All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Wrong Callahan by Karly Lane

The Wrong Callahan (The Callahan’s Of Stringybark Creed #1)
Karly Lane
Allen & Unwin
2018, 326p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

It had been two long years since Lincoln Callahan had found himself in front of the gates to Stringybark Creek. He was in the army then – a lifetime ago. Linc had always been the unsettled Callahan, looking for danger, the one who couldn’t wait to leave the family farm.

This time he was back for his little sister, Hadley’s, wedding. From far and wide, the Callahan relatives were streaming toward Stringybark Creek.

Linc’s little brother, Griffin, was the steady son, the one who stayed at home, the one who did the right things. And now, the one who had feelings for city-girl, Cash Sullivan.

For Cash, the offer to manage her best friend’s luxury beauty spa tucked away in the country had come at the right time. She knew she needed to make smarter choices in her life, starting with the men she dated, and an enforced break in the country seemed the right way to consider her options.

When Linc sets eyes on Cash at a family dinner, their swift attraction floors him. But Cash is his brother’s girlfriend…what was he thinking?

As Linc, Griff and Cash form an uneasy triangle, each of them have personal demons to face before they can open their hearts.

Karly Lane’s latest release is the first in a new series centering around the Callahan family who own and operate a farm in New South Wales’ Riverina district. In this book, older son Linc has returned home to the farm for the first time in many years. A former military man, Linc signed up for the army as soon as he could and left the small country town behind. Several tours later and now he owns and runs his own private security firm that specialises in helping people navigate overseas’ difficulties. Returning to the farm for his sister’s wedding, Linc is hiding a lot of secrets from his family, such as why he’s really back for such a long time. His return is immediately complicated by his attraction to neighbour Cash Sullivan, whom the whole family seems to think will soon be attached to Griffin, Linc’s younger brother.

Now normally I’m not really a huge fan of love triangles and I’m even less of a fan when they include members from the same family. I always find it a bit awkward to read about sisters warring over a man or brothers both attracted to the same woman because it’s hard to see this issues just….going away….and everyone getting along in the future. Also indecisiveness really bothers me, so I really dislike it if a character is going back and forth between two options for a good portion of the book. However this was written in a way that I think was both believable and managed to weave in some very intricate and old family conflicts that really gave this depth and about much more than just which brother Cash liked more.

Cash had a very unusual upbringing, not an easy one and her taste in men has seemed to run to the….not so good for her. The ones that don’t stick around, that aren’t really good prospects. Griffin is kind of the opposite of all that, he’s a nice guy with a steady job working his family’s farm and a plan for the future. Lincoln however…..seems more like the men she’s always chosen. No fixed address, a bit dangerous, a bit of a past. Cash wants to change the pattern of her behaviour, her choices but the thing is, you can’t force chemistry. It’s either there or it isn’t and Cash’s head might want one thing but her heart definitely wants another.

The Callahan family are big and kinda rowdy and not without their individual issues. Griffin has a long standing resentment of Lincoln, who doesn’t understand what he’s done to deserve it. One sister seems to be going through a very difficult time and the other is finally getting married after she and her fiancé postponed it twice due to their busy careers. All of the siblings were really interesting and I enjoyed their interactions with each other. What’s mostly explored here is between Lincoln and Griffin and it’s a way for Lincoln’s secrets to out after Griffin flips a switch. I’m not sure there was as much resolution as I was expecting but perhaps the next book will look to address that a bit more. There’s certainly a lot still left to explore in terms of individuals and also how these people connect as siblings. I enjoyed the characterisation of the parents as well, who are very strongly portrayed as hard working and social country people. Lincoln and Griffin’s mother in particular does a lot to make Cash feel welcome and included, although I do suspect she has ulterior motives.

This was a very enjoyable read and a good introduction to the Callahan family. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book and seeing what happens as several family members still have a lot of things to deal with. I really liked the setting and the small community and for me, the way that the love triangle played out was well done.

8/10

Book #200 of 2018

 

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Review: The Librarian Of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian Of Auschwitz 
Antonio Iturbe (translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites)
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 423p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

Honestly these are some of the hardest books to read, ones that centre around concentration camps and the persecution of people in the second World War. I’ve read a few books now that deal with Auschwitz and some of the other camps. This one is set in Auschwitz II-Birkenau which was a combination internment/execution camp. On one hand, this camp had a role to play for the external world, that people were being kept safe and treated well. There was no extermination happening, there were no gas chambers, children were even getting an education. However despite that, there were still thousands being executed in the gas chambers and the conditions were far from what was being presented.

Dita was born to well off parents in Prague. Displaced during the war, first to a ghetto community and then to Auschwitz, Dita is a teenager when she arrives at the camp. She’s granted access into Block 31, where the school is being kept and Freddie Hirsch, a Jewish leader asks her to assist in maintaining the school’s library. The Nazis burn books and even being caught with a book would mean execution. The school’s library is meagre – just a handful of books in mostly poor condition but Dita takes her new role very seriously. She devises a system of storing and even carrying the books on her person so that they won’t be detected during the Nazis routine inspections.

