Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

 

Title: Meredith, Alone

Author: Claire Alexander

Published: 9th June 2022, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

In this poignant character driven novel, author Claire Alexander introduces us to Meredith Maggs. Meredith is 39 years old, a freelance writer who lives in Glasgow, and hasn’t stepped over her threshold for 1,214 days.

It’s not that Meredith chose to not leave, one day she simply couldn’t.

As the narrative progresses in the present, we learn Meredith hasn’t stopped living exactly. She has her work, her routines, and anything she needs can be delivered to her door. She may be alone, but Meredith claims she isn’t lonely, she has her beloved cat, Fred, to keep her company, her best friend, Sadie, often stops by with her two small children, and her friendship circle is slowly expanding. Holding Hands volunteer, Tom, insists on regular visits, and through her online support group, Meredith bonds with newbie Celeste.

But there are things Meredith misses. Like swimming, hugs, and her sister, Fee.

Flashbacks provide glimpses of Meredith’s past including her difficult childhood, illuminating her relationship with her mother and sister, whom she hasn’t seen for years, and the accumulation of the heartbreaking circumstances that led to Meredith’s agoraphobia.

Beautifully told, written with warmth, compassion and a touch of humour, this is a tender story about trauma, survival, friendship and ultimately, about hope.

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Review: Criminals by James O’Loghlin

 

Title: Criminals

Author: James O’Loghlin

Published: 5th July 2022, Bonnier Echo

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

““We answered the call, identified the perpetrator….Job done. Crime solved. Except it wasn’t. We’d only solved half of it. We’d only figured out the ‘who”….We’re all icebergs, showing the world our shiny tip, smiling as we say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Fine thanks’, while beneath we hide the messy, complicated truth. To really solve a crime you also need to work out the ‘why’.”

Given James O’Loghlin’s pedigree as an ABC presenter, comedian and former lawyer, I was expecting something caper-ish (crime mixed with screwball comedy) from his debut adult fiction, Criminals, but this is primarily a character driven story, a little quirky but also deliberate and thoughtful.

After absconding while being driven to court mandated rehab, drug addict and petty thief Dean Acton figures a big score from the Blacktown Leagues Club will solve his most immediate needs and let him lay low for a while. Sarah Hamilton, working as a barmaid while on indefinite leave from the police force, remains calm when she’s confronted by two armed masked men, which is why she notices that the thin one seems to recognise her. Sipping a gin, patron Mary Wallace smiles as the shorter of the two robbers turns his gun on her, getting shot now, she thinks, would be convenient.

In the aftermath, as the narrative alternates between each we’ll realised character, O’Loghlin explores the question of criminality through themes of guilt and innocence, opportunity and responsibility, second chances and redemption, and the choices we make that define us.

“I never thought about the consequences of getting a decision wrong, until it happened.”

Sarah puts her investigative skills to work, identifying one of the thieves as her high school’s former football hero, but having once before made a judgement with terrible consequences, she needs to be certain she isn’t making a mistake. Raised on the maxim of ‘right’s right, and wrong’s wrong’ the line is less clear to her now, and she struggles with the decisions she’s faced with.

“‘You committed a crime, but are you a criminal?’
‘Yes, because I committed a crime.
‘Then everyone’s a criminal.”

Mary, a middle-aged, depressed alcoholic contemplating suicide, is inspired to recreate the excitement of the hold up by embarking on her own petty crime spree, while assuring her absent daughter via email that everything is fine. But as the thrill of lawbreaking wears off, Mary has to choose what to let go of.

“I know I’m right down the bottom, nearly as low as you can get. But in a weird way that’s almost a relief, cos it means you can’t fall any further.”

Dean meanwhile, barely has time to celebrate his ‘perfect’ crime before he’s arrested. Faced with a lengthy prison sentence what he decides to do next will not only define his future, but could change someone else’s.

