Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Younger Wife
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Thriller/contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

THE HUSBAND

A heart surgeon at the top of his field, Stephen Aston is getting married again. But first he must divorce his current wife, even though she can no longer speak for herself.

THE DAUGHTERS

Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their father’s money.

THE FORMER WIFE

With their mother in a precarious position, Tully and Rachel are determined to get to the truth about their family’s secrets, the new wife closing in, and who their father really is.

THE YOUNGER WIFE

Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them? 

I could not put this book down… and yet now that I’m done, I really don’t know what to think!

As the book opens, we’re at the wedding of Stephen and Heather. They make a beautiful couple, and everyone is so pleased that Stephen has found love again after going through the pain of his former wife’s slide into dementia. And how lovely that he thought to include his ex-wife in this special day! But after the vows, something goes wrong in the next room. There’s blood and an ambulance…

And that’s just the prologue!

From there, we go back some months to Heather’s first meeting with Stephen’s adult daughters, Tully and Rachel. Heather is actually younger than both of them, and they’re prepared to hate her. They’re none too pleased with their father either, but they’re trying to be supportive. He’s done right by their mother, finding her a good nursing home and excellent care, making sure there’s no worry about finances… so why shouldn’t he have the opportunity for love once again?

As the story unfolds, we get chapters from Tully, Rachel, and Heather’s perspectives. No one’s life is as perfect as it seems. Rachel, a magnificent baker, has been dealing with a trauma from her teens for almost 20 years. Tully, a suburban wife and mother, has anxiety through the roof and very unhealthy coping mechanisms. And Heather certainly has not shared the true story of her family’s sordid past.

Each of the three women evokes sympathy in her own way. For Tully and Rachel, they’re dealing not only with issues from their pasts, but also grieving the loss of a beloved mother, mourning a bit more with each visit to the nursing home and the realization that the woman who was so central to their lives has slipped away from them bit by bit. Heather’s childhood was awful, but she’s built a fresh start for herself, even as the occasional doubts about her perfect new life creep in.

It’s hard to say much without giving away key spoilers, so I’ll proceed with caution. As I mentioned, I simply couldn’t put this book down, and finished it over two days of intense reading. Not that that’s surprising — Sally Hepworth’s book always bring out the compulsive reader in me! With short, sharp chapters and fascinating POV characters, The Younger Wife sucked me in from page 1 and just never let me go.

And yet… I felt oddly flat after the end. I really and truly can’t say more, but the resolution left me confused and weirdly disappointed. I need to go back and poke around in earlier chapters to see if I missed anything and reexamine how the pieces fit together.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but perhaps with tempered expectations. Sally Hepworth is a terrific teller of tales, and she creates fascinating, memorable characters. The Younger Wife did not move and engage my emotions the way The Good Sister did, but that’s a very high mark to meet.

The Younger Wife is a fast page-turner, and I enjoyed the reading experience. Now I just need to think about that ending some more…

Book Review: The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Ladies of Missalonghi
Author: Colleen McCullough
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 1987
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sometimes fairy tales can come true–even for plain, shy spinsters like Missy Wright. Neither as pretty as cousin Alicia nor as domineering as mother Drusilla, she seems doomed to a quiet life of near poverty at Missalonghi, her family’s pitifully small homestead in Australia’s Blue Mountains. But it’s a brand new century–the twentieth–a time for new thoughts and bold new actions. And Missy Wright is about to set every self-righteous tongue in the town of Byron wagging. Because she has just set her sights on a mysterious, mistrusted, and unsuspecting stranger… who just might be Prince Charming in disguise.

After coming across a mention of The Ladies of Missalonghi online, I decided to give it a try once I saw the audiobook available via my library. This short book is enjoyable in many ways, but it also shows its age a bit, and has a troubling reputation as well. (See my quibbles section below…)

Set in the early 1900s in a small town in Australia, The Ladies of Missalonghi focuses on the sad little family living in a run-down house named Missalonghi on the shabby side of town. The town of Byron is dominated by the Hurlingford family, who own pretty much all of the desirable land and every local business. The nasty truth of the family is that thanks to an edict from its founding father who first established Byron, only males in the family inherit financially, while women descendents get a house and five acres of land. However, the houses and land have become worse and worse over the generations, and Hurlingford women who don’t marry well, become widowed, or (gasp) remain spinsters are doomed to a life of poverty and dependence.

