Book Review: Chaos Agent by Lee Winter

I reviewed book 1 of Lee Winter’s Villain series last week. I read book 2 on the train from Sydney to Melbourne and it did a great job of helping pass the time. In Chaos Agent Michelle Hastings has hired Eden Lawless to work at the Fixers – an excuse to keep Eden in her orbit, given she can’t bring herself to admit her attraction.

The problem is that Michelle knows that the work the Fixers does would not sit well with Eden’s ethics if she found out the truth. Michelle seeks out the ‘less bad’ jobs that could be interpreted as aligning with Eden’s view of the world and assigns them to her. She also tells her EA to make sure others in the office know to keep the truth from Eden (aka the Panda). Meanwhile Michelle starts to question her own ethics as she believes deep down she is evil.

Eden starts her first ever office job and sets out to do what she does best – community building in an office full of ex-FBI, CIA, hackers and criminal types. She starts a weekly coffee club focused on ethically grown beans and fills the office with plants to improve the air. Her colleagues soon fall for her just as much as her boss has.

“And I, for one, worship at your stupid, unfashionable, vegan-leather-wearing feet,” Daphne said. “Between our boss and these evil little reprobates, I declare you The Asshole Whisperer!” She lifted her glass and smirked at her colleagues amidst good-natured cheers and boos.

The charade fails when Eden discovers that the Fixers really is a depraved company that will do almost anything to protect and advance the rich and powerful. Eden leaves and sets out to expose the Fixers. Michelle fights back. The problem is the women have a persistent attraction to one another.

Chaos Agent is an unusual romance with loads of subplots. The push-pull between the women is a vehicle to explore what it means to be good, how we are accountable for our mistakes, that we can hold opposing feelings about others, and that the lines of right and wrong are not always clear.

It had been a month since Lawless had quit, and Michelle’s office was in disarray. Employees were cranky, mistakes were being made, and everyone seemed to silently blame her for the absence of their favorite colleague.

Eden is witty, kind and funny, if a little black and white in her idealism. Michelle is distant, strategically scheming, (mostly) ruthless and tormented by self-loathing – the classic ice queen. Their journeys are supported by a cast of unique and interesting characters from Michelle’s grandmother, Hannah, to Phelim, the Fixers brutish head of security. Chaos Agent is another slow burning romp full of adventure, fun, moments of cringe, and a bit more edge than The Fixers. I loved it as much as the first in the series.

Book Review: The Fixer by Lee Winter

Eden Lawless is a brilliant, idealistic, if somewhat naive activist fighting the good fight. A change maker sticking up for the underdogs of society.

The downside of being a minor revolutionary was the fact Eden spent most of her life living out of her van. Gloria smelled of dirt collected from across America no matter how often she cleaned her.

Misunderstood ice queen Michelle Hastings is a corporate CEO of a secretive corporation with tentacles everywhere. The Fixers make the problems of the rich and powerful go away in order to make them, well richer and more powerful.

Cheeky. Michelle put down her phone with a smirk, deciding that, if nothing else, Lawless might be marginally entertaining. As long as she didn’t cross any lines or disrespect Michelle, she would allow it. She leaned back in her chair and gazed out at her view as she mentally ran through her task list. Something unsavory floated to the top of the pile.

Hastings hires Lawless to return to her hometown of Winpago and prevent her old nemesis, the town Mayor from winning the next election. She soon nicknames Lawless the Panda behind her back on account of her naive idealism.

Whilst supervising her new employee, a push-pull attraction grows over their weekly zoom meetings where Eden reports in her progress with the Mayor. The denial of attraction between the two women throws them both off their game just enough to create great tension amongst the action. After Eden completed her assignment, Hastings doesn’t want to let her go, nor admit her attraction, so she hires her.

‘Hey, Michell,’ Lawless said cheerfully, ‘How’s it going?’

Michelle. The impertinence of calling her by her first name still burned a little, but she was in too good a mood to argue the point when Lawless was never going to budge. ‘It goes,’ Michelle said neutrally. ‘Report’.

