All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Survivors by Kate Furnivall

The Survivors 
Kate Furnivall
Simon & Schuster
2018, 431p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Germany, 1945. The Allied Military Government has set up Displaced Persons camps throughout war-ravaged Germany, to house the millions of devastated people throughout Europe who have lost everything. Klara Janowska is one of these. In her thirties, half Polish, half English, born and brought up in Warsaw, she fought for the Polish Resistance, helping to sabotage the Nazi domination of her country. But now the war is over and she has fled Poland with her 8 year-old daughter, Alicja, ahead of the advancing Soviet army, leaving her past behind her.

Or so she thinks.

She and Alicja are detained in Graufeld Camp, among a thousand strangers who have flooded into the protective custody of the British zone in Germany. She is desperate to get to England, her mother’s native country, but she has no identity papers. She needs to escape, at any cost.

This unstable world becomes even more dangerous when Klara recognises someone else in the camp – Oskar Scholz, a high-ranking member of the German Waffen-SS who terrorised Warsaw. Forced together in the confined claustrophobic space, the two of them know terrible secrets about each other’s past that would see them hanged if either told the truth. Both want the other one dead.

But the most displaced element in the camp is the truth. In a series of unexpected twists, the real truths finally emerge and drastically alter the lives of all.

Kate Furnivall is an author I’ve come across a couple of times but just haven’t had the opportunity to try until now. This book opens in Germany in 1945 – the war is over and Germany is being carved up into zones. Millions of people have been displaced and many of those await decisions on their future in camps. They have food to eat and a roof over their heads, which may be an improvement on war situations but their lives remain in constant limbo. So many people to process.

Klara is half-Polish, half-English and she and her young daughter Alicja made it to Graufield Displaced Persons camp. Klara is desperate to get herself and her daughter out, awaiting the authorities to make contact with her English grandmother, which will grant them both passage to that country. When she spots a man from her past at the camp, a former SS officer masquerading as a displaced person, Klara will stop at nothing to keep her daughter safe. She’s fully prepared to kill Oskar Scholz because if she doesn’t, it’s only a matter of time until he kills her and Alicja.

This book was brutal – not just the descriptions of what Klara was subjected to and had to do in the war but also in the time after. It’s a time where she should be safe – the war is ‘over’, she and her daughter are somewhere they can at least not starve, although the camp still holds many threats. Everyone is coming from a time of desperation and people are changed. What they were before the war is long gone and there is only who they have become to survive. Klara has made allies – several of the camp’s children, the woman in charge of the laundry, a man in administration – but times are still dangerous. Klara builds up currency in terms of favours and bartering and she also has a complicated theft racket going on. When she spots a man she knew as Oskar Scholz, a ranking SS officer, she knows that all her skills learned, both as part of the Polish resistance and in the what came after, are going to be needed if she’s going to get her and Alicja away from him alive. It becomes a game of cat and mouse, a battle of wills and determination as Oskar seeks to alienate Klara from those who support her and Klara seeks to protect her daughter first and foremost. Oskar and Klara both know incriminating things about the other and they could both destroy each other’s sanctuary in moments.

Klara is been through some things in the war – she’s been used and abused, had her daughter taken from her and held over her head as leverage to do horrible things. When she and Alicja are finally reunited you can see Klara’s desperation to keep her safe. It just leaps off the page. And Alicja herself is a brave child, her thinking and actions are of a person far older than her ten years. She’s protective of her mother too but also struggling with coming to terms with some of the things her mother may have done during the war. In that way, Alicja is very much still a child, the black and white reality of children, the ‘good and bad’ things and actions being difficult for them to see motivation and self-preservation in doing unspeakable things during an horrific time.

I really enjoyed Klara and Oskar’s dance and Klara’s willingness to do whatever it takes to protect her child this time, after being powerless in her own and Alicja’s lives for so long. Her desperation and determination was very well written and leapt off every single page. Oskar is suitably chilling but I’m nor sure I’m really convinced of the ending. Some of it felt pretty unbelievable and another bit felt a bit unnecessary. Like the author was trying to tie up too many loose ends that probably didn’t really need to be tied up. It’s a small quibble but it felt a bit out of step with the rest of the book, which was so well paced and written.

8/10

Book #178 of 2018

 

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Review: Lost Without You by Rachael Johns

Lost Without You
Rachael Johns
Harlequin AUS
2018, 481p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Four women, one dress, and the secret that binds them all…

On a special night that is supposed to be a celebration of new beginnings, Paige MacRitchie’s joy quickly falls away when her mother collapses during the speeches at her book launch. In the aftermath, and terrified of losing her, Paige decides she wants to make the ultimate tribute to her parents’ perfect marriage: she will wear her mother’s wedding dress for her own big day.

There’s just one problem – her mum, Rebecca, no longer has the dress.

As Paige tries to track down the elusive gown, she discovers that Rebecca has a long-hidden secret that, if revealed, could blow her whole family apart. Her new friend Josie is at a crossroads too. She met her husband Nik when she was singing in an eighties-themed bar, but now she’s lonely, yearning for a family and wondering if Nik understands her at all.

And then there’s nurse Clara. When she married Rob Jones, an up-and-coming rock star, she thought she was in it forever. But now Clara needs to make a new life for herself and Rob can’t seem to understand that it’s over.

