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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

'Beautiful Messy Love' by Tess Woods


From the BLURB:

What happens when love and loyalty collide?

When football star Nick Harding hobbles into the Black Salt Cafe the morning after the night before, he is served by Anna, a waitress with haunted-looking eyes and no interest in footballers, famous or otherwise. Nick is instantly drawn to this exotic, intelligent girl. But a relationship between them risks shame for her conservative refugee family and backlash for Nick that could ruin his career.

Meanwhile, Nick's sister, Lily, is struggling to finish her medical degree. When she meets Toby, it seems that for the first time she is following her heart, not the expectations of others. Yet what starts out as a passionate affair with a man still grieving after his wife's death slips quickly into dangerous dependency.

Scarred by tragedy each in their own way, these warm, hopeful couples must overcome prejudice and heartbreak to prove just how much they will give for beautiful messy love.

A gorgeous, hard-hitting novel that touches on celebrity, asylum, cultural integration and family tragedy, this is a book with heart and soul.

‘Beautiful Messy Love’ is the second Women’s Fiction/Romance book from Australian author, Tess Woods.

Full disclosure: Tess is an author with the Literary Agency I work for, Jacinta di Mase. My review though, is in no way impacted by my connection to Tess (really, if I don’t like a book these days, I just don’t write about it). But I will say – I loved ‘Beautiful Messy Love’ so much, I texted Jacinta late one night, asking when Tess would have a third book out – so that’s just a little bonus to the connection!

‘Beautiful Messy Love’ is the story of two whirlwind romances that start in the most unlikely of ways, and meet their fair share of hurdles along the way. One concerns an AFL-footballer with a reputation, deciding to turn his life around right when he meets a beautiful Egyptian refugee who he falls hard and fast for. The second concerns a young medical student starting a risky romance with the estranged husband of a patient she meets during her oncology-ward rounds.

The novel is written in alternative-POV chapters from each of the four players – as we get to know all the baggage that each person brings to their new relationship, and the outside complications that threaten them all. Everything from media scrutiny to xenophobia, past-trauma and heartbreak are detailed and examined with lovely tenderness and cutting observation.

I absolutely adored this book, and gobbled it up in two days. I was actually surprised that I connected so viscerally with both couples and their stories – especially because one romance, between med-student Lily and the very tricky coupling with a grieving ex-husband Toby, sounds absolutely shocking in theory … but on the page, Woods teased this couple out with so much heat and sensuality, it was hard not to fall for them and root for them, even as all their biggest problems and obstacles were still painfully obvious.

The stand-out in this book though, is the romance between footballer Nick Harding and young refugee woman Anwar ‘Anna’. Tess Woods has written such a beautifully complex romance between them – that I also appreciated for how thoroughly Australian it is, and the bigger discussions it allowed Woods to have.

Anna has an awfully painful story of how and why she sought refuge in Australia, and coupled with the combustible media-landscape for AFL celebrities – Woods was really able to peel back a rather ugly underbelly to Australian society, media and politics that made for higher stakes in this romance, coupled with really thoughtful discussion about much bigger issues. There’s no lecture here, just a very human story that was all too believable and heartbreaking.

The book does end on a sense of … open-endedness for some that left me just a little sad to not know for sure that everyone got a happy ending. But that also felt very true, and anything neater than what we got would have felt rather disingenuous and perhaps too sickly-sweet? So I almost appreciated the sour with the sweet. But not so much that I won’t be hoping that some of these character pop up in another book – or short story/novella?

I’ve been in such a reading-slump this year, purely because I’m doing so much manuscript reading and assessing that my recreational-reading has felt a little clogged … but now I’m well and truly back in a reading rhythm, and thanks in large party to the addictiveness of ‘Beautiful Messy Love’. It’s romance that packs a punch, tender and thoughtful with a fantastic hot-streak. Tess Woods has now leapt to my auto-buy list, and I cannot wait to read more from her!

