Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton

 

Title: Better Luck Next Time

Author: Kate Hilton

Published: June 16th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Better Luck Next Time is an entertaining and engaging contemporary family dramedy from Kate Hilton.

The story primarily features the women of the Hennessy family -feminist icon Lydia, daughters Mariana, Beata, and Nina, and cousins Zoe and Zack. It begins on Christmas Day as the family gathers to celebrate revealing its own special brand of chaos. Lydia is frantically preparing the perfect Christmas dinner, Zoe is reluctant to admit her marriage is over, Mariana is furious with her husband, Beata is exasperated with her teenage son, Nina is uncharacteristically quiet, and newly sober Zach is looking to make amends.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, each family member negotiates a series of disappointments, surprises, joys, secrets, and mistakes over a period of a year. The characters have distinct personalities and are easy to relate to as Hilton explores a variety of issues common to midlife including marriage, divorce, motherhood, addiction, and dating.

Hilton’s observations are often incisive, sometimes witty and occasionally poignant. The story moves at a good pace and I liked the balance between the humour and serious themes.

A fabulously funny, feel-good novel.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin. RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman

Title: I Was Told It Would Get Easier

Author: Abbi Waxman

Published: June 16th 2020, Berkley Books

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Penguin/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

In just a few months my daughter will graduate high school and we are in the process of choosing which university she will attend, so the premise of I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman appealed to me immediately.

Busy corporate lawyer Jessica Bernstein is hoping a week long college tour with her daughter will be a way for them to reconnect before Emily leaves the nest. Emily isn’t sure she even wants to go to college, but the timing is perfect given the situation at school.

The story unfolds from the first person viewpoints of Jessica and Emily, and I loved the way Waxman exploited the technique to provide a dual perspective of the same events, especially when it involved interactions between mother and daughter. The dynamic between Jessica and Emily felt very familiar to me as both the mother of teenage daughters, and as a former teenager daughter who was convinced her mother understood nothing.

The group college tour is a great vehicle for the story. Jessica and Emily have no choice but to spend time together, trapped on the bus and sharing a motel room. It gives them the opportunity to reconnect and consider their expectations of and for themselves, and each other.

The tour also traps them with a collection of characters that include a perky guide, a handful of earnest parents and their offspring, potential romantic interests, and a pair of frenemies. While Jessica is eager for Emily to attend a good college, she is taken aback by the intensity of some of the parents on the tour who seem to have been planning their child’s path to college since birth. One parent in particular makes it clear that she will do anything to ensure her daughter has the future she envisions. Emily envies the certainty of her tour companions when she isn’t even sure if she wants to go to college at all.

The humour in the novel particularly appealed to me, both Jessica and Emily have a dry, snarky wit. Waxman’s observations across the generational divide are relatable, and some cut deep, like this one from Emily…

“And why do they all have phone cases that open like little books and make it difficult to take photos in the first place? They created the monster and don’t even know how to use it properly.”

An entertaining, astute and easy read, I really enjoyed I Was Told It Would Get Easier.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse

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Review: The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside by Jessica Ryn

 

Title: The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside

Author: Jessica Ryn

Published: May 28th 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read June 2020, courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside is a moving and uplifting contemporary novel from debut novelist, Jessica Ryn.

Dawn Elisabeth Brightside has been running from her past for more than two decades. Offered a place at St Jude’s Hostel for the Homeless in Dover she finally thinks she may have found somewhere to she can stay.

Focusing on the issues of homelessness and mental health, The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside is set in Dover, England. St Jude’s is a refuge that provides accomodation and social support to homeless people staffed by a dedicated and idealistic social worker, Grace and a former client, Peter. Dawn quickly settles into the hostel, fighting the familiar impulse to flee, and befriending several of the residents.

Though I thought the story felt a little slow to begin with, the pace improved as it unfolded.

The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Dawn and Grace, and Ryn portrays both women with compassion and nuance. Dawn tends to be sidetracked by florid daydreams, and sometimes fails to distinguish reality from fantasy. Many of her delusions centre around Rosie, Dawn’s daughter, though whether she actually exists or not, is unclear for much of the novel. Despite her mental health issues, Dawn is a largely an optimist and always eager to help others, and when she learns that St Jude’s is in danger of closing she is determined to save it.

As is Grace who feels deeply for her clients, and is worried that she isn’t good enough to do right by them.

