Review: The Shearer’s Wife by Fleur McDonald

Title: The Shearer’s Wife {Detective Dave Burrows}

Author: Fleur McDonald

Published: 3rd November, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Shearer’s Wife is the fourth Australian rural mystery novel by Fleur McDonald to feature Detective Dave Burrows, and the seventh in which he appears, but can nevertheless be read as a stand-alone.

The Shearer’s Wife is divided between two timelines, the first of which is set in the present day. When the Australian Federal Police arrive in Barker to arrest an elderly resident for drug distribution, Dave and his colleague Senior Constable Jack Higgins are convinced that Essie must be acting under duress. Warned off from interfering in the case, Dave asks Jack’s girlfriend, journalist Zara Ellison, to investigate.

Zara, while trying to ignore her symptoms of PTSD, throws herself into the case, looking for a reason Essie would risk the well-being of her young granddaughter by dealing drugs, and in doing so also uncovers a forty year old secret.

The second timeline tells the story of itinerant shearer, Ian Kelly and his very pregnant wife, Rose, who are heading to a station outside of Barker in 1980. When Rose goes into labour prematurely and gives birth to twins, she insists the new family remain in town but, unwilling to settle down, Ian chooses to leave them behind.

I enjoyed the pacing of both timelines, though Essie’s situation is the more compelling of the two storylines. The clues are provided early on to unravel the mystery of Essie’s motive, which is not unexpected, but does result in some moments of suspense, and a twist that endangers the lives of several of the characters is filled with tension. The fate of Rose and her family ties in at the end, providing a moving and uplifting conclusion.

I really like the character of Dave, an ethical, empathetic man who has a wonderful relationship with his wife, Kim. As a police officer in a small rural South Australian town, Dave occasionally finds himself walking a fine line between the professional and personal, but he is incensed when accused by the AFP of being myopic. He’s willing to risk his career in order to see justice is done, but not break the law.

One of the main issues explored in The Shearer’s Wife is the effects of PTSD. After the trauma of losing her father in a horrific car accident, and then her brother from a brief battle with cancer just six months previously (in Starting From Now) Zara is struggling, but unwilling to admit it. McDonald’s portrayal of Zara’s emotional state is thoughtful and sensitive, and addresses the general reluctance of people to seek help.

An engaging and entertaining novel, I spent an afternoon pleasantly immersed in The Shearer’s Wife, and I look forward to the next book to feature Dave Burrows and the community of Barker.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Fleur McDonald reviewed at Book’d Out 

Review: Flying the Nest by Rachael Johns


Title: Flying The Nest

Author: Rachael Johns

Published: 29th October 2020, HQ Fiction Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Flying The Nest is a wonderfully engaging women’s fiction novel from bestselling Australian author Rachael Johns.

Ashling Wood is blindsided when her husband of twenty years casually suggests they try nest parenting while she’s busy preparing the oranges for their daughter’s soccer game. Her first instinct is to believe Adrian doesn’t understand what the term means, but he’s clear, he wants a trial separation and feels nest parenting, where the children remain in the house and the parents move in and out on an alternate schedule, is the best solution for them all.

The adjustment is difficult for a heartbroken Ashling who misses her children, ten year old Payton and fourteen year old Saxon, when she’s not with them. Taking on the renovation of a friends seaside cottage in Ragged Point during her ‘off’ weeks is a welcome distraction, and though she is certain the arrangement will not be anything but temporary, as the house undergoes a transformation, so too does Ashling.

I can’t imagine what it would be like should my husband so casually and carelessly announce one ordinary morning that he wanted a separation (touch wood). My sympathy was definitely reserved for Ashling from the start, and even though she seemed stuck in the denial phase for slightly too long, I think Johns portrayal of her character’s emotional state was sensitive and believable. There was a brutal scene in the marriage counselor’s office in particular where I really felt Ashling’s pain, and I was glad she finally got angry at Adrian, and found the impetus to take charge of her life.

The community of Ragged Point is a delightful haven for Ashling. Johns deftly creates the character of a small coastal community, and it’s there that she rediscovers, and is able to nurture, the parts of herself that have been dormant while helping her husband build their podiatry business, and raising their children. I liked the development of Ashling’s relationships with Jedda and Dan, who are great supports, but also have interesting stories of their own that add depth to the story.