Written with insight, wit and compassion, Criminals is a thought-provoking and engaging novel

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Review: Yours, Mine, Ours by Sinead Moriarty

 

Title: Yours, Mine, Ours

Author: Sinead Moriarty

Published: 7th July 2022, Sandycove

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/NetgalleyUK

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My Thoughts:

Unfolding from multiple perspectives Yours, Mine, Ours by Sinead Moriarty explores the complications of blending families, especially when navigating step-parenting, and co-parenting.

There aren’t really any surprises in this book. Having fallen deeply in love, Anna and James are excited to be starting a new life together, and are sure that their respective children, 15 year-old Grace, 9 year-old Jack, and 14 year-old Bella will quickly embrace the merging of their lives. Neither are prepared when their dream of a happy family rapidly becomes a nightmare.

There’s plenty of drama as the children make life hard for Anna and James, putting a dent in their bubble of bliss. While Grace, a science geek, is willing to give the situation a chance, James’s spoilt daughter Bella doesn’t like sharing her father, and refuses to give Anna an inch. Jack, egged on by his immature father, Conor, is absolutely awful to James, and because of her guilt, Anna excuses his bad behaviour, which becomes a wedge between the couple.

I wasn’t very fond of Anna, though I had some sympathy for her, I found her lack of self awareness in several situations is irritating. James, a university professor, is a fairly bland character, though I admired his patience with Jack, and Anna. Conor, Anna’s ex, is an absolute douche who embraced every stereotype of toxic masculinity, while Bella’s mother, an ambitious career woman remarried to a wealthy hotelier, is focused on the wrong things when it comes to her daughter.

As you would predict, after tantrums, tears, break-ups and make-ups, it all works out in the end.

Moriarty writes well, there is genuine warmth, angst and humour in the story, but there was just not anything unique or particularly memorable about it for me.

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Review: Five Bush Weddings by Clare Fletcher

 

Title: Five Bush Weddings

Author: Clare Fletcher

Published: 2nd August 2022, Penguin Random House Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin Random House Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Five Bush Weddings is a charming Australian romantic comedy debut from Clare Fletcher.

Wedding photographer Stevie-Jean Harrison loves being part of a couple’s special day, but, single at 31, she’s starting to think she may never have her own. Everyone she knows seems to found ‘the one’ – her ex has just announced his engagement, and his gorgeous, young bride-to-be wants Stevie as their photographer; Jen, her best friend and roommate, seems committed to the Most Boring Man Alive; even Stevie’s sexagenarian mother has started dating, – why can’t she?

Johnno West has been in love with Stevie-Jean since he was nineteen. Recently returned to rural Queensland to fulfil his parents expectations and take over the family farm, he is hopeful his best friend’s ex might finally be ready to give him a chance. After all, she once made him promise that if they were both single at 32, they would get married, and he intends to hold her to it.

The friends-to-lovers romance trope has always been my favourite, and it underpins the story of Five Bush Weddings. Stevie and Johnno have known each other for over a decade, but her relationship with Tom (Johnno’s best mate), and his later move to London, stunted their mutual attraction. Fletcher cleverly utilises the wedding ceremonies that Stevie is hired for to create a framework that ensures the two characters are reunited. I enjoyed the chemistry between the pair, and their teasing banter. There are several obstacles to their relationship as the story progresses including a reluctance to risk their friendship, Stevie’s poor self-awareness, and the introduction of romantic rivals, and while you know it’s going to work out, the author does generate some tension. The heat level in this novel is quite chaste, though remarkably Fletcher is able to communicate passion with a dropped meat pie.

I did grow impatient with Stevie at times as she leant into her self-pity a little too often, and behaved badly as a result, particularly with Jen. I liked her relationship with her mum though, and no one deserves to have an affair implode so publicly. Funny, thoughtful and easy-going, Johnno is a less complicated character. I liked the dynamic with his family, and his support of his sister.

