Monday, August 31, 2020

Review: The Mystery Woman

Title: The Mystery Woman
Author: Belinda Alexandra

Publisher: 2nd September 2020 by HarperCollins AU

Pages: 420 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, mystery, historical fiction 

My Rating: 5 cups


In a small town, everyone is watching ... Secrets, scandal and betrayal in 1950s small town Australia: the stunning new novel from bestseller Belinda Alexandra She had thought Shipwreck Bay was simply a remote town where people were bored senseless with their little lives. Now she saw its virtuous facade hid something darker, more sinister.

Rebecca Wood takes the role as postmistress in a sleepy seaside town, desperate for anonymity after a scandal in Sydney. But she is confronted almost at once by a disturbing discovery - her predecessor committed suicide.

To add to her worries, her hopes for a quiet life are soon threatened by the attentions of the dashing local doctor, the unsettling presence of a violent whaling captain and a corrupt shire secretary, as well as the watchful eyes of the town's gossips. Yet in spite of herself she is drawn to the enigmatic resident of the house on the clifftop, rumoured to have been a Nazi spy.

Against the backdrop of the turbulent sea, Rebecca is soon caught up in the dangerous mysteries that lie behind Shipwreck Bay's respectable net curtains.

My Thoughts

In her latest offering, Belinda has stepped away from her sweeping sagas of the past and moved in a new direction. I like it! A definite change in pace and approach, The Mystery Woman had me glued to the pages to the very end. Belinda describes it as a ‘Modern Australian Gothic Romance’ and I have to agree. This had all the necessary elements to make for an atmospheric and suspenseful read. 

‘She was living two parallel lives - one as a postmistress gradually finding her place in the town, and the other as a hunted animal that was about to be devoured by the beast of the press.’ 

This time Belinda takes us to coastal rural Australia of the 1950s. She dives deep into the themes of the social etiquette of the day with a strong female lead trapped in small town life. Can the outcast become the heroine? Viewed with our 21st century eyes, we cannot help but cringe at the domestic expectations clashing against the need for female voices to be heard. Can Rebecca transform herself and start anew or will she forever be trapped in thinking her happiness lies in curtailing her intelligence and aspirations. And at what cost? With strong themes of domestic violence, Belinda takes her readers on an unforgettable journey. With shades of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 classic Gothic novel, ‘Rebecca’, this 1950’s Rebecca has much to contend with as double standards are running rampant. 

‘It was ironic that she should have been assigned to this coastal town when there were dozens of inland centres equally in need of her services. Perhaps it was fate. Perhaps a divine reminder of mistakes made that could never be forgiven.’

Added to this is a range of secondary characters who, likewise, have their own secrets and mysteries. In some ways, it would appear the whole town has something to hide behind their community/domestic blissful facade. From political corruption, to town gossip, to psychological manipulation, the cast of characters is rich and engaging. You may get a solid idea of how this will all play out, but does this take away from the story? Not in the least, in fact, it will have you scrambling as if watching an old black and white thriller movie with your hand drawn to your face and viewing only through the slight crack in your fingers. 

It would be remiss of me not to mention Belinda’s outstanding incorporation of the whole whale hunting aspect of the story. This is the 1950s when whaling was an important primary industry and cruelty and conservation were yet to be heard, let alone considered above the economic considerations of the day. Belinda seamlessly gives this added dimension to a story already rolling in rich societal commentary.

‘She found herself inches away from the barnacled chin and wide mouth of the creature. It turned slightly, and she and the whale looked into each other’s eyes. It stirred in her a sense of the ancient and the mysterious. Then the whale propelled itself higher. For a brief moment her heart stopped as she feared that the whale was about to upend the boat. But it rolled on its side, missing the boat and smacking the surface of the water with its flipper. Rebecca watched it glide down deeper into the blue, awestruck by its majesty.’