Written with heart, humour, and warmth, Flying the Nest is sure to resonate with women who need to redefine their lives, whether because of a relationship breakdown, children leaving home, or other change of circumstances. Ashling’s journey is not without its challenges, but it is ultimately rewarding and inspiring, as is this novel.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Rachael Johns reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

Title: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Author: Joanna Nell

Published: 27th October 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia/ Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a charming novel proving you’re never too old for a fresh start from Joanna Nell.

After 89-year-old Miss (never Mrs or Ms) Hattie Bloom breaks her hip from a fall in her backyard, she is dismayed to be told she must spend four to six weeks convalescing at the Woodlands Nursing Home. A recluse, far more more comfortable with birds than people, she is desperate return to the sandstone cottage she was born in, particularly concerned for the welfare of a pair of nesting owls in a tree her new neighbours are threatening to fell. When an ill-timed escape attempt is frustrated by a traffic jam, Hattie resigns herself to the temporary encroachments on her privacy and independence, agreeing to repairs on her home that might let her leave her sooner.

Ninety-year-old Walter Clements, recovering from a car accident, is also determined to return to his suburban home sooner rather than later. To that end, the former driver instructor agrees to humour his daughter and the DON (Director of Nursing) and undertake an assessment to show he is capable of safely managing a mobility scooter. Walter is outraged when a few small mistakes, which includes running over his examiner’s foot, destroying an antique table, and knocking over newcomer, Miss Hattie Bloom, scuppers his chances.

It’s not the most auspicious start to a relationship but nevertheless a friendship slowly blossoms between Hattie and Walter, despite their oppositional temperaments. Where Hattie is reserved and aloof, Walter is loud and gregarious, they actually remind me a little of my own grandparents (and coincidentally my grandfather was also named Walter). Both are well-developed characters, depicted with authenticity and warmth. Hattie, a naturalist and author, who has spent almost her entire life alone by choice, slowly opens up as she becomes enmeshed in the fabric of Woodlands. Walter is occasionally inappropriate, a little bewildered by today’s mores, fond of a glass or three of whiskey, and an incurable optimist, though not without regrets. Though he hopes to go home, he is making the best of his time in Woodlands.

Nell draws on her experience as a GP visiting nursing homes, to provide some insight into the routines, successes and failures of institutional care. Woodlands certainly seems better than many which have made news headlines due to abuse and neglect, however it’s still an institution and as such rules and regulations often override common sense practice. This is evident when night nurse Bronwyn is fired after her aged black lab Queenie, accidentally knocks over and injures one of the residents. Bronwyn is a favourite of many of the Home’s residents, not the least because of her unofficial night time ‘club’, the Night Owls, that provides and encourages activities for the sleepless.

Hattie and Walter’s antics are delightful, though not without a hint of poignancy. They bond over their plan to have Bronwyn reinstated, assisted by Murray, another resident who has become a close friend of Walter (men are severely outnumbered in Woodlands) but is bedridden. Nell doesn’t shy away from portraying the difficult realities of ageing, and Murray’s approaching demise, and his desire to go home one last time, is treated sensitively.

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a witty, charming, and heartwarming novel, recommended for the old, and not so old alike.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos


Title: Lucky’s

Author: Andrew Pippos

Published: 27th October 2020, Picador

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Having recently lost both her job and her husband, Emily is in Sydney from London with an eye to writing a New Yorker feature about the rise and fall of ‘Lucky’s’, once an ubiquitous chain of restaurants/cafes across south eastern NSW.

Lucky Mallios has a plan – to relaunch the iconic restaurant/cafe he lost to a combination of tragedy and gambling in the mid 90’s. Old and broke, he wants to atone for his mistakes, and leave something for the only family he has left.

With a nod to Greek tragicomedy, Lucky’s is a character driven novel about fortunes won and lost, of serendipity and fate. It shifts between the past and present revealing secrets, coincidences, scandals and trauma. It has a kind of charm that comes from the author’s own affection for, and understanding of, his characters.

Lucky and Emily share not only a link to Emily’s late father, but also similar traits. They each struggle with the loss of a loved one, their expectations of themselves, and others expectations of them. I was keen to discover if Lucky would win his fortune, and thus his redemption, if Emily would find success.

