Review: Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

 

Title: Birds of a Feather

Author: Tricia Stringer

Published: 29th September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Three independent women of three different generations are at the centre of Tricia Stringer’s 14th novel, Birds of a Feather.

Septuagenarian Eve Monk is not at all pleased when a shoulder injury requiring surgery threatens her highly prized independence, and it’s with great reluctance that she hires registered nurse Lucy Ryan as home help. With her partner, a FIFO worker, often absent, young mother of two, Lucy, is uncomfortable with juggling work and childcare, and isn’t sure working for Eve is good idea. Nevertheless, the two slowly warm to each other, much to the annoyance of Eve’s goddaughter, Julia, who arrives unannounced after finding herself at a professional and personal crossroad.

Exploring the themes of independence, friendship, careers and family, among others, each woman, though at different stages in their lives, struggle with similar issues in Birds of a Feather. This is a character driven story as Eve, Lucy and Julia confront the spectres of their pasts and find the courage to determine new futures.

To be honest it took me a while to warm to all three characters. I initially thought Eve to be brusque and demanding, Lucy overly anxious, and Julia rude and selfish. As the story progresses however each becomes more nuanced and I came to admire their many strengths. The development of their friendship is gratifying, and I was cheered by the supportive bond they formed, and drew strength from.

Set in mid 2021 Stringer doesn’t overlook the impact of the CoVid-19 pandemic, which has affected both Lucy and Julia, but it doesn’t have an active presence in the story per se. Most of the novel takes place in a small coastal town, named Wallaby Bay, on the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. I liked the depiction of the community, whose main industries include tourism and prawn-trawling, and the minor conflicts of its residents add colour and interest to the story.

Warm, sincere and thoughtful, Birds of a Feather is an engaging contemporary novel sure to delight readers, new and old.

+++++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital by Joanna Nell

 

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanne Nell

Published: 29th September 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is an endearing and entertaining novel from bestselling Australian author Joanna Nell.

Though the decor is tired, the menu uninspiring, and the coffee bland, The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has served the visitors and employees of St Jude’s Hospital nobly for fifty years, its profits funding a variety of projects to benefit patients. Staffed by volunteers, septuagenarian Hilary Halliday has held the position of manager for a decade and runs a tight ship, but with her personal life recently upended, her role at the cafeteria has become a life raft, which is why she is rocked to discover that management is contemplating closing the cafeteria in favour of a popular ‘whole food’ cafe franchise.

The storyline of The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is told through three characters – Hilary; probationary volunteer Joy, with a penchant for blue eyelash falsies and bright clothing, of similar age to Hilary; and seventeen year old student Chloe Foster-Pearson, reluctantly volunteering at the behest of her surgeon mother. Each slowly reveals their private struggles as they face uncertain futures. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these well drawn characters, very different from one another, who become united by their determination to save the cafeteria.

The themes of family, friendship, change, and identity are prevalent in The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital. Nell also sensitively explores issues related to ageing, particularly for women. There is a little dig at the commercialisation of hospital care, and the Millennial folly of style over substance.

Written with warmth and humour, The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is a charming and cheerful read.

++++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

 

Title: Apples Never Fall

Author : Liane Moriarty

Published: 14th September 2021, Macmillan

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

Unfolding from multiple viewpoints, Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is an engrossing, intimate domestic drama.

Sixty-nine year old Joy Delaney hasn’t been seen or heard from for a week before her four adult children, Amy, Troy, Logan and Brooke, notice. Their father, Stan, has no good explanation for her absence, or the scratches on his face, and the siblings, aware things have been tense between their parents for some time, struggle to defend him when the police suspect he has murdered her.

As the timeline moves between the present and the past, Moriarty unravels the complex dynamics of the Delaney’s, it’s disruption by a mysterious interloper, and the puzzle of Joy’s absence.

Though the intrigue regarding Joy’s disappearance is central to the story, Apples Never Fall is a very much a character driven novel. I always appreciate how authentic and grounded Moriarty’s characters are, each with distinct and nuanced personalities. I found Joy’s frustrations, worries and hopes to be relatable, while Stan is more of a traditional patriarch. Their children, despite a rather extraordinary childhood, are fairly ordinary adults, with an interesting mix of strengths and flaws, accomplishments and regrets.

