All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries
R.O. Kwon
Virago
2018, 214p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe. 

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.

This was a book that sounded excellent in theory but for me, kind of failed to live up to it in practice.

It focuses on Will, a university student who has just transferred to a New York college from a bible college in California. He knows that to fit in there, he’ll have to reinvent himself – new wardrobe, move his house location a little, tap into what he knows about more prestigious areas and hide the fact that he works a part time job around his classes. He follows some people into a party on a whim and there he meets Phoebe: beautiful, well entrenched in the college social scene and somehow, they end up in a relationship. Then Phoebe is drawn in by John Leal and things go south from there as Will realises that John’s grip on Phoebe is increasing and with his own conflicted feelings about religion, Will lacks the zeal John needs in a follower. There’s a wedge driven between them and Will ends up on the outside looking in when the group commit a terrible act that culminates in the death of five innocent people.

I think for me, the biggest problem I had with this book was the choppy and non-linear way it was told, switching between focusing on Will, on Phoebe and on John Leal. But some of the focus is always in the abstract, focused on what Will knows or is told so it becomes difficult to tell what’s real and what someone has contrived to be the truth. There’s some reasoning given for Phoebe’s vulnerability to someone like Leal, and it’s the sort of thing where guilt and grief are not dealt with, which leaves her open and raw and a perfect victim in some ways. But still however, the character of John Leal fell very flat for me, I saw nothing in him that was charismatic or powerful, even mildly interesting. Perhaps viewed through Will’s eyes it wasn’t there but I felt like there should’ve been more to really show how he managed to ensnare his followers.

I just found it really hard to really sink into the story and stay engaged – like there were times when I thought I was going to finally connect with it or find it interesting and have some sort of realisation about the characters or their motivation or Will and Phoebe’s relationship but it just never really ended up happening. Life at college in the US is very different to going to university here as well but honestly, how did Phoebe stay enrolled? She is told she’s going to fail and she hasn’t even unwrapped the plastic from her textbooks by this point. She makes a halfhearted effort to do that but seems to never go on with it but somehow manages to stay at the college? I couldn’t really figure it out. Will also struggles for money but it doesn’t particularly stop him drinking and self-medicating.

Obviously there’s also a lot about religion in this – Will is formerly devout, he found God and religion during a time when his mother was ill. She has recurring bouts of mental illness but Will has lost his faith and no longer really engages with it. Phoebe finds it with John Leal and from then there’s a lot about God and asking Him how they can serve Him – even writing that with a capital letter as it’s written in the book makes me very uncomfortable. I am not religious at all, staunch atheist and I have a lot of complicated feelings about people who engage in the sort of dangerous, blind devotion wrapped up as religion that John is pushing, with himself as some sort of Messiah figure.

I found myself waiting for the incident mentioned in the blurb and the fallout but honestly, it takes forever and then after it is where the book pretty much went downhill for me. Will’s perspective is messy and he does the most random things, he’s so steadfast in his belief about Phoebe but…we aren’t really shown why. From what we saw, Phoebe was a messy, grieving, easily manipulated person who left everything she knew behind for the group headed by John Leal.

Also towards the end, Will does something that slams him firmly into the “I’m A Nice Guy” territory and it’s gross and I completely lost interest in him as a character.

4/10

Book #88 of 2021

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Review: Love, In Theory by Elodie Cheesman

Love, In Theory
Elodie Cheesman
Pan Macmillan AUS
2021, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When 24-year-old lawyer Romy learns that she is at her ‘optimal stopping point’ (the mathematically designated point at which one should select the next ‘best person’ who comes along in order to have the best chance at happily ever after), she knows it’s time to get serious about her love life.

Ruthlessly rational, with a belief in data over destiny, Romy knows that reliability and consistency are dependable options, while passion and lust are transitory and only bring pain and disillusionment.

That’s why sensible Hans the engineer is the right choice, as opposed to graphic designer James who exhibits the kind of behaviour that has got her into trouble before. Isn’t he?

The twenty-first century may have brought technological advances in how we communicate, but this warm and funny novel shows us that the search for love is as fraught as ever.

I thought this was mostly, a lot of fun.

Romy is a lawyer working for quite a large firm, under one of the partners. Even though she’s only 24, her mother draws her attention to an article describing the mathematical perfect time to find her life partner and it’s been a little while since she’s dated anyone and I think the science of the idea appeals to her. She joins Tinder for the first time in an attempt to find ‘The One’. After a few disastrous dates, she meets Hans, a German who is new to Sydney and is everything that Romy thinks she wants (her 3 characteristics). He’s kind and steady and definitely the sort of person she should be building a future with – even if there’s no spark. And she can’t stop thinking about James, a laid back guy who doesn’t ‘do’ relationships and seems to collect one night stands. James doesn’t have future written all over him, so Romy should definitely be concentrating on Hans.

Really enjoyed the premise, the study of different ways that people find love and how and if that love is maintained. I also like the idea of building something, something that grows but that’s not to say it has to be without the spark, or the chemistry. There are times when Romy does seem to take this extreme viewpoint – she’s willing to put a lot of time and work in with Hans, which is great, even when there’s no spark and things do not particularly seem to be developing. Likewise, she’s attracted to James, there’s chemistry between them but she thinks that isn’t going to last, it’ll fade and that they wouldn’t be able to build something. It’s pretty obvious there’s some flaws in her thinking but she needs to work that out for herself, with a bit of trial and error I suppose.

