Review: The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul

 

Title: The Manhattan Girls: A Novel of Dorothy Parker and her Friends

Author: Gill Paul

Published: 16th August 2022, William Morrow Books

Status: Read August 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

“Four things I am wiser to know: idleness, sorrow, a friend and a foe.” -Dorothy Parker

The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul is based on four well known women of 1920’s New York City; Dorothy Parker, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a poet and writer known for her sharp wit; Jane Grant, reporter and cofounder of the The New Yorker magazine; broadway actress Winifred Lenihan; and novelist Peggy Leech; and tells the story of the friendship that sustained them during a particular period of their lives.

When the men of the Algonquin Round Table decide to form a Saturday night poker club, Jane Grant suggests some of the women instead meet for Bridge, inviting Dottie, Peggy and Winnie to join her. The game, hosted round robin style, quickly becomes a lifeline for the four women as they exchange confidences, hopes, failures and hardships, and provide each other with encouragement and support when it’s needed.

From what I’m able to tell, Paul draws heavily on public records and other factual sources that inform the characters personality’s and events in the novel. While the line between fact and fiction is blurred, Gill’s portrayal of these women, and their relationships, feels genuine.

Though this is very much a character driven novel as the friends face challenges in their personal and professional lives, Gill touches on several serious issues that affect the women, including sexism, self-harm, domestic violence, sexual assault, abortion, gambling, and alcoholism.

Gill ably conveys the spirit of the Roaring Twenties in New York City, capturing the hedonism among the ‘arts’ crowd, epitomised by the notorious members of the Algonquin Round Table, and the changes in society brought about by the end of WWI, the introduction of Prohibition, and the increasing opportunities for women.

Well-written, I enjoyed The Manhattan Girls as a story that explores friendship, loyalty and ambition, and as a glimpse into the private lives of four women whose influence on the arts lingers a century later.

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Review: Criminals by James O’Loghlin

 

Title: Criminals

Author: James O’Loghlin

Published: 5th July 2022, Bonnier Echo

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

““We answered the call, identified the perpetrator….Job done. Crime solved. Except it wasn’t. We’d only solved half of it. We’d only figured out the ‘who”….We’re all icebergs, showing the world our shiny tip, smiling as we say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Fine thanks’, while beneath we hide the messy, complicated truth. To really solve a crime you also need to work out the ‘why’.”

Given James O’Loghlin’s pedigree as an ABC presenter, comedian and former lawyer, I was expecting something caper-ish (crime mixed with screwball comedy) from his debut adult fiction, Criminals, but this is primarily a character driven story, a little quirky but also deliberate and thoughtful.

After absconding while being driven to court mandated rehab, drug addict and petty thief Dean Acton figures a big score from the Blacktown Leagues Club will solve his most immediate needs and let him lay low for a while. Sarah Hamilton, working as a barmaid while on indefinite leave from the police force, remains calm when she’s confronted by two armed masked men, which is why she notices that the thin one seems to recognise her. Sipping a gin, patron Mary Wallace smiles as the shorter of the two robbers turns his gun on her, getting shot now, she thinks, would be convenient.

In the aftermath, as the narrative alternates between each we’ll realised character, O’Loghlin explores the question of criminality through themes of guilt and innocence, opportunity and responsibility, second chances and redemption, and the choices we make that define us.

“I never thought about the consequences of getting a decision wrong, until it happened.”

Sarah puts her investigative skills to work, identifying one of the thieves as her high school’s former football hero, but having once before made a judgement with terrible consequences, she needs to be certain she isn’t making a mistake. Raised on the maxim of ‘right’s right, and wrong’s wrong’ the line is less clear to her now, and she struggles with the decisions she’s faced with.

“‘You committed a crime, but are you a criminal?’
‘Yes, because I committed a crime.
‘Then everyone’s a criminal.”

