Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary


Title: The Road Trip

Author: Beth O’Leary

Published: 29th April 2021, Quercus

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

The Road Trip is Beth O’Leary’s third entertaining romcom novel, following her success with The Flatshare and The Switch.

Addie, her sister Deb and rideshare passenger, Rodney, have just begun the eight hour drive from Chichester to Scotland to attend a close friend’s wedding when they are rear ended by a Mercedes. The driver is Addie’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan, accompanied by his best friend, Marcus, heading to the same event. With the Mercedes out of action, Addie reluctantly offers the pair a ride in Deb’s Mini Cooper.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Addie and Dylan in the ‘Now’ and the ‘Then’, the physically uncomfortable conditions created by five adults crammed into Deb’s car are almost secondary to the emotionally fraught atmosphere caused by the tumultuous history between Addie and Dylan in particular. I thought the narrative structure worked well to reveal to what happened between them in the past, and their current status with one another.

The road trip itself is beset by a chain of mishaps, from endless traffic (it’s a Bank Holiday weekend) to a breakdown, punctuated by Deb’s need to pump breastmilk, country music singalongs, and Marcus’s less obnoxious tantrums, providing plenty of humour. There’s always an edge of tension though as Addie and Dylan try to navigate their unexpected reunion, complicated by the presence of Marcus who played a significant role in their breakup.

O’Leary’s characters are interesting, all with their own lighthearted quirks, but many of them also struggle with serious issues such as clinical depression, alcoholism, addiction, sexual assault, and difficult family dynamics, making this story a little darker than her previous novels. And while there is a happy ever after for Addie and Dylan, as befitting the romance genre, it’s more mature than a fairytale ending.

Funny and engaging with a bit of edge, I enjoyed The Road Trip.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Learning To Talk To Plants by Marta Orriols


Title: Learning to Talk to Plants

Author: Marta Orriols Translator: Mara Fay Letham

Published: 3rd September 2020, Pushkin Press

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Pushkin Press/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

“You said that talking to plants was a private, transformative act, an act of faith for those who don’t believe in miracles. I get up, take a breath, and add to my list: Learn to talk to plants.”

In need of a book for the Books In Translation Reading Challenge, Learning to Talk to Plants caught my attention in the Edelweiss catalogue. This debut won Spanish author Marta Orriols the Omnium Cultural Prize for the best Catalan novel in 2018, and has been skilfully translated into English by Mara Fay Letham.

Learning to Talk To Plants is a raw and moving story of love, loss and grief. Just hours after her partner of more than a decade informs Paula he is leaving her for another woman, Mauro is killed in an accident. Paula is devastated by his death but her mourning is complicated by her feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal.

“Everyone assumed, during those weeks following the accident, that my stunned gaze, neglected appearance and lowered blinds were due to my sadness over losing the person who’d been my partner for so many years; no one realized that, clinging to the pain of his death, there was another grief, slippery but slow, like a slug able to cover everything— including the other pain—with its viscous trail that gradually saturated everything, ugly, so ugly that all I knew how to do was hide it, I was dying too with the shock of this new shame, even more shocking than the death itself.”

Orriols’ eloquent prose immerses the reader in her character’s intimate thoughts, moving between her struggle in the present and memories of her past. As a neonatologist who lost her mother at a young age, Paula is familiar with the fragility of life, but this loss is more complicated. Though grief unfolds in a predictable manner, from denial through to acceptance, Paula’s experience of it is so intensely personal. I found her situation intriguing, and had great empathy for her. I was particularly impressed by Orriols’ authentic and nuanced portrayal of Paula’s volatile emotions.

“My pain is mine and the only possible unit for measuring or calibrating it is the intimacy of everything that comprised the how. How I loved him, how he loved me. How we were, uniquely, no longer us and, therefore, how I could uniquely grieve him.”

The writing is eloquent, I highlighted at least a dozen sentences or paragraphs that struck me as particularly meaningful or profound. The momentum is steady, but not slow, moving the story forward over the course of about six months.

I may have selected Learning To Talk to Plants to ‘tick a box’, but I was rewarded with a tender, evocative and insightful novel that I would recommend.

++++++

Available from Pushkin Press

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Review: The Jam Queens by Josephine Moon


Title: The Jam Queens

Author: Josephine Moon

Published: 13th April 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

A sweet novel to savour, The Jam Queens is the seventh charming contemporary fiction novel from Australian author Josephine Moon.

