Review: How To Fake Being Tidy by Fenella Souter


Title: How To Fake Being Tidy: and other things my mother never taught me.

Author: Fenella Souter

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

My Thoughts:

How To Fake Being Tidy: and other things my mother never taught me from feature writer, Fenella Souter (who also uses the non de plume Dusty Miller), is an essay collection primarily comprised of columns first published in the Australian newspapers, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Housework definitely not being my thing (I admit I prefer Erma Bombeck’s advice to Marie Kondo’s), I was lured by the title of this book, but was disappointed to discover that Souter doesn’t actually offer tips to fake being tidy.

This is not a how-to guide, it’s a collection of genteel, undemanding stories that centres around the domestic. Souter does offer some simple household management tips, like how to remove labels from jars, wine stains from fabric, and how to organise your linen cupboard, but the essays are generally less prescriptive and more ruminative, reflecting on the pleasure of crisp bedsheets, the trials of holding your own against a tradie, or relocating a beehive, for example.

A number of the essays also focus on food. Souter appears to be an accomplished cook, with sophisticated tastes and a generous budget. She includes a variety of recipes offered within the context of the essay’s, including those for Orange Marmalade, Broccomole, Hummus with Spiced Lamb, and Passionfruit Creams, to name a few.

There were a handful of essays that resonated with me, but as a whole, I feel the collection is rather bland, reflecting a rather white, upper middle class perspective, and would likely have more appeal for the ‘boomer’ generation than mine. 

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine


Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.

++++++

Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: The Ministry of Bodies by Seamus O’Mahony

Title: The Ministry of Bodies: A Year of Life and Death in a Modern Hospital

Author: Seamus O’Mahony

Published: 4th March 2021, Apollo

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Head of Zeus/Netgalley

++++++++

My Thoughts:

“We have disappointed each other, the ministry and me, watching each other grow from the breezy optimism of youth into crabbed middle age.”

Curiosity about the state of hospital services in countries other than the US, UK, and Australia is what prompted me to read The Ministry of Bodies by retired doctor Seamus O’Mahony, who writes of his final year of his career at what what he semi-affectionately calls the ministry, more formally known as Cork University Hospital.

“The management narrative – a cynically clever one – was that the ‘trolley’ [bed] crisis was due to ‘low number of discharges over the weekend’, not an inadequate number of beds.”

It’s depressing, though not surprising, to discover that Ireland is no more immune to the woes that affect modern hospitals the world over. The record of O’Mahony’s last year exposes yet another under-resourced hospital system, where the need for services is greater than bureaucracy provides.

“A round could not last longer than three hours….Assuming thirty patients over three hours (I had very often seen more than fifty), that gave an average of six minutes per patient.”

O’Mahony operates as a gastroenterologist consultant, practicing his specialty in his out-patient hospital clinic, and has a regular surgical list, but he spends much of his time in the hospital as a physician on the general medicine service. On the wards he sees patients whom other services refuse to claim, -alcoholics, the elderly, and somatic syndrome sufferers among them, documenting a daily litany of fear, frustration, courage, and crisis.

“I retired on 7 February 2020, the day before my sixtieth birthday.”

While there is some humour here in the absurdities, overall I found The Ministry of Bodies to be a disheartening read. At fifty-nine, O’Mahony finds he is tired of the expectation that he is to do more with less, by long hours, by management double-speak, and petty professional turf-wars, and really, who could blame him?

++++++

Available from Head of Zeus

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Review: Lana’s War by Anita Abriel

Title: Lana’s War

Author: Anita Abriel

Published: 2nd December 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

++++++

My Thoughts:

Lana’s War is Anita Abriel’s second historical fiction novel set during World War II.

Discovering she is pregnant, Lana Hartmann (née Antanova) hurries through the streets of occupied Paris, anxious to share the happy news with her husband, a music teacher. She is horrified when she finds her husband being questioned by the gestapo and devastated when she witnesses his callous execution while trying to protect a young Jewish girl. Miscarrying their child that same day, Lana staves off despair by volunteering at a convent where she is offered an opportunity to join the resistance. Eager to honour her husband’s sacrifice and save Jews from the Gestapo, Lana accepts and is sent to the Riviera region of France. There Lana is asked to trade on her Russian heritage and, as Countess Lana Antanova, help Swiss resistance member, Guy Pascal, with his efforts to smuggle Jews out of the country.