This is based on a real story – the character of Dita is real and a lot of what happens in this book is her story as told to the author in a series of emails and exchanged communications. It’s always so shocking to me when I read accounts of Auschwitz or stories based on what happened there, just how far humanity can fall. That people can actually do these things and believe in them, to other human beings. It’s always one of the hardest things for me, that a group of people can be ‘othered’ to such a successful degree that they become less than human, treated worse than any animals. And the saddest thing is, I can see how this happens…..I see the way there’s an attempt here to demonise refugees and asylum seekers, to reshape them into something else. I don’t want to believe that it’s easy but take a country with festering, lingering resentments over the first World War, add in a desire for power and return to a dominance and what they believe is standing in their way and you start to see it. The way that over time, suddenly a whole class of people stops being seen as such. But to get to the levels in this book, that happened during the Holocaust, is just next level.

There are some examples of truly brutal treatment in this book as well as neglect. People starving to death, dying of simple illnesses that are exacerbated by the lack of hygiene, medicine, warm clothes and shelter that the camps were known for. The conditions are crowded, often 2-3 people to a bed, people often sleeping in shifts. They are worked to the point of exhaustion and further and it seems that no one escapes without some sort of horrific loss or experience, if they survive at all. But even with all that, there are beacons of hope and light, such as Block 31 and the determination of some to educate the children of Auschwitz to the best of their ability with the few things they have available to them to do so. The role of librarian is one that Dita takes very seriously, despite the danger it puts her in at such a young age. To be honest, Dita rarely seems her age, possibly due to the fact that kids in concentration camps surely grow up faster simply by means of losing pretty much everything that childhood means. She also assumes responsibility for her mother in a way, who does not seem able to cope with some of what has occurred. Dita has a very strong, often brusque manner but that’s not to say that she isn’t frightened by what she sees and hears.

Dita lived a remarkable life and this book has made me want to learn more about her. It’s made me want to read more stories about people like her, despite the fact that I find them so hard at times. It’s about pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning from this sort of thing because I feel like if we don’t learn from these things in history we are doomed to repeat them. To become complacent is to allow it to happen again. Recently I was talking to my son’s 4th grade teacher who mentioned that he was interested in concentration camps and wanted to know about them. Tell him, I said to her. If he’s asking questions, tell him. And let him learn and understand what happened to kids like him who should’ve been at school. Because sometimes, like a lot of kids, he lacks empathy and it can be hard for him to see what life is like even just in a pre-iPad and PS4 era let alone during a war. This book is perhaps not right for him just yet, but one day it will be.

It’s hard to say something like I loved this because this is a book of so much heartache and pain. But I’m glad I read it.

8/10

Book #198 of 2018

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Review: Life On The Leash by Victoria Schade

Life On The Leash
Victoria Schade
Allen & Unwin
2018, 343p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Cora Bellamy is a woman who thrives on organisation. She’s successfully run her own dog training business for years, perfectly content with her rescue pitbull as the main man in her life.

But all that changes when she meets Charlie Gill, the hottest client she’s ever had. The only problem? Charlie’s taken. Luckily, Cora has a new friend — the lovably geeky Eli Crawford. He’s always there to help Cora with her problems, including her love life. That’s why she’s shocked to realise that, even as things start heating up with Charlie, there might just be a spark between her and Eli, too.

As Cora’s life gets more tangled up than a dog walker’s leashes — and as she prepares to audition for a dog training TV show that may change her life — she has to figure things out before it all goes straight to the dogs.

Charming, witty and warm-hearted, Life on the Leash inspires you to cheer for every underdog looking for love.

I was really intrigued by this when I read the synopsis. I’ve been involved with rescue animals before – I’ve adopted dogs from a rescue organisation and I’ve fostered cats/kittens for another. Having an MC as a dog trainer sounded really interesting, not something I’ve come across many times before.

Cora is passionate about animals and about helping people get the best out of their dogs. She doesn’t want to “fix them” but rather work with dogs and their owners to incorporate positive training and a connection that help them get the best out of the relationship. Her methods are very gentle, in direct contrast to a popular TV trainer who is more about pack control and dominating them and teaching them who is boss. Cora despairs of dog owners who follow this TV trainer and she’s up front about those not being her methods and if that’s what people are after, she’s not the trainer for them.

After being single for a while, having broken up with her former fiancé Cora is now ready to kind of get back into the dating game. This part of her life is greatly complicated by a handsome client Charlie, who is charming and seems just as passionate about animals as she is. However Charlie comes with a girlfriend which puts Cora in a difficult situation.

Okay so a lot of this was cute. I really liked Cora’s approach to her clients and how she felt about dogs and her bond with her own dog, a rescue pit bull. Her relationship with her best friend was supportive and really enjoyable as well. I also liked a couple of her clients, including an Aussie named Fran but unfortunately, that was kind of all I liked. Oh wait, I also liked Eli, I think he was fantastic. Even if his little freak out at the end was a bit weird.

Charlie is a predator from first appearance, hidden behind a charming smile and an affable demeanour. It’s almost embarrassing how clueless Cora is when it comes to him. The fact that Cora was even looking at him as an option was really off putting, because she first meets Charlie’s long-term, live in girlfriend. Cora almost completely loses her mind over Charlie, continually trying to convince herself that he’s special and a good guy, despite all evidence to the contrary. It honestly did Cora no favours every time she was near him, she seemed to completely lose herself just because he was cute. It made me struggle with her as a character, because it seemed so at odds with the other parts of her.

