Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Birds of a Feather

 Title: Birds of a Feather

Author: Tricia Stringer

Publisher: 29th September 2021 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 352 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary fiction, women’s fiction

My Rating: 4 cups


Who will find you when you lose your place in the world?

Full of practical wisdom, this heart-warming novel from a bestselling author celebrates finding help where you least expect it as well as the ties between women that can change - and save - lives.

Eve has been a partner in a Wallaby Bay fishing fleet as long as she can remember. Now they want her to sell - but what would her life be without work? She lives alone, her role on the town committee has been spiked by malicious gossip and she is incapacitated after surgery. For the first time in her life she feels weak, vulnerable - old.

When her troubled god-daughter Julia arrives at Wallaby Bay, she seems to offer Eve a reprieve from her own concerns. But there is no such thing as plain sailing. Eve has another house guest, the abrasive Lucy, who is helping her recuperate and does not look kindly on Julia's desire for Eve's attention.

But Lucy, too, has demons to battle and as each woman struggles to overcome their loss of place in the world, they start to realise that there may be more that holds them together, than keeps them apart.

But will these birds of feather truly be able to reinvent what family means? Or will the secrets and hurts of the past shatter their precarious hold on their new lives ... and each other?

My Thoughts

‘Sometimes you just get sick of fighting to keep your head above water.’

Birds of a Feather is the latest offering from Aussie favourite Tricia Stringer. Her books always strike a chord with her faithful following. On this occasion, Tricia gives us a multi generational family drama but with the emphasis on what exactly is family? A fantastic theme to ponder in these new and uncertain times.

Tricia brings together three very different women under the same roof - none of them are technically family - yet they embrace to be a ‘family’ for each other in their time of need. There is the retired Eve who required help after shoulder surgery. Middle aged Julia (Eve’s goddaughter) who has come to stay between jobs. The younger Lucy who is employed by Eve to assist with her recuperation. 

‘I wasn’t perfect and neither was life … we have to make adjustments and understand that we all have foibles and make mistakes. It’s how we deal with the lumps and bumps of life that make us.’

Each of the women are at a stage of their life where they have questions and concerns. Currently living under the same roof, they come together through cups of tea or glasses of wine to provide the support that a family traditionally would. As they talk about their past or present dilemmas an unlikely friendship forms.

‘Well,” she said. “You really are b …” She harrumphed again. “You really are birds of a feather.” Then she turned on her heel and left the hall. Norma scurried after her. Lucy shook her head. “Was that meant as an insult?’

Once more Tricia proves her mastery at highlighting current issues many face. Whether it be purposeful living in retirement, expectations of marriage or challenges faced by FIFO families as a few examples, she sensitively addresses these very real life situations for people. Written in 2020 Tricia addresses the elephant in the room - the Covid pandemic. She explains that in her small way she wished to pay tribute to the front line workers and, although not a priority in the story, Tricia does acknowledge its existence and impact.

‘We have to learn how to stop being controlled by it. Things happen in life, good and bad; you chalk them up to experience and move on. It took me a long time to work through that.’

This book is cleverly crafted to provide three inter generational viewpoints on a range of contemporary issues. It provides much to consider and contemplate. I only wish I could sit around with Eve, Julia and Lucy to have a cuppa whilst sharing our fears and failures, our hopes and dreams. 

‘It’s made me rethink many things. To begin with I was looking backwards, wishing life was how it had been before, but now I think I need to focus on a future where I may need to do some things differently.’

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.

Review: Daughter of the Hunter Valley

 Title: Daughter of the Hunter Valley

Author: Paula J. Beavan

Publisher: 29th September 2021 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 384 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, romance

My Rating: 4.5 cups


Alone. Near destitute. But brave and determined. Can Maddy beat the odds to create a new home in the Hunter Valley? An exciting Australian historical debut, perfect for readers of Darry Fraser.

1831, New South Wales

Reeling from her mother's death, Madeleine Barker-Trent arrives in the newly colonised Hunter River to find her father's promises are nothing more than a halcyon dream. A day later, after a dubious accident, she becomes the sole owner of a thousand acres of bushland, with only three convicts and handsome overseer Daniel Coulter for company.

Determined to fulfil her family's aspirations, Maddy refuses to return to England and braves everything the beautiful but wild Australian country can throw at her - violence, danger, the forces of nature and loneliness. But when a scandalous secret and a new arrival threaten to destroy all she's worked for, her future looks bleak ... Can Maddy persevere or should she simply admit defeat?