I was completely engaged and totally in love with the new direction Belinda’s writing took. There is so much to consider and reflect upon and as the suspense builds and the mystery unfolds. You too will be swept away to Shipwreck Bay, connecting, supporting and cheering for Rebecca as she seeks to make a stand. 

‘She disappeared somewhere inside herself, wondering what it might have been like to be a normal woman. Not a woman with a past, not a woman who had made terrible decisions, not a woman whose passions were about to destroy her.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Review: The Little Teashop in Tokyo

Title: The Little Teashop in Tokyo
Author: Julie Caplin

Publisher: 11th June 2020 by HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter

Pages: 400 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, romance

My Rating: 4 cups


Grab your passport and escape to the land of dazzling skycrapers, steaming bowls of comforting noodles, and a page-turning love story that will make you swoon!

For travel blogger Fiona, Japan has always been top of her bucket list so when she wins an all-expenses paid trip, it looks like her dreams of the Far East are coming true.

Until she arrives in vibrant, neon-drenched Tokyo and comes face-to-face with the man who broke her heart ten years ago, gorgeous photographer Gabe.

Fiona can’t help but remember the heartache of their last meeting but it’s not long before the Japanese art of contentment and a special, traditional tea ceremony work their magic…

Amidst the temples and clouds of soft pink cherry blossoms, Fiona and Gabe start to see life – and each other – differently.

My Thoughts

‘Wabi Sabi,’ murmured Haruka. ‘It is part of Japanese culture. It is an appreciation of things that aren’t perfect or finished, and that is their attraction. It’s accepting the value of things–an old pot, an old person–and understanding that those things have wisdom, that they have seen things.’

This book has a lot going for it - it had me at tea and travel!  There is something for everyone - travel, photography and romance - an all up winning combination. With an inviting cover and all set in Japan - a culture with so much to appreciate - I very much enjoyed this armchair travel.

‘It’s a country of contrasts: flash, modern, innovative, ridiculously neon and technological, all of which resides alongside a deep appreciation and respect for art, culture, and tradition. I’ve never lived anywhere quite like it before.’

Firstly, let’s focus on Japan - the writer has certainly done her homework and during these COVID days, provided her readers with some much wished for armchair travel. The sights, sounds and smells are vibrant and leap off the page. It could have read like a travelogue, but no, I found myself soaking up every detail of both the varied modern and traditional sites in this special destination - not to mention staying in a traditional Japanese tea shop!

‘There was a soothing quiet as all three women savoured their tea, and the comforting warmth of the china clasped between her hands made her feel grounded and somehow connected to the other two women.’

Tied in with this is Julie’s writing. I feel she has truly captured the essence of some special traditions in Japanese culture. The philosophy is cleverly weaved throughout and there are some definite pearls of wisdom for both the reader and the characters alike. Speaking of characters, there are many engaging ones to be found in this tale - from the traditional family to the main British female lead with her journey of discovery - both internal and external. The romance is front and centre, however, I am grateful that this was not the sole focus of this read. 

“... you face things. No matter how difficult, you try. You do new things. You challenge yourself, even though you don’t think of yourself as bold. You are my kintsugi, the golden glue that healed this jaded, cynical idiot and made him believe in love again.”

A final component of this story worth mentioning is the inclusion of photography as both a passionate hobby and serious business. I appreciated the appraisal of light, focus and natural natural moments captured in time. I was definitely Googling some of the locations to try and gain an awareness of where Fiona was trying to stand to take certain photos. 

‘... photography was capturing that one moment in time that might never happen again.’

All up this is a most engaging read on a number of topics. If you find yourself longing for some quality escapism, take the time to spend these couple of weeks in Japan as detailed in The Little Teashop in Tokyo - you won’t be disappointed. 

