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Review: Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

Four Weeks, Five People
Jennifer Yu
Harlequin Young Adult AUS
2017, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she’s okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn’t want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future.

I write this review as a person who has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, so obviously there will be things in this book that I perhaps don’t understand or am unaware of.

The book revolves around four troubled teenagers who instead of spending their summers at a camp with their friends or at home doing whatever they wish, are attending a therapy camp for various reasons. Stella is very angry, Andrew took his edgy band look too far and is recovering from anorexia, Clarisa has OCD, Ben can’t separate fantasy from reality and Mason has narcissistic personality disorder. They are all very different and none are particularly happy about spending the summer this way.

I didn’t love this. In fact I really struggled with it, it took me almost three days to read it and it’s not a long book at all. I found none of the teenagers particularly appealing with the possible exception of Andrew, the character that seemed to be troubled the most. Being inside Andrew’s head was the only time when I thought the book came close to really hitting the sort of emotional mark it was aiming for. Andrew is obsessed with his weight – he’s in a band and they’re pretty good, maybe going somewhere. It started as a bit of a joke, a competition, getting a bit thin and emaciated looking, because that’s what boys in those bands look like. But somewhere along the line the others stopped and Andrew….didn’t. And now he can’t stop. He has to eat properly at camp and every meal has him hunched miserably over his plate, knowing they’re watching and his self-loathing with every mouthful is evident. Weigh-ins are traumatic.

But the rest of the time, it just felt like a few teens at a camp with no real activities. You don’t get a front seat to most of the therapy sessions and to be honest the two counselors that are assigned to these five struck me as borderline incompetent, especially with what occurs in the late stages of the book. There’s a lot of basically just letting them argue and one of the counselors constantly pulling Stella up on her language. It didn’t feel like a genuine camp that was addressing the problems these teens were having. Half the time the narrative is focused on what they get up to during their contraband drinking sessions and it seems ridiculously easy to both smuggle in items (Stella brings everything on the banned list, even things she doesn’t want or need just to prove that she can) and do whatever they want. None of the counselors are ever the wiser, even though one time they leave shot glasses out in plain sight. Clarisa has never drunk before but downs shots like a pro.

I’m aware that four weeks isn’t long in terms of recovery from anything but I didn’t really notice all that much growth towards recovery happening here at all. Mason is still the same insufferable person he is at the end that he was at the beginning. Ben is still struggling with living in the real world, conducting voiceovers and dramatic montages inside his head. Clarisa and Stella do seem to make some sort of improvement but it’s not really explored how it came to be other than one conversation Stella has with one of the counselors that just doesn’t do enough for me. I thought that Stella’s background needed to be explored a lot more. It’s kind of dribbled out in bits and pieces but even then it’s not as in depth as it could’ve been.

Unfortunately the biggest issue was just that this book was….bland. I was bored most of the time I was reading it. It’s just a random collection of the teens arguing, maybe a snapshot of an activity and then a bit of after lights-out drinking, repeat. There was an opportunity here I think, to tackle a couple of forms of mental illness and really portray them in a realistic way but it seems like the focus isn’t really actually on the illnesses. However I couldn’t actually decide what the focus was on because it didn’t really seem like it was on anything at all. It certainly wasn’t a recommendation for camps like that one, should they exist.

5/10

Book #95 of 2017

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Review: The One by John Marrs

The One
John Marrs
Ebury Publishing
2017, 416p
Copy courtesy Random House UK via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

How far would you go to find THE ONE?

One simple mouth swab is all it takes.

One tiny DNA test to find your perfect partner – the one you’re genetically made for.

A decade after scientists discover everyone has a gene they share with just one person, millions have taken the test, desperate to find true love.

Now, five more people take the test. But even soul mates have secrets. And some are more shocking – and deadlier – than others…

A psychological thriller with a difference, this is a truly unique novel which is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

I’ve read several YA books that tackle something similar to this so the idea was really intriguing – that we could give a simple DNA sample and be matched up with a soul mate, someone perfect for us. The thing is, the matching program doesn’t discriminate. Someone’s perfect match could be halfway around the world. They could be of a different religion or background. They could even be of a different sex to the one that the person believes they are attracted to.

The book revolves around five people finding their “match” – Ellie, a businesswoman who is incredibly wealthy but often the target of public hatred, Mandy, a divorcee whose marriage ended when her husband was matched with someone other than her, Jade who received a match on the other side of the world, Nick who is pressured into taking the test by his fiance to see if they are truly compatible and Christopher,  a psychopath who realises that he’s different from other people but takes the test anyway, to see what sort of match it might give someone like him.

The narrative revolves around the five characters as they meet their matches – and overcome surprises for some, get to know them, decide if they want to disrupt their lives in order to be with these people that have been termed their soul mates. Some of the stories are more interesting than others – I think it was Ellie, Nick and Christopher’s that really kept me interested. Ellie’s match was always a little too good to be true, a bit too perfect, almost rehearsed and I was pretty sure there was a big twist coming but I definitely didn’t expect it to go the way that it did! Nick’s match was one of the more interesting ones and I think that both of them handled it in quite a mature and respectful manner, because they were both surprised to be matched up for quite a few reasons. Nick was also engaged and his match had a partner as well, so they had to deal with the feelings that come from making contact, which is something that apparently happens to all matches. Quite often it’s immediate but it generally happens with 48 hours of meeting. I also really liked Christopher’s story because he was completely different from most of the others. He wasn’t really interested in meeting a soul mate exactly, but he was interested in what it might be like for someone like him, who doesn’t really have the same thoughts and feelings as most other people. He’s a serial killer – he’s already killed numerous women and has plans to continue killing quite a few more. His match is somewhat interesting and Christopher seems to have little regard for her at first except as in terms of curiosity. However he’s intrigued to find that he is capable of feeling things and that perhaps he could have a life with his match.

