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Contemporary fiction roundup: Hawkins, Tidswell and Trollope

Lia, short for Aurelia, co-owns THE PRETTY DELICIOUS CAFÉ (Harper Collins, $34.99) with her friend Anna and the two work long hours because they can’t yet afford help. Adding to the stress are Anna’s impending marriage to Lia’s brother, which will force their long-divorced parents into the same marquee, and the increasingly demented attentions of Lia’s ex-boyfriend. The arrival of a new man in her small provincial home town seems promising – until he reveals that his own life is even more complicated. This is Waikato writer Danielle Hawkins’ third novel, and if you haven’t read her, do so immediately. Hawkins is one of our best humorous writers, with a gift for dialogue and characterisation, and for bringing out the Kiwiness of people and place in a way that elicits gleeful recognition rather than cringe. The book is warm-hearted, smart, perceptive and full of cracking funny lines. Set aside any prejudice you might have about so-called “chick lit” and prepare to be thoroughly entertained.

LEWISVILLE (Submarine, $35) is based on the story of Nelson author Alexandra Tidswell’s own ancestor, Martha Grimm, who starts life dirt poor in Warwickshire and ends it in relative affluence in 1870s Wellington. But Martha has paid a high price for her social mobility. She’s brought one daughter with her to start a new life in New Zealand, but no one, including her new husband, knows she’s left behind three more children and is still legally married to husband No 1. Any day, her secret could be exposed. The book is engagingly written and the research is generally well used to provide contextual detail without too much exposition. The narrative races through 50-odd years, and that rapid pace means plenty of action, but no time to really get to know the characters, an issue compounded by the fact we don’t stick just with Martha but hop between multiple others. However, Tidswell’s writing has charm, and there’s no doubt the story is interesting. A solid debut.

Four women, friends since university, are now aged 47. Career-wise, they’re at the top of their game, so it’s a shock when financier Stacey is made redundant. And when Stacey fails to adjust to unemployed life, it’s as if one leg’s been kicked out from under the platform the women have built their lives on, and if it collapses, more than their friendship will be damaged. Joanna Trollope is the queen of First World problems, so if you’re allergic to middle-class angst then step away from CITY OF FRIENDS (Macmillan, $34.99). Her best novels sweep you up and carry you along, but this one feels flat, as if Trollope compiled a checklist of modern women’s issues and crafted her characters to ensure she ticked off every item. You may be inclined to forgive her, though, because when current bestsellers seem to favour female protagonists who are either damaged victims or mad as snakes, it’s truly refreshing to read about competent women in charge of their own lives.

This article was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.