Romy is working in a two year rotation and she’s finding the work quite unfulfilling – she’s learning to apply the law as it stands and as her boss often tells her, they’re not the moral police. Romy often struggles with this, that the fact that someone can be doing something morally wrong but the company doesn’t have the ability to fire them. Or that a company can be doing something wrong but it’s a their word vs an employee’s word and often there’s no justice for the employee. It’s clear her work doesn’t make her happy but she’s not sure what, exactly, she wants to do with her law degree. To be honest, the firm where she and several of her friends work, sounds quite depressing – her friend Cameron is basically borderline bullied by his direct partner and even though Romy’s partner in charge is boorish, he’s at least not a person who belittles her publicly and insults her. This is a sort of culture in law firms that is probably quite traditional and the author is a lawyer herself so has presumably some experience in the area, if not herself then someone she knows. I liked learning about the hierarchy of a big firm though and the way in which the work trickles down to the juniors.

I also liked Romy’s group of friends and their differing opinions on various things such as getting married and relationships. They seemed like fun – although it’s been long time since I was 24 and to be honest I’m not sure I was ever a 24yo who thrived on being as busy and out as much as these ones are (introvert here)! This is set in Sydney and you do get quite a clear sense of the city, which I really enjoyed. I’ve never lived in inner-Sydney but it is one of my favourite places to visit and this book definitely reminded me it’s been a long time since I was there.

I did find Romy a little frustrating in the latter part of the book – and very stubborn. People seemed to be trying to tell her that the studies are all well and good but you still have to factor actual feelings into it and you cannot force something that isn’t there but she seems to just persist with the theory for quite a while, even though it’s making her miserable and she has the power to fix it. I was really ready for her to have her epiphany!

I did enjoy this though – it was fun and humorous and well written. A really clever debut and I hope to read more from Elodie Cheesman in the future.

7/10

Book #85 of 2021

Love, In Theory is book #35 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

The 99th Koala
Kailas Wild
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 208p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In last summer’s devastating fires, Kangaroo Island lost half of its koala population, with many more left injured and starving. This is the inspiring and sometimes confronting story of someone who went to help and ended up a koala dad.

When Kailas Wild – arborist by trade and conservationist at heart – heard that there were injured koalas on Kangaroo Island who could only be reached by a tree climber, he drove 1500 kms to volunteer.

Seven weeks later, he had crowd-funded sixty-five thousand dollars, participated in the rescue of over 100 koalas and had formed a special bond with a baby koala – Joey Kai. His social media postings gained tens of thousands of views and press attention around Australia and overseas, including the BBC, The Times (London), The New York Times and The Daily Mail.

The 99th Koala shares that experience, in words and pictures, and introduces us to some of the koalas of Kangaroo Island. Sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful, Kai’s story above all commemorates our unique wildlife, and demonstrates the power of one person trying to make a difference.

It’s impossible to grow up where I did and not interact with koalas in some way. There’s a strong local population and we had several that made their homes at various times of the year, in the gums across the road from our house. Mating seasons were noisy. And then of course there’s the local koala hospital, which was established decades ago to care for and rehabilitate injured and sick koalas. If you find one (and lots of people do, either in their backyards or hit by cars, or attacked by dogs, etc), that’s where you take them. As the area increased in popularity and more people moved there, they lost more and more of their habitat and sometimes found themselves in places where it was dangerous for them. Everyone who lives there has visited, probably multiple times, and at least half have thought about volunteering there. I live 1400kms away now but I still take my kids there whenever we visit.

In September of 2019, that area began experiencing bushfires, which was very unusual. It’s a temperate climate, usually high rainfall and lacking in extreme temperatures -not immune to bushfires by any means, but unusual, especially as it was even before summer. There were loads of sick, burned and injured koalas taken to the hospital ( an estimation of a loss of around 40% of the populations as well) and it wasn’t long before other parts of NSW and then other parts of Australia, starting experiencing a truly catastrophic bushfire season, known now as Black Summer.

This is about one of those places – Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. In January of 2020, it was torn apart and devastated by fires that took human lives and countless animal lives. Kailas Wild is an arborist from NSW who also volunteered with the SES and had koala-handling experience, and when he heard what had happened, he put out feelers to see if someone with his skills might be needed. After all, koalas are often high up in trees and when threatened, will climb higher. In order to get some of them down for medical attention, or to relocate them to areas less devastated, his abilities might be helpful. Even crucial.

Most of this book is photographs – stunning photographs. Some of them show koalas peering out of cages as they await medical examination or to be transported to a healthy habitat area, or orphaned joeys being bottle fed by volunteers. Others are truly devastating. Koalas with burned hands and feet or missing the fluff from their beautiful ears. Landscape shots showing the destruction of the fires and scores of trees reduced to little more than black stumps. They are all powerful images, a mix of heartbreaking and hopeful and showcasing some of the volunteers who like Wild, gave up their time and spent weeks dedicating themselves to helping the injured animals to often devastating consequences.