There was always a lot happening in this book and it was all very fascinating as people struggled with these new feelings – some of the stories were a bit less interesting but probably the one that I didn’t really get into was divorcee Mandy who gets her match only to discover something quite shocking about him. Mandy probably has some reasons for acting the way she did but she made some really frustrating choices and it seemed like every time we got back to her narration, she’d made an even worse choice than the one before until it was all just snowballing into crazy. It did build quite well though and it was clear that it was going to end quite badly.

Most of the stories have some element of psychological suspense running through them and pretty much all of the matches are not without drama, heartache and turmoil. It seems like it doesn’t matter how you find your match, it still contains a huge element of risk. Perhaps even more so because although your DNA might be perfectly compatible, it might change everything that you once thought or believed about yourself.

I definitely enjoyed this and I felt like it was really quite a clever take on a matched story line. The suspense is built really nicely where relevant and I really liked the ending and thought that it worked well.

7/10

Book #94 of 2017

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Review: Ready, Aim, Under Fire by Camilla Chafer

Ready, Aim, Under Fire (Lexi Grave Mysteries #10)
Camilla Chafer
Self-published
2017, eBook
Purchased personal copy via iBooks

Blurb {courtesy Goodreads.com}:

When Private Investigator Lexi Graves’ police lieutenant brother, Garrett, asks her for help on a missing persons cold case he’s been instructed to close, she’s happy to poke around. After all, it won’t take long to prove if the woman he’s checking up on is an impostor or the real deal. 

Garrett isn’t convinced that Debby Patterson, who skipped town ten years ago, is the same happy, family-conscious woman who has finally returned home. Her parents are thrilled to welcome her back so there is no reason to think she isn’t. But just as Lexi begins her investigation, a friend of the family approaches her with some suspicions. Before Lexi can find out what is worrying her, the woman is murdered. Coincidence? Or something more dangerous?

Solving a murder and proving a missing person’s identity, Lexi must put everything she’s learned to the test. Perhaps, by solving one crime, she can solve the other and determine, once and for all, who is the real Debby.

I love this series, I do. But this is not my favourite installment of it.

The mystery is pretty good. Lexi’s brother Garrett, a detective, asks her for help with a case that has bugged him about a missing woman who vanished 10 years ago and was reported by her landlord of all people. Her parents always seemed relatively unconcerned and over the years they received sporadic postcards and emails from their daughter who claimed to be travelling her way around overseas. Then one day she just returned, but Garrett still has questions and he wants Lexi and her non-threatening presence and different way of looking at things, to cast an eye over it and see if she picks up on anything or gets to the bottom of it. When a woman who claims that the woman who returned is not the one who vanished and is then murdered before Lexi can interview her properly, it definitely seems like there are people with secrets to hide.

So that part is fine, I always like the way Lexi goes about things. This seems to be the only thing she really works on in this book and it’s pro bono. She is mostly working on it alone, so to be honest Solomon isn’t a large part of this book. However Maddox is back, creeping around in odd locations for some reason or other and he and Lexi have a conversation that’s probably been brewing since book 2 or 3. The thing is, Lexi and Solomon have had conversations brewing since probably book 5 or 6 and they just don’t ever seem to happen. Lexi is by nature, pretty nosy. And she’s been curious about Solomon for a while and Maddox only hammers home these things that she doesn’t know about him. I’m not sure Maddox’s motives are pure though, in fact I think it’s probably a sneaky handed way to make Lexi doubt her engagement but the fact is, there’s so much that Lexi and the reader don’t know about Solomon. And that kind of works while he’s the man of mystery on/off love interest but not really when they’re engaged to be married. They live together. And they’ve never had a conversation about his life before she met him in book 1? It’s starting to wear a little thin and even after Maddox raises these points, Lexi only attempts a half-hearted conversation with Solomon about where he met some of the other employees of the private detective agency and he smoothly switches the topic after a few vague answers. She’s aware that he’s doing it, she makes mention of it but she doesn’t actually call him on it or pursue her line of questioning. I’m unsure why…..either she’s too chicken to ask because she fears the answer or she fears Solomon flat out refusing to share with her. Either way…..it doesn’t bode well.

I like Solomon – if you want to “ship”, then I’m team Solomon and Lexi. I find Maddox a bit boring and well, a bit of a twat. But at the same time, there’s only so long you can spin out mystery (see: Manoso, Ranger) before it starts to get tedious. Solomon has evolved throughout the books and he’s always been quite obviously into Lexi so his reluctance to share anything about himself with her doesn’t suggest much for their relationship long term, despite the fact that they’re living together and engaged. He doesn’t have to suddenly become super chatty and confide his life story but I think it’s probably time they actually had an adult conversation of some description that didn’t involve work and wasn’t ended by one of them using avoidance tactics. I’m not even sure if Lexi knows how old he is. She’s just vaguely described him as “older than her”.