The Fixer by Lee Winter is a funny, cute, character driven, adventurous romp. It is the first book in the Villian series and was so much fun to read I immediately got the second one to find out what happens when Eden starts her first ever office job…review to come.

Book review: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Young adult suspense writer, Bram Stoker Award finalist and Edgar Award nominee, Elle Cosimano, has turned her hand to adult fiction and she’s a hoot. Finlay Donovan is Killing It is the first in a series of three books, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading the other two after book one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d liked South Riding, before the divorce. Back before I’d known my husband was sleeping with our real estate agent, who also sat on the board of the homeowners association. Somehow, I’m guessing that’s not what the saleslady had in mind when she’d described our suburban mecca as having a ‘small-town’ feel.

Crime fiction writer Finlay Donovan’s husband ran off with another woman. Finlay is broke, the bills are piling up, she’s late submitting a manuscript to her agent and her husband is threatening to take the kids.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighbourhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Finlay meets her agent in a cafe to try and get more time to finish her book, after she leaves without success she finds a note in her bag from a woman at the adjacent table who misinterpreted her conversation with her agent thinking Finlay’s a contract killer. The note asks her to kill the woman’s husband for $50,000 and where Finlay can find him on a certain date. Finlay is aghast, but starts to think about what she could do with the money and wondering what’s wrong with the guy that his wife wants him dead.

Fantasies where I let myself calculate how many economy-size packs of Huggies, Lean Cuisines, and baby wipes fifty thousand dollars could buy.

Curiosity gets the better of her and she goes to check the guy out, inadvertently interrupting him attempting to drug a woman in a bar. Finlay diverts the victim, switches the drinks and drugs the husband, rolling him unconsious into her van and driving home. She goes inside to call her policewoman sister who is looking after her kids and when she goes back out to the garage, the guy is dead from the exhaust fumes of her combi. Finlay is in trouble, but this is only the start.

My Google search history alone was probably enough to put me on a government watch list. I wrote suspense novels about murders like this. I’d searched every possible way to kill someone. With every conceivable kind of weapon.

Finlay Donovan is Killing It is full of big bold characters including police, the mob, women who want their husbands dead, Finlay’s nanny and two recalcitrant children. The narrative is fast paced with a twisty plot that will keep you turning the pages as Finlay gets into deeper and deeper trouble. Highly recommended.

Book review: Love and Other Puzzles by Kimberley Allsopp

Love and other Puzzles by Kimberley Allsopp opens with the protagonist Rory climbing out her inner west Sydney bedroom window in her pyjama’s to avoid the sounds of her house being packed up by removalists after her relationship with her boyfriend has broken down. The story then winds back a week to relay how it came to this.

Rory likes the safety of an ordered predictable life. She approaches her days with to-do lists and precise goals that can be met, like walking 12,000 steps each day and eating chia pods for breakfast each morning. She finds comfort in the regular bus driver on route 334 that she catches to The Connect newspaper where she works as a intern doing the TV-guide crossword and editing the classifieds to ensure they don’t contain offensive words.

A shoe basket signalled an organised life. A permanence and sense of order. The only thing I hadn’t consistently been able to get from my two homes growing up.’

Then Rory makes an uncharacteristic decision. To let The New York Times crossword puzzle dictate her decisions for a week to shake things up a bit. Needless to say this decision was life changing.

For every 24-hour period, I’m going to base my decisions on a maximum of three answers in The New York Times crossword. They won’t all be life changing. It could be about what to have for lunch. It could be about whether I go to a gallery opening that wasn’t already in my diary. It could be about whether or not I fudge the truth slightly, in order to be taken more seriously at work…

If you’re into chick lit you will enjoy Love and Other Puzzles. It’s a witty, entertaining, light read with plenty of pop culture and romcom references.

Book review: In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

In at the Deep End is a queer coming out edgy rom-com. Twenty-something Julia is sick of listening to her flat mates nightly dalliance. She hasn’t had sex for three years and the last time her one night stand accused her of breaking his penis. When she goes to a warehouse party and meets a butch charismatic conceptual artist who paints the women she has sex with, everything changes.

