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

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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: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

Title: Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

Author: Angus Fletcher

Published: 9th March 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster/ Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“It was barely sunrise. Yet even in the faint, rose-fingered light, there could be no doubt: the invention was a marvel. It could mend cracks in the heart and resurrect hope from the dark. It could summon up raptures and impossible days. It could chase away dullness and unlatch the sky. The invention was literature. And to catch its marvel for ourselves, let’s return to that dawn. Let’s learn the story of why literature was invented. And all the things it was invented to do.”

Angus Fletcher explains twenty five ‘inventions’ that underpin the appeal of literature in Wonderworks.

Stories have many purposes and Fletcher proposes thot these have evolved over time as authors have discovered techniques, from the plot twist to the happy ever after ending, for eliciting specific emotions and reactions from their audience. The emerging field of story science explains how different types of narratives, from thrillers to satire, have been proven to stimulate different areas of our brain and have the ability to affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. Stories can not only educate, they can also encourage the development of empathy, alleviate depression, inspire creativity, and improve self-awareness.

In each chapter of Wonderworks, Fletcher examines a invention of literature, relating its history, and often that of its ‘inventor’, provides examples, and explores how and why the technique resonates with us as revealed by modern neuroscience. I thought Fletcher offered some astute insights, though much confirms what avid readers instinctively know about the power of all types of fiction has to enrich our lives.

“For whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction, that wonder we construct. It is the invention that unbreaks the heart. And brings us into hope, and peace, and love.”

There is, as necessary, some jargon to contend with but Fletcher embraces the style of nonfiction narrative so Wonderworks is rarely dry. It can be dense however and, in my opinion, occasionally veers into the pretentious, so I found it difficult to read in one sitting. I think enthusiasm for Wonderworks will be higher among those interested in literary analysis and study, students of psychology, philosophers, and writers looking to hone their craft, but it does have value for the simply curious.

Wonderworks provides a way to understand literature that moves beyond its construction and practicalities. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking study of narrative and the significance of fiction to both individuals and society.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster

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Review: You’ve Got To Be Kidding by Todd Alexander

Title: You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats

Author: Todd Alexander

Published: 3rd February 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

In 2019, Todd Alexander published the story of his and his partner’s mid life tree change where they abandoned inner city living and their highly paid careers, and purchased a hundred acre farm in the Hunter Valley, to grow grapes, olives, and run a five star B&B. Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Named Helga was longlisted for both the 2020 Indie Non-fiction Book Award and 2020 Booksellers’ Choice Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and captured the imagination of a public who dream of escaping to the country.

It’s been seven years since Todd and Jeff took possession of Block Eight and they have created a successful business, but it has not been an easy process and in You’ve Got to Be Kidding: A shed load of wine & a farm full of goats, Todd again attempts to answer his own rhetorical question…how hard can it be?

It turns out, it can be very hard at times. If the men aren’t battling with broken machinery, sick or dead animals, or predatory business practices, then they are contending with drought, heatwaves, bushfires, and the pandemic. Todd and Jeff are forced to reinvent their plans several times to stay afloat, including culling vines, purchasing a tour bus, and altering their marketing strategy.

But then there are the moments when the couple can’t imagine being anywhere else as they share a glass of their own wine on their deck, or take a stroll around the property with their ever-growing menagerie of rescued farm animals which still includes (the now teenage) Helga the pig, as well as several more goats, sheep, peafowl, and ducks, each with distinct personalities that keeps them both amused and exasperated.

Related with honesty and self-deprecating humour, You’ve Got To Be Kidding is a sincere, funny, warts-and-all expose of country living, a sequel, of sorts, though it’s not necessary to have read Thirty Thousand Bottles before picking this up. I again enjoyed Todd’s anecdotes about both the highs and lows of farm life, and his relationship with his partner, the nominated snake wrangler and cushion obsessed, Jeff. I liked that this time photographs have been included in the book, though most feature their goats. Todd, a self identified ‘foodie’, also provides some more of his favourite vegan recipes, which sound tasty.

While Todd and Jeff remain convinced they did the right thing in following their dream, and are deservedly proud of all they have achieved with Block Eight, the book ends with them deciding it’s time to move on, and it seems they soon will be, since the property is now listed as sold. I look forward to Todd regaling us with the stories of their next adventure.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Blog Tour Review: The Moroccan Daughter by Deborah Rodriguez

Title: The Moroccan Daughter

Author: Deborah Rodriguez

Published: 2nd February 2021, Bantam Australia

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse

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My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse

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Review: Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton

Title: Before I Saw You

Author: Emily Houghton

Published: 4th February 2021, Bantam Press

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: Adult Virgins Anonymous by Amber Crewe

Title: Adult Virgins Anonymous

Author: Amber Crewe

Published: 21st January 2021, Coronet

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Hodder & StaughtonUK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

In looking for a light read for the month of January, Adult Virgins Anonymous by Amber Crewe garnered my attention because of its eye catching title and unusual premise. Billed as a romantic comedy, Kate and Freddie, both in their late twenties, meet at a support group for adult virgins.

