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: The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

 

Title: The Language of Food

Author: Annabel Abbs

Published: 2nd March 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

+++++++++


My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the little that is known of the life of poet, and pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton, and her assistant, Ann Kirby, The Language of Food (also published under the title Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen) is the third novel from British author, Annabel Abbs.

“But you cannot cook, Eliza. You have never cooked. Besides, ladies do not cook.”

The rejection of Eliza Acton’s second book of poetry by a publisher who suggests she writes a gothic romance or recipe book instead, coincides with her father’s abrupt bankruptcy, leaving she and her mother to take charge of a boardinghouse for wealthy visitors to Tunbridge Wells in order to support themselves. Despite rarely ever having even set foot in a kitchen, and her mother’s objections, Eliza volunteers to take on the role of cook, reasoning it’s an opportunity to save money, and accept the publisher’s commission to write a recipe book.

The sole carer for her mentally ill mother and one legged, alcoholic father, seventeen year old Ann Kirby is both apprehensive and excited when the local Vicar Mr Thorpe arranges a position for her as underhousemaid for Eliza at the boardinghouse. Unused to service, Ann has no idea what to expect but she soon proves herself invaluable to Eliza as she proves to have an instinct for flavours, and they work to develop the cookbook together.

“Why should the culinary arts not include poetry? Why should a recipe book not be a thing of beauty?”

Told through the alternating perspectives of the two women, The Language of Food draws on fact and imagination as Eliza and Ann develop what will eventually be “the greatest British cookbook of all time”, published in 1845 as ‘Modern Cookery, in All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families’. It’s also a story of female friendship and fortitude, as the women, despite their different stations in life, work side by side, and a story of creativity and cooking as Eliza and Ann combine their talents for poetry and instinct for flavours.

While Abbs incorporates as much accurate information as available about Eliza in The Language of Food, Ann is almost an entirely a fictional construct. I liked Eliza as a somewhat unconventional woman for her time, and it’s pleasing she and her contribution to modern cookery have being remembered and honoured here. Ann is young and naive, and her backstory makes her a very sympathetic character. Abb’s portrayal of the partnership they develop in the kitchen is warming, though their situation precludes a truly equal relationship. I found it interesting that Abbs explained the omission of Ann as a coauthor of the book as a decision made by Ann, and have to wonder if there was any truth to that.

The bulk of the story takes place over a year so, though in reality it took Eliza and Ann ten years, from 1835 to 1845. to write their cookbook. Abbs touches on the social history of the era including the tremendous inequality between social classes, the status of women across the social spectrum, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

“I must coax the flavors from my ingredients, as a poet coaxes mood and meaning from his words. And then there is the writing itself. Like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered. Nothing stray.”

Eliza is credited as the pioneer of modern cookery books because she was the first to list ingredients separately from the methodology, and to provide precise quantities of ingredients. She could also be said to have pioneered the genre of ‘food writing’, by combining instruction with description. Foodies should enjoy Eliza’s poetic depictions of scents and tastes, though the fare of the 1800’s, which relied heavily on game and foraged foods, may sound quite unusual. A handful of Eliza’s ‘reciepts’ are printed after the Notes section at the end of the book.

The Language of Food is an engaging historical novel, and I appreciated learning about the beginnings of the modern recipe book.

+++++++++

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Review: A Family of Strangers by Fiona Lowe

 

Title: A Family of Strangers

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 2nd March 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The sixth contemporary novel from Australian author Fiona Lowe, A Family of Strangers is an appealing story that features three women- college lecturer Addy Topic who views her return to her late parents home in Rookery Cove, Tasmania, as a temporary convenience; Stephanie Gallagher who, along with her husband, toddler son and, unexpectedly, her teen step-daughter, has relocated from Melbourne in hopes of a better work/life balance; and mother, grandmother, and recent widow Brenda Lambeck, who is reluctant to reveal to her family, especially her narrow minded daughter Courtney, that her ‘boarder’, Marilyn, is actually her lover.