As I mentioned, I like this series. But I’m ready not to be drip-fed and have some real information shared and see Lexi and Solomon working more in a partnership rather than him just checking in. Not my favourite of the series but it’s a solid story. The mystery saves it.

6/10

Book #93 of 2017

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Review: The Cows by Dawn O’Porter

The Cows
Dawn O’Porter
Harper Collins
2017, 435p
Copy courtesy of Harper Collins AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

COW n. /ka?/

A piece of meat; born to breed; past its sell-by-date; one of the herd.

Women don’t have to fall into a stereotype.

Tara, Cam and Stella are three strangers living their own lives as best they can – although when society’s screaming you should live life one way, it can be hard to like what you see in the mirror.

So when a shocking event ties invisible bonds of friendship between them, one woman’s catastrophe becomes another’s inspiration and a life lesson to all.

Sometimes it’s ok not to follow the herd.

The Cows is a powerful novel about three women – judging each other but also themselves. In all the noise of modern life, they need to find their own voice.

Hmmm.

I’m kind of in two minds about this book.

I enjoyed parts of it. I thought a lot of what Cam, who is a “lifestyle blogger” (a term I really dislike) had to say was quite interesting. She was childless by choice, having no intention to ever have children. She was comfortable with her decision, even ecstatic about it. She enjoyed her life, she was quite well off due to her blog having hundreds of thousands of subscribers and she constantly had to defend her choice both on the blog and in public. People always seemed to feel that there was something wrong with her for not wanting children, that she was selfish because that’s a woman’s job, right? To continue to populate the Earth and all that. Her mother was the worst offender, constantly pressuring Cam and wondering where she herself went wrong because Cam didn’t want children. Despite the fact that Cam’s three sisters all had children and she wasn’t lacking in the grandchildren department, Cam’s mother constantly questioned Cam’s decisions and attempted to convince her that she wasn’t really happy with her choices. I found it insulting that she was questioned if she was a lesbian because she wasn’t interested in having children. Why are those two things linked? There are plenty of lesbians that have children and I’m sure there are plenty more that want children. And some that probably don’t.

It’s a debate that has circled for probably as long as the first woman chose not to have children. Why? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you want children? I don’t really understand the back and forth to be honest, I don’t care at all if someone has children or doesn’t, it’s none of my business. But there are people that think it’s “weird” and you only have to look at the musings around women like Dame Helen Mirren and of course the former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, referred to as unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”. It was different to hear so much from a woman who wasn’t interesting in having children and was ready to defend her choice. I admired Cam and I think she was probably the most fleshed out, genuine character. Definitely my favourite.

I felt sorry for Stella but to be honest that only went so far. She’d had a very tough time, losing her mother and then her twin sister to vicious cancers. Stella also carries the BCRA gene as well which according to the book, gave her something like an 85% chance of developing either breast or ovarian cancer. They are some scary, scary odds and as things slowly fell apart for Stella, she became more and more unhinged, taking part in some truly horrible deceptions. She had some terrible choices to make and as I said, I did feel for her. I don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation. She faced being childless but not by choice as well as having the things that many identify as making them feminine/female etc, removed. Stella has apparently, great breasts but in order to reduce her risk of cancer, it’s likely she’ll have to undergo a complete mastectomy which is for someone who is in their 20s, an incredibly confronting experience. I felt that Stella really neglected herself in her grief – some counselling might’ve helped her not sink to the lows that she does. She’s very hung up on the loss of her sister, seeing herself as the more boring, less fun twin that no one really cares about now that her sister is gone. But at the same time Stella has also alienated herself from everyone, with the exception of one of her friends and her boss Jason, both of whom end up being on the receiving end of Stella’s deceptions and lies.

Of the three women, I found Tara’s story the least enjoyable and to be honest, the least convincing. Tara is filmed masturbating on a train (she believed the carriage was empty) and it goes “viral”, losing her her job, making her a laughingstock and causing various people to question her capability as single mother to her daughter. I don’t think it’s okay when you involve (even inadvertently) other people in your sexual activities. I don’t care about people masturbating but to be honest, doing it in public on a train on a Friday night? Hardly the most private location in the world, is it?  Why would you want to?  That’s not to say that I didn’t feel like Tara was demonised too much – she was. Psychologists on TV questioning her sanity, a chopped up television interview, everyone everywhere having witnessed her private moment, including her parents. But her private moment wasn’t private, it was public, although she didn’t deserve to be filmed without her permission. Tara is lucky not to be charged and to be honest I found her steadfast refusal to apologise a bit offputting. To be honest that whole scenario rang false for me, it just didn’t feel believable that there would be no one on a train on a Friday night and that even if someone had assumed they were alone, that they would perform that act, confident that their alone status wouldn’t change. Likewise I also found it rang false that the one person who was looking for Tara didn’t see that video due to an “internet ban”. It took over so much more than just the internet. The ending wasn’t really successful for me either, for similar reasons.

This book raised some interesting questions but there was a of circling around the same debate as well as a few situations that just didn’t really feel believable or genuine.