A year after the collapse of her marriage following a devastating loss, Agatha has decided to focus on growing her business, a cafe in the Barossa Valley which features the prizewinning jams Aggie, and the women in her family, are known for. The news that her Great Aunt Myrtle has sold Agatha the building in which Strawberry Sonnets operates is likely to upset Aggie’s mother, Valeria, and in order to both soften the blow, and celebrate Valeria’s seventieth birthday in the wake of a health scare, Myrtle has decided that the three women, along with Aggie’s adult daughter Holly, home on vacation from the US where she works as a teacher, and Myrtle’s best friend and erstwhile traveling companion, Dolce, will take a trip on The Ghan.

Unfolding primarily from the perspectives of Aggie, Myrtle and Valeria, Moon tells a story of family, regret, friendship, loss, and love as the group of women travel from Darwin to Adelaide aboard the famous overland train.

Aggie serves as the central character of the story. She has had a very difficult year and she’s hoping the trip will give her clarity on how to move forward with her life. She’s a very likeable character, who exhibits fortitude and kindness in the face of very trying circumstances. Myrtle is a delight, spirited and generous, if a little bit meddlesome. Both Aggie and her Great Aunt Myrtle hope the journey will help heal their fraught relationship with the uncompromising Valeria, but the complicated history between the trio is not easy to reconcile.

The story is quite busy, as in addition to the secrets and burdens the individual characters carry, and the fraught dynamics of their old, and new, relationships, there are also other important elements. One naturally involves the actual journey on The Ghan and the side excursions enjoyed by the group to places like Uluru and Katherine (Nitmiluk) George, all well described by Moon. Another centres around the role of jam-making in the family, and Aggie’s hopes of winning first place at the Adelaide Royal Show. Foodies will love the delicious recipes contained in the book, including one for Moon’s own blue ribbon winning strawberry jam.

Ripe with drama, romance, travel and food, The Jam Queens is a treat not to be missed.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

 


Title: Second First Impressions

Author: Sally Thorne

Published: 13th April 2021, William Morrow Paperbacks

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

Second First Impressions is a charming romantic comedy from USA Today bestselling, Australian author, Sally Thorne.

Ruthie Midona is twenty-five years old but is more at ease among her fellow residents at the Providence Luxury Retirement Village, where she has lived and worked for six years, than among her peers. When her boss takes a vacation, leaving Ruthie in charge, she is determined to prove herself worthy of the responsibility. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the too-personal questions of the young and pretty temp, Melanie, or the attentions of the property owner’s vainglorious son, Teddy, who on their first meeting mistook her for an elderly woman, but both are determined to impress Ruthie with the need to lighten up and live a little.

It’s a case of opposites attract for the staid, straight-laced Ruthie and the carefree, charismatic Teddy. I enjoyed the chemistry between them as their inevitable romantic relationship developed, providing moments of both tenderness and passion. Their connection sparks change in one another, but I like that Thorne is clear that the changes they want to make are in pursuit of their own life goals, not about pleasing the other.

Ruthie has been stuck in a rut ever since a shadowy incident in her past. Encouraged by Melanie and her Sasaki Method* (*patent pending), Ruthie recognises she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The friendship that forms between the two women is lovely, and important to Ruthie’s personal growth.

Teddy has his own issues that he needs to deal with, including a rocky relationship with his father and older-half sister. His goal is to earn enough money to buy into a tattoo business, but commitment is something he’s been avoiding for much of his life.

The cheeky, imperious Parloni ‘sisters’ are a wonderful addition to the story. Aged 91 and 89 respectively, Renata and Agatha are enjoying growing old disgracefully, and delight in tormenting Teddy (in a very un-PC manner) in his role as their personal assistant.

Old age residences seem to have become a popular setting in fiction recently. I liked how Thorne linked it to both Ruthie’s past and Teddy’s future. And the turtles that roam the grounds are a cute additional element.

With appealing characters, a sweet romance, and plenty of well-timed humour, I found Second First Impressions to be a delightful, feel-good read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins 

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Review: We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth

 


Title: We Are Watching Eliza Bright

Author: A.E. Osworth

Published: 13th April 2021, Grand Central Publishing

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Grand Central Publising/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

“‘But like–games. They’re never just games. Just like they’re never just memes or just a joke. It’s all the culture, you know? Like all this, it’s the fabric of our lives. It’s all a reflection of everything we do, everything we believe. It’s how we communicate what we value to other people. It’s the way we socialize, the things we talk about. You know it’s not just games.'”

