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Review: My Story – Julia Gillard

My StoryMy Story
Julia Gillard
Random House AUS
2014, 504p
Purchased personal copy

I was prime minster for three years and three days. Three years and three days of resilience. Three years and three days of changing the nation. Three years and three days to give me a unique perspective of our future.

Three years and three days for you to judge.

This is a hard review to write because I suspect the way people will feel about this book depends on how they feel about Julia Gillard. Because I bought this book, quite obviously I like her. I wouldn’t shell out for a hardback on someone I didn’t like. When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, we had just moved to her electorate of Lalor in Melbourne’s south-west. It’s a mix of older, working class suburbs and land reclaimed from market gardeners and farmers that is being redeveloped into housing estates to accommodate the growing population. We’re 35m from the city on a good day when no one has broken down or had a fender bender on the West Gate. House prices are cheap, because they’re in plentiful supply. At the same time, you can see that changing quickly. Soon the land will be gone, the house prices will increase and the development push will continue out to Rockbank and Sunbury. Julia Gillard had been the member for Lalor for over ten years when she went from being Deputy Prime Minister behind Kevin Rudd, to Prime Minister in a spill. The government had lost faith in Rudd, who clearly was buckling under the pressures of the job.

But what Gillard and probably the rest of the Labor party didn’t realise, was that there were many who didn’t take too kindly to the way she came into power. She wasn’t democratically elected by the people. Faced with an extremely hostile media presence, mostly publications owned by the incredibly right-wing Rupert Murdoch company NewsCorp, Gillard faced constant criticism about everything – including her personal life with partner Tim, her clothes, her hair, her lack of children, her past times, her manner of speech. It was open slather and the attacks and claims of upcoming leadership challenges in the Labor party were published every other day. She had to not only concentrate on running the nation and getting things done after the Rudd period of inactivity but she had to be strong in the face of adversity and personal attack. She was unmarried and an athiest. She didn’t have any children – and was referred to  as “deliberately barren” and unfit for leadership because of that by a Liberal MP. And of course her partner is a hairdresser which must mean he’s a homosexual! That was actually put to Julia Gillard in a radio interview by Howard Sattler who was later sacked because of it. I don’t think I’m alone when I feel that this would never have been asked of a male PM – if their wife was really a lesbian and it was all a sham. Because Gillard was both female and in a de facto relationship rather than protected by the “sanctity” marriage, it seemed as if it gave license to ask her rude, personal questions.

The book is divided into two sections, to answer the two questions Gillard says she is asked most frequently. The first section is how she did it, revolving around the downfall of Rudd and also pulling together a minority government after the 2010 election. The second section is why she did it, which revolves around her vision and what she wanted to implement as well as what motivated her. One thing that absolutely stands out in this book is Gillard’s passion for education. She wants desperately for everyone to have access to excellent quality education, the way she and her sister were able to after her family moved here from a dirt-poor Welsh mining town. She talks at length and often, how important education is to her and how it was one of her big agendas. As someone who now has a child at school, I find myself taking much more of an interest in both state and federal funding and the vision for the future. I’m far more interested in my children’s education than I was in my own at the time and it takes hindsight and maturity to appreciate the opportunities we are afforded here.

I told my husband and someone I spoke to after reading this that this book reads like a conversation with Gillard where she answers the questions before you can ask them. You don’t have to participate as such, just absorb the answers. It showcases her personality, which I don’t think was presented in the best light when she was leader. Gillard is actually warm and funny, quite humorous and very down to earth. When I was walking back home from dropping my son off at school yesterday, I listened to a podcast of Julia Gillard at a literary lunch with Tony Delroy and she is sort of questioned about this and she admits that she’s far better off the cuff, in her own words. She can prepare for things and deliver well in a format like Q&A, or The 7:30 Report but has never been much good at delivering a prepared speech word for word. This was something that hurt her at the time I think, because it seemed that people couldn’t really connect with her, especially after the way she came to power. Listening to the podcasts and her interviews since leaving power and reading her book showcases the sort of personality she could’ve perhaps offered if not distracted by so much negativity – the media, the scare campaign the opposition ran and also within her own party, which was always being or attempting to be, destabilised. She says there was always a need to be stoic, to not ever be seen as emotional (probably lest the ‘hysterical female’ accusations appear) and perhaps that contributed too. She doesn’t have that need anymore, she is able to be freer in her expression

This book is quite frank about the mistakes she made as well – decisions that she made that didn’t turn out to be right, people she trusted that she perhaps shouldn’t have, ideas she had that weren’t ready to be implemented. But I think ultimately Gillard is very proud of the government she led and how much it achieved in the face of such adversity. So many people forget that they passed over 500 pieces of legislation and as she says, “many important pieces, not just tidying up”. She’s proud of the fact that whilst it may not have been easy for her, being the first woman Prime Minister of Australia, she hopes that it will be for the next one….and the next one….and the next one after that. I think like many others do, that history will be much kinder to Gillard than the years she reigned in were. In time, she’ll be remembered for her ideas and her strength, rather than the fact she was a woman who wore clothes the media found boring and didn’t have a husband.

9/10

Book #214 of 2014

AWWW2014

This is the 79th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

 

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Review: The Alexandria Connection – Adrian d’Hagé

Alexandria ConnectionThe Alexandria Connection
Adrian d’Hagé
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 469p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

CIA agent Curtis O’Connor and his girlfriend/partner archaeologist Aleta Weizman are on a holiday of sorts in Alexandria, Egypt. Although O’Connor is on leave from the CIA, the two are not entirely there to relax – instead Aleta has plans to dive some of the ruins under the ocean in the Alexandria harbour. There have always been rumours of a lost papyrus that would reveal the true purposes of the pyramids of Giza, as well as another one that could turn the entire religion of Christianity on its head.

Elsewhere, a man nicknamed Pharos heads up a group of powerful people. The membership of the group is a well-guarded secret and each person invited in has a very specific attribute. All of these people are putting in a careful plan to create chaos in world financial markets via a string of well organised and funded terrorist attacks that will not only drive up the price of oil and create public hysteria but they will also result in loss of life and nuclear meltdown. Although the CIA have managed to intercept enough communication to know that something is planned, they don’t know where or when. Only Curtis O’Connor might be able to track down Pharos and prevent him from taking control of the entire world.