Lucky’s is congenial literary debut from Andrew Pippos

++++++

Available from PanMacmillan Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: An Unusual Boy by Fiona Higgins


Title: An Unusual Boy

Author: Fiona Higgins

Published: 20th October 2020, Boldwood Books

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Boldwood Books/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

‘Everyone’s unusual. Just you remember that. No one’s bloody normal.’

Unfolding from the alternate perspectives of music therapist, Julia Curtis, and her son, eleven-year-old Jackson, An Unusual Boy by Fiona Higgins is an emotive family drama about an atypical child and his typical family.

Both a source of joy and frustration for his parents and siblings, 9-year-old Ruby and 14-year-old Milla, Jackson is smart, honest, and sweet but also has several behavioural tics, and difficulties with the nuances of communication, which mark him as neurodiverse. Having recently relocated from the inner city to a coastal suburb, Julia is delighted when Jackson is invited to a schoolmate’s home, but the friendship is short lived when the boys are accused of a reprehensible act. With her workaholic husband largely absent, a shell-shocked Julia struggles to deal with the fall-out from the incident, and advocate for her unusual boy.

Higgins portrayal of her characters is authentic and sensitive. It’s easy to sympathise with Julia, a harried mother juggling the challenges of caring for her three children while working part time with little support from anyone, including her often absent husband. Carrying the ‘emotional load’ of a family is exhausting at the best of times, but is even more so when your child has additional needs, and Julia’s struggles and mistakes feel realistic as she tries to do the best she can.

Jackson’s unusual thought processes and behaviour are communicated well. He is both literal and linear in his thinking, and has obsessive-compulsive traits. Often overwhelmed by his thoughts and the workings of his prodigious memory, his behaviours are sometimes bizarre, and relating to others is a daily challenge. Jackson is an appealing character who evokes empathy in the reader, but in reality would likely frustrate and annoy adults who lack such insight, as shown by the impatience of his teacher, and the reactions to his headstands in a cafe. While society in general is more accepting of diversity these days, issues remain, particularly when those differences are not physically evident, and labels fail to neatly summarise a condition.

The incident (TW: sexual assault) which sparks a crisis for the Curtis family is dealt with sensitively by Higgins. The fall out highlights the common failings of adults when dealing with a neurodiverse child. It’s also a reminder that compassion, not judgement, should be our default when dealing with children, there is more than one victim here.

The only thing I thought was out of place in the novel was the use of currently nonexistent VR technology used to underscore the vulnerability of children online. There are possibilities aplenty for the exploitation of children via the internet without the need for a ‘sci-fi’ element, and unsupervised access is not the only condition for risk.

Beautifully written with grace and humour, An Unusual Boy is a thought-provoking, tender and moving novel that explores diversity, family, and humanity.

++++++

Available from Boldwood Books

In Australia from Booktopia or your preferred bookstore

Or your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Also by Fiona Higgins reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton

Title: Home Stretch

Author: Graham Norton

Published: 29th September 2020, Coronet

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Home Stretch is a compelling and poignant novel from Graham Norton.

When a tragic single car accident takes the life of three young adults in the small Irish village, the lives of the three survivors, and their family’s, are forever changed.

“None of us are just the worst thing we ever did.”

With sensitivity and compassion, Norton explores the themes of loss, stigma, longing, betrayal, and self discovery as his characters lives unfold. The narrative is shared by several characters but the focus is on Connor, the admitted driver. Crushed by the community’s grief and anger, and his own shameful secrets, Connor leaves home for a fresh start. Cutting himself off from his family, Connor’s journey takes him to England and then America, but he remains haunted by the tragedy.

“This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.”

The plot is multilayered and thoughtful, shifting between past and present, it begins in 1987 and ends in the present. It’s decades before Connor finds the emotional strength to confront the past, spurred on by a chance meeting with a nephew he never even knew he had. As he reconnects with all that he left behind, assumptions are challenged and secrets are outed.

Not at all what I expected from what I know of Norton’s public persona, with its profound themes, authentic characters, and engaging prose, Home Stretch is an absorbing and beautifully nuanced story.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: The Night Letters by Denise Leith


Title: The Night Letters

Author: Denise Leith

Published: 7th October 2020, Ventura Press

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Ventura Press

++++++

My Thoughts:

A captivating novel, Denise Leith draws on her professional and personal experience in The Night Letters, which she dedicates to the women of the the Afghan Women Writing Project.