Mary, a middle-aged, depressed alcoholic contemplating suicide, is inspired to recreate the excitement of the hold up by embarking on her own petty crime spree, while assuring her absent daughter via email that everything is fine. But as the thrill of lawbreaking wears off, Mary has to choose what to let go of.

“I know I’m right down the bottom, nearly as low as you can get. But in a weird way that’s almost a relief, cos it means you can’t fall any further.”

Dean meanwhile, barely has time to celebrate his ‘perfect’ crime before he’s arrested. Faced with a lengthy prison sentence what he decides to do next will not only define his future, but could change someone else’s.

Written with insight, wit and compassion, Criminals is a thought-provoking and engaging novel

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Review: The Littlest Library by Poppy Alexander

 

Title: The Littlest Library

Author: Poppy Alexander

Published: 19th July 2022, Avon Books

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Avon Books/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

The Littlest Library by Poppy Alexander was exactly what I hoped for, a feel-good  story about friendship, community, love and books.

After Jess loses both the beloved grandmother who raised her and her job in short succession she impulsively purchases a cottage in the tiny rural hamlet of Middlemass. Ivy Cottage is a little run down but Jess sees its potential despite the bats in the attic, the overgrown garden, and the empty, urine soaked red telephone box in the front garden. Hard works soon transforms the cottage, and with a nudge from the community, Jess, an unemployed librarian, gives the telephone box a new life as a free community library, stocked with her late grandmother’s books.

There are no real surprises as to what happens next. The little red library is a hit, quickly attracting loyal patrons. Jess makes friends with an assorted array of slightly quirky characters like grocery store owner Paddy, lively seniors Diana and Mungo, harried mother of three Becky, and despite a rocky start with her gruff across-the-way neighbour, Aiden, a will-they/won’t-they romance blossoms. Alexander builds a delightful community you would want to be part of in an English country dream setting.

Of course there is some drama stirred up by a petty parish council member, a sudden illness, a strained marriage, and an intrusive ex-wife, but you can take comfort in knowing that these complications will be resolved. The predictability of a happy and hopeful ending is a balm when everything outside the books pages these days feels so chaotic.

A heartwarming and blithesome read, The Littlest Library is big on charm.

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Review: Five Bush Weddings by Clare Fletcher

 

Title: Five Bush Weddings

Author: Clare Fletcher

Published: 2nd August 2022, Penguin Random House Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Penguin Random House Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Five Bush Weddings is a charming Australian romantic comedy debut from Clare Fletcher.

Wedding photographer Stevie-Jean Harrison loves being part of a couple’s special day, but, single at 31, she’s starting to think she may never have her own. Everyone she knows seems to found ‘the one’ – her ex has just announced his engagement, and his gorgeous, young bride-to-be wants Stevie as their photographer; Jen, her best friend and roommate, seems committed to the Most Boring Man Alive; even Stevie’s sexagenarian mother has started dating, – why can’t she?

Johnno West has been in love with Stevie-Jean since he was nineteen. Recently returned to rural Queensland to fulfil his parents expectations and take over the family farm, he is hopeful his best friend’s ex might finally be ready to give him a chance. After all, she once made him promise that if they were both single at 32, they would get married, and he intends to hold her to it.

The friends-to-lovers romance trope has always been my favourite, and it underpins the story of Five Bush Weddings. Stevie and Johnno have known each other for over a decade, but her relationship with Tom (Johnno’s best mate), and his later move to London, stunted their mutual attraction. Fletcher cleverly utilises the wedding ceremonies that Stevie is hired for to create a framework that ensures the two characters are reunited. I enjoyed the chemistry between the pair, and their teasing banter. There are several obstacles to their relationship as the story progresses including a reluctance to risk their friendship, Stevie’s poor self-awareness, and the introduction of romantic rivals, and while you know it’s going to work out, the author does generate some tension. The heat level in this novel is quite chaste, though remarkably Fletcher is able to communicate passion with a dropped meat pie.