I think this is the third book that features O’Connor and Weizman but it’s the first that I’ve read. On some levels, you don’t really need to read the previous two as each is a separate story but it would probably help because I didn’t realise they were a couple until they started getting it on. I thought they just worked together and maybe there was potential for one of those ‘will they or won’t they?’ scenarios. Clearly that’s been and gone and they’re a couple of sorts here. I’m not entirely sure how serious it is – O’Connor has apparently well known prowess in the bedroom and Weizman is all about finding antiquities. She’s not the sort to sit at home and wait for O’Connor to get home from his latest assignment of being awesome.

There’s a lot going on here and it’s to d’Hagé’s credit that he manages to tie it all together relatively easily. In one part of the world you have O’Connor and Weizman having a ‘holiday’ of sorts (that keeps getting interrupted when O’Connor keeps getting recalled to active duty because of what the other people the in the novel are up to) diving searching the lost ruins of Egypt for evidence of the two rumoured papyrus. You have Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan planning terrorist attacks on the west, increasing on the severity scale with each one. You have one of the world’s richest men heading up a private group hell-bent on basically taking control of the world via influence over the financial markets, the control and supply of fossil fuels, print media coverage and the terrorist acts they’re paying others to carry out for them. d’Hagé also manages to work in domestic political issues such as the carbon tax on a grander scale, presenting it as a critical issue for an upcoming American presidential election. Given I read this book directly after finishing Julia Gillard’s memoir, I found that a very interesting and relevant inclusion!

I really enjoyed the parts of the story that revolved around Egypt and the antiquities as well as the quest to discover what the pyramids were for – all of that is really fascinating. However I do have to admit that the parts of the story connected to terrorism were less interesting to me. I tired of reading about the terrorists talking about the ‘infidels’ and I’m not entirely sure if I should be concerned about the ease of which some of these were planned and carried out or not. There’s a lot of panic now about the perceived level of threat Australia faces from terrorism and I tend to really try to shy away from the hysteria. Although I don’t know of anyone who fills the role of Pharos in reality, there probably are several people who are that wealthy and would pay obscene amounts to have yet more power. It’s a rather unpalatable thought and I did have trouble connecting to any of the characters within the book. O’Connor is a typical CIA/FBI/Navy SEAL/etc action hero and Weizman is basically a walking, talking archaeological and historical encyclopedia. She shows little other personality other than a knowledge and love of history in this book and again, that may be because I haven’t read the previous books featuring her. There is quite a lot of background between her and the CIA which would probably be interesting to catch up on, given it’s summarised in a paragraph or two here. The man behind Pharos is supposed to be loathsome and is, although I feel as though he was too one dimensional, like he could’ve been given something interesting as motivation rather than just money and power. I know they’re both things that easily corrupt but it made him boring.

I think this book is clever and intricate and I enjoyed parts of it a lot and admired the way other parts of it managed to blend together to create a seamless story. I am tempted however to go back and read the books with O’Connor and Weizman on the Maya Codex and the Incan Prophecy, I’ve read books concerning that sort of thing before and I’ve always enjoyed them.

7/10

Book #216 of 2014

Aussie-Author-Challenge-2014-final-badge

The Alexandria Connection counts towards my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2014. It’s book #16

 

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Review: Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is MissingElizabeth Is Missing
Emma Healey
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 275p
Read from my local library

Maud is 82 and she’s becoming more and more forgetful. She makes herself a cup of tea, forgets to drink it and then makes more. She goes to the shops, can’t remember why she’s there and buys things she doesn’t need until they’re piling up in the pantry. She forgets that she’s already eaten and makes herself some more toast. She forgets that really, she shouldn’t be cooking and thinks that boiling an egg will be ok. It’s just an egg.

One thing Maud does know is that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. She hasn’t heard from her and the note in her pocket reminds her. Elizabeth is missing. Maud is sure that Elizabeth’s son Peter has done something, but no one is listening to her. And it’s pretty hard to solve the mystery of where Elizabeth is when you keep forgetting what you’ve already learned.

Maud’s confusion means she sometimes mixes up the events of now with the events of the past and the disappearance of Elizabeth isn’t the only mystery Maud needs to get to the bottom of. Seventy years ago her sister disappeared and locked away somewhere in Maud’s mind is the answer, if only she can find a way to let it out.

Elizabeth Is Missing is Emma Healey’s first novel and I would imagine that she’s chosen a very difficult character as her narrator. Maud is in her 80s and in the early stages of dementia/Alzheimer’s. At the beginning of the book she’s still living independently in her own home but it’s pretty obvious to the reader that this will not be able to continue much longer. Maud constantly forgets that she’s done things like turn the gas on to boil an egg. She has a carer who comes in the mornings and makes Maud her lunch, which Maud isn’t supposed to eat until lunch time but despite the note left on the food, Maud almost always eats it immediately. She has been told not to go to the shops but she keeps going, buying things she doesn’t need, forgetting the things that she does need.

Fortunately for me, I’ve never had any experience with someone who has Alzheimer’s so I can’t judge from personal experience how accurate Maud seems, only judge by what I’ve heard and it seems as though Healey has done an absolutely brilliant job capturing someone who is on the brink of being unable to live independently. Maud has moments of clear lucidity, more in the beginning of the book but as you get deeper into the story, the present and the past begin to blur more and more often in her mind and she has trouble recognising people in her life, even her daughter Helen. There is quite an amusing moment, after she moves in with Helen, where she tells Helen that the new girl Helen has hired doesn’t do any cleaning and leaves clothes all over the floor. Maud is actually talking about her own granddaughter Katy, who she has moments of not recognising and even though Helen can clearly see this is an advancement of her symptoms, she’s able to find the funny side in Maud clearly seeing that Katy doesn’t contribute.

Along with the mystery of where Maud’s friend Elizabeth is, a second mystery, that of the disappearance of Maud’s sister Sukey. Sukey was older than Maud, glamorous and someone Maud clearly looked up to. She was married to a mysterious man named Frank who always seemed to be doing favours for people and was always able to get them extra rations during the time of war. Sukey disappeared without a trace and it affected not only Maud but also the structure of her whole family. Her parents never quite dealt with the disappearance of Sukey and Maud was forced to seek out either her husband Frank, who people suspected of harming her, or their lodger Douglas who seemed to have a complicated relationship with Sukey, if she ever wanted to be able to talk about her.

