Review: A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

Title: A Home Like Ours

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 3rd March 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2021, courtesy Harlequin Australia /Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“Life was an unpredictable lottery. But surrounded by a community and a garden, the future was easier to face.”

An insightful, warm and engaging story, A Home Like Ours is another fabulous novel from award winning Australian author Fiona Lowe.

When Helen arrived in the small town of Boolanga in rural Victoria three years ago, she had been living in her car, searching for work, and a place to call home. Now, having secured a position as a caretaker of the town’s community garden which provides her with a small cottage, her new found stability is threatened when she insists a local group of refugee women be provided with plots.

Jade is a young mother with no family to speak of and a deadbeat, often absent, partner. To supplement her meagre pension, and provide her baby son with organic produce, she reluctantly agrees to assist Helen in the community garden. Though initially distrustful of everyone, especially the refugees, Jade slowly discovers a place she could belong.

Tara doesn’t understand why her husband, hardware store owner, Jon, seems to have lost interest in her. Wrapped up in her own self-pity, she is stunned when he is diagnosed with a debilitating condition, and is forced to consider what community really means.

The central theme of A Home Like Ours focuses on the effects of displacement. Like the protagonists of Lowe’s story, almost all of us are vulnerable to events such as illness, injury, relationship breakdown, unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, as well as extreme situations like war, which could result in a complete change of circumstance.

To face these sorts of unexpected challenges requires the support of a community – of family, of friends, and often even strangers. Lowe’s decision to centre the story on the town’s community garden is a clever one. Not only is it a site that allows her to reflect the population of the town at large, but it’s also a setting in which her very different characters can plausibly meet.

Portrayed with a realistic complexity, I really liked Lowe’s characters and found their stories to be engaging. It’s impressive that she is able to credibly depict women who are of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and have diverse concerns. I would have liked for Fiza, a Sudanese refugee, to have had a larger role in the story, though I can understand why Lowe likely shied away from doing so.

Lowe also explores a range of specific issues relevant in Australia at the moment including racist attitudes towards refugees from African countries, the rise of homelessness experienced by women over 55, the inadequacy of current social support payments, the lack of support programs in rural areas, and government corruption. It seems like a lot, but these issues overlap and intertwine, enriching the story, and informing the reader.

I barely noticed that A Home Like Ours was almost 600 pages long, engrossed in the well-paced story I finished it in a day. This is an wonderful read that encourages empathy, compassion and community.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Everything Is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray

Title: Everything is Beautiful

Author: Eleanor Ray

Published: 9th February 2021, Piatkus

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Eleven years after Amy Ashton was encouraged to gather a selection of precious memories in a shoebox, her home is filled to the brim with keepsakes. Bundles of newspapers tower in the hallways, boxes block the stairs, wine bottles cover the floor, coffee mugs and cookbooks clutter the kitchen, ceramic birds perch on every flat surface, vases hold dead bouquets of honeysuckle, and lighters and ashtrays (even though Amy doesn’t smoke) are stacked in teetering piles.

Told in alternating chapters between present day and the past, why Amy came to stuff her home with ‘treasures’ is gradually revealed in this heartrending and beautiful tale by author Eleanor Ray. A capable and valued administrator at a financial advice firm, Amy is unassuming, her wardrobe is dull, she never wears makeup and avoids social events. Few would imagine what the intensely private woman returns home to each night, and Amy prefers that no one cares, she is content with just the company of her ‘beautiful things’ that remind of happier times.

Amy’s neighbour, Rachel, cares though, and blames her for an ongoing problem with mice. When a new family moves in next door, Rachel thinks she has found an ally in forcing Amy to change, but with a well paced and thoughtful plot, it doesn’t happen in the way that you may expect. I loved the unexpected way in which some of the elements of the story developed, and though I had an inkling of what the main twist would be, I wasn’t disappointed to be proved right.

Amy is slightly awkward and intensely vulnerable, but despite her extreme behaviour, there would be few who would not find her sympathetic. I found myself feeling strangely protective of her, perhaps in part because I’m a bit of a hoarder myself. There are also several delightful supporting characters in the book, including the two charming young sons of Amy’s new neighbour, and an elderly retired shopkeeper. It has its villains too, who are satisfyingly dealt with.

