THE MISSING WIFE by Sheila O’Flanagan

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Under the pretext of going to France for a business trip, Imogen plans her disappearance. She needs to vanish without a leaving a trail, otherwise he’ll find her. Vince, the devoted husband, is distraught at Imogen’s disappearance. Or so it seems. Underneath his calm but concerned demeanour, Vince is seething. He is determined to find his wife and bring her back home where she belongs. With him. Imogen is his. And so begins the search for Imogen.

Meanwhile, Imogen has planted some misdirects in Paris, in the hopes that, should Vince come to France, he will end up far from her actual destination. She’s hiding out in her childhood seaside town, a time and place she never told Vince about. There are good and bad memories in Hendaye and Imogen confronts the ghosts of her past while the devil of her present stalks her.

The missing wife delves into the territory of bad marriages and controlling spouses. It’s not an easy topic to cover and O’Flanagan portrays well the subtle destruction of self confidence and resulting fear, and the shift to confidence once out of her husband’s reach. Imogen’s character is well developed, and there is a good sense of connecting with her. I thought Vince was a bit wooden at the start, but he becomes more menacing as the story unfolds. At times I felt there was too much telling of emotions and feelings through internal dialogue. A certain amount is needed to convey the turmoil that Imogen feels, but I wondered if perhaps some of her fear and insecurities could be shown rather than told. Overall, a good solid read, and perfect if you’re planning some lazy holiday lounging.

Rating:           3.5/5

 

The missing wife by Sheila O’Flanagan (Hatchette Australia, 2016)

ISBN: 9781472210777

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

To find out more about Sheila O’Flanagan’s new title, or her previous titles, visit her website www.sheilaoflanagan.com

Facebook.com/sheilabooks

Twitter @sheilaoflanagan

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LILY AND THE OCTOPUS by Steven Rowley

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This book took me by surprise. Who knew that a story about a man and his dog could be so good? Not me, that’s for sure. It was funny, endearing, heartfelt and filled with lots of special moments that all pet owners will no doubt relate to. Lily and the Octopus was a genuinely delightful read.

Ted’s best friend is Lily, a rambunctious dachshund now in her older years. Ted and Lily do everything together – they have movie nights, eat pizza, talk about guys, play Monopoly, take walks around the neighbourhood, go for drives and eat ice-cream. After his break up with his boyfriend, Ted spends more and more time with Lily, and then one night he notices something odd: Lily has an octopus on her head. Perched over one eye, it clings to her, and refuses to leave, despite Ted’s numerous threats and pleading.

Ted’s friend, therapist and vet all join in calling the new arrival an octopus, and are duly sympathetic to the octopus’s grip on Lily and its vindictive attack on her health – she has seizures, and once the octopus inks her, she can no longer see. Ted, enraged by the the octopus and its refusal to leave, resorts to drastic measures in a bid to chase it away: he brings home another octopus and dismembers it, feeding chunks to the excited Lily. The octopus flees, but Ted isn’t satisfied. He knows in his heart that if he doesn’t track down the octopus and destroy it that it will return and take his beloved Lily from him. Ted simply won’t let that happen. He’s going to take a stand and fight for her life. And so the adventure begins, with Ted and Lily on the high seas in a fishing trawler, hunting the evil octopus. It’s an epic adventure that pushes them to the edge, and bonds them in new ways.

There is a magic to this book that slips in and surrounds you as you read. Lily is perfectly portrayed – she’s stubborn, has a big personality for a dog with short little legs, and enjoys life to the fullest. I had a dachshund when I was a kid, and he was just as excitable and cheeky as Lily. What I really enjoyed about this book was the relationship between Ted and Lily, the humanising of that bond and the depth of the emotions that tie them together. Highly recommend you put it on your reading list.

Rating:           5/5

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster 2016)

Web link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Lily-and-the-Octopus/Steven-Rowley/9781501126222

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Author website: Steven Rowley – Lily and the Octopus

BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin

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There’s nothing better than jumping into a chilling psychological thriller when engulfed by a sweltering week-long summer heatwave. With the air-con blasting on high, I was quickly engrossed in Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans.

