Review: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Title: The Last Smile in Sunder City (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1}

Author: Luke Arnold

Published: January 28 2020, Orbit

Status: Read February 2020, courtesy Hachette Au

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My Thoughts:

Imaginative and entertaining, The Last Smile in Sunder City is the first book in an urban fantasy series from debut novelist Luke Arnold.

“The magic had vanished and the world that magic had built was tearing itself apart…”

Six years ago, a war between The Humanitarian Army (representing the humans) and The Opus (representing the world’s magic creatures) destroyed magic. Known as The Coda, the event resulted in catastrophe in Sunder City. Without magic to sustain them, Elves rapidly aged and died, Were’s were left as half-transformed freaks, Vampires withered as they starved, while other creatures shed scales, or fur, or skin, and to the disadvantage of all, machinery and technology, once infused or forged with magic, stopped working. Arnold has created a bleak, gritty and imaginative world, with ‘Man For Hire’ Fletch Phillips at its center.

Fletch Phillips embodies the traits of a traditional noir P.I. in that he is a morose, down-on-his-luck, functional alcoholic who sleeps on a fold down bed in his dingy office. An orphan who lost his parents in horrific circumstances, Fletch once lived in a caring but closed community which he fled at eighteen to explore the wider world he half-remembered. He is terribly flawed, but not quite yet irredeemably, and I found him quite likeable. His journey from curious runaway teen, to guilt-ridden Man For Hire sporting three significant tattoo’s on his arm, is the subject of several flashbacks through the novel, which also eventually explains his role in the death of magic.

It’s not (metaphorically speaking) a blonde bombshell that walks into Fletch’s office to launch the story, it’s the headmaster of a local school searching for his friend and colleague – a centuries old, and ailing vampire. Fletch’s search leads him through the seedy streets of Sunder City, occasionally getting in they way of the police, (whom mostly despise him), and generally making more enemies than friends. I thought the mystery was fairly well plotted, though not particularly complex, and I would have preferred Fletch investigate more actively than he seemed to. I was also perhaps a little disappointed with the lack of action in the plot overall, but am prepared to forgive that given the need for Arnold to create the foundation of both the setting and character.

The Last Smile In Sunder City is a robust beginning to what I believe has the potential to be a popular fantasy series. I found it to be an easy and engaging read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

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Review: Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

 

Title: Saving Missy

Author: Beth Morrey

Published: January 20th 2020, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Saving Missy is a poignant and heartwarming debut novel from Beth Morrey about ageing, loss, friendship, and forgiveness.

Seventy-nine year old Millicent ‘Missy’ Carmichael lives in a large, spartan home in central London. Her husband, Leo, is gone, her son, Alistair, his wife and her beloved grandson, Arthur, have emigrated to Australia, and she hasn’t spoken to her daughter, Melanie, in almost a year. Having devoted her life to her family, she now finds herself alone, and lonely, dwelling on the mistakes of her past, relieved only by a ‘sip’ of sherry.

“Sometimes the loneliness was overpowering. Not just the immediate loneliness of living in a huge house on my own, loved ones far away, but a more abstract, galactic isolation, like a leaking boat bobbing in open water, no anchor or land in sight.“

It’s an awkward encounter at the local park with a warm and friendly women named Sylvie, and Angela, a young, extroverted and opinionated woman with a young son, Otis, that begins to coax a reluctant Missy into the world, and a dog named Bob in need of a home who yanks her into it.

“So here we are: the old biddy, the single mother, the superhero and the adopted mongrel…”

Morrey’s portrait of Missy is well crafted and developed. Initially, Missy comes across as an unpleasant, judgemental, ‘fuddy-duddy’, but it becomes clear that her attitude is a result of her own insecurities, a touch of anxiety and depression, and a guilty secret that has festered for decades. Her reminisces appear to confirm that this has been a life long issue for her, and matters have only worsened as she has aged, and finally left with only her own thoughts for company.

“Perhaps I’d said something at the lunch that she objected to? She was very left-wing. Or perhaps it was something I hadn’t said? I had no witty anecdotes, knew none of the mutual acquaintances they’d discussed, and most of all I was so old, so jaundiced – who would want to be friends with me?”

The author successfully evokes a range of emotions for Missy, from dislike to pity to admiration as Missy begins to confront her past, and her future. Sylvia and Angela are both delightful in their own way, but it’s Bob that comes close to stealing the ‘show’.