Everything is Beautiful may begin as a story of tragedy and grief, but ultimately it is one of healing and hope, which I found moving and am delighted to recommend.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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*Published in the US as The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton

Review: The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale

Title: The Paris Affair

Author: Pip Drysdale

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

“Well, it began like any anti-love story. With Chapitre Un.”

Having landed a dream job as an arts and culture journalist for The Paris Observer, Harper Brown is enjoying her new life in the City of Love, though love is last thing she’s interested in. Still nursing a broken heart after the demise of an eight year relationship, Harper doesn’t want normal – she just wants to impress her new boss, work her way onto the features desk, and has just one rule- do no harm.

It’s rare that I’m surprised by the direction a story takes, but Drysdale managed to do so in The Paris Affair. The first quarter or so of the novel reads more like a romcom, so I wasn’t really expecting the twists in this tale that sees Harper caught up in an art world scandal, and become the target of a serial killer. While not a strong thriller, there are certainly moments of tension, and the pace is persuasive.

Harper Brown is a very appealing protagonist. Though not without her flaws, with her generally pragmatic and confident attitude, she stands out from the more typical insecure, capricious, aged 20-something protagonist in contemporary fiction. Though her cynicism about love is a little intense, it’s also understandable, and her obsession with true crime podcasts is a fun trait.

The Parisian setting will likely charm readers (personally I don’t care much for the place), as will the chapters headed in French, though Drysdale does provide a glimpse of the city’s shadows. The story is firmly grounded in the here and now as Harper scrolls through Instagram, browses though Tinder, texts with friends, and makes her way around the city via Uber.

I found The Paris Affair to be a quick, entertaining and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Blog Tour Review: The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez

Title: The Moroccan Daughter

Author: Deborah Rodriguez

Published: 2nd February 2021, Bantam Australia

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse

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My Thoughts:

The Moroccan Daughter is the engaging second contemporary novel from Deborah Rodriguez to feature hairstylist Charlie and her eccentric grandmother, Bea, who first appear in Island On the Edge of the World.

When Amina is summoned home to Morocco for her sister’s wedding, she urges her best friend Charlie, and Charlie’s grandmother, Bea, to join her, in the hopes that they will provide her with moral support when she finally tells her traditionalist, religious father that she is married to an American man. Though happy to be of assistance to her friend, Charlie also sees the trip as an opportunity to resolve a youthful mistake, while Bea is simply delighted with the opportunity to experience Morocco’s unique culture.

A story of friendship, family, tradition and secrets, The Moroccan Daughter is full of drama as it unfolds from the perspectives of Amina, Charlie, Bea and Samira.

Samira is the Bennis family housekeeper, who keeps many of its secrets, including one that has the power to change Amina’s life. While Amina struggles with a way to tell her father the truth about her life in California, a task made more urgent when her husband, Max, turns up on their doorstep, Samira wonders if it would help her to know the truth.

Charlie’s secret is completely unexpected, involving a mystery man who she met three years earlier during her earlier backpacking travels, and adds a touch of suspense to the novel when it becomes clear he is not quite whom he seems.

Bea is delightful – optimistic, curious and unconventional, she does not let her near-total blindness hold her back. Her interest in people is disarming, and her concern for their well-being sincere, even if she is occasionally a touch meddlesome. Bea also has a keen interest in the mystical, and in possession of her own special abilities, she is intrigued by a nearby Apothecary and eager to learn more about Moroccan shawafas (witches).

Rodriguez transports the reader to Morocco with her rich, sensory descriptions of the bustling Medina in Fes, the tranquil Riad which is home to the Bennis family, and the rocky, dusty landscape of the Atlas Mountains. I liked that I felt I learnt something about the culture of Morocco, from its extravagant weddings to the plight of the Amazigh (or Imazighen).

The Moroccan Daughter is a pleasant escape to an exotic location with engaging characters, and wonderfully Rodriguez provides a handful of delicious authentic Moroccan recipes that can only enhance the reading experience.