The tension kicks in from the start and from there it escalates relentlessly with clever plot twists and minimal clues. Sixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright is missing 32 hours of her life after having been kidnapped and left for dead in a shallow grave with another dead body and an assortment of bones from earlier victims. Tessie’s makeshift grave was covered with yellow flowers, Black-Eyed Susans, and the girls in the grave are soon nicknamed after the flowers, by the press.

Fast-forward 20 years and Tessa (as she’s known in adulthood) is a single mother and artist who has attempted to move on from her traumatic abduction, but someone won’t let her rest. She wakes one winter morning to a patch of freshly planted Black-Eyed Susans underneath her window. Someone is toying with her, taunting her, but it can’t be the perpetrator because he was convicted and sent to jail. Or was he? Is the wrong man in jail, now on death row? Tessa is terrified that the real killer is stalking her, worse, stalking her daughter. The walls that she built to protect herself from her abduction and attempted murder begin to crumble; her sanity and her life are on the line. Again. There is a race against time – to save an innocent man from being killed for a murder he didn’t commit, and to save Tessa’s daughter from the twisted serial killer who haunts and taunts her.

This is a gem of a book and the story is multi-layered, complex and compelling. Told by both Tessie and Tessa, alternating from past to present, there is a slow revealing of events – the teenager who struggles to cope and her subsequent sessions with a therapist, and the woman who has moved on to make a new life for herself, despite her fragile mental state. There’s a good peppering of suspicious characters to keep you guessing who the nasty serial killer is, and the motivations behind it all.

The story is driven by facts and misplaced leads, and Julia Heaberlin shows exemplary skill in knowing just where and when to place a crumb of evidence, to lead the story onwards, and when to create a diversion or false lead that goes nowhere. Black-Eyed Susans is an exhilarating thriller built on masterful writing and expertly handled plot development. If you’re a thriller fan, then you simply must add for this book to your reading list.

Rating:   4/5

 

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin (Penguin 2015)

ISBN: 9781405921299

Julia Heaberlin is the author of three thrillers and you can find out more about her other titles at her website: juliaheaberlin.com

THE PASSENGER by Lisa Lutz

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The Passenger is a fast-paced thriller that will most certainly leave you breathless. The plot is well crafted with good twists and turns, populated with strong characters, and short clipped sentences provide good momentum driving narrative forward, capturing the constant sense of urgency.

Tanya has been living a secret life for almost a decade, but she’s not a skilled perpetrator on the run and there’s an innocence to her, a naivety that rounds out her character nicely. Her husband’s death triggers panic and she’s quickly on the run, trying to stay ahead of her past. She soon meets Blue, a barmaid with icy eyes and a questionable background. Blue offers Tanya a place to stay and a solution to both their problems – swap identities as a means of escaping their personal demons. On the surface it looks like a good idea and Tanya agrees, but it soon becomes clear that Blue is cold-hearted and in looking after her own interests has set Tanya up.

Tanya changes identities faster than costume change at a fashion show. She changes her hair and looks, and quickly becomes adept at pick pocketing women’s purses in pursuit of a new identity and cash to keep her on the run and off the radar. Lisa Lutz has handled these multiple changes well with credible circumstances surrounding each new reason to ditch the old name and find a new one.

Some parts could have been better addressed, such as when Blue’s husband tracks Tanya down in a remote town and beats her up to find out where his wife is, she escapes but there’s no reference to her injuries or any pain that she’s feeling, which might have slowed her down.

What was great about this novel is that women were the main characters holding the story together. Men feature as support characters, or love interests, or as back stabbing bastards, but the women are the power component, and they aren’t reliant on men to save them. These women are gutsy, smart and resourceful and not some simpering female sidekick to a male character. Blue is cold and calculating, and will kill at will for her own moral reasons, or less, while Tanya still has a soul and feels remorse for her actions, however, events ultimately take her to a place of no return and she soon feels her humanity slipping away as she leaves a trail of bodies in her wake.