A captivating historical tale of one young woman's grit and determination to carve out her place on the riverbank.

My Thoughts

Paula’s debut novel is a wonderful colonial adventure set in the Hunter Valley in 1831. Following the death of her mother in England, Maddy travels to NSW to find her father and comes to the realisation that the promises from his letters had been full of lies. When he then also dies, she decides to stay on and work the property fulfilling her parents’ dreams. 

‘What had started as their dream had become a millstone around Maddy’s neck, and the weight of it was drowning her.’

Being a woman of this era, Maddy is confronted with the harsh Australian outback: convicts for labourers, destructive weather patterns and even bushrangers. The story tells how she works hard to make a life for herself in this new, yet wild land. It depicts a strong female lead who shows great strength, bravery and determination to persevere despite the many obstacles. There is also a romantic element to this tale but for me, this was not the strongest or most engaging element. 

‘I am convinced you have my best interests at heart, but I was not raised to follow the accepted conventions.’

What I loved about this story was the way Paula captured the feel for what life would have been like for colonial Australians. I appreciated her writing ability to accurately portray descriptions of both the landscape and how dangerous the elements could be. Paula has obviously done her research as I felt swept away to a time and place from almost two hundred years ago. Whether it be the extremes of weather, the remote living or the lurking dangers both natural and man made. 

‘It’s a tough land. It’s harder, dryer, and hotter than anything we’re used to. I don’t know if your pa would have made it work, but there’s steel in your spine that will keep you trying long after you could have, perhaps should have, given up. And that’s the kind of person this country needs.’

For a trip to the past when life on the land was often harsh and unforgiving, Paula provides us with a heroine to cheer for. A sensational debut novel and I look forward to more stories from Paula. 

‘Maddy was seated in a kitchen with a convict and a hired overseer, about to share a pot of tea. Her life was reduced to two thousand acres in a colony on the far side of the world and she’d never been happier.’

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, September 25, 2021

Review: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Title: The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Author: Joanna Nell 

Publisher: 29th September 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 340 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary fiction, women’s fiction

My Rating: 5 cups


The Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria has been serving refreshments and raising money at the hospital for over fifty years, long after anybody can remember who Marjorie Marshall actually was. Staffed by successive generations of dedicated volunteers, the beloved cafeteria is known as much for offering a kind word and sympathetic ear (and often unsolicited life advice) as for its tea and buns.

Stalwart Hilary has worked her way up through the ranks to Manageress; Joy has been late every day since she started as the cafeteria's newest recruit. She doesn't take her role as 'the intern' quite as seriously as Hilary would like but there's no doubt she brings a welcome pop of personality. Seventeen-year-old Chloe, the daughter of two successful surgeons, is volunteering during the school holidays because her mother thinks it will look good on her CV.

Chloe is at first bewildered by the two older women but soon realises they have a lot in common, not least that each bears a secret pain. When they discover the cafeteria is under threat of closure, this unlikely trio must band together to save it.

My Thoughts

The Tea Ladies Of St Jude’s Hospital is the fourth novel by best-selling Australian author, Joanna Nell. Having read all Joanna’s novels, I continue to be impressed and grateful for the light she shines on this age bracket. She achieves a wonderful balance between whimsical and poignant as I turn each page, savouring every word of wisdom and humour all rolled poetically into one. 

‘So we battle on?’ 

'Ladies, we fight to the death!’ 

‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Joy.

The first few pages were like reuniting with old friends, as you sit back in the comfort of the words and world Joanna so clearly conveys. She is so in tune with many of the issues that affect our ageing population - loneliness, grief, purpose, finances, health and wellbeing. It is the finesse with which she embraces these topics, both the sensitivity and humour needed, in continuing to produce these engaging tales. The inclusion of young Chloe this time around and her interactions with the Tea Ladies is heartwarming.

The underlying theme from all the lead characters was one of appreciating that people are not always what they appear to be. That we sometimes need to take the time and patience to dig a little deeper to find their true self. For a variety of reasons, people often hide their true self - pride or protection for example - and we need to be more understanding and considerate of things we may not know, or indeed, need to know.

‘What she feared, more than her fading youth, was becoming irrelevant. She wasn’t ready for invisibility. The bright colours saved her from being overlooked.’

Once more I applaud Joanna for the spotlight she continues to shine on this age group. If you have not ever read one of Joanna’s books I encourage you to do so - the knowledge and expert understanding she brings keeps the stories of these people relevant and purposeful. Growing old may be a harsh reality, but it does not have to be at the expense of purposeful living. 