“My Bobby, the dog I didn’t want, didn’t own, but who was truly mine in a way that no one else ever had been.”

Though I thought the pace was a little slow during the first half of the novel, and the storyline didn’t really offer any surprises, Saving Missy definitely has its charms.

An uplifting reminder of how vital connection and acceptance are to us all, the benefits of unconditional companionship and love from a pet, and that age is no barrier to enjoying either, Saving Missy is an engaging and thoughtful novel.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

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Review: Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson

 


Title: Mix Tape

Author: Jane Sanderson

Published: January 23rd 2020, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read January 2020, courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

I had been looking forward to reading Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson for a while before it finally came up in my schedule. I am of an age when mix tapes were common. I’d be listening to the radio on my boom box on a Sunday evening, a blank tape in the cassette deck, waiting for the Top 40 to start, with my fingers on the ‘play’ and ‘record’ buttons, poised to catch the opening bars of the whatever song I was hoping to record. We played mix tapes at parties, traded them among friends, and shyly gifted them to our boyfriend/girlfriend. I still have two or three of those tapes, though I no longer have anything to play them on.

Moving between the past and the present, this is the story of Daniel and Alison, who meet as teens in Sheffield, England in 1978. Their romantic relationship is brief, but intense, ending abruptly when Alison is compelled to flee her harrowing home life. Alison’s journey eventually leads her to Australia, and in 2012 she is a bestselling novelist, married with two near-adult daughters, when Dan, a music journalist whose home base is in Scotland with his wife and college bound son, receives a tweet from an old friend directing him to the profile of @AliConnorWriter. When Dan finally reaches out to the woman who has haunted his dreams for decades, he does so with a music video that speaks to a seminal moment in their relationship, ‘Pump It Up’ – Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1978.

“No words, no message. Only the song, speaking for itself.”

Mix Tape is unapologetically a love story, a tale of soulmates forcibly parted, and then reunited after a separation of thirty years.

Sanderson wonderfully captures the intensity of Daniel and Alison’s connection as teenagers. Dan, sweet and steady, is infatuated with the beautiful and enigmatic Alison. Alison, whose home life is chaotic and neglectful, basks in Dan’s admiration and returns his desire. When she leaves they are both devastated, aware they have lost something special.

When Dan and Ali reconnect decades later, they initially communicate only by trading songs via Twitter that remind them of their relationship, and then songs whose lyrics speak to their growing desires. I’m in my mid forties so I wasn’t particularly familiar with a fair amount of the music referenced in Mix Tape, and I found myself having to stop and search through YouTube on occasion to listen to the song to understand its significance. It’s a delightful idea though, a modern take on those not so subtle cassette mix tapes declaring love

Without sharing a word, despite all the time that has passed, the physical distance between them, and being married to other people, Dan and Alison rekindle the flame. Here is where Sanderson lost me a little, because while the idea of a love that cannot be denied is romantic, that it comes at the expense of others, even if neither of their spouses are particularly likeable, is uncomfortable for me. Still the inevitable reunion is epic, and to the author’s credit I wanted it to happen.

Mix Tape is unapologetically a love story, but it’s also about heartache, nostalgia, loss, forgiveness, and the music. While my feelings about it remain a little mixed, it has its charms.

++++++

Available from Bantam Press UK

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Mothers by Genevieve Gannon

Title: The Mothers

Author: Genevieve Gannon

Published: January 7th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2020, courtesy Allen & Unwin

+++++

My Thoughts:

Poignant and provocative, The Mothers is Genevieve Gannon’s fourth novel.

Shattered to learn her husband, Nick, has been unfaithful, Priya Archer (née Laghari) decides giving up on her marriage doesn’t mean she has to give up on her dream of becoming a mother and impulsively decides to move ahead with a planned IVF procedure, opting to use a sperm donor. Priya is upset when the procedure fails, but decides against a second attempt, choosing to focus on rebuilding her life on her own.

After a half dozen failed IVF procedures, Grace Arden, and her husband Dan, are thrilled when they learn their final attempt with their one remaining embryo has taken, and Grace is finally pregnant. As Grace cradles their son, Sam, for the first time all the heartache seems worth it, but as the days pass it becomes clear that something isn’t quite right.

