All The Books I Can Read

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Review: All Fall Down by Ally Carter

All Fall Down1All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)
Ally Carter
Scholastic Australia
2015, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Grace Blakely has returned to ‘Embassy Row’ in the European country of Adria. Her grandfather is the US Ambassador to the country and he’s a powerful man. Three years ago, Grace witnessed something terrible and she hasn’t quite been the same since. She’s sure her mother was murdered whereas everyone else just believes it was a terrible accident. She’s not crazy, she knows that. And now that she’s back she’s going to find her mother’s killer and make him pay for what he did.

The trouble is, Grace has no one to believe her. She’s known for her reckless behaviour and the fact that she’ll go where no one is supposed to go, creating situations that could cause an international incident and drawing all the wrong sort of attention to herself. Her friends are suspicious and if they find out the whole story, there’s no way they’ll ever trust her again. And then there’s Alexei, from the Russian embassy next door who is following her, always watching her, for reasons that Grace doesn’t understand.

Grace isn’t the only one keeping secrets. And when she finally finds out the truth, it’s going to change everything.

Ally Carter is one of those YA authors that I’ve never read although what I’ve heard about her two previous series, The Gallagher Girls and Heist Society, has all been very positive. When I got an opportunity to read this book, the first in her anticipated Embassy Row series, I jumped on it. It sounded very intriguing and the Australian cover, pictured here, is spectacular.

I have to admit, I was a little confused at first – the book opens in a pretty random place and Embassy Row really isn’t explained as properly as it should be right off the bat. Grace is returning to the US embassy in the European country of Adria where her grandfather is the ambassador. She’s been away for three years after witnessing the death of her mother in what she believes to be cold-blooded murder and what everyone else assures her was a terrible accident, caused by a fire. I think I’m supposed to assume that Adria is a country that has existed all along. It has a monarchy and also a prime minister. There is civil unrest and conflict elsewhere in the world but I have no idea where. Grace’s father is apparently off fighting, he’s a military man and she mentions that she’s been a military brat who has moved around. There’s also some business with Iran, judging by the state of its embassy in Adria but apart from that, we really have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the world.

So while there’s some weakness in the world building and some gaps that may be filled in later, there is some strength in the characters. Grace is an interesting narrator, she’s brash and a bit reckless and it’s insinuated that she’s been a bit of a troublemaker at times in the past. She’s also, for reasons that are revealed later on in the book, a bit of an unreliable narrator. She’s experienced a real trauma but I think a lot of the trauma comes from being isolated and dismissed for the last three years. She has fears and concerns that need to be validated and people are trying to protect her (and it becomes obvious why they are trying so hard to protect her) but in doing that, they cause her to feel very alone and like no one believes in her or trusts her. She’s in a very difficult situation but so are the people around her and that I think, was a very well crafted part of the story.

I enjoyed the eclectic bunch of teens from Embassy Row that befriend Grace and want to help her. If Grace had confided in them earlier and actually told them the truth and trusted them right from the beginning, the outcome may have been much different for her and she may not have managed to cause quite so many scenes. However a lot of it wasn’t Grace’s fault, but she’s one of those characters that sees danger and puts herself in its path anyway (or goes and chases it) rather than stopping to think first. I’m curious about Alexei, from the Russian embassy. Weirdly it’s placed right next to the American one so they can keep an eye on each other or something. The Cold War is alive and well in this series it would seem. Alexei is the same age as Grace’s brother, so a few years older than Grace and he’s been sworn to keep an eye on her, presumably out of loyalty and friendship to Grace’s brother – the three of them often played together as children. However it seems that Alexei has more motivation than just looking after a mate’s sister although it’s very much downplayed in the novel. The focus is entirely on Grace and her quest for the truth which was actually quite refreshing.

I feel as though this book is a bit mixed – the setting, despite picking a fake country is really interesting and could’ve been expanded upon. Instead it merely serves as a way to have Grace embarrass herself and/or her grandfather and also give her and her friends an excuse to sneak around in places they shouldn’t be because, international relations. Apparently they’re strained between everybody. Like I said there are gaps in the world building so far and plot-wise there’s a few spaces too. But I liked the characters and the way things played out so I’ll definitely read the next book and see where things go.

7/10

Book #21 of 2015

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Review: The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

Girl in the PhotographThe Girl In The Photograph
Kate Riordan
Penguin Books AUS
2015, 438p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

It is the summer of 1933 when Alice Eveleigh arrives at Fiercombe Manor. She is pregnant, just barely showing. To the housekeeper of Fiercombe, Alice is a young widow who needs rest and recuperation. Somewhere quiet and peaceful to see out her pregnancy in safety.

Alice finds a beautiful but neglected house – no one has lived there for some time and there’s only a skeleton staff there to keep it from falling into ruin. There’s mystery and sadness in every room and when Alice hears of Elizabeth Stanton, a former mistress of the country property she’s intrigued. Rumoured to be incredibly beautiful, little remains of Elizabeth now other than a portrait and a few blurred photographs. Even less remains of the far grander Stanton House, built by Elizabeth’s husband Edward, a short distance from Fiercombe Manor. Although the housekeeper Mrs Jelphs, who was there during those days, is reluctant to talk about Elizabeth and what happened, Alice finds ways to pick out bits and pieces of information. She finds a forgotten diary in the abandoned Summerhouse that gives glimpses into Elizabeth’s life and mind but when she finds a connection between Elizabeth and her she cannot begin to wonder if their fates will end up the same.