6/10

Book #92 of 2017

 

 

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Blog Tour Review: Girl In Between by Anna Daniels

Girl In Between
Anna Daniels
Allen & Unwin
2017, 311p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lucy Crighton has just moved in with some gregarious housemates called Brian and Denise . . . who are her parents. She’s also the proud mother of Glenda, her beloved 10-year-old . . . kelpie. And she has absolutely no interest in the dashing son of her parents’ new next-door neighbour . . . well, maybe just a little.

When you’re the girl in between relationships, careers and cities, you sometimes have to face some uncomfortable truths . . . like your Mum’s obsession with Cher, your father’s unsolicited advice, and the fact there’s probably more cash on the floor of your parents’ car than in your own bank account.

Thank goodness Lucy’s crazy but wonderful best friend, Rosie, is around to cushion reality, with wild nights at the local Whipcrack hotel, escapades in Japanese mud baths, and double dating under the Christmas lights in London.

But will Lucy work out what she really wants to do in life and who she wants to share it with?

Girl in Between is a warm, upbeat and often hilarious story about life at the crossroads. Featuring an endearing and irrepressible cast of characters, it will have you chuckling from start to finish.

This debut from Anna Daniels takes the reader firstly to the Queensland town of Rockhampton where 32 year old Lucy Crighton has moved back in with her parents after a failed relationship. She’s broke and has decided that her future lies in writing the next great Australian novel so she’s taking some time to complete her first draft.

I’m a couple of years older than Lucy, not really enough to make a difference, so we’re kind of the same age but to be honest, it didn’t feel that way. It felt like Lucy read quite a bit younger than 32 – she seems directionless, like someone who had just graduated from university at 22 or so and didn’t know what to do next. Bumming around in her parent’s house, having to scrounge around in their loose change for enough money to go out and buy herself a coffee was sort of more sad than funny. I know that sometimes circumstances force people to go back rather than forward but for a large portion of the story Lucy seems content to just….drift like this. She doesn’t really look for work all that actively, she doesn’t look to move out or regain some independence. She is gifted a trip overseas and then goes to London because her best friend does. For a girl in between everything she sort of gets a lot of things.

There’s a romance running through this, it’s by far not a dominant part of the story and the good part is it doesn’t really define Lucy, nor does she sacrifice anything for it the way that she did in the past, giving up her job in television to follow her boyfriend only for him to break up with her. However I didn’t love the character of Oscar. At first he seems great but then something is revealed about him that changed my opinion of him. He drifts in and out of Lucy’s life as he visits his mother next door and then turns up when Lucy is living in London, seemingly finally getting her life together. It seemed like quite a selfish thing to do to be honest and didn’t endear him to me at all.

I did really enjoy quite a few of the supporting characters, especially Lucy’s parents who are believably quirky and quintessentially laid-back country Australian. A lot of the references and interactions in the parts set in Rockhampton are very Aussie – playing the drinking games with the clothesline, the references between QLD and NSW State of Origin rivalry. They’re the type of thing that almost every Australian is going to be familiar with and there’s a sort of comfort in that, seeing your own experiences recognised and realised on paper. To be honest, I didn’t dislike Lucy…..I found her frustrating at times but she was also quite endearing at times too. I couldn’t help but cheer for her in a way, I wanted her to find her true passion, to get herself back together because it just seemed like the more time she spent drifting, the more unraveled she became. Moving to London and working in a bookshop actually gave her a lot of grounding and it seemed like she was the most settled there. She found a tribe, fellow employees at the bookstore, one of the flatmates in her share house. I liked the time in London, it was probably my favourite part of the book.

I was in two minds about this book for nearly the whole time I was reading it. As I mentioned, I liked Lucy at times but she frustrated me as well and some of the humour wasn’t really my humour. I didn’t do any laughing out loud although the were a few amusing moments littered throughout. The idea of finding yourself is probably one that a lot of people can relate to but there were times when I thought Lucy was more waiting for things to find her, rather than attempting to find what she wanted for herself in a proactive manner. There were some good friendships and an interesting rivalry between Lucy’s mother and another woman in Rockhampton as well, which was something a bit different. But some of the core stuff didn’t really work for me and I was quite put off by some aspects of the romance.

Somewhere on the fence on this one! Didn’t love it but I didn’t dislike it either. I’d recommend it to Aussies who enjoy a bit of cultural humour.

6/10

Book #86 of 2017

Girl In Between is book #30 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017

This review is part of the Girl In Between blog tour. Make sure you check out the other stops on their relevant days!

Girl In Between is published by Allen & Unwin and available now, RRP $29.99

Follow author Anna Daniels on social media:

 

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Review: The Secret Science Of Magic by Melissa Keil

The Secret Science Of Magic
Melissa Keil
Hardie Grant Egmont
2017, 314p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A captivating novel about two extraordinary teens, and the unsolvable problem of life after high school.

Sophia is smart, like genius-calculator-brain smart. But there are some things no amount of genius can prepare you for, and the messiness of real life is one of them. When everything she knows is falling apart, how can she crack the puzzle of what to do with her life?

Joshua spends his time honing magic tricks and planning how to win Sophia’s heart. But when your best trick is making schoolwork disappear, how do you possibly romance a genius?

In life and love, timing is everything.