I did grow impatient with Stevie at times as she leant into her self-pity a little too often, and behaved badly as a result, particularly with Jen. I liked her relationship with her mum though, and no one deserves to have an affair implode so publicly. Funny, thoughtful and easy-going, Johnno is a less complicated character. I liked the dynamic with his family, and his support of his sister.

I really enjoyed the distinctive Australian details in this novel. Though Stevie is based in Brisbane, the book is set largely in rural Queensland where the various weddings she photographs take place. Fletcher ably evokes the vastness of the outback and its landscape, but more importantly she captures the sense of community and tradition that unites small towns, and the characters that populate them. The ‘Bush Telegraph’ posts are a fun touch, and I appreciated that Fletcher also touches on some important issues that impact rural life.

Told with heart and humour, Five Bush Weddings is an entertaining read with a satisfying happily ever after.

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Review: Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen

Title: Counterfeit

Author: Kirsten Chen

Published: 7th June 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

A novel with a clever twist, Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen is an entertaining read.

“Now, looking back, I see all the things I got wrong, all my preconceived notions and mistaken assumptions…. But I’ve gotten carried away. Enough about me. We’re here to talk about Winnie.”

Written in an almost, but not quite, stream-of-consciousness style, Part I unfolds from the perspective of Ava Wong. In her version of events, related anxiously to a police detective, Ava claims to be a victim of her former college roommate Winnie Fang. While Ava, with her Ivy League education, a handsome successful husband and a young son, may seem to have had it all, she confesses, her life was a bit of a mess. She was therefore vulnerable when Winnie, once a ‘fobby’ (denouncing her as fresh off the boat) now beautiful, confident and wealthy, blackmailed Ava into becoming involved in the business of importing and selling counterfeit luxury goods.

It is a convincing tale of woe that provokes some sympathy for Ava, especially as it seems Winnie has disappeared and left her holding the bag, so to speak, and is the perfect set up from Chen for the revelations in Part II.

“I guess what I’m saying, Detective, is that Winnie convinced me that ours was a benign and victimless crime.”

I quite enjoyed learning about the counterfeit trade, though it only reinforces my opinion that the value assigned to designer gear is a spectacular rort. I agree in part that counterfeiting is a victimless crime, at least where it concerns the buyers, whose only injury is to their ego, not so much for the sweatshop workers though. The scheme the women run seems surprisingly simple if you are bold enough, and though not without its risks, it seems the financial rewards are high.

“Everyone has a price. The trick is figuring out what it is without overpaying.”

I thought the way the story turned on itself, more than once, was really quite clever. Chen occasionally leans into the western stereotypes surrounding Asians, but deliberately so I think, making a point about expectations and how Ava and Winnie used them to their advantage.

Though its subject is con artists and crime, Counterfeit is an easy, fun, stylish read.

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Blog Tour Review: A Recipe for Family by Tori Haschka

 

Title: A Recipe For Family

Author: Tori Haschka

Published: 3rd August 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Read: August 2022 courtesy DMCPRMedia

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My Thoughts:

Stella Prentice feels like she is drowning. With her husband, Felix, rarely home, she’s struggling to manage her full time career as a brand manager for an upmarket grocery chain while raising her bright four year old, Natalie, and resentful teenage stepdaughter, Georgia, along with fulfilling life’s everyday tasks. Stella’s friends amongst her well-off Northern beaches community insist that a live in au pair is the life raft she needs, but will it be enough to save a sinking ship?

Set within the same community as Tori Haschka’s debut novel, Grace Under Pressure, A Recipe for Family shares the exploration of similar themes such as work/life balance, marriage, motherhood, family, friendship and the stresses of modern living.

As an overwhelmed working wife and mother, Stella is an easy character to relate to as she attempts to juggle the demands on her time, struggling with guilt and resentment when she inevitably drops a ball. Hiring an au pair is an impulsive move, and though Stella is hopeful it will work out, she is uncomfortable with the arrangement. Subsumed by her own issues however, Stella does not handle the situation well, and her relationship with Ava becomes increasingly strained.

