding her newborn daughter in her arms when her ex-partner swung an axe at her neck, her two young sons looking on in horror.

Author Heidi Lemon was shocked by the bare details of the murder reported in the news and made contact with Tara’s uncle, Michael Costigan, a few months later. She spent two and a half years writing The First Time He Hit Her in the hope of understanding the tragedy, and bringing awareness to the relationship between verbal abuse and intimate partner homicide.

“He’ll go ballistic,” [Tara] conceded, “but he won’t hurt me. He’s never hit me.”

Marcus Rappel had never posed a physical threat to Tara until that fateful day. In recent months Marcus had become paranoid, most likely due to anabolic steroid and Ice use, and grown increasingly emotionally and verbally abusive, berating her for hours over imagined infidelities and slights. Tara held on to the hope that the man she fell in love with would reappear until at eight months pregnant she could no longer endure Marcus’s behaviour and asked him to leave. Despite already being embroiled in a new relationship with an ex-girlfriend (the mother of his first child who was also now pregnant), Marcus continued to harass Tara. A few days after Tara gave birth to Ayla she successfully applied for a DVO, and on the day it was served Marcus used an axe to break down Tara’s front door.

During her own experience in a verbally abusive relationship, Lemon failed to recognise it as a form of domestic violence, because she never felt that she was physically at risk. She was shocked to learn during her research for this book that in an estimated quarter of cases of intimate partner homicide there had been no physical violence before the murder. It’s a startling find that contradicts our misconceptions about the danger emotional and verbal abusers pose to their victim.

“Control, then, is the link between all forms of abuse, including murder. The very same appetite for control lies beneath the invisible forms of violence and the single act of violence that will result in someone’s death.”

The First Time He Hit Her is a thought-provoking examination of domestic violence in Australia, a devastating tale of murder, and a moving portrait of a life taken too soon.

If you or someone you know (in Australia) has experienced any kind of abuse, sexual assault, domestic or family violence, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit their website to chat online.

If you’re concerned about your own behaviour and would like support or information (in Australia), please call MensLine on 1300 78 99 78 or visit their website.

* https://www.saferresource.org.au/the_evidence

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Title: The Weekend

Author: Charlotte Wood

Published: June 25th 2020, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Orion/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is a searing and insightful portrait of friendship, ageing and grief.

“Because what was friendship, after forty years? What would it be after fifty, or sixty? It was a mystery. It was immutable, a force as deep and inevitable as the vibration of the ocean coming to her through the sand. Wasn’t it?”

Less than a year after the death of Sylvie, her lifelong closest friends -Jude, Wendy and Adele, are spending Christmas weekend emptying her holiday home in Bittoes on the NSW Central Coast. It’s a chore each of them have been dreading, and in the sweltering summer heat, the task threatens to tear them apart.

“‘This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another.’”

Shifting perspectives reveal the complex inner lives of these women as they grieve, and bicker and reminisce. Wood explores the fragility and resilience of their friendship as old hurts resurface, resentments simmer, and secrets are laid bare.

“It was true that time had gradually taken on a different cast. It didn’t seem to go forwards or backwards now, but up and down. The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future. The striations were evident, these streaky layers of memory, of experience— but you were one being, you contained all of it. If you looked behind or ahead of you, all was emptiness.”

Aged in their seventies, the women keenly feel the passage of time, reflecting on their pasts, and contemplating their futures as they attend to their tasks. Having enjoyed successful careers, and relationships, they struggle with their losses, and what they have yet to lose. Ageing is an uncomfortable process for them all, though in different ways for different reasons. Wendy’s old and feeble dog, Finn, is a clear metaphor for its indignities.

“And each of the three let go, plunged down and felt herself carried, lifted up in the great sweep of the water’s force, and then—astonishingly gently—set down on her feet again. They breathed, and wiped their eyes, reached for each other again, waited for the next wave.”

Yet there is plenty of life left in these women, none are quite ready to submit to mortality. Told with wit, tenderness and brutal honesty, The Weekend explores the mundane to expose the extraordinary.

++++++

Available from Orion Books UK

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Also by Charlotte Wood featured at Book’d Out 

 

Review: The Cake Maker’s Wish by Josephine Moon

 

Title: The Cake Maker’s Wish

Author: Josephine Moon

Published: June 2nd 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Cake Maker’s Wish is a delicious treat from bestselling author Josephine Moon.

After the loss of her beloved Ma, Olivia Kent’s curiousity about her grandmother’s early life leads her to successfully apply for a project offering the descendants of Stoneden villagers in England’s Cotswold region a subsidised opportunity to relocate. Leaving Tasmania behind, Olivia is excited to launch her business, Rambling Rose Fine Cakes on the village High Street, and give her young son, Darcy, a fresh start, as well as the chance to finally meet his Norwegian father in person.

The Renaissance Project is a fantastic concept and a wonderful element of the story, which also provides a backdrop for some minor intrigue. The initiative is designed to revitalise the community of Stoneden but unfortunately not everyone is happy about it with at least one resident actively trying to sabotage the scheme (and I was surprised to finally learn who, and why).