This is Aussie author Melissa Keil’s third novel and I’ve read both her previous and enjoyed them so buying this one was a no-brainer. I was really intrigued by the premise.

Sophia is an incredibly intelligent year 12 student but she struggles with interactions and social situations. She only really has one friend and there are a lot of things that seem to trigger anxiety. Sophia is at the age where high school is almost over and it’s time to make decisions about the future – what university to apply to, what course to do. Her friend intends to study overseas and seems to want to make sure that Sophia is going to be okay when she’s not around. But Sophia is fixated on Russian mathematician Gregori Perelman who declined to accept a famous award and is now a recluse. She seems to view him as a potential caution for child prodigies in a way, perhaps fearing that she may one day face the same fate if she doesn’t understand why he chose to turn his back on prizes and mathematics and drop off the face of the planet.

Joshua isn’t a genius and he’s interested more in history and magic than science and maths. But for years he’s had a crush on Sophia and admired her from afar. Timing is everything and Joshua has decided that now is the right moment. He’s going to show his hand, so to speak. But that’s going to be hard to do when you haven’t even really interacted.

On the surface, this book is very cute but there’s an awful lot of deep and clever stuff going on below that surface. Sophia is really very interesting – she’s incredibly smart, very advanced and can do things effortlessly that other students cripple themselves studying over. However, in order to push her out of her comfort zone slightly, she found herself talked into taking drama in order to perhaps get her to express herself or tap into some hidden feelings or emotions. She’s often accused of being quite emotionless, almost robotic and even her own brother says it’s weird she never cries. She struggles to even connect with and confide in her best friend and doesn’t even seem to notice that her best friend has some concerns and issues that she’d like to talk about. It’s not deliberate though and she spends a large amount of time trying to figure out her brother’s thoughts and perhaps discover the reason he seems to resent her so much and she’s very upset when she realises that she’s been hurting her best friend’s feelings. But there is no denying that Sophia doesn’t process things in quite the same way as others and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who will connect with that, as well as with the demanding pressures of school, either by oneself or family.

I really liked the character of Joshua, for many reasons. I found the interest in magic a bit dorky, but an endearing sort of dorky and I loved the fact that although Joshua seemed perhaps a loner at school without any friends, away from school he had quite a developed social life and friendship circle. It’s a good way to stress that high school isn’t everything and that you don’t need to be popular there in order to be happy. Plenty of people find their tribe outside of the people they know merely through the circumstances of going to the same school and Joshua never seemed to particularly care about the fact that he didn’t have friends at school. He actually seemed quite comfortable in his own skin. He does face pressure from his father to choose a university course and there’s no doubt that he feels this but he doesn’t really seem to let it bother him too much. I liked his relationship with his sister as well and I thought that the little tricks and things he did in order to catch Sophia’s attention were quite cute. Although a lot of his crush was based before they had any real interaction, it deepened after he spent time with her and got to know her properly, quirks and all. In fact Joshua liked Sophia because of the way she was, her essential personality which was off putting to some people, was really engaging and appealing to him. He didn’t care about her blunt way of speaking, abruptness and sometimes awkwardness and he really admired her intelligence. And realising that she cared about Joshua didn’t change Sophia but she did grow throughout the book. She learned that she can fail and the world keeps turning.

I really enjoyed this and fans of Melissa Keil’s first novel will enjoy a little cameo appearance in this one. I know I did!

8/10

Book #88 of 2017

The Secret Science Of Magic is book #32 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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Review: The Beast Of Hushing Wood by Gabrielle Wang

The Beast Of Hushing Wood
Gabrielle Wang
Puffin Books
2017, 180p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

By the award-winning author of The Wishbird. A powerful magic realism story about Ziggy Truegood, a young girl who has a premonition that she will drown on her 12th birthday.

Ziggy Truegood lives in a tiny town deep in Hushing Wood, where strange things are happening. The townspeople are fighting, Ziggy feels like something is hunting her, and her beloved woods have become dark and hostile. When exotic Raffi and his grandfather arrive in town, Ziggy finds herself strangely drawn to them. But are they there to save Ziggy, or are they the hunters?

Thought-provoking and engaging, The Beast of Hushing Wood is a lovely blend of action, fable and magic realism.

I’ve been reading a bit more middle grade fiction of late as that’s the stage my oldest son is about to head into and I’m curious to see some of what’s around for this demographic that isn’t about bums. It’s a bit of a tricky age, especially as my son is an advanced reader but perhaps slightly immature. “Baby books” bore him but he struggles to find middle grade books that hold his interest so I’m always keen to try and find something that might interest him. Although I quite enjoyed this, I’m not sure he would to be honest. I get the feeling he’s too literal to embrace the whimsical side of this book!

Ziggy lives with her mother in a small town that borders a wood. The town is quite insular, suspicious of outsiders. Ziggy’s father was an outsider who ended up leaving and Ziggy’s two brothers went with him. Ziggy misses them all terribly and she hopes to visit them someday but her mother’s fear of leaving the town at the moment makes that impossible. Ziggy spends a lot of time in the woods near her house and doesn’t fear them as many others do. She also spends time with grandfather, a wise man who is now in a home because his mind is slipping.