I felt very sorry for Ava, still grieving the recent loss of her mother, she is very far from home, and still so young. Ava attempts to draw comfort and advice from notes and recipes left to her by her late mother, but it quickly becomes clear, though she bonds well with Natalie and Georgia, that she doesn’t quite have the maturity or experience to negotiate the awkward situation she finds herself in.

There’s also a third narrative strand in A Recipe for Family which involves Stella’s mother-in-law, Elise. I liked the character, and enjoyed many of her observations, but I didn’t feel the features of her storyline fit comfortably in the novel. I thought the glimpses into the lives of Stella’s and Ava’s friends and acquaintances were more relevant, providing some interesting context and contrast to their circumstances.

Food, and in particular its associations with motherhood, is a linking motif in the novel, from Stella’s repeated attempts to connect with Georgia by preparing meals to honour her stepdaughter’s late mother, to the comfort food Stella prepares for herself at a low point, to the recipes that Ava cooks for the Prentice’s. I think many of us have at least one recipe that serves as a connection to family – for me, it’s my mother’s meatloaf, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I also really liked that Haschka thoughtfully includes the recipes mentioned through the story in full.

Warmly written, with relatable characters, and thoughtful observations, A Recipe of Family is an engaging novel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the last few lines of the novel had quite the unexpected kick, and I hope that Haschka decides to explore its consequences, (particularly for Eve) next.

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Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

 

Title: Bloomsbury Girls (The Jane Austen Society #2)

Author: Natalie Jenner

Published: 17th May 2022, Allison & Busby UK

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Alison & Busby/Netgalley 

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My Thoughts:

Set in a multi-level, century old London bookstore, the charming Bloomsbury Girls features three women, new employee Evelyn Stone (who appeared in The Jane Austen Society), saleswoman Vivien Lowry, and secretary Grace Perkins.

For Evie, a former servant girl and one of the first women to earn a degree from Cambridge, securing a position at Bloomsbury Books is a necessary first step in supporting herself, the second is finding an obscure but valuable title she is sure is languishing somewhere among the stock.

Vivien, still mourning the death of her fiancé in the war, is tired of the manager’s fifty-one rules which dictate how the store is run. and keeps her perpetually subservient to her male colleague, Alec McDonough. An aspiring author, she wants to modernise the store’s rather stale fiction department stock and host regular literary events.

Grace, a mother of two trapped in an unhappy marriage, is supportive of Vivien’s ideas for change, especially as she knows Bloomsbury Books is struggling financially, and she relies on her position to support her family.

There is a strong theme of feminine empowerment through the novel as these three women fight to realise their hopes and ambitions. Chafing at numerous experiences of discrimination and unjust restrictions placed on them simply for being female, they are determined to change things. Vivien is the boldest of the three, sharp and impassioned she openly objects to society’s misogyny. Evie feels just as strongly about being treated unfairly as Vivien, but her rebellion is quieter and more calculated. Grace’s priorities are quite different to those of her single colleagues, but her action to reclaim her agency is arguably the bravest, given the conventions of the time. Each women experiences character growth as the story unfolds and I found all three to be appealing

Despite its strong feminist aspect, romance also has a place in the novel. Evie forms an attachment to Ash Ramaswamy, who manages the store’s science and naturalism floor, which is both awkward and sweet. The relationship that develops between Grace and Bloomsbury Books owner, Jeremy Baskin (the 11th Earl Baskin), is unconventional given the circumstances but also lovely, while Vivien and Alec’s love/hate relationship is quite entertaining.

Jenner touches on other forms of discrimination with incidents relating to class, race, and homosexuality. Ash, for example, is regularly the target of racism which has also affected his career, and the store manager feels the need to hide his long term relationship with the third floor rare book buyer. The author also notes the changing in English society in the wake of WWII.

With Jenner’s descriptive writing, I could easily envision the old-fashioned elegance of Bloomsbury Books. I liked that the chapter headings were drawn from Mr Dutton’s fifty-one store rules. The pace of the novel is quite sedate but the resolution is very satisfying.