I really enjoyed the distinctive Australian details in this novel. Though Stevie is based in Brisbane, the book is set largely in rural Queensland where the various weddings she photographs take place. Fletcher ably evokes the vastness of the outback and its landscape, but more importantly she captures the sense of community and tradition that unites small towns, and the characters that populate them. The ‘Bush Telegraph’ posts are a fun touch, and I appreciated that Fletcher also touches on some important issues that impact rural life.

Told with heart and humour, Five Bush Weddings is an entertaining read with a satisfying happily ever after.

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Review: Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen

Title: Counterfeit

Author: Kirsten Chen

Published: 7th June 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

A novel with a clever twist, Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen is an entertaining read.

“Now, looking back, I see all the things I got wrong, all my preconceived notions and mistaken assumptions…. But I’ve gotten carried away. Enough about me. We’re here to talk about Winnie.”

Written in an almost, but not quite, stream-of-consciousness style, Part I unfolds from the perspective of Ava Wong. In her version of events, related anxiously to a police detective, Ava claims to be a victim of her former college roommate Winnie Fang. While Ava, with her Ivy League education, a handsome successful husband and a young son, may seem to have had it all, she confesses, her life was a bit of a mess. She was therefore vulnerable when Winnie, once a ‘fobby’ (denouncing her as fresh off the boat) now beautiful, confident and wealthy, blackmailed Ava into becoming involved in the business of importing and selling counterfeit luxury goods.

It is a convincing tale of woe that provokes some sympathy for Ava, especially as it seems Winnie has disappeared and left her holding the bag, so to speak, and is the perfect set up from Chen for the revelations in Part II.

“I guess what I’m saying, Detective, is that Winnie convinced me that ours was a benign and victimless crime.”

I quite enjoyed learning about the counterfeit trade, though it only reinforces my opinion that the value assigned to designer gear is a spectacular rort. I agree in part that counterfeiting is a victimless crime, at least where it concerns the buyers, whose only injury is to their ego, not so much for the sweatshop workers though. The scheme the women run seems surprisingly simple if you are bold enough, and though not without its risks, it seems the financial rewards are high.

“Everyone has a price. The trick is figuring out what it is without overpaying.”

I thought the way the story turned on itself, more than once, was really quite clever. Chen occasionally leans into the western stereotypes surrounding Asians, but deliberately so I think, making a point about expectations and how Ava and Winnie used them to their advantage.

Though its subject is con artists and crime, Counterfeit is an easy, fun, stylish read.

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Review: Someone Else’s Child by Kylie Orr

 

Title: Someone Else’s Child

Author: Kylie Orr

Published: 1st June 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Debut author Kylie Orr explores friendship, betrayal, and trauma in Someone Else’s Child.

With traditional approaches failing to treat eight-year-old Charlotte’s brain tumour, everyone agrees that securing her a place in an overseas clinical trial that offers help is essential, despite the exorbitant costs involved. While Lottie’s heartbroken father Jeremy continues to work to support the family, and her devoted mother Anna, takes sole responsibility for her care, Ren, Lottie’s loving godmother, does what she can to help them all cope with the strain, and is an eager supporter of the fundraising efforts.

As the story unfolds from Ren’s perspective, it’s clear she admires Anna, though they are quite different from one another. Orr’s skilful portrayal of their dynamic, which is integral to the plot, is very believable. In their nine years of friendship, Ren has never had reason to suspect Anna capable of deceit or cruelty. If Anna is lately occasionally sharp and demanding, Ren readily accepts the stress and exhaustion of the circumstances as an excuse. While she may not always agree with her friend’s decisions, Ren tells herself she is not a mother, and she trusts that Anna knows what is best for her daughter.

Orr stirs a range of strong emotions as the story progresses, from sadness and compassion, to dread and anger, but there is nuance to be found too. Though there is no surprise in regards to the direction the main plot takes, there is growing tension as Ren begins to suspect something is wrong which eventually builds to a dramatic confrontation. I like that Orr also briefly explored the aftermath of events, with an epilogue set three years later.