Ziggy has begun having the same dream every night, that she will drown on her twelfth birthday which is in in the coming weeks. She has confided this to her two closest friends but not to anyone else and seems to be mostly struggling to deal with this on her own. At around the same time we meet Ziggy, a new student named Raffi comes to the school and Ziggy is immediately suspicious that he might have something to do with her dream.

Ziggy is a fun character, she’s brave and funny but with vulnerability to her too. I liked her affinity with the forest and her lack of pretense. She dresses differently to the other girls at school and acts differently but she stays true to herself. There are a lot of themes in this book that revolve around that sort of thing – being different, bullying and ostracisation at school, small town small mindedness, that sort of thing and I think that a lot of children within the 10-13 year age range would find things to identify with.

I enjoy magical realism so I liked the way that was woven into the story and there were some really interesting things happening but the build up felt better than the pay off, like it all rushed toward a conclusion in a way and the the conclusion took up a very small amount of page space. I have never read Gabrielle Wang before and the world of middle grade fiction is new to me. I didn’t even really read it when I was at the age it’s aimed at – I was always aiming to read higher. I feel like I need to learn more about it and books like this are a really good place to start. I’d love to read some more from this author, particularly The Wishbird.

I found this book quite a nice story, tackling some pertinent themes but there were times when I definitely wanted a little more from it – a fleshing out of characters, some supporting information or even just another conversation. The illustrations are cute, simple and yet somehow detailed as well and would probably serve to break up the text for struggling readers and give them a visual.

6/10

Book #83 of 2017

The Beast Of Hushing Wood is book #28 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

 

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Review: The Scent Of You by Maggie Alderson

The Scent Of You
Maggie Alderson
Harper Collins AUS
2017, 499p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Perfume blogger Polly is in crisis. Will her husband’s absence break her … or make her? A novel of perfumes, exploring life, love, loss and forgiveness – Maggie Alderson’s new bestseller.

Are you still married if you haven’t seen your husband for months?

Polly’s life is great. Her children are away at uni, her glamorous mother – still modelling at eighty-five – is happily settled in a retirement village, and her perfume blog is taking off. Then her husband announces he needs some space and promptly vanishes.

As Polly grapples with her bewildering situation, she clings to a few new friends to keep her going – Shirlee, the loudmouthed yoga student; Guy, the mysterious, infuriating and hugely talented perfumer; and Edward, an old flame from university.

And while she distracts herself with the heady world of luxury perfume, Polly knows she can’t keep reality at bay forever. Eventually she is forced to confront some difficult truths: about her husband, herself and who she really wants to be.

I’ve never read Maggie Alderson before but this book caught my attention immediately when it arrived because I love perfume. I’m not in any way knowledgeable like Polly, the main character is. She runs a perfume blog and gets invited to a lot of exciting events and launches for fragrances and is really quite well known. Her mother was a very famous model decades ago, for houses like Dior and has always had a very large perfume collection but favoured some signature scents. Polly always associated several scents with her mother – her going to a party perfume for example and she’s taken this into her everyday life. She seemed to have a very developed sense of smell, picking out a seven or so ingredient elements in a perfume very easily. I found this really interesting, so I googled the perfume I’m wearing today. According to the website, it has topnotes of pomegranate, coconut water and boysenberry, heart notes (I don’t even know what that is) of butterfly orchid, honeysuckle and blooming magnolia and base notes of blonde woods, skin musks (that sounds kind of gross to be honest) and gilded amber. And if I’m completely and utterly honest the only things I really pick up are the coconut and orchid. Maybe a touch of the boysenberry, now that I know what it is. I love perfumes though, I’ve got about a half dozen which is nothing compared to someone like Polly but I found that I really do have a bit of a “pattern” for how I choose to wear them. I have my at home perfume, which is one I just spritz on when I’m not going anywhere, maybe just the school run. I have my perfume that I wear when I’m going out but not really anywhere special, just to the shops or maybe out to brunch. I have my expensive perfume which I wear occasionally when I’m going somewhere nice, my “night” perfume which I wear out to dinner and my summer perfume which I wear only really during the warm months. Then I’ve got my “something different” perfume for when I’m bored of all of those and feel like something new. My perfumes aren’t really expensive and I don’t have  a “signature”. I buy whatever intrigues me at the time but I get the association of scents with people. My mother wears Opium and I can’t smell it without being transported back to my childhood.

So obviously this book has a lot about perfume in it as running the blog, going to events etc is part of Polly’s job and she identifies so strongly with scents that it makes up a large part of her life. But it’s not all there is to it – Polly’s personal life is in a bit of a crisis. A few days before Christmas, her husband David disappeared, leaving only a note telling her that he needed time alone and not to contact anyone or basically talk about it. Having been married for 24 years with two grown up children both at university, Polly is feeling the sting of the empty nest and David’s disappearance has only amplified that. As well as running the blog, Polly also teaches yoga each morning at her home and the loneliness she’s feeling leads to her forming friendships with several of the women who frequent her class. Through visiting her mother in a very posh retirement village (but not as we would know it) Polly has also reconnected with a former college friend, and these things all provide a distraction for her, a way to ignore the fact that her husband has vanished without warning and she doesn’t know where he is.

