Review: When the Apricots Bloom by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Published: 29th December 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

Inspired by Gina Wilkinson’s own experiences as a diplomat’s wife in Iraq, When the Apricots Bloom is a thought-provoking and moving story about loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.

Set in Baghdad in 2002, the novel unfolds from the perspectives of three women – Ally, the wife of an Australian ambassador; Huda, Ally’s husband’s secretary; and Raina, Huda’s childhood friend.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq is defined by loss, suspicion, and fear, the mukhabarat lurk everywhere looking for any sign of disloyalty to their ‘great leader’, visiting swift and brutal punishment on anyone who dare to speak against him. Listening devices are used routinely in homes and public spaces, dissidents disappear, or are made examples of. Americans are banned from the country, and representatives of other western countries, particularly women, are barely tolerated.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you? Two can keep a secret only when one of them is dead.”

By failing to declare her dual citizenship, and her previous career as a journalist, Ally is in a precarious position that only worsens when she attempts to learn more about her late mother, who thirty years earlier spent time as a nurse in Baghdad. Naive regarding the risks to both herself, her husband, and anyone else she involves in her task, Ally will be forced to make a difficult choice.

When ordered by the mukhabarat (secret police) to befriend Ally and learn her secrets, Huda, whose husband is unemployed after the country’s economic collapse, has no other choice but to agree if she is to keep her teenage son safe from being conscripted into the fedayeen (death squad). As the police apply increasing pressure for information, Huda grows desperate, and demands help from Raina, once her closest childhood friend, whom she holds responsible for the execution of her brothers.

A sheik’s daughter, now an art dealer, whose family’s wealth and influence has dwindled to almost nothing, Raina is also worried for her daughter’s safety when one of Hussein’s son’s expresses interest in fourteen year old Hanan. She has little to offer Huda, but suggests the two women together can find a way to save their children.

“If the blood oath is broken,” she declared theatrically, “then the penalty is sorrow.” “Sorrow for the oath breaker,” she declared, “and for the generation that follows her.”

Demonstrating that women the world over will do what they must to protect their children, When the Apricots Bloom explores the circumstances in which Huda, Raina and Ally find themselves in, caught between the past and the future, forced to choose between duty and love.

The three main characters of When the Apricots Bloom are well-developed, though it was Huda who I found the most interesting, and whose fate I cared more for. Ally and Raina have protections, and choices, that Huda does not, and as such I considered her the braver of the trio. Huda is forced to walk such a thin line, I felt tense each time she was confronted by the mukhabarat, and my heart was in my throat during the final scenes.

Wilkinson’s insights into the daily life of Iraqi citizens under Hussein’s totalitarian rule are fascinating, portraying a country crippled by war, an economy destroyed by sanctions, and a populace oppressed by terror, all contrasting sharply to the glimpses of life in Baghdad before Hussein’s rise to power. Abandoning their country is nevertheless a wrench for the Huda and Raina, and Ally is disappointed to leave without answers to her questions.

“In a perfect world, we could wait until the apricots bloom. Alas, the world is not perfect.”

Expressive, evocative, and convincingly authentic, I found When the Apricots Bloom to be an absorbing read.

+++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Title: The Arsonist: Mind on Fire

Author: Chloe Hooper

Published: 15th October 2018, Viking

Status: Read December 2020

++++++

My Thoughts:

Bushfires are practically synonymous with Summer in Australia, and there have been several severe and deadly conflagrations since its settlement including the recent large scale fire of 2019/2020. Of these blazes however, Black Saturday has the dubious distinction of claiming the most lives in recorded history.

On Saturday 7th February 2009, as temperatures soared to the mid 40’s, there were as many as four hundred separate fires burning in Victoria. By the time they were extinguished 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) of land had been razed, over 3500 structures (including homes, commercial premises, and agricultural buildings) were destroyed, stock and crops were lost, and 173 people lost their lives while hundreds more were injured.

One of the blazes, known as The Churchill Complex fire, started in the early afternoon on 7 February 2009 in the Latrobe Valley. The fire travelled rapidly, impacting on several towns in south east Victoria. Eleven people died as a result of the fire, 145 houses were destroyed, and more than 25,861 hectares were burnt. Less than a week after the fire began, investigators were able to determine that it was caused by arson.