Subplots also add texture to the characters and enhance the story, in particular Ren’s struggle, as a Respite Coordinator for the town council, to find help for a young single mother of disabled son at the end of her rope.

Well-written, with complex characterisation, and an emotive plot,  Someone Else’s Child is a strong debut. I couldn’t help but consider how I, compared to Ren, would reaction at various points, suggesting this would be a great choice for a book club.

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Blog Tour Review: A Recipe for Family by Tori Haschka

 

Title: A Recipe For Family

Author: Tori Haschka

Published: 3rd August 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Read: August 2022 courtesy DMCPRMedia

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My Thoughts:

Stella Prentice feels like she is drowning. With her husband, Felix, rarely home, she’s struggling to manage her full time career as a brand manager for an upmarket grocery chain while raising her bright four year old, Natalie, and resentful teenage stepdaughter, Georgia, along with fulfilling life’s everyday tasks. Stella’s friends amongst her well-off Northern beaches community insist that a live in au pair is the life raft she needs, but will it be enough to save a sinking ship?

Set within the same community as Tori Haschka’s debut novel, Grace Under Pressure, A Recipe for Family shares the exploration of similar themes such as work/life balance, marriage, motherhood, family, friendship and the stresses of modern living.

As an overwhelmed working wife and mother, Stella is an easy character to relate to as she attempts to juggle the demands on her time, struggling with guilt and resentment when she inevitably drops a ball. Hiring an au pair is an impulsive move, and though Stella is hopeful it will work out, she is uncomfortable with the arrangement. Subsumed by her own issues however, Stella does not handle the situation well, and her relationship with Ava becomes increasingly strained.

I felt very sorry for Ava, still grieving the recent loss of her mother, she is very far from home, and still so young. Ava attempts to draw comfort and advice from notes and recipes left to her by her late mother, but it quickly becomes clear, though she bonds well with Natalie and Georgia, that she doesn’t quite have the maturity or experience to negotiate the awkward situation she finds herself in.

There’s also a third narrative strand in A Recipe for Family which involves Stella’s mother-in-law, Elise. I liked the character, and enjoyed many of her observations, but I didn’t feel the features of her storyline fit comfortably in the novel. I thought the glimpses into the lives of Stella’s and Ava’s friends and acquaintances were more relevant, providing some interesting context and contrast to their circumstances.

Food, and in particular its associations with motherhood, is a linking motif in the novel, from Stella’s repeated attempts to connect with Georgia by preparing meals to honour her stepdaughter’s late mother, to the comfort food Stella prepares for herself at a low point, to the recipes that Ava cooks for the Prentice’s. I think many of us have at least one recipe that serves as a connection to family – for me, it’s my mother’s meatloaf, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I also really liked that Haschka thoughtfully includes the recipes mentioned through the story in full.

Warmly written, with relatable characters, and thoughtful observations, A Recipe of Family is an engaging novel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the last few lines of the novel had quite the unexpected kick, and I hope that Haschka decides to explore its consequences, (particularly for Eve) next.

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Review: The Guncle by Steven Rowley

 

Title: The Guncle

Author: Steven Rowley

Published: 1st June 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Simon & Schuster/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Steven Rowley’s The Guncle was a hit in the USA upon its release in mid 2021, but it’s taken a year for it to be picked up by an Australian publisher so I’m a little late to the party.

Patrick, a reclusive former television celebrity, is completely unprepared when his brother asks him to take care of his children, nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant for the summer while he attends a rehab facility. Given they’ve just lost their mother to cancer, Patrick doesn’t think he is the right person to take charge of his niece and nephew, but Greg is insistent, GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) is exactly what they need.

Patrick has no real idea how to manage the children on a daily basis, and his general sense of irreverence and sarcastic sense of humour makes him a poor role model, but while he makes mistakes, he does commit to helping them deal with their grief.

There are plenty of hilarious conversational exchanges and situations, like Grant’s midnight encounter with Patrick’s very fancy toilet on their very first night. Some may say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but it rarely fails to raise a laugh from me.