When the fates of these four women intertwine in an unexpected and powerful way, none of their lives will ever be the same again.

A fresh and poignant novel of family, journeys, past decisions … and dresses … from the ABIA award-winning, bestselling author Rachael Johns.

I tore through this almost 500p book in a few hours in an afternoon. It’s a complex story but also an easily read one, with relatable characters and although some of the situations rely on coincidence and close proximity, it’s easy to set this aside and just enjoy the story that is being told here.

Paige is a devoted daughter to Rebecca and Hugh and when Rebecca falls ill at Paige’s book launch and is diagnosed with quite a severe illness, Paige has the bright idea to wear her mother’s wedding dress to her own up and coming wedding. Honestly Rebecca must have the only 80s wedding dress that transcends that decade because my mother got married in the 80s and her dress was definitely not something I could’ve worn at my 2011 wedding without looking like I was playing dress up! But the idea is lovely and Paige is singleminded in her attempts to track down the dress.

Whilst Paige is busy with all that, Rebecca is ruminating on a deep and dark secret she’s been keeping for 35 years and having regrets brought on by her diagnosis. She knows that it’s time to come clean but when she does, it’s going to have devastating repercussions for her family. For me, this was a seriously strong part of the book. Both Rebecca’s daughter and her husband react strongly to Rebecca’s news and the fact that she’s kept it a secret for so long and their reactions are ugly and bitter and hurtful and well, real. It’s how I think I’d imagine reacting if I found out my husband or parents had kept something from me like that, because I’m the sort of person that knee-jerk reacts to something and then has to calm down. I found it so sad for Rebecca at times, but I could also understand the intense hurt and frustration from both Hugh and Paige at discovering this news. It’s raw and for me, believable and true. It takes a while for each of them to work through their feelings and you can tell that it is something they do have to really work at. Rather than just being shocked and then being fine with it moments later.

Rebecca and Paige meet Clara and Josie throughout the book (and Clara and Josie also meet through other avenues) and the four of them become incredibly entangled in ways that strengthen them individually and also together as they forge friendships but there’s also a lot of hidden secrets that come tumbling out which also complicates their connections as well as changing and evolving them. I loved some of the reveals in this, they were all so well done and (I have always said this) show how well Rachael Johns excels at writing relationships and interactions between people. She just gets the way that people connect and also how they fall apart. There’s a lot of emotion in this book but it never feels over the top or cheesy, not does it feel contrived. There are several couples in this – two already married, one engaged and one couple are divorced. The couple that are divorced, Clara and Rob, have endured a lot of loss and heartache in their lives and Rob in particular has never quite been able to learn to cope with that or find a successful way to deal with the feelings it evokes in him. He turns to the bottle and when he and Clara eventually divorce (at Clara’s instigation) it seems that Rob continues to spiral downward, clinging to Clara and what they shared (and lost) while Clara just wants to move on. She wants a clean break, a fresh start, the potential for companionship and laughter again. Rob, although he only really appears in the book a couple of times, was very well written. His dependency on alcohol is given background and context and he becomes a truly sympathetic character as the depth of his regret and pain is realised. I feel as though the choice for him was the brave one, but the right one in terms of the story being told and the set up. It seemed the only (unfortunately) logical conclusion and because of that, it would allow the other characters to connect and move forward.

This was beautifully heartwarming and full of emotional depth. There are a few coincidences pinning the story together, not going to lie but they’re easy to just go with because the story is so well written. A good book can make you believe anything and this book had no trouble convincing me.

9/10

Book #177 of 2018

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Man Booker Shortlist Pt1: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black 
Esi Edugyan
Serpent’s Tail
2018, 417p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

ESCAPE IS ONLY THE BEGINNING…

A stunning new novel of slavery and freedom by the author of the Man Booker and Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues.

When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.

Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life. Inspired by a true story, Washington Black is the extraordinary tale of a world destroyed and made whole again.

So recently I decided on a whim to try and read the Man Booker shortlist. This is something I’ve attempted before or at least said I was going to attempt but I’ve never actually done it. Part of it is availability – there have been long lists in the past where none of them were available to me through my local library. However when I checked this year’s short list, my library had them all and some were even available right away. So I placed holds on all 6 and waited. Three came in relatively quickly – this novel, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, The Long Take by Robin Robertson and Milkman by Anna Burns.

From 7:30-8pm each night in my house is ‘quiet reading time’ where the TV goes off and we all read, no matter who is home. I decided that one of the short listed books might be a good one to try in these short bursts when there were no other distractions and so Washington Black was the one I picked to start first simply because the blurb was the most interesting to me. I was surprised just how much I didn’t want to put it down after that thirty minutes….in fact I ended up choosing to finish it over the weekend rather than just keep it to 30m each night because it was holding my interest far more than the book I was reading for review!

Washington Black is a slave born and working on a cane plantation in Barbados. One cruel master dies and is replaced by another, who takes extreme measures to prevent the workers from committing suicide. Washington’s life revolves around Big Kit, a fellow slave who has taken him under her wing, provides for him and protects him as best she can. But Wash, as he is known, has his life changed forever when the master’s younger brother arrives and decides that Wash will make the perfect assistant.