‘I’ve barely scratched the surface. Every time I talk to Setsuko or Haruka they tell me something fascinating about the philosophy or the culture of the country. There’s so much… it’s an amazing place.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Review: The Women's Page

Title: The Women's Page
Author: Victoria Purman

Publisher: 2nd September 2020 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 352 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction, 

My Rating: 4 cups


From the bestselling author of The Land Girls comes a beautifully realised novel that speaks to the true history and real experiences of post-war Australian women.

Sydney 1945 The war is over, the fight begins.

The war is over and so are the jobs (and freedoms) of tens of thousands of Australian women. The armaments factories are making washing machines instead of bullets and war correspondent Tilly Galloway has hung up her uniform and been forced to work on the women's pages of her newspaper - the only job available to her - where she struggles to write advice on fashion and make-up.

As Sydney swells with returning servicemen and the city bustles back to post-war life, Tilly finds her world is anything but normal. As she desperately waits for word of her prisoner-of-war husband, she begins to research stories about the lives of the underpaid and overworked women who live in her own city. Those whose war service has been overlooked; the freedom and independence of their war lives lost to them.

Meanwhile Tilly's waterside worker father is on strike, and her best friend Mary is struggling to cope with the stranger her own husband has become since being liberated from Changi a broken man. As strikes rip the country apart and the news from abroad causes despair, matters build to a heart-rending crescendo. Tilly realises that for her the war may have ended, but the fight is just beginning... 

My Thoughts

‘Her problem was she’d had a taste of a different life and didn’t want to give it up.’

The Women’s Pages is another winning historical fiction story by Victoria. I read and enjoyed her previous work and therefore understand that Victoria undertakes the kind of research that brings the day to day living of those she is writing about to life. On this occasion it surrounds the role of women towards the end of WWII and immediately afterwards. The war may be over but the real struggle for women is just beginning. 

‘They thought we would all step back into the shadows, where no doubt most of them think we should have always been. But the shadows are full of secrets.’

This tale takes a detailed look at Australian society at this time - what women had been expected to do during the war and how that role changed once the soldiers returned home. Women, who achieved so much in their war effort support, struggled to let go of their new found independence whilst dealing with the men they sent off to war, returning as somewhat strangers. I loved the descriptions of post war Sydney with Victoria undertaking a detailed investigation of the many confrontational issues of the day and a definite social commentary alongside. These women dealt with uncertainty through the war years and now faced the prospect of not only losing their job, but if their men did return the horrendous outfall of PTSD. If they did not return, there was the overwhelming grief. This is a truly interesting period in Australian history and Victoria definitely does it justice. Reading made me reflect on my mother’s stories about her family and this is a book I am sure she would enjoy. 

‘You’ll find plenty to write about on the women’s pages, Tilly. Good stories. Interesting stories.’ ‘Interesting stories?’ she gasped. ‘If they’re that interesting why are they sent to the back of the paper? When was the last time a woman’s story made the front page?’

The only concern is Victoria’s great love of research often involves large information dumps. Sadly, this often takes away from the narrative as momentum is lost in the storytelling for the inclusion of detailed intricacies. Detail on everything from feminism, government, war atrocities, PTSD, housing crisis, wharf front issues, trade unions, communism, returning soldiers, workplace politics, gender pay gaps - the list is quite long. One can only wonder if the book may have been better served with fewer topics that tied in pertinently to key characters. I want more story and less history lesson. 

Overall Victoria has compiled an engaging tale about family life and relationships at this turning point in Australian culture. Dealing with the legacy of the old whilst carving out the new. It valiantly shone the spotlight on the women who fought to break free of a solely domestic role in search of greater independence. 

‘These women had had a taste of independence, of the freedom of their own pay packet and of the kind of camaraderie that comes with growing to know the people you work alongside.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Review: State Highway One

Title: State Highway One
Author: Sam Coley

Publisher: 2nd September 2020 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 384 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary

My Rating: 4 cups


This is what I want to do. I want to go home. I want you to come with me.

'I want to go from here . . .'

Finger on Cape Reinga.