A story of heart, humour and humanity, The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside is an engaging read.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin/ HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Title: The Paris Library

Author: Janet Skeslien Charles

Published: June 2nd 2020, Two Roads

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“‘Libraries are lungs,’ she scrawled, her pen barely able to keep up with her ideas, ‘books the fresh air breathed in to keep the heart beating, to keep the brain imagining, to keep hope alive. Subscribers depend on us for news, for community. Soldiers need books, need to know their friends at the Library care. Our work is too important to stop now.’”

Inspired by true events, The Paris Library is an engaging historical novel by Janet Skeslien Charles.

A dual timeline introduces Odile Souchet, who is thrilled when she gains her dream job at The American Library in Paris in February of 1939. Under the direction of the aptly named Ms. Reeder, the library provides an extensive range of reading material in English and French to their subscribers, and as war begins, becomes a haven for the community. Forty years later a thirteen year old girl, Lily, living in small town Montana, introduces herself to her elderly neighbour, Mrs. Gustafson, marvelling at her extensive library and her ‘tres chic’ French accent. The two form an unusual bond, united by their dreams and their regrets.

The story of Odile in Paris is the more fascinating of the two, especially as it’s based in truth – The American Library was founded in 1920, and still exists today. In this novel, as WWII breaks out and the Germans make their way towards Paris, Ms. Reeder is determined that the library will remain open to serve the community. This not only includes welcoming patrons to the reading room, but also sending donated books and periodicals to French, British and Czech troops (about 20,000 tonnes in the autumn of 1940). Even when Paris is occupied by the Nazi’s, the library remains open, the librarian risking their lives by smuggling books to their Jewish patrons.

Populated by a delightful collection of multicultural characters, whose personalities are based on the actual library staff during that period, I enjoyed spending time with Odile among the stacks, easily imagining the good natured bickering of the regular patrons, and the camaraderie of the librarians.

Odile is a young, rather naive young woman, who lives at home with her middle class parents, and twin brother Rémy who is studying law. Her father, a police commissioner, is opposed to Odile working, preferring she find a husband. As the rumours of war become reality, Odile finds herself challenged by life under the Nazi regime – protecting the library, parting with her brother when he enlists, and losing everything when she makes a tragic error in judgement.

As the second timeline unfolds from 1983, we eventually discover how Odile ended up in Montana living next door to the teenage Lily. Facing challenges of her own Lily finds comfort and friendship with Odile, who tries to pass on the lessons she has learned. While I didn’t mind reading about Lily, I think I would have preferred that the author had simply chosen to concentrate on the American Library and Odile’s experience in Paris.

Book lovers will be drawn to this title, and won’t be disappointed. The history is interesting, the characters appealing, and the story engaging.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

Review: Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth

Title: Heatstroke

Author: Hazel Barkworth

Published: May 28th 2020, Headline Review

Status: Read May 2020 courtesy Hachette Au/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

Heatstroke is a tense, atmospheric novel from Hazel Barkworth about mothers and daughters, desire and obsession, trust and betrayal.

It begins when the best friend of Rachel’s fifteen year old daughter, Mia, disappears, but this is not really a story about the missing Lily, it is about what Rachel feels she is losing…. her daughter, her youth, her attractiveness, and perhaps her mind.

Rachel presents initially as a somewhat depressed, slightly overprotective, devoted mother, but as the book progresses Barkworth reveals a complex character, with a searing secret that has the potential to burn her world to the ground.

The author’s writing is evocative and gripping, the fevered, oppressive atmosphere of the heatwave reflects Rachel’s tumultuous emotional state as the tension stretches to breaking point.

Yet I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the narrative, though I can’t quite articulate why. Still, this is an impressive debut, and I’ll be interested in reading what Barkworth writes next.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Title: The Authenticity Project

Author: Clare Pooley

Published: April 2nd 2020, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Penguin/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Authenticity Project is a charming, and thought-provoking novel from author Clare Pooley, best known for her 2017 memoir, The Sober Diaries.

“Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead? The one thing that defines you, that makes everything else about you fall into place?… .maybe telling that story would change your life, or the life of someone you’ve not yet met.’