Told in three parts, The Mothers focuses on the lives of the two couples during the period before conception, after the arrival of baby Sam, and during the court case that develops when Priya learns the Arden’s son is genetically her own. It’s an emotional exploration of themes such as infertility, marriage, and family, but ultimately this is a book about motherhood.

Gannon examines some challenging dilemmas when Priya discovers Grace has given birth as a result of an error at the IVF clinic, exploring a myriad of questions about how motherhood is defined by genetics, biology and socialisation. Sam is the genetic product of Priya and the sperm donor, but Grace ‘grew’ him during her pregnancy and gave birth to him. The question of who has the right to custody is further complicated by the circumstances of the conception and wider cultural issues, presenting a unique ethical quandary. With empathy and respect, the author skilfully explores both sides of the situation and the very difficult circumstances Priya and Grace and Dan, are forced to confront in their desire to raise Sam.

The Mothers is a thought-provoking and emotive novel, and I imagine it will be particularly engaging as the focus for discussion in a bookclub.

+++++++

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP: $29.99

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Also reviewed at Book’d Out by Genevieve Gannon

Review: The Girl In the Painting by Tea Cooper

 

Title: The Girl In the Painting

Author: Tea Cooper

Published: December 16th 2019, HQ Fiction Australia

Read: December 2019, courtesy HarperCollins

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My Thoughts:

The Girl In the Painting is an engaging historical fiction novel, with an element of mystery, from Tea Cooper.

Set largely in New South Wales during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the narrative of The Girl In the Painting moves between two timelines which connects siblings Elizabeth and Michael Ó’Cuinn with Jane Piper, a bright young orphan, who becomes their ward.

As the story unfolds we learn of the circumstances that brought Michael and Elizabeth to New South Wales from Liverpool, England in 1863 as children, and the life they make for themselves in Hills End, and later Maitland Town. It’s 1906 when the siblings offer Jane, a math prodigy, a home, a role in their business, and the chance to further her education, but the crux of the story isn’t revealed until 1913 when Elizabeth uncharacteristically experiences a panic attack at an art exhibition, prompting Jane to investigate the cause, and a startling confession from Michael. I liked the thread of intrigue that the author developed, though the resolution was a little contrived.

I really enjoyed the setting of the novel. Cooper uses real, though unconnected, historical events as a framework, from the fire in an orphanage in Liverpool, to the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred, and the flooding of Maitland Town in 1913. The social and cultural details of the period, and the landscape of early Australia from the crowded streets of Sydney, to the goldfields of Hill End, and the nascent town of Maitland, are interesting and feel authentic.

Well crafted, with appealing characters, and rich in Australian historical detail, The Girl In the Painting is a novel that is sure to please.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/ HarperCollins Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale

 

 

Title: The Strangers We Know

Author: Pip Drysdale

Published: December 1sr 2019, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read December 2019, courtesy Simon & Schuster/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

“Nothing is ever as it seems, is it?”

When Charlie Carter catches a glimpse of a man who looks like her husband on a dating app, she desperately wants to believe she is mistaken. Since their marriage eighteen months previously, Oliver has been the perfect husband…hardworking, attentive and loving, and she wants his unequivocal denial to be enough.

“You see, that’s the problem with trust issues: eventually you find you can’t trust yourself either.”

But it isn’t. To allay her lingering suspicions, Charlie sets a trap and is devastated when her worst fear is realised. Her marriage is over.

“And that should have been it: rock bottom. A cheating husband and broken dreams. Fair is fair. But no. Life was just getting warmed up.”

Fast-paced with some surprising twists, The Strangers We Know is an entertaining contemporary thriller from Pip Drysdale.

I really enjoyed the plot, and I’m loathe to spoil the surprises it offers. There is an unpredictability that is compelling, if not entirely credible, and I easily read it straight through.

Unfolding from Charlie’s first person perspective, Drysdale exploits the character’s profession as an actress in the structure of the novel, it’s easy to imagine this novel being adapted for the screen. It has a modern sensibility which will appeal to a younger audience, and a classic whodunnit twist to satisfy mystery fans.

Caught in a web of deceit and betrayal, and unsure who to trust, Charlie doesn’t always make smart decisions, which can be frustrating, but her naivety is also relatable, which makes her an appealing character. She is indubitably the star of this novel.

“But here’s the thing with life: You have to get through it. There’s no choice. Eventually, even in real life, the heroine has to win out in the end.”