It looks like a promotion – Wash is relieved from his field duties to help his new master Christopher, known as Titch. He isn’t treated like a slave, but he has duties he is expected to perform and Titch also expects him to learn to read, write and do calculations. For a while it seems as though Wash’s life has been bettered by his attachment to Titch but it doesn’t take long before one disaster, and then another befalls him and Titch decides that they must flee in his ‘cloud-cutter’.

I found this enjoyable, if slightly implausible but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the settings, from the Barbados plantation to the journey north to the Arctic and then to London and further abroad. Washington is such an interesting child – in fact so much so that I often forgot he was just a child and that for the bulk of the book he’s a mere teenager and for a large portion he’s on his own. His relationship for want of a better term, with Titch is also interesting. Despite Titch’s seemingly progressive views, they can not be seen as true equals and it’s obvious every where that they go. Titch’s determination that Wash be ‘free’ leads him to do something (yet again) drastic and it’s something that haunts Wash for years to come. So much so that he can only gain peace by finding the answers to his questions….and I think he’s left somewhat disappointed.

Although slavery is abolished whilst Wash is still in his teenage years (except in the US), in some ways it changes little for him. He may be ‘free’ in nearly all places and cannot ever be forced to return to the plantation, there’s still a strong prejudice against people of colour in many places. He’s looked down upon, seen as different or not good enough, not husband material, not clever enough to put his name to something that he’s thought of but good enough to do the hard work on it. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not Titch really helped him, or saw him as an equal or just wanted to think of himself as progressive, above all the stuff that his brother was about. He was never physically violent to Wash, nor did he treat him badly in most ways but he’s also the reason for severe injuries Wash sustains and he also abandons him, leaving him vulnerable and confused and haunted by it for years. I think Wash finally comes to an understanding about Titch and that he’s perhaps not all Wash had believed him to be as an 11 year old and that Titch may be the one who never really ‘grew up’, who will repeat the same events over and over, all the while thinking that he’s helping and what he’s doing is beneficial.

I really enjoyed this…..I’d really like to read Esi Edugyan’s other books.

8/10

Book #176 of 2018

***By the time this review goes up, the winner of the Man Booker prize will already be announced so there’s no way I’m going to be able to complete the shortlist before that happens. However I’m still going to aim to complete it, even if the winner is the one book I’ve already read***

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Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

The Winter Soldier 
Daniel Mason
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

By the international bestselling author of The Piano Tuner, a sweeping and unforgettable love story of a young doctor and nurse at a remote field hospital in the First World War.

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have fled, and only a single, mysterious nurse named Sister Margarete remains.

But Lucius has never lifted a surgeon’s scalpel. And as the war rages across the winter landscape, he finds himself falling in love with the woman from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine. Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the lives of doctor, patient, and nurse forever.

From the gilded ballrooms of Imperial Vienna to the frozen forests of the Eastern Front; from hardscrabble operating rooms to battlefields thundering with Cossack cavalry, The Winter Soldier is the story of war and medicine, of family, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and finally, of the mistakes we make, and the precious opportunities to atone.

So many books remind me how bad my historical knowledge is and this one is one of those. I’ve read a lot about WWII and I’m pretty confident in my knowledge of that conflict. What I know about WWI however, I’ve come to realise is very little. I know how it started, with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife which led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. It’s what happened after that in this part of the world that I’ve realised I don’t know much about. Australian schooling taught me mostly just about Australia’s involvement with a huge focus on Gallipoli and France. Austria-Hungary was ‘the other side’ so they weren’t really given much air time!

So in this book, Lucius is the son of wealthy Polish parents living in Vienna – he’s a bit of an ‘afterthought’ I think. A late in life birth after his parents already had quite a few children. He wants to be a doctor and proves to have some aptitude for this however war is declared whilst he is still studying and a shortage of medical personnel means that anyone who is a certain way into their studies will be recognised as a doctor and sent to medical hospitals treating the soldiers of war. Lucius seems to have romantic ideas of what this may entail, perhaps motivated by a friend and fellow student of this who tells him wonderful stories of what he’s getting to do. Lucius is sent to a Church converted into a field hospital in a rural area of the Carpathian Mountains and finds that the team consists of just him and a nun named Sister Margarete. Despite the fact that Lucius is afforded the title and respect of ‘Doctor’ he has never wielded a scalpel – at least not on a living person anyway. He relies heavily on Sister Margarete, whose abilities and knowledge seemingly have no end.

This is quite gruesomely graphic about the challenges administering medical treatment to soldiers in a draughty church with unreliable deliveries of supplies and food. Lucius becomes intrigued by a patient who appears to have no physical injuries but appears to be deeply disturbed in the mind. It begins his interest in mental health medicine in what must’ve been a rudimentary study of shellshock/PTSD and attempt to treat it. At a time where the high ups just need bodies on the ground fighting, no one cares about injuries that cannot be seen. Lucius develops quite an attachment to this patient and it’s something that has long lasting effects on the both of them, something that ends up haunting Lucius and perhaps even frames his post-war medical career when the fighting finally stops.

This is perhaps not the sort of book I’d probably choose to read had I not received it for review, although the cover is eye catching. But I don’t tend to read a lot of medically focused books and although I enjoyed this, I didn’t really love it. I actually think Sister Margarete was a far more interesting character than Lucius and I really wanted to learn more about her, such as how she learned to do those amputations. Surely it wasn’t just observing the doctors prior to Lucius arriving at the hospital? Maybe it was but her knowledge was vast and varied and it was quite obvious that there was a lot more to her than meets the eye. There were several women in Lucius’ classes he was undertaking so it was possible she was a qualified doctor. These things I wanted to know. The further we got into the story and as her and Lucius developed more of a relationship, the more it became apparent that everything we knew about her probably wasn’t true.