In need of a challenge, Australian doctor Sofia Rasa accepts a position in the practice of Dr. Jabril Aziz to treat the women of Kabul. She is accommodated in Shaahir Square, where her presence is first met with suspicion, but slowly earns the respect of both her neighbours and her patients, in part by by keeping a low profile, and staying out of local affairs.

Five years after the original expiry of her year long contract, Sofia considers Shaahir Square home, but with the recent disappearances of young boys from the nearby slums of Jamal Mina, she’s increasingly uncomfortable with staying silent. Her interest in the plight of the bachi bazi unintentionally upsets the peace of the Square when some of the residents discover cryptic letters of warning pinned to their door.

The Night Letters is set primarily in Kabul, a city still bearing the scars of the Afghanistan war and the harsh occupation of the Taliban. It’s a very different place from the Australian suburbs, but one Sofia has always felt drawn to. Leith’s descriptions of Shaahir Square are vivid, the space hosts a mix of stores and residences, and its insular construction provides those within it the illusion of safety amid the regular dangers of Kabul.

The people who populate the Square are an interesting group, a microcosm of sorts that in some aspects represents wider Afghan society. The main personalities are Sofia, Jabril and Behnaz, Sofia’s landlady and the wife of the Chief of Police, but the daily activities of other residents and storekeepers, and the relationships between them, are an important element of the story.

Though an obvious outsider with her red hair, Sofia earns the respect of the Square. Jabril and his wife treat her like a daughter, and despite Behnaz’s prickly attitude she too cares for Sofia. As a doctor, Sofia’s patients trust her with both their health and their personal problems, and she also travels outside the Square, assisting at clinics in the slums of Jamal Mina and running a midwife training program in Kandahar. It’s during one of these trips during her first year in Afghanistan that Sofia meets Daniel, an American aide worker.

There are two mystery elements in the novel, both well-plotted. The first involves the anonymous typewritten notes found pinned to the doors of the Dr Jabril and the home of the Chief of Police, where Sofia also resides, in Shaahir Square. When a note is discovered by one of the Square’s residents, warning the reader ‘to tell their friend to stop’, and shares it with some of the others, the vague message worries everyone. Somewhat similar to the ‘night letters’ the Taliban used, there are concerns they are under surveillance by an extremist, and several modify their behaviour in case they are ‘the friend’.

The second mystery involves the whereabouts of the missing boys, not only who may be responsible for their disappearance, but also who is actively derailing any investigation. It becomes clear that the boys are being taken to serve as bachi bazi – which translates as ‘boy play’ and refers to young boys abducted and sold to powerful and wealthy men and used for entertainment and sex. When Sofia becomes involved in the issue she crosses a corrupt politician who has the power to force her from Afghanistan.

With its lovely prose, rich storyline, and interesting characters, The Night Letters Is a wonderful novel, and one I’m happy to recommend.

++++++

Available from Ventura Press

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Godmothers by Monica McInerney


Title: The Godmothers

Author: Monica McInerney

Published: 29th September 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

With its mix of drama, humour, and a touch of romance, The Godmothers by Australian-born, Dublin-based, internationally best selling author Monica McInerney, is a story of family, friendships and relationships.

Though her childhood was far from conventional, Eliza Miller never doubted she was loved by her devoted but mercurial single mother, Jeannie. When Jeannie died unexpectedly just before Eliza’s 18th birthday, it was her adoring godmothers, Olivia and Maxie, who ensured she had everything she needed, and now that her life has been upended again, and she is ready for answers to some long held questions about her father, it is her godmothers that Eliza turns to.

A character-driven novel, It’s the emotional journey of Eliza that is the focus of The Godmothers. I have to admit I struggled some with her character, I kept thinking she was in dire need of some counselling. Though she’s likeable, and I thought her sympathetic, I found Eliza’s idolisation of her mother naive and somewhat uncomfortable. I was pleased with how things worked out for Eliza, but in hindsight I recognise I was never particularly invested in the character.

The godmothers are lovely, they clearly cherish Eliza and want the best for her. Olivia plays a slightly larger role in the story than Maxie, as it’s at the hotel in Edinburgh owned by Olivia’s ill husband that Eliza is staying, though its Maxie’s wedding that gets her there. When Eliza starts asking questions, I can understand the women’s reluctance to ‘tarnish’ Jeannie’s memory in her daughter’s eyes, and the reasons for the secrets they have kept, and continue to keep, from her, but I don’t necessarily agree they made the right decisions.