This book actually made me realise something I’d never thought about for people undertaking this role – how truly traumatic it must be and how much it could and would affect someone’s mental health. Wild is frank about some of the terrible things he sees or the times where he rescues a koala only for it to be assessed as so injured or burned that it could not possibly survive and the kindest thing to do would be to end its suffering. It’s heartbreaking for him each time, especially as wild animals often “rally” and appear strong as a defense mechanism: to appear weak in the wild is to be a target. So sometimes wild animals will seem quite well and it isn’t until things are truly dire, is it obvious that they are not well at all. I’ve seen this in nature documentaries and the like before, but to witness it in real life, especially after you’d put so much time and effort into each rescue, trying to help each koala, to know that some of them cannot be helped, although a reality of the situation, would still be utterly devastating. And Wild is also frank about the emotional trauma as well, how helpless he feels at times and how he questions whether stressing these already stressed koalas in his attempts to get them down from their trees, is the right thing to do. Especially for the ones who are quite far gone. It is sadly, not something I thought much about before, your thoughts are generally focused on the animals. To read the mental sadness and the toll it takes on the humans working with them, was definitely eye-opening.

I appreciated a lot about this: the effort, time and dedication of the workers, the message about the toll it takes and the subtle talk of the importance of biodiversity and tackling climate change. This book doesn’t have a lot of words, a lot of it relies on the photographs, but the ones it does have, are important.

9/10

Book #84 of 2021

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Review: Unsheltered by Clare Moleta

Unsheltered
Clare Moleta
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: As the resourceful, relentless Li tracks her lost daughter across a disintegrating country, the journey will test the limits of her trust, her hope and her love. Unsheltered will leave you wrung out and gasping.

Relentlessly propulsive and profoundly moving, Unsheltered taps into some of our worst fears and most implacable motivations, marking the emergence of a fully-formed and urgent literary voice.

Against a background of social breakdown and destructive weather, Unsheltered tells the story of a woman’s search for her daughter. Li never wanted to bring a child into a world like this but now that eight-year-old Matti is missing, she will stop at nothing to find her.

As she crosses the great barren country alone and on foot, living on what she can find and fuelled by visions of her daughter just out of sight ahead, Li will have every instinct tested. She knows the odds against her: an uncompromising landscape, an uncaring system, time running out, and the risks of any encounters on the road. But her own failings and uncertainty might be the greatest obstacle of all. Because even if she finds her, how can she hope to shield Matti from the future?

At times tender, at times terrifying, Unsheltered is an engrossing, unpredictable novel that keeps the reader in suspense all the way to the end. A brilliant feat of imagination that asks if our humanity is the only protection we have left, Unsheltered will affect you in ways a book hasn’t done in years.

This is really not an easy book to review. I’ve been mulling over what I might say since I finished it yesterday and although I have some thoughts, none of them are particularly coherent.

A message at the front of the book says this book’s setting is “Australian but not Australia. Geography, distance and time have been altered, some things moved around and others invented entirely“. So whilst some things may seem familiar in some ways, it’s not supposed to be the country we know, even though the message is at times, indicative of things we’ve seen and heard before.

Main character Li lives in a ghost of a town with Frank, and their daughter Matti. They had an olive farm but Weather (so much a force that it’s capitalised) has sent them trial after trial and their only option is to leave. There are camps much like refugee-style camps outside walled cities and there are ballots to try and get entry. After Frank is lost to them, Matti is in one of these camps but Li is outside the boundaries, trapping for trade when the camp catches fire and is broken down by some Authority group. She is separated from her daughter Matti and from then on, everything Li does is about finding Matti and getting her back.

It’s a story of survival, of desperation. Li has a lot of complicated feelings about being a mother – in this world, it seems there is a Quota and parents are restricted to one child. Frank was definitely more enthusiastic than Li and she thinks openly of moments in Matti’s babyhood and younger days, where she failed to connect with her daughter, lost her temper or struggled. Now that Matti is lost to her, the unaccompanied minors herded onto a bus and taken somewhere, Li can only follow on foot, trying desperately to reclaim her. She meets people along the way – some will be helpful, offering up information or sharing resources or trading. Others will betray her, take the meagre possessions she has. She will see and experience some of the worst Weather has to offer and the desperation and hopelessness of what seems to be some sort of internment/prison camp.

There’s a lot in this that mimics recognisable parts of society today – bushfires, what seems to be either cyclones or tornadoes (although disconcertingly, one is mentioned from coming up from the Southern Ocean) indicate a land absolutely ravaged by climate change. In the opening chapter it rains where Frank and Li live for the first time in years. Matti is 5 or 6 and had never seen rain in her life. It’s not too much of a stretch to picture this as Australia in the future. We’re already a climate of extremes and the changing weather patterns are impacting more and more on farming belts and rural areas. And then there’s the vague mention of Wars (also capitalised) going on elsewhere, the fact that children go into some sort of draft ballot at 15 and the treatment of people who live “outside the walls”. The camps, the struggle to make claims to be allowed in, the waiting and nothing happening, seems a pretty strong reference to refugees attempting to come here and being stuck in camps for years and years, their claims going nowhere, the catch-22 situation of it being illegal to seek asylum but there being no real ‘legal’ way to wait in a hypothetical queue that doesn’t exist. Li is often stuck in similar situations: credit is required to call and check on claims or when she wants an update on Matti’s missing minor status but the waiting times are such that the credit just runs out and she’s stuck in a loop, unless someone she knows “inside” the wall will agree to help her.