'. . . to here.'

Finger at the bottom of Stewart Island, right at the bottom of the map.

It's been years since Alex was in New Zealand, and years since he spent any one-on-one time with his twin sister, Amy. When they lose their parents in a shock accident it seems like the perfect time to reconnect as siblings. To reconnect with this country they call 'home'.

As they journey the length of State Highway One, they will scratch at wounds that have never healed - and Alex will be forced to reckon with what coming home really means.

My Thoughts

I was enticed by this novel for two reasons. Firstly, it takes place in New Zealand and I love that country. So in these days of lockdown, it would be a perfect escape to take a road trip from the top to the bottom of these great islands. Secondly, it was the winner of the Richell Prize for emerging writers and I have respect for what they recognised. In essence this is a journey, a pilgrimage one might say, where the main character reminisces about the past in their search for answers or at least an understanding of what has taken place. 

The main character, Alex, returns home after the tragic death of his estranged parents in a car accident. Finding it difficult to fly back to his workplace in Dubai, he makes the decision to travel with his twin sister, Amy the length of New Zealand. The story follows the State Highway One from NZ northernmost tip to the southernmost locale. 

‘How many kids our age get to do what we get to do, you know? They’re all slamming doors and fighting with their parents, and us? We’re free.’ It never really feels like that to me. I’d rather be fighting with someone who’s actually here.’

The author has written a truly poignant tale - one of reflection, grief and even anger - as Alex embarks on a physical and reflective journey after his loss. Chapters jump about (keep track of the dates) from previous years to the present day. This is a tale of family, identity, loss and regret as the outcome of this pivotal event. Along the way there will be obstacles to overcome, detours and breakdowns (both literal and figurative). A definite plus is the author's knowledge of NZ and the glimpses he gives of tiny towns to sprawling cities. Even the Playlist is a careful selection that I believe is available on Spotify. 

‘Do you really think everything happens for a reason?’ ....  ‘Dunno. But I think you have to tell yourself something.’  The truth is I don’t know what to say in reply. Every word, the start of every sentence trails off in the space between my brain and my teeth, withers and dies on my tongue ...’ 

The ending, well ... I was hoping for something special and Sam delivered. This is a book with a rather remarkable, unique writing style and presentation. At times it is slow, events and characters are frustrating, but overall it is very cleverly written and most worthy of its award. A deeply moving tale about family and dealing with childhood scars and overcoming grief in its many forms. 

‘Back to being me. Back to being the boss of my own life - not this kid in an old car who’s angry and sad all the time. But every time the sun comes up, that’s one more sunrise since I left - since I ran out.  It's one more sunrise since the last time I saw my parents. And every sunrise, the number grows by one. I can’t stop it. I can’t even slow it down. I can’t do anything. I can drive like an idiot, sleep on beaches, fuck strangers, die on the side of a cliff in the middle of the night, but nothing I do is going to change the fact that every day that goes by is another day without them.’


This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review: The Tolstoy Estate

Title: The Tolstoy Estate
Author: Steven Conte

Publisher: 2nd September 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Pages: 304 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, WWII

My Rating: 3.5 cups


From the winner of the inaugural Prime Minister's Literary Award, Steven Conte, comes a powerful, densely rich and deeply affecting novel of love, war and literature

In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana - the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer's hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel...

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is ambitious, accomplished and astonishingly good: an engrossing, intense and compelling exploration of the horror and brutality of conflict, and the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual limits that people reach in war time. It is also a poignant, bittersweet love story - and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world.

My Thoughts

I was instantly attracted to this book for its stunning cover, it being historical fiction and the incorporation of renown literature ie. Tolstoy. This is a very ambitious undertaking and the author does an admirable job in delivering the many finer details of a side of war not often portrayed. Seen through the eyes of a moral forty year old German doctor involved in a very immoral situation, this book is compelling in its exploration of the brutality of war in the harsh Russian winter. 