I like that Abriel has chosen a setting for her novel in an area of France usually overlooked in WWII historical fiction, which tends to favour Paris or the French countryside. Nice, and its neighbours including Cannes, St. Tropez, and Monaco, are part of the French Riviera, on the south east coast of France. Just 30km from the Italian border, Nice was occupied first by the Italians, and then the Germans before being liberated in 1944.

When Lana arrives in November, 1943, she is surprised that the city seems largely unaffected by the war. Unlike in Paris, stores are open and well stocked, and the casino’s, hotels and cafe’s are well patronised, though the place is overrun with German soldiers. Abriel ties the plot of her novel in with the escalation against Jews in the area, where Lana is tasked to learn the timing of upcoming raids, giving them an opportunity to evade being sent to Drancy Internment Camp. I liked the premise which promised adventure, tension and romance, unfortunately the execution fell short for me.

I liked Lana well enough but I didn’t find her to be a particularly consistent or convincing character. While her motivation for her choice to work with resistance is strong, and she’s obviously intelligent, given her education, she doesn’t seem wise enough to be so adept at espionage. It’s also a bit of a stretch that within days of her arrival she has four men essentially in love with her. I did like the romantic attachment Lana formed, but I wasn’t keen on how it played out. Lana’s relationship with Odette, a young Jewish girl, however was lovely.

Unfortunately, despite finding the broad strokes of the the story to be engaging, I thought the prose itself was rather flat, and a touch repetitive. Though I dislike the phrase, I also thought there was far more ‘telling than showing’ and as such, tension rarely eventuated, or fizzled out.

A story of war, vengeance, courage and love, Lana’s War was a quick read, but for me, not a particularly satisfying one.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Also by Anita Abriel reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Lies You Told by Harriet Tyce

Title: The Lies You Told

Author: Harriet Tyce

Published: 1st December, 2020, Grand Central Publishing

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Grand Central Publishing/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Lies You Told is Harriet Tyce’s second domestic psychological thriller.

Frightened by the recent uncharacteristic behaviour of her husband, Sadie Roper does the one thing she swore she never would and returns to London to take up residence in her late mother’s home. The terms of her mother’s will insists that for Sadie to take occupancy, her daughter, eleven year old Robin, must attend the same elite girl’s school, Ascham, that Sadie did. Sadie has very few good memories of her alma mater, and the events of the first few weeks do nothing to change her mind. The mothers are judgemental and hyper-competitive, and Robin is ostracised and miserable, but until Sadie can relaunch her career as a criminal barrister, mother and daughter have no other options. Just as Sadie can bear no more, the worst school-gate offender, Julia, unexpectedly apologises, and suddenly Sadie, and Robin, find themselves in the inner circle. It’s a relief for Sadie when both Julia, and Nicola, extend their friendship and offer to look after Robin while she is working, but are these really women she can trust?

The main plot of The Lies You Told is focused on the relationship Sadie develops with two Ascham mothers, Julia and Nicola, which begins, and ends, in extremis. There are several dramatic events that play out between the women, and their daughters, and though I felt the motivations were greatly exaggerated, there is a kernel of plausibility at the heart of the tale. Exclusionary ‘school-gate’ mothers are all too real, particularly in a privileged setting, and there are plenty of mothers willing to do almost anything to ensure the success of their children, though thankfully few who are willing to go as far as Julia and Nicola.

The secondary plot is a loose variation on the theme, with Sadie hired on as an assistant to defend a young, white teacher from a ‘good’, wealthy family who is accused of seducing his teenage student. His overbearing mother insists on micromanaging the case and is venomous towards anyone who suggests her son is anything but perfectly blameless. Rather improbably the accused’s father was responsible for a sexual assault against Sadie when she was a law student, adding another layer to the plot, and this, is in addition to the mystery surrounding Sadie’s relationship with her mother, and her husband, feel forced.

Despite all this, the pace of the first two thirds of the book was fairly slow, though to her credit, Tyce does establish, and grow, a tense, foreboding atmosphere, and I was furiously flipping the pages during the final third of the novel, caught up in Sadie’s frenzied behaviour.

