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Review: Secrets Between Friends by Fiona Palmer

Secrets Between Friends
Fiona Palmer
Hachette Books AUS
2017, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Best friends Abbie, Jess and Ricki are setting sail on a cruise ship, rekindling the excitement of a school excursion they took ten years earlier to the historic port town of Albany, the oldest city on the stunning turquoise coastline of Western Australia. But are they truly prepared for what this voyage will reveal?

Ricki, a dedicated nurse, harbours a dream she hasn’t chased. Is she actually happy or stuck in a rut?

Jess, a school teacher and single mother to little Ollie, had a tough upbringing but found her way through with the help of her closest male friend, Peter. But Peter has bought an engagement ring and is ready to propose to Ricki . . .

Abbie had it all: a career, a loving boyfriend and a future, but a visit to the doctor bears scary news. Her world is tumbling down and she feels adrift at sea.

This is Fiona Palmer’s first foray away from her strong background of rural fiction/romance and more into women’s fiction. Jess, Abbie and Ricki have been best friends since school and Jess and Peter have been best friends since childhood. Peter and Ricki are now dating and the three girls thought it’d be fun to celebrate their ten year anniversary graduating from high school by revisiting Albany, a place they went to for a school trip. They decide to take a cruise – a few days of fun and cocktails. Their girls trip gets derailed slightly when Peter decides to come with them and use the trip as a way to further his romance with Ricki.

Firstly, I loved the setting. Fiona Palmer has been setting her books in rural Western Australia for a long time, which I always enjoy but it was quite fun to board a cruise ship with the characters. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before but the idea of a short cruise is appealing. I’ve never visited WA either so perhaps that is why I always enjoy visiting it so much in fiction. It’s a way to experience it.

Each of the women are hiding secrets – some more serious than others. Abbie is hiding a lot about her life and in particular about something that she’s just discovered which is hanging over her head on the cruise. Ricki is feeling a bit restless, perhaps not even realising what the problem was until someone reignited feelings in her about her job and about her life. And Jess, well Jess is carrying two intertwined secrets which definitely threaten two of the friendships she holds dearest.

Okay so as well as things I did like about the story, there were a few things that I did have trouble with. Some of those revolved around the secrets, which seemed strange. I mean, I understood why some things were kept secret, as difficult as those were but the reasoning behind keeping some of the lesser secrets kind of confused me. Also – there’s some people that behave quite horribly and I didn’t really find it okay because “both of them did it”. That’s not good reasoning to me, especially as they were unaware of each other doing it and it felt quite uncomfortable to read. It’s also a bit of a deal breaker for me generally, depending on the circumstances but I didn’t feel as though these ones felt like enough. One element of the story felt almost too good to be true, like a convenient out for the other to occur in a way. And some of the fallout felt quite one sided, like some of the issues on both sides weren’t really discussed or explored, it was really more focused on one particular side and the people involved in that situation.

I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone but I did have some trouble connecting to or liking some characters because some of their actions were so dramatically unpleasant and unnecessary. But I did admire the friendship between them and the fact that it was built to withstand an awful lot and that they were remarkably understanding about each other’s secrets and indiscretions – but I wasn’t sure if that understanding came from a place of love and friendship or because several of them were doing the same thing and couldn’t really be angry. A lot of drama certainly came out during this brief cruise though, that’s for sure!

All in all this was a bit of a mixed bag for me – loved the setting and some elements of the story. The idea of the four of them going on the cruise was a lot of fun and a perfect place for secrets to come out because they can’t really escape, they have to face each other and sort things out. But some of the secrets made it difficult to really care about the characters, who were being a bit selfish and unfair to those that they cared about. And I wasn’t really expecting a part of the ending, which had some bittersweet elements to it. If you’re looking for a full and total HEA this might not be the sort of story that you’re after.

7/10

Book #155 of 2017

Secrets Between Friends is book #47 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Blog Tour Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That Are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen & Unwin
2017, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A moving debut novel about love and war, and the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, hope and despair.

Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry’s ship is missing.

Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.

Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae’s neighbour and Grace’s boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae’s life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.

Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.

I really enjoy historical fiction and have been particularly interested lately in fiction set around both WWI and WWII. It’s really nice to get an Australian perspective and this, Lisa Bigelow’s first novel uses her family experience and the loss of her grandfather aboard the HMAS Sydney to showcase the strength of the women left behind.

Mae is a young bride about to give birth living in the inner west of Melbourne. I found that the setting was a really fun part of the book for me because I live in the west (a bit further out than the featured Yarraville/Williamstown areas) but I loved getting a glimpse of what it would’ve been like in this area all those years ago. It was great to see such familiar places featured. When Mae gets word of the rumour that the HMAS Sydney has gone down with all on board, she immediately slips into a state of denial. She’s sure that Harry, if anyone, could survive such a thing and the fact that there’s talk the wrecked sub was towed to Asia with some survivors just feeds her belief that Harry will come home one day. She struggles to cope on her own, relying on the family that raised her, an aunt and her two uncles, all getting on a little bit in age now. They are close knit though and Mae also has a strong friendship bond with her neighbour, wife of a newspaper editor and mother to two young children.

