Category Archives: General Fiction

Wild Horses on the Salt

Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and finding a new life

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.

This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.

However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.

A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.

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A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

Novel about a child prodigy all grown up

Content warning: sexual themes

This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.

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“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.

This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.

I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.

I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.

There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.

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The Book of Gold Leaves

Literary novel about love and conflict in Kashmir

Content warning: war

I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.

Image is of “The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed. The paperback book is gold with embossed, stylised floral art in reds and greens on the front. The book is pictured on a wooden board with rice and curry in ceramic dishes and two paint brushes.

“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?

This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.

The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.

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The Lebs

Literary realism about growing up Lebanese in Sydney

Content warning: sexual assault, racism

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak on a special literary episode of Q+A. If you didn’t catch it, I would highly recommend watching it because there is some fantastic discussion about the Australian literary scene. The author in particular spoke so passionately and eloquently that his discussion really stuck with me, and I made a mental note to read his book. It popped up recently while I was searching for my next audiobook, and I was really excited to listen.

The Lebs cover art

“The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and narrated by Hazem Shammas is a bildungsroman about a teenager called Bani Adam who attends a Lebanese-majority high school in Western Sydney called Punchbowl Boys. Bani Adam is a dreamy boy whose thoughtful internal voice separates him from the hypermasculine culture that surrounds him. He has a deeply romantic crush on his English teacher, and after she leaves, he begins to channel his feelings into writing. When Bani Adam has a short story published, an opportunity arises for him to develop himself as a creative. However, outside Punchbowl Boys, Bani Adam grows to realise that the main thing that society sees in him is his ethnicity.

This is an incredibly insightful book that really captures the mood of Australia in the early 2000s. Bani Adam is an incredibly complex character, and I absolutely loved the dissonance between his articulate and sensitive inner voice, and how he presents to his friends and classmates. Shammas was a fantastic narrator, and the way he captured the voice of teenage boys, written with such honesty by Ahmad, was nothing short of brilliant. As someone who was in high school in Australia in the early 2000s, the cultural references, language and even occasionally behaviour were familiar to me. However, this book is about the singular experience of a Muslim-majority all-boys public school in Western Sydney, and it was eye opening to read about an experience in Australia happening parallel to my own. Ahmad captures how Lebanese identity, Islam and masculinity are so tightly woven together not only within the microcosm of Punchbowl Boys, but by Australian mainstream media against the backdrop of anti-Arabic sentiment in the wake of September 11 and the Sydney Gang Rapes. I thought that the way Ahmad handled the complexity and nuance of racial prejudice towards the Lebanese-Muslim community, and sexist and misogynistic attitudes within the Lebanese-Muslim community, was excellent. Bani Adam is the perfect protagonist for this book because while he is not comfortable with and doesn’t share the attitudes he hears from his peers, he learns that despite his inner self, he is still seen as just a “Leb” by the broader Australian community. Even though for some people the earlier parts of the book may be more confronting, I actually found the latter half of the book much more challenging when Bani Adam, seeking to improve himself artistically among peers, finds himself made to perform a caricature of the very community he is trying to distance himself from.

I just want to make a quick note about this book in audiobook format. As I mentioned, Shammas narrated this book excellently, but I also felt that this book really lent itself to being listened to. Ahmad revisits scenes several times, in the same way that teens (and adults) rehash events trying to examine them and make sense of them from different perspectives, using slightly different language and observations each time. I felt that this narrative style was actually really great in audiobook format for someone like me who can find active listening challenging at times, by reinforcing what is happening but challenging the reader to think about the same situation slightly differently. Interestingly, a significant way through the book, there was a content warning about discussion of sexual assault. I was surprised the producers decided to put this in just prior to the particular chapter rather than at the beginning of the entire book, so if you decide to listen, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally skipped back to the beginning of the book.

A really important and thought-provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend. I found out after reading this book that it is actually a sequel to Ahmad’s book called “The Tribe” which I haven’t yet read, and now really want to.

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Little Fires Everywhere

Realistic novel about family, secrets and trust

I first heard about this novel when it won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction. Since then, it has been adapted into a TV miniseries that was released earlier this year. I’ve been really enjoying some of Reese Witherspoon’s work adapting books to film, so I picked up an edition of this book with a tie-in cover. After Marie Kondoing my bookshelf this year, and doing the #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge, I’ve been making a big effort to chip through my to-read shelf (yes, shelf!) and it was time to read this book.

A photo of the book cover on a background that is a cropped collage of scenic and touristy photos I took when I was in the USA in 2017

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is a realistic novel about a real town called Shaker Heights. The story is about two families. The Richardsons are a well-to-do family with husband, wife and four children while the Warrens consist of a single mother and her daughter. When artist Mia Warren rents a small home from Mrs Elena Richardson, she promises her daughter Pearl that they will be able to stay there for good this time. Pearl quickly befriends Moody Richardson, then his siblings Trip and Lexie. Meanwhile, youngest daughter and black sheep Izzy begins to visit Mia and assist her with her work. As the family grows more and more intertwined, journalist Elena begins to grow suspicious of Mia’s past life and starts trying to investigate.