If I had to think of one word to describe this book it would be atmospheric. In that way it reminds me very much of Jane Eyre or Rebecca. All books contain someone new to a mysterious house with an air of neglect or lacking in activity and there are some secrets that unfold in each one. In The Girl In The Photograph, Alice is in what might be discreetly described as “a bit of a situation” and needs to remove herself from her London home to avoid bringing shame on herself and her family. There’s only her, the housekeeper Mrs Jelphs, the gardener Ruck and a girl that comes in daily from the village to sweep and dust. It’s an unseasonably warm English summer, the air heavy with humidity and secrets.

Given the events of the previous generation and what happened to Elizabeth, her husband Edward and Stanton House, there are some that believe the valley Fiercombe Manor is a part of to be cursed. Mrs Jelphs is a brisk sort, she’s clearly been alone or mostly alone for a very long time. She was personally connected to Elizabeth and still bears the scars of what happens and although she’s sometimes abrupt with Alice, it’s also very obvious that she worries about her and that she wants her to be well. To everyone in the valley, Alice is a young widow, her husband’s life tragically taken only a very short time after they wed. She needs rest and recuperation, time to get well and strong but Alice becomes intrigued by the mystery of Elizabeth and spends a lot of time exploring, visiting a local historian for information and reading the remnants of Elizabeth’s diaries in the summerhouse. Alice’s narrative is interspersed with Elizabeth’s as she prepares for the birth of her second child, having already lost two, both of which she believes to be boys after the birth of her first child, a daughter, some four or five years before. Her husband Edward is convinced that this one is a boy and that it will give him the son he craves to bestow his legacy upon. The reader gets an insight into a life that looks picture perfect from the outside: dashing, handsome husband. Beautiful and coveted wife. Darling daughter and soon to welcome another child into their fold. But scratch the surface and Elizabeth’s life is not even close to being idyllic.

Elizabeth lived during a time where medical practices were at best, ill conceived and at worst, barbaric. It’s hard not to feel for her as you get the full picture of what she has endured – crushing pressure from her husband to produce an heir in a marriage that is crumbling, not to mention diabolical treatments. I found myself utterly transfixed by Elizabeth’s story, I kept willing the narrative back to her even as I was enjoying Alice’s telling of events. There was something about Elizabeth – I think the author captured an ethereal presence to her, a sort of woman of mystery who had been hidden away, shamed instead of celebrated. Hope, misery, expectation and love seep through in every page when she talks or thinks about her children – those born, lost and the one on the way.

Both Elizabeth and Alice face challenges as women born in the times that they were. Elizabeth was to do her duty: provide the heir and spare, look beautiful whilst doing it and afterwards, give a face to the perfection of privilege. Instead she suffers and it’s only made worse although her husband may feel that he was doing what was best for her. However he doesn’t listen to her – really listen. And in a way, it’s the same for Alice. She too was supposed to do her duty: finish her schooling and then find a suitable man and get married. Provide grandchildren. Instead she disappoints her mother and although her parents do not disown her, as many would have, they also do not really give her much of a say in what happens. Her mother is firm with her, indeed I feel she has always been firm with Alice. It’s the mothering Alice experienced that causes her to have some doubts about her own situation although I really did appreciate the understanding Alice and her mother came to towards the end of the story.

I loved this book, from beginning to end. The back of the book claims it for fans of Kate Morton and Kate Mosse – I’ve never read Mosse but I’ve read Kate Morton and love her. This book slots in with those perfectly. Beautiful historical fiction, wonderfully woven characters and dark secrets.

8/10

Book #23 of 2015

 

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Review: Flirting With Disaster by Victoria Dahl

Flirting With DisasterFlirting With Disaster (Jackson: Girls’ Night Out #2)
Victoria Dahl
Harlequin HQN
2015, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Eccentric artist Isabelle West lives in a very secluded cabin deep in Wyoming. That’s the way she prefers it, being uncomfortable around lots of people for many reasons. Isabelle has mostly kept to herself, checking in with one of her remote neighbours and indulging in the odd girls night with two female friends. When US Marshal Tom Duncan knocks on her door, she is immediately panicked and suspicious.

Tom Duncan is in charge of an operation to protect a judge who has been threatened. He’s giving a warning to the cabins neighbouring the judge’s remote property as a warning, that they need to be on the look out just in case they see anyone around that shouldn’t be there. His radar immediately pings with the strange behaviour of Isabelle West. She’s definitely not who she says she is and although it doesn’t seem like she’s on the wanted list, she’s definitely living under an assumed identity. Which is illegal.

Isabelle is a free spirit with a lot of secrets, Tom is charged to serve and protect, living his life by strict rules and procedures. And yet they are drawn together by a powerful attraction that neither of them can ignore, despite the dangers it poses for both of them, both personally and professionally.

I’ve read most of Victoria Dahl’s Jackson Hole series but I did miss the Girls’ Night Out novella and book. I like the way that she’s not afraid to make her heroines sexually confident – most are fully in touch with their sexuality. There are no shrinking virgins here. Likewise, there are males that are not alphas and Tom Duncan falls into this category. Despite being a hotshot US Marshal with a badge and a gun, he’s definitely not the sort of pushy alpha male I’m used to reading in that sort of role. In fact he blushes. A lot. And Isabelle likes making him blush.