This was really interesting for insight into a wartime hospital in a remote location with challenging weather conditions. It’s very far removed from what I know here in Australia so I appreciated that and it gave me a chance to also explore some information about WWI so that I could better understand what was happening. I also found the early psychiatry into studying and treating what would now be termed PTSD fascinating too and I admired Lucius’ dedication. Not sure the resolution of several plot threads satisfied me though.

7/10

Book #175 of 2018

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Review: Matryoshka by Katherine Johnson

Matryoshka 
Katherine Johnson
Ventura Press
2018, 324p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

When Sara Rose returns to live in her recently deceased grandmother’s Tasmanian cottage, her past and that of her mother and grandmother is ever-present. Sara’s grandmother, Nina Barsova, a Russian post-war immigrant, lovingly raised Sara in the cottage at the foot of Mt Wellington but without ever explaining why Sara’s own mother, Helena, abandoned her as a baby.

Sara, a geneticist, also longs to know the identity of her father, and Helena won’t tell her. Now, estranged not only from her mother, but also from her husband, Sara raises her daughter, Ellie, with a central wish to spare her the same feeling of abandonment that she experienced as a child.

When Sara meets an Afghani refugee separated from his beloved wife and family, she decides to try to repair relations with Helena – but when a lie told by her grandmother years before begins to unravel, a darker truth than she could ever imagine is revealed.

Matryoshka is a haunting and beautifully written story about the power of maternal love, and the danger of secrets passed down through generations.

This was such an interesting story – almost two stories that become one.

Sara is a geneticist living in Brisbane, separated from her husband with a young daughter. Sara isn’t really coping well with the separation so when the death of her grandmother results in her leaving Sara her Tasmanian cottage, Sara sees opportunity. What starts as a visit for her and her daughter Ellie ends up being a permanent move back to where she grew up. As Sara settles into her new/old community she meets new people, including an asylum seeker who invites her in for tea and shares his story. This chance meeting that develops into a friendship has a profound impact on Sara, who extends an olive branch to her own mother from whom she is mostly estranged and will finally enable her to solve the greatest mystery of her life – the identity of her own father.

The author lives in Tasmania and I read that she herself became friends with an asylum seeker the same way that Sara does, weaving this into the story as another way to get these stories out there, to humanise those who are coming here from other nations, rather than just seeing them as faceless queues on boats, as most of Canberra would have the people believe. I think before I read this, I enjoyed the inclusion of Abdhul and the community of those in Sara’s neighbourhood in limbo but I didn’t really understand why it had been included in the story. Now I do – any platform at someone’s disposal is there to be utilised and it tied with with the story of Sara’s own grandmother, a Russian immigrant who came after the war.

In some ways the treatment of Abdhul shows how little we have come as a nation since the post WWII waves of immigration. I’ve spoken at length before of my own parents-in-law, who both came here separately in the 50s and settled in a small Victorian town. There was plenty of hostility, even for those who didn’t even look ‘different’ in terms of physical features. That hostility seems to increase for those of different ethnic backgrounds. There are probably countless stories out there, just like Abdhul’s, which is based on the real person that the author knows. It’s important to hear these stories, to change the narrative, to change a public perception. I really enjoyed the way the hospitality of these people was detailed – they don’t have much but they welcome Sara far more warmly than others in the neighbourhood, inviting her to their celebrations and sharing pieces of themselves with her. They even give her an idea for a research project and are happy to participate in the hope that it might show something to improve the refugee process.

I think the move to Tasmania suits Sara for several reasons – firstly she was raised by her grandmother in that house and she and her grandmother had a hugely intense bond, for reasons that I won’t spoil here but are detailed within the story. She feels close to her grandmother in the small cottage, surrounded by her things. But for Sara it’s also a knee-jerk reaction to her separation from husband Ian and perhaps even a deliberately spiteful move, to take their daughter thousands of kilometres away. Which you know, I actually kind of appreciated. It felt realistic. It gives her a way to not have to deal with her ex on a regular basis as well, who has had no hesitation in moving on. Sara and Ian’s separation has them both doing unkind things to each other – a separation often has people not at their best and through this somewhat childish back and forth seems to be the way for them both to find a sort of harmony in the future. Which sort of mirrors Sara’s relationship with her mother too, which has always been quite fraught. Sara has a lot of opinions about things and I think she makes a lot of assumptions too. What she discovers when she moves to Tasmania means that the truth eventually comes out and Sara and her mother are able to start moving forward and developing a proper relationship.

I enjoyed all the aspects of this novel and reading the background of the story tied everything in nicely for me. I think Sara’s budding friendship with Abdhul and his fellow refugees is lovely and I also really liked her story of finding herself and happiness in all aspects of her life, not just romantically.

8/10

Book #174 of 2018

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Review: The Boy At The Keyhole by Stephen Giles

The Boy At The Keyhole
Stephen Giles
Penguin Michael Joseph
2018, 261p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A haunting, impossible-to-put-down thriller set almost entirely in a large and forbidding English mansion, in 1961.