Feeling sorry for himself, seventy-nine year old Julian Jessop, a widowed, once famous artist, articulates his regrets and loneliness in an exercise book he titles ‘The Authenticity Project’, and leaves it in a local cafe, inviting whoever finds it to share their truth, and leave it for someone else to find. When Monica, the owner of the cafe, reads Julian’s confession, she is inspired not only to add her own, and then leave the book in a local wine bar to be found, but also to concoct a plan to relieve Julian’s loneliness.

Exploring themes of friendship, truth, and forgiveness, connections are forged between the strangers who find the book as Monica invites Julian to host art classes in the cafe, and then Hazard, having read Monica’s heartfelt missive, decides to play matchmaker, placing Riley in her path. Next to find the book is Alice, and then finally Lizzy.

It’s a heartwarming journey as these strangers, who are very different from one another, become friends, and change each other’s lives in ways both small and large. Conflict is inevitable, as honesty is not always easy, and it can be scary to let go of the curated image of ourselves, but the drama is a catalyst for each of them to find a way to live more authentically.

Told with humour and heart, The Authenticity Project is an uplifting story that reminds us of what we have to gain when we are truthful with ourselves.

++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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

Review: Thrill Me by Lynette Washington (Ed.)

 


Title: Thrill Me: Suspenseful Stories

Author: Lynette Washington (Editor)

Published: April 4th 2020, Glimmer Press

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Glimmer Press

++++++

My Thoughts:

Thrill Me is a provocative short story collection contributed to by thirty-one Australian storytellers, edited by Lynette Washington, the owner of Glimmer Press.

The thirty-five original stories within this anthology aim to surprise, provoke, shock, or scare the reader in imaginative ways. They push the boundaries of the traditional thriller, eschewing cliche’s while still eliciting the heightened emotion that characterises the genre.

I found a handful of stories to be particularly affecting, including Mrs Meiners Has Gone to Get Chalk by Stephen Orr, featuring a classroom of bewildered children, and Top Deck by Doug Bray, whose ending makes a splash (or not as the case may be). Not unexpectedly, there were a few tales that didn’t resonate with me for one reason or another but are sure to capture another’s imagination

Offering a variety of thrills and chills to suit a wide audience, Thrill Me is entertaining reading.

The Authors: Katherine Tamiko Arguile | Joanna Beresford | Carmel Bird | Doug Bray | Ben Brooker | Lauren Butterworth | Elaine Cain | Brid Cummings | Kate Shelley Gilbert | Ashleigh Hardcastle | Alys Jackson | Michelle Jäger | Riana Kinlough | Melanie Kinsman | Gay Lynch | Amy T Matthews | Rachael Mead | Susan Midalia | Ruairi Murphy | Stephen Orr | Cameron Raynes | Caroline Reid | Fiona Robertson | Andrew Roff | Polly Rose | Justine Sless | Angela Sungaila | Reg Taylor | Alex Vickery-Howe | Sean Williams | Jonny Zweck

++++++

Available from Glimmer Press or Wakefield Press

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

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Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Title: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Author: Grady Hendrix

Published: April 7th 2020, Quirk Books

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Quirk/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

It was the title of this latest release from Grady Hendrix that caught my eye, and having enjoyed Horrorstör (published in 2014) I was willing to give The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires a chance.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is set during the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s in an affluent, traditional suburb of Charleston where Patricia Campbell lives with her doctor husband, two children, and ailing mother-in-law. Her only respite from her role as a dutiful ‘southern’ wife, mother, and caregiver is her attendance at the not-really-but-kind-of monthly book club with a small group of local housewives who all defected from the Mt. Pleasant Library Guild. Instead of stuffy classics, Patricia and her friends -Grace, Slick, Kitty and Maryellen- rebel by reading a mix of true crime and popular novels, adding a frisson of excitement to their lives.

Thrills are in short supply for these five women, whom Hendrix presents as southern housewife stereotypes with good-ole-boy husbands of one type of another, so when Patricia begins to suspect a new neighbour, James Harris, is not who he seems, the book club members tentatively investigate, but James always seems to be one step ahead, and they have no idea what a monster he really is.

Accurately described as Steel Magnolias meets Dracula, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is an ambitious mashup of suspense, social commentary, horror, and satire that presents as ‘women’s fiction’.

At face value, there is so much wrong with this book, from the plethora of sexist stereotypes to the marginalisation of the PoC characters but keep in mind that it’s intentional, and it all makes a strange kind of sense. As the story develops Hendrix subtly highlights, undermines and challenges the status quo, and his female characters slowly exceed expectations.