As with most family’s, the Delaney’s relationships are a mix of love and rivalry, secrets and lies, resentments and guilt. I really liked the way in which Moriarty shows how each member has differing perspectives on the same incidents, and how that plays into how they define themselves, and each other. It’s with keen insight that Moriarty also explores a wide range of issues from empty-nest syndrome and domestic violence, to the pressures of elite sport, and the weight of family expectations.

This is not a fast paced story, but there are plenty of surprises in Apples Never Fall. I’ve read more than a few complaints about the ending(s) of the novel (especially with its reference to the pandemic) but I thought there was a subtle and clever implication in it.

Offering compelling characters, authentic emotion, and sharp wit, I found Apples Never Fall to be an entertaining, incisive and absorbing novel.

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Available from Macmillan Australia

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Review: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan

 

Title: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova

Author: Ruth Hogan

Published: 21st September 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy WilliamMorrow /Edelweiss

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova is an engaging novel from Ruth Hogan about family, friendship and identity.

Billie is shocked when a letter from her father, passed on by the family solicitor, informs her that she was not the biological child of her late parents, but a ‘foundling’ discovered on the Brighton promenade, whom they adopted when she was just weeks old. Reeling with unanswered questions, a second letter follows from a Imelda Burova, purporting to have information for her. Though she suspects the woman, a fortune-teller with a booth on the prom, is just touting for business, Billie agrees to a meeting.

After more than forty years telling fortunes from her booth on the Brighton prom, as did her mother and grandmother before her, Madame Burova has recently retired but still keeps many of her clients secrets, amongst them is a gift for the infant she found abandoned in front of her booth. Sworn to secrecy, she can’t tell Billie who her mother is, but is willing to support her in her search for her father.

The story is told through two timelines, the early 1970’s and the present. The earlier timeline centers around Imelda and the entertainment employees of a Brighton holiday park, Larkins, where Imelda spends part of her time giving readings for guests, while the latter has Billie searching for information about her biological parents.

Unfolding at a good pace, there is a pleasing balance of drama, romance, tragedy and humour in the story, along with just enough tension to encourage interest. While the mystery surrounding Billie’s parentage is the main focus of the novel, Hogan also touches on issues such as racism, workplace sexual harassment, grief, and prejudice.

I liked both of the main characters well enough. Imelda is lovely, proving to be kind, thoughtful and loyal in both timelines. Billie’s upset at discovering her adoption so late in life is understandable, as is her desire to know more. I’m not sure where her affection for bowler hats comes from though. The larger cast of the novel is quite varied, with a handful having role in both timelines. Dog lovers will also appreciate Imelda’s relationship with her loyal and much loved canines.

I found The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova to be a pleasant, entertaining read with an uplifting ending.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins US

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Review: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer by Ilsa Evans

 

Title: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer

Author: Ilsa Evans

Published: 1st September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a heartfelt, thoughtful and witty novel from Ilsa Evans.

Shirley Conifer has given her youngest son Daniel the benefit of the doubt as he struggles with single parenthood, but on discovering deep bruises on her four year granddaughter’s body she makes the snap decision not to return Avery to her father until he commits to making some changes. Worried that she won’t have the fortitude to follow through, Shirley seeks the support of Beth Patterson, Avery’s maternal grandmother, knowing that even though they agree on little, Beth will be similarly motivated to protect Avery.

Beth thinks Shirley should call the police, but with Avery’s mother, Cleo, serving a three month sentence in prison as a result of the couple’s tumultuous marriage, neither want to run the risk of Avery being placed in foster care.  Shirley is confident Daniel will do the right thing but to prove they are serious, the women, with Avery, Shirley’s 89 year old mother, Winnie, and Beth’s beloved schnauzer, Harthacnut, in tow, decide to leave the city for the week.

Daniel is furious when he learns of his mother’s actions, and refusing to accept any blame for the situation, demands Avery be returned or he will report them for child abduction. Determined to protect Avery no matter the cost to themselves, Shirley and Beth reconsider their plan, and go on the run, intending to stay ahead of Daniel, and the police, until Cleo is released from jail.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer, is a complex family drama that primarily explores issues around parenting, mother guilt, domestic violence, relationships, family dynamics, and ageing. Evan’s writing is sensitive and thoughtful, but there is plenty of humour too.

Though the police are confident the women will be found quickly, Beth, Shirley and Winnie prove to be craftier than anyone expects. While Beth lays careful plans to keep them all off the grid, Winnie reveals a surprisingly useful grasp of tech and social media, and Shirley ensures Avery is entertained. I enjoyed the dynamics at play, it’s not easy for the three very different women to spend 24/7 confined in the same space however, and the mood is often tense between them given Beth’s judgemental attitude, Shirley’s love of wine, and Winnie’s bluntness, but they also have the opportunity to learn from each other as they progress from reluctant allies to friends.