England, 1961. Samuel’s mother has been away for 113 days.

Now it’s just Samuel and Ruth, the housekeeper, alone in the once-great house. His mother is abroad, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. Samuel yearns for her return, but knows she must have had her reasons for leaving in the middle of the night, without saying goodbye.

Although Samuel receives occasional postcards from his mother, her absence weighs heavily on his mind. And when his friend plants a seed of suspicion about Ruth, who rules the house with an iron fist, a dangerous idea is born. What if Ruth is responsible for his mother’s disappearance?

Samuel is soon obsessed with finding answers. Is Ruth the one person in his life who truly cares for him? Or is she a killer with a murderous plan? And will Samuel be able to uncover the truth before it’s too late?

Artful and deliciously claustrophobic, The Boy at the Keyhole is a story of truth and perception, and of the shocking acts that occur behind closed doors.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this story. This is the first book for adults by an author who has successfully written for children and it centres around a boy named Samuel. His father has passed away and his mother is gone, having left without saying goodbye some 113 days ago in order to travel to America, the land of her birth, to secure funding to take over the family business. It’s failing badly and there needs to be a huge injection of capital. She has left Samuel in the care of Ruth, the housekeeper and now basically sole staff, except for William, the gardener. The house is large, a manor really and would’ve come equipped with plenty of staff during good times. But those were long ago.

Samuel desperately misses his mother and lives for the random postcards that show up, detailing what city she is visiting now. He keeps an atlas with pins stuck in it, tracking this mother’s journey across America. More than anything he wants his mother to return to him but the postcards never talk of such things, nor does Ruth, who briskly sweeps aside most talk of his mother, saying she’ll be home whenever she is. With the suspicious minds of little boys, Samuel and his friend wonder if his mother is even in America……or did Ruth do something to her?

For a child of Samuel’s age (9), it’s a long time to be without contact from a parent, especially when the other parent is no longer around also. He is desperate for his mother, his very existence seems to revolve around her return. The character of Ruth is an odd one – on one hand, she continues to stay and care for Samuel, despite the fact that there’s pretty much nothing in it for her. The money Samuel’s mother has left has run out and she has to bake and sell her wares in order to feed them both. But she’s not at all maternal, there are times when she doesn’t even seem to particularly like Samuel and there are times when she displays shocking cruelty towards a small child, a small child who is struggling with this current situation. There were times when Ruth was also deeply compassionate in her own way towards Samuel as well, trying small things to make him feel more hopeful or secure. She was a complete contradiction and to be honest, probably written that way so that you could see the potential for her having manipulated circumstances or things not being as they seem.

Not going to lie, I did struggle with this. It’s not a long book but it feels very slow. Lots of Samuel just creeping around this big old house (which is his house) but yet Ruth appearing out of nowhere telling him he’s not allowed in this room or that room and to go and do this or that. I know she’s in charge of him but she’s the sort of “do as I say” rather than explaining things to him or asking him to do things and Samuel is a typical 9yo boy who is missing his parents and trying to stretch his wings a little. He is very creative in defying her but she always ends up turning up and catching him and it got a bit repetitive. I think the problem for me was just how awful Ruth was in a few scenes, which made it hard to buy that she was actually trying to protect him in some others. Perhaps some of this is the setting – 1961 and crumbling aristocracy or money, kids being seen and not heard I guess but Ruth is a shade too awful at times for me. I can understand Samuel coming to think she had killed his mother and stuffed her in the cellar. Because of this, the ending didn’t work for me either. It just didn’t flow for me, felt jerky and cut away and I had to go back and re-read to make sure I had actually understood what had happened.

A quick read but unfortunately I did not love this.

5/10
Book #173 of 2018

 

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Review: The Girl On The Page by John Purcell

The Girl On The Page
John Purcell
4th Estate
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of Harper Collins AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

As a lover of books, both the stories themselves and also the process of producing them, I really enjoy books that are set in the world of publishing. There’s something about them that really appeals to me – a glimpse behind the scenes, getting to know an author’s process but also editing as well as actual publishing, launch and promotion. And if you’re like me and enjoy that sort of stuff too then this book is definitely for you.

I absolutely loved this, from pretty much the first page. Amy is an editor who sort of blackmailed her way into her career and she’s an editor with a difference. She is roped in to coaxing a novel already paid for with a fat advance from literary mastermind Helen Owen, which is already well overdue. The publishing company need that novel and they need it to be a commercial success, despite the fact that Helen has always been an author with more critical success. Helen only works in hard copy and so Amy goes to stay with her and her husband Malcolm, also an author. They’ve moved from the flat they lived in together for almost fifty years to a modern new place with Helen’s fat advance and a lot is riding on Amy being able to find the gold in Helen’s work. Because if she doesn’t deliver, the publishers are coming to take their advance back.

Amy is equal parts amazing and a complete mess. She’s so smart when it comes to books and publishing and I absolutely love the way she went out there and grabbed her career by the balls basically and made it happen for her after too many rejections trying to get in the ‘regular’ way. She’s spun her own success, although much of it is a secret. Her vision is so good and she knows when she sees Helen’s work that she faces a real dilemma. As she spends more and more time with Helen and Malcolm, she begins to fall in love with them as writers and as people. Before meeting Helen, Amy had not read any of her prior work and at Malcolm’s urging, she reads her entire backlist. Amy has so many ideas about what she could do with Helen, none of which her publisher bosses would be interested in and she’s somewhat wasted editing blockbusters that admittedly, net her huge amounts of profit.