Ultimately I feel like this book was just trying to include a little too much and as a result, several of the plot lines suffered because it was so busy. The whole reality TV show with Cora’s ex-fiance could probably have been excluded because in all honestly, it added absolutely nothing to the story line save a way to introduce Cora auditioning for her own reality show, but that could’ve quite easily been done without needing that. It takes up far too much of the plot for zero pay off as well. Also there is a lot about the TV dog trainer that Cora doesn’t like which also really doesn’t get any pay off. Cora writes a blog that lambasts him but there’s no confrontation or conversation between the two, there’s no culmination of this energy spent on him.

Life On The Leash showed promise and there were a few things that I really enjoyed and I particularly liked the message about working with your animals and Cora’s training techniques. I appreciated her devotion to her own dog and her dedication to trying to save as many animals as she could, in as many ways as she could. However Cora herself was often frustrating as a main character, distracted by something shiny and inappropriate. I would’ve liked more time spent on the built of a genuine romance with someone who didn’t have a girlfriend instead of a hasty tacked on bit at the end. So a bit of a mixed bag here – some good moments and some positive stuff but also quite a bit that didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.

6/10

Book #197 of 2018

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Review: I Can’t Remember The Title But The Cover Is Blue by Elias Greig

I Can’t Remember The Title But The Cover Is Blue
Elias Greig
Allen & Unwin
2018, 224p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Hilarious, unpredictable and, at times, touching, this compilation is the perfect gift for fans of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and The Diary of a Bookseller.

As any retail or service worker will tell you, customers can be irrational, demanding, abusive, and brain-scramblingly, mind-bendingly strange. They can also be kind, thoughtful, funny, and full of pathos. Something about the often-fraught interaction between customer and worker, with the dividing line of the counter between them, loosens inhibitions, and has a kind of hot-house effect on eccentricity.

In I Can’t Remember the Title But the Cover is Blue, veteran bookseller Elias Greig collects the best, worst and downright weirdest customer encounters from his years working as a Sydney bookseller. From ill-behaved children to nostalgic seniors and everything in between, this hilarious and unpredictable book is the perfect gift for anyone who’s ever been on the wrong side of a counter.

When I was younger, my dream job was owning a bookstore. Like the ones in books or tv shows/movies that are half new books, half secondhand with a coffee machine or something and I could spend most of my day reading books and the other portion helping people find the books they want. Now when you’re about 10, that sounds perfect. It’s also incredibly unrealistic. Despite my love of books and how much I enjoy talking about them and recommending titles to people, I’ve never worked in a bookstore. I’ve never worked in retail because actually I don’t have that much patience and I’m not the sort of person to be polite when someone is rude to me. To be honest, books like this are just another hilarious reason why I don’t see a career in book sales.

Elias works in a bookstore on Sydney’s North Shore and decided to keep a bit of a diary, some daily interactions with customers. Some of the best are detailed here and there’s a bit of everything – customers who are irritatingly vague about a book they’re after, expecting him to read their minds to intuit it, customers who don’t keep their little darlings in check, customers who want him to google things, or print things or do other things that have nothing to do with books. Some of them are funny, some are thoughtful, others are downright bizarre and some are infuriating. I especially got a kick out of things like where someone comes looking for the latest Mark Latham or something and Elias is delighted to inform them that no, they don’t have that in stock today! There’s also a customer whom he suspects might possibly be a Nazi sympathiser based on his orders through the shop and he wavers back and forth throughout conversations with him.

The author has a very laid back and engaging style and the drawings that accompany many of the stories are simple but really well done and give a nice visual. Each of the customers is given a bit of a snappy name too, relevant to why they’re there, or what they’re looking for or the type of customer that they are. The format is really fun – each interaction is only a page or two and it’s short, snappy conversations and wry observations. It’s the sort of book you can read in a single sitting (like I did) and it won’t take you too long at all and it’s also the sort of book you can pick up and read a couple pages here and there whenever you have a spare few minutes, like in the car at school pick up, waiting for an appointment etc. It’s the perfect little companion for any book lover or person who appreciates the challenges of working in retail!

8/10

Book #196 of 2018

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Review: Return To Rosalee Station by Mandy Magro

Return To Rosalee 
Mandy Magro
Harlequin MIRA
2018, 310p
Copy courtesy of Harlequin AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Bestselling Australian Author returns to the world of her debut novel, Rosalee Station, with a new tragic and harrowing story of love and second chances, set deep in the heart of the Australian outback. Can they find the path to forgiveness and healing, or will grief keep them apart forever?

After eight years of marriage, Sarah Walsh had thought she and Matt would be together forever. But when a fatal accident serves up the cruellest punishment any mother could face, their relationship falters. Sarah is helpless as Matt flies off the rails – she braves one last–ditch attempt to try and make him see they need to work together to get through the heartache. But will it be enough? And what about her – how does she go on alone?

Reeling from devastation and guilt, Matt gets the wakeup call he needs to save his marriage before it’s too late. But the way forward is littered with obstacles, and he can see it’s only by returning to the outback beauty and isolation of Rosalee Station that he has any chance to reclaim the man he once was. But will this separation end up costing him everything?