5/5

Sunday, August 20, 2017

'The Good Daughter' by Karin Slaughter


From the BLURB:

'Karin Slaughter's most ambitious, most emotional, and best novel. So far, anyway.
James Patterson

The stunning new standalone, with a chilling edge of psychological suspense, from the bestselling author of Pretty Girls.

Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind ...

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn's happy smalltown family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father - Pikeville's notorious defence attorney - devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.

Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father's footsteps to become a lawyer herself - the archetypal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again - and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatised - Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it's a case which can't help triggering the terrible memories she's spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime which destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won't stay buried for ever ...

***

‘The Good Daughter’ is the latest novel from my favourite crime-writer, Karin Slaughter.

The last Karin Slaughter book I read was 2016’s ‘The Kept Woman’, eighth book in her long-running ‘Will Trent’ series which in recent books has become a convergence of her previous series, ‘Grant County’. I enjoyed ‘The Kept Woman’, but also struggled with it in a way I haven’t done with a Karin Slaughter book before … and a lot of the struggle was a feeling of series-stagnation, a sense that Book No. 8 was a bit of a “filler episode” with little happening to advance characterisation. Which basically boils down to a bit of fatigue for a series that is, essentially, 14-books long by now.

So I was somewhat happy to come to ‘The Good Daughter’, and realise it’s a stand-alone book. Even though by the end of it, I did find myself half-hoping that Ms. Slaughter would announce this as the first in a new series she’s about to kick off (which, hey!, isn’t that wild a possibility – since her 2014 novel ‘Cop Town’ was meant to be stand-alone and is now rumoured to become the first in a series!).

‘The Good Daughter’ revolves around sisters Charlotte ‘Chuck’ and Samantha ‘Sam’ Quinn – and their small hometown of Pikeville, Georgia. Twenty-eight years ago Chuck and her older sister Sam were the victims of an awful act of vengeance aimed at their notorious defence attorney father, that resulted in the death of their mother and left both girls with very different scars. We begin in 1989 and the awful events of one night, an event readers will keep pivoting to and see from both Sam and Chuck’s perspectives – then we land in 2017, when the sisters have not spoken to one another for close to a decade, even as they’ve chosen very different paths for themselves, while still following in their father’s lawyering footsteps.

A school-shooting forces the sisters to come together, for their father’s sake, and the young woman accused of the heinous act which has left two dead.

I have not been a very good reader this year (let alone reviewer!). I have been reading, but mostly manuscripts and Top Secret projects I can’t exactly blog about. And so I have felt very much deficient as an avid reader in 2017, with only a meagre number of *published* books completed from my towering TBR-pile. But Karin Slaughter has changed that, thanks to the compulsively brilliant ‘The Good Daughter’. I feel a little unlocked now, and it’s no wonder when Slaughter is one of those mainstay authors whom I have come to rely on as a constant reading lodestone at least once a year.

‘The Good Daughter’ is a fabulous introduction to Slaughter’s crime novels, for those who have never come across her before. Even as this stand-alone novel is quite a different beast from her usual crime-dramas … it’s much more a family-saga than anything else she’s written, with a firm focus on the love between the two sisters and their complicated relationship with their charming, slippery father, Rusty. Slaughter’s previous books have all tended to be focused on the prosecution side of things too – with a police chief, FBI-agent and coroner making up her usual list of protagonists – but ‘The Good Daughter’ switches things up brilliantly, by aligning us with the defence-attorney team on the side of the accused, and painting small-town cops in a none too flattering manner … These are all thoroughly new avenues that Slaughter is exploring, but it’s all still an amalgamation of what makes Karin Slaughter the top of her game.

I will warn that, yes, like most crime writers of today – violence against women is a huge component of this book (and most of Slaughter’s works, even as male characters also get dealt their fair share of violence). What I appreciate about Slaughter though, is that it’s not for nothing. The physical and sexual violence meted out against her female characters is never used to advance a man’s storyline – and it’s never so throwaway that she doesn’t pick apart, to the bone, the ramifications of that violence beyond the act itself.