One Saturday morning last January, Alice pointed out that I hadn’t had sex in three years. I knew I’d been going through a dry patch – I’d been getting through vibrator batteries incredibly fast, and a few days previously I’d Googled penis just to remind myself what one looked like.

Julia’s new lover, Sam, introduces her to lesbian life, gay bars, polyamory and BDSM clubs. What follows is drama, navigating power dynamics and control and, well, lots of raunchy sex. Relief from the heat is provided by Julia’s visits to see her middle-class parents and her letter writing to an elderly widower in her civil service job.

It’s hard to accept that you’re the villain of someone else’s story.

In at the Deep End is a graphic and funny story about coming out, love, abuse and finding yourself. It’s Bridget Jones Diary meets Fifty Shades of Grey pulp fiction – not for the fainthearted.

Book review: The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

Who doesn’t love a dysfunctional family story where the central character is a pompous, patriarchal, narcissistic artist with delusions of grandeur at its centre in the lead up to Christmas?

Tolstoy was an idiot

Ray Hanrahan is a painter who believes he is special and that his family exist in subjugation to support his greatness. Ray’s wife Lucia is a talented artist in her own right but self sabotages her own career for the sake of her husbands ego, ignoring calls from her gallerist with good news because it will upset Ray.

All that crap about happy families. It’s the unhappy families who’re alike. Uptight, cold…ugh

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson is set over a weekend on which Ray has engaged his family and friends to celebrate the opening of his first art exhibition in years. His domination of his family has them scuttling around in fear to keep him calm, whilst concealing their dissatisfaction with their circumstances by acting in subterfuge to get their own needs met.

Artists need wives; everyone tells Ray this, or no ties at all.

Ray’s wife Lucia is having a clandestine affair with a politician, Priya. Lucia’s son (Ray’s stepson) is treated like the house slave by Ray and lives in a dilapidated caravan in the garden weighed down by, and trying to dodge, his stepfather’s bullying. Ray and Lucia’s eldest daughter, Leah is her fathers charlady and the youngest, Jess is the family rebel.

Longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction, The Exhibitionist is a vivid, drily hilarious story about a middle class domestic tyrant. Perfect Christmas reading!

Book Review: The Dictionary Of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In my early twenties whilst living in Portugal I took it upon myself to read the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from cover to cover in search of words I did not know (we had no TV in the house). When I found one of particularly interest, such as discombobulated (still one of my favourites), I wrote it down in my own notebook for later reference. At the time I remember wondering how words got into and out of the dictionary.

Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.

The first part of the OED was originally published in 1884, twenty-seven years after the idea was initally proposed by members of the Philological Society of London. It was a massive endeavour because the English language is forever evolving, so its documentation can quickly become incomplete. In 1901 a concerned citizen wrote to the men compiling the OED to raise concerns about a missing word – bondmaid – a young woman bound to serve until her death. It was this idea of a missing word that sparked Pip Williams idea to write the Dictionary of Lost Words.

Words are like stories … They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.

Our protagonist, Esme spends most of her time under the table in the Scriptorium where her father works on the compilation of the first OED. One day a lexicographer drops a slip of paper containing a word. Esme saves the word and places the paper in a wooden suitcase in the housemaids room. The word is ‘bondmaid’. The event sets Esme on a path of collecting lost words, from the scriptorium, but also from the stallholders in the covered market whose words are often considered vulgar. Esme collects the words in her own manuscript, Women’s Words and their Meanings.

A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.

Set when the women’s suffrage was at its peak, Dictionary of Lost Words is a poetic, thought provoking story about the power of language, who controls the narrative, and that women need to be at the table when decisions are made about which words and stories are preserved.

Book review: The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough

I’ve always held a fascination for the circus. I wanted to run away to one when I was a kid – it was a toss up between becoming a trick rider or a lion tamer. When I joined a circus as a young adult I became an acrobat for a time and it was a lot of fun. Needless to say when I saw The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by journalist Robert Hough, I HAD to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

If I stop to describe exactly how scared I was every time something scary happens, we’ll be here for the next ten years. So do me a favour. At parts like this imagine how you’d’ve felt, and we’ll both do fine.

Hough scoured the archives for information about Stark and built a fictional story around the facts he discovered, draughting a novel that serves as a fictional suicide note.