Strangers to one another, the catalyst to their meeting is the reformation of the Rookery Cove Choir at the behest of Marilyn. Stephanie is excited for both the opportunity to make friends and escape the rising tensions at home, and though neither Brenda, nor Addy are initially enthusiastic about the idea for their own reasons, the camaraderie of the choir proves to be a salve for them all. That is, until the night of their first performance, when an indiscreet comment exposes secrets that trigger confrontations and self examination.

Relationships-particularly those between mothers and daughters, escape, and being true to yourself are the main themes of A Family of Strangers, represented in different ways among the characters. Each struggle to find a balance between what others want from them, and what they need for themselves, in the way that is familiar to many women.

Brenda, Addy and Stephanie are well drawn, complex characters. They make good decisions, and bad, at times I found them sympathetic, at other times frustrating, but it’s their flaws make them realistic. Representing different ages and stages of life, it’s likely the experiences of one or more characters will resonate, their thoughts or actions reflecting your own.

Lowe addresses several topical issues, and in particular the ways in which they impact on women including alcoholism, sexual assault, sexual identity, workplace harassment, misogyny, the burden of domestic ‘mental load’, work/life balance, miscarriage, and infertility. Drawing on her experience as a counsellor, the author’s portrayal of the drama and emotion surrounding these challenging issues is genuine and sensitive.

A Family of Strangers is an engaging, thoughtful and astute novel.

+++++++++

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Review: Brunswick Street Blues by Sally Bothroyd

 

Title: Brunswick Street Blues

Author: Sally Bothroyd

Published: 2nd March 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The winner of the inaugural ASA/HQ Commercial Fiction Prize, Brunswick Street Blues is an entertaining crime fiction debut from Sally Bothroyd.

Though she’d rather be behind the bar at the Phoenix, when the Brunswick Street pub owned for forty years by her adoptive father, Baz, is subject to a barrage of anonymous complaints, Brick Brown gets a job in the PR department of Melbourne’s Yarra City Council in hopes of identifying the complainant. Sneaking into the archive room after hours in search of paperwork that might give her answers, Brick is horrified to find the body of the Mayor, Dickie Ruffhead (which explains the bad smell that has permeated the council offices). She can’t admit to the break-in so Brick decides to leave an anonymous message on her boss’s voicemail, but when the Mayor’s death is announced, she’s puzzled by reports that Dickie was found at home, the victim of a heart attack.

Connecting the cover-up to rumours of corruption involving the Development Consent Committee, a theory that seems to be supported by the sudden interest of respected investigative journalist, Mitch Mitchell, in council business, Brick wonders if it may be related to the attacks on Baz’s bar. She’d discuss it with Baz except he’s closed the Phoenix and left behind only a brief voice message, claiming he is in need of a few days break. Digging around with some help from Sue, a writer for the neighbourhood paper, results in Brick repeatedly crossing paths with Mitch Mitchell, but it’s not until she stops him being bundled into the boot of a black Mercedes by a couple of thugs that he’s willing to share information.

Brick and Mitch quickly realise that the corruption isn’t confined to a deal between a property development company and select Yarra City councillors but extends into higher levels of government, and someone is willing to kill to protect their secrets. The action and suspense ramps up as the pair uncover missing documents, suspicious deaths, hidden tunnels, identity theft, long repressed memories all while enduring attempts on their lives. There’s quite a lot going on with the plot, perhaps a little too much, throwing off the pace at times, but I really enjoyed how it all came together at the end, and much of the humour too.

In her mid-to-late twenties (I think), Brick is a likeable character. Abandoned as a baby, she lived in several foster homes before being (not-quite-legally) adopted by Baz as a young child, with several secrets exposed over the course of the book that reveal more about her early childhood. Her unconventional background and skills come in handy, as does her eclectic group of friends and acquaintances that includes a paranoid record store owner, an IT specialist, a parking inspector, a former councillor, and Brick’s newly returned roommate, a doctor who has been working in Somalia. Inevitably there is the development of romance between Brick and Mitch, but it’s not intrusive.

