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.

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Available from Penguin UK

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Review: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

 

Title: Who Gets To Be Smart: Privilege, Power and Knowledge

Author: Bri Lee

Published: 5th June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Read: June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

In Who Gets To Be Smart, Bri Lee explores the relationship between education, privilege, power and knowledge.

 

“Knowledge is power, and when powerful people are allowed to shape knowledge and restrict access to knowledge, they are able to consolidate and strengthen their hold on that power.”

 

Lee’s focus is primarily on the gatekeepers of educational access and success in Australia, and their role in determining who gets to be ‘smart’, rather than the contribution of raw intelligence to the equation. The majority of Lee’s observations about the ways in which knowledge is controlled by those with privilege and power seem obvious to me so I don’t feel the book offered me much personally in the way of unique insight, though I’m sure there are some who have never considered the correlation.

It seemed to me that Lee occasionally followed paths that didn’t really connect to the central premise. There were relevant topics I felt Lee didn’t acknowledge such as Australia’s secondary and tertiary scholarship options, and I think the HECS-HELP and VET schemes merited more discussion.

Lee’s own anecdotes and asides keeps Who Gets To Be Smart from being dry. Her research seems sound, and the information is presented in an accessible manner.

I found Who Gets To Be Smart to be an interesting read, I hope it sparks discussion about inequality in educational access and success that will lead to change.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Love, In Theory by Elodie Cheesman

 

Title: Love, In Theory

Author: Elodie Cheesman

Published: 25th May 2021, Macmillan Australia

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Love, In Theory by debut author Elodie Cheesman is a sweet, if rather predictable, romcom that explores the age old debate of whether to place more trust in your heart or your head when it comes to love.

Cheesman introduces Romy, a single, twenty four year old junior lawyer who works and lives in Sydney. When Romy learns that, according to the theory of the ‘optimal stopping point’, she has only a few months to find her best chance at ‘happy ever after’ she decides it’s time to make a concerted effort to find ‘the one’. Unwilling to trust her own instincts, which have led her into previous disastrous relationships, Romy decides to eschew passion and rely on science to find a match.

Drawing on advice from family, friends, a book or three, and a workshop on Intelligent Dating, Romy starts her search for her perfect partner on Tinder. There are the expected bad dates – a bore, and a sleaze; before she meets Hans, who embodies her three most desirable traits – risk averse, emotionally stable, and agreeable,- even if he doesn’t make her heart flutter in quite the way that James, a graphic designer who doesn’t seem to be any of those things, does.

Life would probably be simpler if the question of love could be reduced to a neat algorithm, but a solution seems determined to remain elusive. Though the outcome is inevitable, I enjoyed Romy’s journey well enough. I did find her a little frustrating at times, particularly given she’s probably a bit young these days to be so worried about being alone for the rest of her life.

I did like the subplot related to Romy’s ambivalence towards her job working in employment law, including issues around #metoo, bad bosses, and work/life balance which provides more depth to the story.

Love, In Theory is a wholesome contemporary romance that will likely appeal to a twenty-something readership looking to be reassured ‘the one’ is still out there.

+++++++

Available from PanMacmillan Australia

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Review: Flash Jim by Kel Richards

 

Title: Flash Jim: The Astonishing Story of the Convict Fraudster Who Wrote Australia’s First Dictionary

Author: Kel Richards

Published: 5th May 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia

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My Thoughts:

Though English has been considered the language of our country since it was invaded/colonised by the British in 1788, did you know that legally Australia has no official language? Neither did I! While our language today continues to adhere to the conventions of British English with regards to spelling and grammar, from very early on, Australian English began to develop its own unique quirks.

Slang, also known as flash and cant, was a term originally used to refer to the language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and so it’s no surprise that it thrived in Australia, and took on a life of its own as British, Irish, and Scottish convicts mixed in the British penal colony.

In 1812 an opportunistic convict, James Hardy Vaux, heard the grumblings of the colony’s police and magistrates who were at a loss to understand much of the slang used among criminals, and always eager to press any advantage, presented his supervisor with ‘A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language’ – Australia’s very first dictionary. Included as an Appendix in Flash Jim, browsing through the dictionary proves fascinating, revealing words and phrases both strange and familiar.

The bulk of Kel Richards Flash Jim however is a biography of James Vaux, drawing on several sources, mainly the man’s own published memoirs, ‘Memoirs of The First Thirty-Two Years of the Life Of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported, For The Second Time, And For Life, To New South Wales. Written By Himself.’

Flash Jim reveals a man who was an extraordinary character. Though born into a family able to provide him a good education and entry into a comfortable profession, James took his first step into a life of crime by embezzling from his employer at aged fourteen. Over the next few years, never satisfied with wages earned as a clerk, James indulged in a number of illegal activities from confidence scams to pick pocketing, with reasonable success, that is until inevitably, his luck ran out. Not that even being sentenced to transportation to New Holland on three separate occasions, seemed to deter his criminal impulses. Vaux, who used a number of aliases over his lifetime, seemed to have possessed an uncanny charm which often saw him turn even the most dire of circumstances to his advantage. I was absolutely fascinated by him, and his antics, marvelling at his ego and nerve, though as Richards regularly reminds us, Vaux’s own words can hardly be trusted.

It’s unclear just how much of Richards own creativity informs the retelling he has crafted, though I imagine he has taken some liberties. I thought it read well, though personally I would have preferred for the author to have found a way to integrate the story of the dictionary more fully into the narrative of Vaux’s biography.

James Hardy Vaux is the sort of incorrigible, dissolute character that Australians delight in claiming as part of our convict past so I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of him before now, particularly given his twin achievements as the writer of Australia’s first dictionary, and the first true-crime memoir. I expect Flash Jim will be enjoyed by readers interested in Australian colonial history, the etymology of Australian English, or just a bang up yarn.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

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

 


Title: We Are Watching Eliza Bright

Author: A.E. Osworth

Published: 13th April 2021, Grand Central Publishing

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Grand Central Publising/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Available from Grand Central Publishing

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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.

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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.

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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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