In her latest release, Australian rural romance author Mandy Magro revisits a familiar location and couple. Matt and Sarah’s meeting and courtship was detailed in her 2011 release, Rosalee Station. Now I haven’t read Rosalee Station but I honestly don’t think that matters because it skips forward a significant amount of years – Matt and Sarah have now been married for 8 years but 12 months ago the couple suffered a devastating and traumatic loss. Because of this, their marriage is slowly breaking down, exacerbated by Matt’s descent into alcoholism due to guilt because he blames himself for the accident that stole something precious from them.

The thing is, whilst it may have been an accident, the resulting consequences are actually undeniably Matt’s fault. He was careless, probably doing something he’d done a million times as a child and probably even as an adult without thinking twice. And maybe 99.9% of the time you can do such a thing and be fine. But there’s always that chance something will go wrong – and when it does, it turns Matt and Sarah’s lives completely upside down. They are shattered and broken. I don’t know the rules of driving around farms but I honestly couldn’t believe that Matt didn’t face some sort of legal repercussion – he was the driver, he was responsible for his passengers, including a minor who isn’t able to make these decisions for themselves.

Moving on. It’s a year later and Matt and Sarah are in a bad place. Matt drinks every night and Sarah has had to take drastic action in the form of kind of an ultimatum but he finally seeks help. He decides that in order to really make this work, he has to leave Sarah and their own farm and return to his family’s farm, the titular Rosalee Station. Sarah is really upset by this, she wants to be able to help him through it but Matt is adamant he needs to do this without her around.

I commend Mandy Magro for tackling alcoholism and also for examining a couple who have had the heady highs and are now experiencing the worst of the lows. It’s interesting to me, to read about a couple going through a bad time and how they work through it together and come out of it. That kind of didn’t happen here as Matt removes himself from the marital home to deal with his problems and they don’t really part on the best of terms so they don’t even really have much in terms of communication. They are essentially living these two separate lives with the outcome hanging on if Matt can kick the drink. The thing is, I don’t really think Matt does anything to address the reason why he drinks. He refuses counselling and intends to just go cold turkey. His GP convinces him to fill some prescriptions for medicines that will help him with his withdrawal symptoms and at first he even refuses that. Matt’s expectations seem unrealistic and I guess that’s quite true of a lot of people that need to break out of an addiction cycle. The thing is, I don’t think just going “I’m not going to drink anymore” is enough when you are drinking for the reason that Matt is. That reason isn’t just going to magically go away without being actually examined, dealt with and moved past. Or at least moved past enough to function as a human being without using alcohol as a crutch because it’s not something that people just ‘get over’ and move past.

A lot of this story is bogged down in the day to day rituals and life – lots of descriptions about showering, breakfast, car drives, farm work, etc which does tend to take away from the more serious topics. Once Matt makes the decision to stop drinking, I thought there would be quite a bit more about that but it’s not as dominant a part of the story as I thought it would be. The thing is, alcoholism is a disease and it’s something someone like Matt will probably fight on and off (ie some days it’ll be easier, others much harder) for the rest of his life. Anytime something bad happens, he will have to control that instinct to drink it away. A lot of this is kind of glossed over because Matt doesn’t really talk about his drinking. I’m also not sure how serious he really was at times, because he stays somewhere he knows there’s a bottle of spirits. There were a few instances of Matt’s behaviour that felt like actual red flags for me – such as his reaction to Sarah going to a rodeo for her birthday as well as his thinking about Sarah when the two of them are separated. At times he seems almost resentful of the fact that she isn’t constantly calling to check on him or praise him or whatever, seemingly forgetting that he told her he could only do this a thousand kilometres away from her. I think Sarah was quite patient and she really did try to show him that she loved him but she also had her limits as well. I think it’s very difficult to know how you’d be in this situation unless you were actually living it but there were times when I felt like Matt seemed quite a lot of work. He was very resentful, full of self-loathing and guilt which is also why I questioned how successful he’d be without some sort of counselling to deal with those feelings and move forward. This could’ve been an opportunity to address men and seeking that sort of help. I actually feel like the book opted out of addressing some of the harder parts of Matt’s journey and it also gave us kind of like a “magic ending” which doesn’t show the ongoing effort.

Whilst I think this was a great idea, for me it did miss with the execution. There are so many things that just didn’t work for me – the dialogue is very over the top – if it’s not excessively flowery declarations of love and the like, everyone sounds like Alf Stewart and Steve Irwin had love children and populated this novel with them. The level of ocker is…..distracting. Very distracting. And I just think I expected a more in depth look at going cold turkey quitting a pretty hardcore drinking habit and addressing the sorts of things that led to that and this book didn’t really deliver on that for me. It was more about the day to day things and even though I knew Matt was going through a very difficult time, I didn’t warm to him as a person. I had sympathy for him, because he made a mistake and was going to have to deal with it for the rest of his life. But I didn’t like him. And some of his behaviour seemed a bit problematic to me, like when Sarah feels bad for saying she’ll go to the rodeo with her sister-in-law because she knows that Matt won’t like it. It felt like a very surface story and didn’t dig anywhere near as deep as I think it should have.