This is a strong novel that examines a small community and the forces that shake up its apparent idyllic existence. Ng is particularly concerned with motherhood, what makes a good mother and who deserves to be a mother. This book also examines class, race and profession and the ways in which these factors impact someone’s “suitability” as a mother. At the heart of the novel is a fascinating ideological controversy in its own right that in turn drives a wedge between Mia and Elena and kickstarts Elena’s skepticism about Mia’s background. This is a very readable novel, and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters as Pearl begins to navigate friendships with Moody, Trip and Lexie.

While this book is very readable, I did find myself a little disappointed at the ending. The opening pages of the book are very compelling and hint at a significant mystery to unfold. Without giving too much away, I felt that rather than the “spark” Ng hints at throughout the novel, the ending was an underwhelming fizzle without any of the twists or big reveals that I felt had been promised earlier on.

A well-written and insightful book that I wished had a bit less contemplation and a little more punch at the end.

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The Yield

Literary novel about Wiradjuri connection to family, Country and culture

Content warning: missing child, Stolen Generation, racism, colonialism, eating disorder, sexual assault

This novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so it was already on my radar. I bought it a couple of months ago, but was inspired to make it my next book by the recent IndigenousX #BlakBookChallenge.

“The Yield” by Tara June Winch is a literary novel about a fictional place called Massacre Plains. The story is told from three point of view characters: Aboriginal man Albert Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August Gondiwindi and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. Albert has found out that he does not have long to live, and spends his last living days recording the language of his ancestors in a dictionary that uses vignettes from his life to explain the words and their meaning. Shortly afterwards, August finds out her Poppy has died and returns home from the UK for his funeral after many years of estrangement. Things in Massacre Plains are both exactly the same and completely different as she reconnects with her Nana, cousin, aunties and an old flame. In 1915, Reverend Greenleaf pens a letter to the British Society of Ethnography to tell the truth about what happened in the Mission he established in Massacre Plains.

This is a brilliantly crafted novel that combines three narrative techniques to create a compelling and multifaceted story. Albert’s dictionary in particular was such a unique way of storytelling. Albert, who was taken from his family as a child and placed in a Boys’ Home, is visited by his ancestors who lead him through time to gently and patiently teach him the language and culture that would have otherwise been lost to him. His chapters are all the more poignant because they cast into relief how much was stolen from Aboriginal people through colonial violence and racism, making the knowledge bestowed by his ancestors critical. Greenleaf’s chapters are also interesting because they provide the dramatic irony of someone who genuinely believes that they are doing the best for the people in their care, but who is ultimately contributing to their loss of culture and who is powerless to protect them, especially the women, from slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by settlers.

Although less avant-garde in structure than the other chapters, August’s story is no less compelling. When she returns to the home her grandparents raised her in, she struggles to make sense of Prosperous House’s painful memories and the plans for it to be repossessed by a mining company. August’s chapters are in some ways the most heartrending. August has to confront the old trauma of losing her sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young, and face the new trauma of being displaced from her home. These traumas take their toll on August, who throughout her life has struggled with disordered eating. Her journey to the city with her aunty to visit the museum and see her people’s artefacts showed how painful it is that so much Aboriginal history is not even accessible to the people whose heritage it is. Through this experience Winch touches on the idea of repatriation, consistent with the strong theme of returning home that underpins this novel.

Finally, I also really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements which provide plenty of recommendations for further reading, some historical context for the compilation of Wiradjuri language and a little bit of insight into Winch’s own research, writing process and family. Winch is a fantastic writer and this is an excellent and original novel committed to truth-telling and full of heart.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

Dead Man Dreaming

Novel about coming to terms with a genetic illness

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“Dead Man Dreaming” by Uday Mukerji is a novel about a man called David who is going through the final interviews for a prestigious position at a Canadian hospital as a heart surgeon. However, when the panel ask him a question about whether or not he has Huntington’s Disease, David is taken by surprise. Suddenly he is forced to confront the possibility that, like his father, he has Huntington’s Disease and impact it could have on his career, relationship and desire to have children. David’s drastic life changes as a result have him seeking and finding fulfilment in new places.

Mukerji is a clear, realistic writer with believable characters and premise. This is an interesting book that raises a number of pertinent ethical questions: is it reasonable to ask people about their genetic information during a job interview where hereditary conditions may impact performance? is it reasonable to encourage, or even require, people to undergo genetic testing prior to having children? These are questions that David himself ponders as he comes to terms with taking his own genetic test. Mukerji also asks the reader about openness in relationships, and the extent to which we need to make time to communicate with our partners and be honest with them.