Rating:          4/5

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz (Simon & Schuster 2016)

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Author website: Lisa Lutz – The Passenger

 

THE RIVER HOUSE by Janita Cunnington

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that struck such a deep note of nostalgia in me. The River House stirred awake in me long-forgotten teenage memories of days spent at the beach swimming in a teal blue ocean, of that same ocean turbulent with steely grey waves capped with white froth that skittered up the beach during an approaching storm, of the vibrantly alive bushland that made up the areas surrounding Maroochydore and Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.

Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, but I find it rare to find a book of this calibre that brings Queensland coastal areas to life in such a rich and fervent way. (Readers, if you have suggestions for other titles about Queensland that I should read, post your ideas in the comments section below).

But, it’s not just my personal nostalgia that makes this a good book. Janita Cunnington has crafted a richly evocative novel about growing up, about life spent on the river and near the ocean, about the passing of time and how just as the river’s path changes, meanders, sandbars appear and disappear, and deep channels are cut by the flow of the ocean and currents, so too life changes, there are bumps in the road, and at times all we take for granted is swept away.

The story begins in the late 1940s with four-year-old Laurie Carlyle immersed in an endless summer at the family’s river house, on the banks of the Broody River, near the small holiday town of Baroodibah. For young Laurie, the river house is a place of enjoyment, a wonderland of sights and smells, plants, animals and sea creatures.

“The wind made the tents across the river flap gaily. Sometimes it blew so strongly they all clapped their canvas sides as if they were an audience and they liked the show. Laurie liked it too: the river patched with lime and mauve; the boats bucking at their anchors; the white frill of the surf on the bar; the she-oaks sighing; the sea howling distantly; the pelicans getting up above the wind as high as small aeroplanes, up into the blue.”

But something happens at the river house that summer that changes things in the family. A crack in the family unit slowly grows longer and deeper as the years pass by. During this time the Carlyle families live in Brisbane but holiday on the Sunshine Coast, at the fictional Baroodibah, which involves long road trips from the city up through the Glasshouse Mountains, and to Nambour, past sugar cane fields and bushland. The one constant in Laurie’s life, through her teen years, young adulthood and then motherhood is the river house and all the nostalgic memories it holds for her. When her brother, Tony, deeply in debt, threatens to sell it, Laurie is devastated. She’s not ready to let go of the river house; she always imagined it would be there forever. But, nothing lasts forever, and ultimately she is faced with losing that which she loves most dearly.

The River House spans from Laurie’s early childhood through to 2005, when she is a grandmother. This timeframe is handled well, with fragments of Laurie and her family’s lives swelling to the fore and then receding again. Throughout is an underlying tension of dreams lost, of desires never quite fulfilled, which are balanced by achievements, trips back to the river house, reconnection with the river, and of love lost and renewed. The narration ebbs and flows, and meanders, much like the flow of the river or the tide of the ocean, and this makes for captivating reading.

There is one section that drags on a bit, when Laurie and Tony are in university and Tony develops strong political ideals and these ideals are discussed in detail with much fervour. But then, perhaps that’s the point? To highlight the depths of passion that politics can trigger in people, and for some it becomes their life mission. It also sets up Tony’s character for who he becomes later in life, and so while the political detail was a little much for me, it serves a valid purpose. The one area that baffled me a bit was that Laurie’s son, Vit, gets very little airtime compared to his younger sister, Cora. But then, he’s a bit of a disappointment and so perhaps his absence is purposefully constructed to this end. For me, these observations are mere trifles, and certainly do no detract from the power and beauty of the overall story.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed The River House, its charm, its vivid descriptions and the compelling story of Laurie’s life as seen through her eyes.

Rating:          4/5

The River House by Janita Cunnington (Bantam 2016)

ISBN: 9780143780182

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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THE DRESSMAKER by Rosalie Ham

 

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Without a doubt, this book is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year. From start to finish I was captivated by the characters, storyline and the prose.