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

Also available from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

#NonficNov Review: Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman

Title: Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don’t learn them from movies any more)

Author: Hadley Freeman

Published: May 7th 2015, 4th Estate

Status: Read November 2019

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My Thoughts:

“When you grow up your heart dies.” – The Breakfast Club (John Hughes)

I am a 80’s tragic.. the music, the fashion, the movies… (just joking about the fashion). If asked, The Breakfast Club and Dirty Dancing are my two all time favourite movies, so when I saw Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman mentioned on booksaremyfavouriteandbest, I added it to my TBR list.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Life Moves Pretty Fast, apart from an entertaining stroll through my adolescent memories, but I found it much more thought provoking than I was anticipating. Part personal reminisce, part analysis, Hadley enthusiastically examines many of the 1980’s movies (English speaking) Gen Xers will remember fondly from their youth.

While Freeman’s obsession with Ghostbusters and Bill Murray eludes me, as does the inevitable, and in my opinion inexplicable, (American) preoccupation with The Princess Bride, a variety of movies rate in depth discussion from Freeman like Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Back to the Future, When Harry Met Sally, Beverly Hills Cop, and my aforementioned favourites, The Breakfast Cub and Dirty Dancing, others rate only a few lines, like Mannequin, Blue’s Brothers, and Cant Buy Me Love. It should be noted that the author’s attention is heavily skewed in favour of teen movies and ‘chick flicks’, so there is little mention of whole swathes of cinematic genres like action blockbusters.

There is a strong feminist slant to Freeman’s analysis, and I think she, and several of the people whom she interviewed, like Melissa Silverstein, made some excellent points about movies then, and movies now, that I’d never given much thought to, especially in relation to Dirty Dancing and Pretty in Pink. However, I also thought that at times her position was a little thin, and contradictory.

Surprisingly I actually enjoyed Freeman’s footnotes, which I’d usually dismiss, and I loved Freeman’s dozen or so ‘Top’ lists, including ‘The Top Five Movie Montages’ and ‘The Ten Best Rock Songs on an Eighties Movie Soundtrack’. Though I didn’t always agree with her opinion, I very much enjoyed the nostalgia they evoked.

I believe you need to have seen, and enjoyed, a good number of 80’s movies to enjoy Life Moves Pretty Fast, which shouldn’t be a problem if you are aged between say forty and fifty. I’ve tried to introduce (ie. force) my teen daughters to more than one but haven’t been terribly successful. Honestly, several of them don’t hold up well, but they will all nethertheless have a place in my heart.

++++++

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

Blog Tour Review: The Island On the Edge of the World by Deborah Rodriguez

 

Title: The Island On the Edge of the World

Author: Deborah Rodriguez

Published: November 5th 2019, Bantam Australia

Status: Read November 2019, courtesy PenguinRandomHouse

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Island On the Edge of the World is an engaging and thought provoking contemporary fiction novel from Deborah Rodriguez.

At her beloved grandmother’s insistence that her estranged mother is in trouble, Charlie reluctantly agrees to a trip to Haiti to find her, though she doubts April has any need of them since it’s been more than a decade since they last heard from her. On their journey to Port-au-Prince, Charlie and Bea meet Lizbeth, a Texan widow in search of her late son’s girlfriend, Senzey and their child. Together the women make their way through the colourful, confronting, and chaotic streets of Haiti, finding friendship, family, and forgiveness.

Unfolding primarily from the perspectives of Charlie, Bea, and Lizbeth, Rodriguez’s characters are interesting women with strong motives for undertaking the challenging journey to Haiti. Bea feels strongly that Charlie needs to reconnect with her mother if she is going ever to move past the consequences of her difficult childhood, and while deep down Charlie recognises she has a need for some sort of closure, she believes she is simply humouring her grandmother’s ‘visions’ when she agrees to the task. Meanwhile Lizbeth is still grieving after tragically losing both her husband and son in quick succession. When she learned that her son fathered a child with a local girl while working in Haiti with a NGO, she impulsively decided to search for them, but far from her comfort zone Lizbeth is quickly overwhelmed by the task in a country that lacks familiar infrastructure.