In The Arsonist: Mind on Fire, Chloe Hooper tells the story of this disastrous event, and its devastating impact on its victims. She then details the investigation that identified Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local, as responsible, and his subsequent trial and conviction.

The statements from those that lost loved one’s, and property, are heartbreaking to read. Survivors, including the rural firefighters who fought the blaze, were forever changed by their confrontation with the fire, and the event continued to take a toll long after the fire was extinguished.

In Australia, Hooper reports, around 13% of vegetation fires are maliciously lit and it’s estimated that only one per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught. This is often because the fires are started in unpopulated areas, and the subsequent blaze conveniently destroys any evidence that may have remained. In the case of the Churchill Complex fire, investigators quickly suspected arson was at play and their attention was drawn to the suspicious behaviour of a man identified as Brendan Sokaluk.

Hooper takes us through the investigation, drawing on a number of perspectives to show how the police reached their conclusions about the cause of the fire, and who was to blame. Brendan Sokaluk, a 39 year old local resident, was seen in the area of ignition, by multiple witnesses, and met the general profile of an arsonist – he was from a disadvantaged background, unemployed, and anti social. During his initial interview, Sokaluk confessed to setting the fire ‘accidentally’, and then retracted his admission, but while it became clear to officers that Brendan had some level of cognitive deficiency, several suspected he was exaggerating his inability to comprehend the investigating detectives questions. Nevertheless the police felt they had enough information to charge Sokaluk with ten counts of arson causing death, and 181 other charges, the majority relating to criminal damage (plus a charge of possession for child pornography found on his computer that was later dropped).

While a psychiatric assessment declared Sokaluk fit to stand trial, his lawyers were never confident that he understood the gravity of the charges against him, nor the mechanics of the legal proceedings. Brendan never took the stand, and no true motive for starting the fire was ever established. The trial began in 2011, nearly three years after Sokaluk’s arrest, and Hooper leads the reader through the process that eventually saw him convicted and sentenced to 17 years plus time served (3 years). With his fourteen year minimum, Sokaluk will be eligible for parole in 2023.

I found The Arsonist to be a well-written and balanced account of Black Saturday, though I was expecting Hooper would a provide a little more detail and context to the disaster itself. I do think her reportage on the investigation was concise, and of the trial, nuanced. She is respectful of those who were most affected by the blaze, but not without empathy for Brendan Sokaluk and his family.

Fire is a merciless beast, one the Australian landscape is particularly susceptible to, especially as we head towards even more extreme temperatures in a changing climate. Having ignored much of the Aboriginal wisdom in managing the land with fire, there is ample fuel for people to ignite for any one of the complicated reasons arsonists do so, and Hooper suggests we ignore the risks at our peril.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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

Review: Something Like This by Karly Lane


Title: Something Like This

Author: Karly Lane

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Despite the devastating loss of her husband, with hard work and the fortuitous inheritance of her grandparents farm, Tilly Hollis is now on the verge of fulfilling their shared dream to launch an equine therapy program for troubled teens. With just a few more weeks of work at a local cafe, she will finally have the funds to build the last of the infrastructure that will allow her to launch Healing Hooves Horse Therapy.

In need of solitude and a fresh start, retired army soldier and handyman Jason Weaver plans to renovate the old farmhouse he just purchased on the outskirts of Ben Tirran, and then move on. He is not expecting to have his head turned by a waitress in a small country town, and it surprises them both when a mutual attraction develops.

Something Like This from bestselling Australian author, Karly Lane, is a heartwarming rural romance set in the the New England highlands.

Tilly and Jason are well-realised, appealing characters. Tilly is a strong and resilient woman, particularly for having endured more than her share of tragedy including the loss of her father and brother in separate incidences as a teen, her husband’s untimely death, and most recently her mother’s slow demise from breast cancer. Jason is also no stranger to death, having served in the army he has lost several friends, and is especially haunted by the incident that cost him his lower leg. Still struggling with his past, falling for Tilly encourages him to look to the future.

I thought the relationship between the two characters was very well-handled, Lane allows them both time to adjust to their attraction to one another, and doesn’t rush the inevitable. I appreciated the lack of dramatic obstacles usually employed to keep a couple apart, which served to make this romance more realistic and relatable.