Rosalie Ham is a writer with a cutting sense of wit and she imbues The Dressmaker with keen observations on life in the small Victorian wheat belt town of Dungatar, of what goes on behind closed doors, and the insidious nature of gossip. With caricature characters such as Mad Molly, who lives on the hill, Miss Dimm, the school teacher, Mr Almanac, the town chemist, and the Pratts, who own the only department store in town, you soon appreciate the sharpness of Rosalie Ham’s pen and imagination.

Myrtle Dunnage, now going by the name of Tilly, returns to her hometown of Dungatar after many years absence. She restores her mother, Mad Molly, to health through the brewing of herbs and concoctions, and attempts to slowly integrate herself back into the small community through her couture dressmaking and design skills. But, the people of Dungatar are an unforgiving bunch, and their scorn for Tilly goes much deeper than her heritage of being a bastard child. In their eyes, Tilly Dunnage is a murderess who should be run out of town. However, the gossiping women’s egos soon take over, dominating the small town’s social circuit, as they compete against each other for Tilly’s fashionable creations and vie to be the best dressed and the most beautiful. There are excellent descriptions of frothing, flowing and sumptuous designs that add a fairytale element (like Cinderella dressing for the ball), combined with humorous jabs at the snooty women’s poorer clothing choices or personal attributes that are as sly as an evil stepsister. Pure magic and devilish delight.

The characters in this book are loathsome, despicable and utterly delightful. Many of them behave in completely inappropriate ways – rummaging through Tilly’s mail and keeping items for themselves, for example. Some of the antics they get up to behind closed doors are outrageous, sinful, cruel, gentle and tender. These moments are a driving force in the book. Also, there is a rich theatrical element with delightful character descriptions that make The Dressmaker such a good read.

Rosalie Ham is not afraid to upset her readers, and there are events within the book that made me want to shout ‘No! You can’t do that!’ but she did, and as devastated as I was, I had no choice to keep reading to see where the she would direct the story.

A dark, sinister undertone accompanies the light, fluffy, fashion-driven moments of silk and lace in this novel. There is tragedy, and then there is retribution, dished out in deliciously satisfying ways. The final act of revenge is a scorcher! I was most impressed at the turns this book took, and confess that I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation to see how they have handled this fantastical, dark-humoured novel.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham (Duffy & Snellgrove 2000)

eISBN: 9780987082039

Author website: Rosalie Ham – The Dressmaker

Author FB page: Rosalie Ham Writer and Novelist

 

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum

SelfishShallowSelfAbsorbedIt was the title of this book, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, that piqued my interest, along with the tagline in a review by the Huffington Post that touted the book as being confrontational, on purpose.

This book, a collection of essays, written by both female and male writers, tackles the sticky subject of women choosing to remain childless. There is an unspoken stigma, a taboo attached to women who elect to forego the path of motherhood. Women who say no to procreation are often vilified, while men who do the same are generally viewed as incorrigible bachelors.

Meghan Daum, editor of the collection, put together Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed with the aim of “lift[ing] the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living on large piles of disposable income”.

The essays contained within this collection are written with tenderness, care, humour and a deep sense of careful reflection and consideration for choices made. There is an openness, honesty and candour in the essays, and as the reader we are granted access to the intensely personal and intimate sections of the authors’ lives. Not all of the authors suffered traumatic childhoods, but many did, and they write unflinchingly about their experiences, and the impact this had on their decisions in life. I believe it takes great courage to open yourself in a public platform such as this, to expose an unhappy childhood populated with traumatic memories, parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t love you, and still be able to find love in your life, to want to pass on love to others, just not through having children.

Childhood trauma is not the only reason why these women chose not to have children. Several tried to have children but circumstances intervened – either by miscarriage or abortion, and this enabled them to realise that they were attempting to fulfil someone else’s dreams or desires. Some of the women (and men) simply did not feel the pull to procreate. The ticking biological clock did not kick in, the overwhelming desire to have a baby did not materialise.