We Are Watching Eliza Bright explores a tech industry scandal that begins when Eliza Bright is promoted to a small coding team at Fancy Dog Games. Her new colleagues are unimpressed, not only by her lack of formal credentials,  but also the fact she is a woman. Eliza isn’t sure how to respond to their first incident of sabotage, it’s a juvenile effort easily rectified, but eventually decides to complain, only to be indulged with a performative response. Eliza’s annoyed, but one of her colleagues in particular is reassured by the lack of consequences, and after Eliza speaks to a journalist about his venomous rant, she is fired, doxxed, and suddenly the target of a maelstrom of misogyny online, and in real life.

“He is emboldened now that he understands what we have always understood: there is protection in the brotherhood of gaming…”

We Are Watching Eliza Bright is clearly inspired by #gamergate, as well as the #metoo movement, exploring the experience of sexism and harassment in a male dominated workspace that escalates into an online furore that then has terrifying real life consequences. It is both a frightening exposé of cultural misogyny and the increasing overlap between online and the real world, and a celebration of resilience, friendship and community.

“It almost doesn’t matter what she says; it almost doesn’t matter what we think of her. What we want is to put our eyes on her, to possess her, to be involved. We want to know everything.”

I have to admit the narrative perspective threw me and I never grew comfortable with it, even though I think is was a clever technique on the part of the author, emphasising the anonymous, voyeuristic way we consume similar real life scandals, while providing opposing viewpoints and insight. Much of the story unfolds from the perspective of the men in the novel, from the anonymous gamer mob who offer opinion, rumour and lies, fuelling outrage, to the seething toxicity of Lewis and the anonymous Inspectre, to the ‘good guys’ like Preston and Devonte, who don’t understand why their silence isn’t enough of an expression of their solidarity. Occasionally their voices are interrupted by a group known as the Sixsterhood, who protest the mob narrative and endeavour to defend Eliza. Transcripts of IM’s and texts highlight individual thought and opinion.

“They’ll see he’s not a monster; his only crime is being smarter than everyone, needing the challenge. And as long as she confesses her sins, says she won’t try to ruin the world for his brothers again,…. He thinks perhaps he’ll confront her—give her the opportunity to compliment his prowess. He imagines she’ll admit her own inferiority.”

The suspense lies largely in the escalating behaviour of an anonymous gamer determined to make sure Eliza, and all women, understand she is wrong – for speaking out, for invading his culture, for laughing at him. He has no doubt about the righteousness of his ‘mission’, and the outcome of such conviction is inevitable, but no less shocking for it.

“This—this is a feeling deeper than love. It is an obsession. A second life.”

With its unusual structure and provocative content, We Are Watching Eliza Bright isn’t an easy read, but it is a penetrating, thought-provoking and powerful exploration of modern culture.

++++++

Available from Grand Central Publishing

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Review: All We Have Is Now by Kaneana May

 


Title: All We Have Is Now

Author: Kaneana May

Published: 7th April 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

++++++

My Thoughts:

All We Have Is Now is Kaneana May’s second novel following her well-received debut, The One in 2019.

All We Have Is Now unfolds from the perspectives of Bree, Elsie and Olive, colleagues and best friends who run a wellness centre, ‘Healing Hands’. The success of their business has allowed them to relocate to larger premises where Bree, the life of any party, is a Pilates instructor; Elsie, happily married and newly pregnant, provides counselling services; and pragmatic Olive, a dietician, runs cooking classes.

While the centre is thriving, Bree, Elsie and Olive come under increasing personal stress and I quickly found myself invested in their stories. May skilfully develops complex, distinct characters whose behaviours and attitudes feel authentic. With her concealed past, I found Olive to be the most intriguing figure, while Elsie was the most sympathetic given her circumstances. It took me a little longer to warm to Bree, but I loved the depiction of the close, but not uncomplicated, friendship between the three.

May addresses a number of themes in the novel, such as friendship, family, love and romance, but it’s her exploration of grief that is especially thoughtful and sensitive. Each of her main characters are forced to find the courage to confront some difficult realities about loss in order to move forward with their lives. Though bereavement is not something that can be, nor should be, compared, Elsie’s is particularly heartrending given its immediacy.

There is a special sort of thrill in being familiar with the setting of a story. All We Have Is Now is primarily set in Wingham, which adjoins my own town of Taree, so I could easily envisage both the house in which the centre operates and the characters movements around their environs (the author herself is a local).

Thoughtfully crafted, heartfelt and poignant, All We Have Is Now is a pleasure to read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane


Title: Last Night

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Published: 1st April 2021, HarperCollins UK

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HarperCollinsUK/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“That night was the last night of The Past, and we had no idea.”

