Review: Wildflower by Monique Mulligan

 

Title: Wildflower

Author: Monique Mulligan

Published: 8th March 2022, Pilyara Press

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

 

Title: The Murder Rule

Author: Dervla McTiernan

Published: 4th May 2022, WilliamMorrow

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Offering some startling twists and turns, The Murder Rule is a compelling stand alone legal thriller from best selling author, Dervla McTiernan.

When law student Hannah Rokeby learns that the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is making progress overturning the sentence of convicted rapist and murderer, Michael Dandridge, she leaves her sick mother, Laura, in the care of a neighbour, and relocates to Charlottesville where she convinces Professor Robert Parekh she’d be an asset to the program. But Hannah doesn’t want to save Michael, she wants to ensure the man is never released.

I was immediately intrigued by the premise of The Murder Rule, and why, and how, a young woman might go about undermining a prisoner’s release. With the preliminary hearing for dismissal imminent, the Innocence team, and Hannah, are under pressure to complete their respective objectives, and that tension translates well to the story’s pacing.

Hannah certainly seems convinced that her mission is righteous, and though her ruthless moves to gain a place on the project are not flattering, once her motive is disclosed in the alternating chapters that provide entries from her mother’s diary written 24 years earlier, Hannah’s behaviour seems if not reasonable, then at least justifiable. I liked the ambiguity of Hannah’s character, I was never entirely sure what she’d do, particularly when faced with information that challenged her beliefs.

There are some quite spectacular surprises in the novel, one twist in particular made me gasp out loud as it was so unexpected. There are also a number of tense, and even violent, moments as Hannah, and her colleagues, step on toes during their investigation. As much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit there are some distracting flaws related to the legal elements of the story, and these particularly detracted from the intensity of the climatic courtroom scene, even though the outcome was satisfying.

Though not as sophisticated as McTiernan’s award winning Cormac Reilly, I still found The Murder Rule to be a page-turning, entertaining thriller with a compelling concept.

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

 

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

Author: Kathy Lette

Published: 29th March 2022, Vintage

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

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Review: Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

 

Title: Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Author: Benjamin Stevenson

Published: March 2002, Michael Joseph

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

You cannot possibly read the brief prologue to Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson and not be immediately intrigued by the promise of this quirky murder mystery that breaks all the rules.

“Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.”

Though Ernest Cunningham self publishes ‘how-to’ books for crime fiction writers, he can offer no special insight when a stranger is found murdered during a high country snowstorm in the midst of the Cunningham family reunion. However when the sole police officer who responds to the report arrests Ernie’s brother, Michael, whose release from prison for killing a man is the celebratory reason for the gathering, his mother insists he clears Michael’s name. After all, Ernie is the reason Michael went to jail in the first place.

“Call me a reliable narrator. Everything I tell you will be the truth, or, at least, the truth as I knew it to be at the time that I thought I knew it. Hold me to that.”

Related by Ernest in the first person while writing a book in the aftermath of events, the storyline is roughly chronological, though with necessary digressions to explain the family dynamic, and with unnecessary, but often amusing appeals, directed towards the reader, and his editor. Ernie’s conversational tone is delightfully at odds with the escalating drama as death follows death, presumably at the hands of a serial killer with a distinct and unpleasant MO.

“Look, we’re not a family of psychopaths. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some are just unfortunate.”

Family reunions are rarely free of conflict but the Cunningham’s are besieged by it. Ernie is currently person non grata, having testified against his brother in the trial that jailed Michael for three years to the great disappointment of his mother. Ernie’s wife is attending the gathering as his brother’s girlfriend, while Michael’s wife is in attendance hoping to win her husband back. Ernie’s stepsister seems particularly annoyed with everyone, while his Aunt Katherine is demanding everyone sticks to her carefully planned colour coded schedule. And of course, people are dying.

“Ronald Knox’s ’10 Commandments of Detective Fiction’, 1929”

More akin to the classics, Stevenson cleverly subverts many of the expected conventions of mystery fiction, for example, though there is a locked room element to one of the deaths, the door is not actually locked, and he even foretells each murder, including page references in the prologue. Yet there are plenty of surprises, and importantly the pace never drags.

“Family is not whose blood runs in your veins, it’s who you’d spill it for.”

A creative and compelling whodunnit perfect for today’s jaded mystery readers, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone is witty, entertaining and ingenious.

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Review: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness by Meredith Jaffe

 

Title: The Tricky Art of Forgiveness

Author: Meredith Jaffe

Published: March 2022, HarperCollins Australia 

Stats: Read April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Mad About You by Mhairi McFarlane

 

Title: Mad About You

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Published: 14th April 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins UK/ Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan

 

Title: Dinner With the Schnabels

Author: Toni Jordan

Published: 30th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read April courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

 

Title: The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Published: 29th March 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy William Morrow /Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the remarkable story of World War II Russian sniper known as ‘Lady Death’, The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn is a fascinating novel of historical fiction.