Grace has moved from the country to Melbourne to work as an assistant to Sam Barton, editor of the afternoon paper The Tribune but what she really wants is to be a journalist. Her father ran a country Victorian paper and it’s been a part of her whole life. Grace composes headlines about her daily life in her head constantly as she negotiates the politics of her new workplace and  deals with handsome reporter Phil Taylor who is just becoming something more when he heads overseas to cover the war up close and personal. He is taken hostage during the fall of Singapore and word is slow. He’s been horrifically injured and Grace isn’t sure at times, if he’s even still alive or will ever return to her. And if he does, what will she face? Will he be a broken, shell of a man like her father, still damaged from his time in WWI?

It’s hard to believe, living in the age that I do, that there was a time when you had to wait weeks for word or information from another part of the world about something so serious as a submarine sinking or a hostage situation. In this case, Sam Barton, the newspaper editor, and presumably most of the reporters are aware of strong and probably credible rumours surrounding the loss of the HMAS Sydney but they don’t have permission to print the story just yet. And Mae is his neighbour, so that must’ve been quite an awkward situation for him as well as a stressful one for Mae, with these rumours circulating but no government word or confrontation. It’s an horrific state of limbo to be in. The lack of accurate information also leads to more swirling rumours that give Mae and probably others the hope that their loved ones could have possibly survived this. For Mae that leads to a real deluded state, where she absolutely refuses to believe that Harry could have died and that he is alive somewhere and will make his way back to her and their baby soon. Time rolls on though, with no credible information that anyone did survive and slowly others accept their loss and begin moving on with their lives. Mae isn’t able to do this though and she spends a large portion of the book assuring people and herself that Harry will be back one day. I found it quite sad because she’s a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, who should’ve been making the best of it and at times it was like she wasn’t living at all. Just merely existing and waiting for something that wasn’t ever going to happen.

Likewise, I found Grace’s situation very sad also. I felt like her story was very much unfinished at the close of the book and that a lot of the defining moments in her life might come later on. I admired her dedication and drive and the way in which she didn’t allow anything to stand in her way and that should’ve been celebrated by those that love her rather than viewed with suspicion and derision. If I had a criticism of Grace’s story it’d be that I just didn’t really buy the romance……the pacing was off too, it seemed to start off in one way, go no where for the longest time and then a few things happened and then Phil left to go overseas. I didn’t really get a chance to get to know Phil or experience any chemistry between the two of them at all and the skipping forward in time at the end of the book only further cemented that fact.

Despite the fact that it’s subject matter tended a bit towards the grim, I found We That Are Left to be a very enjoyable read, particularly for its showcasing of 1940s Melbourne and the surrounds. It’s a very promising debut and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Lisa Bigelow’s next book.

7/10

Book #150 of 2017

We That Are Left is book #45 of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2017

This review is part of the We That Are Left blog tour. Please make sure you check out the other spots on the tour, featured below.

We That Are Left is published by Allen & Unwin, out now. RRP $29.99

Visit Lisa Bigelow’s website 

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Review: Akarnae by Lynette Noni

Akarnae (The Medoran Chronicles #1)
Lynette Noni
Pantera Press
2015, 436p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

With just one step, sixteen-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world changes—literally.

Dreading her first day at a new school, Alex is stunned when she walks through a doorway and finds herself stranded in Medora, a fantasy world full of impossibilities. Desperate to return home, she learns that only a man named Professor Marselle can help her… but he’s missing.

While waiting for him to reappear, Alex attends Akarnae Academy, Medora’s boarding school for teenagers with extraordinary gifts. She soon starts to enjoy her bizarre new world and the friends who embrace her as one of their own, but strange things are happening at Akarnae, and Alex can’t ignore her fear that something unexpected… something sinister… is looming.

An unwilling pawn in a deadly game, Alex’s shoulders bear the crushing weight of an entire race’s survival. Only she can save the Medorans, but what if doing so prevents her from ever returning home?

Will Alex risk her entire world—and maybe even her life—to save Medora? 

Okay so originally I was going to read another book for this last category for my character path for #TheReadingQuest Challenge. But then I thought about this book and it’s actually been on my TBR shelf for longer and I saw one of the follow ups on social media recently so I thought I would swap the other book out and use this one instead. Although the people of Medora don’t use the word ‘magic’ for what they can do and some of the things that can happen, for Alexandra who is from Earth, it is definitely magic.

Alex has just turned 16 and is being dropped off at an exclusive boarding school while her parents go on an 8 month archaeological dig where she won’t be able to contact them. Instead of opening a door to the Principal’s office, she opens a door to literally another world, almost a parallel Earth but with differences. She is almost immediately confronted by someone who assures her that he’s been waiting for her and that together they will rule the world. It seems she’s stepped onto a school campus and so while she waits to figure out how to get back to her own world, she enrolls at Akarnae Academy, a school for the gifted. Although she struggles at the start, confused as to why the mysterious procedure has enrolled her in high levels of certain courses, Alex soon starts to settle in at Akarnae. She makes two solid friends who are with her every step of the way and it seems that the mysterious Library of the college is not only much more than it seems, but it has also Chosen her in some way. In fact Alex’s entire appearance in Medora seems to have a specific and important purpose and some of the choices she makes will be incredibly important. Actually the whole future of Medora could hinge on them.

