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book review Rackers

january + february reading

I feel like I have been catching up on all the reading that fell on the wayside last year. I was prioritising work over literally everything for a long time, and fell behind in everything else; so I made a vow to myself to take time to do what I love to do most: read.

These links are to the Amazon Kindle versions of each book, and through these affiliate links, I do get a small percentage from the sale; this has not affected my review of any of these books.

Biographies

Happy Never After by Jill Stark

Jill Stark was living the dream. She had a coveted job as a senior journalist, she was dating a sports star, and her first book had just become a bestseller. After years of chasing the fairytale ending, she’d finally found it. And then it all fell apart.

You know those books that come to you at a point in your life where you’re like holy shit, I needed that. Almost like it was destined. Happy Never After was one of those for me. The reviews for this book aren’t stellar, but I think it almost perfectly shows how the anxious mind will jump from thought to thought with seemingly no connection. Stark wrote of continuing to feel distant, lost and didn’t beat her anxiety and depression purely because she achieved a lot and ticked many career boxes; she also spoke to a few experts about the rise of the wellness industry and getting caught up in the world of comparison, social media, filtered life & distractions.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

This is the story of Bri’s journey through the Australian legal system; first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge’s associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland-where justice can look very different, especially for women. The injustice Bri witnessed, mourned and raged over every day finally forced her to confront her own personal history, one she’d vowed never to tell. And this is how, after years of struggle, she found herself on the other side of the courtroom, telling her story.

Quite a harrowing read, and honestly can be quite triggering in some parts for those who have experienced sexual assault. But I definitely think it’s a must read. I cried many times throughout this book and even after I had put it down. Strength in the face of adversity, while also being informative on the shortfalls of the justice system in our country. It didn’t just give an insight into working in the justice system, but the emotional turmoil that comes with it while working through personal trauma.

Gulpilil by Derek Reilly

It’s been almost fifty years since a teenage David Gulpilil illuminated screens worldwide with his breakout role in Walkabout. It was one of the first times we’d seen an Aboriginal person cast in a significant role and only four years after Holt’s referendum to alter the constitution and give Indigenous people citizenship and, subsequently, the right to vote.

Gulpilil quickly became the face of the Indigenous world to white Australian audiences. Charisma. Good looks. A competent, strong, mysterious man starring in films ranging from Crocodile Dundee to Rabbit-Proof Fence.

But what has marked Gulpilil, despite his fame and popularity, is the feeling that he’s been forever stuck between two worlds: a Yolngu man, a hunter, a tracker, who grew up in the bush in Arnhem Land outside any white influence; and a movie star flitting from movie sets to festivals.

Able to exist in both worlds, but never truly home.

I first remember seeing David Gulpilil in Crocodile Dundee where he played the charming and playful Neville; but he has played many more nuanced and interesting characters in stories worth telling about Indigenous Australians. This biography dove into his complicated life and what it was like to be in the spotlight and living in a certain privilege from his career among white people, compared to his place at home with his tribe – and the feeling of not really belonging in either one. We still have a long way to go in understanding the culture of Indigenous Australians, and I find the insight into Gulpilil’s life – after being in both worlds – a perfect opening.

Historical Fiction/War

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

When I first read about this book a while ago, I found it intriguing (fascinated by War stories), but the moment I read about spies I was slightly turned off. Every time I hear the word spy, I think of things like Mission Impossible and that’s just not ma thang. I was so off. It was slightly based off a War Hero, dubbed the Queen of Spies, Louise de Bettignies and her network – The Alice Network. It followed two women, one during the World War I who is within the network, and another just after World War II who is in search of her cousin. They come together and the story weaves around their two lives and intertwines them in a way you don’t expect. It was beautiful, it was heart-wrenching, and it was one of the best war books I have ever read. You need to read it.

Thriller/Mystery

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen’s new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.

I read this because I saw agirlandgrey was reading it, too, in one of her gorgeous Instagram posts and I know she has great taste in mystery/thrillers. It was set in New York, so I was instantly sold, but I spent the entire time while I was reading it (all in pretty much one sitting) guessing what was going to happen next, then thrown completely off course. It was an interesting take on classism, as well, and Sager expertly wove it into the story without making it obvious.