Isabelle has been on the run and hiding for years. She’s been lucky – she’s been able to make a living in isolation. She’s an artist who paints pictures for medical textbooks, so not exactly your average sort of painting. When she’s in one of her bursts of inspiration and creativity, she can be AWOL for days, not answering her phone and barely remembering to eat and sleep. Isabelle has some very deep secrets – secrets that she hasn’t told anyone. She’s always looking over her shoulder, always wondering if she’s going to be found out and what will happen if she is. When Tom first knocks on her door, she thinks he’s there for her and even when he states his business, part of her still thinks he’s lying or fabricating some sort of story about the nearby judge being in danger in order to get close to her. Even though it would be very unwise for Isabelle to get involved with Tom, given his employment is law enforcement and Isabelle is running from law enforcement, she can’t really stop herself. She consoles herself by thinking that it’s just a bit of fun. It’s been a while, her solitary lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to developing romantic attachments. Tom is scratching an itch, so to speak.

Isabelle’s behaviour has triggered Tom’s ‘lying’ radar. He’s pretty sure that Isabelle is hiding something, at first he assumes she’s on some sort of wanted list or has an outstanding arrest warrant. She doesn’t, but he discovers that her false identity isn’t really that good, it doesn’t stand up prior to the time that she acquired it. That makes him incredibly determined to get to the bottom of what it is that she’s hiding. Unfortunately his digging around trips a flag and it seems that there are people very interested in the very thing he’s been trying to find out.

All the while I was reading this book, I was questioning why Isabelle chose Tom to break her drought so to speak. Yes the chemistry is there – it’s there in spades. But she’s incredibly protective of the life she’s managed to make for herself and it’s pretty likely that Tom, with his killer instincts and bloodhound nose, is going to notice something and go digging. I’m really glad that Dahl addressed this issue and had Isabelle herself address it – why she picked the US Marshal. I liked the reasoning, I thought that after her time spent hiding, spend protecting herself, it would actually be pretty plausible. I liked both characters together and separately and thought they balanced each other out really well. Isabelle is very prickly, incredibly solitary. She doesn’t allow herself to get close to people, or tries really hard not to although she has developed a few friendships. Tom is rather more open, he’s someone who wants to help people and he has good working relationships with his team. He knows that he’s risking his job to help Isabelle, more and more this becomes obvious but he continues doing it anyway. He wants Isabelle to be able to get the best result and I think he only trusts himself to help her properly. The thing is Isabelle feels that Tom has betrayed her deeply and used her as well. She has to get over those feelings, or get past them in order for them to see if they have any sort of a chance at a life together, because it’s become much more than scratching an itch for both of them. It was always more than that, but Isabelle was pretty stubborn and Tom wanted to help which blurred the professional and personal lines a lot.

I enjoyed this one – really need to go back and read what I’ve missed with this sort of spin off from the original Jackson Hole novels. My copy of this book had a large chunk of the first novella at the end and I was really getting into the story when it ended!

7/10

Book #9 of 2015

 

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Review: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All The Bright PlacesAll The Bright Places
Jennifer Niven
Penguin Books AUS
2015, 388p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Theodore Finch is known as the freak at school. He’s that guy, the outcast, the one that’s known for doing weird things. Sometimes he takes off, for days at a time. Sometimes he gets into fights. He’s on his last warning at school. He has to see the counselor.

Violet Markey is popular. She was a cheerleader. She had a boyfriend, the most popular guy in school. But then Violet’s life changed forever with the death of her older sister Eleanor. All of a sudden, Violet felt like there wasn’t much point anymore. She was struggling to cope, unable to connect with her friends.

Theodore and Violet meet atop of the bell tower at their school. It’s uncertain who saves who from jumping – or falling. Then he volunteers himself as her partner for a project to discover the ‘natural wonders’ of their state. The more time they spend together, the more they can begin to be themselves around each other. They confide things in each other that they just can’t tell other people.

But Finch is fascinated with death. He keeps track of how much he feels like taking his own life, ways in which other people have taken theirs. As Violet is emerging from her cocoon of grief, Finch it seems, is retreating further from being awake, into another phase that he cannot cope with.

This book has had some buzz around it for a long time. There are lots of things that tend to give away a publisher’s expectation that it will be big and ARCs arriving months in advance, especially with cute post-it notes (for the record mine say Romitri, when your ship becomes canon & finishing a good work out!) are a bit of a clue. There’s also the fact that this one has sold movie rights (Dakota Fanning is apparently tipped to play Violet) before it was published. It’s got ‘for fans of John Green’ written all over it.

Props to the author for picking a difficult subject, especially one that judging by the author’s note, is very personal to her. I think that it’s difficult to tackle suicide in any form, but even more so in teen fiction because so much of the time people are wanting to ‘protect’ teens from the ugliness out there, to feed them fluff and take away the drinking, the drugs, the sex, the mental illness because it might give them ideas. Life doesn’t work like that and you need these topics out there, ready to be discussed.