Main character Missy Wright lives with her widowed mother Drusilla and her elderly aunt Octavia, and the three eke out the barest of livings. Missy is considered plain and unmarriageable, long past whatever youthful prime she might have had. To economize, the women dress in brown (appropriate for any occasion, and it doesn’t show dirt), have a very fixed routine of household chores, and rely on the condescending patronage of their richer relatives for meager treats and hand-outs.

When Missy meets a rough-hewn stranger and learns that he’s bought land in the adjacent valley, her imagination takes off — especially thanks to the romantic novels the town’s new librarian has been sharing with her. After a mild health scare, Missy decides to take matters into her own hands, throw off the burden of obedience and family deference, and pursue a life of adventure and love… even if she has to scheme and lie to get it.

While engaging in many ways, I do need to point out a few quibbles:

SPOILERS AHEAD

As I mentioned earlier, the book’s age shows in some of the depictions and dialogue. I don’t have a problem with historical fiction portraying an era’s inherent sexual inequalities, hang-ups, class issues, etc, but I actually feel that this book smacks a little too heavily of the 1980s. Published in 1987, The Ladies of Missalonghi has a love interest who’s the stereotypical bad boy in many ways, coming out with statements and attitudes that just wouldn’t fly today… and in historical fiction written now, I think authors tend to make their heroes a little less sexist/asshole-ish. If that makes any sense.

BIG SPOILER: There’s a weird supernatural element that’s revealed toward the end that makes no sense at all, bringing a ghost into the mix in the strangest way possible, then using that ghost as the explanation for Missy’s pursuit of freedom. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. The ghost in question appears as a real person to Missy, and provides Missy with books, legal documents, a new dress and hat, and even comes to tea at Missalonghi, where she interacts with Drusilla and Octavia. Again… I don’t get it.

Finally, I need to point out the plagiarism allegations that plague this book, specifically, that Colleen McCullough basically took the plot of The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, tweaked it a bit and moved it to Australia, and published it as her own. Colleen McCullough denied the allegations, but suggested that “subconscious recollection” was at play — that she must have read the book at some point and inadvertently incorporated elements without realizing where they’d come from. The stories track so closely (with key differences being that Missy’s mother is kind and loving, and that Missy knows that her health crisis isn’t real and lies to her love interest) that it’s impossible to believe that the similarities are purely accidental.

Having read The Blue Castle recently, the shared plot elements are very obvious — and I have to say, if I had to choose between the two books, The Blue Castle wins hands-down.

END OF SPOILERY QUIBBLES

All that aside, there’s plenty to like about The Ladies of Missalonghi. There are some clever twists as Missy begins to assert herself, including her scheming to undermine the terrible male relatives who neglect and cheat the vulnerable women of the family. The descriptions of the setting are lovely, and there are moments of clever dialogue and sly social digs that make it fun.

The audiobook is narrated by Davina Porter, known to Outlander fans as the wonderful narrator of all Outlander series audiobooks, and she’s always a treat to listen to.

Overall, I’m not sorry to have read The Ladies of Missalonghi and I enjoyed listening to it, but the troublesome aspects make it a hard book to truly love.

And I have to say, the whole “marriage due to a medical crisis that turns out to be false” plot is handled much better in The Blue Castle, as is so much else about the basics of the plot.

Shelf Control #303: The Touch by Colleen McCullough

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Touch
Author: Colleen McCullough
Published: 2003
Length: 624 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Not since “The Thorn Birds” has Colleen McCullough written a novel of such broad appeal about a family and the Australian experience as “The Touch.”At its center is Alexander Kinross, remembered as a young man in his native Scotland only as a shiftless boilermaker’s apprentice and a godless rebel. But when, years later, he writes from Australia to summon his bride, his Scottish relatives quickly realize that he has made a fortune in the gold fields and is now a man to be reckoned with.