As is always the case, Slaughter’s characters are broken. Not just by the past, and a collective, harrowing and violent event from Sam and Chuck’s childhood – that changed their young lives’ forever – but they’re broken in more recent grief of loss, and marriage-breakdowns. Sam and Chuck are messy, and it’s easy to see why, when we meet their enigmatic father Rusty who – for all his caricature bluster and good-nature, is just as hollowed-out as his daughters by all that they’ve lost. Rusty reminded me more though, of a stone – smoothed by being battered and washed over by the current of time, while his two daughters are still jagged rock formations, not yet ready to face the waves. Even Slaughter’s minor-characters are sublimely drawn and you just know that if she wanted to (again, I’m crossing my fingers for a series here) there’d be some fantastic stories to pluck out of them … Rusty’s secretary Lenore, being a prime example.

I will say too though – that something which struck me as so different about ‘The Good Daughter’ from Slaughter’s other books is how likeable all the main players are. I know how this sounds but trust me, – some of Slaughter’s long-time readers (me included) take serious issue with some of her protagonists (*cough* Lena Adams *cough*). Sometimes it’s an enduring hatred, other times what starts as hate-of-a-thousand-suns cools over a series as their layers are peeled back … but pretty generally, Slaughter loves a character who lives in the gray-areas of morality, and whom readers have to really work at begrudgingly liking. To give you a teaser of this (which spoils nothing, because you learn it in the first chapter or two of book one!) is that hero of the ‘Grant County’ series, Jeffrey Tolliver, cheated on the series’ other protagonist, Sara Linton and when we meet them they are bitterly divorced.

This kind of ingrained dislike of awful, damaged characters isn’t really a factor in ‘The Good Daughter’. Chuck and Sam certainly have their issues – Chuck especially, lives with more than one moral ambiguity. But you don’t hate them. At least, I didn’t. Instead I felt an instant kinship and tenderness towards both of them – also, possibly, because we first meet them as children, experiencing the worst moment of their lives. Perhaps we’re made to be instantly forgiving for some of their more caustic behaviour because we know where it stems from … but I don’t think so. At least, that’s not the only reason. I think Slaughter has just really excelled at writing two damaged but determined women who are fascinating to read bump against one another’s so different personalities, and find a way to connect as sisters after such a long silence.

‘The Good Daughter’ is, unsurprisingly, one of my fave readers of 2017 so far. It may even be pretty high up on my list of All Time Favourite Crime Novels. A heart-hurting slice of Georgia dark, from a crime-writer who has managed to pivot into family drama with such fine characterisations, that I find myself in awe of an author I already considered a favourite. I will only say that I’d have liked more courtroom drama – but I’ll quietly hope we get more, should this book prove to be the first in a series …

5/5
  

Monday, August 7, 2017

YA Lit Fest - Doncaster Library, VIC


‘All the Little Liars’ Aurora Teagarden #9 by Charlaine Harris


From the BLURB:

Aurora Teagarden is basking in the news of her pregnancy when disaster strikes her small Georgia town: four kids vanish from the school soccer field in an afternoon. Aurora's 15-year-old brother Phillip is one of them. Also gone are two of his friends, and an 11-year-old girl who was just hoping to get a ride home from soccer practice. And then there's an even worse discovery at the kids' last known destination, a dead body.

While the local police and sheriff's department comb the county for the missing kids and interview everyone even remotely involved, Aurora and her new husband, true crime writer Robin Crusoe, begin their own investigation. Could the death and kidnappings have anything to do with a group of bullies at the middle school? Is Phillip's disappearance related to Aurora's father's gambling debts? Or is Phillip himself, new to town and an unknown quantity, responsible for taking the other children? But regardless of the reason, as the days go by, the most important questions remain. Are the kids still alive? Who could be concealing them? Where could they be?

With Christmas approaching, Aurora is determined to find her brother . . . if he's still alive.

‘All the Little Liars’ is the ninth book in Charlaine Harris’ recently-rebooted ‘Aurora Teagarden’ cozy-mystery series, about a sleuthing librarian and her little town of Lawrenceton, Missouri (the first few books of the series have also recently been adapted into a bunch of quite-okay but much tamer than the books, Hallmark Movies starring Candace Cameron Bure).