The Guncle is more than just funny though, it offers surprising emotional depth as both Patrick and the children grapple with their losses. There are some truly poignant moments as Patrick talks to them about their late mom, Sara, and recalls his own lost love, Joe.

While Patrick is on the verge of being a larger-than-life character, the children are portrayed realistically. Grant is voluble, full of boundless curiosity and energy, while Maisie is still a child but a little more vulnerable and serious. I really enjoyed the dynamic between these three characters and the journey of their relationship.

Written with warmth and humour, The Guncle was a delightful and heartwarming read.

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Review: The People on Platform 5 by Clare Pooley

 

Title: The People on Platform 5

Author: Clare Pooley

Published: 26th May 2022, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Bantam Press UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“Until the point when a man started dying right in front of her on the 08:05, Iona’s day had been just like any other.”

The People on Platform 5 (also published as Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuters) is a delightful, and ultimately uplifting novel from Clare Pooley.

Magazine advice columnist, Iona Iverson occasionally passes the time on her daily commute to London speculating about the strangers with whom she, and her bulldog Lulu,  regularly shares a carriage, but is content to abide by one of the unwritten rules for commuting that states anything more than an occasional shared eye-roll, is taboo. Had one of her fellow commuters not choked on a grape, and another leapt to save him, it’s likely Iona would never had spoken with Piers, Emmie, Sanjay, David or Martha, and remained nothing but an eccentric stranger to them.

The importance of connection and community are the main themes of The People on Platform 5, as the six strangers, who share little other than a train carriage on their daily commute, gradually form an unexpected and enviable friendship that provides each with both emotional and practical support. Though Iona, a colourful and very likeable woman, is the nexus of the story, the author develops the other characters well, and I enjoyed their dynamic as it developed.

The eclectic group, who have varied personal histories, also allows Pooley to explore a number of topical issues including ageism, unemployment, grief, stress, domestic violence, and bullying. I think this gives the story wide appeal as something here is likely to resonate with the readers own experience.

Told with humour and heart, The People on Platform 5 is an engaging story that reminds us of what we have to gain when we reach out to strangers and make new friends.

 

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Review: One of Us by Kylie Kaden

 

Title: One of Us

Author: Kylie Kaden

Published: 3rd May 2022, Pantera Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Pantera Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

One of Us is a contemporary novel of domestic suspense from Australian author Kylie Kaden.

Within one of the architecturally designed homes behind the gates of the exclusive Apple Tree Creek Estate lies the body of a man, blood pooling on the living room floor from a deep stab wound. As a detective studies the scene, and the reactions of the man’s wife, Kaden shifts to the recent past, and focuses on two women, near neighbours Gert Rainworth and Rachel York, who meet and become friends just as their respective marriages are falling apart.

At a fairly measured pace, Kaden exposes the secrets, betrayals, and stresses that culminate in the introductory scene. Gertie is reeling from her husband’s acceptance of a year long transfer to his company’s Singapore office, and his decision to go alone, leaving her with their three children. Rachel, heavily pregnant with her third child, is increasingly exhausted by her husband’s serial philandering, and escalating control issues.

Gertie and Rachel, despite having little in common, form a supportive rapport that feels authentic, as they both struggle with their respective situations. Kaden has a real talent for portraying the familiar minutiae of domestic life, and explores the challenges of marriage and motherhood with empathy.

Stripping back the facade of privilege, wealth and security the community and its residents project, Kaden reveals a host of hidden dysfunctions, from the awful truths about Rachel’s husband, to a neighbours secret shame, and even the way in which the measures used by the gated estate to keep residents safe, can be perverted.

By the time the identity of the stabbed man is revealed, several characters prove to have reasonable motives for the attack. I enjoyed the puzzle of determining which was most likely, and was satisfied by the denouement.

One of Us is an suspenseful and entertaining suburban thriller, sure to appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty, Sally Hepworth and Lisa Jewell.

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