On the same day that the Germans invade Russia, Mila Pavlichenko (Lyudmila Mikhailovna), a 24 year old PhD student working at the Odessa public library as a senior research assistant enlists in the army. Goaded into completing an Advanced Markmanship course several years earlier by her husband, from whom she’s been separated for several years, she feels compelled to contribute to the protection of her young son, Slavka, who remains in the care of his grandparents. Sent to the Russian front, Mila quickly proves skilled with a rifle, and over the course of the next year, earns the nickname ‘Lady Death’ as a sniper credited with 309 ‘official’ kills of Nazi soldiers.

Unfolding over two timelines, much of the story moves between Mila’s experiences on the frontline, and her time in Washington, 18 months later.

Though The Diamond Eye is a fictionalised account of Mila’s life, in her Author’s Note Quinn explains much of the detail is factual – from Mila’s ‘shotgun’ wedding at age fifteen after being seduced by a much older man, to the friendship she formed with (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Mila’s tour of the United States. Drawing from Mila’s official memoir, and other records, Quinn has crafted a rich portrait of the woman that exists beyond the legend of ‘Lady Death’.

I think Quinn ably communicated the chaos and stress of the frontline from Mila’s unique perspective, both as a woman and a sniper. I was engrossed by Mila’s experiences, admiring of her bravery and her commitment to her role, one I could never imagine taking on. There is an extra layer of poignancy too that Quinn did not foresee, given the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine.

I enjoyed the development of Mila’s relationship with her sniper partner, Kostia, and with the lieutenant, Lyonya, with whom she had an ill-fated romance on the frontlines.   Though Quinn has taken some liberties, both men are based on real people, as are most of the characters she encounters, their names taken from historical record, including her comrades in arms, and her fellow Soviet delegates.

It was after Mila’s fourth near-fatal injury, that she was sent to Washington DC, representing the Soviet Union at an international student conference hosted by (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, tasked with convincing the President to provide assistance to Russia. Despite her reluctance to participate, Mila proved to be a capable, if somewhat controversial, advocate (footage of the real Mila speaking with the US press can be seen on YouTube). It’s in this timeline that Quinn strays most notably from history, concocting an assassin who stalks Mila, planning to frame her for the murder of FDR. To be honest I’m not sure it was necessary, though it does add another level of drama and tension, and speaks to the political landscape of the time.

The Diamond Eye is a compelling narrative, enriched by the blending of fact and fiction, and a reminder of the human face of war.

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Review: Her Fierce Creatures by Maria Lewis

 

Title: Her Fierce Creatures {Supernatural Sisters #8}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 8th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Her Fierce Creatures is the breathtaking conclusion of Maria Lewis’s award-winning Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series.

Since my very late introduction to this series with The Rose Daughter, I’ve tracked down the earlier instalments but regrettably not had the time to read them, so I was hesitant to jump into the finale. I was relieved to find my lack of familiarity with the series overall proved not to be a hindrance, and I quickly found myself absorbed in Her Fierce Creatures.

After centuries of oppression and increasing cruelty by the Trieze, the ruling class of the supernatural that live hidden among modern society, the time has come to revolt. The balance of power hinges on the safe delivery of banshee Sadie Burke’s triplets, and the best way to protect them is to disrupt and divide the forces of the Praetorian Guard, uniting races and clans in the fight.

Supernatural emissaries from all over the world gather in the Australian dessert to plan their rebellion. Vankila, the Scottish underground prison from which sprite Dreckly Jones is the only one to have ever escaped, is a priority target and they devise a risky plan in which werewolf Tommi Grayson gets herself arrested, to stage a break out, rather than a break in.

There’s lots of fast paced, high tension action as Tommi enacts the plan with plenty of help, while groups of volunteers simultaneously attack other Trieze facilities around the world. Dreckly Jones and Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, also play major roles in the battle. The clashes are dangerous and violent, and there are losses that will weigh heavily on them all.

Meanwhile Sadie is hidden from the Trieze in a remote New Zealand stronghold, guarded by her family and Tommi’s Māori werewolf relatives. Sadie is struggling with both the physical and emotional pressures of her pregnancy, and her anxiety grows after a vision suggests that the Trieze will come for her. Werewolf Simon is tasked as Sadie’s personal guard, and I was surprised and delighted by the heartwarming romance that developed between the two.

Her Fierce Creatures is a must read for fans of the series, those familiar with the Supernatural Sisters will appreciate the elements of closure for the characters they’ve grown to know and love, and the ending is as dramatic and climatic as could be hoped for.

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