+++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse

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Review: Space Hopper by Helen Fisher

 


Title: Space Hopper

Author: Helen Fisher

Published: 4th February 2021, Simon & Schuster UK

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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This is a story about taking a leap of faith. And believing the unbelievable

They say those we love never truly leave us, and I’ve found that to be true. But not in the way you might expect. In fact, none of this is what you’d expect.

I’ve been visiting my mother who died when I was eight. And I’m talking about flesh and blood, tea-and-biscuits-on-the-table visiting here.

Right now, you probably think I’m going mad.

Let me explain…

Although Faye is happy with her life, the loss of her mother as a child weighs on her mind even more now that she is a mother herself. So she is amazed when, in an extraordinary turn of events, she finds herself back in her childhood home in the 1970s. Faced with the chance to finally seek answers to her questions – but away from her own family – how much is she willing to give up for another moment with her mother?

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My Thoughts:

“Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life.”

… says the publisher, and they are right. I appreciated the idea behind this book, but unfortunately I just didn’t connect at all with the main character, which I think is essential with a first person narrative.

It’s my belief that Space Hopper is most likely to resonate with women who lost a parent, particularly a mother, at a young age, and can therefore empathise with Faye’s obsession. Someone of a Christian faith is also less likely to be bothered by the religious overtones than I was.

While not for me, Space Hopper may be perfect for you.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton

Title: Before I Saw You

Author: Emily Houghton

Published: 4th February 2021, Bantam Press

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Before I Saw You is a winsome contemporary novel from debut author Emily Houghton

Badly burned in a fire and deeply traumatised, Alice Gunnersley, can’t even bear to look at herself, and has refused to speak since she woke. Moved into a rehabilitation ward, she insists the curtain around her bed remain closed at all times, but that wont stop Alfie Mack from getting to know the girl in the bed next door. Alfie has been in St Francis’s Hospital for months, recuperating after his leg was amputated due to a car accident. He rarely stops talking, determined to keep both his own, and his fellow ward mates spirits high, and he’s sure if he asks enough questions, Alice will eventually answer.

Told from the alternating points of view of Alice and Alfie, this is very much a character driven story primarily taking place in the one location. It’s focus is on the connection that slowly forms between the two protagonists, both of whom have experienced life changing events but are very different personalities, and therefore have very different approaches to coping. Alice, a workaholic with no family to speak of and only one close friend who has relocated to Australia, used to being alone, has withdrawn further into herself. Alfie, a passionate teacher with loving parents and a large group of friends tries to remain positive by using humour and focusing on the needs of others, despite his private grief and pain.

As their first tentative conversation progresses to a late night sharing of secrets, It’s no surprise that deeper feelings develops between them. That neither know what the other looks like adds a layer of interest to the attraction, particularly since they are both physically scarred, and worried about the reaction of others to their injuries.

I thought Houghton was sensitive to the trauma her protagonists have, and continue to experience. She doesn’t minimise their darker emotions, but neither does she dwell in them, at least until the last 20% or so where the story gets quite bogged down in the self pity of both characters – honest perhaps, but dull reading particularly when whatever sense of anticipation you may have is poorly rewarded if you are expecting a traditional romantic HEA ending.

Though I thought there was a misstep or two with regards to the plot, Houghton’s skilful portrayal of character and emotions in particular meant I found Before I Saw You to be a moving and engaging read.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: Girls With Bright Futures by Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman

Title: Girls with Bright Futures

Author: Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman

Published: 2nd February 2021, Sourcebooks Landmark

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“…as long as you had the money and status to back you up, every line was made to be crossed.”

When Stanford alerts the elite Elliot Bay Academy it only has only one early offer place for its graduating students, the competition for the slot quickly spirals out of control. Tech mogul Alicia is determined that her daughter, Brooke, will attend Stanford no matter the cost, Kelly will do anything to ensure her daughter Krissie will be the chosen one, while Maren, with none of the advantages of her wealthy rivals, and her job as Alicia’s PA on the line, doesn’t know how to tell her daughter, Winnie, that her Stanford dream is over.