This book’s strength, which is the rambling, confused narrative of Maud is also occasionally its weakness for me, because there’s so many things that are repeated, so many fragments that don’t come together to make sense in a meaningful way. This is of course intended, but it does occasionally make for frustrating reason as we go through for the twentieth time that yes, Elizabeth is missing according to Maud and no one is listening to her. I don’t know if they are telling Maud where Elizabeth is sometimes and she’s just forgetting it or if they’re attempting to protect her but it does occasionally come off as if they are just ignoring her or even worse, humouring her. The fact that she remembers that Elizabeth isn’t around is interesting, it appears to be the one thing that sticks repetitively in her mind. I’m not sure if it’s because it reminds her of Sukey disappearing, which has obviously weighed so heavily on her for her whole life and Elizabeth seems to also be the one person that Maud spends time with where neither of them are doing it out of duty. I know for Helen, it must be both frustrating and also depressing seeing her mother descend more and more into confusion and Helen sighs a lot and becomes short with Maud but at the same time, most if not all of her care, falls to her. Helen has a brother, Maud’s son who lives abroad and so basically the entire workload falls to Helen and it wouldn’t be easy. Maud is also an entirely unreliable narrator as she forgets so much and confuses incidents between the past and the present.

I enjoyed this a lot – I think it’s a very difficult story executed very well and I would be interested in anything else that Emma Healey writes in the future.

7/10

Book #213 of 2014

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Review: The Eye Of Heaven – Clive Cussler

Eye of HeavenThe Eye Of Heaven (Fargo Adventures #6)
Clive Cussler and Russell Blake
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 389p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Husband and wife treasure hunting team Sam and Remi Fargo are on an environmental expedition off north western Canada. To the surprise of everyone, the expedition discovers a perfectly preserved Viking ship. But that’s not the most surprising thing – the fact that the ship is filled with pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico could change what is known and taught about history.

After they have secured and photographed the scene and stayed with it until the Canadian government is able to dispatch a research team, Sam and Remi fly home and begin their research. They find a link between the Vikings and the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl of the Toltecs. They also find evidence of an object known as the Eye of Heaven….a emerald about the size of a man’s fist. Sam and Remi want to finish the job and prove definitively that the Vikings did visit Mexico and they’d also like to locate the Eye of Heaven in order to have it preserved and able to be enjoyed. But they’re not the only ones who are on the trail and there are others out there who would do anything to possess these incredible historical artifacts, but for the ability to sell them to the highest bidder. There’s a huge black market in trading antiquities and soon Sam and Remi will be fighting not just for the right to keep the Eye of Heaven from falling into the wrong hands, but also for their lives.

I have to admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this series. I’ve only read books 4-6 but it really doesn’t matter. You don’t need to read all of them, or even read them in order. They’re all basically the same – Sam and Remi are incredibly wealthy (due to Sam inventing something and selling it for megabucks) and they spend their time trotting around the globe hunting treasure for the altruistic reasons of turning it over the authorities. It’s the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the discovery and uncovering a mystery that excites them. They both have lots of skills and they’re attractive and generous with their money. These books always involves lots of interesting locations and a good mystery with some action, usually them fighting off bad guys who want the treasure for profiting purposes.

The two previous Fargo Adventure books I read had a different writer involved – I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure about the role that the other writer plays in the writing of the book. Do they write the entire thing, taking only the creation of Sam and Remi Fargo from Clive Cussler? All of the books have had an “assistant” writer, Russell Blake is the third author to step in on this series. There’s little that changes perceptibly from the books I read previously except that this one does tend to lay off the filler that I complained about in my last review, describing Remi’s designer clothes and shoes although the devotion to describing their elaborate meals out at restaurants and the wines that are chosen to go with them stays. I tend to find this very jarring because it feels out of place. I’m tipping that most readers of these books don’t care whether or not Remi wore Dior or Chanel. I noticed that in this book, Sam has added a Gulfstream G650 to his assets, enabling them to fly around the world at a moment’s notice much more simply than when their assistants had to book them onto commercial flights! These will set you back around $65m US although Sam was thrifty and picked up a repossessed one or something, so I’m imagining that he got a bargain!

These books are pure escapism although I don’t actually want to be Sam or Remi. I actually would prefer to work for them, helping them with their research and learning interesting things! They have a very small team that they place their utmost trust in – in this novel, one of their team brings in someone new and Remi in particular has quite a negative reaction to this, convinced for most of the book that the new person can’t be trusted and is possibly betraying them. I felt as though this wasn’t resolved very satisfactorily and there was little to suggest why Remi, otherwise intelligent and rational, might feel this way.

In terms of the actual mystery and treasure, I have to admit it wasn’t the most exciting one I’ve read. However what I like about these is that they’re really easy reads that just keep you turning the pages, waiting for the inevitable moment when Sam and Remi get the treasure, thwart the bad buy and live happily ever after, ready for the next mystery they can sink their teeth into. This one was interesting in that it paired Vikings with Mexico but I found the actual searching for the treasure to be a bit lacklustre and it seemed like they did little in the way of protecting the dig, even though they knew that someone was following them and attempting to find the Eye of Heaven before they could. It seemed like Sam could’ve dropped some of his extensive fortune on security officers to secure the site who wouldn’t be bribed so easily by the person chasing them. But I enjoyed the cat and mouse games, the attempt to stay one step ahead of the bad guys or regain ground lost, which is part of the fun of these. You always know who is going to win in the end, but first you have to get there.

Not my favourite of these but definitely still a pretty good read.

7/10

Book #212 of 2014

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Review: This House Of Grief – Helen Garner

This House Of GriefThis House Of Grief
Helen Garner
Text Publishing
2014, 300p
Purchased personal copy

On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson was returning his three sons Jai, Tyler and Bailey to his estranged wife Cindy in Winchelsea in Victoria’s south-west. On the way, the car veered off the road, through a fence into a paddock and then into a dam that dropped straight down to a 7m depth. Although Farquharson managed to free himself and make it out of the dam, the three boys drowned.

