Review: All Her Fault by Andrea Mara

Title: All Her Fault

Author: Andrea Mara

Published: 22nd July 2021, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Penguin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

In All Her Fault by Irish author Andrea Mara, Marissa Irvine arrives at 14 Tudor Grove to collect her four year old son, Milo, from a play date, only to discover the occupant is a stranger who knows nothing about her son.

It’s a scenario that becomes ever more nightmarish when it’s clear there has been no simple mistake. Jenny, with whom Marissa organised the playdate over text, claims to know nothing about the plan, and when no ransom demand is forthcoming, the police have few leads to follow.

The longer Milo remains missing, the higher the tension rises. Mara develops plenty of plausible red herrings as suspicion falls on strangers and those closest to the Irvine’s alike. Cleverly, though the identity of the abductor is eventually revealed, their motivation remains obscured, until a final shocking reveal that I really didn’t see coming. A couple of the twists are a bit of a stretch but in general I thought All Her Fault was well plotted, pacey and suspenseful.

Mara’s portrayal of Marissa’s journey from confusion through to panic and despair is well portrayed. I empathised with her devastation, and her determination to find her son. Gossip and speculation run rampant as the news of Milo’s kidnapping spreads, there are some particularly passive-aggressive characters – school gate mums (and a Dad)- who are eager to suggest Marissa is somehow to blame for the tragedy. Jenny is the only one who reaches out to Marissa and offers her genuine support, despite her unwitting role in the abduction.

With a compelling premise, well drawn characters and a rather spectacularly satisfying ending, I thought All Her Fault was a gripping read.

++++++

Available from Penguin UK


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Review: The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe

 

Title: The Children’s Secret

Author: Nina Monroe

Published: 13th July 2021, Sphere

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe, a back-to-school party in the small New Hampshire town of Middlebrook, is marred by tragedy when an eleven year old guest is shot in the chest, and the children, whom were out of sight of the adults in a barn, refuse to explain how it happened.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, the narrative explores the impact of the shooting and its aftermath.

The characters are diverse, which I appreciate, but it does feel a little contrived, in that the cast tick just about every minority box.

As the parents look to lay, or deflect blame, they find themselves wrestling with various concerns, not just those that relate directly to the tragedy, but also personal problems, ranging from a crisis of faith to a troublesome pregnancy, as well as social issues such as racism, prejudice, media distortion, and political expediency. I felt the personal issues were largely unnecessary distractions though, given the complex and divisive subjects related to the main subject at hand.

I think Monroe manages to be fairly even-handed in her examination of the gun control debate. Studies show that in the US around 3000 children are killed or injured per year in incidents where a gun is accidentally/unintentionally fired by a child under the age of 17*. I believe in gun control. In an ideal world I do not believe any ordinary citizen should own a gun except in very specific instances, and no semi or automatic weapons without exception. I believe in gun registration, background checks, age restrictions, licences/permits, storage requirements, and limits on ownership.

Though as The Children’s Secret shows, none of that necessarily precludes a tragedy (though it was still avoidable, and could have been worse). As the nine children, aged from four to thirteen, steadfastly repeat the same story about the shooting that explains almost nothing, the mystery of the novel rests in discovering how the children gained access to the gun, exactly what happened in the barn, who fired the shot that struck the victim, and why. I found my need for answers to be sufficient motivation to keep reading.

The novel’s tight timeline (it unfolds over the period of about a week) and short chapters helps the story to progress at a good pace. I did feel there were some some flaws in the writing, but nothing egregious.

Provocative and thoughtful, The Children’s Secret has the potential to elicit strong reactions among its readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Protect-Children-Not-Guns-2019.pdf

 

Review: About Us by Sinead Moriarty

 

Title: About Us

Author: Sinead Moriarty

Published: 15th July 2021, Sandycove

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Penguin UK

 

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My Thoughts:

 

About Us is the fifteenth contemporary novel from Irish author, Sinead Moriarty, an engaging novel about three couples facing intimacy issues in their relationships.

Exhausted by the daily demands of caring for their four rambunctious young children, feeling inadequate and frumpy, Alice has an excuse ready every time her husband reaches for her. Niall, an ambitious lawyer, loves his wife but is hurt by her repeated rejection and desperate for something to change.