I liked both Finch and Violet, particularly Finch but at times, both were inconsistent characters. Finch is so lauded as being a freak, for being weird and the reader gets an explanation for this but to be honest, it’s not really that plausible, neither is Finch really outcast material. In fact, he’d probably be the popular guy in most other stories. He’s exactly like the popular guy except that he isn’t. I feel like in some ways the author tried to turn super popular guy with issues and outcast girl on its head but it didn’t really work because I never really felt like Finch was much of an outcast in personality, nor did I feel like Violet was really that popular girl in personality. There’s no denying that he’s troubled. He’s also I think, clever enough to hide it for the most part. Flippant with his counselor. His friends are used to him disappearing for days as being ‘just what he does’. His mother is not really present – she’s like a facsimile of a parent and as a parent myself, I found her abhorrent. Yes, she’s also a victim but she’s not done playing one long after the threat is removed. Instead she continues to be complicit, but worst of all, she’s mentally absent. She doesn’t want to know anything about Finch’s troubles. They don’t exist. So he pretends that they don’t as well.

Finch and Violet do have some great interactions in this novel. He’s quite pushy, which comes across as a bit irritating at first, both to the reader and Violet but the more Violet spends time with him, the more she begins to emerge from the cocoon of grief that has encircled her since the death of Eleanor, which she more than partially blames herself for. It seems that everyone else in her world is content or perhaps even prefers, not to talk about what happened or even Eleanor herself. Her friends seem both distant and unsupportive but I’m not sure if that’s just because Violet has pushed them away or they don’t know what to say. There’s not really enough background given to really be sure. It seems that Violet barely knows who she is at times – her very identity seems too much tied up in Eleanor, even the website that they had together. When she wants to create another one, it takes her a long time to even decide what it is she wants to do, however it’s also something that gives her the vehicle to create her own circle of friends, to surround herself with people that are like-minded, or who could be.

There’s no denying that I couldn’t quite connect enough with this book to really be devastated at the outcome. Instead, I was merely incredulous, for several reasons, the first already being Finch’s mother. Secondly I’m surprised it took Violet so long to find Finch, because I was pretty sure where he’d be almost immediately. But first the author had to take Violet and the reader on some Tour de Finch which really only serves to attempt to heighten the tension and presumably delay Violet. There seems to be key scenes that are missing – the dual narration is wasted because when we should be with Finch, we’re with Violet. It doesn’t give the reader much of an insight into what is developing, instead it almost seems to randomly happen out of nowhere. Despite the fact that Finch has a fascination with death, at times it seems almost an abstract thing, like a character quirk. I don’t feel like it really went deep enough into Finch’s head, that we really got to see the ugly reality. Instead it felt a bit romanticised to me.

I did like this book, but ultimately I think it could’ve been more. There could’ve been a deeper exploration and especially, more about the after. A few vague scenes to me weren’t really enough, especially with what some of the characters had already had to cope with. It’s the sort of book where I read it and was really quite enjoying it and the adventures of Violet and Finch as they explored their state and got to know each other. The relationship felt good, but then I got to the end and realised that it really hadn’t played out in a way that made me a part of it. It felt like a book that just barely skimmed the surface, instead of diving into the deep.

7/10

Book #17 of 2015

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Review: After Darkness by Christine Piper

After DarknessAfter Darkness
Christine Piper
Allen & Unwin
2014, 295p
Read from my local library

It is 1942 and Australia is in the midst of yet another war. The government is taking no chances and has rounded up anyone who is of the descent of the enemy: Japanese, German, Italian, etc and put them into internment camps.

Dr Ibaraki works in a Japanese hospital in Broome and although he escaped the early rounding up due to his profession, he has finally been arrested and sent to Loveday internment camp in a remote desert corner of South Australia. It is dusty, dry and hot in summer and cold during winter.

Populating the camp are men of a mix of ethnicity, culture and allegiance. There are men who were born in different Asian countries, men who were born in Australia, even men who were born to one Australian parent. Time in the camp challenges Ibaraki’s beliefs and the way in which he views people that he thought he knew.

Last year I read a list of 50 exciting books by Australian women and ended up noting down maybe a dozen that I hadn’t read and that I thought sounded like something I’d be interested in. This was one of them and I requested it from my local library, picking it up just before Christmas. I’ve read several books that make mention of German or Italians who were taken into internment camps but this is the first time I’ve read something about someone of Japanese heritage. Dr Ibaraki came to Australia to work in a Japanese hospital in Broome, treating mostly the Japanese community. He works closely with a nun from a local order who serves as his nurse and it’s through some of his memories of conversations with Sister Bernice that the reader learns a lot about him. As the book progresses, more and more of his past in Japan is revealed, such as his crumbling marriage and his job working in a medical research facility that valued discretion and loyalty above pretty much all else.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for some of these people, to be taken away from their homes of years (or in some cases, pretty much their whole lives) and taken to a remote camp in the desert. When Ibaraki arrives, they sleep in tents with construction on cabins beginning for the chilly desert winter. Although they seem to be fed relatively well and have access to purchasing things like cigarettes which they afford by working in the camp, it must be somewhat humiliating and depressing to be incarcerated simply because of birth or parental heritage. Ibaraki sees many that are loyal to the Emperor and cheer the Japanese victories an refuse to believe the Allied advancement but he also sees people who were born in Australia, where it’s all they have ever known. Because of their reluctance they are branded troublemakers, half-castes who are neither Asian nor Australian. Ibaraki struggles when he is told that someone he respects and admires is involved in a horrible and violent act – he refuses to believe that it could possibly true and is certain at first that it’s the “half-caste” troublemakers that are lying. His lack of belief does have some far-reaching repercussions and it does take a tragic act, a case of mistaken identity and a bad situation for Ibaraki to begin to question everything he knows.