Nevertheless Olivia and Darcy quickly begin to feel at home in the village, befriending both other ‘imports’ and locals alike. As the story unfolds, Olivia is able to learn more about her grandmother’s past, which leads to a surprise revelation. There is also romance for Olivia with local dairyman Grayson, and Darcy’s visiting father, who is newly separated from his wife, and eager to build a relationship with both his son and Olivia, both vying for her affection. Olivia’s business thrives, particularly after a celebrity couple voice their support. Foodies will appreciate Moon’s delicious descriptions of Olivia’s creations, and delight in the included recipe for her Persian Love Cake.

With a serve of appealing characters, a sprinkle of mystery and a generous dollop of heart, The Cake Maker’s Wish is a delectable story about community, friendship, family and food.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Also by Josephine Moon reviewed at Book’d Out 

 

Review: Sticks and Stones by Katherine Firkin

 

Title: Sticks and Stones

Author: Katherine Firkin

Published: June 2nd 2020, Bantam Australia

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

Sticks and Stones is a debut crime novel from Melbourne journalist Katherine Firkin, inspired by the many criminal trials she has covered.

Recently promoted to the head of the Missing Persons Unit, Detective Senior Constable Emmet Corban is finding the job frustrating. The hours are long, the paperwork is a grind, and more often than not, the missing simply don’t want to be found.

Corban’s most recent cases involve a single woman who didn’t to turn up for her invalid brother’s birthday party, and a young wife and mother who failed to collect her two children from vacation care. Corban is fairly certain the former, Rosemary Norman, simply ditched the event for another adventure, but he is concerned for Natale Gibson, whose parents are frantic, and whose husband is angry.

When the mutilated body of a female is found and identified as one of the missing women, Corban finds himself unexpectedly leading a homicide investigation into the activities of a serial killer. Firkin develops plenty of red herrings as Corban and his unit attempt to trace the movements of the missing women to determine how they crossed paths with their killer. The plot is interesting and complex but to me also felt a little unwieldy, unfolding from multiple perspectives and involving a large cast of characters.

To be honest I had a difficult time keeping the many characters straight initially, especially as the links between some of them aren’t immediately obvious, and the transitions between scenes are quite rapid. The case itself introduces Corban and his staff, as well as suspects, victims and their families. Another thread explores Corban’s personal life, featuring his wife and her slightly inappropriate relationship with her Svengali-like employer, while a third person narrative reveals the past of the killer.

I did enjoy Sticks and Stones, it’s a promising debut, and I can see the potential for an ongoing series featuring Emmett Corban and the Missing Person Unit.

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Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Bottlebrush Creek by Maya Linnell

Title: Bottlebrush Creek

Author: Maya Linnell

Published: June 2nd 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

An engaging contemporary novel set in rural Australia, Bottlebrush Creek is Maya Linnell’s second novel following her bestselling debut, Wildflower Ridge.

Featuring the youngest of the McIntyre sisters, Angie, she and her partner, Rob Jones, are thrilled when they find a bargain-priced, if run down, 200-acre property in Port Fairview, South West Victoria. Recognising its potential to provide a wonderful life for their small family, they plan to live in a caravan on site while they renovate the derelict cottage but the relentless hard work and financial stress of the renovation soon begins to take its toll on their partnership, exacerbated by Angie’s tense relationship with their new next door neighbour – Rob’s mother, a toxic friendship, and the return of Rob’s estranged twin brother.

I really like that Linnell chooses to feature an established couple with a somewhat unconventional back story in Bottlebrush Creek. I thought the author’s depiction of Angie and Rob’s relationship was nuanced and realistic, touching on familiar marital stressors such as parenting, finances, renovation, and communication failures. Bottlebrush Creek has a real sense of emotional authenticity that’s very appealing. While Angie and Rob’s relationship is quite fraught at times, there are also plenty of moments of humour, romance, and fun in the novel.

I generally found the characters convincing and often relatable. I liked Angie and could mostly empathise with her emotions and behaviour. Rob’s mother, Rosa, is delighted that her son, his partner, and her grandchild have moved in next door but Angie finds Rosa’s enthusiasm intrusive, and struggles as Rosa repeatedly pushes against her boundaries. It doesn’t help that Rob fails to recognise the problem, adding to the strain between he and Angie. Rob is a decent guy who loves Angie and his daughter but has his own issues and insecurities. The return of his twin brother from years overseas, and their shared past, leads to him making mistakes, which he is reluctant to share with Angie.

With its focus on relationships and family, Bottlebrush Creek is a wonderful story I found to be moving, entertaining and charming.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard

 

Title: When Grace Went Away

Author: Meredith Appleyard

Published: May 18th 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read May 2020, courtesy Harlequin Au

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My Thoughts:

A thoughtful, well-crafted story of a mother and daughter at a crossroads, When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard explores the themes of family, love, grief, regret, and forgiveness.