With excellent pacing Girls With Bright Futures unfolds over two timelines and from three perspectives. It begins with a prologue which reveals one of the three Stanford hopefuls has been the victim of a hit and run, and then moves to a few weeks prior as Maren and Winnie are being informed by the school’s college counselor that Winnie needs to rethink her application to Stanford. It’s immediately clear to them both that while Winnie is the strongest academic candidate, Brooke has the edge because of her mother’s wealth and status. While Winnie isn’t willing to back down, Alicia has made it clear to Maren that should Winnie compete with Brooke for the spot, Maren will be fired, and renege on a secret deal that provides financial support for Winnie’s schooling. Meanwhile Kelly, PTA President and Stanford alum, whose daughter is perpetually in 2nd place to Winnie, and is not quite wealthy or powerful enough to compete with Alicia, attempts to topple Krissie’s rivals with gossip and innuendo.

With my own daughter having graduated highschool last year, I am so glad for the far more egalitarian higher education system in place here. While the authors insist that the events in this novel are an exaggerated, they seem all too plausible given recent, and past events in the US news. Some parents have already proved they are willing to do anything to ensure their precious offspring has every advantage, and when they can’t earn it, they are willing to pay, manipulate, or even kill (hello Texas Cheerleader Mom) to ensure it.

Alicia Stone is a character you love to hate, selfish and entitled she wields her privilege without mercy. Her behaviour is repetitively appalling, there is more than one instance in which she takes advantage of Winnie, and as Maren’s employer she is endlessly demanding. Brooke is an extension of her ego, rather than a person in her own right.

As for Kelly, her whole self is invested in her children’s achievements and while she definitely crosses the line, at least she recognises there is one.

Naturally it’s Maren that attracts the most sympathy, a single mom doing everything she can to support her bright daughter but caught in a difficult situation, given her reliance on her employer. And is if that’s not enough, she is totally blindsided when her rivals machinations dig up a painful secret from her past.

For me, the authors struck just the right note with Girls With Bright Futures. I found the pace to be addictive, the drama wickedly entertaining, and the epilogue hugely satisfying.

++++++

Available from Sourcebooks

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Review: My Best Friend’s Murder by Polly Phillips

Title: My Best Friend’s Murder

Author: Polly Phillips

Published: 6th January 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

My Best Friend’s Murder is an entertaining domestic thriller from UK journalist Polly Phillips, who currently calls Australia home.

“You’re lying, sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, legs bent, arms wide.”

Bec and Izzy have been the best of friends since they met, aged eleven. In the years since, Bec has mostly been content to let Izzy set the terms for their relationship, but recently she’s begun to sense that contempt lurks behind Izzy’s backhand compliments and seemingly solicitous advice. Hurt and angry, Bec is determined to confront her best friend, but could she really be responsible for her murder?

My Best Friend’s Murder is told from Bec’s perspective, beginning with her standing over a broken and bloodied Izzy, before moving back three months previously as Bec and her new fiancé, Ed, celebrate their engagement at home of Izzy and her husband, Rich. The occasion is not the first time that Bec senses something awry between herself and Izzy, but she is surprised by her best friend’s cool behaviour.

Well-paced, this is a suspenseful novel as Phillips reveals the history of the friendship between the two women and it’s increasing toxicity. To Bec, Izzy’s behaviour is inexplicable- beautiful, married to her handsome highschool sweetheart with an adorable child, wealthy and ambitious, Izzy has everything, yet she seems to resent Bec’s recent small successes – her engagement, and a potentially career altering opportunity. Phillips skilfully explores the complex dynamic of their friendship, the role each of them play in maintaining the status quo, and how difficult it is for them to let go. With Izzy’s death, Bec is left to grapple with her grief, and her guilt.

I admired Phillips subtle, and not so subtle twists, in the plot, and though I wasn’t so enamoured with an element of the ending, it’s a minor flaw in what is otherwise a well told tale. My Best Friend’s Murder is an absorbing read and an accomplished debut.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Published: 29th December 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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Inspired by Gina Wilkinson’s own experiences as a diplomat’s wife in Iraq, When the Apricots Bloom is a thought-provoking and moving story about loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.