On the whole, I found this quite an enjoyable story. It’s a little bit like Narnia – a young girl opens a door and finds herself in a completely different land and there are Things Happening. I didn’t mind Alex as a main character. She certainly has the ability to be beaten and to stand up and take it over and over again. She deals pretty well with her foray into a foreign world and doesn’t go into hysterics or constantly whine about wanting to go home. She does have moments of wondering if she’ll ever be able to, or will she see her parents again, which was normal but she didn’t spend the entire time thinking about ‘why me?’ and stuff like that. I liked the way she threw herself into her new school subjects at Akarnae, even when they seemed way above her abilities and the teachers were brutal. It actually seemed like a really fun school – unorthodox but fun. And the technology ideas were quite interesting. I enjoyed a lot of the secondary characters as well. I also really liked the idea of Medora and the set up and also Medora’s history. I found that really interesting and would’ve liked even more about that, which I suppose will come in future books as Alex herself learns more, especially in regards to her role for the future.

There were a few small quibbles – nothing major, the writing at time felt a bit simple and the dialogue could be a bit clunky. I think at times it was really like the friendship between Alex, Bear and Jordan felt a bit forced, like they were still getting to know each other but sometimes their interactions felt like they’d supposedly known each other for years. It didn’t always come off as natural and at times the jokes and ribbing felt a bit too much too soon. It’s also quite long but it’s not really jam packed with happenings, so a lot of it is kind of just repetitive stuff at the school and Alex continually getting hurt and going to the school’s medical ward. At times it felt as though the book kind of lost its way and meandered a bit. However these weren’t enough to turn me off at all and I’m quite keen to read the next book in the series, Raelia to see where it goes from here.

6/10

Book #151 of 2017

Akarnae completes my character path of Mage in #TheReadingQuest Challenge! It’s my 7th book read for the challenge so far. Hoping to fit one more in before it ends on the 10th.

And my updated character card. Another 10pts for a book completed taking me to 80exp total and 43 added to my health which is now at 328pts.

Thanks to Aentee from Read At Midnight for hosting this challenge and also CW from Read, Think, Ponder for the artwork.

 

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Review: Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping
Kathleen Barber
Pan Macmillan AUS
2017, 323p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher}:

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidante, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay.

The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past – starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to the midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past – and the lies on which she has staked her future.

I loved the idea of this novel and thought the blurb sounded fascinating. In this day and age of all encompassing social media, it’s hard to hide yourself away the way that Josie has tried to do. She’s changed her name and after travelling the world, has settled in New York working at a bookstore. She has a partner that she met overseas, an aid worker named Caleb, who is from New Zealand. Caleb knows nothing of Josie’s past and therefore when Josie hears of both Poppy Parnell’s podcast and also her mother’s death, they’re not things she can confide in Caleb about.

There were things I enjoyed and things I didn’t. I liked the idea of Josie escaping, of shedding that past victim identity and becoming someone else with no connection to tragic events. I think that it would be very hard to be “that kid whose dad was murdered” and to have that follow you everywhere you go and overshadow everything. Perhaps for Josie to be able to truly move on, she needed to leave that self behind – and she did that fully by pretending it hadn’t happened. When she met Caleb she invented a backstory for herself, believing that their relationship would be brief and when it turned out to be more serious, she stuck to her story. Her isolation from her family in New York allowed her to do this – until the surprise death of her mother, who joined a cult in California when Josie and her twin sister Lanie were teenagers.

What I didn’t like so much in this story was the entire Lanie debacle. I’ve read several books with estranged twin sisters and they all seem to follow exactly the same sort of pattern and this book is disappointingly similar. All the conflicts are the same, even the way in which one twin betrays the other is always the same! I knew how this part would play out almost as soon as the words “twin” and “betrayal” were mentioned and it was quite disheartening when it turned out as I expected. The character of Lanie was also quite predictable and nothing I haven’t come across before many times in stories involving twins. It seems that literature relies really heavily on this twin dynamic of one always being the troublesome one and the other not and the one that isn’t is always used, abused etc by the one that is but yet cannot truly sever that twin ‘bond’. Although Josie hasn’t seen or spoken to Lanie for years, the second they do see each other again, Josie can’t help but fall into old habits, even though she professes to not want anything to do with her sister. Although they’re at the funeral for their mother and perhaps it is a lesson that life can change suddenly and maybe it’s not worth holding a grudge….it just felt very repetitious and nothing that I hadn’t read before so many times with nothing new to add a fresh twist.

I did like the inclusion of the podcast – each new “installment” of the podcast is included at the beginning of some of the chapters and through that the reader gets to dig deep into the past. I’m not sure I bought that the podcast was such a big deal that it seemed everyone in America was listening to it and discussing it endlessly but it was a cool idea and it was a way for the reader to gain information about this crime that wasn’t through the eyes of Josie. The character of Poppy could’ve been really interesting but again reverted to a typical pushy journalist stereotype who intruded on private moments and turned up on doorsteps shoving microphones and cameras into people’s faces with a “how do you feel?” type question. I liked the style of the podcast, which tackled a different angle each episode and examined issues but Poppy was just such a unlikable character who really didn’t care what she stirred up as long as she got her hits and listens. Her dismissal of something was quite flippant and I think she probably needed to explore that with a more sympathetic eye (as well as look at her own contribution a bit more objectively).