This had a really strong atmosphere but the fact that I didn’t know where anything was or where Li was going in relation to places she’d been before, made it difficult to picture a lot of things in my head. A map would’ve been really handy – she walks for days but I don’t know where that took her in relation to where she was, or where certain cities were, it sort of made it hard to connect with Li’s journey in that I mostly had no idea where she was going and how long it was going to take. Likewise I didn’t really understand the governmental structure either: who was in control and why and what exactly, they were preventing from happening. There’s some vague explanations but it wasn’t enough for me, I wanted a bit more to back up the situation that Li had found herself in.

I enjoyed this – Li’s desperation, her survival skills, honed years before Matti’s birth and how she’d tried to teach Matti to survive as well, perhaps feeling that this would one day happen. I also liked her thoughts on motherhood, her frank admittance that she hadn’t really wanted it, that she’d done it because Frank had wanted it and her struggle with connecting with her daughter. The clear obvious difference between Matti’s relationship with Li and her one with Frank. The way in which Li felt guilty over some of the ways in which she’d struggled in the past, but the singleminded determination to find her daughter once they were separated, no matter what it took, what it cost her. But I also found Li remote, as a character and perhaps that’s deliberate because of the harsh setting, the way she has to be in order to do what she needs to do to survive. But it did mean that sometimes, I struggled to stay grounded in the story and my mind wandered a bit.

A grim story and perhaps a warning – some of it felt hopeful but also like it was just out of reach.

7/10

Book #83 of 2021

Unsheltered is the 35th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Review: Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz

Before You Knew My Name
Jacqueline Bublitz
Allen & Unwin
2021, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: This is not just another novel about a dead girl.

When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city’s latest Jane Doe, an unidentified murder victim.

Ruby Jones is also trying to start over; she travelled halfway around the world only to find herself lonelier than ever. Until she finds Alice’s body by the Hudson River.

From this first, devastating encounter, the two women form an unbreakable bond. Alice is sure that Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her life – and death. And Ruby – struggling to forget what she saw that morning – finds herself unable to let Alice go. Not until she is given the ending she deserves.

Before You Knew My Name doesn’t ask whodunnit. Instead, this powerful, hopeful novel asks: Who was she? And what did she leave behind? The answers might surprise you.

This was a really interesting novel.

Both Alice Lee and Ruby Jones arrive in New York on the same day, from very different areas and via different means although in some ways their reasoning for being there is similar. Alice is barely 18, having met that milestone on the bus from Wisconsin. Alice is thirty-six and has quit her job in Melbourne Australia, to live in New York for six months to escape a romantic entanglement that has always been toxic. Although they will never meet, the two will be tied together inextricably forever when Ruby, jogging in a park early morning, discovers Alice’s dead body just weeks after they both arrive in New York.

A lot of the time, novels featuring a crime like this are focused on who did it, or the police trying to solve it. This isn’t the focus in this novel. Instead it’s much more on Ruby’s discovery of Alice’s body and the impact on her. Alice has no ID on her and is new in the city so for several weeks, she becomes a Jane Doe. Ruby feels really strongly about finding her identity, as well as finding out who did this to her and why but it’s more tied to justice for Alice herself, knowing who she is and what her story was. How did she come to be in New York, why was she in that fatal place? For Ruby, it leads her to a circle of people that become friends in a foreign city and also empowers her to change her life, shed the chains of her toxic love and move forward.

Mostly this book is told from Alice’s perspective, even after she’s murdered She’s the presence in the background, steering and guiding best she can, so that she might be known. She unfolds her tragic past for the reader, her nomadic childhood, the trauma of loss and then behaviour that can only be described as deeply predatory. When that goes wrong, it’s why Alice flees to New York with just a stolen vintage camera and $600 to her name. When Alice’s body is found, she’s “young, pretty and white enough” for it to make significant headlines, especially as she is not easily identified. There’s quite a bit about that phenomenon in the book, which I’ve actually read about before as well, how murder cases or instances are violent crime, are much more likely to gain media traction if the victim looks a certain way and fits a certain narrative.

For quite a bit of this book, I found it incredibly gripping and the interesting way that it was written definitely made me want to know more. But there were also other times where I felt the story was lagging a little or struggling to move forward. A lot of Ruby’s struggle not related to finding Alice became tedious – especially the dilemma of the lover back in Australia which she knew she needed to move on from. It takes Ruby so long to realise that not only is this situation not good for her, has never been good for her but the person himself, isn’t worth it either. I’m not sure if Ruby had dreams of him leaving his fiancee and declaring that she was the one all along and I just lost a bit of patience with her allowing him back into her life – what’s the point of going all the way to New York and literally not getting a number he didn’t have? She might as well have just stayed in Melbourne.

What I did like was the focus on Ruby’s trauma after finding Alice’s body, which is quite under-represented in fiction dealing with murder. What must it have been like, to find that battered body in the river and wonder if only you’d gotten there a bit earlier, pointless thoughts but ones that would haunt a person nonetheless. Alice (as Jane Doe) haunts Ruby, giving her nightmares and consuming her thoughts, so much so that the thought of seeking help, delivered by a well-meaning police officer, eventually becomes an option that Ruby acts upon. It introduces her to the Death Club, and I really liked the inclusion of that.