 “Are you a good man, Paul Bauer?” she said to him as soon as he sat down again. “Is that why you’re here?” He glanced at her sideways to see if she was mocking him. “Because I must say I like you better as a saviour of innocent civilians than as a servant of the German war machine.”  “The men I operate on are people too, you know.” “Just not innocent.”

Conte covers a six week period when the German army occupies the former residence of author Leo Tolsoy. There are many layers to this book. Firstly there is the confronting descriptions of being part of a field hospital and the detailed accounts of the injuries and many deaths. There is also a strong sense of time and place - Russia in winter - the arctic cold is very much a character in itself for this story. Then there is what the author terms his ‘dark version of M.A.S.H’ with the relationships and banter amongst the German officers. There is the romance (not overt) through a love of literature and the incorporation of themes from Tolstoys, ‘War and Peace’ between the good doctor and the Russian woman left in charge of the estate. Overall, this is a detailed and precise focus on one point in time and the lasting impact war can ravage on both person and place. 

‘Six weeks we’ve been here - the same amount of time as Napoleon held Moscow.” “I suppose I should be grateful you haven’t followed his example and burnt the place down.” “Yet,” he warned.’

Interspersed throughout the war narrative, are letters written much later by the survivors, which assists the reader in understanding how this impacted on their lives after this six week period. This book is brutally honest and confronting. It is full of horrors yet moments of love (human) and reverence (literature) for what people cling to as an anchor to see them through such times. Somehow Conte weaves it all together for a complete exploration of German and Soviets during WWII and the physical, social, emotional and intellectual strains during a dark period in history. 

‘War and Peace also had the odd effect of restoring my faith in doing good in the world; because if as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, even those of us pretending to be in charge, it followed that everyone’s actions were at least potentially equal, and that a humble person sometimes influences events more profoundly than did generals, emperors and tsars.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review: The Moon is Missing

Title: The Moon is Missing
Author: Jenni Ogden

Publisher: 25th August 2020 by Sea Dragon Press

Pages: 378 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, 

My Rating: 3.5 cups


From Jenni Ogden, author of award-winning A Drop in the Ocean, comes a gripping tale of family secrets and mother–daughter conflict set in London, New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand.

Georgia Grayson has perfected the art of being two people: a neurosurgeon on track to becoming the first female Director of Neurosurgery at a large London hospital, and a wife and mother. Home is her haven where, with husband Adam’s support, she copes with her occasional anxiety attacks. That is until her daughter, 15-year-old Lara, demands to know more about Danny, her mysterious biological father from New Orleans who died before she was born. “Who was he? Why did he die? WHO AM I?” Trouble is, Georgia can’t tell her.

As escalating panic attacks prevent her from operating, and therapy fails to bring back the memories she has repressed, fractures rip through her once happy family. Georgia sees only one way forward, — to return to New Orleans where Danny first sang his way into her heart, and then to the rugged island where he fell to his death. Somehow she must uncover the truth Lara deserves, whatever the cost.

My Thoughts

Jenni's first title, A Drop in the Ocean, was a book I very much enjoyed reading and therefore, was looking forward to her next story. Once again Jenni has written an engaging tale, this time revolving around a range of themes such as family, with some mysterious past secrets, to create that curiosity factor. However, at its heart this is a tale of love and forgiveness, from moving on and lessons learned. 

‘... sometimes toxic memories are best kept firmly in a box ...’

In many ways this reads like three separate tales and I am still undecided if it all gelled together sufficiently. Part 1 sets the scene obviously in terms of Georgia’s past secret and really delves into family dynamics and the fallout of a debilitating anxiety disorder. Part 2 finds Georgia and her daughter in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Whilst I appreciate the significance of this event to the characters journey, to me, it reads like a separate novel with tenable links to the overall mystery. That aside, the writing is incredible in the descriptions of what living through such an event must feel like, sound like - you were there when the waters were rising and could feel the palpable angst. The final Part 3, then transfers to both New Zealand and Australian’s Great Barrier Reef. In some ways, it's like Jenni wanted all these locales to fit her story. Here we return to Georgia’s specific crisis and steps taken to bring about her healing through confrontation and resolution.