There are a lot of jokes, bookish references and gentle jabs at the book industry here. I’m currently slogging my way through 2018’s Man Booker short list (although that’s a bit inaccurate, I’m actually halfway through my first read and it’s fantastic, but I anticipate some will be slogs). Malcolm’s most recent book was long listed (then short listed) and neither Malcolm, nor Helen, to be honest, react in the expected way to accolades and neither of them expect him to win – after all, they’ve opened it up to the Americans now! Malcolm is a gruff old goat at first, seemingly a bit of a grump and cranky about their nice new digs and their separate offices but I came to have such affection for him the further the book went on. He’s so passionate about writing, about who they are and where they come from. He doesn’t see this new place as them any more than the book they want Helen to write to sell is who she is. He’s a huge admirer of his wife’s work, believes her to have one of the best minds of the modern era and it actually kind of blinds him in a way. This book took me to places I did not expect when I picked it up – the journey is laughter, appreciation, admiration and heartbreak. I’ve read that a few people have struggled with the character of Amy, presumably because she sort of acts like the heroes in the blockbuster novels she edits – she drinks far too much, she sleeps around an awful lot and she’s self destructing due to something she did in the past that haunts her. It’s all behaviour that we see a lot of from men in books and I wonder if it’s confronting to see it detailed so unabashedly in a female character. I enjoyed Amy for her passion – she didn’t have to work but she loved what she did so much. She makes some mistakes but she manages to be clever enough to keep herself in the game when others would have her out.

This is obviously written by someone that loves books – and I know most, if not all, authors love books. But this is more than that, it’s about the whole process. Not just the writing and the publishing but the debate and the sales and the talk. Literary and commercial, prize winners and whether or not women specific prizes or accolades are really necessary. There’s so much poured into this, it’s like every conversation I’ve ever had with someone who loves books as much as I do, in book form. And there’s a list of book recommendations from each character and the author at the back….which is perfection. I just love this idea, that we can get a snapshot into their reading tastes and can take further reading from the characters if we so choose. Quite a few books I’ve read but there are plenty I haven’t and if you relate to a particular character you have a few books to dive into after finishing this one! It’s a nice little touch.

9/10

Book #172 of 2018

 

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Review: The Lost Valley by Jennifer Scoullar

The Lost Valley (The Tasmanian Tales #2)
Jennifer Scoullar
Pilyara Press
2018, 361p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}:

Tasmania, 1929: Ten-year-old-twins, Tom and Harry Abbott, are orphaned by a tragedy that shocks Hobart society. They find sanctuary with their reclusive grandmother, growing up in the remote and rugged Binburra ranges – a place where kind-hearted Tom discovers a love of the wild, Harry nurses a growing resentment towards his brother and where the mountains hold secrets that will transform both their lives.

The chaos of World War II divides the brothers, and their passion for two very different women fuels a deadly rivalry. Can Tom and Harry survive to heal their rift? And what will happen when Binburra finally reveals its astonishing secrets?

From Tasmania’s highlands to the Battle of Britain, and all the way to the golden age of Hollywood, ‘The Lost Valley’ is a lush family saga about two brothers whose fates are entwined with the land and the women they love.

This is the second in rural lit author Jennifer Scoullar’s Tasmanian Tales series. The first book introduced us to a part of Tasmania that had remained mostly untouched – old growth forest teeming with wildlife, including the elusive thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. It gave us a love story that spanned decades of heartache and separation and this book picks up into the future with the grandchildren of Isabelle, 10 year old twins Tom and Harry who unexpectedly come into her care after a family tragedy.

Belle has to adjust to having two young children to care for, at a time in her life when it wouldn’t be particularly expected. She takes to the task with enthusiasm however, wanting to give them safety and sanctuary, a place to heal their grief. They retreat to country Tasmania, to her family’s old property and there the boys explore and play, scaring off private tutor after private tutor. It’s not all fun and games though – the boys have their challenges and Harry in particular has a darkness that lurks inside of him, shadowing his relationship with his brother into their adulthood.

Woven into the story of Tom and Harry is that of Emma, a young girl the twins meet when their grandmother takes them to the city. Emma has passion for wildlife and spends her days trying to bulk up the feed of animals at the local zoo, which has fallen into mismanagement. The animals are starving, pacing their cages. Nocturnal animals have their burrows or hidey holes shut off in the day, forcing them to stay out in the open for people to observe them. It seems that no one wants to pay to go to the zoo and then have all the animals be sleeping and out of sight. This messes with their body clocks and makes them miserable and this part of the story was truly hard to read. I’ve been to zoos plenty of times, when animals haven’t been visible. One of my favourite animals is a wombat – try spotting any of them when you visit a zoo or sanctuary! They’re always asleep and so they should be, because that’s how they are. Thankfully zoo-type conservation has moved on and the animals are given habitats and routines as close to their wild and native habitats as can be perfected. There are still plenty of issues surrounding zoos and the like but the way they are run has definitely changed for the better.