The book provided me with a satisfying ending, which came together well (with even a bit of suspense to raise your heart rate although Ruby, honestly took way too long to come to the conclusion she needed to) and I enjoyed the idea a lot. However there were those times where I felt it definitely stagnated a little, a few times with Alice describing her relationship with Noah (a part of the book I’m still not 100% sure about, it definitely gave me a few weird feelings) and also Ruby’s laying around New York doing nothing, thinking about her lover and her occasional dips back into this after she finds the body.

A debut with a really intriguing premise and the writing was certainly beautiful in parts. I’d definitely be interested in reading more from Jacqueline Bublitz in the future.

7/10

Book #82 of 2021

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Review: Take Me Home by Karly Lane

Take Me Home
Karly Lane
Allen & Unwin
2021, 344p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Elle Kinnaird takes the plunge and travels from her rural small-town life to the misty legends of her ancestors in the Scottish highlands, she finds that it’s a big world after all. A heartwarming novel about new beginnings, from the bestselling author of Fool Me Once.

It was a straightforward request. Take her gran home to her beloved Scotland.

In the space of a few days, Elle loses her job and her home and faces moving back in with her parents-where she knows she’ll hear a lot about how she is wasting her life, unlike her three siblings . . .

Then Gran’s will is read and everything changes.

It seems simple: a road trip across Scotland, a country Gran loved, to locate the family castle; meet some long lost cousins; oh, and work out what she wants to do with the rest of her life before returning home. Not a problem.

That is unless the family castle is a ruin that has pretty much been lost in time; the family Elle has never met seem to be hiding a mysterious secret; her over-achieving parents are breathing down her neck, and she’s running out of time to make a decision about her future.

Take Me Home is a glorious lesson in life, love and finding your true destiny.

There was a lot about this book that I really liked! It begins in rural, northern NSW just a short time after Elle Kinnard’s beloved grandmother passes away. Elle lived with her gran for the last few years, providing the necessary care and company that allowed her to remain in her own home. Elle has never really felt like she fits in with her family, full of degree-earning over achievers. She tried university but it wasn’t for her and now she avoids conversations with her mother, who constantly pushes her to return, to get a “real” job and not just the one she has at the local independent supermarket.

I really appreciated that this was an attempt to normalise not knowing what you want to do with your life. Elle is about 24, she’s tried uni doing something she didn’t love, to please her parents, and couldn’t finish it. She loves drawing and art, but her mother doesn’t see that as a viable career. Elle believes that she’s actually quite happy with her life, until her grandmother’s will requests that Elle return her ashes to her home in Scotland and provides the funds for Elle to do so.

I also loved the Scotland portion. I’m always drawn to books set or partially set in Scotland because a lot of my family (several generations back now) are from there and I also have the recessive red hair gene from those ancestors – much better suited to the highlands than to Australia’s much harsher climate! So I loved reading about Elle exploring Scotland, visiting castles and ruins and meeting members of her family that she barely knew existed. With her redhaired cousins, one of whom is very artistic, Elle actually finally feels like she might belong somewhere. She connects to them much better than she does her own family, with their busy lives and clever jobs. And then she meets Stuart, a lawyer turned farmer and well, the sparks fly. Despite the fact that she’s supposed to be finishing up her holiday/chore and heading back to Australia soon, Elle finds herself questioning the reasoning. There’s nothing waiting for her in Australia – no job, casual or otherwise. Just her mother trying to talk her into university courses and getting a real job and “growing up” and being responsible in order to one day take care of the family she will have.

I also loved the story of Elle’s gran, which is woven into her journey to Scotland. Her gran came to Australia as a teenager and until going to Scotland, Elle was completely unaware of the circumstances surrounding why she’d left her home. Her gran’s sister Moira is still alive, although has dementia and fades in and out of lucidity and mistakes Elle for her gran once or twice, dropping hints about some of the tragedy behind her gran’s leaving. All of those portions of the novel were fantastic (except the way some of the information is imparted, more on that below), I enjoyed them immensely and I liked Elle, as well as her family in Scotland. I felt like in leaving, she might’ve finally found a place where she could fit in and the longer she spent there, the more she seemed to realise things about herself and finally, grow in confidence regarding her art, that it could be more than just a hobby.

But. There were a few things that didn’t work for me with this book and it’s just personal preference really – there’s a pretty strong supernatural element in this and I’m just too much of a skeptic to be honest, to really enjoy that portion of it and often it felt quite intrusive in the plot. Especially when Elle would forget her surroundings and talk out loud, making people near her think she was a bit unstable. Probably played for laughs, but for me it was just a bit embarrassing/awkward. Also it’s to be expected I suppose, but this book references Outlander a lot. Like an awful lot. And I know they’re in Scotland, which is the setting for Outlander and there’s a successful TV series and all that jazz but….if you haven’t read the book (or like me, don’t like it) it ends up taking up quite a bit of page space as the characters reference it over and over again. I’d probably feel the same way about anything that was referenced that much in a book, I wish I’d counted them because it feels like an awfully high amount of mentions and yes, it’s Scotland, I know. But Scotland is much more than just references to this one book/TV show.