The shocking case divided people. How on Earth could it possibly be deliberate? people wondered. That someone would do such a thing to three innocent children. But on the other hand, how does such an accident happen? What are the odds that Farquharson would, as he claimed, have a coughing fit on that precise bit of road, lose consciousness, veer across the lane avoiding any potential oncoming traffic, through the fence and into the dam? Why did he not attempt to free the boys? Why, when the first car came upon him on the road, did he demand to be taken from the scene straight to Cindy? The case was handed over to Homicide and Farquharson was charged and committed to stand trial. He was then found guilty – twice, by two separate juries after the first trial was ordered a mistrial.

Australian author Helen Garner became interested in the case and that interest turned into something of an obsession. She was present through both court cases, listening to evidence presented, hearing the grief of the children’s mother Cindy Gambino and her family, seeing the stoic front presented by Farquharson’s sisters, his support throughout both court cases. In this novel, Garner describes the happenings, presents the facts as they appeared in court…and ultimately, leaves it up to the reader to decide.

Despite having lived in Victoria for 8 years, there are many areas I am unfamiliar with. However the one area I am very familiar with is the road on which this terrible tragedy occurred. My husband was born in Colac, just 30 minutes past Winchelsea and his family still live there. We live closer to Melbourne and it’s a road we have traveled many, many times. I’ve seen those 3 crosses beside the road, near the dam probably a hundred times or more and every time I see them, I think of those 3 boys and how horrible what they went through must have been. I’ve always had my own personal opinion but when my husband mentioned he’d bought this book when I was away on holidays, I immediately wanted to read it because I wanted to know more about the actual happenings. I had kept up with both trials and the verdicts but wading through the Herald Sun is a bit different to reading a book dedicated to the story.

From the beginning, Farquharson maintained that he was a victim of cough syncope, a condition so rare that few physicians have actually witnessed it. It seems to be a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle, where someone coughs so badly that it cuts off the air supply to their brain causing a brief loss of consciousness. In the beginning and for the first trial, Farquharson’s estranged wife Cindy Gambino supported him, choosing to believe that this was an accident, not something he had done on purpose to hurt her for ending their marriage, for disrupting his family life. Cindy remained in the home with the three boys, keeping their “good car”, a 3yo Commodore whereas Farquharson was forced to move back in with his father and received the “shit” car, a VN Commodore probably some 15 years old. There were suggestions that Farquharson harboured a resentment towards Gambino for ending the relationship and also becoming close to another man and that in the ultimate revenge on her, he would take from her what mattered to her the most – their 3 children. And yet although not presented as a terribly competent father, Farquharson was acknowledged to be a loving one, who had actually improved in his relationship and competence with the 3 boys since the separation. It made it all the more difficult to attempt to decipher what must’ve happened that night on that stretch of highway.

Garner spends day after day in the court room, getting bogged down in details so boring that not only does she catch the jury struggling to stay awake but she documents her own struggle too as the lawyer for the defense harps on and on about yellow paint sprayed where the tyres of Farquharson’s car are believed to have left evidence of its path. It goes for days, a tactic by the defense to discredit the prosecution’s witness and confuse the jury until they don’t know what on earth is going on anymore. Garner describes a sort of Pavlovian response afterwards, whenever yellow paint came up everyone would almost immediately collectively groan and slump sideways, sure that they were in for days more analysis and discourse. But for every time there’s a witness that is called to give detail so involved barely anyone can follow it, there’s also someone who reminds them of why they are there – the tragic loss of 3 young boys and what it has done to the people around them, and that includes Farquharson.

Detailed also is the fight or flight response. Many people’s reactions, mine included, centered around shock and horror that he left those children to die whilst saving himself. Is that what we are programmed to do, as human beings? To save ourselves first? Can you be sure that you wouldn’t, in the same situation, do the same as Farquharson, if indeed it was the accident he claims? I like to think that I would do my best to free my kids, but let’s face it, they’re 6 and 3 and can’t swim. The dam is 7 meters deep and I can’t really swim properly myself. The most likely scenario for me, is that we all drown because getting all 3 of us out of a rapidly sinking car in pitch black water is unlikely. Would it be better to be with them? I don’t like to think on this too much because it involves thinking of outcomes I just can’t bear to, but I like to think I would never leave the scene. That I would stay there and find people who might be able to help me, if somehow I did made it out of the dam. I would never drive away – how much time was wasted during Farquharson’s insistence on the trip to Gambino’s Winchelsea home and then back again? Even Gambino’s new partner stripped off and dived into the dam over and over again, trying to find the car with the kids inside, while Farquharson stood on the road side, smoking a cigarette. And after he was taken to hospital, Farquharson was more concerned about what would happen to him now. He didn’t even ask about his children. Jai was 10, perhaps old enough, had he been able to get out of the car, and strong enough to make it to the surface and to safety. Tyler was 7 and Bailey just 2. It reminded me of a woman who lived down the road from my parents, who was at the beach with 2 of her daughters and the child of a friend. One of the children, not her daughter got into difficulty and not wanting to leave her youngest child, who was just 2, on the beach alone, she took her into the water with her in an attempt to rescue the other child. All 3 of them drowned. In some cases, no matter which option you choose, the outcome will always be tragic.

Regardless of whether Farquharson did have a coughing fit or not, this is the reality: the outcome is tragic. Those boys have had their lives cut short in the most horrible of ways. Their mother is a medicated mess of grief and heartache and whether or not her steadfast belief in Farquharson in the early days is all that allowed her to cling to her sanity or not, the reality is she will live with their loss for the rest of her life. And so will Farquharson. Indeed, Garner admits to feeling pity for him at times, he truly does make for a pathetic creature as he attempts to convince the court that he was just as his defense is trying to present him – a loving father, devastated over the breakdown of his marriage but not angry. The victim of a terrible accident that took his children away from him. And at times reading this book, it was hard not to feel pity for him as well. And yet, just because he seems to have loved his children, doesn’t take away from the fact that he could’ve done something awful to them. People harm the ones they love all the time. Garner presents each side here without really displaying a bias and does a brilliant job and I think that most people will go into this book having already made up their mind on his guilt or innocence. I know I did.

He has been twice found guilty and is now serving a life sentence, 33 years without parole.

