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

++++++

 

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

 

++++++

 

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

++++++

 

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

+++++++

 

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

++++++

 

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

++++++

 

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

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

 

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

 

+++++++

 

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

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

 

*****

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Review: Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

 

Title: Echolalia

Author: Briohny Doyle

Published: 1st June 2021, Vintage Australia

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

I’m not sure how best to describe Echolalia by Briohny Doyle, perhaps as a literary domestic suspense. Set in an outer suburban Australia the timeline of Echolalia shifts ‘Before’ and ‘After’ the night Emma Cormac left her infant son alone by a dried up lake.

In the before, Emma is married to Robert Cormac, the princely only son of local wealthy construction developers, and installed in the expansive home he built for them. It’s the stuff of fairytales for Emma, who is from a far less affluent background, which only begins to sour with the birth of their second child, a son who is quickly diagnosed with a hereditary disorder, and viewed as a blot on the Cormac family name. Seeking redemption for what is perceived as her failure to provide a suitable heir, barely eighteen months later Emma presents her husband wth a healthy son, Robbie.

After, Emma’s children, Clem and Arthur, are young adults who have not seen their mother since the night baby Robbie died. While Arthur has made a life for himself far from the influence of the Cormac’s, Clem remains haunted by all she does not know.

Echolalia is a bleak tale, commenting on climate change, capitalism, class, privilege, legacy, patriarchy, trauma and motherhood. I found the ‘Before’ to be more compelling than the ‘After’, which feels somewhat unresolved.

Emma’s emotions are viscerally portrayed as she becomes increasingly fragile, both emotionally and physically. Her sense of self already vague, it disintegrates under the expectations of the family she has into married to. Drifting unheeded towards the inevitable tragedy, it’s clear Emma is suffering from post natal depression which tips into psychosis.

In their relationship with Emma, while her husband Robert is perhaps at best myopic, his mother Pat is wilfully insensitive, and Robert’s cousin, Shane, is pointedly cruel. These attitudes are also echoed in their business dealings as the wield their wealth and power in ways which are both careless and deliberate. In the aftermath the Cormac’s accept no responsibility, Emma and the loss of Robbie, a convenient scapegoat for everything that then befalls them.

With its crisp and evocative prose, Echolalia is a raw, poignant and unsettling novel that left me uncomfortable, but thoughtful.

+++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey

 

Title: The Bombay Prince {Perveen Mistry #3}

Author: Sujata Massey

Published: 1st June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Bombay Prince is the third book by Sujata Massey to feature Perveen Massey, India’s first female solicitor, working alongside her father, a respected lawyer. It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous novels, A Murder on Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone, to enjoy this though I believe the experience is better for it.

Taking place in November of 1921, Massey sets the story of The Bombay Prince against the unrest in India between British loyalists and those agitating for India’s independence as Edward VIII, Prince of Wales arrives to tour the sub-continent.

Perveen meets with a young university student worried that if she refuses the school principal’s directive to attend the parade welcoming Prince Edward that she could be expelled. Freny Cuttingmaster is anxious that she not disappoint her parents by jeopardising her education but staunchly opposes British Rule and wants Perveen’s assurance that her future will not be compromised by taking a stand. Perveen isn’t able to provide Freny with a definitive answer, suggesting she return with her college handbook, but she doesn’t see the young woman again until, on the day of the parade, Freny’s body is found in the courtyard of the school.

The Bombay Prince offers a well crafted mystery that plays out against the backdrop of protests which divides the city of Bombay along political and religious lines. Perveen is deeply distressed by the young woman’s death, especially when it becomes clear that Freny didn’t simply fall from the gallery as the scene was staged to suggest. Not able to trust that the death will be properly investigated for a number of reasons, including the college’s wish to avoid scandal, general dismissive attitudes towards women, and the escalating violence related to Prince Edward’s visit, Purveen insinuates herself into the case to ensure the killer is brought to justice. The challenge Purveen faces in navigating these issues is fascinating, probably more so than the mystery itself at times, especially when she is noticed by the men looking for collaborators in a plot to assassinate Prince Edward.

Purveen is a complex character, presenting an uneasy mix of progressive and conservative traits. Though she has defied societal expectations by becoming a solicitor, and in separating from her abusive husband, she is very conscious of the need to behave in ways that protect both her and her family’s reputation, and tends to be braver when acting on behalf of her clients than she is in than her defence of herself. This is particularly evident in her interactions with men, which makes her continued connection with Colin Sandringham, who was her government liaison in The Satapur Moonstone, an intriguing element of the story.

Rich in historical detail and cultural interest, offering a discerning mystery and a hint of romance, The Bombay Prince is an engaging novel, and I hope the series will continue.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Mirror Man by Fiona McIntosh

 

Title: Mirror Man {DCI Jack Hawkesworth #3}

Author: Fiona McIntosh

Published: 1st June 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

It’s been more than a decade since I read the first two books to feature DCI Jack Hawkesworth, Bye Bye Baby and Beautiful Death, so I picked up Mirror Man with only a vague memory of the storyline, however it’s not necessary to have read either to enjoy this third instalment of the series.

Mirror Man begins when DCI Jack Hawkesworth is reassigned from his role as a Counter Terrorism International Liaison by Martin Sharpe, the Acting Chief Superintendent of the Homicide and Serious Crime Branch at Scotland Yard, to investigate a possible link between three bizarre murders. Given a promotion to Detective Superintendent and a small team to command which allows him to reunite with DI Kate Carter, DI Malek Khan and analyst DS Sara Jones, Jack is tasked to figure out if there is a serial killer loose in London targeting recently paroled criminals.

The reader knows who is responsible for the deadly string of crimes from the outset of the novel but Jack and his team have to find evidence to first prove they are linked before they even begin to search for a suspect. As a police procedural, Mirror Man works well. The murders offer little in the way of forensic evidence, the killer has been careful to leave no trace of themselves behind, so the taskforce must painstakingly investigate every possible piece of information. The killer’s goal is more obvious, a vigilante seeking his own form of justice, though his exact motivation is not known to the team.

It’s rare to be ambivalent about the capture of a serial killer, but when his victims include an unrepentant, violent rapist; an abuser who beat his wife to death; and the drunk driver who annihilated the man’s wife, daughter and granddaughters you can’t help but feel a little conflicted. I liked that McIntosh explores this morally grey area, as well as issues surrounding sentencing, rehabilitation, early parole and how they impact on the victims of crime.

Once again Jack finds himself blurting the line between his professional and personal life when journalist Lauren Starling gets wind of Operation: Mirror Man. Much is made in this series of Jack’s good looks which leaves women swooning in his wake, including Kate whose crush on her boss is still as florid as ever.  At Kate’s suggestion, Jack also seeks advice from Anne McEvoy, his former lover, and serial killer, who is serving several life sentences after Jack exposed her in Bye Bye Baby. A psychologist and criminologist, she provides a profile that offers some insight into the case.

Though the reader is led to believe they have all the answers the police are searching for, there are several well placed surprises in Mirror Man. The pace and tension accelerates as Jack grows closer to identifying his quarry, and the lives of several characters are at risk.

With its provocative theme and well crafted plot, Mirror Man is a gripping police procedural, sure to entertain crime fiction readers.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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