I found Ibaraki an interesting character. He strikes me as being “very Japanese” although at the same time that also sounds kind of weird because what does that mean? He’s quiet, measured, thoughtful. He’s a doctor but readily admits that patient relations are the part of his job that he struggles with. At times he seems socially awkward and lacking in the ability to relate to other people and this is made even more evident when he reflects on what went wrong within his marriage. He seemed to do little in order to dispel his wife’s fears and misconceptions and although some of that was very much tied up in the confidential nature of the job he was doing and how he was bound by silence, there were ways in which he could have reassured her and made her feel better. Instead he did nothing, perhaps a result of all the pressure placed upon him but also because I’m not entirely sure he knew how.

The reader doesn’t need Ibaraki to confirm exactly what sort of work he was doing in Japan before he came to Australia. It’s horrific and it’s something he clearly struggles with and yet at the same time I think he’s a man of honour so he believes that he must do the job he gave his word to do. I feel like perhaps some of his feelings were tied up in his father and how he felt about that as well as how he got the job in the first place. It’s beautifully understated how what he was doing plays on his mind for a long, long time.

I think the conflict in the internment camp was very well done. The men were all different, some had never been to Japan, some had been born in Australia, others like Ibaraki had chosen to come to Australia and were perhaps disillusioned with the sort of thing that was being done in the name of the Emperor. For all their differences, they all wanted the same thing: to be able to go home. Wherever that home may be. It’s funny how it was the people that were treated as the danger when it was the war they had little or nothing to do with that was preventing them from living the life they wanted to.

After Darkness was the winner of the Vogel’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under 35. Its list of previous winners is something to behold: Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears and Andrew McGahan to name just a few. Having read this, it’s not hard to imagine Christine Piper sitting beside them.

8/10

Book #17 of 2015

aww-badge-2015

After Darkness is book #6 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

 

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Review: Love & Other Lies by Madeline Ash

Love & Other LiesLove & Other Lies
Madeline Ash
Destiny Romance
2015, eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Abby is a vet in a small town. She’s fled to this town to escape her past, put it behind her and start again. When she moved in, she confessed her secret to the local townspeople by letter and charged them with keeping her true. If she slips up, goes back to her old ways then she has to move. In keeping with her new lifestyle, Abby tends to live a solitary life.

Rupert “Rue” Thorn is just passing through. He’s been on an adventure around Australia, ticking things off his list and putting himself out there. On his first night in town he’s looking for his accommodation when he comes across Abby attempting to free a dog caught in a wire fence. It becomes a team effort and Rue is immediately intrigued by Abby. She has walls up though and he wants to know why.

Abby tells Rue that he’s too nice for her, something Rue has heard many times before. So he reinvents himself as the sort of man he thinks that Abby might want – one that isn’t so nice. There’s no denying the chemistry between them and Abby thinks Rue is fine as he really is. It’s the secret she has that hangs over them, that makes her keep her distance. Because if Rue were to find out, she’s certain that he wouldn’t want anything more to do with her. Just when she’s ready to tell him and to put herself out there, Abby discovers something that changes everything.

This is such an interesting romance novel. I haven’t read Madeline Ash before but I have read some really positive reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust greatly so I was definitely excited to read this. It’s loosely connected to a previous novel, The Playboy’s Dark Secret in that Rue is Dean from that book’s brother. He appears in the first book and likewise Dean and Rafi appear in this book but you definitely do not need to have read their story to read this one.

Abby is an amazing character – she’s really interesting in a way that I haven’t encountered before, especially in a romance novel. She has a big flaw, something that she has been working hard to overcome for a couple of years and that is still a struggle for her. The reader does find out relatively early what Abby’s secret is as it does make up a large part of her internal monologue and her remembrances of past moments and times in her life. I really enjoyed the way that Madeline Ash handled Abby and her secret. At first you wonder why on earth someone would do this, how it could happen. And then Ash gives her a background, a childhood that fleshes her out and gives her motivation and also makes the reader sympathise with her. I felt that Abby had been quite hardly done by in her early and teen years, not deliberately but it happened nonetheless.

Despite his semi-unfortunate name (I can’t get my head around Rupert or Rue, to be honest), Rue is a pretty sweet character. He’s also been told many times in the past that he’s just too ‘nice’ and when Abby feeds him the same line (over guilt of her secret) he basically decides to try and be an Alpha hero who doesn’t listen to what the woman says and takes what he wants and drives a hot car. Some of the scenes where Rue is playing Alpha are pretty funny:

Frustration gripped the muscles in her shoulders. “That’s it. I want you to stop this not-nice thing.”

“Too bad sweetheart.”

She stared at him. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, I see. Patronising pet names. What else did you read when you Googled how to be a jerk? Besides being inexcusably late for a date.”

Rue is pretty bad at being a jerk but occasionally he does manage to pull it off. He’s tired of being told he’s nice, he thinks it equates to him being boring but he’s actually the sort of person Abby needs, even if she refuses to see it. Abby needs someone who is going to be understanding and supportive, the sort of person who is going to help her every day. She needs to have someone who is 100% behind her, that believes in her and trusts her but is also willing to stick around if she slips. Abby has constructed her life in a way that is best for her at the time, but now her needs and wants are changing. Rue has made her want something more permanent. It started off as something casual, but now both of them want the long haul, if only Abby will jump in and take the chance.