 

I sat down to get a start on Mhairi McFarlane’s newest release and turned the final page just as my husband put his key in the door. The house was dark, the oven was cold, and I realised I hadn’t moved for the past three hours or so. While I very much enjoyed McFarlane’s previous novels, If I Never Met You, It’s Not Me, It’s You, and Don’t You Forget About Me, Last Night just felled me.

Though both romantic and funny, Last Night is much more than the romcom it’s marketed as. It’s a contemporary, captivating story exploring friendship, loss, secrets and love, told with McFarlane’s distinctive blend of insight, heart, and wit.

It would be far too easy to spoil the plot, which is why I’m avoiding my usual introduction to a review, but I can say it centres around four best friends since childhood – Eve, Susan, Justin and Ed, now all aged in their mid-thirties, faced with a shattering event that challenges their comfortable status quo.

There’s an authenticity and nuance to McFarlane’s characters that just appeals so strongly to me, even though I don’t necessarily have anything in common with them. Last Night unfolds from the perspective of Eve, single (and secretly in love with Ed), with an unfulfilling job, but nevertheless content with her life, largely due to her close relationships with Susan, Justin and Ed. The dynamic between the four friends is enviable, though not without its complications, which are brought to the fore in the wake of profound tragedy.

I’m not claiming Last Night is flawless, nor will it appeal to everyone, but it was near perfect for me for so many reasons. The author has a talent for natural dialogue and great timing, and I love McFarlane’s sharp, dry wit, but it’s her ability to evoke a full range of emotions that ensures I become invested in the story. I laughed and shed a tear, sighed and held my breath.

It should be obvious by now that I adored Last Night, its going to be a favourite for this year.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins UK

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

Review: Something to Hide by Fleur McDonald

Something to Hide by Fleur McDonald

 


Title: Something to Hide {Detective Dave Burrows}

Author: Fleur McDonald

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Something to Hide is the fourth engrossing rural suspense novel to feature Detective Dave Burrows, though the seventh in which he appears, by bestselling Australian writer Fleur McDonald.

Something to Hide brings closure to the undercover assignment investigating a stock theft ring that resulted in Dave being shot and the escape of the ringleaders,  brothers Bulldust and Scotty, in Without A Doubt. Set a few months after the events of Red Dirt Country, Dave’s relationship with his wife, Melinda, is just getting back on track when, while grocery shopping, she’s confronted by a stranger with a message for her husband.

Dave’s been expecting the ruthless brothers to seek their revenge ever since the judge carelessly revealed his identity during his testimony in the case, and now that they’ve finally made their first move, Dave is keen to end the threat. McDonald develops a tense, fast-paced plot as the inevitable confrontation between Dave and Bulldust edges ever closer. Not knowing when, or where it will take place, but assuming it will be deadly, ensures suspense remains high throughout the story, particularly as both men grow more reckless in their pursuit of each other.

Stonewalled by the Major Crimes squad tracking Bulldust and his brother, Dave’s partner, Bob, tries to distract him with another case involving stock theft, moving the action from Perth back to Barrabine, adding a further layer of interest to the novel. It also reunites Dave with his mentor and handler on the undercover case, Spencer, who, in a shocking twist, gets caught up in Bulldust’s vendetta.

The entire situation is the last straw for Mel who issues Dave an ultimatum, insisting he choose between her and the job. McDonald explores Dave’s struggle to make such a choice, and the fears that drive the spouse of a police officer to demand one. Though I do not find Mel to be a likeable character, McDonald’s skill with creating authentic characters ensures I do sympathise with her concerns. Unsurprisingly, Dave remains hopeful that he can still have it all, until tragedy ensures the decision is made for him.

Though Something to Hide could be read as a stand-alone, I wouldn’t recommend it given it provides closure to two major threads developed in the previous books, plus you’d be missing out on what is an excellent series. Well crafted, with exciting action, Something to Hide is a stellar instalment, and I can’t wait to discover how Dave moves forward from here.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

******

If you’ve enjoyed this review, (and even if you haven’t) please consider donating to the charity Fleur McDonald founded, DV assist, which offers information, resources and practical support for those experiencing or concerned about others who may be experiencing domestic and family violence in regional, rural or remote Western Australia experiencing family and domestic violence.

Click here to learn more about DVAssist.org.au

Review: The Best Things by Mel Giedroyc


Title: The Best Things

Author: Mel Giedroyc

Published: 30th March 2021, Headline Review

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

“It’s the story of a family who lose everything, only to find themselves, and each other, along the way.”