They say some people are horsey people, while others are not, but even non-horsey people will be moved by the touching goals of Tilly’s equine therapy program, and the history of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horses Tilly uses at her farm. Guy Fawkes Heritage horses (previously referred to as wild Brumbies), found in the Guy Fawkes River National Park in north eastern NSW, were once subject to regular culls to protect the environment, but are now considered to be of significant historical, military and cultural value. The population of this spirited breed is now managed with a rehoming project, and in Something Like This, Tilly combines her therapy program with the need to acclimatise these horses to humans.

An engaging story, set at a gentle pace, told with genuine warmth for her characters and setting, Something Like This is a lovely and eminently satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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

Also by Karly Lane reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Last Truehart by Darry Fraser

Title: The Last Truehart

Author: Darry Fraser

Published: 2nd December 2020, Mira Au

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Harlequin Au

“A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.

1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.

Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.

What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed..”

++++++

My Thoughts:

Captivating adventure romance set in 19th century Australia! Full review to come…

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia at HarperCollins

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

Review: The Grand Tour by Olivia Wearne

Title: The Grand Tour

Author: Olivia Wearne

Published: 2nd December 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

“This vivid story of campervans, stowaways and mischief at any age is essentially about families: the ones you have and the ones you make.
When Ruby and Angela embark on a Grey Nomads road trip, the last thing they expect is a tiny stowaway; one who will turn them from unsuspecting tourists into wanted kidnappers and land them in a world of trouble. As their leisurely retirement plans unravel, Angela’s relationship with her brother Bernard goes from bad to worse.

Bernard has his own problems to contend with. Adrift in life, his career as a news presenter has been reduced to opening fetes and reading Voss as an audio book (a seemingly impossible task). His troubles are compounded when his wife starts dating a younger man and a drink-driving incident turns him into a celebrity offender.

As Angela and Ruby set about repairing burnt bridges and helping their unexpected guest, and Bernard attempts to patch together his broken life, they discover that even after a lifetime of experience, you’re never too old to know better.

A warm, funny, sharply observed story about aging disgracefully and loving the one you’re with.”

++++++

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed it! Full review to come..

++++++

Available from Harlequin @ HarperCollins

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

Review: Sunshine by Samantha C. Ross

Title: Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer

Author: Samantha C. Ross

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Spanning a period of about a year, Samantha C. Ross invites the reader to share her experiences as she gyrates, stumbles, and skips her way between ‘Gentleman’s’ clubs in several Australian states (with a quick, scary jaunt to Japan), in Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer.

Sunshine’s journal entries are candid, funny, provocative, unapologetic, and engaging. At times it’s quite an outrageous tale of excess as Samantha AKA Sunshine tends to embrace the party lifestyle indulging in a lot of drinking, and the occasional recreational drug, but it’s also an intimate portrait of a woman, and her friends, in search of adventure, happiness and true love.

As long as it is their choice to do so, I personally don’t have any issue with someone who decides to strip for a living. While the profession is often perceived as either glamorous and easy, or tawdry and dangerous, the truth, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. Sure the money can be great, Sunshine regularly earns double, or even triple, an average weeks wage in less time, but it’s harder work and takes more skill than I imagined. It’s also a profession that seems to take a heavy toll on personal relationships.

I found the behind-the-scenes look at the profession to be interesting, from the various laws that govern the behaviour of both the women and their patrons, to the (high school-ish) hierarchy and unspoken rules that govern the change rooms and floor. In many ways a strip club is a workplace like any other, with it’s share of WorkSafe regulations, awful bosses and entitled customers, though few offices permit drinking champagne and spirits on the clock.

Providing unique insight into a lifestyle few will experience, Sunshine is an entertaining read, and may go some way to altering your perspective on the women who choose the profession.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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

Review: The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland

Title: The Valley of Lost Stories

Author: Vanessa McCausland

Published: 2nd December 2020, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy HarperCollins Au/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

‘There’s something about this place. This whole valley….I feel like anything could happen. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad….”