5/10

Book #187 of 2018

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Review/Feature: Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater

Well Read Cookies
Lauren Chater
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 175p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

This gorgeous, whimsical gift hardback celebrates beloved works of literature in the shape of beautiful iced biscuits. Feast your eyes on 60 mouth-watering classics in full colour from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Tolkien and F. Scott Fitzgerald, modern masterpieces by Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Geraldine Brooks and Melissa Ashley, and beloved children’s tales by Dr Seuss and J.K. Rowling.

With all the tender love and care of a true book lover, author and baker extraordinaire Lauren Chater shows you how to translate your favourite books to the plate – and start making your very own sweet morsels of edible art. Filled with beautiful photographs and insider tips on achieving cookie nirvana, now you can have your books and eat them too.

Lauren Chater is the founder of the popular blog, The Well-Read Cookie, and author of the acclaimed historical novel The Lace Weaver.

This book combines two of my favourite things – books and food, specifically sweet food. I’m a big cookie/biscuit fan. But food inspired by books? That’s even better so I was really keen to see just what books had inspired author Lauren Chater to bring out her artistic side in the form of shaped and decorated cookies. Thanks to the wonderful people at Simon & Schuster AUS, I have permission to share some of the photos of my favourites and the accompanying pieces that go along with those photos in the book.

Firstly I do want to say that there are decorations for all types of skill levels here and it’s quite easy to start with something more simple and then work your way up to some of the more complicated pieces. Although I do bake, including biscuits, I’m not really a decorator and my freehand drawing skills are woeful but I think with practice, I could probably accomplish quite a few of these. Some of them though……some of them are seriously, seriously clever and intricate and they look like they take a little bit of skill. There’s also several recipes (one of which I will be sharing here also) included at the back of the book.

The first one I knew I had to share, is one of my favourite books and has been since I was a child. I have kids of my own now and they have loved it too and it’ll probably always be a favourite in our house. I don’t think it matters how old you are, this book is a timeless classic and I can honestly see these decorated cookies as being a hit at any birthday party. The book is of course…..The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Are these not the cutest? I absolutely love them! I showed these to my kids too and they got a huge kick out of them, it’s perhaps something we will try as a school holiday project. You could have so much fun with these, making not only the tiny caterpillar from the beginning of the story but everything he eats and how big he is at the end plus his metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly! Here’s what Lauren had to say on this book…..

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Why are children so obsessed with books about food? From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Possum Magic, food and literature continues to be an utterly magical combination. What is it that makes us go gaga for Suessian green eggs and ham and dreamy Sendak-style aeroplane doughnuts? Psychologists suggest food is associated with memory, so perhaps when parents read to children from picture books which feature fantastical feasts and pleasant picnics, a love of food is absorbed along with the language.

Nowhere is this combination of edibles and idioms more apparent than in Eric Carle’s classic tale of gluttony and greed, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Brimful of fruit, condiments and sweets, it’s the ultimate guide to a week’s worth of overeating, but it’s also a lesson in growth and transformation.

The compulsion of the caterpillar to consume everything in sight is an instantly recognisable childish trait. The mere whiff of a pickle takes me straight back to my school days, and whenever the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘cake’ are mentioned together, I find myself reaching for the fridge – because, as everyone knows, the perfect accompaniment to a Matilda-style Bruce Bogtrotter chocolate cake (thank you Roald Dahl) is a slice of Swiss cheese.

When I was making these hungry caterpillar cookies, my children offered very helpfully to cut the holes out of the ‘fruits’ instead of what they usually do, which is squirt the icing straight into their mouths. I recommend using the bottom of an icing tip to get a good-sized hole and piping an outline around the hole first before you flood so that the icing doesn’t drip down inside. You’ll need a 1.5 mm tip for the caterpillar’s details.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

I actually haven’t read this next book but honestly these cookies are so beautiful I couldn’t not choose them to share. These strike me as being a bit more ‘next level’.

These are so beautiful. The detail is incredible and you could really use decoration to give each cookie an independent look and feel, based on the amazingly colourful birdlife we have here in Australia. The book these are inspired by is The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, which I vaguely remember being published a couple of years ago. I went and looked it up upon reading Well Read Cookies because I found these so amazing to look at and I think I might have to read it.

The Birdman’s Wife
Melissa Ashley

Books about taxidermy occupy a very unusual spot in literature. After reading Melissa Ashley’s debut novel, a vibrant reimagining of the life of 19th century artist Elizabeth Gould, I was keen to explore the dark side and find out if anyone else had been brave enough to write about this macabre topic.

My research led me to quite a few places (including the hilarious Crap Taxidermy – I recommend), but none of the books I read were as good as The Birdman’s Wife. Somehow, Ashley manages to get right under the skin (oops!) of her characters and inject the perfect amount of tension into the story of this little-known Australian artist. Bad puns aside, the book was an eye-opener into the way 19th century English migrants responded to the Australian landscape by attempting to study and tame its elusive fauna and wildlife – and thereby understand themselves. And thankfully, attitudes about the preservation of wildlife are changing as society develops a more respectful response.

I used a copper cookie cutter to make these delicate hummingbirds – which were painted by Elizabeth Gould and referenced in the book – and edible paint to create the watercolour effect of the feathers.