With her sixty fifth birthday approaching, her children living their own lives and her husband on the cusp of retirement, Ann is bored and restless but her husband is not the least bit interested in adventure or, it seems, her. Ken doesn’t understand why, after 39 years of marriage, Ann is no longer happy with the status quo, he just wants things to stay just as they are.

Orla has escaped her father’s boundless grief but not her mother’s legacy. She’s convinced that she’s a freak who will never have the only thing she wants – love, marriage and children, but Paul, the divorced father of one her students, wants the chance to convince her otherwise.

Desperate to improve their situations Niall, Ann and Orla make an appointment with American sex and relationship psychotherapist, Maggie Purcell, who helps them voice their deepest fears, disappointments, wants and desires.

Moriarty writes with honesty and sensitivity about issues related to identity, marriage, family, and intimacy at different stages of life in About Us.

I thought the couples relationships were relatable, aspects of the issues in the marriages of Alice and Niall, and Ann and Ken are likely to resonate with many readers. Moriarty’s insights were thoughtful and genuine and she was pretty fair to each partner, though I had more empathy for the women, particularly at first.

Orla isn’t in a relationship, but she wants be. The issue that prompts her to seek out Maggie is a little known condition and one I’m glad that Moriarty addresses. I had a lot of sympathy for Orla, who has a tragic background, and though I didn’t really relate to her, I wished the best for her.

I liked About Us, Moriarty offers a story with emotional depth, written with warmth, humour, and honesty.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: The Wattle Seed Inn by Leonie Kelsall

 

Title: The Wattle Seed Inn

Author: Leonie Kelsall

Published: 5th July 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

To prove a point to her ex-fiancé, whom is also her business partner, Gabrielle Moreau decides that transforming the pub they bought as an investment in the tiny community of Wurruldi into an upmarket B&B would be an ideal project. She plans to be hands on but the building is in worse shape than she expected, and Gabby has no real idea where to start.

Hayden Paech dismisses Gabby as a stuck-up city girl from the moment she walks into the pub at Settlers Bridge, not that it matters given he believes he is no longer has anything to offer to any woman. But the more time he spends in Gabby’s company, particularly as he begins work on the Wurruldi Hotel, the more he wonders if the future he thought he had lost is possible after all.

The Wattle Seed Inn is the second heartwarming contemporary rural fiction novel from Leonie Kelsall set in the Murray River region of South Australia.

Kelsall explores familiar themes such as love, friendship, forgiveness and loss in The Wattle Seed Inn, and also issues such as self acceptance, trust and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Romance is still the key element of the story though, and I enjoyed the way in which the author developed the relationship between Gabby and Hayden.

Gabby and Hayden are drawn together in part because they have experienced the tragic loss of a loved one for which they have held themselves responsible, and recognise that wound in each other, even without knowing the details. The pain is much fresher for Hayden, who also carries physical scars as a daily reminder, and experiences panic attacks. I thought Kelsall’s portrayal of his PTSD was sympathetic and believable, and the inclusion of Hayden’s service dog, Trigger, and his role in supporting him was illuminating. Gabby seems to have it all -wealth, privilege and beauty- but she too carries emotional scars, and harbours hidden insecurities that make her wary of relationships.

The addition of a third perspective in the novel was somewhat of a surprise. Ilse can’t clearly recall how the Wurruldi Hotel, that has been owned by her family for generations, came to be so run down, but she is happy that her home is finally getting the attention it needs, and is eager to offer Gabby advice on how to restore it to its former glory. She drifts around the hotel recalling happier times when her husband was alive, but is also haunted by a sense of something being badly wrong.

I enjoyed the connections Kelsall makes to her debut novel, The Farm at Peppertree Crossing, with the main characters playing a small role in this story. Matt and Roni are two of Hayden’s group of friends which also includes Sharni, who is the first to welcome Gabby to the area, secretly hoping that Gabby could be her ticket off the dairy farm.

