Review: My Best Friend’s Murder by Polly Phillips

Title: My Best Friend’s Murder

Author: Polly Phillips

Published: 6th January 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

My Best Friend’s Murder is an entertaining domestic thriller from UK journalist Polly Phillips, who currently calls Australia home.

“You’re lying, sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, legs bent, arms wide.”

Bec and Izzy have been the best of friends since they met, aged eleven. In the years since, Bec has mostly been content to let Izzy set the terms for their relationship, but recently she’s begun to sense that contempt lurks behind Izzy’s backhand compliments and seemingly solicitous advice. Hurt and angry, Bec is determined to confront her best friend, but could she really be responsible for her murder?

My Best Friend’s Murder is told from Bec’s perspective, beginning with her standing over a broken and bloodied Izzy, before moving back three months previously as Bec and her new fiancé, Ed, celebrate their engagement at home of Izzy and her husband, Rich. The occasion is not the first time that Bec senses something awry between herself and Izzy, but she is surprised by her best friend’s cool behaviour.

Well-paced, this is a suspenseful novel as Phillips reveals the history of the friendship between the two women and it’s increasing toxicity. To Bec, Izzy’s behaviour is inexplicable- beautiful, married to her handsome highschool sweetheart with an adorable child, wealthy and ambitious, Izzy has everything, yet she seems to resent Bec’s recent small successes – her engagement, and a potentially career altering opportunity. Phillips skilfully explores the complex dynamic of their friendship, the role each of them play in maintaining the status quo, and how difficult it is for them to let go. With Izzy’s death, Bec is left to grapple with her grief, and her guilt.

I admired Phillips subtle, and not so subtle twists, in the plot, and though I wasn’t so enamoured with an element of the ending, it’s a minor flaw in what is otherwise a well told tale. My Best Friend’s Murder is an absorbing read and an accomplished debut.

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Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

Title: Elizabeth & Elizabeth

Author: Sue Williams

Published: 5th January 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Based on the lives of Elizabeth ‘Betsey’ Macquarie, the wife of Australian colonel governor Lachlan Macquarie, and Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of a prosperous colonial woolgrower, Sue Williams blends fact with fiction to present an interesting story of adversity, courage, love, and friendship in Elizabeth & Elizabeth.

Thirty one year old Betsey Macquarie arrived in Sydneytown with her new husband, Lachlan, who was to replace Captain Bligh as governor, in December of 1809. Viewing the appointment as an adventure, with her keen interest in architecture, landscaping and social welfare, Betsey had hopes of working alongside her husband to grow the colony.

At the time of Betsey’s arrival in New South Wales, Elizabeth Macarthur, had been living in the colony for twenty years. Her husband John, a Corps officer and successful grazier had been called to England to answer charges of sedition for his role in unseating Captain Bligh, leaving Elizabeth to manage their home farm, three daughters, and Camden Park estate, where they raised their valuable flock of merino sheep.

In this novel Williams conjures a friendship between the two women that overlooks the political enmity of their husbands. Both intelligent, strong, and practical women, Elizabeth and Elizabeth grow to respect and admire one another despite their differences, and become confidantes. The friendship is delightfully rendered by Williams, and permits her to present a well-rounded picture of the ‘Elizabeth’s’ lives, disabusing history’s notion they were simply no more than extensions of their husbands.

History favours the role of men in the building of our nation, but Elizabeth & Elizabeth gives these two women credit for contributions to the betterment of the colony. Williams suggests Betsey was the driving force behind the design and construction of several of Sydneytown’s public buildings, including The Courthouse and St James Church, the ‘Rum’ Hospital, and The Female Factory in Parramatta, and the development of what is now known as The Royal Botanic Gardens. Her support of her husband was also crucial to his many accomplishments as governor, despite the opposition he faced from ‘exclusivists’. Elizabeth Macarthur’s role in developing the family’s wool export business is better recognised today, though her husband continues to garner the lions share of credit. In her husband’s long absence from the colony however, she ably managed their extensive holdings, and oversaw the improvement of the merino flock that solidified their fortune.