Unfortunately though I never really warmed to Sadie. Though she’s obviously under quite a lot of stress from the opening pages of the novel, she makes some unforced gaffes that make her seem like a flake. All I could think, as Julia screamed at her without cause, was that Sadie’s unwillingness to defend herself didn’t bode well for her skills as a barrister. Sadie then goes on to get over involved in the court case she in a part of, and seems to forget her role as a member of the defence. She also makes some decisions with regards to her daughter that didn’t sit well with me, and can’t wholly be blamed on her distress at the time.

While The Lies You Told has some strong and thrilling elements, I have mixed feelings about the story as a whole. Another reader may feel differently.

++++++

Available from Grand Central Publishing

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Review: Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos


Title: Lucky’s

Author: Andrew Pippos

Published: 27th October 2020, Picador

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Having recently lost both her job and her husband, Emily is in Sydney from London with an eye to writing a New Yorker feature about the rise and fall of ‘Lucky’s’, once an ubiquitous chain of restaurants/cafes across south eastern NSW.

Lucky Mallios has a plan – to relaunch the iconic restaurant/cafe he lost to a combination of tragedy and gambling in the mid 90’s. Old and broke, he wants to atone for his mistakes, and leave something for the only family he has left.

With a nod to Greek tragicomedy, Lucky’s is a character driven novel about fortunes won and lost, of serendipity and fate. It shifts between the past and present revealing secrets, coincidences, scandals and trauma. It has a kind of charm that comes from the author’s own affection for, and understanding of, his characters.

Lucky and Emily share not only a link to Emily’s late father, but also similar traits. They each struggle with the loss of a loved one, their expectations of themselves, and others expectations of them. I was keen to discover if Lucky would win his fortune, and thus his redemption, if Emily would find success.

Lucky’s is congenial literary debut from Andrew Pippos

++++++

Available from PanMacmillan Australia

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Review: I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos

 

Title: I’d Give Anything

Author: Marisa de los Santos

Published: May 12th 2020, William Morrow

Status: Read May 2020, courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

++++++

My Thoughts:

I’d Give Anything is a contemporary stand alone novel from Marisa de los Santos, best known for her ‘Love Walked In’ series.

“…sometimes families and worlds, no matter how careful everyone is, no matter how much love, fall apart and there’s not a thing you…can do to stop it.”

As a teenager Ginny Beale imagined that her future would be extraordinary, buoyed by her ‘forever’ friends, Kirsten, C.J., and Gray, she would take risks, have wild adventures, and create art to gift to the world, until tragedy left her dreams in ashes. Two decades later her staid life as a suburban wife and mother falls apart when her husband, Harris, is fired amid a scandal involving a young woman barely older than their daughter, and just days later her terminally ill mother suicides. Forced to reimagine her future in the midst of this upheaval, Ginny is offered a way to reconnect with the girl she once was, and perhaps reclaim all that she lost.

I’d Give Anything is told through diary entries, and the perspectives of Ginny and her fifteen year old daughter, Avery. This is a story that focuses on relationships – those between parent and child, siblings, between lovers, and friends – and explores the limits of their resilience. It features themes of loss, regret, forgiveness, redemption and the courage it takes to be honest with the ones we love.

Santos infuses her main characters with nuance, truth and emotion, and while in frame her minor characters such as Ginny’s mother, Adel, and Gray receive the same treatment.

However I thought the story was a bit messy in places. I felt that the central plot involving the fire that separated teenage Ginny from her brother and friends was well handled, but that ultimately Harris was superfluous in Ginny’s story, and I think this creates flaws in both character and plot which affected my engagement.

In the end my feelings about I’d Give Anything are mixed, which is a shame as I have really enjoyed several of her previous novels which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

++++++

Available from William Morrow

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Review: Keeper by Jessica Moor

Title: Keeper

Author: Jessica Moor

Published: March 19th 2020, Viking

Status: March 2020 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

When a young woman’s drowned body is discovered, a lack of markings leads the police to believe their investigation will show she died by suicide. However Detective Whitworth’s curiosity is piqued when he first learns Katie Straw worked at a women’s refuge, and then that her name is an alias.

Keeper unfolds over two timelines, ‘Now’ – which follows the police investigation and in doing so explores the lives of the women in the refuge, and ‘Then’ – which reveals Katie’s history. The latter is an emotionally harrowing tale of a young woman drawn into a relationship with a frighteningly manipulative man.