While financial analyst Grace Fairley is excited about her new posting to London, leaving behind her mother Sarah is difficult. Estranged from Grace’s father and siblings in the wake of tragedy, Sarah will be on her own in Adelaide, and Grace fears she’ll be needed and unable to help.

Sarah is happy about her daughter’s well-deserved promotion but once Grace is gone, the only link to her son, daughter and grandchildren is lost. With nothing keeping her in Adelaide she decides to return to Miners Ridge, the small rural town where her family still lives, and attempt to rebuild her relationship with her children.

Told from the perspectives of Grace and her mother, Sarah, one woman is faced with making decisions about her future, while the other is looking to reconcile her past. This is an emotional, layered story that explores a wide variety of issues including the process of grief, family dysfunction, addiction, illness, and long distance romance, as well as challenges related to farming, FIFO, career ambition, and small communities.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this so much is because the two main characters are of a ‘mature’ age – Grace is in her early 40’s and Sarah in her late 60’s – and even though I have little in common with either of them, I found it refreshing to have the focus on familiar contemporary themes and issues from the perspective of those closer to my age group. There is a sincerity and realism to the actions and emotions of the characters which meant I became invested in their journey.

I found When Grace Went Away to be an engaging, poignant, and satisfying read, and I enthusiastically recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary women’s fiction.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins

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Review: The Long Shadow by Anne Buist

Title: The Long Shadow

Author: Anne Buist

Published: April 28th 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read May 2020 courtesy Text Publishing

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My Thoughts:

The Long Shadow is an atmospheric, tense psychological thriller from Australian author Anne Buist.

While her husband, Dean, is contracted to investigate the financial viability of the community hospital in Riley, a small town in NSW’s far west, psychologist Isabel Harris has arranged to run a therapy group for struggling new mothers. At the end of her first session one of the women anonymously submits a note: The baby killer is going to strike again. Soon.

Tensions rise as Isabel attempts to make sense of the warning. She quickly learns the missive refers to the unsolved abduction and murder of a newborn from the community hospital twenty five years earlier, a tragedy that casts a long shadow over the town. But is the note a warning aimed at one of the women in her group, or a threat to the safety of her own toddler son?

As this well crafted mystery slowly unravels, Buist explores a number of themes including family dysfunction, motherhood, racial and class tension, corruption, and addiction. I was easily ensnared by the anxiety and tension the author generated with skilful plotting, interesting characters and a close, evocative atmosphere.

The novel is populated with an array of complex characters, the most notable being Isabel and the diverse group of five women in her care, which includes the sister of the murdered infant, a police officer, an immigrant recovering from postnatal psychosis, the daughter of the local union organiser, and the wife of the town’s wealthiest family, all of whom reflect the tension that simmers within the small community. Isabel hopes that by developing an understanding of the group dynamic, she will be able to prevent another tragedy.

The rural setting of The Long Shadow, several hours from the nearest regional city, gives rise to feelings of claustrophobia. Riley is not a town that welcomes outsiders, and there are locals who resent Dean’s investigation who are not above using petty harassment and veiled threats as intimidation tactics. The sense of isolation is particularly heightened for Isabel who needs to be mindful of professional distance and is unable to seek solace in her strained marriage.

With a timely twist few would be able to guess, the story concludes with a burst of heart stopping violence and a deadly secret revealed. The Long Shadow is a gripping, entertaining and smart thriller.

+++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Who We Were by B.M. Carroll

Title: Who We Were

Author: B.M. Carroll

Published: April 28th 2020, Viper

Status: Read May 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Who We Were is an entertaining, fast paced contemporary suspense novel from Irish born Australian author B.M.Carroll, (who pens womens fiction as Ber Carroll).

In organising their twenty year high school reunion, Katy Barclay invites her former school mates of Macquarie High to answer a few questions to create an update of their yearbook. Annabel is the first to receive a spiteful email with her questions completed by someone else, Grace is next. In both instances the mystery writer knows details about their lives that no stranger should. Katy initially dismisses it as a thoughtless prank but soon more of her classmates, notably members of a particular clique, are targeted.

Who We Were unfolds from multiple viewpoints giving each character the opportunity to share their current lives, and their perspectives on their shared past. Katy, as the reunion organiser, acts as the story’s anchor. Along with Annabel (and by extension her husband Jarrod) and Grace, whom have remained friends over the years, we also meet Melissa, Luke, Zach and Robbie. I found the characters recognisable, and even relatable, both as teenagers, (as it happens my highschool ‘Queen Bee’ was also named Annabel), and as adults (like Grace I’m a SAHM of four).

Most of the group harbour regrets from their high school days (I think there are few of us who don’t), and any one of them could have reason to be holding a grudge. Carroll carefully lays misdirects and red herrings as the threats escalate, which left me guessing as to the identity of the guilty party for most of the novel.

With a dramatic conclusion, a well crafted plot and interesting characters, I really enjoyed Who We Were, and I’m happy to recommend it.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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