A few tips about using edible paint:

  • It’s best to apply edible paint sparingly using a good brush. If you use too much in one go, it creates pockmarks or holes in the icing which is not the look you’re going for.
  • I recommend a nice watercolour sable-hair brush if you can get it. Your cookies are works of art, like Elizabeth Gould’s, so you want the best quality brush you can afford!

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

It’s pretty hard not to want to create some of these amazing cookies (and there are so many more in the book) so to get started, I can share Lauren Chater’s recipe for a basic vanilla sugar cookie:

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

makes around 16

250g unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla essence

6 cups flour, plus extra for rolling out

1/2 tsp baking powder

STEP 1 Place softened butter and caster sugar in a large bowl and mix until smooth and light in colour (about four minutes).

STEP 2 Add in vanilla essence and beat in egg, until combined.

STEP 3 Slowly beat in the baking powder and flour, one cup at a time. After two minutes or so of beating the dough should start pulling away from the edge of the bowl and form a lump. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface.

STEP 4 Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in fridge for at least four hours.

STEP 5 Preheat oven to 180°C (355°F). Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out desired shapes. Place them on flat baking trays and put in freezer or the fridge for at least 20 minutes before baking to preserve shape.

STEP 6 Bake each tray for 18 minutes, turning halfway to ensure consistency.

STEP 7 Allow to cool completely before decorating.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

Honestly, if you love books and enjoy food, especially food that’s related to books, then I can recommend this. There’s so many interesting little tidbits in here about the books chosen, a lot of which I think are books many people have read and can connect to. If you’re part of a book club, so many of the ones included here would make such an awesome snack and there are ones like the caterpillars that would work so well for kids. Even some of the cookies which are based on books that aren’t children’s books, would be great for kids to try, such as snowflakes, dogs, witches and more. The pictures are all incredible (and all taken by the author!) but I loved reading about the books as well. I always find new ways to add books to my TBR and this book was honestly just one more way.

This was so fun and the sort of book you can go back to time and time again and always get something different.

8/10

Book #182 of 2018

Thank you to Simon & Schuster AUS and Lauren Chater for allowing me to use the photos, extracts and recipe!

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Review: Season Of Salt And Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Season Of Salt & Honey 
Hannah Tunnicliffe
Pan Macmillan AUS
2015, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A NOVEL OF LOVE, GRIEF AND ANTIPASTI.

Francesca ‘Frankie’ Caputo has it all figured out. She’s finally going to marry the man she loves and then they will live happily ever after. But when a freak accident cuts her fiancé Alex’s life tragically short, all of Frankie’s future plans suddenly disintegrate.

Drowning in grief, Frankie flees from her overbearing Italian-American family, and escapes to an abandoned cabin owned by Alex’s parents in a remote part of Washington forest.

As her heart slowly begins to heal, Frankie discovers a freedom that’s both exhilarating and unsettling to everything she has always known for sure. So when her old life comes crashing back in, Frankie must decide: will she slip quietly back into her safe, former existence? Or will a stronger, wiser Frankie Caputo stand up and claim her new life?

Okay so I read a lot of books. Over 200 a year. Unfortunately I cannot read everything that I receive for review or even everything that I buy….there’s just not enough time in the day for that! So I have huge TBR piles that lurk in my house, making me feel guilty about all my unread books even as I’m busily buying new ones. Occasionally I pull something out of the ‘slush pile’ and I’ve had this one on my TBR for a couple of years now. I always kind of avoided it because the loss mentioned in the blurb didn’t really make me want to pick it up. But yesterday I decided I could go with it and that it was time to finally give it a go. Weirdly, when I went to add it to GR, I discovered that I’d apparently already added it, three years ago. I don’t remember reading it so I’m pretty sure I added it by mistake or meant to add something else. My memory is really good and even though I do read a lot of books, I don’t really tend to forget reading an entire one. I may blank out on bits and pieces of the plot or character names years down the track….but not the entire thing. Nothing about this was familiar to me so I’m pretty sure this was my first time actually reading it!

Frankie lived a content and peaceful life for the most part, with her fiancé Alex, who had been her high school sweetheart. They were planning their wedding, although Alex’s life seemed to more revolve around surfing than their life together. When he is tragically lost to her, Frankie flees his funeral in grief, making her way to a cabin belonging to Alex’s family. It’s quite rustic, with an outhouse and little in the way of creature comforts but Alex enjoyed its proximity to the beach and had fond memories of time spent there as a child with his grandfather. For Frankie, it’s a quiet escape away from her somewhat overbearing Italian relatives, although her peace is broken by the arrival of her estranged sister Bella, who seems to want to make friends.

I enjoyed quite a lot about this book. We don’t really get a lot of Frankie and Alex as a couple, just some flashbacks and later on quite a bit more fleshing out about their status prior to his death but I felt as though Frankie’s grief was really well done. Grief can be a funny thing to try and write in books, it can be hard to strike that chord so that it feels really powerful but not overdone or a bit fake. Frankie is deep in a fog and she really just has to get away from everything, which is apparently not really understood by her family. Her family are Italian-American and very close knit…..quite overbearing and demanding and it’s something I’ve experienced to a smaller degree, marrying into a family that also originates from Italy. There’s a lot of expectation and skipping things isn’t really deemed okay, even if you just saw all these people like a day or two ago. They value those big family gatherings and they can be very intimidating to people who aren’t familiar with them or come into them as adults. So when Frankie talks about how Alex didn’t really know how to handle her family events, I can understand where she’s coming from.