Written with warmth, humour and sincerity, offering appealing characters and an engaging story, The Wattle Seed Inn is a lovely read, sure to satisfy fans of the genre.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

 

Title: The Newcomer

Author: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Published: 2nd July 2021, Scribe Publications

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Scribe Publications

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Loosely inspired by the 2002 murder of a woman on Norfolk Island, The Newcomer is a provocative literary crime novel by Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

Paulina Novak, even at 28, is a wild child. Reckless, self absorbed and brazen, with an eating disorder and a drinking problem, she ditched her life in Sydney for a fresh start on the tiny island of Fairfolk, off the eastern coast of Australia. Fairfolk doesn’t take kindly to ‘mainie’s’, especially to someone like Paulina who is wilfully disruptive and openly contemptuous of the insular community, so when two years later, on the day before Paulina’s thirtieth birthday, her body is found under a sheet of black plastic in a field, few are surprised.

Her mother, Judy, waiting in a hotel room to share lunch with her daughter, however is heartbroken, and determined that Paulina’s killer be bought to justice. Given the size of the island community, despite the plethora of possible suspects, Judy expects that the case will be solved quickly, but she it’s two long years before she gets answers.

Moving between Paulina’s past and Judy’s present, the narrative is as much a character study as it is a novel about a crime. Woollett explores interesting questions about mental health, trauma, misogyny, belonging, and victimhood.

Woollett doesn’t present a flattering portrayal of the victim. Paulina is a character that really doesn’t invite sympathy, and I found myself in the uncomfortable position of thinking to myself that her murder seemed almost inevitable given her behaviours. I think that in large part this is the point of The Newcomer, to have the reader confront their unconscious bias with regards to victimhood, because of course it’s not Paulina’s behaviour that is responsible for her death, it is the behaviour of her killer.

Judy too is a complex character, with her own history of trauma, though she is far more sympathetic. A caring mother who has done her best to support her mercurial adult daughter, she’s devastated by Paulina’s death. Woollett portrays her grief in what I felt was a realistic, if sometimes uncomfortable, manner.

Challenging, bold, and poignant, The Newcomer is not an easy read, but it is definitely thought-provoking.

+++++++

Available from Scribe Publications

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Review: When You Are Mine By Michael Robotham

 

Title: When You Are Mine

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: 1st July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Michael Robotham draws from recent news headlines to create a timely, gripping crime fiction novel dealing with domestic violence, toxic relationships, obsession, and police corruption in When You Are Mine.

Called to a complaint of domestic violence, London police constable Philomena (Phil) McCarthy is unimpressed when the abuser, who claims he is detective, threatens her career will be finished, and then takes a swing at her. Though his mistress, who Phil is surprised to recognise, refuses to press charges, she follows protocol and arrests him, only to be reprimanded by her superiors for her poor judgement in arresting a decorated officer, and then suspended. Phil is both disappointed and angered by the cover-up, and despite being ordered to leave it alone, she digs a little deeper into the Detective Goodall’s history, and learns that Tempe is not his only victim.

I’m always impressed that Robotham demonstrates such astute insight into his female characters. Determined and principled, with a touch of youthful righteous idealism and naivety, Phil sincerely wants to do good as a police officer, and has worked hard for the right to do so. Unfortunately her motives will always be considered suspect because her father, from whom she is estranged, is linked to organised crime. This means she is especially vulnerable when she refuses to accept the official line.

In refusing to back down, Phil risks not only her career, but her safety, especially when she offers support to both Tempe and Goodall’s family. As recently as last month, a Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner stated that domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers was at epidemic levels, and victims report a culture of minimisation and coverups. I thought Robotham very effectively showed how intensely vulnerable women, and children, in that position can be. Goodall is not about to simply let go, but then neither is Phil.

There’s a twist in the tale as Tempe, grateful to Phil for her help, tries to repay her. She offers to help with Phil’s impending wedding to her firefighter husband, Henry, then she begins to take care of the everyday tasks Phil, intent on helping Alison Goodall, doesn’t have time for. I really liked how Robotham subtly developed this thread which presents some of the biggest surprises.

Robotham is an accomplished author who knows how to hook his readers and keep them interested not only with a fast pace and the twists expected of the genre, but also characters that are dynamic and interesting. When You Are Mine is a exciting and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock

 

Title: The Other Side of Beautiful

Author: Kim Lock

Published: 7th July 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Harlequin

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My Thoughts:

 

The Other Side of Beautiful is a wonderfully engaging contemporary novel from Kim Lock.