Schlocky, subversive, clever, and dark I actually think The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires would make a fun cult movie a la The Witches of Eastwick. It’s not a bad read either.

++++++

Available from Quirk Books

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

 

Also by Grady Hendrix reviewed at Book’d Out 

Review: Precious You by Helen Monks Takhar

Title: Precious You

Author: Helen Monks Takhar

Published: March 23rd 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2020, courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

A thoroughly modern psychological thriller Precious You by Helen Monks Takhar is a disturbing story of obsession, betrayal, and revenge.

When 41 year old magazine editor Katherine Ross first meets her new intern Lily Lunt, she is both drawn to, and distrustful of, the bright, ambitious 24 year old. Already struggling with feelings of irrelevancy Katherine suspects that Lily wants her job, but Lily wants much more than that. Lily wants everything.

Unfolding from the alternating second-person perspective of Katherine, and first-person narrative of Lily, Precious You twists and turns as the two women engage in a sinister power struggle. I was never quite sure whose perspective of events was the most trustworthy, and Takhar skilfully nurtures that element of doubt.

Their complicated dynamic is well portrayed, and if you are inclined to choose a side in the war between these two women, you’ll quickly be disabused of the idea that either deserves to win. As the story unravels so do their darkest secrets, and Katherine and Lily have more in common than you might suspect.

Takhar’s exploration of female identity, toxic friendships, family dysfunction and the generational divide is surprisingly thought provoking. While both characters represent extremes, their thoughts and experiences are often relatable, from Katherine’s mourning for her lost youth (and looks), to Lily’s Millennial sensitivities.

There is plenty of tension sustained through the novel as the rivalry between Katherine and Lily intensifies, and I felt compelled to read to the end to not only see how far each would go, but learn the truths both are hiding.

While a little melodramatic, I found Precious You to be an intense, and thrilling read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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

Review: Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

Title: Gulliver’s Wife

Author: Lauren Chater

Published: April 1st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

Gulliver’s Wife is an inventive tale that imagines the life of Mary Gulliver, the wife of Lemuel Gulliver whose fictional adventures are authored by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

Lauren Chater opens her story in London during the year of 1702. With her husband lost at sea and declared deceased, Mary Gulliver has fought hard to keep body and soul together. Left with crippling debts run up by her feckless husband and two young children to raise, it has taken her three years of hard work as a midwife in Wapping to rescue her family from penury, but all that is cruelly jeopardised when her husband unexpectedly returns. Clearly ill, restless and raving about little people, Mary can only hope that when her husband recovers his health, he will be a better man than the one who left. But it soon becomes clear that Lemuel has bought nothing but trouble home with him.

“Only yesterday she was a widow of independent means. Now she is some monstrous hybrid, a creature who has tasted freedom and knows too well how things might be otherwise.”

Life three centuries ago was challenging for women, and in Gulliver’s Wife, Chater explores the myriad of ways in women‘s agency was curtailed by men. As a wife Mary is beholden to her husband and his selfish and abusive treatment, but as a widow Mary had discovered a modicum of independence. Luckier than most, her work as a midwife provides her with respectability and income, but Mary is still at the mercy of men – to permit her to ply her trade, to educate her son, even to see her home safely at night. With her husband’s return, Mary is powerless as his behaviour threatens to destroy her reputation, their tenuous financial stability, and even their daughter’s future.

Mary attempts to hide the worst of her husband’s behaviour from their daughter Bess, a headstrong, naive girl who was crushed by her adored father’s reported death, and is thrilled by his return. Bess compares her mother’s ordered life unfavourably to her father’s adventures, failing to understand the realities of a woman’s lot in the early 18th century. Chater’s exploration of the fraught relationship between mother and daughter, as Bess rebels and Mary tries to protect her without wholly disillusioning her, is relatable even now.

The risks Bess take are even more frightening for Mary as a violent, serial rapist is stalking the lanes of Wapping, illustrating yet another way in which men assert control over women, as it is the women who are forced to change their behaviour to accomodate the rapist, and his victims who are ruined in men’s eyes.

All this oppression tends to make Gulliver’s Wife a rather bleak read, though it does end with a note of hope.

Rich in historical detail, offering vivid description, and complex characterisation, Gulliver’s Wife is an engrossing, literary read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster

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