Arriving in Sydney after a difficult voyage, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Drummond meets her husband-to-be and discovers to her dismay that he frightens and repels her. Offered no choice, she marries him and is whisked at once across a wild, uninhabited countryside to Alexander’s own town, named Kinross after himself. In the crags above it lies the world’s richest gold mine.

Isolated in Alexander’s great house, with no company save Chinese servants, Elizabeth finds that the intimacies of marriage do not prompt her husband to enlighten her about his past life — or even his present one. She has no idea that he still has a mistress, the sensual, tough, outspoken Ruby Costevan, whom Alexander has established in his town, nor that he has also made Ruby a partner in his company, rapidly expanding its interests far beyond gold. Ruby has a son, Lee, whose father is the head of the beleaguered Chinese community; the boy becomes dear to Alexander, who fosters his education as a gentleman.

Captured by the very different natures of Elizabeth and Ruby, Alexander resolves to have both of them. Why should he not? He has the fabled “Midas Touch” — a combination of curiosity, boldness and intelligence that he applies to every situation, and which fails him only when it comes to these two women.

Although Ruby loves Alexander desperately, Elizabeth does not. Elizabeth bears him two daughters: the brilliant Nell, so much like her father; and the beautiful, haunting Anna, who is to present her father with a torment out of which for once he cannot buy his way. Thwarted in his desire for a son, Alexander turns to Ruby’s boy as a possible heir to his empire, unaware that by keeping Lee with him, he is courting disaster.

The stories of the lives of Alexander, Elizabeth and Ruby are intermingled with those of a rich cast of characters, and, after many twists and turns, come to a stunning and shocking climax. Like “The Thorn Birds,” Colleen McCullough’s new novel is at once a love story and a family saga, replete with tragedy, pathos, history and passion. As few other novelists can, she conveys a sense of place: the desperate need of her characters, men and women, rootless in a strange land, to create new beginnings.

How and when I got it:

I’ve had a battered paperback on my shelf for years — I don’t remember specifically buying this book, but I’m guessing it came from a library sale at some point in the last 10 years.

Why I want to read it:

I’m sure I picked this book up solely based on the fact that it’s by Colleen McCullough. I will never forget the experience of reading The Thorn Birds for the first time! Since then, I’ve only read one other book by her, but once again, I was impressed by her ability to bring Australia to life on the page and to create such dynamic characters and epic plots.

In terms of The Touch, it sounds grand and sweeping and tragic — just how I like my historical fiction! I’m glad I just stumbled across my copy while reorganizing my shelves. It was a good reminder that (a) I own this book and (b) I do intend to read it!

The only other book I’ve read by Colleen McCullough is Morgan’s Run (published in 2000), but I’d welcome other recommendations!

And as for The Touch

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Have fun!

Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Good Sister
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one and Fern is the quirky one. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

I have not been disappointed in a Sally Hepworth book yet, and The Good Sister is no exception! Talk about a page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down, and finished this compelling story in one day.

Rose and Fern are adult sisters who’ve only had each other to rely on for as long as they can remember. Rose is calm and responsible and protective; Fern has sensory issues and struggles to understand the nuances of interpersonal communications, completing missing nonvisual cues and unable to take words as anything but literal.

When Rose shares with Fern her heartache over infertility, Fern decides to have a baby for Rose. And when she meets a sweet guy at the library where she works, Fern realizes that he’s a good candidate for the baby’s father.

Things don’t always go as expected, and as Fern becomes attached to the man she calls Wally, Rose becomes uneasy about the relationship and the feeling that Fern is pulling away from her.

Man, this book is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory!

Told through Rose’s diary entries and Fern’s first-person narration, we learn bits and pieces about the sisters’ bond, their painful childhood, and their memories of their mother. We also learn more about why and how Fern became so dependent on Rose, and why neither of them consider Fern to be reliable or trustworthy.