“It was almost midnight. It was the eve of Mercy’s thirty-sixth birthday. None of these things—not the orange flames nor the agog neighbours, not the birthday nor the deafly ringing ears—were Mercy’s biggest problem, either.”

Watching her home burn to the ground, her pet Dachshund, Wasabi, cradled in her arms, Mercy Blain fights to hold herself together. Panic attacks have prevented her venturing further than her driveway for two years, and now she is standing on the road, surrounded by neighbours and emergency service personnel, her sanctuary destroyed. Desperation forces her to turn to her not-quite ex-husband as a temporary refuge, but his new live-in boyfriend is not exactly welcoming, leading Mercy to impulsively purchase a vintage (read small and dingy) camper van. With no desire except to be anywhere else, Mercy impulsively decides to leave everything behind, and drive from Adelaide to Darwin.

“She wanted it to be over—she wanted to be on the other side of it all.”

While Mercy’s journey is an impulse, it’s a brave move to drive the 3000km+ from southern to northern Australia, anxiety or not. Having left Adelaide with not much more than the clothes on her a back, Wasabi, and, rather unexpectedly, the boxed cremains of a stranger, she has no choice but to endure the stress of interacting with strangers to source supplies. The route is also popular with ‘grey nomads’ and other travellers, and though the camper van, adorned with a message ‘Home is wherever you are’, provides Mercy with privacy, she’s rarely truly alone. Her road trip ‘companions’ are charming, kind and persistent, and eventually Mercy responds when they reach out.

“A panic attack was her body preparing to run for its life. Digestion halted, all rational cognitive function ceased and she became a helpless passenger in a runaway body.”

Panic disorders are often misunderstood. When not in the middle of an attack, Mercy, a doctor, is aware her fears are irrational but she feels powerless in its grip. her crippling ordeal with anxiety, triggered by three traumatic incidents which occurred in a single week, has an authenticity which is borne of the author’s own experience. I found Mercy to be a very sympathetic character, especially as I learned more about her circumstances, and I was invested in both her emotional and physical journey.

“Or she could find somewhere in that great in-between, that place of nuance and clarity and balance. That place where she could do her best, do what she needed to do, and not let the fear of pain and hurt, all the infinite what ifs, crowd her mind until she could do nothing….”

Written with heart, humour and compassion, I enjoyed being a passenger on this journey through Australia’s stunning interior landscape, alongside a character I really came to care about, and her sausage dog. The Other Side of Beautiful is genuine, gracious and entertaining.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West

 

Title: Catch Us The Foxes

Author: Nicola West

Published: 7th July 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

 

Catch Us the Foxes is a dark, enthralling thriller from debut Australian novelist, Nicola West.

The novel opens with a prologue where Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson, is being introduced to an audience at the Sydney Opera House. She is to speak about her best selling true crime book, ‘The Showgirl’s Secret’, an account of the tragic death of a young woman, Lily Williams, seven years previously.

Marlowe was a 22 year old intern at the local paper when she found Lily’s body in the stables of the town showground. When her father, the town police chief, asked Lo to lie about some of the details of the crime, including the symbols carved into the young woman’s flesh, she reluctantly agreed, but then she is given Lily’s journals which suggest Lo’s father, and other prominent citizens, may have a reason to have wanted Lily dead.

West presents a compelling, intricate mystery where the truth is shockingly elusive to the very last page. Lily’s diaries suggest a frightening cult is operating in their small coastal town, and while the allegations seem absurd, Lo is prompted to dig further when a carnival worker is arrested for Lily’s murder on threadbare evidence. If what Lily has written is true, there are plenty of possible suspects among the townsfolk, and West cleverly portrays them with an interesting ambiguity. Suspense builds as trust is eroded, and Lo attempts to ascertain the truth.

Lo presents as smart, resourceful and ambitious but there is an edge to her character that is disquieting. Doubt is thrown on the validity of her investigation when other characters suggest Lo is suffering from PTSD, and the possibility is a nag as she continues to piece information together, so that her reliability as a narrator is in question. It’s a clever conceit that West manages well.

The plot makes good use of the setting, small towns seem capable of hiding secrets behind their bucolic facades. I’ve been to Kiama (on NSW’s south coast) where Catch Us the Foxes takes place, and it’s a pretty coastal town, not so different from the one I live in now, but West successfully paints it as a claustrophobic, corrupt community.