I did enjoy the mystery element of this, the story of who did kill Josie and Lanie’s father and why was really interesting but I felt at times that this was overshadowed by some of the family drama which for me, didn’t add anything to the story and at times bogged it down a bit. I did like Josie and Caleb and was definitely hoping they’d be able to come through all the turmoil.

This was a promising debut with some really exciting and intriguing aspects. It’s just a shame that some elements of the story really didn’t work for me. I’d still be very interested in reading future books from Kathleen Barber though.

6/10

Book #149 of 2017

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Review: A Promise To Kill by Erik Storey

A Promise To Kill (Clyde Barr #2)
Erik Storey
Simon & Schuster UK
2017, 269p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Discover a new hero…
Clyde Barr, the drifter with lethal skills, is alone again, wandering the highways of the American West in search of something to believe in. As summer turns to autumn, he heads for the mountains, planning to clear his head and regain his edge with some hunting. But when he runs across an elderly sick man—a Ute Indian from a nearby reservation—Clyde’s dream of solitude is quickly dashed.

On the reservation, Clyde finds the old man’s daughter, Lawana, and grandson, Taylor, as well as a group of menacing bikers called Reapers running wild in the struggling, half-abandoned village. Gripped by the desire to do good in a hard world, Clyde offers to stay on Lawana’s ranch to help out until her father is better. As tensions rise between the locals and the Reapers, Clyde’s efforts to protect the reservation become a fight for his, Lawana’s and Taylor’s lives…

A Promise to Kill is an edge-of-the-seat thriller, pushing its no-hold-barred hero to new levels of improvisation and bare-knuckled blunt force.

This is the second book in the series featuring drifter and former gun for hire and prisoner Clyde Barr. He’s slowly wandering his way through the American wilderness in search of solitude, perhaps needing it more than ever after recent events. It’s not to be though because Clyde first finds himself helping a Ute Native American man and then offering to stay and work on the family farm while he’s in hospital. The farm is part of a reservation which is currently in trouble – it’s been taken over by a group of bikers named the Reapers and they’re wreaking havoc and no one seems capable of doing anything about it.

Now basically here’s the first thing about Clyde Barr – he can’t refuse a person in distress and that’s not just limited to damsels. He won’t take no for an answer in helping the elderly man reach the hospital, he won’t leave the man’s young grandson alone until his mother arrives and then he won’t leave the boy and his mother to fend for themselves on the family farm. And when he sees what is happening in the town….well he can’t let that go either. He has a sort of saviour complex in a way, where he’s compelled to help those that he deems in need or at disadvantage. He seems self-aware of it but at the same time, unable to prevent himself from taking that step, making that remark, etc that generally puts him right in the line of fire.

I find Clyde entertaining because I like his outlook on life. He kind of has this weary sort of way about him and despite the fact that he’s obviously very dangerous both with his bare hands and his weapons, he doesn’t inspire fear or terror. Not Allie in the first novel and not Lawana and her son Taylor in this story either. He’s not threatening in a way that intimidates people, he’s the sort of guy that restricts his power to those that provoke it. He rarely, if ever starts a conflict and generally seeks only to do what he deems necessary in order to finish it.

Clyde has opportunities to probably settle somewhere and become part of something but it doesn’t seem to be the way he is. He craves solitude and uninhabited or very sparsely inhabited lands. He still seems to be making his way toward the Yukon but at the rate he keeps stopping and getting distracted it seems it’ll be an age before he ever gets there. The journey though, is ripe with those sorts of opportunities….Clyde could probably wreak a one man vigilante wave across greater North America, vanishing into the forests and mountains like smoke after setting things to rights.

The Reapers were some seriously messed up villains, taking over the small town on the reservation and taking advantage of the laws that made it difficult for them to be stopped. The local Sheriff had no authority to arrest them and the FBI would only get involved for serious crimes, not the petty stuff the Reapers were doing, which although problematic, wasn’t enough to warrant involvement, which they obviously knew although they weren’t the brains of what was going on and the reason they were really on the reservation. It was only supposed to be temporary but then Clyde arrived and didn’t look the other way and….things happened.

I enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed the first one but for different reasons. In the first book I enjoyed the personal connection between Clyde and the person he was compelled to help. However in this one I enjoyed the role of the Reapers and the way in which the whole ‘town under seige’ played out. It showcased a lot of Clyde’s intelligence and his ability to think on his feet and keep planning and adjusting the plans when required. And man can he take a beating and just keep on going.

7/10

Book #147 of 2017

 

 

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Review: Way Of The Reaper by Nicholas Irving

Way Of The Reaper: My Greatest Untold Missions And The Art Of Being A Sniper
Nicholas Irving
St Martin’s Press
2017, 282p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From the New York Times Bestselling Author and Co-Star of Fox’s American Grit comes a rare and powerful book on the art of being a sniper. Way of the Reaper is a step-by-step accounting of how a sniper works, through the lens of Irving’s most significant kills – none of which have been told before. Each mission is an in-depth look at a new element of eliminating the enemy, from intel to luck, recon to weaponry. Told in a thrilling narrative, this is also a heart-pounding true story of some of The Reaper’s boldest missions including the longest shot of his military career on a human target of over half a mile.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Nick Irving earned his nickname in blood, destroying the enemy with his sniper rifle and in deadly firefights behind a .50 caliber machine gun. He engaged a Taliban suicide bomber during a vicious firefight, used nearly silent sub-sonic ammo, and was the target of snipers himself. Way of the Reaper attempts to place the reader in the heat of battle, experiencing the same dangers, horrors and acts of courage Irving faced as an elite member of the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, while also examining the personal ramifications of taking another life.