Look, those are two small things but honestly they were enough to affect my immersion in the story a little. I still really enjoyed this but it didn’t end up on my favourites list.

7/10

Book #81 of 2021

Take Me Home is book #34 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Sun Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Sun Sister (The Seven Sisters #6)
Lucinda Riley
Macmillan
2019, 848p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The Sun Sister is the sixth epic story in the Seven Sisters series by the number one international bestseller Lucinda Riley.

To the outside world, Electra d’Apliese seems as though she is the woman who has everything: as one of the world’s top models, she is beautiful, rich and famous. But beneath the veneer, and fuelled by the pressure of the life she leads, Electra’s already tenuous control over her mental state has been rocked by the death of her father, Pa Salt, the elusive billionaire who adopted his six daughters as babies from around the globe. Struggling to cope, she turns to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain, and as those around her fear for her health, Electra receives a letter from a complete stranger who claims to be her grandmother . . .

In 1939, Cecily Huntley-Morgan arrives in Kenya from New York to nurse a broken heart. Staying with her godmother, a member of the infamous Happy Valley set, on the shores of beautiful Lake Naivasha, she meets Bill Forsythe, a notorious bachelor and cattle farmer with close connections to the proud Maasai tribe. When disaster strikes and war is imminent, Cecily decides she has no choice but to accept Bill’s proposal. Moving up into the Wanjohi Valley, and with Bill away, Cecily finds herself isolated and alone. Until she discovers a new-born baby abandoned in the woods next to her farmhouse…

Sweeping from the frenetic atmosphere of Manhattan to the magnificent wide-open plains of Africa, The Sun Sister is the sixth instalment in Lucinda Riley’s multi-million selling epic series, The Seven Sisters.

In October 2019, I binge read the first five books in this series, intending to finish in time for this one, the 6th, to be released. I did finish in time but perhaps I was a bit fatigued after that because I didn’t get around to reading this when it first came out. It’s taken until now and receiving a copy of the 7th novel, The Missing Sister to realise that I’d better get this one ticked off the list. Because I thought that in getting book 7, I’d be getting all the answers and that I’d finally know who Pa Salt was, what he did, why he adopted all those children and why it was those particular children. Why the 7th one wasn’t found. But funnily enough on the very day I finished this, someone showed me a video on Lucinda Riley’s Facebook page saying that the 7th book wasn’t enough to do the story of the missing sister and Pa Salt justice so there’s going to be an 8th book now, which will be Pa Salt’s story and that’ll be out next year. I guess it’s better to know that now, before I start the next book expecting to get all the answers. Instead, I’ll only get half of them I suppose, as at least it’ll reveal the missing sister and tackle her story.

But this one is Electra’s story and she was always my least favourite sister in the other books. The excerpt at the end of book #5 didn’t really fill me with joy at reading this one as I do find the “celebrity with drinking/drug problem” very overdone. And Electra was just a really unpleasant character. So it was with some trepidation that I picked this one up….but I ended up enjoying it much more than I thought I would! So much so that I read it in 2 days and that’s no easy feat for an 800+ page book!

As always, this is split into two timelines: Electra and the “present day” which is around 2007/08 and then it delves back in time, this time in 1930s New York and then Kenya as Electra discovers the story of her past and her heritage. I actually found the historical portion of the story fascinating – sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. Cecily is a young woman living in New York after a broken engagement when her godmother asks her to come and spend some time in Kenya with her. Eager to escape the city while her former fiancé gets married to someone else, Cecily agrees and is catapulted into the ex-pat set in Kenya in the 1930s – wealth, privilege, champagne, the social scene. The ‘Happy Valley’ set are infamous for their lifestyle of excess during a time where you only had to sign up and the British government would grant you 1000 acres in Kenya to do with what you wanted – never mind those who were already there. This book references real life people of the Happy Valley set and presumably, real life incidents and just inserts Cecily right into the middle of them. I found the Kenyan setting incredibly interesting – a time of such excess and wealth among a group of aristocracy even as war approaches in Europe. And then there’s the local population and what they are reduced to with all of these people being granted land to set up farms and make money. Despite the problematic lifestyle and setting, I did find that portion fascinating to read, as Cecily settled herself in a completely foreign climate and learned to adjust to the wildlife and challenges. And then there were her decisions that were definitely out of the norm for the time.

Electra’s story went much the way I expected it to. I thought it could’ve done with a bit more depth in the portion after she exits rehab as even though she seems to think of her addictions, it’s almost in an abstract way. I thought she’d face more of a challenge in overcoming them back in her world, one also of excess. She’s a famous model and you’d think that world would provide temptation in many forms every day. I found her more likeable as the book went on, as she’s really not a pleasant person in the beginning and is well used to being on her own since she was 16 and having everything she’s ever wanted. Electra learns of inequality in this book and also how those that have can advocate for those that do not.

I found it engrossing and it got me back on track to want to learn more – I’m actually glad I waited until now to read it after that ending.