It’s only as we get deeper into the story that we start to realize that neither sister is telling the whole story, and that what we’re hearing might not be the true picture of certain key events. Puzzling out the pieces and figuring out what’s true and what’s a lie makes this an incredibly engrossing read.

I especially loved Fern’s character. She’s unusual and has certain needs when it comes to interacting with the world, but she’s also very loving in her own odd way. And hey, she’s a librarian! And a really great one — despite her outward prickliness and tendency to ignore people who ask for help with the library photocopier, she’s terrific at helping people find what they need, whether it’s the right book or a bit of distraction, a way to calm down or even just some basic toiletries so they can use the public showers.

The plot of The Good Sister has some very clever twists and turns, and honestly, I just could not stop reading once I started. I won’t say more about the story, because it’s just too much fun to experience it without advance clues or information. Sally Hepworth has written yet another engrossing story with memorable characters, and I heartily enjoyed it. Don’t miss The Good Sister!

Audiobook Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Narrator:  Caroline Lee
Publisher: Custom House
Publication date: August 24, 2020
Print length: 370 pages
Audio length: 10 hours 17 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant novel that captures the hardship, oppression, opportunity and hope of a trio of women’s lives in nineteenth-century Australia.

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel — a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

It’s been a few days since I finished listening to this fascinating, moving, and well-written story, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath.

In The Exiles, author Christina Baker Kline tells a powerful story of women displaced by the rules of others, struggling to survive and to find a place to call home. While the story is uplifting, it’s often so heartbreaking that it made me want to stop and sit quietly for a while to regroup and get my emotions under control.

The book starts by focusing on two very different characters: First, we meet Mathinna. At the opening of the story, she’s eight years old, already living in a sort of exile along with her tribe, who’ve been removed from their lands and forced to relocate to the harsher landscape of Flinders Island. Even there, their lives aren’t peaceful. They’re ruled by British governors, forced to adopt English speech and dress, and limited in their abilities to live as their people always have. When young Mathinna catches the visiting governor’s wife’s attention during a schoolchildren’s performance, Mrs. Franklin decides that Mathinna will be her next experiment. With no consent needed, Governor and Mrs. Franklin leave instruction for Mathinna to be brought to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), to be raised in their home as a test subject — to see if “savages” can be civilized enough to fit into proper society.

At the same time, back in London, we meet Evangeline Stokes, the inexperienced, orphaned daughter of a vicar, who seeks work as a governess with a wealthy family in order to survive after her father’s death. Evangeline is seduced and impregnated by the elder son of the family which employs her, and after she’s found with his ring in her possession, she’s arrested and imprisoned. (He, of course, is such a cad that he never lifts a finger to help her.)

Evangeline is sentenced to transportation, and begins the harrowing four-month sea voyage from England to Australia. To survive, she forges friendships with some of the other women convicts, but the voyage itself is dangerous, as are some of the crewmen onboard the ship.

During the voyage, the character Hazel is introduced as well — a teen girl convicted of robbery, after her alcoholic mother sent her out to pickpocket for their survival. Hazel is a trained and gifted midwife, and her skills become invaluable to Evangeline and the other women on the ship, as well as providing Hazel with a way to improve her own life once she arrives in Van Diemen’s land.

The relationships among the women are complex and important. While their backgrounds vary widely, all find themselves at the mercy of an unfair justice system that deprives them of their voices and their freedoms. As becomes very clear, poor and powerless women have no one to defend them, and no ability to contest or avoid the judgments handed down against them. And as one woman points out to Evangeline, it’s not just about punishment — as British colonizes the Australian territory, they need more women to build a society with, so why not solve two problems at once?

The story alternates in sections between the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and the other convicts, and the strange and awful half-life Mathinna is forced into. Again, here is a young woman with no voice and no power, treated as an object of curiosity and a plaything, but all too easily cast aside when her novelty wears off.