Readers will experience the rush of the hunt and the dangers that all snipers must face, while learning what it takes to become an elite manhunter. Like the Reaper himself, this explosive book blazes new territory and takes no prisoners.

If I had to think of a way to describe this book it would be very….American.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction and I’ve read almost no military non-fiction. But I was curious about this. Snipers are a bit of a mysterious element in warfare, you tend to think of them how they’re portrayed in movies, lying in wait in camouflage on top of buildings or in trenches and picking people off from a great distance. I was interested in the emotional side of things, the mental conflict and what it was like for your sole purpose to basically be kill other people.

Now I’m obviously not military and never have been. I’m Australian and city born and bred so I’m not interested in guns either. I can appreciate the skill it takes to become a sniper and the difficult conditions under which they work most of the time. Nicholas Irving served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and I’m sure it was heinous for many reasons. But I don’t glory war and so I think that’s why the overall attitude of this book didn’t sit well with me.

I know the conflict was brutal and I know what it was basically in retaliation for. I get that. But I found it flippant, comprising of a very black and white attitude. Everyone Irving shot was basically referred to as a “bad guy” as in I saw a bad guy coming and aimed. Very good guys and bad guys, little thought about a humanitarian aspect. And that’s what I was primarily interested in when I picked this up. The reasoning a man makes to himself inside when they do this job. Perhaps that is his reasoning. Perhaps for Nicholas Irving this was very black and white. He’s American, he’s on the good side in this war. Everyone else is bad. He doesn’t need to feel bad about killing bad people. But war is more nuanced than that and always has been. In one chapter he confidently assures the reader that the Americans don’t do horrible things to their prisoners, unlike the opposition. If the topic wasn’t so horrifying I might’ve actually laughed out loud.

I understand that I’m not the target audience for this book and probably military and gun enthusiasts will find it more palatable but I never really took to Irving himself, especially when he makes statements such as “some rules made sense to me, but I went ahead and violated them anyway” (p3). There’s also a few remarks about not looking down on ordinary soldiers now that he’s such a big sniper and special ops kinda guy. There’s probably a certain amount of arrogance and ego that’s required in order to do these sorts of things….but it doesn’t necessarily make for someone you can connect with and understand.

This book only twice touched on the kind of stuff I was hoping for – once was when Irving talked about a military dog and the second time was when he talked about the sort of PTSD and “comedown” from military mindset when he retired and came home. I found both of those really interesting and possessing of the sort of reflection I was keen to read about. But the rest of this book is just descriptions of guns and taking out the ‘bad dudes’ without any remorse or inner reflection. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not military and so I don’t know what it’s like to do this…but this book didn’t really bring me any closer to understanding it.

5/10

Book #142 of 2017

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Review: So I Married A Sorcerer by Kerrelyn Sparks

So I Married A Sorcerer (The Embraced #2)
Kerrelyn Sparks
St Martin’s Press
2017, 496p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Growing up on the Isle of Moon, Brigitta knows nothing of her past, except that she is Embraced: born with powers that forced her into hiding. Everything changes when she learns she’s a princess, hidden away from her villainous half-brother who now rules the kingdom. But he knows about Brigitta, and he’ll do anything to get her back. Unless a certain roguish pirate has anything to say about it…

Rupert is both an infamous pirate and a sorcerer with the power to harness the wind. He’s been waiting nineteen years for revenge—and he needs Brigitta to get it. What begins as a kidnapping of the fiery beauty turns into a fierce attraction. But can he win the captive princess’s heart?

I read the first book in this series about six months ago and really enjoyed the story and the set up so I was eager to read this one. The title for this one is a bit misleading the cover a bit off putting. I know these are romances with a fantasy/paranormal twist but bleh. Horrid.

Anyway. At first I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first one mostly because I found Rupert (ha, also a really ridiculous name although it’s not his real name. Actually his real name isn’t much better) really annoying for half of the book. He kidnaps Brigitta, one of the women raised on the Isle of Moon because she’s embraced and being embraced is still punishable by death in a lot of places on the ‘mainland’ of kingdoms. Rupert is a notorious pirate who has dedicated his life to getting revenge on Brigitta’s brother and he plans to ransom her to him in order to get even more of his gold. He has a (well placed) hatred of Brigitta’s brother but he spends a large portion of the first part of the book also attempting to hate Brigitta simply by association. He also gets mad at her brother for wanting to hold a tournament for her hand because that’s using her, conveniently forgetting that he’s using her himself for his own gain. Brigitta was sent to the Isle of Moon as a baby for her own protection and has not had anything to do with her family since. She didn’t even know who they were. The idea of Rupert blaming her for their actions is laughable, especially as Rupert is supposedly presented as this incredibly fair and just man with strong morals (even the pirate thing is a bit of a furphy). Some of the stuff he comes out with is so hypocritically laughable that I spent a large portion of the book incredulous at his stupidity.