8/10

Book #211 of 2014

AWWW2014

This House Of Grief is the 78th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

 

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Review: Black Ice – Becca Fitzpatrick

Black Ice2Black Ice
Becca Fitzpatrick
Simon & Schuster UK
2014, 392p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AUS

It’s spring break and instead of going off to the beaches of Hawaii, Britt Phieffer wants to go backpacking through the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming. Her friend Korbie’s family has a cabin up there but what Korbie doesn’t know is that Britt plans to spend most of the break out in the mountains, not in the luxury of the cabin. They have all their gear packed into Britt’s Wrangler and they’re ready to head out when Britt finds out that Korbie’s parents have sent her older brother Calvin along as chaperone. Calvin is also Britt’s ex-boyfriend and the two haven’t seen each other since he left for Stanford over 8 months ago.

All Britt’s planning doesn’t take into account a freak storm and with the car stranded she and Korbie have to trek to safety. They find a cabin and seek shelter with the occupants, two young guys. However it doesn’t take long for Britt to realise that they’ve stumbled into more danger than if they’d taken their chances staying by the car. Shaun and the mysterious Mason are clearly here for reasons other than nature and now they need Britt and her knowledge (most of which is faked) to guide them down off the mountain to the highway so they can disappear.

What started off as a holiday has now become a deadly game of cat and mouse. Britt needs to get them safely down the mountain or she suspects that they’ll kill her. And once she gets them down the mountain, they’ll have no further use for her either so she has to think on her feet and do her best to stay alive. First she just has to figure out who she can trust.

This is the first Becca Fitzpatrick novel I’ve read and I have to admit, I did have some feelings of trepidation going in because her previous Hush Hush series was definitely not for me. However this book is quite different to those and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed the careful crafting of the setting and the building of suspense.

Britt is seventeen and has been planning her spring break backpacking/camping trip for weeks. She’s been training and practicing and is now ready to go. She hasn’t said to her friend Korbie, pretending annoyance when Korbie admits that their parents have ordered along Korbie’s older brother Calvin to play watcher, but Britt is secretly pleased. She’s hoping that this trip might rekindle what they used to have, might make Calvin see her in a new light, someone who takes an interest in what he likes. Calvin has been away at Stanford and when Britt sees him again, he’s just as arrogant as ever.

Their trip gets off to a very bad start and they find themselves sheltering in a cabin with two guys in their 20s, Mason and Shaun. Things get even worse when they realise that Shaun and Mason are definitely not the sort of guys you want to be secluded with. Shaun is downright dangerous and although Mason claims that he’s not good either and appears to be working in partnership with Shaun, there are times when he deliberately helps Britt. He could’ve easily trapped her in several lies and ratted her out to Shaun but he chooses to play along, leaving Britt to wonder about him – just who is he really and why is someone like him working with someone as dangerous as Shaun?

Whilst the reader is able to easily decode the mysteries of Mason and also figure out precisely who it is that Britt shouldn’t trust, the author does a great job of impairing Britt’s judgement by using the environment and her situation. It’s freezing, snowing hard and Britt is pretty sure that no matter how things play out, Shaun is going to kill her. Her best chance of survival does lie with Mason, if she can bring herself to trust him. But Mason makes that difficult by continually keeping her at arm’s length sometimes and others, attempting to prove to her that he will be her best chance of help. Mason’s situation is a difficult one and Britt isn’t sure whether or not she’s succumbed to a form of Stockholm Syndrome or if she’s being played by a master.

Britt isn’t a particularly likable character and her friend Korbie is absolutely hideous. Rich, spoiled and arrogant, Korbie seems more a toxic friend than best friend and I question how their friendship endured for so long. During this book she’s so horrid to Britt and she’s basically useless it seems like Britt is kind of using her as a way to ensure that Calvin comes along on the trip. However over the course of the book, Britt does begin to change – she could easily give into hysterics but instead she becomes determined. She has a map that means she can get them down off the mountain, which she keeps to herself and instead she begins implementing her own plan. Hopefully one that will guide her to safety. It does get complicated and she does get swayed along the way, dithering back and forth on who she can trust but I could understand her internal conflict. She wants to trust Mason, but he doesn’t always appear to be trustworthy. The suspense here is actually built very well and the last 100p kept me on the edge of my seat.

I enjoyed this – particularly the setting. I’ve never even really seen snow but I love reading about blizzards and what it must be like to be either snowed in or caught out in that sort of weather. I think the pacing was great and Britt’s character development definitely worked for me.

7/10

Book #210 of 2014

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Review: The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Maze RunnerThe Maze Runner
James Dashner
Chicken House Ltd
2011 (originally 2010), 371p
Copy courtesy of Scholastic AUS

Thomas wakes in a box. He can remember his name and he can remember details about how the world works. But he can’t remember a single thing about his life – not his age, or his last name or even what he looks like. When the doors of the box open, Thomas finds himself in what is called The Glade.

The Glade is an encampment, surrounded on all sides by walls that are hundreds of feet high. There are doorways in the walls that lead to the Maze and every day people from the Glade known as Runners attempt to map the Maze, trying desperately to find a way out. They must return to the Glade before nightfall when the doors in the walls close and keep the Glades safe from the creatures that roam the Maze during the nights.

Like Thomas, no one else in the Glade has many memories prior to arriving in the Glade. It seems the only way to regain your memories are to throw yourself into the path of danger and hope for the best. With Thomas’s arrival comes the beginning of the end and he realises that the time to find their way out is now. If they can’t figure out the secrets of the Maze and how to get out, they’re all going to die. One by one.

So The Maze Runner has been around for a little while now but expect a big resurgence in its popularity now that the feature film has begun showing at cinemas. It’s one of those books that I’ve always had on my radar, that I’ve been meaning to get around to and have never quite got there so I thought the chance to review the book and then go and see the movie would be a bit of fun!

In a post-apocalyptic world, there is the Glade. An area the size of a few football fields, surrounded by huge walls on all sides. During the day, there are openings from the Glade into the Maze but at night, the openings close keeping out the strange animal/machine hybrids that the Gladers call grievers. The Gladers are all children, between the ages of 12 and 17 and for two years now they’ve been trying to figure out a way out of the Glade through the Maze. So far they’re no closer to an answer and all they have to show for it are the fatalities of those who have tried and failed. Every month a new boy arrives in the box to join the group but the day after Thomas arrives, a girl shows up in the box. This is unheard of – the newbies are always male. And never have there been two in a row before. With the arrival of Teresa comes a message: she is the last one and this is the beginning of the end.