The book’s strap line provides the perfect summary of The Best Things, the entertaining debut adult novel from British comedian, actor, and presenter, Mel Giedroyc.

Living in a palatial home in Surrey’s most exclusive gated community, hedge fund CEO Frank Parker is proud that his financial success ensures his wife, Sally, and teenage children, Chloe, Stephen, Michaela (Mikey) and (niece) Emily, want for nothing. Sally is conscious of the privilege Frank’s wealth affords her, but with household tasks managed by a contemptuous, territorial housekeeper, her mothering outsourced to an insolent Australian nanny, and her workaholic husband often absent, she’s popping prescription pills to avoid facing the emptiness of her days.

When the financial market suddenly goes to hell, Frank has a nervous breakdown,  and when Sally learns they are going to lose everything they have, she realises she has to regain control of her life before she loses her family too.

Giedroyc draws on the familiar cliche’s of ‘money can’t buy happiness’, and of course, ‘the best things in life are free’ in this ‘riches to rags’ story. The pace is a little slow to start as we are introduced to the Parker family, but begins to picks up as their life begins to fall apart. While I thought the plot was fairly predictable, they were some small surprises, some a little absurd, but there was not really much in the way of tension. There is however plenty of humour in The Best Things, as you’d expect from an author who made a living as a comedian, with some cracking quips and amusing banter.

Giedroyc leans quite heavily into the stereotypes of wealthy people, mocking their extravagant excesses, snobbery, and petty , and while I do think many of her characters tend to be quite shallowly drawn, there is some nuance to be found. Frank’s love for Sally, for example, is deep and genuine, even if the expression of his adoration, by removing any stress or challenge from her life, is wholly misguided. I wanted to like Sally more than I did though, I think Giedroyc took a little too long to have her shed her ennui and take some responsibility for her family and their situation. The children were a surprise though, they were probably the most genuine, and sympathetic, characters in the book.

I enjoyed The Best Things, it’s lively, funny and ultimately uplifting.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Welcome to Nowhere River by Meg Bignell


Title: Welcome To Nowhere River

Author: Meg Bignell

Published: 2nd March 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Centred on the small (fictional) town of Nowhere River in the Tasmanian Highlands, Welcome to Nowhere River is a charming novel from Meg Bignell about family, friendship and community.

In a bid to revive the standards of the Nowhere River township, affected by drought and a dwindling population, the imperious president of the St Margery’s Ladies’ Club announces a contest. The member who conceives of, and develops the most effective idea to revitalise the riverside village (while upholding a standard of decorum) will be crowned Miss Fresh & Lovely, and win $100,000. With such high stakes, the competition has no shortage of entrants and soon the community is a hive of activity as plans are put into action.

“Everyone knows everyone, but no one knows anyone at all.”

Among the residents vying for the crown are three women who are central to the novel – Carra, her mother-in-law Lucie, and local farmer, Josie. Each have their own reasons for entering the competition, but all are distracted by personal issues. Carra, married to Nowhere River’s local golden boy, Duncan, and the mother of infant twins, is overwhelmed and unhappy. Lucie’s grief for her young daughter who went missing in Nowhere River decades before, resurfaces; and the viability of Josie’s family farm, already struggling due to drought, is further threatened. I enjoyed getting to know these well crafted characters, I empathised with their challenges, and wished the best for them all.

Welcome To Nowhere River also has a lively raft of supporting characters, including eccentrics like the elderly Cliffity, who collects gnomes and ferrets, and the grumpy grocery store owners, the Pfaff’s. I delighted in getting to know the members of this community, aided by snippets from Lucie’s Miss Fresh & Lovely project interviews with a dozen or so residents. Fair warning, there a few with a mouth on them, but mostly they should make you laugh with their very Australian turn of phrases. Living in a country town myself (beside a river no less) I found the dynamics of the community familiar, especially in regards to the importance of the Show to the town, and in what is a rather extraordinary coincidence, (MINOR SPOILER) this week (March 2021) my town was ravaged by flood, just as Nowhere River is.

“It always amazes me…how there are no secrets in this town, but so many mysteries.”

While Welcome To Nowhere River is largely a character-driven story, there is a thread of poignant mystery in relation to the fate of Lucie’s missing daughter. There are also some twists as the story unfolds, and some surprises in the epilogue.

Written with warmth and humour, celebrating character and community spirit, I found Welcome to Nowhere River to be a delightful read, much as I did Meg Bignell’s debut novel, The Sparkle Pages. I’m already looking forward to her next.

+++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia 

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