But if the first half of the book is ordinary, the second half is actually quite good. Brigitta begins to take her destiny into her own hands and learns a lot about herself, her heritage and what she could have. Rupert calms down a bit in wanting to do everything his way and there’s quite an interesting plan concocted to attempt to thwart Brigitta’s brother’s plans for her. There’s a lot of action and sneaky plots and a few interesting minor characters that are definitely more than they appear. A section of this book also works to set up the next book, introducing the reader to the people of a country (Kingdon? Nation?) bordering that of Brigitta’s brother and it looks very interesting. I did feel that there were still things in the second half that felt a bit awkward (like the sudden 180 of Brigitta’s brother’s personality) but for the most part it was very enjoyable and I really liked Brigitta. For me, she was the backbone of the book because her character was so well done that it sort of camouflaged the fact that Rupert’s was a little bit weak. I enjoyed the sideplot of the captain and the nun which added a touch of humour and sweetness but mostly I find myself excited for the next book. There are dragons.

The romance could’ve done with a bit of work, it felt a little forced in places. I’m not sure how I feel about the destiny aspect of these novels. I think that because these meetings are predicted in the games the girls of the Isle play with the stones that there’s less work put into orchestrating that chemistry and making it sizzling. Rupert and Brigitta never really felt like they had much chemistry for me, because the set up was all in that first half where Rupert is being a bit of a giant pill. The second half was a bit better, during the competition where Rupert is no longer concerned with using Brigitta but it’s a bit hard to get behind a character who has kidnapped the woman in order to ransom her to a man generally acknowledged to be a heinous person. If Rupert was smart enough to locate her on a ship as she made her way from the Isle to visit her sister, now Queen of one of the mainland Kingdoms, then surely he’s smart enough to realise she’s been raised in seclusion away from her family and was a tiny baby at the time who literally had no idea what had even happened. I did really like both of their gifts though – Rupert’s controlling the wind certainly gave him an advantage against other ships and he was pretty good at what he did with the pirate thing. And Brigitta’s gift definitely gave her an advantage in that it allowed her to discover things that Rupert didn’t want to tell her. Otherwise she’d have been kept in the dark about a lot of things and she was the one who really had ideas once she did know those things.

This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me – really liked Brigitta and the second part of the story and the way in which they worked together as a team but the first part felt like it needed a little bit of work in terms of making Rupert a credible character. I’m really looking forward to the next one – the bond these girls have from being raised together is amazing and I am enjoying their journeys as they leave the Isle and fulfill their destinies.

6/10

Book #145 of 2017

 

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Review: If There’s No Tomorrow by Jennifer L. Armentrout

If There’s No Tomorrow
Jennifer L. Armentrout
Harlequin Teen AUS
2017, 250p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lena Wise is always looking forward to tomorrow, especially at the start of her senior year. She’s ready to pack in as much friend time as possible, to finish college applications and to maybe let her childhood best friend, Sebastian, know how she really feels about him. For Lena, the upcoming year is going to be one of opportunities and chances.

Until one choice, one moment, destroys everything.

Now Lena isn’t looking forward to tomorrow. Not when friend time may never be the same. Not when college applications feel all but impossible. Not when Sebastian could never forgive her for what happened.

For what she let happen. 

With the guilt growing each day, Lena knows that her only hope is to move on. But how can she move on when tomorrow isn’t even guaranteed?

I love the cover of this book. I think it’s very eye catching and immediately made me want to read it. Love the colours and the title is intriguing enough. I’ve read Jennifer L. Armentrout before – I think I started one of her paranormal series but like many, never got around to locating all of the books to complete it. This is a straight up contemporary focusing on Lena, her neighbour Sebastian and their group of friends in the summer leading up to their final year of school. They are preoccupied with things like college choices, potential sporting scholarships etc but are still finding time to hang out and go to parties.

At first this is kind of a bit of a bland story about Lena and her mad crush on Sebastian, whom she has known since she was around seven or eight. She believes this crush is unrequited, something that’s heightened when she does something and Sebastian doesn’t really respond in the way she’d hoped, despite the clues she’d been given. But then at some point into the book it takes a pretty serious and devastating turn and all of a sudden, the romance (or potential romance) takes a serious backseat and the book focuses on Lena’s inability to really deal with what happened, process it and begin to move on as well as her crippling guilt of the circumstances surrounding what has happened.

I enjoyed Lena as a character and thought she was quite well developed. She’s quite damaged by what happened with her parents and even though it’s been a few years, it seems as though it really still impacts on her and her life quite a lot. Although she’s been crushing on Sebastian for years, she seems reluctant to really talk about it or even acknowledge it properly to her close friends (perhaps because until recently, Sebastian has had a girlfriend). She has a good relationship with her mother, actively participates at school (she plays volleyball, which she loves although she hates the training drills), works a part time job and finds time to socialise. In this book, Lena makes a mistake. It’s possibly a mistake that anyone could make – I thought back and there were times in my life where I could’ve made this same mistake. It could’ve had absolutely no bearing on her life but unfortunately the mistake Lena makes ends up resulting in an horrific tragedy. In the ‘after’, Lena is a different person – overwhelmed by guilt, she withdraws from those she has been closest to, including Sebastian and her friends. She isn’t able to express to them how she feels and what truly happened, for fear that they will blame her as she blames herself. I loved her book obsession as well – could definitely relate to that!