I say this series has been “rebooted”, because the last we saw of Aurora was the 2003 book ‘Poppy Done to Death’. Harris wrapped up (or so we thought) the Aurora Teagarden mystery series, just as her ‘Sookie Stackhouse: Southern Vampire’ series (which would eventually become the ‘True Blood’ TV series) was really taking off … around book three, ‘Club Dead’.

I know Charlaine often gets asked which of her backlist mystery series she’s most likely to revisit with new books – and her answer has long been ‘Aurora Teagarden’, purely because that’s the universe where she still has story-ideas. I, personally, would give *anything* for more books in ‘Lily Bard’ which is my go-to “Must Read Charlaine Harris” rec, but I was fine to have new-anything from Ms Harris. However … the rebooted Aurora is a little odd.

For one thing – you definitely can’t come to ‘All The Little Liars’ without having read all previous eight books in the series. I assume though, that part of the reason Aurora ‘Roe’ has been revisited is because Charlaine has nabbed a whole bunch of new readers in the time since ‘True Blood’ and the Hallmark movie adaptations – the covers have been redesigned, there are omnibus editions out now … so certainly, I think there are new readers coming to these books and her entire backlist. Charlaine Harris has been revisiting and rebooting a few of her series lately, in general. ‘Midnight, Texas’ (which is now also a TV show, and not half bad) was Charlaine bringing together a bunch of random secondary characters from all her past series.

But for those of us who stuck with Aurora from the very beginning, it’s hard to forget the weird transition the series went through around book 6, ‘A Fool and His Honey’ which is when (SPOILER ALERT) – Aurora’s husband, Martin, was killed off. This was undoubtedly a shock, and Charlaine tried to reign in a happy ending in books 7 & 8 by reintroducing a love interest from book 1 in crime-mystery writer, Robin to pair off with Auroa at the 2003-conclusion of the series. But it was a little clunkily done. While also not surprising in the least – because if there’s anything I’ve learnt from reading every single Charlaine Harris book, ever – it’s that she does not like traditional pairings for her heroines. She likes to pull the rug out from under readers … she’s very much of the Louisa May Alcott school of ‘Professor Bhaer + Jo’ romancing, more so than the Team ‘Laurie + Jo’ thinking. Fair warning for anyone wanting to get stuck into her backlist books (which you totally should!) but she likes to serve her readers spoonfuls of salt with their happily-ever-after’s

So ‘All The Little Liars’ picks up where 2003 Aurora left off – married to Robin, and expecting a baby while also being guardian to her little half-brother.

The mystery in book nine, pivots around the disappearance of Aurora’s brother, Phillip, two of his friends and 11-year-old daughter to the local priest. The case was interesting enough – and certainly provided an opportunity to seamlessly revisit all of Roe’s family members and townsfolk friends (to rejig a few reader-memories, I’m sure). But it got a little boring.

Now, I’ve always been a big fan of how Charlaine Harris – in her cozy mysteries – actually teases out how boring and mundane violence and crime are, and she’ll often observe a whodunit over the course of, say, a week and really show how boots-on-the-ground grinding an investigation can be (interspersed with tense interactions and repercussions on the lives of those waiting for a culprit to be found). But this mystery was missing kids, and even if it’s not accurate, I felt like there should have been higher-levels of tension and panic from everyone involved.

I also struggled with this one because I wasn’t getting much from the Aurora/Robin relationship. I really liked Martin (though weirdly, in this book Roe makes quite a few throwaway comments about how overbearing and tricky he was as a husband?) … but Martin and Roe’s relationship was intense and hot, and a sexy harmonising to the gritty crime-of-the-week being explored. Robin, while more sedate and solid for Roe – is not so fiery and passionate as Martin, and therefore bought that balance of crime/family down a couple notches.

All in all this one was … a disappointment. I’m still here for the next book in the rebooted series, ‘Sleep Like a Baby’ coming September this year. But I’ll keep my expectations a little more in check.

2/5