Food is a strong part of this novel, from what Frankie’s Aunties are always making (meatballs in sauce, arancini balls, canolli, all those strong traditional foods Italians are famous for) to the vegetables and herbs that a neighbour Frankie meets grows in her garden. There are recipes included too, which was really good because I love books that celebrate food and share that food with the reader. There’s a risotto recipe in this book that I’m desperate to try – I love risotto, it’s one of my favourite meals and we have a couple of go-to ones that we constantly have on rotation here and I’m thinking of adding this one to it. Just with less garlic!

If I had a criticism of this book, it was probably that the revelations about Alex felt a bit like a cop out, especially as he wasn’t around to defend himself or explain or clarify anything and the reader and Frankie were just kind of left with half the story, which did little to really impact on anything. It felt like a clumsy attempt to get Frankie to realise that maybe she should be ready to move on or that she’d grieved something that didn’t exist in the way that she thought it did. Also I’m a bit of a sucker for a romance thread and I’d have liked just a touch more here. I know what was going to happen, what the end game was but just one more interaction would’ve been a really nice touch for me.

7/10

Book #185 of 2018

 

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Review: Mr. Nice Guy by Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer

Mr. Nice Guy 
Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer
St Martin’s Griffen
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home…

Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire’s sex columnist thanks to the boys’ club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate—and unsatisfying—encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.

Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly—that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!—when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, “Nice Guy.” Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together… and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.

It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.

I’m not going to lie, this book was really disappointing.

I requested it based on the blurb because it seemed so funny and that it’d be one of my fave thing, a kind of hate to lovers. Or really I guess sleeping together, to hate, to lovers in this case. I felt like it had so much potential to give me all the angsty feels but it did not pan out like that at all. It’s interesting to note that this has been tagged a romance on Goodreads multiple times because for me, this does not fit the definition of a romance novel (happy ever after for the core couple or at least a strongly defined happy for now with potential for the ever after).

Firstly, it’s quite slow. There’s a lot of background about Lucas and how he fulfilled his dream to move to New York, leaving behind his southern family and their social climbing ways and his former fiancee. He works as a fact checker on a big magazine for a pittance and looks up to the editor, generally referred to as “Jays”. Lucas wants to move into writing features but his ‘break’ comes when he unknowingly has a one night stand with the magazine’s sex columnist and finds out that he’s the topic of her column. His roommate, not knowing that the column is referencing Lucas, suggests that “Nice Guy”, which is what the column refers to him as, should write a rebuttal. Incensed, Lucas does and it’s published after he proves that he is the “Nice Guy” although he keeps his actual identity a secret. This segues into Jays deciding that the columnist, Carmen, and Lucas should meet up weekly, have sex and then write about it from their opposing sides.

This had so much potential – I liked a sort of role reversal, where Carmen was the one who appeared to have all the power and the experience. She’s an actual well known columnist, love her or hate her she brings in business and her frank portrayals of her sex life seem to give women a power over their own sexuality and an attempt to smash through the double standards of sexual interaction. Lucas is very inexperienced, has only really been in one relationship and he’s the one in the invisible job, slaving away in a cubicle fact checking articles on Manhattan restaurants and boring socialites.

Lucas and Carmen had zero chemistry. Nothing. They honestly just did not work for me at any stage of this book, not when they first met before Lucas knows who and what Carmen is/does for a job, not afterwards when they’re doing the experiments. Lucas even gets some sort of ‘sex tutoring’ to try and impress Carmen and it falls spectacularly flat as she rips him to shreds basically in column after column (Lucas rebutting in his ‘Nice Guy’ way) until randomly, for no real reason, she doesn’t. And to be honest, Lucas isn’t particularly a very ‘nice guy’ at all. He’s horrid to his former fiancee (and the true callousness of his actions towards her isn’t revealed until quite late in the book, after Lucas has acted in appallingly jealous and small minded ways), he’s selfish and entitled and actually, pretty boring.

The one thing that was sort of interesting was the shenanigans Lucas uncovers about the magazine and the profiles it was doing on prominent New York identities but this was kind of done in such an over the top manner about people that were complete caricatures that I think it lost its impact. I spent a large portion of the book wondering if I was supposed to take anything seriously or if it was just satirising a city and industry I don’t know well enough to be sure about. I didn’t really get the whole point of Jays and Carmen, or Lucas and Sonia. Overall this was just really not what I was expecting and what I got was not for me.

4/10

Book #180 of 2018

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Review: Shell by Kristina Olsson

Shell 
Kristina Olsson
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In this spellbinding and poignant historical novel—perfect for fans of All the Light We Cannot See and The Flamethrowers—a Swedish glassmaker and a fiercely independent Australian journalist are thrown together amidst the turmoil of the 1960s and the dawning of a new modern era.