Emma is soon forced to return home to care for her mother and her story takes such an interesting turn. She’s motivated by a need to earn money to care for her mother, who needs round-the-clock nursing. Her brothers are mostly unhelpful and useless and it falls to Emma to assume responsibility for not just herself but her mother as well. She crosses paths with one twin or the other over the years, her destiny tied to theirs in the most complicated of ways. I thought Emma’s story was handled remarkably well, providing a different insight into a certain sort of life that I don’t think many authors have portrayed so well. I think the reader was really given the chance to understand Emma’s position and her motivations and the ways in which she was able to make these choices for herself. It perhaps may not have started that way but she did use what happened to take control and power for her own destiny. She really does use what happened to her, the position she was put in, to better her own life and to be the one in charge. She goes from being very helpless to financially independent, reclaiming herself and her ability to choose her future. She is a really interesting character and I enjoyed the time devoted to her a lot.

As always, conservation is a strong thread running through this book, from the beginning of the boys exploring their new home to Belle confiding her secrets so that they may be preserved for many years to come. This creates conflict between the two siblings, amplifying the chip Harry seems to have on his shoulder regarding his brother and his confused and muddled feelings after their parents’ deaths. This builds so well throughout the novel novel, Scoullar expanding on the tension that has simmered between the boys since their childhood until it explodes.

This was a fantastic follow up to the first book – these books just flow so well and they’re so readable. I read both on my iPad and sometimes it can be difficult to judge how long you have to go until the finish but these simply fly by so fast I don’t even get time to wonder. I fall into the story of this family so easily – their loves and losses, the passion for the land that underpins everything. I think there’s another book to come and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

8/10

Book #167 of 2018

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Review: Heaven Sent by S.J. Morgan

Heaven Sent 
S.J. Morgan
MidnightSun Publishing
2018, 326p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

At almost sixteen, Evie’s life isn’t all she’d hoped it would be. She lives in the dodgy end of town with her mum and her mum’s deadbeat boyfriend, Seb; and adolescent scoliosis means Evie’s forced to wear a back brace until she’s stopped growing.

Then one night, she meets Gabe. Breathtakingly handsome, he crashes, spectacularly, into Evie’s life. He says their meeting was no accident and convinces Evie he’s been sent to turn her fortunes around. Evie’s best friend, Paige, dismisses him as a pot-head, but Paige has issues of her own and has started spending all her time chasing older men instead of higher grades.

As the weeks go by, Evie’s luck seems to be on a constant upswing and she begins to wonder if she and Gabe really were ‘meant’ to meet; even if she’s noticed that so many aspects of Gabe’s story don’t add up…

But there’s someone else waiting in the wings and, for Evie as well as for Gabe, life is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

This book was really interesting and it was definitely a bit different to what I was expecting.

Evie lives with her mother in a house that’s nothing to write home about. Her mother is in her forties, working a dead end job to make ends meet and provide for not only Evie but also her own boyfriend, a no hoper named Seb who is significantly younger than Evie’s mother and seems to use that as leverage to do as little as possible. Evie really only has one friend at school, Paige, who comes from a more wealthy and privileged background. It seems that only Paige looks past the brace Evie wears for her scoliosis, a brace that makes her feel outcast and gross. She is ashamed of it and the way that it makes her look, bulking out her clothes.

Evie’s life changes when Gabe crashes (literally) into her world, smashing his car through her bedroom window. Gabe sees himself as some sort of protector of Evie and he turns up at the most random moments, although things do not appear to be always what they seem with him. For Evie he seems to be something of an escape, a way to leave behind her dreary house, the presence of Seb, a mother who doesn’t seem to prioritise her. When Gabe is the reason Evie is able to connect with someone she thought she’d never see again, he becomes even more important to her, even if some of his interactions can be strange at times. With home life imploding and her friendship with Paige suddenly struggling, Evie turns to not just Gabe but also handsome year 12 Isak, from school.

There was a lot I really liked about this book. I thought Evie was a great character, she’s really not in a great place when the book starts. Her home life kind of sucks – Seb is gross and you just know he’s waiting until the day Evie turns 18 so he can basically turf her out. Her mother is always at work and I think Evie definitely would struggle to really talk to her, connect with her about how she feels about Seb (who definitely gave off creepy vibes to me from the beginning). Her friend Paige is high maintenance and I think Evie feels grateful to her, for being her friend, ignoring the fact that half the time Paige isn’t particularly kind to her, and betrays her in incredible ways later on in this book. Evie seems to find herself in Paige’s shadow – all the boys love Paige, whereas Evie doesn’t see herself as attractive, held back by the brace and her spinal disfiguration. I think she sees Gabe as something that is intrinsically hers and no one else’s, someone that she doesn’t have to share with Paige or seemingly worry about him transferring his interest to Paige. There’s no denying though, that Gabe is quite intense and there’s some definite red flags that Evie either doesn’t see or chooses to ignore, because of what Gabe brings to her life.

It’s pretty clear from early on that there’s….something…that’s a bit concerning about Gabe but it takes Evie quite a while to see it. I think that the way this played out was quite well handled and there seemed a careful consideration of Gabe’s issues and how they affected him and also the world around him but also how factors contributed that blurred the lines. I think Evie definitely showed maturity and compassion in her handling of the events that occurred in the latter part of the novel, not just with Gabe but also with Paige as well. I think I’d have liked a little more explanation or accountability for Paige and her actions, once there was a reveal it’s like she just completely disappeared from the narrative. She was Evie’s best friend, I would’ve definitely liked a little more thought from Evie on Paige’s actions and how she had treated her.