Keeper centers around a very important topic – that of domestic/intimate partner violence in its many forms. I thought Moor’s portrayal of the issue’s complexity was nuanced and thought-provoking, and her diverse characters, including the detective, represent a spectrum of related perspectives and experiences.

Unfortunately though I didn’t find the execution compelling. The pace is slow, the tension is slight, and I really wasn’t surprised by the final twist designed to shock (though I think it’s likely I’ll be in the minority there). It’s also bleak, which is probably how it earned the literary tag.

In the end I’m a little torn, while I think Keeper is a socially valuable, and even interesting read, I just didn’t find entertaining.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books UK

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Review: Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

 


Title: Wicked As You Wish (A Hundred Names for Magic #1)

Author: Rin Chupeco

Published: March 3rd 2020, Sourcebooks Fire

Status: Read March 2020, courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

While browsing for a novel to suit the SwordsNStars challenge, the publicity tagline for Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco caught my attention.

“An unforgettable alternate history fairy-tale series about found family, modern-day magic, and finding the place you belong.”

The story begins in The Royal States of America, where Prince Alexei of Avalon is in hiding from The Snow Queen, waiting until he is found by the Firebird, so that he at last will have the power to renter his lands and claim his throne. When the Firebird finally appears, Alex, along with his best friend Tala – who has a rare ability to repel and negate magic – and a group of other young magic wielders, set out on a dangerous journey to Avalon to reclaim it from the Snow Queen’s deadly magic.

There’s a lot to like in Wicked As You Wish. It offers plenty of fast paced action, a diverse cast of characters, humour, intrigue, and a unique mix of political and cultural elements taken from both the modern world and the world of fairytales and legends.

But the world Chupeco has created is very ambitious and to be honest I struggled to make complete sense of it. Eventually I just had to sort of overlook the finer details and simply go along for the ride.

If you are willing to do the same, I expect you’ll enjoy Wicked As You Wish, as I did, but I think it’s fair to say it won’t be for everyone.

++++++

Available from Sourcebooks

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Review: The Light After the War by Anita Abriel

Title: The Light After the War

Author: Anita Abriel

Published: February 1st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

World War II fiction tends to focus on the wartime experiences of German or French Jews, and most often takes place in France, Germany, or the UK. The Light After the War by Anita Abriel has an interesting difference, in that it is set over about two years immediately post war with two main characters who are Hungarian Jews, and primarily takes place in Italy, and later, Venezuela.

Best friends Vera and Edith are barely seventeen when they escape during transport to Auschwitz from Budapest, and find refuge in a small Austrian village for the duration of the war. Eventually the girls make their way to Naples, where Edith, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, finds work as a seamstress, and Vera is employed by the American embassy as a secretary, and falls in love with her boss, Captain Anton Wight. When Vera’s relationship abruptly ends, the friends are fortuitously offered the opportunity to emigrate to America, but denied entry, they settle in Caracas where they hope to forge a new life for themselves.

I was intrigued by the inspiration for this novel, the main characters of The Light Before the War are based on (and even named for) members of Abriel’s own family. Her mother, Vera Frankel, and best friend, Edith, really did escape a train carrying them to Auschwitz, how closely subsequent events mirror their experiences isn’t entirely clear though Abriel confirms some key incidents (one which in particular shocked me) are true in notes found at the end of the novel.

I was surprised to learn that Venezuela granted asylum to Jews fleeing the Nazi regime and the deprivations of the post-war period. I wasn’t aware of that fact, and was interested to later discover that at its peak the country hosted a community of around 65,000 Jews, (though recent political strife has reduced those numbers considerably).

Unfortunately, despite finding elements of the story fascinating, I found the prose itself rather flat, and the pace largely monotonous, in part I think because of the past-tense narrative used in both the ‘present day’ storyline and the flashbacks. Though I dislike the phrase, I also thought there was far more ‘telling than showing’, and a lack of emotional depth. Resilience is all well and good, but the girls never really seem to be afraid, or even more than mildly anxious, with any obstacles they were faced with too easily overcome.

I’m glad that Abriel was able to share her family’s story, her mother’s survival in such circumstances is a triumph. Though The Light After the War wasn’t as engaging as I hoped for, I agree with the author that tales like these ensure the Holocaust will never be forgotten, and never be repeated.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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