All of these women truly are exiles, removed from their homes and families, given no choice about where they’ll go or how they’ll live, forced to give up everything they’ve known and start over in a foreign land. In Mathinna’s case, of course, it’s not just the story of a personal tragedy but the tragedy of a people, as British colonization decimates the lives of the native people of Australia.

The Exiles is a beautiful and powerful read. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual characters and what becomes of them, because the specific storylines are best discovered by reading the book. Overall, this is a tragic and lovely story, and it left me wanting to learn more about the actual history of Australian settlement.

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

Title: The Dry
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2016
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Crime fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A small town hides big secrets in this atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper.

In the grip of the worst drought in a century, the farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily when three members of a local family are found brutally slain.

Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, loath to face the townsfolk who turned their backs on him twenty years earlier.

But as questions mount, Falk is forced to probe deeper into the deaths of the Hadler family. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret. A secret Falk thought was long buried. A secret Luke’s death now threatens to bring to the surface in this small Australian town, as old wounds bleed into new ones.

The Dry is a twisty tale of murder and secrets set in a rural Australian community, where drought has dried up farms and rivers and brought the entire town to the brink of natural and economic ruin.

Federal Investigator Aaron Falk is drawn back into the web of gossip and lies in the town of Kiewarra when he returns home for a funeral — the funeral of his former best friend, who appears to have slaughtered his wife and son before turning the shotgun on himself. It’s horrifying and ugly, and the town is roiling with unhappiness.

At the same time, Aaron’s reception by the town is hostile. Twenty years earlier, he was suspected of murdering a classmate and was forced to flee with his father in the face of threats and aggression. The people of Kiewarra have a long memory, and no one — especially the dead girl’s family — wants to see him back among them.

But Aaron and the local police officer both believe something is off about the deaths of Luke’s family. Something about the crime scene just doesn’t add up, so Aaron stays to help pick through the witness statements and other bits and pieces of clues. Meanwhile, his memories of the events of 20 years earlier are coming back strongly, and he’s finding himself plagued by that unsolved mystery as well.

I was very caught up in the story of The Dry and just could not stop reading! The murder itself is gruesome and terrible, and it’s shocking to see how the different pieces fit together. Aaron is an impressive main character, smart and determined, but also flawed and haunted by his past and his regrets.

It was fascinating to get a view of the small-town politics and power plays, and I found the description of the drought-ridden environment and its dangers really powerful. Who knew that a scene with a lighter in it could be quite so scary?

I’m rating this book 3 1/2 stars, because I did enjoy it quite a bit, but also felt certain pieces of the mystery were a little on the obvious side. Given that I don’t normally gravitate toward crime stories, I was surprised that I liked The Dry as much as I did!

In fact, I think at some point I’ll want to read more of this author’s work — my book group friends recommend her books highly! **Save

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Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Tom Hope doesn’t think he’s much of a farmer, but he’s doing his best. He can’t have been much of a husband to Trudy, either, judging by her sudden departure. It’s only when she returns, pregnant to someone else, that he discovers his surprising talent as a father. So when Trudy finds Jesus and takes little Peter away with her to join the holy rollers, Tom’s heart breaks all over again.

Enter Hannah Babel, quixotic smalltown bookseller: the second Jew—and the most vivid person—Tom has ever met. He dares to believe they could make each other happy.

But it is 1968: twenty-four years since Hannah and her own little boy arrived at Auschwitz. Tom Hope is taking on a batttle with heartbreak he can barely even begin to imagine.

My Thoughts:

First of all, let’s be clear, while the title refers to a bookshop, this novel isn’t particularly about the bookshop. There’s a whole subgenre of bookstore fiction, sure to warm the hearts of booklovers everywhere. This isn’t one of those books.

Set in Australia, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted tells the story of Tom, a lonely man who’s been unlucky in love. Tom is a sheep farmer who lives a contented, quiet life, until his wife Trudy deserts him and takes away Peter, the son of his heart if not his body. When Tom meets Hannah, it’s like he gets a new ray of sunshine in his life, and the two form a passionate, unbreakable bond. But Hannah’s past haunts her in ways Tom can’t quite understand, and when Peter reenters their lives, it may be more than Hannah can stand.