“Nothing will ever sink New Orleans. She’ll come through this horror and be even stronger than before.” Even as the placatory words come out of my mouth, I knew I was talking bullshit. It was hard to see how any city could recover from this - especially one built in such a crazy place.’

The writing is well researched and it is clear how much Jenni has called upon her experience from her time involving psychology. She provides a twist on the traditional reading group discussion questions at the conclusion of the novel - preferring instead for her readers to contemplate reflection on the book’s overall themes of work-family balance, anxiety disorders, mother-teenager relationships and family secrets. 

‘I suddenly wanted to be home, right now, with my normal healthy family. At least a day at the office put our trivial problems into perspective.’

The Moon is Missing is a book about the many types of relationships, from spousal, family and professional to the relationship one has with oneself. The themes are relevant and real, providing good social commentary - with the added mysterious twist to engage readers. 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review: Escape to the French Farmhouse

Title: Escape to the French Farmhouse
Author: Jo Thomas

Publisher: 9th July 2020 by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers

Pages: 352 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: romance, women’s fiction

My Rating: 3.5 cups


Can she find her recipe for happiness?

Del and her husband Ollie moved to a beautiful village in Provence for a fresh start after years of infertility struggles. But six weeks after they arrive, they’re packing the removal van once more. As Del watches the van leave for England, she suddenly realises exactly what will make her happier…a new life in France – without Ollie.

Now alone, all Del has is a crumbling farmhouse, a mortgage to pay and a few lavender plants. What on earth is she going to do? Discovering an old recipe book at the market run by the rather attractive Fabian, Del starts to bake. But can her new-found passion really help her let go of the past and lead to true happiness?

A heart-warming tale about reclaiming your life, set amongst the lavender fields of Provence. 

My Thoughts

‘I may not have everything I want in life, but I’ve got a lot that makes me smile. I have enough to be content.’

Every now and again you just need that ‘breather’ of a book. You know the type ... one that whisks you away where the sun is shining, people support each other and new ventures are undertaken. Escape to the French Farmhouse is just the fresh air I was searching for.

‘I get out my pastry and take a bite. I shut my eyes and enjoy the moment, which takes me back to a time when food was fun, when I wasn’t worried about what I ate, before food became a battle, not a pleasure.’

If you enjoy books set in France, rural France with loads of lavender, then this really is the book for you. You will find yourself immersed in lavender fields and scrumptious bakery goodies from macaroons to croissants - and that’s just the sweet items. The range of characters are good - I particularly enjoyed the author's social commentary on the English in France. Do you come just to make a ‘little Britain’ or are you there to contribute and immerse yourself in French culture? Once again our heroine is of an older age and it’s refreshing to see the journey she sees herself on.

‘I can’t help but think the people of the town must be laughing at the likes of me and Ollie. Another British couple moving here for the good life, wanting to make a Little Britain beyond the Channel, then packing up and moving back when it all goes wrong.’

This book had me to the very end when it seemed everything was tied up too quickly and too neatly. Of course this is pure escapism and who would not want to run away to a romantic and picturesque ‘lockdown’ in the French countryside! However, I just feel the ending was a bit rushed with some of the secondary characters' story arc tying together too neatly.

If you are after some pure escapism of sunny filled, lavender scented locales where your only decision is what delicacy to munch on next, then runaway to this small French village for a few hours. 

‘... it’s just me, Fabien and a bottle of rosé, looking out over the valley to the setting sun. The smell of the pines and the lavender are all around us, and the cicadas are chirping in the trees. I don’t think there is anywhere I’d rather be right now ...’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.