Review: Wildflower by Monique Mulligan

 

Title: Wildflower

Author: Monique Mulligan

Published: 8th March 2022, Pilyara Press

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++

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

 

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

Author: Kathy Lette

Published: 29th March 2022, Vintage

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++

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Review: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness by Meredith Jaffe

 

Title: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness

Author: Meredith Jaffe

Published: March 2022, HarperCollins Australia 

Stats: Read April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++

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Review: Mad About You by Mhairi McFarlane

 

Title: Mad About You

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Published: 14th April 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins UK/ Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

 

Mhairi McFarlane’s publisher seems determined to market her books as romantic comedy’s, even when they are not. Sure, Mad About You includes humour and romance, but I feel this is a disingenuous description of the book.

In fact the romance, that comes about after thirty-four year old Harriet Hatley ends a relationship with her boyfriend of two years, Jon, and needs somewhere else to live in Mad About You, feels almost incidental. The meat of the plot revolves around Harriet’s toxic history with a previous long term boyfriend, Scott.

During their four years together, Harriet was a victim of psychological and emotional abuse, Scott’s charming public veneer belying a pattern of coercive control within their relationship. She’s forced to confront that legacy, firstly when she realises, with some help from her best friend Lorna, that Jon also employed manipulative tactics during their liaison, and secondly when Harriet learns through a chance encounter that Scott is getting married, and she reaches out to his fiancée.

As part of that journey, Harriet must also come to terms with the loss of her parents as a child, a friend’s betrayal, and the sabotage of her business, so there is a lot of strong emotion in play which I think McFarlane handles sensitively. There are realistic consequences for decisions, and Harriet’s self reflections feel honest.

Though I didn’t find the romance to be as convincing as I’ve come to expect from the author, it’s enough to satisfy the conventions of the genre with its mild ‘enemies to lovers’ trope. Harriet gets her happy ending, but more importantly she is finally happy within herself, having come to terms with her past.

If you are looking for a light, breezy romcom, you won’t find it with Mad About You, but you will discover a thoughtful and engaging read.

++++++++

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Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan

 

Title: Dinner With the Schnabels

Author: Toni Jordan

Published: 30th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read April courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++

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Review: The Recovery Agent by Janet Evanovich

 

Title: The Recovery Agent {Gabriela Rose #1}

Author: Janet Evanovich

Published: 22nd March 2022, Atria Books

Status: Read March 2022, Atria/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

As a long time fan of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to read The Recovery Agent, the first book in a new series featuring Insurance Fraud Investigator Gabriela Rose.

Gabriela Rose, who made her debut in Fortune and Glory (book #27 of the Stephanie Plum series) makes a living by recovering assets and items for individuals or companies, but her latest case is personal. With her hometown of Scoon on the verge of collapse after damage wreaked by Category 4 storm, Gabriela’s grandmother Fanny believes that all their problems can be solved if Gabriela finds the lost Treasure of Lima, or more specifically The Seal of Solomon.

I wanted to love The Recovery Agent, but unfortunately I didn’t. I’m not exactly sure where the failure lies though.

There is plenty of entertaining adventure and action as Gabriela follows a trail into the South American jungle to the territory of the God of Death, guided by a drug dealer, and in the company of her ex-husband. Her search pits her against El Dragon,  a drug dealer and a fanatical disciple of Supay, the God of Death, who also wants the Seal of Solomon, which is purported to allow the bearer to raise and enslave the dead. There are stand-offs and gun battles, explosions and collisions. Gabriela is variously nearly drowned, tasered, shot and drugged but refuses to give up.

I’d describe Gabriela as a less sophisticated version of Lara Croft. She’s definitely tough, smart and resourceful, an expert in martial arts and weapons, I just can’t quite imagine how a girl from a fishing village who married her childhood sweetheart became such a bad-ass though. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the chemistry between Gabriela and her ex-husband, Rafer either. Lust, sure, there are regular references to how ‘hot’ Rafer is, and the pair have a long history, but i didn’t really feel the tension between them.

There is plenty of humour in The Recovery Agent. Gabriela and Rafer banter their entire way through the book, and Evanovich, as always, has a great sense of comic timing.

While all the elements of a story I enjoy seem to be there, I still feel there is something lacking overall, it’s like an itch I can’t quite reach. I’d be willing to give the sequel a shot though, in the hopes of recovery.

++++++++

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Review: Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell

 

Title: Daughters of Eve

Author: Nina D. Campbell

Published: 1st March 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++

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Review: Those Who Perish by Emma Viskic

Title: Those Who Perish {Caleb Zelic #4}

Author: Emma Viskic

Published: 1st March 2022, Echo Publishing

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Available in the US July 2022 from Pushkin Vertigo

Review: A Family of Strangers by Fiona Lowe

 

Title: A Family of Strangers

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 2nd March 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++

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Review: Impossible by Sarah Lotz

 

Title: Impossible

Author: Sarah Lotz

Published: 17th March 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: March 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

I fell in love with Impossible (also published as Impossible Us) by Sarah Lotz a sublime romance with a fantastical twist.

When Nick sends an angry email to a late-paying client that is erroneously delivered to Bee’s inbox, her witty response and his sincere apology leads to daily exchanges, that quickly shift in tone from cautious and friendly to candid and flirty. Meeting in person is the obvious next step, but though they both claim to be waiting under the clock at Euston Station they can’t seem to find one another. While Bee assumes that her best friend, Leila, is right and she’s been had, Nick realises that something strange is happening…something impossible.

Unfolding through the email exchanges and first person narratives of Nick and Bee, Impossible offers a heartfelt romance thwarted by rules of physics. I don’t want to attempt a clumsy explanation of how this happens because you deserve to be drawn into their unconventional love story, and convinced by Lotz that the impossible is possible.

This is a book that appeals directly to the romantic at heart with numerous direct and oblique references to film and literary classics such as The Lake House, You’ve Got Mail, Sliding Doors, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train, with a little David Bowie thrown in as a bonus, but nevertheless the plot feels creative and fresh. More serious issues are touched on too though including infidelity, suicide, domestic violence, and environmental harm.

I was entertained by the witty banter between Bee and Nick, and Lotz develops their chemistry with ease. Both protagonists are older than you might expect, Bee, a fashion designer with her own small business repurposing wedding gowns, is in her early to mid thirties, while Nick, a largely unsuccessful author, is forty-five. Credibly portrayed with a mix of strengths and flaws, they are appealing characters that I found easy to invest in.

Though quite different in tone and theme to her last book, Missing Person, Lotz’s flair for original storytelling, dynamic characterisation, and expressive writing remains compelling.

Witty, poignant, surprising and absorbing, I recommend you embrace the Impossible.

+++++++

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