The story is truly affecting in parts, and I came to love Tom quite a lot. He’s sweet and good and loving, although he does seem to allow himself to roll with the punches rather than standing up to the people and events that hurt him. Tom’s relationship with Peter is lovely, so when he’s taken away, it is a heart-breaking development. The story of Peter’s experiences at “Jesus Camp” is horrible — he’s essentially trapped there by a mother who’s caught up in pastor’s cult-like community, and I was really upset by Peter’s suffering and the length of time it takes for him to finally be rescued.

We hear about Hannah’s past through chapters scattered throughout the book that show her experiences in the concentration camp and the years afterward. Of course, she’s deserving of great sympathy, but there are times with Tom and Peter that’s it hard to like her.

Overall, this is a quiet and moving book. I loved the descriptions of Tom’s farm and the Australian setting and landscapes. The writing is slow and underspoken, with a brevity that somehow makes the emotion harder to access at times.  The juxtaposition of ranch life in Australia and memories of the Holocaust makes for an unusual mix, but it works. The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is an unusual work of historical fiction, definitely worth checking out.

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The details:

Title: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
Author: Robert Hillman
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: April 9, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Nowhere Child is screenwriter Christian White’s internationally bestselling debut thriller of psychological suspense about a woman uncovering devastating secrets about her family—and her very identity…

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-six years earlier, Sammy Went, a two-year old girl vanished from her home in Manson, Kentucky. An American accountant who contacts Kim is convinced she was that child, kidnapped just after her birthday. She cannot believe the woman who raised her, a loving social worker who died of cancer four years ago, crossed international lines to steal a toddler.

On April 3rd, 1990, Jack and Molly Went’s daughter Sammy disappeared from the inside their Kentucky home. Already estranged since the girl’s birth, the couple drifted further apart as time passed. Jack did his best to raise and protect his other daughter and son while Molly found solace in her faith. The Church of the Light Within, a Pentecostal fundamentalist group who handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship, provided that faith. Without Sammy, the Wents eventually fell apart.

Now, with proof that she and Sammy are in fact the same person, Kim travels to America to reunite with a family she never knew she had. And to solve the mystery of her abduction—a mystery that will take her deep into the dark heart of religious fanaticism where she must fight for her life against those determined to save her soul…

The Nowhere Child is a contemporary mystery with a premise that reminded me of some teen thrillers that were popular in the early 2000s. What happens to a person who discovers that the life she thought she knew is built on a lie? What if it turns out that your parents aren’t really your parents? How would you handle finding out that you were kidnapped, way back before you were old enough to remember, and that you have an entirely other family out there in the world?

Kim’s life is turned upside down when a stranger shows up claiming that she’s his long-lost sister. DNA testing quickly proves that they are in fact siblings. But Kim knows that her mother was a good, loving person — how could she be a kidnapper?

Kim agrees to go to the United States with Stuart to meet her biological sister and parents, to see the Kentucky town where she was born, and to try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. What happened all those years ago? Who took her, and why? And how did she end up growing up in Australia with woman she believed to be her mother?

The town of Manson, Kentucky has its own creepy secrets, among them a formerly popular pentecostal congregation with an outsized influence on its members, including Sammy/Kim’s mother Molly. Church members bear their snake bite scars as badges of honor — those who survive, anyway. As the narrative switches back and forth between Kim’s present trip to Manson and the past, almost thirty years earlier, when Sammy disappeared from her home, the clues and connections start to add up. And while Kim/Sammy’s kidnapping happened so many years ago, there’s still a threat lurking in the town when she comes too close to uncovering the truth.

I enjoyed the story and the puzzle of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Sammy, and the description of the different family members, townspeople, and their secrets. Some of the threads between “then” and “now” seemed a little flimsy to me, but overall, the plot is pieced together in such a way that the answers aren’t too obvious. I had a pretty good idea of whose stories had holes and where the missing connection might be, but it was still interesting to see it all come together.