With its clever structure and twisting, gripping plot, Catch Us the Foxes is an impressive read. The stunning final reveal seems to divide readers, but I thought it was terrific.

+++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: You and Me On Vacation by Emily Henry

 

Title: You and Me on Vacation

Author: Emily Henry

Published: 8th July 2021, Penguin UK

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy PenguinUK /Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

You and Me on Vacation (also published until the title People We Meet On Vacation) is a charming romantic comedy from Emily Henry.

When Poppy met Alex (that’s a deliberate reference) on the first night of college O-week, their short conversation, and wildly disparate wardrobes, was enough to convince her that they never need speak again, but the pair are thrown together at the end of freshman year when they carpool home for the summer. Though the two quickly discover they have little in common, except that they were both raised in Linfield, Ohio, and dislike that boats are given female names, the road trip sparks a friendship that sees Poppy, and Alex promise to vacation together every summer.

You and Me On Vacation unfolds over a period of about twelve years moving between the past, describing Poppy and Alex’s annual summer adventures, and the present, where the pair have tentatively reunited after an unnamed incident that caused a rift in their friendship. The structure works well to develop each character, and provide context for their relationship.

Friends to lovers is my favourite romance trope so You and Me on Vacation had immediate appeal for me. I thought Henry’s portrayal of the connection between Poppy and Alex was wonderful. Their banter, studded with teasing, in-jokes and obvious affection, is funny and sweet, their chemistry is evident. I could relate to the pairs fears about ruining their friendship with a romantic entanglement, especially as they seem so incompatible, with Poppy’s carefree spirit contrasting with Alex’s steady nature.

I imagine many twenty-somethings will likely relate to Poppy, one of Henry’s character’s refers to Poppy suffering ‘millennial ennui’, her career goal met, she’s restless and wondering what’s next. Though she thinks all will be solved by another vacation with Alex, to move on with her life, Poppy needs to deal with several issues, particularly those stemming from childhood bullying that affect how she sees herself and the decisions she makes.

Witty and heartfelt, I found You and Me On Vacation to be an easy, engaging read.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: The Husbands by Chandler Baker

 

Title: The Husbands

Author: Chandler Baker

Published: 30th June 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

 

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My Thoughts:

 

The Husbands is a delightfully subversive domestic thriller from Chandler Baker.

Nora Spangler is exhausted by the effort of juggling her career as a personal injury lawyer with her domestic responsibilities as a wife to Hayden, and mother of a four year old. Pregnant with the couple’s second child, she is increasingly frustrated with the expectation that to have it all (or anything really), she must do it all. Introduced to the residents of the exclusive suburban enclave of Dynasty Ranch during a search for a new home, Nora glimpses an utopian alternative, where the husbands, despite having careers of their own, are eager to ensure their wives are not overburdened by domestic tasks. Intrigued by the neighbourhood and all it appears to offer, Nora is flattered when she is asked her for help with one of their own who has recently lost her husband in a house fire.

The Husbands is clearly satire, but it often cuts very close to the bone. Baker speaks for many wives and mothers who find they carry the physical and emotional load of daily life in a way that husbands often don’t. Hayden is typical of many modern men who are not unhelpful at home, but remain benignly oblivious to the minutiae that their partners routinely manage. There would be few of us that don’t empathise with Nora’s experiences, both at home and in the workplace, as she struggles to meet the needs and expectations of her multiple roles, and carries the guilt of any failures. While Nora is not completely blameless, she’s fallen into the common trap of martyring herself by expecting perfection, there is a truth that resonates in every partnership I am familiar with.

That we immediately find the behaviour of the Dynasty Ranch husbands to be implausible is a commentary in itself, clearly there is something unusual going on at Dynasty Ranch. The plot draws inspiration from The Stepford Wives and Get Out, so if you are familiar with either, or both, it’s not difficult to predict the direction the story will take. The only real surprise for me was the cheeky final scene which made me snicker out loud, but I still found it tense as Nora was confronted by the truth about the fire, and the secret to the community’s model marriages.

The Husbands is a provocative, timely and entertaining novel I enjoyed reading.

+++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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