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher

Thursday’s husband, Seth, has two other wives. She’s never met them, and she doesn’t know anything about them. She agreed to this unusual arrangement because she’s so crazy about him.

But one day, she finds something. Something that tells a very different—and horrifying—story about the man she married.

This came up as a suggestion to read right after I finished Lock Every Door, and I think I was even more enthralled with this than the former. This was a WILD ride. Twists and turns every which way and yet, STILL managed to surprise you with the ending. I bought this book (for only $1.99!) at 12:30pm and finished it by 8pm. My favourite thing about this genre is that (when written well), they are easy enough to read and the plot twists make you want to continue reading. I can’t say I was entirely happy with the ending, but Fisher surprised me with it, so props for that.

The Man She Married by Alison James

Since Alice’s fiancé walked out on her, she never thought she’d meet ‘The One’. But all that changes when she meets Dominic. Handsome, charming and kind, Alice can’t believe her luck when he proposes a few months later and moves into her West London home.

Three years on, Alice’s catering business is thriving and she is married to a man she adores. So when she sees that little blue line, it should be the happiest moment of her life: they’re going to have a baby. But then the police knock on her door and Alice’s whole world is turned upside down… Dominic is dead.

Distraught, Alice goes to identify the body. There’s no doubt that it’s her husband. Yet when his estranged brother comes to view the coffin, he insists the man lying there is not Dominic. Alice refuses to believe it at first, but when confronted with irrefutable proof, she finally has to face the truth: The man she married is not the person he said he was. And if he lied about that, what else was he hiding from her?

I found this one as I was still trolling for mystery/thriller after still reeling from Lock Every Door and The Wives. The plot is given away pretty early on, but James still writes in a way that makes you want to keep reading, because you need the answers on how they got there in the first place. It starts with the protagonist having to identify the body of her husband; and while, yes it is Dominic Gill, she has another man claiming to be Dominic Gill’s brother… and the dead man is not him. The book takes you on a ride through past and present getting answers, and you put the story together by part in the telling of Alice (protagonist), and Dominic (dead guy). It was good, not fabulous, but an interesting and easy read nonetheless.

The Strangers Wife by Anna Lou Weatherley

Beth and Cath are leaving their husbands.
This is a story about two very different women.
One is wealthy and having an affair with a man who gives her the kind of love that her cold, detached husband does not.
One is living hand to mouth, suffering at the hands of a violent partner who would rather see her dead than leave him.
You may think you know these women already and how their lives will unfold.
Beth will live happily ever after with her little girl and her soulmate.
Cath will go back to her abusive husband.
And these two women will never cross paths.
But you will be wrong.
On the 3.15pm train from London to Bristol, Beth and Cath are about to meet and discover they share one shocking thing in common.

This was a fascinating look at how abuse can be perpetrated in extremely different ways by very different people. Beth and Cath come from incredibly contrasting worlds, but both needed to escape their respective worlds. As they meet by chance, they weave their lives together and work on ways to get out of the situations they are in. There are quite a few plot twists thrown in, and the story is told well as you are constantly wondering who will get caught and what will happen next. The detective is set on getting answers no matter what. I quite enjoyed this one, another one I finished within 48 hours.

All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell

In Richmond, Virginia, young lovers are dying. So far, four couples in the area have disappeared, only to be found months later as mutilated corpses. When the daughter of the president’s newest drug czar vanishes along with her boyfriend, Dr. Kay Scarpetta knows time is short. Following a macabre trail of evidence that ties the present homicides to a grisly crime in the past, Kay must draw upon her own personal resources to track down a murderer who is as skilled at eliminating clues as Kay is at finding them.

This was a really interesting and really well done mystery. Patricia Cornwell is well established in the mystery/thriller genre and this is the first I have read of her. The protagonist – Kay Scarpetta – is a forensic medical examiner, but takes much of this murder mystery into her own hands as she realises the people around her were willing to brush it under the rug to avoid scrutiny. The end shit me, to be perfectly honest, but Cornwell is definitely an author to read if you want some thrillers with a little more gore and explanation of the crime, rather than the typical whodunit of just following clues.