I honestly don’t know why I haven’t read this before now because I’m totally a sucker for this type of story. A bunch of children with almost no memories creating their own society and also attempting to figure out how to escape? Yep! That is totally my sort of thing. From the moment Thomas enters the glade I was hooked, wanting to ask all the questions Thomas does too. Where are they, what are the walls for, where do the openings go, why are they there? How do they survive? The answers come slowly, Thomas is drip-fed by those that are sort of in charge, the ones who sit on their council of sorts and make the decisions. Each boy has a role to play in the day to day running of their life. They are given supplies through the box but they also grow their own fruit and vegetables, raise their own animals (slaughtering some for food), choose leaders and conduct meetings to decide business.

Thomas feels in his bones that he was meant to be a Runner, that he’s here for a reason. But the Runners are the strongest, fittest, the most elite of the elite and you can’t just arrive and walk into being one the next day. Thomas proves himself by not only putting his life on the line but by also showing skill and ingenuity as well, showing the Gladers that there just might be a way to go up against the grievers and win. If they can do that, they can spend more time in the Maze trying to figure it out….and trying to escape. But Thomas quickly realises what their best way of remembering things is going to be and he’s determined to do it, sure that he and perhaps the mysterious Teresa, hold the key to the answer they need locked away inside their heads.

I actually enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would – it’s a fast paced book most of the way through, barring the first part which is just Thomas trying to ask questions and not getting answers. I think it will actually translate well into a movie – limited cast but a story that will make for some great moments. YA adaptations are very on trend right now and I think part of ensuring that continues is picking the right books to adapt to the big screen. Even though this book spends a lot of time in Thomas’s head, it’s not something that would be difficult to convey visually.

The great thing about being so late to join the party here is that the two sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure are already out. And given the way The Maze Runner ends I can’t wait to go onto the next book and find out what happens next and hopefully learn more about the wider world.

8/10

Book #209 of 2014

 

 

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Review: Landline – Rainbow Rowell

LandlineLandline
Rainbow Rowell
Orion Books
2014, 308p
Read from my local library

Georgie McCool is a script writer for television and has been looking for her big break for years. She’s worked on other shows but now she has the chance, with her writing partner Seth, to pitch their own show. They need a few workable scripts but there’s just one problem: Georgie, her husband Neal and their two daughters Alice and Noomi are supposed to be going to Omaha to visit Neal’s mother for Christmas. She knows Neal will be upset with her when she pulls out of yet another family event but what she doesn’t expect is him going to Omaha anyway – taking the kids and leaving her behind.

Georgie can’t help but wonder if perhaps this time she’s pushed Neal too far. He’s always been incredibly understanding about her job and her working relationship with Seth, in fact he quit his own job to be a stay at home father to their children when Georgie couldn’t find a daycare centre she liked. But everyone has their limits and when she can’t even get hold of Neal in Omaha, Georgie wonders if he’s deliberately avoiding her.

But then, in her teenage bedroom on an old phone, Georgie finds a way where she can communicate with Neal – but it’s not the Neal of now, it’s the Neal of the past, during a brief break in their relationship. Here Georgie has a chance to maybe fix things, issues that are deep seated and get everything out in the open. Perhaps fix her marriage right from the beginning. Or the opposite could happen and Georgie could change things so much that their marriage might never take place.

I have to say, this review pains me to write. Because I have loved Rainbow Rowell’s other three books so much – I sang the praises of Attachments, I really enjoyed Eleanor & Park and I thought Fangirl was quirky, cute and portrayed moving to college well. And so I was obviously looking forward to reading this one, believing that it would be pure gold as well. After all when you find an author whose books you love and admire so much, it’s hard for them to put a foot wrong.

For me, Landline is the book that puts a foot wrong. That’s not to say it’s a terrible book – it isn’t. I finished it and it took me no time to read through it. But there’s no denying that for me, this story lacked the charm and wit of Rowell’s previous books as well as characters that I cared about. Georgie wasn’t particularly someone I enjoyed reading about and there was little I really liked about her grumpy husband Neal, who by the sounds of it, was basically born grumpy and proposed to Georgie with the stunningly romantic line “I love you more than I hate everything else.” Seth, Georgie’s writing partner is a shallow man-child who seems stunned that Georgie chose someone else over him so many years ago and like he can barely refrain from rubbing his hands together with glee when it seems there are some deep cracks appearing in Georgie and Neal’s marriage. Most of the cracks are Seth-related, who doesn’t seem to understand that Georgie has a life outside of work, with a husband and children and even though they’re a team, it seems he’s the driving force behind this work-through-Christmas campaign. Almost from the moment Neal and the children leave, Georgie realises that she’s made a mistake and this is one time when work shouldn’t have come before family and therefore she’s basically useless in every meeting they have. But yet Seth keeps bothering her, keeps demanding things of her instead of basically just saying to her, “Georgie, go. Go and be where you want to be, we can postpone this and fix it after Christmas”. Despite his grumpiness, Neal appears to have had the patience of a saint up until now because it seems that Georgie spends far more time with Seth than she does at home. That’s not to say she doesn’t love her family, it’s clear that she does. But she doesn’t seem to prioritise them the way she does her career.

This book just feels so….well, whiny I suppose. And the phone tag that Neal and Georgie seem to play goes on for far too long to really be believable in this day and age. I have an iPhone too and the battery on that sucker is terrible but the amount of times Georgie calls Neal in Omaha and he’s just no where to be found ended up getting on my nerves. The phone calls to previous Neal didn’t really work for me…. maybe because I’m not entirely sure of what was happening there? Maybe we’re not supposed to or maybe I’m just incredibly stupid. I found myself just turning the pages, going through the motions so I could find out what happened in the end. I have to say though that the ending was somewhat pleasing to me. It was nice to see Georgie make the effort, which to be honest, didn’t sound like something she did all that often. But all in all, this one felt lacklustre and I found it really hard to maintain interest.

5/10

Book #208 of 2014

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Review: You – Caroline Kepnes

YouYou
Caroline Kepnes
Simon & Schuster
2014, 422p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AUS

When graduate student and aspiring writer Guinevere Beck comes into the bookstore where Joe works, he is instantly fascinated by her. Known simply as Beck, Joe thinks she’s everything she’s ever wanted. When he gets her name, Joe has all he needs to unlock the details of her life.