I think the way in which the author explored this was both realistic and also positive but without ever seeking to exonerate Lena from the choice that she made. It’s true that she does make a bad choice but she isn’t the only one that makes bad choices. Quite a few people made bad choices and they are all reasons why what happened, happened. It’s a good look at how a seemingly harmless choice to go along with the crowd can have some really devastating consequences and how it can be hard to speak up in these circumstances. It’s really hard to explore this without giving away precisely what happens to Lena and the result of all those choices but I liked the way the author tackled this. There was a bluntness to it, no attempt to really soften it and it shouldn’t be softened I don’t think. I think the attitude of “it’ll be okay” can be really harmful with this particular issue and the more it’s called out as completely unacceptable, the better.

I didn’t really like Sebastian as a character and a large portion of the book revolved around him. He gave off a lot of really confusing mixed messages and acted like a bit of a brat in the first part of the book and I couldn’t really understand what had Lena so enthralled with him. But he did step up quite a bit in the second part of the book and he was very good to Lena after what happened, even when she’s withdrawn from everyone and pushes everyone away. Ultimately though, I just didn’t have that investment in their romance and it does make up such a huge part of the book. I liked most of the other things though – Lena’s relationship with her friends, their dynamic, her family stuff. So I guess this one was a little bit mixed – things I enjoyed, other things just didn’t really work for me so much.

6/10

Book #143 of 2017

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Review: Chrissy And The Burroughs Boy by Cathryn Hein

Chrissy And The Burroughs Boy
Cathryn Hein
Self-published
2017, 164p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}:

No girl forgets her first crush. The least he could do is remember it.

Chrissy James has only been home in small-town Levenham a few weeks when her teenage crush plays hero and saves her from an aggressive drunk. Seven years ago, Nick Burroughs was the school hottie while she was the overweight girl with braces, bad hair, and an unrequited obsession with the sports star every girl in school wanted. Her failed efforts to attract Nick’s attention still burn.

Chrissy sure has his attention now, but she’s older, smarter and focused on settling into her new dream job as wine marketer. No matter how sexy he’s grown, or how keen his interest, Nick will need to do a lot more than see off a drunk if he wants to win her over.

But Chrissy doesn’t count on the determination of a Burroughs boy in love. Nick will do anything to recapture Chrissy’s heart, even if it means acting the romantic fool and embarrassing himself in the process.

Will Nick’s efforts to make amends for the past backfire or will Chrissy’s career thwart everything? Grab this cute small-town romance and find out!

This is a super cute novella set in a familiar world for fans of Cathryn Hein. Chrissy has recently moved back to the area she grew up in and taken a job at a winery working in marketing. She’s very focused and desperately wants to succeed in her career. She also went through a recent break up which makes her wary of men, even when her former high school crush, Nick Burroughs comes around. Chrissy had it bad for Nick in high school but he was a popular sports star and she wasn’t on his radar. Time has changed and now it seems that Nick finds it very hard not to notice Chrissy.

There’s a lot of humour in this – after Chrissy explains the ways in which she believes she humiliated herself attempting to get his attention and failing in high school, Nick realises that the onus is on him to get Chrissy’s attention now and it’s not going to be easy. He’s a pretty down to earth guy, works on his family property, plays footy in the local team and has been best & fairest several seasons but is currently out injured for the present season. It’s obvious he’s popular and probably sought after but he’s single and not afraid to put himself out there once he’s decided that Chrissy is what he wants. I liked that about him – Nick is not the typical aloof hero where the reader nor the heroine can decipher his feelings. He makes them perfectly clear, it’s Chrissy who needs to decide if she can trust in a relationship with Nick.

It can be hard to really feel as though you have enough time to paint a full picture with a novella and I know that I often struggle with them because they can feel a bit rushed, like the characters don’t have enough time to get to know each other. However this book didn’t have that rushed feeling – I felt as though Nick and Chrissy were both given plenty of page time and their fledgling relationship was constructed well. I also liked that the conflict came from an unexpected location.

Nick is Danny’s brother from Santa and the Saddler and Danny and Beth make appearances in this novel, as do several other familiar faces from books also set in this world. This is something I really enjoy because I always like getting a little glimpse into the “after” and this is the country, where people tend to run into each other quite often and are very involved in the local community. It feels like each installment builds on that community but they can still be easily read as stand alone stories.

I really enjoyed this – it’s a well written story for those that like sweet romances with plenty of humour and warm fuzzy feelings. Perfect for any time really – it’s so quick and easy to read, the characters are immediately appealing and there’s a charm in revisiting a familiar place.

8/10

Book #136 of 2017

Chrissy and the Burroughs Boy is book #44 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

The Reason You’re Alive
Matthew Quick
Picador
2017, 226p
Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

After sixty-eight-year-old David Granger crashes his BMW, medical tests reveal a brain tumor that he readily attributes to his wartime Agent Orange exposure. He wakes up from surgery repeating a name no one in his civilian life has ever heard – that of a Native American soldier whom he was once ordered to discipline. David decides to return something precious he long ago stole from the man he now calls Clayton Fire Bear. It might be the only way to find closure in a world increasingly at odds with the one he served to protect. It might also help him finally recover from his wife’s untimely demise.