One thing that is abundantly clear through all of the essays is that these authors have thought long and hard about whether or not to have children. They have agonised over the decision, looked at it from all viewpoints and taken into consideration their own financial stability, their ability to provide for a child, their own personal nature and ability to offer nurturing 24/7, their emotional states, and the ways in which they contribute to society and other children. There is a deep understanding of what it takes, of the commitment that is required, to raise children. Additionally, there is the honouring of the self, of having the strength to stand by convictions that they know are right for them and their lives.

None of these essays reflect the desire to pass on having children in favour of living the high life of luxury. There is praise for the fortitude of those people who do choose to have children and acknowledgement that it is a difficult, tedious, time consuming and rewarding commitment.

Some of the honest insights offered by the authors include:

Sigrid Nunez, in her essay, The Most Important Thing, discusses her traumatic childhood and its impact on her (p.93).

“I remember that when the time came to think seriously about whether or not to have children, the same idea occurred to me: the crucial thing would be to make sure that they not be afraid of their mother. It was a goal I believed I could achieve. But there was something else. As a child, I never felt safe. Every singe day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe?”

Danielle Henderson discusses her own unhappy childhood and reflects upon the judgement cast at her by others who are less concerned with her reasons for remaining childless and more occupied by their own opinions about it, in Save Yourself (p.147 – 148).

“Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone things they have the right to discuss my body and my choices, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right over and ask me about it… As bothered as I am by having to defend my decision, I’m more incensed that people think they have the right to ask. That’s because to ask me why I don’t have children is really to ask me to unpack my complicated history with parenting, or to try to explain something I’ve felt since I found out where babies come from… I admire women who look at the rigors of parenting and decide they’re just not cut out for it, or just don’t want to try, and I wish that we had more conversations about childlessness that didn’t force us to approach them from such a defensive place.”

Geoff Dyer conveys a delightful, wicked sense of British humour in his essay, Over and Out (p.187-188).

“It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them. Actually, even that doesn’t go far enough. In the park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand…

I may be immune to but I am not unaware of—how could I be?—the immense, unrelenting pressure to have children. To be middle-aged and childless is to elicit one of two responses. The first: pity because you are unable to have kids. This is fine by me. I’m always on the lookout for pity, will accept it from anyone or, if no one’s around, from myself. I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife and I are asked of we have kids, one of us will reply, ‘No, we’ve not been blessed with children.’ We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses… The second: horror because by choosing not to have children, you are declining full membership to the human race. By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles.”

Tim Kreider, in The End Of The Line, is candid and open about his perspective on parenting (p.250).

“Parents may frequently look back with envy on the irresponsible, self-indulgent lives of the childless, but I for one have never felt any reciprocal envy of their anxious and harried existence—noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shreiky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought. In an essay, I once describe being a parent as like belonging to a cult, ‘living in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, subject to the whim of a capricious and demented master,’ which a surprising number of parents told me they loved.”

Many of the stories resonated with me, probably because I am one of those women who decided not to have children and as has such have felt the wrath of others for making such a ‘selfish’ decision. When I was 35, my husband and I stayed with my in-laws after returning from three years spent living overseas. Whenever I was within earshot, my mother-in-law took to announcing to an otherwise empty room that “women who don’t have children are selfish and self-obsessed”. This contempt was repeated in dinner conversations centred around a couple that my parents-in-law had gone sailing with, and the woman in question was scathingly torn to shreds, determined as ‘selfish and self-obsessed’ due to her childless state. What my mother-in-law and most others who cast judgement my way neglected to was ask was why I, along with my husband, had made this decision. Like many of the authors in this book, I come from a family that lacked a loving, supportive environment, and fear and a lack of safety were dominant. Like Danielle Henderson, I too have a ‘complicated history with parenting’ that cannot be casually explained in a superficial conversation. It doesn’t mean I don’t like children, it simply means that I have intensely personal and valid reasons for not having children.

I admire and respect the essays in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. They are heartfelt, there are moments of lightness, and all are richly rewarding to read. I agree wholeheartedly with Daum’s statement that ‘It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption—and realise that nobody has the monopoly on selfishness’.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum (Picador 2015)

ISBN 978 1250 052940 (ebook)