Love/family + friendship

Postscript by Cecelia Ahern

It’s been seven years since Holly Kennedy’s husband died – six since she read his final letter, urging Holly to find the courage to forge a new life.
She’s proud of all the ways in which she has grown and evolved. But when a group inspired by Gerry’s letters, calling themselves the PS, I Love You Club, approaches Holly asking for help, she finds herself drawn back into a world that she worked so hard to leave behind.
Reluctantly, Holly begins a relationship with the club, even as their friendship threatens to destroy the peace she believes she has achieved. As each of these people calls upon Holly to help them leave something meaningful behind for their loved ones, Holly will embark on a remarkable journey – one that will challenge her to ask whether embracing the future means betraying the past, and what it means to love someone forever…

Have you seen all over the interwebs that there is likely to be a sequel to the movie PS: I Love You? Well, this is that. The actual book version. Naturally, I cried a lot. Cecelia Ahern is probably my absolute favourite author. Her writing is imaginative and immersive, and if you haven’t before, you need to read If You Could See Me Now. But Postscript is beautiful yet again in the way Ahern deals with grief (although, sometimes her writing in this book seems a little too pretty and easy for my liking, because grief is the furthest thing from pretty), and what it’s like for people who want to leave the world ensuring the people around them feel their love.

On the Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher

Evie Snow is eighty-two when she quietly passes away in her sleep, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. It’s the way most people wish to leave the world but when Evie reaches the door of her own private heaven, she finds that she’s become her twenty-seven-year-old self and the door won’t open.

Evie’s soul must be light enough to pass through so she needs to get rid of whatever is making her soul heavy. For Evie, this means unburdening herself of the three secrets that have weighed her down for over fifty years, so she must find a way to reveal them before it’s too late. As Evie begins the journey of a lifetime, she learns more about life and love than she ever thought possible, and somehow, some way, she may also find her way back to her long lost love…

This story is told from the perspective of someone who has just passed away, and the things she needs to settle before she ‘moves on’. It was a really sweet read, at times hard to get through because of the unrealistic set within the realism. If you are able to let yourself get lost in magical realism, it is a beautiful story about souls getting reconnected. While the idea is lovely, it’s quite simple writing and honestly, executed quite poorly – I still think it’s a nice one if you are looking for an easy, romantic read.

The Return of Norah Wells by Virginia MacGregor

One ordinary morning, Norah walked out of her house on Willoughby Street and never looked back. Six years later, she returns to the home she walked away from only to find another woman in her place. Fay held Norah’s family together after she disappeared, she shares a bed with Norah’s husband and Norah’s youngest daughter calls Fay ‘Mummy’.

Now that Norah has returned, everyone has questions. Where has she been? Why did she leave? And why is she back? As each member of the family tries to find the answers they each need, they must also face up to the most pressing question of all – what happens to The Mother Who Stayed when The Mother Who Left comes back?

What does family mean? This novel is a touching look into what makes a family – and whether someone can fit back in after walking away. It’s told through different characters’ voices and their respective feelings when it comes to welcoming Norah back, or wishing for her to go away again. I found this compelling and finished it over two days – literally did nothing else because it’s a huge ass book – but it was written so well that it made you not want to put it down. Though, I should warn you, there is a death – and you’re going to be shitty about it.

The Art of Keeping Secrets by Rachael Johns

Little secrets grow up to be big lies…
They’ve been best friends since their sons started high school together, and Felicity, Emma and Neve share everything … or so they thought.

But Flick’s seemingly perfect marriage hides a shocking secret which, with one word, threatens to destroy her and her family’s happiness. Emma is in denial about a potential custody battle, her financial constraints, the exhaustion she can’t seem to shake off and the inappropriate feelings she has for her boss. And single mum Neve is harbouring a secret of her own; a secret that might forever damage her close-knit relationship with her son.

When the tight hold they have each kept on their secrets for years begins to slip, they must face the truth. Even if that truth has the power to hurt the ones they love, and each other.