I found Bloomsbury Girls to be an engaging historical read, and the cameo’s from noted literary figures such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Peggy Guggenheim, and Noel Coward, are a delightful bonus for booklovers.

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Review: One of Us by Kylie Kaden

 

Title: One of Us

Author: Kylie Kaden

Published: 3rd May 2022, Pantera Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Pantera Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

One of Us is a contemporary novel of domestic suspense from Australian author Kylie Kaden.

Within one of the architecturally designed homes behind the gates of the exclusive Apple Tree Creek Estate lies the body of a man, blood pooling on the living room floor from a deep stab wound. As a detective studies the scene, and the reactions of the man’s wife, Kaden shifts to the recent past, and focuses on two women, near neighbours Gert Rainworth and Rachel York, who meet and become friends just as their respective marriages are falling apart.

At a fairly measured pace, Kaden exposes the secrets, betrayals, and stresses that culminate in the introductory scene. Gertie is reeling from her husband’s acceptance of a year long transfer to his company’s Singapore office, and his decision to go alone, leaving her with their three children. Rachel, heavily pregnant with her third child, is increasingly exhausted by her husband’s serial philandering, and escalating control issues.

Gertie and Rachel, despite having little in common, form a supportive rapport that feels authentic, as they both struggle with their respective situations. Kaden has a real talent for portraying the familiar minutiae of domestic life, and explores the challenges of marriage and motherhood with empathy.

Stripping back the facade of privilege, wealth and security the community and its residents project, Kaden reveals a host of hidden dysfunctions, from the awful truths about Rachel’s husband, to a neighbours secret shame, and even the way in which the measures used by the gated estate to keep residents safe, can be perverted.

By the time the identity of the stabbed man is revealed, several characters prove to have reasonable motives for the attack. I enjoyed the puzzle of determining which was most likely, and was satisfied by the denouement.

One of Us is an suspenseful and entertaining suburban thriller, sure to appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty, Sally Hepworth and Lisa Jewell.

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Review: One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold

 

Title: One Foot in the Fade {Fetch Philips Archives #3}

Author: Luke Arnold

Published: 26th April 2022, Orbit

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“An Angel had fallen in Sunder City: bloody, broken, and the best thing to happen in seven long years.”

One Foot in the Fade, the third instalment of the Fetch Philips Archives fantasy series, from Luke Arnold, picks up about a year after Dead Man in a Ditch ended.

‘Man for Hire’ Fetch is as determined as ever to bring magic back to Sunder City, and rescue it from the grasp of industrialist, Niles. When an angel plummets to the ground at his feet, Fetch dares to hope that redemption may finally be within reach.

While mostly retaining the same noir tone of previous books, One Foot in the Fade leans more into adventure as Fetch, after catching a jewellery thief, sets out on a cross-country quest to claim a magical artifact, and save the world he broke. Accompanied by a librarian, a genie, a werewolf, and a young college student, Fetch encounters dragons, amalgams, crazed wizards, golems, and a Minotaur in pursuit of a crown hidden in a castle in Incava.

Convinced he has a real chance of rectifying his past mistake, Fetch seems to lose what little good sense he had. Already an anti-hero, Fetch steps closer to villainy, ignoring the means in favour of his ends. I was initially disappointed to see him lose ground made in previous novels, as Fetch, impulsive and abrasive at the best of times, becomes careless and sometimes cruel. Too caught up in his dream of magic returning, Fetch brushes over the harm he is doing until he’s forced to tally the cost of his actions.

This isn’t a series I’d recommend picking up midway as Arnold expands his world with each book, but more importantly, each story relies heavily on the character growth of Fetch.

With its entertaining mix of adventure, drama and dark humour, I enjoyed One Foot in the Fade. Though Arnold may have originally planned the Fetch Phillips Archives as a trilogy, I don’t think this is necessarily the last we will see of Fetch, a possibility hinted at in the last few pages.

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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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