Set in Baghdad in 2002, the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three women – Ally, the wife of an Australian ambassador; Huda, Ally’s husband’s secretary; and Raina, Huda’s childhood friend.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is defined by loss, suspicion, and fear, the mukhabarat lurk everywhere looking for any sign of disloyalty to their ‘great leader’, visiting swift and brutal punishment on anyone who dare to speak against him. Listening devices are used routinely in homes and public spaces, dissidents disappear, or are made examples of. Americans are banned from the country, and representatives of other western countries, particularly women, are barely tolerated.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you? Two can keep a secret only when one of them is dead.”

By failing to declare her dual citizenship, and her previous career as a journalist, Ally is in a precarious position that only worsens when she attempts to learn more about her late mother, who thirty years earlier spent time as a nurse in Baghdad. Naive regarding the risks to both herself, her husband, and anyone else she involves in her task, Ally will be forced to make a difficult choice.

When ordered by the mukhabarat (secret police) to befriend Ally and learn her secrets, Huda, whose husband is unemployed after the country’s economic collapse, has no other choice but to agree if she is to keep her teenage son safe from being conscripted into the fedayeen (death squad). As the police apply increasing pressure for information, Huda grows desperate, and demands help from Raina, once her closest childhood friend, whom she holds responsible for the execution of her brothers.

A sheik’s daughter, now an art dealer, whose family’s wealth and influence has dwindled to almost nothing, Raina is also worried for her daughter’s safety when one of Hussein’s son’s expresses interest in fourteen year old Hanan. She has little to offer Huda, but suggests the two women together can find a way to save their children.

“If the blood oath is broken,” she declared theatrically, “then the penalty is sorrow.” “Sorrow for the oath breaker,” she declared, “and for the generation that follows her.”

Demonstrating that women the world over will do what they must to protect their children, When the Apricots Bloom explores the circumstances in which Huda, Raina and Ally find themselves in, caught between the past and the future, forced to choose between duty and love.

The three main characters of When the Apricots Bloom are well-developed, though it was Huda who I found the most interesting, and whose fate I cared more for. Ally and Raina have protections, and choices, that Huda does not, and as such I considered her the braver of the trio. Huda is forced to walk such a thin line, I felt tense each time she was confronted by the mukhabarat, and my heart was in my throat during the final scenes.

Wilkinson’s insights into the daily life of Iraqi citizens under Hussein’s totalitarian rule are fascinating, portraying a country crippled by war, an economy destroyed by sanctions, and a populace oppressed by terror, all contrasting sharply to the glimpses of life in Baghdad before Hussein’s rise to power. Abandoning their country is nevertheless a wrench for the Huda and Raina, and Ally is disappointed to leave without answers to her questions.

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom. Alas, the world is not perfect.”

Expressive, evocative, and convincingly authentic, I found When the Apricots Bloom to be an absorbing read.

+++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely by Jessica Dettmann

Title: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Author: Jessica Dettmann

Published: 6th January 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, Jessica Dettmann’s sophomore novel, was my first read for the new year, and happily, an ideal selection.

Witty, warm, sharp and sincere, this is a story of responsibilities, regrets, secrets, anxieties, dreams and dysfunction, as the family of Annie Jones, which includes her three adult children, their partners and offspring, her ex-husband, and the man he left her for, gathers under the same roof for Annie’s father’s funeral in the days before Christmas.

No family is without complications, but at this particular moment, Annie’s can be said to have more complications than most. Though she had imagined that with her father’s passing she would finally be free to pursue her own dreams, as the week unfolds, Annie begins to doubt that escaping the needs of her family will ever a possibility.

I quickly became invested in the characters of This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, even though I had little in common with them. They are realistic and nuanced, as are the dynamics between them. Annie garnered my complete sympathy, her daughter, Molly, not so much. I felt sorry for Simon’s wife, Diana, while Annie’s friend, Jane, made me laugh.

Taking place in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney over the Christmas period, the details of the setting are very familiar, as I spent several summer holidays with cousins who lived in the same area. We too made the daily pilgrimages to the beach, ate meals in the back yard, and played hide and seek among the plumbago.

Dettmann’s writing is perceptive, tender and poignant, deftly portraying the complexities of the modern family, and exploring themes of choice, resentment, expectation, freedom, and creativity. An absolutely lovely read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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