8/10

Book #80 of 2021

The Sun Sister is the 16th book read that counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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Review: Love Objects by Emily Maguire

Love Objects
Emily Maguire
Allen & Unwin
2021, 400p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A stunning, simply told story of great compassion and insight, from the author of the Stella Prize-shortlisted An Isolated Incident. Nic is a forty-five-year-old trivia buff, amateur nail artist and fairy godmother to the neighbourhood’s stray cats. She’s also the owner of a decade’s worth of daily newspapers, enough clothes and shoes to fill Big W three times over and a pen collection which, if laid end-to-end, would probably circle her house twice. She’d put her theory to the test, if only the pen buckets weren’t currently blocked in by the crates of Happy Meal toys and the towers of Vegemite jars, take-away containers and cat food tins.

Nic’s closest relationship is with her niece Lena. The two of them meet for lunch every Sunday to gossip about the rest of the family and bitch about work (they’re both checkout chicks: Lena just for now, Nic until they prise her staff discount card from her cold, dead hands).

One Sunday, Nic fails to turn up to lunch and when Lena calls she gets a disconnection message. Arriving at the house she hasn’t visited in years (‘Too far for you to come, hon. Let’s meet in the middle.’) she finds her aunt unconscious under an avalanche of stuff.

Lena is devastated that her beloved aunt has been living in such squalor all this time. While Nic is in hospital, she gets to work cleaning things up for her. Her first impulse is to call in the bulldozers and start searching Gumtree for a roomy caravan. But with the help of her reluctantly recruited brother, Will, she gets the job done.

This heroic effort is not appreciated by the plastered up, crutch-wielding Nic. She returns to an empty, alien place unrecognisable as her home and the unbearable pity of her family who have no idea what they’ve destroyed. How can she live in this place without safety and peace? And how can she ever forgive the niece who has betrayed her?

During my time, I’ve had a lot of trouble parting with things. I’ve kept hundreds of books I’ll never read again, photos of people I haven’t seen in decades, notebooks, pens, just…general bits of pieces. My house has always been a bit more cluttered than it has been clean. But I think I understand the ability to attach oneself to items that provide memories or comfort and I can see how for some, that attachment might get to a stage where it’s quite extreme. I also go through what my husband terms “whims” where I get interested in something and buy a lot of things to do that something and then end up getting interested in something else. So I have stuff floating around the house “just in case” I get interested in that thing again.

Lena is in her 20s and has recently moved back to Sydney, where she grew up, from Brisbane, here she spent her teen years. She’s going to university doing an education degree and every Sunday she has lunch with her Aunt Nic. Lena was very close to Nic growing up and has enjoyed reconnecting with her as an adult. When Nic doesn’t turn up one Sunday without warning and doesn’t answer her phone, Lena visits her house and discovers her aunt injured on the floor after a fall. What’s also concerning is the sheer level of stuff in Nic’s home.

For Lena, it’s very confronting to realise that this is the way that her aunt has been living and she’d had no idea. The book is told from several points of view, including Nic’s and during those passages, it’s so amazing to get into her thought process and see how she attaches meaning to items, including just random things she finds in the street. For Nic, all of these things are desperately important to her, they’re her things. They give her comfort, they make her calm and safe. If things aren’t ‘right’ then she feels anxious and out of control. I felt like this book delved so deep into Nic, humanised her collecting things and really showed the why and the how it might have ended up that way. Nic is assumed to be a “little different”, she’s only ever had the same job and has never been married or had children. She inherited the family home because it was thought she’d need it just a little more, much to the chagrin of her sister, Lena and Will’s mother, with whom Nic has had a slightly tense relationship.

As well as dealing with making Nic’s house safe for her return, Lena has her own problems and they are definitely contributing to her stress level. What happens to Lena is disgusting, predatory and unfortunately completely believable. I’ve lived in a university dorm, but thankfully it was well before technology allowed certain things to occur. But I have lived with people behaving at their very worst and never, ever will I forget some of the things I experienced as a woman living in a residential college and most of the time, how terrible the University was in dealing with it. The things that Lena hears about regarding this one residential college and then experiences, are awful – degrading, humiliating, perpetuating a culture of studs vs “sluts” and terrible double standards and the way in which men think they are entitled to comment on women’s bodies and behaviours. A lot of Lena’s story made my blood boil and I tried to force myself back into that early 20s mindset, how I would’ve been whenever I thought about her methods of dealing with it. And I could so understand it. The need to just have it go away.

As well as Nic and Lena, we also meet Lena’s brother Will, who did some time in jail for a youthful indiscretion that was done for the best of intentions but ended up in him being made an example. That has changed Will and he’s been struggling recently. With nothing left for him where he was living, he heads south to help Lena with Nic’s house and try and put his life back together again. This book includes so many simple ways in which life is harder for those who are without much means – such as Will desperately needing to see a dentist, which is one form of care in Australia that not everyone can access on Medicare. Nic has worked in a low income role all her life, Lena is working part time and living on a government subsidy for studying I assume, Will is currently out of work but after being in prison had worked in the mines and also in a factory. There doesn’t need to be a lot of the story devoted to it but you can tell they are and have been in situations where what they have is ranging from enough to be comfortable to struggling week to week.

I really think that this was written with such thoughtfulness and care, particularly toward Nic and her struggle. Her feelings about what Lena does, the way in which the social worker wanted to work for a middle solution, the reasoning and thoughts that crowd Nic’s mind. I felt like I could understand her, her thought processes and feelings, the comfort her things gave her. And the fact that there was no easy fix for something like this – it wouldn’t be solved by Lena just tossing out lots of things in the house and some therapy.