This wasn’t quite the light hearted romp I was expecting though. When the book opens, Kate is on the verge of a depressive episode. Her career has stalled, her friends seem to have moved on and left her behind, and she has no choice other than to move back in with her parents. Meanwhile Freddie, who has a clinical history of anxiety and OCD, is tired of feeling misunderstood and alone. Both are virgins not through choice per se, but because of a lack of opportunity, and both feel it is a burden that contributes to their single status.

Cue the fortuitous discovery of a support group, where they learn they aren’t the only adult virgins in London. Hosted by a person who identifies as nonbinary, the group includes a diverse range of members who for varying reasons are also virgins. They are an appealing bunch, and Crewe takes care to flesh these characters out, even though they play a reasonably minor role in the story as individuals. The group though is the stage that allows for thoughtful discussion about the nature of desire, sex, sexuality, love, insecurity, loneliness and personal happiness.

Inevitably Kate and Freddie decide that having sex with each other is a good idea, an opportunity to get ‘it’ over with, with no strings, but predictably the pair catch feelings for each other they are too afraid to admit to. It’s a cute take on the friends to lovers trope though the repetitive cycle of angst before they confess does get a little tiring.

Crewe’s characterisation is impressive, and I thought she wrote sensitively in regards to the various issues explored in the novel, including on the subjects of adult virginity, OCD and self esteem. What I thought was uneven with regards to the story was the balance between the comic and serious elements, and the pacing.

While Adult Virgins Anonymous wasn’t quite the romantic comedy I was anticipating I thought it offered some unique detail, and enjoyed reading it.

+++++++

Available from Hodder & Staughton

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Review: The Lost Boys by Faye Kellerman

 

 

Title: The Lost Boys {Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus #26}

Author: Faye Kellerman

Published: 17th January 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy William Morrow

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My Thoughts:

I thought I’d missed no more than a handful of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series but this is Kellerman’s 26th book featuring the couple and I’ve only read just over half, the last of which was book #22, Murder 101. Thankfully however this seems to matter little, aided in part because Kellerman ages her characters in real time.

In The Lost Boys, Decker and his partner Tyler are called in when a man disappears while on a field trip with a group from a local care home. In searching the woods nearby, a body is found in a shallow grave, but this man has lain there for at least a decade.

With his customary doggedness, Decker attacks both investigations. The missing man is his initial priority, with growing concerns that he has been targeted by because of his parent’s wealth. When blood is found at the home of a nurse that may be connected, Decker fears the worst, but despite his best efforts the case soon stalls. Unexpectedly Kellerman employs a cliffhanger of sorts in this instance, though the missing man is eventually located, the circumstance spawns another mystery.

In the second investigation, the remains prove to belong to one of three young college men who disappeared while on a camping trip. The damage to his skeleton suggests that he had been shot, and Decker wonders if he is looking for the bodies of his two companions, or if the two men may have killed the third and gone on the run. Investigating a ten year old cold case is a difficult task, but thorough police work results in an important break. In general I liked how this case played out, however one flaw I had difficulty overlooking was an emphasis on a shovel being out of place on a camping trip. Perhaps Faye has never been camping because I wouldn’t consider it at all strange that campers have a shovel, a digging implement is essential when there are no bathrooms.

While Decker is busy with police work, Rina is offering moral support to their foster son, Gabe whose biological mother has suddenly returned to the States with Gabe’s half siblings. It’s clear Terry is in trouble and Gabe is torn when she asks for his help, but it seems inevitable he will be drawn into the mess she has got herself into.

With this, and the unanswered questions of the first investigation, Kellerman has laid the foundation the next book in the series, though I think it’s clear that it’s end is creeping closer. Peter is seventy or thereabouts and is making plans for his retirement from the force, but there are hints, I think, that Tyler could take up the mantle.

Kellerman offers up two well paced, and involving mysteries in The Lost Boys, but as a fan it’s the opportunity to catch up with Peter, Rina and their family that I enjoy the most.

++++++

Available from William Morrow Books

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Review: We Thought We Knew You by M. William Phelps

 


Title: We Thought We Knew You: A Terrifying True Story of Secrets, Betrayal, Deception, and Murder

Author: M. William Phelps

Published: 29th December 2020, Kensington Books

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Kensington/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

*WARNING : contains mild spoilers*

I’m not sure what drew me to request We Thought We Knew You to read, other than it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight true crime focusing on a single case, and the author, M. William Phelps, has been recommended to me previously. Until I read the synopsis, I had never heard of this particular case and knew nothing of the details, or the outcome.

In July of 2015 Mary Yoder, a beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and successful chiropractor in the state of New York, was rushed to hospital after experiencing the sudden onset of severe stomach pains, nausea and breathing difficulties. Despite all attempts to treat her symptoms, Mary’s condition continued to deteriorate, and less than twenty-four hours after falling ill, she was dead. Stunned, her family requested an autopsy be performed, and were shocked to soon learn not only was Mary poisoned by a deadly toxin, Colchicine, but there is suspicion it was deliberately administered.