While it has its flaws, I liked a lot of elements of the plot, many of the characters and the balance of humour, suspense and action. If Brunswick Street Blues is intended to introduce a series then Bothroyd has laid a decent foundation to build on.

+++++++++

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Review: The Trivia Night by Ali Lowe

 

Title: The Trivia Night

Author: Ali Lowe

Published: 22nd February 2022, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Trivia Night is an entertaining new addition to the Australian domestic noir genre from debut author Ali Lowe.

The first big fundraising event of the year for Darley Heights Public, a primary school in a wealthy beachside suburb of Sydney, is an adults-only fancy dress trivia night. Four couples take their place at table number six- Alice, the event organiser, and her husband Pete, Zoe and Miles, and newcomers Amanda and Ted, and Lara and Luke. As the drinks flow, conversation wanders from the benign to the risqué, and as inhibitions loosen, so too does the group’s behaviour. The morning after, a hangover is not the only consequence of the night, and the couples are left with more questions than answers.

Unfolding mainly from the alternating perspectives of Amanda in the present tense, Alice, as she speaks to her therapist, and Zoe through emails to her sister, the scandalous actions events that took place during the trivia night, and the aftermath are revealed. While each swore to never speak of the night again, when Amanda receives photographic evidence of their transgressions and a threat to release them, the women from table 6 are desperate to prevent their secrets being exposed.

Lowe explores a myriad of issues such as marital discord, alcoholism, domestic violence, infertility, sexual identity, grief, jealousy and schoolyard politics in The Trivia Night, affecting the characters and their relationships. The main characters are complex and largely credible, though Amanda’s nemesis is a bit of a stereotype.

There is plenty of addictive drama with partner swapping shenanigans, confessions, bitter betrayals and a shocking death. There’s well timed humour too amongst the tension and emotion, and I thought the writing and dialogue was strong and sharp. I found the plot to be fairly predictable though, expecting slightly higher stakes I think, though I enjoyed the final twist.

I think The Trivia Night will particularly appeal to those with children still in school, if only because at the next interminable fundraiser event it will be kind of fun to identify which couples resemble the characters. This is a strong debut, and I look forward to reading more from Lowe.

+++++++

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Review: The Iron Sword by Julie Kagawa

 

Title: The Iron Sword {The Iron Fey: Evenfall #2}

Author: Julie Kagawa

Published: 2nd February 2022, HQ YA

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“The end has begun. Evenfall is coming. Faery and every living creature that exists under the sun are doomed.”

While it’s not strictly necessary to be familiar with the Iron Fey series which includes the four books of The Iron Fey (The Iron King, The Iron Daughter, The Iron Queen and The Iron Knight) and The Iron Fey: Call of Forgotten trilogy (The Lost Prince, The Iron Traitor and The Iron Warrior), plus various novellas, you do need to have read the first book of this spin-off series, The Iron Raven, to enjoy this direct sequel.

The Iron Sword begins where The Iron Raven ended, though this time the story is told from Ash’s point of view, as Ash, the unseelie Winter Prince with a soul, and his wife, Megan, the human Iron Queen, learn that their son, Kierran, King of the Forgotten, is missing after his realm in the Between was corrupted by a shadow monster. Joined by Puck, assassin Nyx, and Grimalkin, the party sets off in search of Kierran while trying to learn more about Evenfall, and the shadow monsters invading Faery. Their journey takes them into the mortal world where Kierran is protecting the survivors of his kingdom, and it’s here, with some help from Megan’s half brother, and his wife, Kenzie, that they will find the answers they all seek.

With Ash taking centre stage as the narrator of The Iron Sword, Megan and Puck are essentially sidelined. Ash is not a terribly complicated character, and I felt his narrative reflected this. His internal monologues were quite repetitive, declarations to protect his family at any cost, and a debate, influenced by the negative emotions stirred by the various shadow monsters, about the consequences of unleashing, or failing to unleash, his full unseelie nature.

Fortunately there’s plenty of fast paced action in The Iron Sword because Ash is a dynamic fighter, A few smaller skirmishes eventually lead to an impressive multi-staged battle that the group seem on the verge of losing until some surprising allies step in. Kagawa is skilled at conjuring these scenes so that it’s easy to visualise the chaos of swords and magic as the hero’s and monsters clash.