There ain’t a problem on this great green earth helped by feeling sorry for yourself.

Born Mary Haynie, we meet Stark when she was a nurse in Louisville. She soon found herself on the other side of the ward after being institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital for rebelling against her husband (as was common in the day). After a psychiatrist got a crush on her and and helped her escape, she fled to Tennessee and became Little Egypt, a belly dancer with the Great Parker Carnival. She was rescued from dancing by circus owner AL G. Barnes at 23 and learnt to work with tigers from the shows animal trainer who fell for her. The story follows Mabel’s rise to fame with her Bengal tiger Rajah who she raises from a cub.

We all have our battle scars, Kentucky. The ones who wear them on the outside are just a little more honest about it, that’s all.

Mabel was one of the most famous tiger trainers in history, doing manoeuvres that no one thought possible. She was the finale act during the heyday of the Ringling brothers circus in the 1920s and 30s, then committed suicide after being forcibly retired as she was turning 80 in 1968.

The character of Mabel is straight talking, sassy and opinionated about life, tigers and her many husbands. Her brutally honest confessions told with a wry sense of humour are compelling, as is her determination and survival instinct. It’s a rip roaring tale and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ride if you get on board.

Book Review: The Truth About Her by Jacqueline Maley

The Truth About Her written by journalist Jacqueline Maley is a story about a key moral dilemma for journalists – who owns the truth and who gets to tell a person’s story. The novel brings to life every journalists worst nightmare – when then penning and publishing of a story has the worst possible of consequences.

Wellness blogger and influencer Tracey Doran takes her own life after being exposed as a fraud. Journalist and single mother Suzy Hamilton finds out about Doran on her way to work, it was her investigative expose that exposed the influencer. Doran is horrified by the news and tries to bury herself in work, looking after her daughter, and having affairs as a distraction. The last distraction results in her losing her job, and her lovers.

The summer after I wrote the story that killed Tracey Doran, I had just stopped sleeping with two very different men, following involvement in what some people on the internet called a ‘sex scandal’, although when it was described that way it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that happened to me.

Suzy starts to receive anonymous letters and is pursued by Doran’s mother who wants her to write a feel good biography about her daughter as a kind of retribution. The two women start to meet regularly so the journalist can write a different story about Tracey. Like the slow peeling of an onion, the exercise gradually reveals the real truth about how the lives of the three women became entwined and what really happened to Tracey.

The Truth About Her is a contemporary novel with a well-drawn flawed protagonist who deftly explores themes about shame, guilt, female anger, and mothering.

Book review: Em and Me by Beth Morrey

Em and Me by Beth Morrey is a story about poverty, hope, second chances, and learning to back yourself.

Delphine Jones and her daughter Emily share a bedroom in the cramped basement flat where they live with Delphine’s father. He has been depressed since Delphine’s mother died in a tragic accident and now just sits in front of the TV all day.

That’s what life turns on, isn’t it? The choices and moments that change everything

A promising student with a love of literature and destined for an Oxford University as a teenager, Delphine’s life changed after her mother died and then she fell pregnant at seventeen before finishing high school. Her university ambitions had to be abandoned to care for her baby and her father. Now she lives hand to mouth working part time cleaning and waitressing.

We meet mother and daughter when Emily is on the cusp of her teenage years. Emily is smart as a whip and Delphine wants her to have a better life. One day Delphine takes a stand for herself and we follow her on a journey to taking her place in the world and realising her own ambitions through a series of opportunities, setbacks, and second chances.

At some point, while I had been trying to turn my life around, often making a mess of it, my dad had been enjoying his own quiet renaissance – a gentle progression towards the light, nudging his strings, semitone by semitone, along with me. I felt tears rise up, threatening to overcome me as I looked at him, standing there so proudly. Forgetting Adam, and Dylan, Letty, and my own guilt about Em, I sat down at the piano, and began to pick out a tune, softly, Dad humming along, his hand on my shoulder.

A light fun read with characters that are well-drawn and interesting. Em and Me is a heartwarming, optimistic feel-good domestic fiction tale about triumph over adversity.