The interesting conflict really lifted this book another notch for me, made it memorable. I enjoyed it a lot, particularly the evolution of Abby as a character as she opened up about herself and began to take those first steps forward actually involving people properly in her life, not just allowing them into the periphery. I think readers of The Playboy’s Dark Secret will enjoy the glimpses of Dean and Rafi. I’d definitely be interested in reading their story now after their cameo! I recommend this one for those who want something a little different, that explores an unusual conflict with depth and sensitivity.

8/10

Book #16 of 2015

aww-badge-2015

Love & Other Lies is book #5 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

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Reading Challenges 2015: Around The World In 12 Books Challenge

around-the-world-2015

I’ve been meaning to write a sign-up post for this challenge and a couple others for a few weeks now but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I finally have some time to sit down and catch up on blog posts a bit (school holidays mean I’m constantly getting drinks, putting on movies, breaking up fights, etc) so this is the first one. I actually did this challenge in what I think was its first year and it was a bit different back then. So here we go!

The Around the World in 12 Books Challenge is hosted by the awesome Shannon over at Giraffe Days. There are several different levels and you can check all of those out on the sign up page here. I’ve given it a bit of thought and I’m going for broke in this one.

Seasoned-Traveller-2015-300x134

Rules:

Level 4: The Seasoned Traveller

– The Seasoned Traveller doesn’t do anything by half-measures: they go the whole hog and the more obscure the better!
– Read 12 books over the course of the year, each set in a DIFFERENT country
– Books selected should include ones set in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia+New Zealand, North America and South America. The Middle East should be considered too
– You do not need to plan ahead but it might help you keep on track
– No re-reads
– Any genre is okay (including non-fiction) BUT books MUST be set in a specific country or region with a noticeable attention to the location or environment; some genre books won’t be much use for this challenge

Last year I read over 100 books set in Australia and I’m proud of the fact that I read a lot of local authors and books that showcase my country and the people in it. However, the rest of my reading was pretty limited, probably mostly American or British and I used to really enjoy reading more widely and visiting different places through literature again, so that’s why I’m getting back into this challenge. I want to explore new places again, read books set in all corners of the world.

 

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Review: Head Of The River by Pip Harry

Head Of The RiverHead Of The River
Pip Harry
University of Queensland Press
2014, 302p
Read from my local library

Leni and Cristian Popescu are twins. Both are scholarship students to a prestigious Melbourne school for their ability in rowing. Offspring of Olympic champions, Leni and Cristian look certain to guide their school to victory in the Head of the River race on the Barwon River.

It’s six months until the Head of the River. Cristian is overweight, having indulged a little too much in the food he loves and less of the training he needs. He finds himself dropped from the firsts, down to the seconds because of his lack of fitness. However, if he can get himself back to peak, he’ll earn his way back to the firsts. Cristian tries, he does but he cannot resist the lure of kebabs and other fatty foods. When his friend, who was dropped down to the seconds for being too small comes to him with a way they can both get back to the firsts, Cristian is tempted. Anabolic steroids and diet pills will help him lose the weight and build the muscle. And they don’t test in school, right? It’s just until he gets back to where he needs to be. Then he’ll stop.

Leni suffers from a lack of confidence, in herself and in her team. She’s always been so focused, so set on her goals. She wants it badly but with study, a failing relationship, an intriguing new boy and the struggles of teenage life, Leni can see her dream slipping away. Both of the twins are under enormous pressure and it’s all starting to come apart.

I loved Pip Harry’s first book, I’ll Tell You Mine and I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out last year. It begins two days after the Head of the River race and someone is fighting for their life but you don’t know who or what happened. Then it goes back six months, to when preparation begins for the famous race. I have to admit, I didn’t grow up here so I’d never heard of the race but my husband looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him if he knew what it was, so obviously it’s pretty big. He grew up in Colac and apparently there was a regatta on the lake down there every year, something the whole town went to. I don’t know much about rowing, other than the Olympics and the Cambridge/Oxford rivalry but it seems as though it’s pretty well established in Melbourne.

Leni and Cristian aren’t from a wealthy background like a lot of their fellow students. They were accepted into the school on their grit and talent, both having been taught to row by their Olympian parents. Their father Vasile is Romanian born who emigrated to Australia to marry their mother after the fall of communism and then rowed for his new country. Vasile is brilliant and knows what he’s doing but his tenuous grasp on the English language has held him back. He’s the boat caretaker for Harley Grammar, their exclusive private school but is probably deserving of coaching at least the seconds, maybe even the firsts. Their mother Jodie is a medal winner for Australia and now works long shifts as a nurse. Money is always tight and they live in Fitzroy as opposed to the big mansions in Toorak that other families from the school reside in, but they get by. They’re a tight-knit family, although there are some cracks beginning to show as Leni and Cristian begin their preparations.