I don’t want to spoil the particulars of what Evenfall is, but I do think it works well within Kagawa’s established lore. I also liked the connections she drew between the real world and fey elements.

Unsurprisingly the book ends on a cliffhanger, with the whole of faery, and the mortal world, in danger of shattering. I expect it will be Megan who will tell the final instalment of the trilogy, and I’m looking forward to it. The nightmare of Evenfall is upon us.

+++++++

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Review: Lily Harford’s Last Request by Joanna Buckley

 

Title: Lily Harford’s Last Request

Author: Joanna Buckley

Published: 2nd February 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy HQ Fiction

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My Thoughts:

 

Lily Harford’s Last Request is a thoughtful, emotional debut novel from Joanna Buckley.

Shifting between timelines, though set primarily in the present, this story unfolds from three points of view, octogenarian Lily confronted with a diagnosis of dementia; her daughter Pauline, a stressed wife and school principal; and single woman Donna, a nursing assistant.

Through flashbacks, Lily is shown as an accomplished, strong woman who was widowed early, raised an illegitimate daughter alone, and founded a successful accountancy firm, through, and beyond, an era that frowned on such actions. In the present, Lily is devastated by a diagnosis that forces her to move from her beloved home into a nursing care facility and, frightened by the inevitable erosion of her dignity, wants to secure help to end her life on her terms. To be honest I expected Lily to have a more active role in the story, but her character is quite passive.

Usually capable and confident, as her beloved mother’s well-being declines, so too do Pauline’s emotional reserves. She’s horrified by Lily’s wish to die, and her feelings of guilt, fear and grief affects both her personal relationships and her patience with the demands of her career. Reluctant to acknowledge these stresses, Pauline struggles to hold herself together, and I sympathised with her distress.

After enduring a series of toxic relationships, Donna has discovered that she loves working in aged care, and her job provides her with some sorely lacking confidence. Though she empathises with Lily’s desire to end her life, she’s not willing to jeopardise her job, or her freedom, by agreeing to help her.

From each perspective, Buckley insightfully explores many serious life challenges such as identity, ageing, end of life decisions, mental health, loss, and family relationships. It’s an emotional journey for the characters, which Buckley presents thoughtfully and with compassion. I thought all three women came across as realistic, however I did wonder as to why such an independent woman as Lily didn’t make her own preparations to end her life (eg stockpile pills) rather than ask others to assume the risk.

There is some lovely writing in Lily Harford’s Last Request, but it’s a little heavy on the exposition, and the dialogue is sometimes clunky. I also found the pace to be a little uneven. I appreciated the epilogue, and the gentle twist.

Lily Harford’s Last Request is a thought provoking and engaging read that explores a controversial subject with sensitivity.

++++++++

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Review: The Competition by Katherine Collette

 

Title: The Competition

Author: Katherine Collette

Published: 1st February 2022, Text Publishing

Status: Read February 2022 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley

++++++++

My Thoughts:

 

The Competition by Katherine Collette is a heartfelt, quirky story told from the alternating perspectives of Frances and Keith, two competitors vying for the National SpeechMakers Championship.

Both from the same Victorian club, Frances, introverted and plagued with anxiety, seems an unlikely person to have taken up public speaking, even given her need for the $40,000 prize money. Keith, a long time near-evangelical member of the organisation, is desperate to win to regain the respect of his wife.

This is a story about facing your fears, owning the truth, standing up, and finding your voice. There is humour and heartbreak, secrets and confessions as Frances and Keith learn some overdue lessons about who they have been and who they want to be. The competition it turns out, is both everything, and beside the point.

The Competition is an engaging feel good novel, with an offbeat charm.

+++++++++

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Review & Giveaway: Exit .45 by Ben Sanders

 

Title: Exit .45 {Marshall Grade #3}

Author: Ben Sanders

Published: 5th January 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Exit .45 by Ben Sanders is a gritty crime procedural featuring former undercover police officer turned private investigator, Marshall Grade. Though it’s the third instalment in a series, following American Blood and Marshall’s Law, it reads well as a stand alone.

