Review: Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

 

Title: Birds of a Feather

Author: Tricia Stringer

Published: 29th September 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Three independent women of three different generations are at the centre of Tricia Stringer’s 14th novel, Birds of a Feather.

Septuagenarian Eve Monk is not at all pleased when a shoulder injury requiring surgery threatens her highly prized independence, and it’s with great reluctance that she hires registered nurse Lucy Ryan as home help. With her partner, a FIFO worker, often absent, young mother of two, Lucy, is uncomfortable with juggling work and childcare, and isn’t sure working for Eve is good idea. Nevertheless, the two slowly warm to each other, much to the annoyance of Eve’s goddaughter, Julia, who arrives unannounced after finding herself at a professional and personal crossroad.

Exploring the themes of independence, friendship, careers and family, among others, each woman, though at different stages in their lives, struggle with similar issues in Birds of a Feather. This is a character driven story as Eve, Lucy and Julia confront the spectres of their pasts and find the courage to determine new futures.

To be honest it took me a while to warm to all three characters. I initially thought Eve to be brusque and demanding, Lucy overly anxious, and Julia rude and selfish. As the story progresses however each becomes more nuanced and I came to admire their many strengths. The development of their friendship is gratifying, and I was cheered by the supportive bond they formed, and drew strength from.

Set in mid 2021 Stringer doesn’t overlook the impact of the CoVid-19 pandemic, which has affected both Lucy and Julia, but it doesn’t have an active presence in the story per se. Most of the novel takes place in a small coastal town, named Wallaby Bay, on the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. I liked the depiction of the community, whose main industries include tourism and prawn-trawling, and the minor conflicts of its residents add colour and interest to the story.

Warm, sincere and thoughtful, Birds of a Feather is an engaging contemporary novel sure to delight readers, new and old.

+++++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital by Joanna Nell

 

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanne Nell

Published: 29th September 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is an endearing and entertaining novel from bestselling Australian author Joanna Nell.

Though the decor is tired, the menu uninspiring, and the coffee bland, The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has served the visitors and employees of St Jude’s Hospital nobly for fifty years, its profits funding a variety of projects to benefit patients. Staffed by volunteers, septuagenarian Hilary Halliday has held the position of manager for a decade and runs a tight ship, but with her personal life recently upended, her role at the cafeteria has become a life raft, which is why she is rocked to discover that management is contemplating closing the cafeteria in favour of a popular ‘whole food’ cafe franchise.

The storyline of The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is told through three characters – Hilary; probationary volunteer Joy, with a penchant for blue eyelash falsies and bright clothing, of similar age to Hilary; and seventeen year old student Chloe Foster-Pearson, reluctantly volunteering at the behest of her surgeon mother. Each slowly reveals their private struggles as they face uncertain futures. I enjoyed the process of getting to know these well drawn characters, very different from one another, who become united by their determination to save the cafeteria.

The themes of family, friendship, change, and identity are prevalent in The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital. Nell also sensitively explores issues related to ageing, particularly for women. There is a little dig at the commercialisation of hospital care, and the Millennial folly of style over substance.

Written with warmth and humour, The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital is a charming and cheerful read.

++++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Library by Belle Osborne

 

Title: The Library

Author: Bella Osborne

Published: 2nd September 2021, Aria & Aries

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Aria & Aries/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The Library by Bella Osborne is an engaging story about family, friendship, and community.

Set in a small English village, the threatened closure of the local library makes unexpected allies, and friends, of 16 year old high school student Tom, and 72 year old widow and small holder, Maggie. Maggie, restless and lonely, is intrigued by the young man who slinks into the library and tries to hide his romance novel selections. Tom, sad and alone, is impressed by Maggie’s right hook, and her delicious cooking.

Tom is such a forlorn character, and Osborne’s characterisation of a self-conscious, awkward and troubled teenage boy is very good. Since his mother’s death, Tom’s father has spiralled into alcoholism. Money is tight, and Tom’s dad is expecting that his son will leave school and get a factory job, ignoring his son’s hopes of attending University. Essentially friendless, his visits to the library are prompted by a need to escape his father’s moods, and a desire to learn more about girls so he can speak to his crush, Farah.

Maggie is a great character, independent, feisty, and nurturing. Since her husband’s death, Maggie has generally been content to attend to her small holding where she raises goats for their wool, with the weekly book club meeting at the library her only regular social activity. Tom’s vulnerability as he furtively browses the romance shelves, and his brave attempt to thwart her mugging, captures her interest, and when she finds herself in need of help at the farm, she is pleased that Tom offers to give her a hand.

The connection that forms between Maggie and Tom is a delight, and warmth and humour offsets the serious subjects Osborne explores in The Library which include addiction, grief, bullying, and social isolation. The threatened closure of the library is almost incidental to the plot though Osborne uses it to draw attention to the value of libraries within communities.

A moving and ultimately uplifting story The Library is a lovely, satisfying read.