Perhaps some secrets weren’t made to be kept.

I am still SO torn about where I sit with this book. I enjoyed reading it, and liked some characters more than others, but there was one storyline that really. fucking. annoyed me. Without giving too much away, this novel touches on an adult – who has been married for years – who is transgender and is ready to transition. I understand the point for the partner, who feels betrayed, because this part was kept from them for all their years of marriage. But it felt so selfish that I just wanted to yell at her; not once did she even try to think about how her husband felt all those years, trying to squash the real part of him. Then I would swing back and try to see it from her view, because yes it would hurt to feel as if your partner didn’t trust you for such a long time to tell you what he was feeling. AH. Knowing all of this, though, perhaps the author did a good job because it made you think and wonder what you would do if you were in that situation – for each one – as they were all keeping secrets and dealing with hard battles.

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

Four friends . . .
Joni, Deb, Eden, and Trina have been best friends since high school, sharing a bond that has seen them through their teenage years and into adulthood. But now, time and circumstance is starting to pull them apart as careers, husbands, and babies get in the way. As their yearly vacation becomes less of a priority—at least for three of the women—how can Joni find a way to draw the four of them back together?

Four secrets . . .
During a laughter and wine-filled night, the women dare one another to write anonymous letters, spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. But the fun game turns devastating, exposing cracks in their lives and the friendships they share. Each letter is a dark confession revealing shocking information. A troubled marriage? A substance abuse problem? A secret pregnancy? A heartbreaking diagnosis?

Five letters . . .
Late on one of their last nights together, after the other three have gone to bed, Joni notices something in the fireplace—a burnt, crumpled, nearly destroyed, sheet of paper that holds the most shattering revelation of all. It is a fifth letter—a hate-filled rant that exposes a vicious, deeply hidden grudge that has festered for decades. But who wrote it? Which one of them has seethed with resentment all these years? What should Joni do?

The Moriarty sisters definitely have the same type of tone and writing style. Reading Nicola’s work reminded me a lot of Liane’s, but the ending felt a little forced and rushed, since we spent the whole book wondering who bloody wrote the fifth letter. It was a surprise, though, so I’ll give it that – I wasn’t expecting the end, and I think it portrayed well how little things in childhood can affect someone for their entire life, and perhaps not all young friendships are made to withstand adulthood.

Fantasy-ish

Elixir by Hilary Duff

Clea Raymond has felt the glare of the spotlight her entire life. The daughter of a renowned surgeon and a prominent Washington DC politician, she has grown to be a talented photojournalist who takes refuge in a career that allows her to travel to the most exotic parts of the world. But after Clea’s father disappears while on a humanitarian mission, Clea’s photos begin to feature eerie, shadowy images of a strange and beautiful man—a man she has never seen before.

When fate brings Clea and this man together, she is stunned by the immediate and powerful connection she feels with him. As they grow closer, they are drawn deep into the mystery behind her father’s disappearance, and they discover the centuries old truth behind their intense bond. Torn by a dangerous love triangle and haunted by a powerful secret that holds their fates, together they race against time to unravel their pasts in order to save their lives—and their futures.

Did YOU know that Hilary Duff had written a novel?! I consider myself a rather big fan of Hilary; most of you know by now the anecdote of my scrapbook filled entirely of Hilary when I was young… so you can imagine my surprise when I stumble across a book written by Hilary Duff in 2010. Noting, however, that it was written with Elise Allen, so we won’t know how much of the writing pull Duff really had. It’s marketed as Young Adult fantasy-ish, which is pretty much my jam. I’ll admit, getting into it I struggled; I mean, there was this 17 year old with prominent parents, who was home-schooled and had this bestie who worked for her and he was a 20 year old with a doctorate? But, also, remembering the idea is coming from a celebrity who wouldn’t have ever really had a semblance of normal, and also worked on projects like Cadet Kelly and Agent Cody Banks. In saying this, after the second chapter, I was hooked. It was a really creative story and I finished it all in one sitting; there are two more books to the story and I may read them soon, but it didn’t reel me in enough to care. The idea was there, the execution maybe not so much.