Sullivan, a precocious twelve year old Eliza meets on the plane on her way to Edinburgh, was a surprise character, the complete opposite in personality to Olivia’s badly behaved elderly mother-in-law, Celine. Both characters mainly serve as light relief, but I thought they came close to ‘stealing the show’, so to speak.

I have to admit I’ve had a tough time articulating my thoughts about this novel. I did find the experience of reading The Godmothers to be engaging, and I still consider myself a fan of McInerney, but if I’m honest this is not a favourite.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Monica McInerney reviewed at Book’d Out 

Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey


Title: Honeybee

Author: Craig Silvey

Published: 29th September 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

‘Find out who you are, and live that life.’

Honeybee is a tender, poignant, and profound coming of age story from Craig Silvey, author of Jasper Jones.

Poised to jump from an overpass, fourteen year old Sam Watson locks eyes with an elderly man who appears to be contemplating the same fate. When Vic saves Sam’s life, Sam vows to save his in return and an unlikely bond forms between the two. Vic is the first person Sam has met who seems willing to accept him for he he is, even though Sam is not really sure who that is.

A character driven novel unfolding from the first person perspective, Honeybee explores the themes of family, friendship and self, as Sam struggles with his gender identity. Neglected by his mother, bullied by his peers, and beaten by his stepfather, Sam’s self-loathing is heart breaking as he he grapples with feelings of confusion, rejection, frustration, and isolation. Silvey’s portrayal of Sam is nuanced and compelling, thoughtfully expressing his complex thoughts and feelings.

Vic’s unexpected kindness becomes a lifeline for Sam, and introduces him to Aggie, and Peter, who in turn provide him with sorely needed support, even though he is often determined to refuse it. Self doubt leads to repeated self sabotage, and Sam makes a number of poor decisions, which puts both himself and Vic at risk.

Despite all the angst, and drama, there is also humour and joy to be found in the novel. Ultimately Honeybee is an extraordinary story of transcendence, of hope, of triumph, as Honeybee becomes she.

“And I’m not wrong, I’m me. And I don’t want to be invisible anymore. I want people to see who I am.”

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Wasp Season by Jennifer Scoullar

Title: Wasp Season

Author: Jennifer Scoullar

Published: 20th July 2020, Pilyara Press

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy the author

++++++

My Thoughts:

In Wasp Season, by Australian author Jennifer Scoullar, Beth has built a comfortable life for herself and her two children on a small property in rural Australia. She’s come to terms with the end of her marriage to her ex-husband, Mark, and is even considering starting a new relationship.

Though Mark now has a much younger girlfriend and new baby son, he is beginning to regret his decision to leave Beth. Lena is either too busy with baby, or shopping, to pay him much attention, and their relationship is increasingly strained.

Meanwhile, In a downed tree on Beth’s property, a European Wasp queen is building a nest, nurturing the beginnings of a new colony. As the hive begins to grow, and then thrive, the imported species takes a destructive toll on the environment.

A passionate conservationist and amateur naturalist, Jennifer Scoullar novels often feature environmental themes. In Wasp Season the author draws some parallels between the development of the European Wasp nest, and the human drama that escalates as Mark’s mental health deteriorates.

In the main I found the detail related to the wasps to be fascinating. Though I know bees have a vital role in our environment, I’ve never given much thought to wasps. I certainly had no idea how destructive European wasps are to the Australian bush. I thought it was quite remarkable that Scoullar was able to inject suspense into these chapters as the wasps slowly decimated the ecological stability of Beth’s property.

I found the pace of the ‘human’ story fairly sluggish to begin with. To be honest I didn’t really warm to Beth, I thought her to be quite a stiff and uptight character, even her internal dialogue is quite formal. The pace and the drama picks up as Mark and Lena’s troubles worsen though, spilling over to disrupt Beth’s more ordered world. The climatic events were quite shocking and more dramatic than I expecting.

Though I’m not sure it is entirely successful as a cohesive story, Wasp Season is an interesting and entertaining read with a unique structure and premise.

++++++

Available to purchase from directly from Jennifer Scoullar

Or from your preferred ebook retailer by CLICKING HERE

 

Also by Jennifer Scoullar reviewed at Book’d Out

   

 

 

 

Previous Older Entries