I found myself getting really invested in the mystery of “where is David and what is going on?” as the book progressed. At first it seems like it might be the stereotypical mid-life crisis, leaving the wife and family and taking off for a life of no responsibility or perhaps on a long work trip where he probably could be in contact but didn’t want to. But the more that you read into the story, the more that it becomes something else and when it all unfolded it was definitely something that I didn’t at all suspect and I definitely appreciated the fact that it was something unexpected and really different to anything else I’ve read where a character finds themselves in a situation similar to Polly’s. I also really liked her relationship with her children – she was very close to them and loved them very much but it felt like a realistic exasperation at times as well as pain when she finds that one of her children has been placed in a difficult position by her husband David. I felt as though Polly’s reaction to that felt very raw and real but also liked that once she had calmed down and thought on it, she didn’t hold a grudge and she was able to be a support for her children as well as they were to her, through David’s disappearance. Their family unit felt really tight but also genuine.

Some of the supporting characters were a bit too quirky – mostly the perfumer Guy, who might be brilliant but seemed to be unable to distinguish social cues and interactions and to be honest, some of his behaviour was a bit creepy and I felt like I couldn’t discern whether or not he’d end up a lifelong friend or someone that Polly ended up taking a restraining order out on. But I also felt like Polly enabled some of his outrageous behaviour as well, or wasn’t firm enough with him when he crossed boundaries and was generally acting in ways that could be seen as inappropriate. I noticed that Polly really was quite non-confrontational across the board. She preferred to retreat and calm down before facing people again, rather than just tell them that what they were doing was upsetting her etc. I could relate to that, it’s the way I tend to be too because I’d rather just avoid having to talk to people when they’re doing something that makes me angry or upset or uncomfortable.

I really enjoyed this book – loved learning more about perfumes and what goes into making them and the way in which different perfumes are included in families. It was also really fun to read about a blogger who had turned a passion into something much more and I’ve never read about perfume before. I spent about an hour after I finished the book googling the perfumes I have and learning what was in them and I’m pretty sure I’ll be googling perfumes I want to buy, seeing if they have anything in common with the ones I already own and like.

Definitely going to be looking for more Maggie Alderson books to read in the future. Not only did she take something that’s a part of my everyday life that I never thought about before and made me think about it and also enjoy thinking about it, but I also really liked the way she wrote relationships and friendships of all varieties.

8/10

Book #84 of 2017

 

The Scent Of You is book #29 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

 

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Top 10 Tuesday May 9th 2017

Welcome to another edition of Top 10 Tuesday, created and hosted by the girls at The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different book-type theme each week. This week we are talking…..

Top 10 Things I Want More Of In Books

  1. Chick Lit Minus The Designer Labels. I really like chick lit. I find them great for when you just want to kick back and read something light and enjoyable but I find that so many chick lit books obsess over Jimmy Choo shoes and Prada handbags or whatever, stuff that’s really out of reach for most people and in fact should be out of reach of pretty much all of the characters. A character can like clothes and shoes, I can just do without the constant namedropping of the same designer brands.
  2. Epic Fantasy Sagas. When I was in high school, I discovered David Eddings and pretty much slayed his backlist in a year. I’ve read a Song of Ice and Fire (well as far as you can currently go) and I’d really love more stuff like this. Chunkster series’ with a wide range of characters, an overall quest, etc. It’s probably out there, I’m just not sure where to start – if you have some recs, throw them at me!
  3. Rural YA. Most YA I read tends to be set in cities (not all, but most) and if it’s Australian those cities are generally Melbourne, Sydney or some sort of vague construction that resembles one of those. I’d love some set in remote QLD or maybe northern WA or the Top End. Something a little different. Likewise for overseas YA….how about rural Montana or Alaska or something? Homesteader YA fiction. That’s something I’d like to read. Can someone write that?
  4. Characters That Aren’t Super Hot. Every now and then I read a book where the characters aren’t conventionally hot and are perhaps even a tad awkward looking and it always makes me think hey, this is actually realistic. Hot is different to different people and it’s certainly possible to find someone more attractive as you get to know their personality. More of that…..less girls that aren’t aware of their stunning beauty and perfect figures and guys that have messy hair and crooked smiles.
  5. More Books Set In University/College. Basically more of Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin. I spent several years living in a university residential college and I’m telling you that time is ripe to be tapped. I’d love to see this represented way more – moving out of home for the first time brings a lot of its own challenges and there’s lots of navigating new friendships, relationships, etc. I’d love to see more of this.
  6. More Overseas YA. This kind of ties in with more rural YA but instead of it all being either AU/US/UK I’d love to read some YA set in African countries or South American countries or maybe even places like Kazakhstan or Russia. Places that are super different to where I live. I know that translation can be an obstacle and I’ve no idea how big the markets even are in those countries. But it would definitely interest me.
  7. Glimpses Into The Lives Of Characters I’ve Previously Read. I love it when characters from an authors past story make a cameo. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but I’d love to pick up a Jennifer Echols novel and find that Doug and Zoey from Forget You are now coaching the swim team at the high school of the characters in the new novel or something.
  8. Enemies To Lovers. Eek. I love this so much. More books like The Hating Game by Sally Thorne where the characters banter back and forth but underneath there’s loads of sexual tension.
  9. Different Forms Of Travel. Books that take place on a train like the Indo-Pacific or Ghan in Australia or the Trans-Siberian Railroad or a cruise ship or even a Greyhound Bus. Places where characters can talk and connect and I get to live vicariously through the descriptions of scenery.
  10. A Reversal Of The Helpless Female Trope. Okay in romance novels, the girls are always all swoon, I cannot think when he touches/kisses me even though the rest of the time he is being a giant douche canoe. I would like to see the male helpless and rendered shushed by a kiss or some sexual contact. I always feel like men dominate a lot of sexual interaction in books, would love to see that reversed more often.