1965: As the United States becomes further embroiled in the Vietnam War, the ripple effects are far-reaching—even to the other side of the world. In Australia, a national military draft has been announced and Pearl Keogh, a headstrong and ambitious newspaper reporter, has put her job in jeopardy to become involved in the anti-war movement. Desperate to locate her two runaway brothers before they’re called to serve, Pearl is also hiding a secret shame—the guilt she feels for not doing more for her younger siblings after their mother’s untimely death.

Newly arrived from Sweden, Axel Lindquist is set to work as a sculptor on the besieged Sydney Opera House. After a childhood in Europe, where the shadow of WWII loomed large, he seeks to reinvent himself in this utterly foreign landscape, and finds artistic inspiration—and salvation—in the monument to modernity that is being constructed on Sydney’s Harbor. But as the nation hurtles towards yet another war, Jørn Utzo, the Opera House’s controversial architect, is nowhere to be found—and Axel fears that the past he has tried to outrun may be catching up with him.

As the seas of change swirl around them, Pearl and Axel’s lives orbit each other and collide in this sweeping novel of art and culture, love and destiny.

This is a beautiful looking book – my copy was is a hardback with this gorgeous dust jacket in soft pinks and out of focus shot of Sydney Harbour with the Opera House. The Opera House is such an iconic landmark – there are probably few who would recognise it, it’s synonymous with Sydney and that harbour and it’s played a huge role in how Sydney is marketed to the rest of the world. And this book comes at an interesting publication time because of late, the Sydney Opera House has been very much in the news because there was quite a public spat between Racing NSW who wanted to use it to promote a horse race, and the Opera House Trust, who did not want to use it as the world’s most expensive billboard. There was a very ugly radio interview, the NSW Premier intervened and overruled the Trust and a petition circulated gained 250,000+ signatures of the public who didn’t approve of it advertising a horse race either. Now the Opera House has been used before – it’s regularly coloured with lights to promote what are usually charitable causes or social messages (eg lit up pink for Breast Cancer Foundation, lit up red, white and blue after the French terrorist attack) and occasionally the government has stepped in for sporting reasons – the Wallabies, Australia’s Rugby Union team is one such instance. But this was different, given it was directly promoting an industry that some people regard as inhumane and responsible for gambling issues across the country. Even some who were horse racing fans weren’t into the idea of using the Opera House as a display for the highest bidder to promote whatever. And there were others who were tired of the Opera House being “for hoity toity snobs” and why shouldn’t they do something like this.

In my time, the Opera House has always been a beloved icon, even if people don’t use it for practical reasons. This book explores the construction of the Opera House, the change of government that shaped the fallout with architect and designer Jørn Utzon and the public opinions of the building that blew out in budget and time. Interestingly when I discussed this with my mother, I found that a bit of that resentment was obvious from her, as well as the perception that the Opera House was built and designed for rich people to do rich people things in. I’ve been to the Opera House quite a few times but I’ve never actually seen a performance there. I went as a child for school and I’ve delivered various interstate and overseas friends to Sydney Harbour to point it out and show them up close (because it really looks quite different when you are right up close to it, especially the tiling, etc). To me it’s something beautiful that I don’t actually really consider the practical application of. It is just…..there. Whether or not I actually use it for its intended purpose is irrelevant. It was built coming off the back of WWII though so perhaps people born in the generation after that have a very different opinion about things being useful and worth the money.

This book has its ups and downs for me. It was really interesting reading about the construction of the Opera House and the evolving feelings and public opinion at the time. As I said, it came in the 20yrs post WWII but Australia was already being dragged into another war – Vietnam. The conscription law plays a large role in this book. Main character Pearl is a journalist, a strong woman with a painful background. She’s been searching for her two brothers after the family was split up following the death of her mother when Pearl was 14 and her father was unable to cope with so many children. She wants to find them before the draft does. Pearl is an activist, a feminist and she’s being shoehorned because of her job where you’re supposed to remain neutral. She finds herself bumped from news to women’s and it’s stifling her. Pearl meets Alex Lindquist, a Swedish glassmaker in Sydney to work on the Opera House who is baffled by Australian attitudes to many things. Lindquist longs to meet Utzon, to connect with him and tell him he understand him.

It took me almost a week to read this book which is almost unheard of for me. I have to admit that I did struggle with it quite a bit. It’s a very slow burn, a methodical book. The writing is beautiful, it seems like each word and sentence is chosen with exquisite care but I often found my attention wandering away. It takes quite a while for Pearl and Alex to cross paths and then when they do I’m honestly not sure why they do? It wasn’t until probably the last 100-150 pages that I really felt like I was ‘getting’ what others were in praising this book so strongly. There were glimpses of brilliance – the way Olsson writes Pearl’s family is remarkable, the depth of her grief and guilt, the depiction of her father. And even though Pearl’s mother is deceased, she’s a strong presence in the book, she’s constantly in Pearl’s thoughts with her opinions. But the book did limp along a little and perhaps I’m just too impatient to appreciate the quietness of this storytelling, I can fully admit that. I wanted to love it, it’s such a beautiful cover and I’d heard lots of praise about it….but ultimately I just don’t think it was for me. I can see the beauty and merit in it and at times I felt myself almost being pulled right in, but it just never completely happened.

6/10

Book #179 of 2018

 

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Review: The Survivors by Kate Furnivall

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

Or so she thinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #178 of 2018

 

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