In this day of twitter, facebook and instagram, all Joe needs is a laptop or smart phone to know what Beck is doing at any given moment. In no time at all he’s managed to track down where she lives and stands outside her apartment watching as she lives her life uncaring of the open curtains. Joe uses the information on her whereabouts to be in the right place at the right time, saving Beck from a dangerous situation. But Beck is enamored with a man named Benji and Joe can see that for them to truly be together, Beck must get over Benji and therefore, Benji has to go.

Soon Beck and Joe are dating, in a way although it’s a constant game of cat and mouse. Joe is always aware of Beck’s untruths because he’s reading all her email and message correspondence, something Beck has no idea about. And the more he gets to know about Beck, the more he uncovers her lies, her deceptions and her betrayals. All of a sudden, Beck is not the perfect partner he has imagined.

Once Joe couldn’t live without Beck. Now that the cracks are showing, the powerful obsession might have a deadly ending.

You has been generating a pretty steady buzz around my twittersphere and with the runaway success of Gone Girl lately, it’s no surprise that it’s been pushed toward fans of that novel. But You is different to Gone Girl and for me personally, a better book. I think what makes You fascinating for me is that it’s told all from the perspective of Joe. The reader’s insights into Beck are limited to what Joe shows us as well as her often unreliable messages and emails to her friendship circle. At the beginning of the novel, it’s not much of a secret that Joe is going to be clearly, a bit disturbed. So there’s almost like a preemptive sympathy for Beck, before you even really begin. At first, she seems like a normal post-grad student living in New York, struggling with her writing, fascinated by a douchebag bloke that’s like someone we all know.

But the further I got into the story, the more that idea started to unravel. Beck is, above all things, a compulsive liar. She lies about pretty much everything, to everyone. She’s an exhibitionist, seemingly unaware of her open curtains, the fact that her nipples are visible when she’s not wearing a bra but it’s quite obvious she cannot be unaware of these things. Beck’s world is populated by drama: the on/off friendship with benefits with Benji, the overt neediness of her friend Peach, daddy issues, Beck has the works.

This book is a clear example of how visible we all are in this age. For example, Joe manages to wrangle Beck’s address from a tweet she made about her building when she moved into it and her constant updating of where she is allows him to basically follow her around the city and she has no idea. We probably all think that we’re a lot more careful than we are, regarding our whereabouts and how much information we give out online but are we really? Reading this book, I actually posted an update that it disturbed me on twitter, which totally plays into the current trend to inform the internet of what we’re doing every second of the day. If I went back through my twitter or instagram history, it would probably freak me out how much I give away – people know I’m in Melbourne, that I’m married with two kids and with probably very little effort could figure out which part of Melbourne I’m in and where I tend to go for my holidays. It’s entirely possible that if I were younger and single like Beck is, that I’d be providing a whole lot more information on nights out with friends, or whatever of where I am and what I’m doing. But I don’t tend to check into my lounge room when I’m at home with my kids! When I was going out drinking with friends, things like facebook and twitter didn’t exist so there was no real way to alert the general population to where you were unless you specifically rang them on your brick Nokia phone and told them. It made me realise just how easy it is now for people to know where you are without you having any clue. The ease with which Joe finds out things about Beck is truly disturbing – but he does go further than most in terms of stealing her phone and using it to keep track of her emails and messages. However it’s done with appalling ease and Joe is able to get in and out of most aspects of Beck’s life with the same ease.

My feelings reading this became conflicted because as much as Beck is a victim of Joe’s obsession, she also feeds it, manipulates him (and others around her) and plays into dramas and situations that almost make you want to anticipate an unfortunate end for her. The further into the book I got, the more I sort of wanted Joe to “win”, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable in a way because what am I doing cheering for a psychopath who thinks nothing of dispatching anyone who gets in his way? Maybe that’s because I spent so much time with Joe I started to feel a sort of Stockholm Syndrome affection for him, almost feeling sorry for him every time Beck managed to screw him over in some way or another again even though Joe was doing horrible things himself! I appreciated the way I kept going back and forth with my sympathies between the characters – both of them had their interesting features. Joe was articulate, well read and very smart. He was from a poor background and never got the chance to go to college and there had been clear parts of Joe that I believe were nurtured, rather than being a part of his nature. You is very clever this way – from the premise it feels as though it should all go one way, that you should feel one way. But throughout the book, all of that changes and I enjoyed my internal conflict a lot.

8/10

Book #207 of 2014

 

 

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Review: Temptation – K.M. Golland

TemptationTemptation (Temptation #1)
K.M. Golland
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2014, eBook
Free on iBooks/Kindle

Alexis Summers is 35 and the happily married mother of two children. After taking some time off for motherhood, she’s returning to work as a concierge for City Towers, a prestigious hotel in Melbourne. On the first day she meets the boss, Bryce Clark when she manages to spill coffee on them both. To her surprise, Bryce is incredibly understanding. Alexis soon sees quite a lot of Bryce when it turns out part of her job is to report to him personally – she learns that Bryce is single despite all the wealth he has accumulated and that he’s looking for The One.

And he seems to think Alexis fits the bill.

Despite the fact that she’s married and happy, Alexis can’t stay away from Bryce. She finds herself promoted to the role of his personal assistant which means that she spends nearly all day with him. He’s funny, smart and very attractive and Alexis is finding the temptation of Bryce harder and harder to resist. He’s made it clear that he always gets what he wants and what he wants is Alexis and he’s willing to stage a long and dedicated campaign to achieving his goal.