Rodriguez’s depiction of Haiti and its vibrant yet disordered culture is vivid and thoughtful. The country has yet to recover from the devastating physical damage caused by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, nor of the well meaning assistance that followed, much of which has done more harm than good, perverted by ignorance, corruption, and the clash of Christian dogma with the nation’s Vodoun beliefs. The author touches on a number of sensitive subjects that plague the country including human trafficking, child slavery (Restavek), labour exploitation, and prejudice. Yet the people of Haiti fight to survive, and thrive, against all odds, and the Haitian characters of Senzey and Mackenson, the women’s translator/driver, illustrate this admirable spirit of strength and bravery.

Despite the serious elements within the novel, there is also humour and plenty of heart in The Island On the Edge of the World. This is a charming and thoughtful read with a social conscience.

++++++

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Available from PenguinRandomHouse

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Review: The Changing Room by Christine Sykes

 

Title: The Changing Room

Author: Christine Sykes

Published: November 1st 2019, Simon & Schuster Au

Status: Read October 2019, courtesy Simon & Schuster/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Changing Room focuses on three very different women who are brought together by by their involvement in ‘Suitability’, a program the author models on Dress For Success, a worldwide non profit organisation launched in 1987 whose broadest aim is to empower and support women in need by providing them with professional attire, with whom Christine Sykes herself has been a volunteer for several years.

Conscious of her privilege as a wealthy, successful businesswoman married to a surgeon, Claire is the driving force behind the founding of Suitability.

Anna, in her late 50’s, becomes a volunteer with Suitability when she is abruptly fired from her position as an Executive Assistant and at a loose end.

Molly becomes a client of Suitability when she is in need of appropriate clothing to attend court while trying to regain custody of her four young children.

Exploring a myriad of themes women might confront at various stages of life Including relationship breakdown, unemployment, domestic violence, ill health, new love, and loss, I enjoyed the individual stories of these women. Despite their disparate circumstances and experience, Claire, Anna and Molly develop a friendship and provide support for one another when in need as their participation in Suitability proves to be a catalyst for change, occasionally in unexpected ways.

Generally I thought The Changing Room was well written, however I wasn’t keen on the over-broad speech denoting Molly’s disadvantaged social status. Not that it could be considered inaccurate as such, but it’s awkward to read and could have been toned down without compromising the character.

Still this is a strong debut from a new Australian author, and I thought The Changing Room was an engaging and ultimately uplifting contemporary women’s fiction novel.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Au

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Review: Riverstone Ridge by Mandy Magro

 

Title: Riverstone Ridge

Author: Mandy Magro

Published: October 21st 2019, HQ Fiction

Status: Read October 2019, courtesy HQ Fiction/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in North Queensland, Riverstone Ridge is a rural romance with an element of suspense from bestselling author, Mandy Magro.

“I do think it’s high time you knew the truth, about me, about your past, and perhaps it will open doors to a future you never imagined possible.”

Nearly twenty years after Nina Jones left her hometown, certain that she’d never be able to return, the last wish of her beloved adoptive mother, Bea, draws her back to Riverstone Ridge to face the secrets she left behind.

Bea has arranged that Nina will receive a letter each week, hoping that the missives will allow Nina reconnect with her love of Riverstone Ridge, and perhaps the boy next door she never forgot.

Riverstone Ridge explores a number of themes including love, romance, family, truth, and loss. I thought the author’s examination of grief and the ways in which people react differently was particularly thoughtful and tender.

The ‘second chance’ romance between Nina and Logan Steele, now the town’s police officer who has experienced his own devastating loss, is emotional and passionate. The narrative occasionally shifts between their perspectives so their intense attraction to, and feelings about, one another are crystal clear, and I found their connection appealing and believable.

There are two main secrets that create suspense in Riverstone Ridge, both of which take almost the whole length of the book to be revealed. One is quite sinister, placing Nina unknowingly in the path of a man seeking revenge. I thought these threads were well paced and enhanced the story, surprising me with the twists they offered.

Magro’s writing is very descriptive, be it of people, emotions, places, or things. I again loved Magro’s distinctly Australian settings which draws on her own experience and knowledge of the land. Her depiction of the landscape is especially evocative, and I found it easy to visualise Riverstone Ridge and it’s surrounds.

An emotive and enjoyable novel, Riverstone Ridge is an engaging story of love and suspense.

Read a Sample

++++++

Available from Harlequin via HarperCollins

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Also by Mandy Magro reviewed at Book’d Out

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