We never really see much of Kim’s life in Australia, and I would have liked that piece of her life to be better fleshed out, especially to have seen more memories of her time with her mother. It felt like an important piece was missing, to see how Kim was raised and what her relationship with her mother was like. Likewise, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why some of the people in Kentucky in the “now” timeline acted as they did, and even once we had all the answers about the kidnapping, I’m not convinced that the motivation for taking and keeping Sammy made a whole lot of sense.

There’s a truly disturbing scene toward the end of the book that absolutely made my skin crawl. I mean, super icky and scary. Let’s just say that if you have a problem with reptiles and rodents, you should proceed with caution!

Overall, The Nowhere Child is a good, solid read that held my interest, even when I didn’t quite buy every element of the story. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The details:

Title: The Nowhere Child
Author: Christian White
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Could ten days at a health resort really change you forever? In Liane Moriarty’s latest page-turner, nine perfect strangers are about to find out…

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer – or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

Combining all of the hallmarks that have made her writing a go-to for anyone looking for wickedly smart, page-turning fiction that will make you laugh and gasp, Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers once again shows why she is a master of her craft.

Guys, I hate to say it. This book is kind of a mess.

An entertaining mess, most of the time… but a mess all the same.

For way too much of my read, I couldn’t figure out what this book wanted to be. Is it a thriller? Is it a character study? Are we meant to be worried about these people? Amused by them? Even now that I’ve finished, I can’t quite put my finger on what the point of it all was.

The plot here revolves around nine people who, for their own reasons, choose to spend ten days at a health resort that promises personal transformation as an outcome. Some seek weight loss, others rest and healthy eating, others peace and isolation. Over the course of the novel, we get to know more about these nine people as individuals — their challenges, their current situations, and their frustrations. The nine include Frances, the romance writer whose career is in trouble; Tony, a former athlete; Lars, a divorce attorney; Ben and Jessica, a newly rich young couple whose marriage is in trouble; Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe, a couple and their young adult daughter dealing with grief; and Carmel, a divorced mother of four with some serious body-image issues. The character development is somewhat uneven — while we spend a lot of time with Frances, not all are given time to become anything more than a bare-bones type, rather than a fully-drawn person.

The crux of the drama here is Masha, the enigmatic, charismatic owner of Tranquillum, who takes a fanatical interest in ensuring her guests’ transformations, and is determined to introduce her new breakthrough protocol, no matter what.

Masha is the most problematic part of Nine Perfect Strangers. Her actions are bizarre and ominous, and she comes across as almost a cartoon mad scientist/evil genius. Early on, we learn that most of the guests haven’t really done their homework before committing to this non-refundable, highly expensive health retreat, and the information online isn’t particularly helpful — the TripAdvisor reviews seem to be either 1-star or 5-stars, so love it or hate it, I guess. Here’s where I kept getting a thriller vibe — it’s implied from the start that something dark is happening behind the scenes, that Masha’s motives aren’t pure, that the people here will be manipulated or endangered in some way. But at the same time, we spend an awful lot of time learning about everyone’s personal problems and seeing how they hope to change their lives, so it’s never quite clear whether these people are benefiting from their experiences or if they should run screaming into the night.

Masha’s methods take a turn for the crazy, and there’s a huge issue around consent. Trying to be vague here, but once it’s clear what’s going on, the book becomes more and more difficult to read, because these people are in danger from a madwoman and it all goes on for way too long, with some really weird developments along the way. And then it all gets wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end, and the closing chapters focus on the transformations these people all went through… so it’s not really a thriller after all, even though there was a ton of crazy shit going down?

So yeah, a mess. Not to say it’s not readable — I was caught up in the story and tore through it pretty quickly. But still — the characters never felt like much more than cookie-cutter types, the plot veers into territory that makes it unbelievable, and the book as a whole seems to be having an identity crisis.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret), but Nine Perfect Strangers just isn’t a win for me.

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The details:

Title: Nine Perfect Strangers
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: November 6, 2018
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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