I’m just going to throw it out there: Bryce Clark is a bigger creeper than Christian Grey. Here’s why:

  1. You’re standing too close. Their first meeting occurs after Alexis buys a white hot chocolate before work. She turns around and immediately bumps into Bryce who is standing behind her, spilling it all over both of them. Honestly, who stands an inch behind someone at any time, because that’s weird, but when they’re most likely to be carrying a hot drink, it’s not just creepy it’s also stupid. My copy of this book also includes the first chapter of the second book, which is from Bryce’s point of view and renders this scene even more skin-crawling.
  2. Keep your hands to yourself, buddy. After she spills the drink on them both, Bryce whisks her off to Versace and buys her a $2000 dress for her to wear, because I don’t know, he’s rich? And he needs a replacement suit. Anyway, when she’s trying it on he comes into the change room she’s in and zips it up for her. What?! I don’t care if he is your millionaire boss, most people would holler blue murder at that. I’ve never been to Versace, because I can’t afford that but most stores have separate change rooms for a reason and that reason is for people like you, Bryce.
  3. Your time is my time. Alexis starts as a relatively bottom-of-the-rung assistant concierge or something, which is probably fitting for someone who has been out of the work force for some time. However in the blink of an eye she’s promoted to Bryce’s personal assistant despite the fact that she has no experience or qualifications in this area – it’s mostly just because she once answered a phone when Bryce’s previous assistant (his sister who goes on maternity leave about three minutes after Alexis arrives) was in the bathroom. That means she gets to spend all day, every day with Bryce!
  4. Your job may require….sleepovers. Here’s this creepy room I prepared in advance. Alexis needs to take a shower at work, so of course Bryce leads her to his personal bathroom where it’s all decked out with the products she likes to use! This is on top of the spare bedroom in the penthouse that contains an array of designer clothing in her size for those times she may need to work so late it might be better if she stays over. And Bryce obtained the information on her personal preferences by having his sister call her 6yo daughter and speak to her. Firstly – crossing some lines in a big way. In so many ways I can’t even begin to describe. Secondly, I’ve got a 6yo. Okay mine’s a son, not a daughter, but he wouldn’t be able to identify anything I use personally because funnily enough, he’s not in the shower with me when I’m washing my hair or cleansing my face, etc. He also probably can’t read “L’oreal” or “Garnier” or “Yves St Laurent” or whatever. And any random that calls to speak to my 6yo would be told to buzz off.
  5. I won’t unless you say yes, except for all those other times when I will. After they kiss, Bryce claims that he won’t do anything unless Alexis gives the go ahead….but this is only sometimes true.
  6. Life is a Demi Moore movie. Bryce seems to think that he can play with other people’s lives, to get what he wants. This includes going behind the back of the woman he apparently loves and offering her husband money to sleep with her. I think Bryce is supposed to seem like he’s “freeing” Alexis to do as she chooses rather than be bogged down by her loyalty, especially when he holds information that discredits Rick, Alexis’s husband. But the whole thing feels really lazy – we’re told how fabulous Rick is, how great their marriage is, how happy they were. And that just gets blown out of the water with one or two lines.
  7. It all amuses me. The smirking. Oh god, the smirking. Bryce smirks his way through this entire book. Arrogant smirking. Cheeky smirking. Adorable smirking. So much smirking. I think the worst is when he seems to find Alexis’s struggle amusing. Yes, she’s attracted to Bryce, seemingly because he’s a rich man who is attractive, because that’s primarily what she mentions. But she’s also married with children and to go with Bryce would be to break up a home, affecting her children who knows how much and for how long. And despite the fact that Bryce is apparently in love with her, he seems to give no real thought or have no real concern to her children (other than feeling that perhaps her son would enjoy his observatory) and how this will affect them. When Bryce is smirking about her hesitancy or reluctance or conflict or attraction to him, it made me like him even less than before. And he spends pretty much the entire book smirking. It’s ridiculous. Smirking isn’t attractive.
  8. Stalking: it’s what I do. This is perhaps, the worst one of all. Bryce is clearly crossing lines, finding out about Alexis and using that knowledge to ‘woo’ her and in the book it’s portrayed as charming and cute. She teases him about stalking her and he responds all the time with ‘it’s what I do’ and she seems to think this behaviour is perfect fine. It isn’t. It’s weird, Bryce. You’re sitting up there in the penthouse of ‘City Towers’, googling or facebooking or consulting people that know Alexis so that you can find out what she does and likes. You pop up everywhere, at the clubs she goes out to with her friends etc dripping money and oozing your particular brand of ‘charm’ which is mostly just sleaze covered in creeper. It’s supposed to be evidence I think, of how much Bryce ‘loves’ Alexis but how can you love someone you barely know? What you should know Bryce, is that Alexis is a wife and mother. And all of the moves you’re putting on her, this campaign you’re waging, is gross.

Alexis doesn’t get a pass either. She’s weak, spineless, childish and ridiculous. She drools over Bryce whilst trying to remind herself half-heartedly that she’s married and then she seeks his attention constantly all the while rebuffing him in ways that aren’t really actually saying no. When she thinks Bryce is paying another woman some attention during a business meeting she undoes some buttons on her blouse and serves him drinks (which is not her job, it’s someone else’s), flirting with him all the while, just so he doesn’t forget her. It’s pretty pathetic. I hate the term “tease” but Alexis skates close to the line. Also her lack of real concern for her children and how they could possibly be affected by her potential actions is very off-putting. She is swayed by Bryce and his non-existent personality and her husband is swayed by the ridiculous $500,000 per annum salary Bryce offers her. In reality this is a dangerous situation and anyone who was happily married either wouldn’t feel the temptation or if they did, would remove themselves from its path. Instead Alexis chooses to place herself squarely in its path more and more each day, crossing the line into inappropriate workplace relations and we’re supposed to believe it’s all okay because Bryce is actually a much better man than her husband anyway.

Apart from the utter dislike I had for both characters, the writing itself didn’t work for me either. The story feels poorly paced, so many loaded looks and small, supposedly heat-filled moments as well as Alexis’s fantasies that all should lead towards the explosive climax (pun not entirely unintended). Instead the consummation feels anti-climactic and didn’t really deliver the pay off it should have. There’s also a subplot (I think?) revolving around Bryce’s cousin Gareth and I can only assume this is supposed to escalate throughout later books in the series because it seems to inexplicably peter out here and Bryce’s justification of Gareth’s continued employment and vague assumptions that he’s ‘taken care of’ the issue don’t really show Bryce as a dynamic CEO and multi-millionaire. In fact I’m not entirely sure how Bryce made any of his money given his sole occupation in this novel is Alexis.

From here on I can only assume that Bryce and Alexis find their HEA because they’re both so ‘me me me’ that they deserve each other. But I won’t be reading the rest of this series to find out for sure.

2/10

Book #201 of 2014

AWWW2014

Temptation is book #76 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

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