The only thing that I found a bit challenging was that Mukerji relies heavily on David’s thoughts as a narrative device, and a not insignificant proportion of the book is David going over events and conversations again and again and mulling over his own worries. While this is probably a very accurate depiction of what it would be like for a real person in David’s situation, there were times where I felt the book needed a little more plot or conversation to help propel the story along.

A well-written story that explores issues arising from testing for hereditary conditions from a number of angles.

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Girl, Woman, Other

Contemporary novel about the diversity of black experiences in the UK

I heard about this book because it was somewhat controversially the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, together with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments“. I read Atwood’s book first because (pre-COVID) she was touring Australia and I very luckily got some tickets to see her speak, so I wanted to make sure I read the book first. However, I have been really looking forward to reading this one and after buying it, it has been very high on my priority list.

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“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo is a novel about 12 different people who live in the UK and whose lives are interconnected, including in some ways more subtle than others. At the heart of the story is Amma, a playwright whose radical black sapphic production is opening at the Royal National Theatre in London. With The Last Amazon of Dahomey as the backdrop, we meet each of the 12 characters one by one and learn about their lives and their unique experience of being part of the African diaspora in Britain.

This is an exceptional book and I am going to go right ahead and say that it is a crime that it wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize outright. Evaristo is a phenomenal writer and this book was simply superb. The novel has a unique, flowing style reminiscent of free-verse poetry with no full stops, rigid sentences or capitalised first letters. Although Evaristo keeps up this style throughout the book, each character has a clearly distinct voice. I particularly enjoyed how well Evaristo is able to write the same events but through the vastly different lenses of her characters. All the stories were compelling, but it was Grace’s story in particular that had me in tears. I also really loved that Evaristo explores different types of black experience in earlier eras, including Britain’s role in and profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were some parts of the more contemporary stories, especially Carole’s, that reminded me quite a lot of “Swing Time” in theme, particularly in terms of place and issues of class and racism. However, this book achieves what I felt “Swing Time” did not: a sense of cohesiveness.

I don’t really have any criticism of this book at all except to note that it is fairly long, about 450 pages, and it is not the kind of book that you want to whip through. I actually recommend tackling each character’s story in a single session then putting the book down to digest before beginning the next.

An excellent book that thoroughly deserved to win the Booker Prize alone.

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Red Dirt Talking

Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.

This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.  Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.

I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.

This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.

An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Picture Perfect

Novel about love, family violence and belonging

Content warning: family violence

As I’ve mentioned previously, while everything is still under varying degrees of lockdown, I’ve had to find other suitable opportunities to listen to audiobooks that involve some kind of exercise. My solution: yard work. I’ve been trying to stick to shorter audiobooks to make it easier to pay attention, and this one came up when searching. Although this author is very popular and often a bit divisive, I have enjoyed a number of her books over the years, so I thought I would use an Audible credit on this book.

Picture Perfect cover art

“Picture Perfect” by Jodi Picoult and narrated by Megan Dodds is a novel about a woman who is found in a graveyard suffering from amnesia. She is taken to hospital by Will Flying Horse, who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a police officer. While Cassie recovers, pieces of her memory come back and she discovers that her real life is actually like something out of a fairytale. However, like most fairytales, there is a dark undercurrent and it will take all of Cassie’s strength to be her own hero.

Listening to this book, I was actually struck by how similar the story was to another book I read recently. Like “The Brave“, this story is about a woman who marries a movie star, who experiences domestic violence and who finds salvation in the arms of a biracial Native American man. Picoult’s novel was written 15 years earlier and I think hers is the better novel. Cassie is an anthropologist; educated, articulate and adventurous, she certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of person likely to be affected by family violence. However, the whole world falls for Alex Rivers’ charm and the acting skills he brings to the screen are just as effective at home. I felt like Picoult did a very convincing job of exploring the cyclic nature of family violence, and acknowledged that family violence does not discriminate and can happen in any type of family. Cassie is one of the three point of view characters, but unlike Nicholas Evans’ novel, it is her perspective that is put front and centre. I think I actually preferred this exploration of domestic violence to Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies“.

I am no expert on Lakota culture, but the novel felt much better researched in this regard as compared with “The Brave”, and Will’s character seemed far more well-rounded than Evans’ character Cal. Instead of being little more than a literary device, Will experiences his own struggles with his biracial identity, racism in the police force and frustration with Cassie’s situation. The narration of this book was quite good, and Dodds has a drawling, contemplative voice that lends itself to many of the reminiscing chapters. Unusually, some of these chapters had a bit of music backing which helped distinguish between past and present.

This is one of Picoult’s earliest novels, and I think it is fair to say that her storytelling has improved considerably over the years. The plot of this book was a little meandering, and I think that in trying to fully explore each character’s background, character and motives, something of the tension in the novel was lost. I am so used to Picoult’s hard-hitting, fearless plot twists that I was quite surprised that this novel petered out on a rather positive note.

A thoughtful book that was ahead of its time in discussing family violence, but not quite as punchy as Picoult’s later books.

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