+++++++++

Available from Aria & Aries

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Review: Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown

 

Title: Sweet Jimmy

Author: Bryan Brown

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

You’ve probably seen Australian actor Bryan Brown on the big screen, perhaps in Hollywood blockbusters like F/X, Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist, Breaker Morant, or in any of the other dozen movies he has made an appearance in, particularly if you are of a certain age. Sweet Jimmy, an entertaining collection of crime fiction short stories, is his first foray into publishing.

Primarily set within the streets of suburban Sydney, Brown’s stories combine humour, violence, and pathos. There are seven in all, and include an angry father seeking the man responsible for his daughter’s death, a thief who steals more than he bargains for, a cop investigating a serial killer, and a man hunting for the woman that betrayed him. Vengeance, betrayal, redemption, and survival are common themes, exposing men pushed to their limits. There was actually not a single tale I didn’t find engaging.

I’m not sure Sweet Jimmy would translate well to an international audience, but for me there was a definite sense of cultural familiarity. I feel Brown captures an aspect of the elusive essence of the Australian character particularly well, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of the characters and events are inspired by real people Brown has known.

The writing strongly reminds me of the late Robert G Barrett’s work, it’s spare but still expressive, and perhaps more importantly, honest. The audio version of of the book is narrated by Brown himself, which I think would be a real treat with his distinctive voice.

Sweet Jimmy is colourful, bold, and cheeky collection of suburban Aussie noir stories.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

 

Title: The Housemate

Author: Sarah Bailey

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

The Housemate is a standalone crime novel from Australian author Sarah Bailey, best known for her popular series featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock.

When the body of a woman is found on a property in rural Victoria, interest is revived in a decade old mystery. Olive Groves was a junior reporter when the ‘Housemate Homicide’ – where a dispute among three young housemates led to the murder of one and the disappearance of another – occurred, and now rumour suggests that the missing woman has resurfaced. Given her familiarity with the case, Oli is eager to investigate further, but annoyed when her editor insists she works with a young podcaster, Cooper Ng.

In what is a well-conceived and interesting plot, Oli, aided by Cooper, digs into what really happened between the housemates on the night of the murder, and slowly uncovers a cabal whose elite members are willing to kill to keep their secrets. While I found the complex mystery intriguing, I did feel the pace of the first two thirds or so of the novel was quite slow, with much of the tension and action being confined to near the end.

Oli is an intuitive, driven investigative journalist, her methods to unearth the story are sometimes uncomfortable, but I appreciated her determination to uncover the truth. I liked how Bailey explored the tension between old and new media through the relationship between Oli and Cooper.

Oli’s personal life is a bit of a mess though, and becomes more complicated when elements of the Housemate case forces her to face some difficult truths about her relationship, and herself. I wasn’t always sympathetic to her issues, but I thought she was a well-realised, complex character.

With its cleverly plotted, absorbing mystery, The Housemate is compelling crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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

Tour Review: The Wattle Island Book Club by Sandie Docker

Title: The Wattle Island Book Club

Author: Sandie Docker

Published: 31st August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Wattle Island Book Club, the fourth book from Australian author Sandie Docker, is a bittersweet story about love, loss, courage, passion and hope.

Seven years after the last meeting of the book club on Wattle Island, octogenarian artist, Anne Sato, is determined to revive it, hoping in part that it will provide her grandson, Sam, with the impetus to move past the tragedy that haunts him. Reaching out to a library on the mainland, Anne is put in contact with Grace Elliot who is happy to help, despite the logistical challenges. When Anne reports a lacklustre participation in the first book club meeting, Grace proposes attending the next gathering. Not only is she eager to encourage the success of book club, but visiting the island will fulfil an item on her bucket list, which Grace is running out of time to complete.

Anne is a delightful character with a little of the sass that comes from no longer worrying much what others think of you. A recent stroke is her motivation for reviving the book club, which she hopes will not only bring the community together, but also help her grandson. Further insight into her character comes through Anne’s reminiscing about the past, from arriving on the island as an orphan to be placed in the care of her aunt, through to her unconventional (for the times) courtship and marriage to Tadashi Sato.

Grace is initially a bit of an enigma. When we are first introduced she seems to be like any twenty something year old, indulging in adventures like bungee jumping and skydiving with her best friend, though there are early hints that not all is as it seems. I liked the idea of Grace’s evolving bucket list (I’ve never put together one of my own, suspecting it would just say ‘Read more often’) and her determination to live on her terms. Grace is a character that garnered both my admiration and sympathy.

Docker touches on some serious issues in The Wattle Island Book Club including misogyny, racism, mental illness, suicide and cancer, but the power of literature to change lives is a theme that unifies the characters, as well as the past and the present. Readers will no doubt enjoy references to cultural classics such as Anne of Green Gables, Bridget Jones Diary and Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

Combining history, romance, literature, art, and a touch of mystery, there is plenty to engage with in The Wattle Island Book Club. However, It would be remiss of me not to mention there is a fairly major element of the story I have mixed feelings about, and though I was somewhat mollified by the epilogue, it would definitely be something I’d raise for discussion in a book club.