While the Grandmothers keep a low profile, Shirley’s very pregnant daughter tries to manage the situation at home, and Cleo is forced to face her mistakes. We’re also given some insight into the lives of the two female police investigators on the case, and a behind scenes look at a tv panel show following the abduction story. While personally I didn’t think the latter two perspectives added much value to the story, they do work within the themes of the novel.

As a fan of Ilsa Evan’s Nell Forrest Mystery series, I was especially delighted that the women ultimately took refuge in Majic, and that a character I had the fortune to win naming rights to in Forbidden Fruit (Grace June Rae) made a cameo appearance!

The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer is a thought-provoking, emotive and entertaining novel offering a wonderful mix of drama, adventure and comedy.

+++++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: The Library by Belle Osborne

 

Title: The Library

Author: Bella Osborne

Published: 2nd September 2021, Aria & Aries

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Aria & Aries/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The Library by Bella Osborne is an engaging story about family, friendship, and community.

Set in a small English village, the threatened closure of the local library makes unexpected allies, and friends, of 16 year old high school student Tom, and 72 year old widow and small holder, Maggie. Maggie, restless and lonely, is intrigued by the young man who slinks into the library and tries to hide his romance novel selections. Tom, sad and alone, is impressed by Maggie’s right hook, and her delicious cooking.

Tom is such a forlorn character, and Osborne’s characterisation of a self-conscious, awkward and troubled teenage boy is very good. Since his mother’s death, Tom’s father has spiralled into alcoholism. Money is tight, and Tom’s dad is expecting that his son will leave school and get a factory job, ignoring his son’s hopes of attending University. Essentially friendless, his visits to the library are prompted by a need to escape his father’s moods, and a desire to learn more about girls so he can speak to his crush, Farah.

Maggie is a great character, independent, feisty, and nurturing. Since her husband’s death, Maggie has generally been content to attend to her small holding where she raises goats for their wool, with the weekly book club meeting at the library her only regular social activity. Tom’s vulnerability as he furtively browses the romance shelves, and his brave attempt to thwart her mugging, captures her interest, and when she finds herself in need of help at the farm, she is pleased that Tom offers to give her a hand.

The connection that forms between Maggie and Tom is a delight, and warmth and humour offsets the serious subjects Osborne explores in The Library which include addiction, grief, bullying, and social isolation. The threatened closure of the library is almost incidental to the plot though Osborne uses it to draw attention to the value of libraries within communities.

A moving and ultimately uplifting story The Library is a lovely, satisfying read.

+++++++++

Available from Aria & Aries

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Review: See Jane Snap by Bethany Crandell

 

Title: See Jane Snap

Author: Bethany Crandell

Published: 7th September 2021, Montlake

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Montlake/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Jane Osborne is desperately trying to preserve the facade of her ‘perfect life’, even though her handsome, successful husband of 18 years is sleeping with someone else (and not for the first time), her twelve year old daughter is getting in trouble at school, and, after a supermarket car park incident involving oranges and a purloined ecstasy tablet, she’s been ordered to attend a First Offender’s Group to avoid jail.

In this witty contemporary novel, Bethany Crandell explores the struggle of a wife and mother to keep it altogether while everything is falling apart. Jane is under tremendous pressure to protect her husband’s career, her daughter’s innocence, and her mother’s care needs, and expected to suppress her feelings of betrayal, guilt and anger. Though the specifics of Jane’s trials may not be familiar, it’s very easy to empathise with the strain she is under, and honestly who hasn’t been tempted to throw something at a person who insists on going through a 12 item only check out with twice as many groceries!

Jane’s parking lot meltdown, and the consequences of mistaking an ecstasy pill for Zoloft, had me laughing out loud. Though the event, and subsequent punishment, seems like it can only make everything worse, it serves as a catalyst for Jane to confront her situation, and figure out how to move forward. I really liked the friendships Jane developed in the group, and the unexpected romantic connection with her arresting officer. I was absolutely always on Jane’s side, and felt Crandell’s development of her character was thoughtful and realistic.

See Jane Snap is often funny but also provides some astute observations about the difficult balance many women face between the needs of others and themselves. This is a light, entertaining and engaging read.

++++++

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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

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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

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