When Emmie wins a week’s holiday on the coast from a school raffle, she impulsively invites new friends Nathalie, Alexandra, Pen, and their children, to join her and her daughter. Each woman has a different reason to look forward to a break from their hectic lives so when the accomodation falls through and a client of Alexandra’s generously offers an alternative they leap at the chance. Considered the jewel of Capertee Valley when the area was home to a thriving shale oil mining operation, the Valley Hotel now sits isolated on the outskirts of an abandoned town. The women, and their children, are initially charmed by the hotel’s faded Art Deco elegance, and ready to embrace a week of relaxation, but the Valley is a place of secrets, and when Pen vanishes without a trace one morning, the third woman to disappear in mysterious circumstances in the hotel’s history, they are all forced to confront some uncomfortable truths.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, across two timelines, The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland is a captivating women’s fiction novel with a thrilling edge of suspense.

McCausland deftly explores the complexities of self, motherhood, friendship, love and loss in The Valley of Lost Stories. Her four main protagonists are struggling with a variety of challenges associated primarily with marriage and motherhood, which also affects how they see themselves, and each other. Several of these issues are forced into the open during their stay in Valley Hotel, straining their friendships with one other. The characters are richly developed, and there is an honesty to their thoughts and behaviours which women, and mothers in particular, will recognise.

There is a growing sense of unease that McCausland carefully cultivates even before Pen’s inexplicable disappearance. In part this comes from the storyline that takes place in 1946 and explores the fate of a woman named Clara Black who walked into the night and vanished during a dance at the hotel. In the present timeline, Pen’s son claims to see a ghostly apparition on their very first day, Macie, their hostess, begins to behave oddly soon after, and tension develops between the friends. When these elements are combined with an understanding of the tragic history of the area (involving the horrific massacre of an Aboriginal tribe), the gothic impression of the hotel, and the author’s vivid descriptions of the abandoned mines and town surrounded by the dense bush of the Blue Mountains, there is a feeling of dream-like anxiety that snaps sharply into focus when the women realise Pen is gone.

Brilliant and beguiling, The Valley of Lost Stories is an absorbing and atmospheric tale, beautifully told, I’m happy to recommend.

+++++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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

Review: White Throat by Sarah Thornton

Title: White Throat {Clementine Jones #2}

Author: Sarah Thornton

Published: 1st December 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley}

++++++

My Thoughts:

Sarah Thornton’s second crime novel featuring Clementine Jones, is as compulsive reading as her first, Lapse.

Having fled Katinga in the wake of her past being discovered, Clem is house sitting in the small coastal town of Piama, Queensland, while she considers her next move. As restless as ever, she involves herself in a local conservation effort to save the endangered White Throated Snapping Turtle at the urging of the leader, and old family friend, Helen Westley. When Helen’s body is discovered at the base of a cliff, Clem refuses to accept the police’s conclusion that her death was the result of suicide, and sets out to prove Helen was murdered because of her activities opposing the local Port development project.

In searching for whomever is responsible for Helen’s murder, Clem uses her legal skills to ferret out the most likely subjects, and then uses less than legal means to dig deeper. There is plenty of suspense and action as Clem confronts her potential suspects, and Thornton provides intriguing twists and turns as Clem uncovers a mess of deception, corruption, and betrayal.

Clementine is a complex character, irrevocably scarred from causing the death of a woman in a drink driving accident, she is intent on punishing herself and has a tendency to behave recklessly. In White Throat she is determined to avenge Helen’s murder, no matter the risk to herself, and refuses to acknowledge the concern of those who care for her, namely Torrens, and Rowan.

While Rowan attempts to stay in touch with Clem via the telephone, Torrens, one of the young footballers Clem coached while in Katinga, makes a physical appearance in White Throat. He needs a place to lay low after receiving an unorthodox inheritance, but trouble follows him, adding another layer of threat to the story. I really like the friendship between Clem and Torrens, though that’s at risk here when Clem finally admits she doesn’t plan to return to Katinga.

While White Throat could be read as a stand alone, I recommend you don’t miss out on the experience of also reading Lapse, as both are well crafted, exciting, and entertaining reads. I’m already looking forward to the next.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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

Review: The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh

Title: The Champagne War

Author: Fiona McIntosh

Published: November 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in France during World War I, The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh is a grand tale of romance, resilience, courage and champagne.