The Wattle Island Book Club is a captivating, wistful, and poignant novel, and would make a wonderful selection for your next book club meeting.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

 

Title: Cutters End

Author: Margaret Hickey

Published: 17th August 2021, Bantam Australia 

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

When public pressure results in a thirty-two year old case being reopened, Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is recalled from long service leave and tasked with reinvestigating the death of Michael Denby on a lonely stretch of the Stuart Highway. Discovered by his fire damaged car with burns and a broken leg, the original finding was one of accidental death, and there is no real expectation Ariti will learn anything new after all this time. Re-interviewing witnesses certainly seems to be a dead end, but Ariti along with Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur, stationed at Cutters End, stumble upon some information that paints the dead man in a new light and changes the direction of the investigation.

Though touted as a thriller, I feel Cutters End is better described as a police procedural. The prologue introduces some suspense with a harrowing scene, but there’s no real sense of urgency related to what may have really happened to Denby during the novel given he has been dead for several decades. There is an intriguing mystery though that unravels at a measured pace as Ariti and Kaur piece together disparate pieces of information and the reopened investigation prompts questions about a range of other suspected historical crimes.

I’d say a key theme examined by Hickey in Cutters End is the difference between the application of law and the administration of justice, particularly in regards to the poor response of police and courts to crimes against women, especially those involving sexual assault and domestic violence. This issue has relevance both in the present, as Ariti’s wife prosecutes an abusive husband, and the past, as Mark and Jagdeep learn about its secrets.

I’m not sure how I feel about Mark Ariti to be honest. Seemingly in the midst of a midlife crisis, with a failing marriage, an apathetic attitude towards his children, and shallow concerns about ageing, I felt he was quite a morose, self involved character. He is a dedicated investigator though, which I admired, and to be fair, he surprised me somewhat in the end.

Offering a well crafted mystery that takes place in an atmospheric rural Australian setting, Cutters End is a solid crime fiction debut from Margaret Hickey.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia

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Review: Trouble is My Business by Lisa Walker

 

Title: Trouble is My Business {An Olivia Grace Mystery #2}

Author: Lisa Walker

Published: 1st August 2021, Wakefield Press

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Wakefield Press

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My Thoughts:

 

Trouble is My Business is the second engaging mystery from Lisa Walker featuring Olivia Grace, a teen wannabe Private Investigator on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

(More to come…)

+++++++

Available from Wakefield Press

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Review: CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie

 

Title: CSI Told You Lies

Author: Meshel Laurie

Published: 3rd August 2021, Ebury

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie, the host of the Australian True Crime podcast, is an interesting, informative and sometimes confronting account of forensic investigation in Victoria.

 

(More to come…)

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Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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

Review: The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe

 

Title: The Children’s Secret

Author: Nina Monroe

Published: 13th July 2021, Sphere

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe, a back-to-school party in the small New Hampshire town of Middlebrook, is marred by tragedy when an eleven year old guest is shot in the chest, and the children, whom were out of sight of the adults in a barn, refuse to explain how it happened.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, the narrative explores the impact of the shooting and its aftermath.

The characters are diverse, which I appreciate, but it does feel a little contrived, in that the cast tick just about every minority box.

As the parents look to lay, or deflect blame, they find themselves wrestling with various concerns, not just those that relate directly to the tragedy, but also personal problems, ranging from a crisis of faith to a troublesome pregnancy, as well as social issues such as racism, prejudice, media distortion, and political expediency. I felt the personal issues were largely unnecessary distractions though, given the complex and divisive subjects related to the main subject at hand.

I think Monroe manages to be fairly even-handed in her examination of the gun control debate. Studies show that in the US around 3000 children are killed or injured per year in incidents where a gun is accidentally/unintentionally fired by a child under the age of 17*. I believe in gun control. In an ideal world I do not believe any ordinary citizen should own a gun except in very specific instances, and no semi or automatic weapons without exception. I believe in gun registration, background checks, age restrictions, licences/permits, storage requirements, and limits on ownership.

Though as The Children’s Secret shows, none of that necessarily precludes a tragedy (though it was still avoidable, and could have been worse). As the nine children, aged from four to thirteen, steadfastly repeat the same story about the shooting that explains almost nothing, the mystery of the novel rests in discovering how the children gained access to the gun, exactly what happened in the barn, who fired the shot that struck the victim, and why. I found my need for answers to be sufficient motivation to keep reading.

The novel’s tight timeline (it unfolds over the period of about a week) and short chapters helps the story to progress at a good pace. I did feel there were some some flaws in the writing, but nothing egregious.

Provocative and thoughtful, The Children’s Secret has the potential to elicit strong reactions among its readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Protect-Children-Not-Guns-2019.pdf

 

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