Marshall is sitting with a former NYPD colleague, Ray Vialoux, in a restaurant when a masked man fires a shotgun through the window, and Ray, who’d arranged the meeting to ask Marshall for help with mob gambling debts, is killed. There’s no doubt it’s a hit, but debts rarely result in murder, after all, a dead man can’t pay. Needing to understand why, Marshall ignores the warnings of the official investigating officer, Nevins, to back off, and decides to track the shooter down.

Sanders leads his protagonist into New York City’s underworld amongst mafia thugs, drug traffickers and hired killers. Marshall knows he can force answers that the police can’t and he’s not afraid of insisting, even though that means he becomes a target himself. I thought the main plot worked well as Marshall tries to figure out what Roy did to end up a target, and here’s plenty of tense action as Marshall is beaten, abducted and shot at, and gives as good as he gets.

Marshall is mostly what you expect, tough and resourceful, but he experiences PTSD from his two years undercover that manifests as compulsive behaviours. He left the NYPD under a cloud, accused of stealing a quarter of a million dollars after the shooting that ended the operation, though he denies it to anyone that asks. There’s a touch of romance for Marshall in Exit .45 with an ex-colleague of Roy’s, who joins him on his quest, and a small complication with Roy’s widow.

A well crafted crime novel that unfolds at a good pace, Exit .45 is an entertaining and absorbing read.

++++++

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Review: Would I Lie To You? by Aliya Azi-Afzal

 

Title: Would I Lie To You?

Author: Aliya Ali-Afzal

Published: 6th January 2021, Head of Zeus

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins UK/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“At first, I thought it must be a mistake, that I was reading the statements incorrectly. I ran my nail across the line, following the string of numbers with my fingertip. However many times I checked it though, the figure remained the same.”

Would I Lie To You? is a sharply observed, entertaining and thoughtful novel from Aliya Ali-Afzal.

When Faiza’s husband, Tom, is unexpectedly retrenched from his high paying banking job, neither believe he will be unemployed for long. Thankfully Tom’s redundancy payment will provide them with a six week buffer and if needed, Tom suggests, they can always draw from their ’emergency’ fund. The mention of their nest egg makes Faiza uncomfortable, she’s dipped into the account a time or two over the years. Raising a family in London is expensive, and fitting in is important, especially when, as a brown skinned, Pakistani Muslim, Faiza stands out among the other mothers at the gate of her children’s private school. Faiza is aghast when she checks the bank balance and realises that there is nothing left of their savings, she can’t possibly admit to her fiscally responsible husband that she has unintentionally frittered away £75,000, and so she lies.  Now Faiza has six weeks to put things right, but as her desperation grows so do the lies she has to tell, threatening to destroy everything she is trying to protect.

Some creative accounting and questionable decisions allows Faiza to juggle each immediate crisis, but repeatedly makes her overall predicament worse. It’s inevitable her lies will eventually be found out, and the anticipation of the consequences, not just for Faiza but also others, creates a genuine sense of tension in Would I Lie To You?. There are several themes and subplots that add to the drama too, including prejudice, an alleged theft, depression, an acute illness, and workplace sexual harassment. It’s a lot really, verging on too much at times, but I think readers will find elements to relate to, and there are lighter moments that provide needed warmth and  humour.

Despite Faiza’s poor decision making, her desire to assure her family’s well being is always what’s most important to her and I empathised with her concerns about her husband, her children, and her ageing parents. As the story progresses Ali-Azful reveals how Faiza’s sensitivity to her lower class background and her parent’s disagreements about finances feeds into her uncomfortable relationship with status and money, while her insecurities about acceptance given her racial and cultural background, are often reinforced by micro-aggressions among her, mostly white, social group. Though I can’t directly relate to Faiza’s issues on these matters (given I’m white and broke, with no status to speak of), I could understand how they influenced her decisions, which made Faiza a more sympathetic character who I really grew to like.

++++++

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