‘Most women of her generation had stayed firmly on the rails, and been mowed down by the speeding freight train of domesticity in the process. No one would notice, let alone care, if she went a bit wild now. That was the thing about being a woman of a certain age. While entire police departments were dispatched to search for attractive young women when they disappeared, in the movies at least, when women past middle age went missing, no one even seemed to notice.’

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, September 23, 2021

Review: The Last Exiles


Title: The Last Exiles

Author: Ann Shin

Publisher: 1st September 2021 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 336 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary fiction, cultural Asia

My Rating: 4 cups


An unforgettable saga inspired by true events, The Last Exiles is a searing portrait of a young couple in North Korea and their fight for love and freedom

Jin and Suja met and fell in love while studying at university in Pyongyang. She was a young journalist from a prominent family, while he was from a small village of little means. Outside the school, North Korea has fallen under great political upheaval, plunged into chaos and famine. When Jin returns home to find his family starving, their food rations all but gone, he makes a rash decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, miles away, Suja has begun to feel the tenuousness of her privilege when she learns that Jin has disappeared. Risking everything, and defying her family, Suja sets out to find him, embarking on a dangerous journey that leads her into a dark criminal underbelly and will test their love and will to survive.

My Thoughts

I was motivated to read The Last Exiles as I thought it would provide a rare insight into life in North Korea. I was right. Ann has done her research and through an engaging storyline, illustrates the many struggles faced both within the country and the hardships faced trying to defect from it. It was most illuminating. 

‘She had always been true and faithful to the Party, but a trapdoor had opened and everything she held to be true and fundamental was slipping, falling into an abyss.’

Within the borders of North Korea, Ann covers both the life of city and country, the well off and the destitute - all in all, rather confronting from wherever you stand. Whether it be the dictatorship and corruption, or brainwashing and brokers, she lays it all out for her readers to see. Told through the eyes of a young couple in love, this provided the perfect avenue to issues such as human trafficking and the ordeal of illegal immigration as examples. Quite extraordinary to consider that separated by a river, life can be so very different for those across the border in China. 

‘Back home his family was still living in famine conditions under the austerity regime, while here the average citizen ate meat, had electricity in their home and drove around in a car. There was no reason why North Koreans couldn’t live like this too. How could the Dear Leader have kept this all away from his own people? 

How could Jin have devoted his life to this leader who had banished him from his country and his family, ultimately over a sack of cornmeal?’

The two main leads work their way through many hardships, providing the perfect mode to highlight the conditions. Yes, at times some events may appear lucky or coincidental, but dive deeper and focus on what Ann is trying to convey. Suja sacrificed so much and both she and Jin exhibited such a strong determination to both survive and thrive. Their harrowing experiences so foreign and at times incomprehensible to our own. 

Overall this is a story of love and hope, bravery and fortitude and the resilience of the human spirit. Maybe too resilient, as Ann alludes to ….

‘The fabric of life in North Korea was riddled with dark holes, and yet somehow it held together. … Everyone had their losses; they knew to close up these losses and to go on with life, never speak of it again. Sometimes humans are too resilient for their own good.’

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Review: The Seaside Cocktail Campervan


Title: The Seaside Cocktail Campervan

Author: Caroline Roberts

Publisher: 19th August 2021 by HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter

Pages: 400 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, contemporary romance

My Rating: 4 cups


When Lucy isn’t in her cosy cottage by the sea, she’s winding through the Northumberland coast with her loveable Dachsund Daisy, cooking up a storm at the local village celebrations. Inspired by her Italian Poppa, Lucy’s chasing a new dream with her pizza van business. And at one particular party she meets Jack, the brooding but gorgeous owner of the Cocktail Campervan.

Wary of repeating mistakes of the past, Lucy and Jack keep it strictly business. But as the summer drifts by in a swirl of garden parties, fun and fizz, laughs and celebrations, and as the cocktail campervan creates the community they so desperately need, romance starts to blossom – one stop at a time…

My Thoughts

‘… I do like a good romance and a happy ending,’ Louise chipped in. ‘Heaven knows we need it. Real life’s hard enough at times. Surely books can be a bit of an escape.’

I don’t know what it is but these British seaside romcoms really hit the spot when needed. The concept behind Caroline’s tale is rather unique with Jack’s Cocktail van and Lucy’s Pizza van bringing a fresh approach to this style of story.