I love Emily Maguire’s writing and this book is just another example of why.

8/10

Book #79 of 2021

Love Objects is the 33rd book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 20201

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Review: The Jam Queens by Josephine Moon

The Jam Queens
Josephine Moon
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Award-winning jam maker Aggie is determined to take her Barossa Valley cafe to new heights. She has put the pain of unsuccessful IVF treatments and a broken relationship behind her, and is focused on the many wonderful possibilities life still holds in store.

When an invitation to travel across Australia on the Ghan for her mother’s seventieth birthday comes her way, she is at first apprehensive. But the trip offers a precious opportunity to spend some quality time with both her disgruntled mother, Valeria, and her distant daughter, Holly, as well as her meddling great-aunt, Myrtle. The four generations of the family, all single women, will be reunited at last.

As the iconic train chugs its way beneath majestic desert skies, Aggie’s difficult past resurfaces, her business comes under threat, and long-held family rifts reignite. To complicate things further, she’s distracted by the attentions of a handsome younger man on his own search for meaning in some of the country’s most remote and magical places.

By the bestselling author of The Cake Maker’s Wish, this is a sweet and soulful story about women being there for each other through the stickiest situations. It celebrates the joys and sorrows of life, and reveals the essential ingredients of the true recipe for happiness.

I’ve read and enjoyed Josephine Moon before and I was really drawn to this book for lots of reasons. I thought the cover was very eye-catching and the title seemed fun as well. But it was reading that part of it would take place on The Ghan, the train journey that traverses Adelaide – Darwin through the middle of Australia going north/south that made me know I had to read it. I’ve always wanted to do a trip on The Ghan. I’ve mentioned before on here that I really like trains, I find them relaxing and I can read on them, which I cannot do in a car. I’ve done quite a few relatively decent length train trips before, but nothing like The Ghan, which takes 3 days or the Indian-Pacific, which traverses the country east/west and takes about 4 days. Both are bucket list items for me but they are quite pricey – you could easily book a holiday for a few weeks somewhere luxurious for the same amount. But one day, I’d love to do them, just for the sheer experience and being able to see so many different types of landscapes that we have here, up close.

In this book, four members of the same family plus a friend, undertake the journey. Aggie is in her late 40s and has had a fractured relationship with her mother Valeria since she got pregnant as a teenager and Valeria was anything but supportive. She was offered safe haven with an aunt and Aggie is far closer to her than she is to her own mother. Aggie has just arranged to buy her aunt’s cafe from her and is looking forward to shaping her future. For her, the journey is also a good opportunity to think about a decision she must make with her ex-partner and also it might be a way where she can connect with her daughter Holly, home on her summer break (winter in Australia) from teaching in the United States. Holly has definitely been distant and Aggie wants to know why.

I really loved the part of the book that takes place on the train – the women fly to Darwin and decide to do the trip heading from there back to Adelaide, close to where they live in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. It gave me quite a good idea I think, of what the trip would be like, the extras you can add on as well, such as visiting Uluru as well as the challenges of being confined to a train and things like the noise and it rocking/swaying at night. The confined environment too means that it’s impossible for some things not to be revealed and some tensions to escalate.

And this is a family with quite a few issues to work through. Aggie has certainly experienced a lot – from falling pregnant as a teenager, to being a young single mother to Holly, to meeting someone later in life and then having an IVF journey to try and fall pregnant. I really felt for Aggie and her story. I’ve never done IVF and I’ve never lost a child but I know what it’s like to want more children than you have and not be able to do that. Aggie has this huge decision hanging over her that she and her former partner Gideon must make together. There are a few options, but none of them feel exactly right and she needs time to sort through them. Her mother has a very strong opinion on which option Aggie should take, making her feelings very clear and also going so far as to meddle in it as well, to try and get her desired outcome, which causes even more friction in her relationship with Aggie. I thought this was all handled so well, with care and sensitivity and showed just how difficult the process can be.

Valeria was definitely a very prickly character, strong with her opinions and she wasn’t an easy character to like. She has chances to be happy and seems to deliberately allow her judgements and prejudices to sabotage them several times. She had to realise that about herself I think, to make choices that allowed her to be more open and less inclined to judge. I also really enjoyed the two older characters who joined the trip – Aggie’s aunt and her longtime friend and travel companion, who added some humour and also had interesting points to make about aged care, which are quite relevant.

I also found the jam making really fun – I love jam and I like going to markets and buying different types, or at cafes. The sort of cafe that Aggie had and her dreams for the future, would definitely be my sort of thing.

I did find this a bit slow in the beginning but once they got on the train, I really enjoyed it.

7/10

Book #78 of 2021

The Jam Queens is book #32 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Top 10 Tuesday May 18

Hello and welcome back to another edition of Top 10 Tuesday, hosted by Jana @ That Artsy Reader Girl. This week our bookish topic is:

Book Titles That Are Complete Sentences

  1. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

2. Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.

3. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (and probably all the rest of the books in this series too).

4. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

5. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

6. A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

7. We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

8. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

9. The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

10. The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

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