It is love at first sight between Sophie Delancré, a fifth generation champenoise, and vigneron Jerome Méa, but they have mere weeks together following their wedding in 1914 before Jerome must leave his bride to do his duty in defence of France. Determined that the production of the Delancré House will not falter despite the war, Sophie throws herself into her dual role of tending the vines and making her champagne while she waits for the return of her new husband. When the news that Jerome is missing, lost in action when his position in Ypres was attacked during the first deployment of Chlorine gas by the Germans, reaches her a year later, Sophie is devastated, but without a body, refuses to relinquish the hope that he is alive somewhere. As the war drags on and the fighting creeps closer, Sophie and those left behind in the villages of Épernay and Reims, nevertheless continue to nurture the vineyards and ensure the production of their champagne, though to do so risks placing Sophie in the debt of her odious brother-in-law, Louis.

Sophie is a wonderful character, she is a smart, strong, passionate, and independent woman, but her loyalty to her family’s legacy is near all-consuming. With Jerome missing, presumed dead, and the privations of war worsening affecting her ability to produce champagne, Sophie becomes vulnerable to Louis’s manipulation. It’s the fortuitous arrival of injured British Army Captain and former chemist, Charlie Nash, that provides Sophie with an alternative, not only to her grief and loneliness, but also her desperate need for sugar.

Charlie is the only member of his company to survive a fierce battle on the outskirts of Reim, having been badly injured he is invited to convalesce at Sophie’s home in Épernay along with a dozen or so other soldiers. He is an appealing character, revealing himself to be a principled man despite the compromises demanded by war. Charlie is immediately infatuated with Sophie, who is surprised to find she returns his interest, even though she can’t let go of the hope that Jerome still lives.

Though romance is an essential element of The Champagne War, the story is much more than just that. As always, McIntosh masterfully weaves historical fact into her tale of fiction. The story is meticulously researched in terms of location, period and the specifics of the champagne industry. The horrors of war, particularly as experienced by Jerome and Charlie, are portrayed with authenticity, and though I personally dislike the taste of champagne, I still found learning about its complex production and makeup to be interesting. For those that enjoy a drop or two, Fiona has thoughtfully provided a bonus, recipe’s for Sabayon and Champagne Truffles.

The Champagne War is a sparkling, elegant, and effervescent, novel, to be savoured.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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

Also by Fiona McIntosh reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Girl Who Never Came Home by Nicole Trope

Title: The Girl Who Never Came Home

Author: Nicole Trope

Published: 4th November 2020, Bookoutre

Read: November 2020 courtesy Bookoutre/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

“Zoe was sixteen. Zoe was beautiful, precocious, flirtatious, clever, funny, angry, defiant. Zoe was her baby and her baby is gone.”

It takes them twenty three hours to find the body of sixteen year old Zoe Bloom at the base of a small cliff, just metres from the edge of the school camp site she had been attending in the Blue Mountains. Her mother, Lydia, is devastated, and puzzled, and angry, desperate to know why her precious daughter won’t be coming home.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives The Girl Who Never Came Home is a heart rending, poignant drama about grief, secrets, betrayal, guilt and love.

Lydia is immediately a sympathetic character, the loss of a child is every parents worst nightmare, and Trope’s portrayal of a grieving mother’s volatile emotional state feels authentic. Having already lost her daughters father to cancer, this tragedy is almost more than Lydia can bear, and her grief is compounded by the questions that surround Zoe’s death.

Like most sixteen year olds Zoe was neither all one thing, nor the other – though often thought of as lively, bright, and charming, she could also be rebellious, selfish, petty, and mean-spirited. As the police investigate her untimely death they must consider all the possibilities- could it be suicide, and accident or murder?

In the aftermath, Zoe’s sister, Jessie; her best friends, Shayna and Becca; the teachers supervising the camp, Bernadette and Paula, among others, are forced to examine their conscience. Trope’s portrayal of each distinct character is convincing, and as each considers what role, if any, they played in Zoe’s demise, secrets are revealed, edging the reader closer to discovering the truth.

Trope thoughtfully touches on issues common in adolescence including friendship, bullying, eating disorders, dating, risk-taking and the use of social media, but it’s the often mercurial and complicated relationships between mothers and daughters that are in focus. With the revelations that come after Zoe’s death, Lydia can’t help but wonder if she knew her daughter at all, a feeling exacerbated when she learns that Jessie too has been keeping secrets.

The Girl Who Never Came Home is an emotional, suspenseful, and compulsive read. I think it would particularly be an excellent choice for a mother-daughter book club, sure to provoke much discussion.

+++++++

Available from Bookoutre

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

Also by Nicole Trope reviewed at Book’d Out 

Previous Older Entries