Leni and Cristian are amazing characters. They both give voice to the narrative here and it switches between them seamlessly. Pip Harry has done a fantastic job at capturing them separately and together as a sibling unit. Leni is so focused, so driven that it’s almost like she barely has any time for anything else. She’s always training or studying to keep up her perfect grades. She has few friends and although she has a boyfriend, she’s conflicted about the relationship. He’s a perfectly nice guy, very popular but he doesn’t give her the flutters. There’s a new guy, someone who has made the firsts incredibly quickly, much to the resentment of some of the other students. He gives Leni the flutters but he’s also complicated and she cannot work him out. Leni is pretty solitary and it seems that in the end, it’s where she falls down. Their rowing is a team sport and she needs to learn to develop that trust in her teammates, to believe in them that they will all be a part of getting her where she wants to go. You really see Leni change and evolve over the course of the book as she makes tentative steps towards friendship with her team, opening up and allowing them to see a different part of her, the part of her that isn’t just Rowing Leni.

Cristian is far more sociable and popular than Leni – he loves hanging with his friends, the camaraderie of being on the team. When he’s dropped to the seconds, he’s devastated. He’s swayed to try using something to help get him back into shape and although he’s conflicted over what he’s doing, feeling a terrible guilt he is ecstatic at the immediate results. He’s dropping weight and building muscle, his times are amazing and he’s assured to get back into the firsts. But taking this way out will come at a price for Cristian and a far greater price for someone else. Throughout the book, the incident that is alluded to in the beginning was hanging over me as I occasionally wondered who it might be and why. When it happened, I felt that it still managed to take me by surprise, especially the way in which it played out.

Head of the River is an engrossing story but it’s the characters that make it shine, especially all of the Popescu family. They showcase what it might be like for children to grow up in the shadow of famous parents and try and make their own way in a sport that their name is already famous in. Vasile is a brilliant character, he’s a bit arms-waving wildly overexcited eastern European sporting father at times but then he’ll show a remarkable sensitivity and ability to engage with his children on a much deeper level. I was a bit surprised he never questioned the change in Cristian, but that is perhaps the biggest example of how he was a father first to him, coach and cheer squad second. He simply could never have imagined that his own child would do that, even when it’s revealed late in the book that there are clearly people who have their suspicions, whether it’s borne out of jealousy or out of a true curiosity and hunch.

This book further cements Pip Harry as a must-read author for me! Australian YA has always been fabulous, so many amazing books being published and this is a brilliant example of what is on offer.

9/10

Book #15 of 2015

aww-badge-2015

Head Of The River is book #4 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

 

 

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Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison-Allen

First FrostFirst Frost (Waverley Family #2)
Sarah Addison-Allen
St Martin’s Press
2015, 304p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

It is almost winter and as always, it is having an effect on the Waverley women as they await first frost and the blossoming of the apple tree in their backyard. The Waverley’s are special, each possessed of a specific gift. The entire town knows it and can use it if needed or ignore it at will.

Claire Waverley has always been able to inject emotion into the food she bakes. She used to run a catering business but now produces sweets of two varieties despite the toll it is taking on her personally and her family. It’s taking up more and more of her time and causing her to become withdrawn. When something threatens Claire and her entire existence, she will have to learn that she can turn to others, turn to her family for help and not have to deal with things alone.

Claire’s sister Sydney has wanted something for so long but it seems as though it’s never going to be. She wants to give her wonderful husband a son but as the months and years tick by she grows further despondent and further desperate. Sydney was always the one who wanted to be ‘normal’, the one who wanted to leave their small town behind. When she meets someone just like her, Sydney is convinced she can help….but she runs the risk of getting her heart broken.

Sydney’s daughter Bay is pure Waverley and has always embraced it. She knows where things belong and she made the mistake of telling someone where they belong. Now everyone knows and the person in question seems to be going out of their way to avoid her. As the first frost approaches, Bay spots a mysterious stranger that seems to appear and disappear – one that seems overly interested in the Waverley house. What threat does he pose and can the women find a way to hold together until the apple tree blooms?

I love Sarah Addison-Allen’s books but I have to admit, it’s been a couple of years since I read her early ones. So long in fact that when I began reading this, I didn’t realise it was connected to Garden Spells until it mentioned the apple tree in the backyard. Rumour has it if you eat an apple from the Waverley tree, it will show you the biggest moment of your life (but beware, it may not always be a good one). Fortunately, the Waverleys are all born with an aversion to apples and are never tempted. Occasionally the tree will toss apples at someone’s feet or retract its branches away so that a person cannot reach. It’s a character in itself and as soon as I read it in this book, the memories of Clare and Sydney from Garden Spells began to come back. If you haven’t read Garden Spells then I recommend you do before this one. And if it’s been a while like it was for me, a re-read might come in handy!

Sarah Addison-Allen writes so beautifully, so vividly and this book is no exception. She finds amazing ways to describe food and smells and colours so clearly it’s like you’re standing in the room with Claire as she cooks in Garden Spells or creates her boiled lollies in First Frost. Claire spent a lot of time on her own before Sydney returned and she’s used to people leaving. Sydney has stayed and Claire has married and had her own child but it does seem like a part of her is waiting for the people in her life to leave again. There are many that turn to Claire for support and advice – Sydney and Bay for example – but it doesn’t seem like Claire ever turns to anyone herself. She soldiers on, getting things done mostly on her own even when it’s becoming clear that the new candy business is taking over her life.