Well-written, rich in historical detail and engaging, Elizabeth & Elizabeth is a lovely novel and recommended reading especially for those interested in Australia’s past.

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Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Shelter by Catherine Jinks

Title: Shelter

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 5th January 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Shelter is a tense, twisty domestic thriller, from Australian author Catherine Jinks.

Meg knows all too well what it’s like to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband so she is willing to accept the risks of providing temporary shelter to a young mother and her two daughters on the run. Meg’s home, ‘The Bolthole’, is an isolated property in country NSW, and great care has been taken to ensure the family are impossible to trace, yet Nerine remains terrified that her husband will find them. Though Meg does her best to allay Nerine’s fears, and reassure five year old Ana and 22 month old Collette they are safe, some minor incidents stoke’s Meg’s own anxieties. She thinks it is more likely her own ex-husband has returned to intimidate her with regards to a recent inheritance, than Nerine’s husband having found her, but the real threat is closer to home than Meg can ever imagine.

Shelter isn’t an easy read, the themes and issues central to the novel, which includes generational trauma, domestic violence, psychological manipulation, and narcissism, are uncomfortable to explore, however I got caught up in this taut, well paced thriller which cleverly subverts reader’s expectations. Though the primary plot twist is not entirely unexpected, it shocks nevertheless, and Jinks left me feeling breathless as the level of menace and violence accelerated in its wake. In regards to the conclusion though I am somewhat torn, it’s reasonably realistic and as such fitting, but not very satisfying.

At times I found Meg to be a frustrating character, however her behaviour really is in keeping with someone who has been a long term victim of psychological abuse by a narcissistic partner. Even though she is physically free of her ex husband, Meg’s first instinct is always to appease someone who exhibits high emotion, or makes demands of her, so she reacts, rather than makes decisions. Nerine is convincing as a mother paranoid about the safety of herself and her children, and though she’s not particularly likeable, she is sympathetic in light of the story she presents. Jinks’s portrayal of the children, especially Ana, deserves special mention, as they are accurately represented with regards to age and circumstance.

I found Shelter to be dark and disturbing, yet utterly engrossing, but fair warning, it may be too much for readers sensitive to its themes.

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Available from Text Publishing

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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

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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.

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Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Also by Anita Abriel reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely by Jessica Dettmann

Title: This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Author: Jessica Dettmann

Published: 6th January 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, Jessica Dettmann’s sophomore novel, was my first read for the new year, and happily, an ideal selection.

Witty, warm, sharp and sincere, this is a story of responsibilities, regrets, secrets, anxieties, dreams and dysfunction, as the family of Annie Jones, which includes her three adult children, their partners and offspring, her ex-husband, and the man he left her for, gathers under the same roof for Annie’s father’s funeral in the days before Christmas.

No family is without complications, but at this particular moment, Annie’s can be said to have more complications than most. Though she had imagined that with her father’s passing she would finally be free to pursue her own dreams, as the week unfolds, Annie begins to doubt that escaping the needs of her family will ever a possibility.

I quickly became invested in the characters of This Has Been Absolutely Lovely, even though I had little in common with them. They are realistic and nuanced, as are the dynamics between them. Annie garnered my complete sympathy, her daughter, Molly, not so much. I felt sorry for Simon’s wife, Diana, while Annie’s friend, Jane, made me laugh.

Taking place in the northern coastal suburbs of Sydney over the Christmas period, the details of the setting are very familiar, as I spent several summer holidays with cousins who lived in the same area. We too made the daily pilgrimages to the beach, ate meals in the back yard, and played hide and seek among the plumbago.

Dettmann’s writing is perceptive, tender and poignant, deftly portraying the complexities of the modern family, and exploring themes of choice, resentment, expectation, freedom, and creativity. An absolutely lovely read.

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Available from HarperCollins Australia

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