Drawing on personal interviews, legal documents, and public records, award winning investigative journalist, author, and media presenter William M. Phelps presents a coherent and concise exploration of the life of Mary Yoder, the investigation into her death, and the subsequent trial that saw a young woman, the on-and-off-again girlfriend of Mary’s son and office manager of the family Chiropractor practice, convicted of manslaughter.

I found this to a very readable account of a tragic crime. I appreciate that Phelps does his best to ensure that Mary, by all accounts a warm, vivacious, intelligent and caring lady, is not merely a victim, but a person whose life was as important as her manner of death. He provides adequate context to the crime, exploring the backgrounds of, and relationships between, those intimately involved. The process of the police investigation is clearly laid out, giving insight into how the police gathered evidence and narrowed in on their suspect. The court cases are related in summary, so as not to get bogged down in jargon and detail.

I’m not sure at which point Phelps became convinced of the accused’s guilt, whether it was before or during his investigation into the case but there is a lack of objectivity here that bothered me somewhat. It’s not that I disagree with his conclusions, the evidence presented, presuming it’s accuracy, leaves me in no doubt that Kaitlyn Conley intended to cause the death of Mary Yoder, and frame Adam Yoder, Mary’s son and Katie’s ex-boyfriend, for her murder in what I conclude was a twisted plan of revenge for rejecting her, but that the bias is inescapably pervasive from the first. I would have preferred that Phelps had been able to gain an interview with someone from the defence, though he states all such requests were refused. While he does discuss the rebuttals given by Conley’s supporters, there is an uncomfortable imbalance in what he is able to present.

We Thought We Knew You is a sad tale of a toxic relationship, obsession, betrayal, and murder. Mary Yoder died horribly, a victim of intentional poisoning, yet simply a pawn in a quest for revenge by a remorseless killer. As of this month (December 2020), Conley has launched an appeal against her conviction.

++++++

Available from Kensington Books

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Review: Sunshine by Samantha C. Ross

Title: Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer

Author: Samantha C. Ross

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Spanning a period of about a year, Samantha C. Ross invites the reader to share her experiences as she gyrates, stumbles, and skips her way between ‘Gentleman’s’ clubs in several Australian states (with a quick, scary jaunt to Japan), in Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer.

Sunshine’s journal entries are candid, funny, provocative, unapologetic, and engaging. At times it’s quite an outrageous tale of excess as Samantha AKA Sunshine tends to embrace the party lifestyle indulging in a lot of drinking, and the occasional recreational drug, but it’s also an intimate portrait of a woman, and her friends, in search of adventure, happiness and true love.

As long as it is their choice to do so, I personally don’t have any issue with someone who decides to strip for a living. While the profession is often perceived as either glamorous and easy, or tawdry and dangerous, the truth, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. Sure the money can be great, Sunshine regularly earns double, or even triple, an average weeks wage in less time, but it’s harder work and takes more skill than I imagined. It’s also a profession that seems to take a heavy toll on personal relationships.

I found the behind-the-scenes look at the profession to be interesting, from the various laws that govern the behaviour of both the women and their patrons, to the (high school-ish) hierarchy and unspoken rules that govern the change rooms and floor. In many ways a strip club is a workplace like any other, with it’s share of WorkSafe regulations, awful bosses and entitled customers, though few offices permit drinking champagne and spirits on the clock.

Providing unique insight into a lifestyle few will experience, Sunshine is an entertaining read, and may go some way to altering your perspective on the women who choose the profession.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell

Title: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops

Author: Shaun Bythell

Published: 5th November 2020, Profile Books

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops is a short book, not quite 150 pages long, from Scotland’s best known bookseller Shaun Bythell, author of the popular titles The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller.

Bythell opines there are seven kinds of customers that frequent his second hand bookstore, each of which he labels with a Latin genus, and then breaks down into species. He is careful to admit these are none too generous stereotypes, generalisations that contain a core of truth but lack nuance.

His tongue in cheek taxonomy includes the Genus: Peritus Species: Homo Odiosus capable of lengthy lectures on subjects he (often wrongly) believes he is an expert in, and which tend to offend; the Genus: Homo qui desidet Species: Homo Qui Opera Erotica Legit (Erotica Browser) who seem to be intent on an innocuous book which is later revealed to have been ‘recovered’; and Genus: Viator non tacitus which includes Species that whistle, sniff, hum, fart, and tutter.

Bythell’s acerbic sense of humour borders on the supercilious at times, but I think anyone who has worked in retail will relate somewhat. Booklovers will hope that they fit in none of these seven categories and instead are of the rare ‘Bonus’ Genus: Cliens perfectus (Perfect Customer).

A quick easy read, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops would be a nice holiday gift for fans of Bythell, or bookstores.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$14.99

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