‘Lucy sighed, ‘Having a steady job’s not the be all and end all, Olly. Not when it starts to feel like a noose around your neck.’

Lucy finds herself in her thirties and, after a split with her fiancé and her life in finance, decides to buy a small cottage by the sea and renovate an old horsebox into a mobile pizza venue, All Fired Up. Add in ‘Cocktail Jack’ and you have an easy summer romance as two lost souls come together over drinks, pizza and cake whilst visiting a range of really interesting events. 

‘Life moved on, your dreams shifted, some of them shattered and you had to let go of them, but then new goals and opportunities came to light.’

There is much to enjoy about this getaway, with everything from starting a new business, to book clubs, to the actual venues that these catering vans attend. For each event Caroline includes an invitation which sets the scene by giving the location, time and actual event eg. wedding. It is a wonderful way to travel the English countryside. 

This brings me to the locations. It was wonderful to have the story not in the usual Cornwall locale where most of these stories tend to be set. Instead, it is in north east England in the beautiful Northumberland! Travelling that fabulous countryside in a classic campervan to Bamburgh Castle, as one example, was such a treat!

‘… I love the way of life, the freedom it gives me. I never feel tied down.’

As Caroline wrote herself, ‘.. this book was written during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns of 2020. Amidst such strange and unprecedented times, it was a joy to be able to head off (in my imagination)’ - and I couldn't agree more! For pure escapism and a tale of friendships, broken hearts, loss, and finding courage - with loads of yummy food and drinks! - look no further than these seaside campervan tales. 

‘… it felt like summer … and seaside … and fun. All the worries of the world fading away. The here and now was all that mattered.’

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, September 21, 2021

Review: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur


Title: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur

Author: Alka Joshi 

Publisher: 28th July 2021 by HarperCollins Australia

Pages: 329 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction, cultural - India

My Rating: 5 cups


In New York Times bestselling author Alka Joshi’s intriguing new novel, henna artist Lakshmi arranges for her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur Palace in this tale rich in character, atmosphere, and lavish storytelling.

It’s the spring of 1969, and Lakshmi, now married to Dr. Jay Kumar, directs the Healing Garden in Shimla. Malik has finished his private school education. At twenty, he has just met a young woman named Nimmi when he leaves to apprentice at the Facilities Office of the Jaipur Royal Palace. Their latest project: a state-of-the-art cinema.

Malik soon finds that not much has changed as he navigates the Pink City of his childhood. Power and money still move seamlessly among the wealthy class, and favors flow from Jaipur’s Royal Palace, but only if certain secrets remain buried. When the cinema’s balcony tragically collapses on opening night, blame is placed where it is convenient. But Malik suspects something far darker and sets out to uncover the truth. As a former street child, he always knew to keep his own counsel; it’s a lesson that will serve him as he untangles a web of lies.

My Thoughts

‘There are so many secrets in our world, aren’t there? Ones we keep, ones we reveal, but only at the right moments.’

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is the second in a series and, although I had not read The Henna Artist, this book was easily read as a standalone. Told through several points of view it provides such a wondrous view of life in India with its rich culture and the politics of the 1960s. For those who have read the first book, this instalment takes place twelve years from where The Henna Artist left off. 

Firstly, this is a fascinating tale - everything from architecture in the city to sheep herding in the countryside. To accompany each of these is a mystery involving a collapsed building and gold smuggling. The author provides a cross section from Indian society - from the Royal Maharani to Himalayan herders. These characters are both engaging and believable, each with their own tale to tell. 

‘I feel hollow - like a reed before the henna paste fills its core. I don’t know what to say, or what to think. I can neither speak, nor move.’

Alka Joshi writes such lyrical prose that transports you to all the sights, sounds and smells from India (there are even recipes at the end of the book).  Whether you are visiting the Maharani or herding sheep on the Himalayan hillside, Alka deftly conveys all the vivid and majestic scenery. She is inclusive of all the riches and yet also the great poverty that exists. 

‘I’m looking out the window, enjoying the choreographed chaos of the city: a lipsticked hijra on her way to the market, slim hips swaying; a wagon drawn by a bony laborer carrying old tractor tires; children flicking marbles on a dusty street corner - what Malik liked to do once upon a time in Jaipur.’

This was a beautifully written tale that has wonderful characters, an engaging and mysterious plot and all set against an exotic Indian backdrop. I look forward to reading more from these family and friends with their stories of love, loyalty and fresh starts. 

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.