As David confronts his past to salvage his present, a poignant portrait emerges: that of an opinionated and goodhearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white, and blue heart, even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand. Hanging in the balance are Granger’s distant art-dealing son, Hank; his adoring seven-year-old granddaughter, Ella; and his best friend, Sue, a Vietnamese-American who respects David’s fearless sincerity.

Through the controversial, wrenching, and wildly honest David Granger, Matthew Quick offers a no-nonsense but ultimately hopeful view of America’s polarized psyche. By turns irascible and hilarious, insightful and inconvenient, David is a complex, wounded, honorable, and ultimately loving man. The Reason You’re Alive examines how the secrets and debts we carry from our past define us; it also challenges us to look beyond our own prejudices and search for the good in our supposed enemies.

I’ve had a few days off from writing reviews because I’ve been sick and when I sat down to do this one, I thought to myself that I really didn’t pick an easy one to tackle. This is a really, really difficult book to talk about and define. To be honest, it’s even hard to express whether or not I liked it.

I did. I think I did. I appreciated quite a bit of it but at the same time, it’s also very jarring. The protagonist, David Granger is a Vietnam veteran who, according to him, did a lot of savage killing and saw and did terrible things during that conflict. He talks a lot about “buying the bullet”, a military term which basically means you’ve accepted that you’re going to die. How it happens isn’t really important. Believe that it will happen and it will. It’ll find you, somehow. David isn’t ready for that yet but he acknowledges that upon waking from his operation that something he did in Vietnam still haunts him and perhaps the time has come for reparation.

David has a lot of offensive views and terms for people. He’s what you would probably describe as a stereotypical gun toting Republican redneck but he’s also quite wealthy, having done very well for himself in a career in banking after he returned from the war. He constantly horrifies and angers his son Hugh, a liberal leftie who married a European woman and considers himself tolerant and embracing of people of all walks of life. David recounts several instances where Hugh has been horrified at his racist father….

….but is David really a racist? That’s one of the questions that the book poses. David is offensive, certainly. He stereotypes people as well, makes snap judgements and is horrifically politically incorrect. He refers to his closest friend Sue as “genetically Vietnamese” because she was adopted and raised by American parents after the war. But as the narrative unfolds it’s clear that he possesses a wide variety of interactions with people and is accepted by those of many different cultures and backgrounds. He comes across as far more able to converse with and relate to people than Hugh is, despite the differences is their values and opinions. David is abrasive to be sure – he says what he thinks and really possesses no filter. At times I was honestly horrified at some of the things he said but there were other times when he really surprised me with thoughtful and insightful opinions and observations. It’s clear he’s very intelligent and some of his observations are also bitingly funny.

Respect for those who have served and are serving is a big thing for Americans, more so than it is here. They’re much more vocal about thanking people for their service when they meet current or ex-military people and David has a lot to say on military life and culture particularly with integrating back into society. There are people that can’t do it, he witnesses several people who go down the paths of drugs and destruction but David himself single-mindedly applied himself to becoming something. His father was also a veteran (of WWII) and he talks about how they connected as men and soldiers after he returned from serving in Vietnam, how he understood his father much better after he’d served in a war. Hugh, David’s son hasn’t served and I think that David feel some of the disconnect comes from the fact that Hugh could never really understand the things he has seen, done, experienced. Likewise he cannot relate to a lot of Hugh’s life with his foreign wife, although he does adore his granddaughter.

David loved his late wife and his thoughts on her show a compassionate human who is capable of deep feeling. In fact the parts where David talked about his wife and their story were some of the most beautiful parts of the novel. Even as he realises and laments his wrongs, David embraces their time together, the way that he felt for her and the ways in which he did help her. When he decides that he must go on a road trip and confront the man he wronged in Vietnam, which is both surprising and gifts him something remarkable that helps him with a bit of his own peace.

As much as this is an interesting book in today’s climate there are times when I felt like the struggle of David was a bit too much. Ignore the words and he’s a man of diverse friendships, to the surprise of Hugh, who despite his ‘liberal views’ seems fully entrenched in a white world with white friends and a fear of the unknown. However at times the rhetoric made it hard to embrace David’s seemingly diverse lifestyle of black brothers, gay spin instructors and genetically Vietnamese surrogate daughters. This book is clever – it seems to be encouraging people to look beyond the words and examine the actions. David says all the wrong things but makes all the right moves. Hugh says all the right things but doesn’t really seem to back it up. But sometimes? The words are hard to ignore.

The PTSD and soldier camaraderie and connection are wonderfully done and really help flesh this story and the character of David out and I actually found the mystery of what David had done to Fire Bear and his journey to repair the damage really quite engaging. The result was surprising and heart warming as well, both for David and me!

All in all this is a hard book to judge but I think it’s cleverly done. I found myself liking David, despite a lot of his internal narrative, despite thinking that I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean that I was okay with a lot of what he was saying either, so it was a bit of a struggle! Ultimately though, David’s story was interesting enough to keep me invested – mostly the personal stuff, his struggle to connect with Hugh and keep his granddaughter in his life. Some of his methods were a bit off the wall but I could see why he was trying to do these things.

7/10

Book #132 of 2017

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