I loved the character of Sydney’s daughter Bay who is in her teens in this novel. She’s a member of the Waverley family, always acknowledged to be a little different but Bay is utterly comfortable with who and what she is, even with her gift. She writes someone a letter, confessing that she knows where things belong and where she feels they belong and even though it seems like she’s rejected, she deals with it really well. She’s the sort of person that chooses to dress up as a Waverley when she could dress up as anything else in the world. Given she’s still a high school student when this book finishes, I would imagine that there could easily be another book featuring Bay when she’s a bit older, if Addison-Allen was so inclined. I know I’d love to read another Bay book, to see where her life takes her as an adult and exactly what happens with her and the person she wrote the letter to.

I love that when I read one of these books, I know what I’m getting and that’s a whimsical story with a lovely setting and beautiful characters that I really come to care about. There’s nothing more comforting than picking up a book you’ll know you’ll enjoy, even before you so much as open it. This one has just a little bit of mystery to it with the stranger who arrives in town with the intention to cause problems for the Waverley women and watching it all unfold is magical. Another fabulous book from an author that keeps on delivering.

8/10

Book #13 of 2015

 

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Review: Faking It by Gabrielle Tozer

Faking ItFaking It (The Intern #2)
Gabrielle Tozer
Harper Collins AUS
2014, 347p
Purchased personal copy

In a short time, Josie Browning has come a long way. She has a cool new writing job at the brand new indi, an online magazine. She has a lovely boyfriend named James. She’s left the country behind and moved into an apartment in the city.

But it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. indi is about to launch and at the worst possible time, Josie’s colleague Sia is put mostly out of action. Suddenly so much more is resting on Josie’s shoulders and her boss is really riding her to produce the goods and counting on her. Josie is out of her depth for a lot of her new duties, including press junkets about beauty items and attempting to book a megastar for the indi launch party. Josie still has the obligations of her long distance university course to make also and she’s being stretched further thin by the day. It seems that each event she attends brings about new and exciting ways to humiliate herself – she’s dealing with a bitchy cohort of writers, a flatmate who is obsessed with the cleaning schedule and a travel writer named Alex who seems to show up at precisely the moment her dreamy boyfriend James begins to show that he might not be so perfect after all.

Josie has become a master of faking it but it’s all starting to come undone. With everything including her job and her relationship hanging in the balance she’s going to have to pull out all the stops to extricate herself from the mess.

I read The Intern last year and really enjoyed it so I was pretty excited when I found out that Josie would be getting a sequel in Faking It. It took me a while to find it locally, it came out last month I think and when I bought it I ended up reading it straight away. I did enjoy it but not as much as the first one.

I really like reading about characters who feel real, are awkward and have embarrassing moments but sometimes it can be difficult to read a book where that seems to be all that happens. The cringeworthy factor is so high that sometimes I get so embarrassed for them that I have to put the book down and take a break. It’s like these things are happening to me and I can’t bear to go on. At times it feels like Josie’s life is basically one big cringeworthy moment and it’s really hard to plow through it.

I felt sorry for her in this book because I think she got chucked in unfairly at the deep end in a way that shouldn’t really happen to someone of her inexperience. I’m not just talking about industry inexperience – she’s barely 18, she’s still a student and she’s really not got any of the contacts or pull to do half of what she’s being asked to do. But she’s also lacking in life experience as well, which makes it difficult for her to deal with social situations that crop up in the job she’s doing for Sia. She’s basically a sitting duck for the pack of fashion bitches who are already locked and loaded. I try to remember what it was like to be 18 and utterly out of my depth – heck I’m 32 and I’m still out of my depth most days. But there were times where I just wanted to shake Josie until her teeth rattled and say “Go to your Boss. Tell her what is happening. You’re frickin’ 18 years old. This is insane.” Instead Josie just buried everything away and attempted to soldier on. Most other times I wanted to shake her boss for precisely the same reasons. Her boss was ridiculous throughout pretty much all of this book except the ending.

Thankfully for Josie, she’s nice. She’s so nice that even the people who want to hate her can’t even do it. She’s a total dork but she also embraces that part of herself as well. To be honest, being nasty to Josie strikes me somewhat as easy to do as going out and kicking tiny guard-dog-in-training puppies or shooting yellow fluffy ducks. Even the fashion bitches’ hearts don’t seem to be in it after they get to know her. She and James are really cute together and I didn’t mind her friendship with Alex either. James did show some cracks in his perfect exterior in this book – he did something pretty douchey and then a combination of Josie’s inexperience coupled with James’s issues over his previous relationship ended up blowing it into something huge.

There’s some deeper messages hidden behind Josie’s utter awkwardness, such as the whole sex thing – when is the right time? As well as saying I love you and how wanting that moment to be utterly perfect can lead to it being anything but. There’s also the titular ‘faking it’ concept which is explored quite well but perhaps could’ve gone just a little bit deeper. Josie has been faking it for a while and her attempts to keep up the facade have led to her into nothing but stressful situations and disaster. I think a lot of people would’ve cracked under the pressure that was put on Josie and that she ended up handling things pretty well, considering. There were things she certainly could’ve done to ease the load on herself but there were also other people around her that really should’ve been more concerned about her ability to cope as well.

I did enjoy this – it’s a fun read and it’s really lovely to see Josie work her way out of these terrible situations but sometimes it made me super frustrated. It’s quite possible that had I been Josie’s age reading this, I’d have been able to identify with it so much more. Josie has sixteen-year-old me’s dream job basically!

7/10

Book #12 of 2015

aww-badge-2015

Faking It is book #2 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

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