Those are just a few of the things I would love to see more of. If you have something that you feel fits any of these categories then definitely let me know!

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Review: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Quicksand
Malin Persson Giolito
Simon & Schuster AUS
2017, 406p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The air is hazy and grey with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got so much as a bruise….

There were six of them in the classroom, people who do not usually hang out together. Five were students, but they weren’t sitting in neat rows that morning, listening intently to their tutor. No. Their normal day – indeed their lives – were about to be irrevocably destroyed…

Who were they? Why were they there, in that particular room at that particular time? And why, nine months later, is 18-year-old Maja Norbert standing in a courtroom, flanked by lawyers, reciting under her breath:

You are innocent until the courts have ruled that you are guilty… 

The front of this book declares it the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. I’m not sure if that’s an award or just a proclamation but when I picked it up, I have to admit I thought hmm, another jaded police detective probably with an alcohol problem, a divorce and maybe an internal investigation hanging over his head.

Nope. Oh no. This is not that book. At all.

Maria “Maja” Norberg is a student at an exclusive school in a wealthy neighbourhood in Sweden. Her parents are a mix of old and new money and Maja has had a privileged upbringing that includes international holidays abroad and just about everything she could ever want. She catches the eye of Sebastian Fagerman, son of a billionaire, the kind of wealth that people can only dream about, even Maja’s family. Sebastian is a law unto himself – repeating his senior year of school due to flunking out last year, he throws lavish parties inviting anyone that takes his fancy, consumes loads of drugs and introduces Maja to a life of cruising on his father’s boat and never ever having to wait in a nightclub queue.

For a while, everything is wonderful. But Sebastian’s darker side becomes more and more apparent, cluing Maja in on a troubled boy with mental health problems and a brutal father who either cannot or will not care for his son. It ends with Maja left in a room of people, the only one not shot. Was she a willing participant? Was it a murder-suicide pact gone wrong and she changed her mind at the last minute? Or is it something more sinister, was Maja just a pawn in a game that was always going to end this way?

The book is narrated solely by Maja and is broken down into parts, mostly focusing on her trial with flashbacks to flesh out her relationship with Sebastian, her friendship with her best friend Amanda, her family life, the complicated friendship with fellow student Samir and Sebastian’s troubled relationship with his father Claes.

It would be easy dismiss Maja and her friends as spoiled little rich kids – and there’s no doubt that for the most part, they are. But the author takes the time to go deeper than that, to examine the pressures and stresses of teenage life when not living up to expectations. In his father’s eyes, there’s no doubt that Sebastian is an epic f*ck up, not even close to living up to his older brother who is away at university in America. In some ways I think Sebastian is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He believes what his father tells him and then he does his best to live up to that reputation. There are several cries for help in this book that mostly go ignored – except by Maja.

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing….”

I had conflicted feelings about Maja at the beginning – her narration is detached, like this is happening to someone else. I had a brief wondering if she was a sociopath, so removed from the situation did she seem. But as the narrative unfolded and she revealed more and more about the disintegration of her relationship with Sebastian, the amount of pressure people put on her to ‘fix him’, to ‘be there for him’ became apparent. Maja is just a teenager, she’s not emotionally mature enough for this sort of thing and also as she states several times during her story, it wasn’t her job. She was essentially not only girlfriend to Sebastian but also both parents, keeper, psychologist, behavioural expert. And although a few people noticed changes in her, they didn’t seem to explore them, or wonder what they could do to help. In many ways, they left her to it, a failing on many levels.

This book is more than just a portrayal of rich, privileged teens and how that all came unraveled. It’s also a social critique, with a look at the immigrant situation in Sweden as well as the inequitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It’s done in a way that blends it seamlessly into the story in a scene where Maja and Sebastian’s class welcome a guest speaker. The talk is also attended by various fathers from the school and the children have pre-approved questions to ask at the end. One of them goes “off the cuff” in a question about wealth and the “social problem” of immigrants and it’s one of the most interesting scenes in the book.

I appreciated the way that the narrative made me really debate in my mind whether or not Maja was guilty. I honestly didn’t know for sure for the longest time whether or not she had been a willing participant or not….. She’s a slightly unreliable narrator as her views are coloured by the feelings she has for the people in them and as she’s also the only narrator we get, the reader has to decide how much faith they’re willing to place in her words. And at the end, it’s still a choice the reader has to make – was the decision reached the right one?

For me, this book was absolutely brilliant – it made me think about so many things. I actually took a few days to read it, because I was mulling so many things over in my mind. I even stopped to discuss bits and pieces of it with my husband, the different social, moral and psychological questions that it raised as I was reading it. I found it a very interesting take on a troubling and difficult topic to tackle and I would love to read more by this author in the future.

9/10

Book #82 of 2017

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