I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.
This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.
The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.
A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.
“South of Main Street” by Robert Gately is a novel about a man called Henry Wolff who is a little bit strange. Prone to treating the outside of his house like an obstacle course and making inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times, he often exasperates his two daughters. When his wealthy wife dies, the question of how Henry is going to be cared for and a court hearing about financial guardianship drives a wedge between the two sisters. However, Henry’s not too bothered by all that. In a town where Main Street divides the well-to-do from the struggling, Henry starts to spend more time with those who are often overlooked.
The simplicity of this story belies the complexity of themes that are explored. Gately addresses the pressures that domestic violence, mental health, trauma, addiction, homelessness, poverty and death place on families and sensitively explores the strange legal beast that is guardianship. By using Henry as the lens through which we perceive his motley group of friends, Gately is able to leverage the idea of simple kindness to build empathy for people who are often marginalised. I think that while perhaps this book doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychology and socioeconomic reasons behind disadvantage, it nevertheless is persuasive through its depiction of decency through human interactions. I also thought that the fraught relationship between Robin and Sharon, the two sisters, was one of the strongest and most engaging parts of the book.
This book is very much about the day-to-day, and some parts of the book are a little slower in pace than others. I think quite a few of the conversations between Henry, Dixie (who is addicted to drugs) and Danny (who struggles with his father’s alcoholism and feelings of abandonment by his mother) are some of the more difficult parts to get through. However, I think that because of these little run-of-the-mill encounters, the book is quite relateable to people who have family stresses but need to get on with their daily lives nonetheless.
An interesting story with a strong message, I think this book does a thorough job of bringing to light some important social issues.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and this is actually my second review of a book by Rhys Bowen.
“The Tuscan Child” by Rhys Bowen is a historical fiction novel that spans and interlaces two eras: World War II and the 1970s. In 1944, a British pilot shot down by the Germans makes an emergency landing in a small Tuscan village. Hiding out in a bombed and abandoned monastery, Hugo relies on the generosity of local woman Sophia to survive. Thirty years later, Joanna has returned to the sad remains of her family’s lost manor to arrange her father’s funeral. While going through his things, she discovers hints of a love left behind in Italy. Joanna decides to try to learn more about her mysterious father’s past and travel to Tuscany herself.
Bowen’s strength is clearly in recounting World War II history and, like her novel “In Farleigh Field”, she excels at capturing the decline of the English country house. The tension between the shame and the inevitability of the loss of the family home is explored in a really interesting way, and I found the Joanna’s interactions with the principal of the girls’ school that took over Langley Hall especially fascinating.
The parts of the book set in Tuscany had a very different flavour. Although we don’t see much of the Tuscan countryside through Hugo’s eyes, the his relationship with Sophia is incredibly intense. When Joanna arrives in the village, I felt like although she quickly becomes immersed, her experience in is much less internal and the reader gets to enjoy a broader sense of Tuscan life and culture (inspired by Bowen’s own experiences).
However, there really are two very different stories in this book: Joanna’s sad and difficult English experience, and the much more mysterious Tuscan story of her father’s. While this divide is appropriate given the divide within Hugo himself, I think at times the transition between the two stories is a bit difficult to bridge.
Whether you are interested in romance, historical fiction, World War II or travel writing, I think most people will get something out of this story.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.
“Bodacious Creed: A Steampunk Zombie Western” by Jonathan Fesmire is exactly that: a steampunk, zombie western. The story is about US Marshal James Creed who arrives in 1876 Santa Cruz, California, USA to assist with a murder investigation. One of the most successful entrepreneurs in town is Anna Lynn Boyd, a former sex worker and brothel madam who has a secret profession: inventor. When Anna hears that Creed is in town, she swiftly tries to arrange a meeting to reconnect over a lost past. However, with the town rife with bounty hunters, a criminal underground, sex work politics, business deals and automatons, Anna’s plans go very awry.
This is a fun, action-packed novel with an interesting premise. Fesmire draws heavily on his hometown for inspiration for the book’s setting which brings a real sense of authenticity to the story (despite the steampunk zombie setting). I really liked the character of Anna, and most of the novel hangs on her genius and her compassion. The book deals with some complicated moral questions and the story is kept alive by the unresolved relationship between Anna and Creed. I don’t want to give too much away, but I really loved the coyote later on in the story.
I think the only thing that I found a bit challenging about this book was that the second half seemed quite long. The plot is both action-packed and convoluted and I felt like maybe a couple of the story lines could have been condensed.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in dipping your toe into the wild world of steampunk, this is a great place to start.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley is a sprawling long-distance romance novel. Cecile is a young Canadian woman who wins a place in Juliard in New York City in the USA to study classical piano. Langston is a young Canadian man who is studying to be a teacher in his home town while washing dishes in a restaurant. When Cecile and Langston meet by chance when Cecile is on a rare trip home, their connection is instantaneous. They find that they have a lot in common: their family difficulties, their academic interests, their cultural heritage, their ambition. When Cecile returns to New York they are able to bridge the distance with letters, but are letters enough to bridge everything else?
This was an incredibly refreshing book. I’ve read a few books since I started this blog that deal with race in America, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this. Maybe the closest was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“. This is, at its heart, a book about black excellence. This is not a historical novel of slavery or even a more novel of migration. The characters in this book aren’t poor, uneducated, downtrodden or disadvantaged. Cecile and Langston are smart, articulate and proud of their West Indian heritage. They have road trips and goals and family support and holidays and are both very relateable characters.
This is not to say that Corley shies away from discussing race: not at all. However, Corley explores race in a much more subtle, everyday and modern way, through Cecile breaking stereotypes by being a black pianist, conversations at university between black students debating politics and philosophies and in intimate relationships where interracial couples negotiate respect. Cecile is the key narrator in this book, and I think that worked really well to get across some incredibly honest insights into what it can be like for a woman struggling to find a social group, balancing sexual desire against religious beliefs and finding herself trapped in a toxic relationship. Corley has a sophisticated and flexible writing style and easily moves between diary entries, letters and prose to tell this story.
I think the only thing I had a bit of trouble with was that this book is a bit of a slow burn. It is a romance that slowly builds and unfurls over many years. However, I think that this is actually a really important book to read because this book fosters such a deep sense of empathy. Not just for Cecile and Langston because of their race, but because of their experiences, their relationships, their families, the effects that drugs and abandonment and religion and love have had on their lives.
HarperCollins the publisher was running a bit of a Christmas special and had this book available to read for free. In fact, I think it still is available for free. It has been a while since I read a Jackie French book, and while I whipped through it before Christmas, my intentions on having this review ready for Christmas were sadly not fulfilled. So, here it is, slightly late: my review.
“With Love from Miss Lily: A Christmas Story” is a short story by Jackie French set shortly after the first novel in her “Miss Lily” series called “Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies”, about the contribution of society ladies to World War I. This short story takes place in France during winter. A hospital is running low on supplies, patients are dying of influenza, and head nurse Sophie is worried that she won’t be able to have the ceasefire Christmas she was hoping for. However, between the dying old woman who won’t stop furiously knitting, the handsome captain and the help from Miss Lily, somehow Christmas makes it after all.
This is a very short but touching story that manages to weave a bit of history, feminism, family, friendship and even a dash of romance altogether. I really enjoyed reading it on my drive down to my own family Christmas and I am a bit intrigued about the rest of the series.
I think I’ll finish the review here because it’s such a short story, I’m at risk of writing a longer review than story. Sorry I didn’t get this up in time for Christmas!
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.
“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.
As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.
Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.
This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.