Perhaps a lot of things are kept vague in this deliberately – why/how Gabe crashed into the house, why the wall was never fixed, why Evie’s mother did what she did, why Paige did what she did, etc but I felt like the book set up a lot of things and then didn’t really play them out in quite as much detail as I expected. Things just kind of happen and then people shrug their shoulders and move on. Some people will love that….it just leaves me with questions. But despite my queries and a little feeling that I wasn’t completely satisfied at the end, I did enjoy this and I think the writing was good. I also really liked the issues handled, Evie’s scoliosis and Gabe’s situation as well. I’d read more of S.J. Morgan in the future.

6/10

Book #171 of 2018

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Review: The Single Ladies Of Jacaranda Retirement Village by Joanna Nell

The Single Ladies Of Jacaranda Retirement Village
Joanna Nell
Hachette AUS
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

It’s never too late to grow old disgracefully…

The life of 79-year-old pensioner Peggy Smart is as beige as the décor in her retirement village. Her week revolves around aqua aerobics and appointments with her doctor. The highlight of Peggy’s day is watching her neighbour Brian head out for his morning swim.

Peggy dreams of inviting the handsome widower – treasurer of the Residents’ Committee and one of the few eligible men in the village – to an intimate dinner. But why would an educated man like Brian, a chartered accountant no less, look twice at Peggy? As a woman of a certain age, she fears she has become invisible, even to men in their eighties.

But a chance encounter with an old school friend she hasn’t seen in five decades – the glamorous fashionista Angie Valentine – sets Peggy on an unexpected journey of self-discovery. Can she channel her ‘inner Helen Mirren’ and find love and friendship in her twilight years?

This is probably not something I’d have chosen to pick up without receiving it for review. Peggy is around my grandmother’s age, both are 80-odd. One actually lives in a retirement village that sounds quite similar to the one Peggy lives in, the other still lives in the home she and my grandfather retired in, although she’s on her own now. My parents face challenges with both their mothers – my dad’s mother, the one in the retirement village is coming to a time where she’s no longer able to live independently. She’s forgetting if she’s eaten, she’s forgetting to take her medication, she doesn’t turn the gas off when she’s finished. Dad has to make that call that she’s going to need more assistance to keep her health. And my mother is at the stage where she devotes several days a week to my grandmother’s needs and care that enable her to continue to live in her own home. Both my parents are actively involved in the lives of their mothers, from taking them shopping or to doctor’s appointments or just spending scheduled time with them each week. I live interstate now but whenever I visit, I make sure to spend decent time with both, ensuring that my kids are part of their worlds.

That seems to be something that’s quite missing from Peggy’s world. Her children are both grown with their own lives – at one stage Peggy was minding her grandchildren so that her daughter-in-law could return to work but it seemed to escalate to the point where it was too much for her. When she mentioned that she might like to cut back a bit, it was withdrawn completely and now it seems that Peggy operates her life a bit on the outer from her children, who swoop in to check on her level of senility and attempt to make decisions for her without actually listening to or observing her in her environment. I understand from what my dad is going through that it’s actually quite hard to have to make that call and he’s doing it with the discussion and input from my grandmother.

Peggy is a widow, still missing the companionship and presence of her husband but she’s not dead yet so her eye has landed on Brian, a handsome and pleasant widower who also resides in the retirement village. It seems that Brian is a bit of a hot commodity and Peggy doesn’t rate her chances. She sees herself as unglamorous and frumpy and when Angie Valentine, a childhood friend of Peggy’s arrives looking incredibly well preserved and confident, Peggy is even more downhearted. Angie seems determined to rekindle their friendship and takes it upon herself to also give Peggy a makeover, teaching her how to dress for her shape. On one hand, I quite liked the dynamic between Peggy and Angie. They were very different and had lived very different lives – Peggy having been married to pretty much her only boyfriend for over 50 years and Angie having been married four times. Angie does encourage Peggy to get out there, to do a bit more, enjoy life a bit more as well. Which is good, because although she has her medical issues (doesn’t everyone who gets to 80?) Peggy is still remarkably healthy and capable of living a fulfilling life, something that her children definitely need to realise.

However, and this is kind of a big thing, the way the story actually went with Angie……I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me. I thought it was just a bit…..cruel, actually, that Angie would come back for that particular reason and there was also a bit of a cop out with one of the main characters involved no longer around and not able to give their side of the story. Also Peggy took the entire thing remarkably well pretty much immediately which didn’t really wash so much with me. I guess when you’re 80 there’s no point holding a grudge but honestly, a bit more internal debate probably would’ve been a bit more realistic, for me anyway. I just really didn’t enjoy this whole portion of the book and it seemed a bit out of step with the rest of it. It also seemed a long time to be revealed and is all dealt with quite swiftly, which threw off the pacing a bit for me.

Overall I did enjoy most of this book but I didn’t fall in love with it. It was quite sweet and I appreciated the insight into an older protagonist and the challenges they face with maintaining independent life and their health. But I can’t ignore that I didn’t like the second part of the book.

6/10

Book #170 of 2018

 

 

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