All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Vardaesia by Lynette Noni

Vardaesia (The Medoran Chronicles #5)
Lynette Noni
Pantera Press
2019, 499p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

“When Day and Night combine and fight against one Enemy,
then Dark and Light shall meet mid-strike and set the Captives free.”

In the wake of loss and devastation, Alex must cast aside her grief to seek aid from those who banished the Meyarins long ago. But the proud Tia Aurans care little for the woes of mortals and demand that Alex—and her friends—undergo the Gates of Testing to prove their world is worth saving.

With an ancient prophecy looming, Alex must confront the secrets of her past if she is to survive long enough to see the future. For if she returns to Medora without the Tia Aurans by her side, all hope will be lost.

In this explosive conclusion to The Medoran Chronicles, the fate of Medora hangs in the balance as Alex readies herself to face Aven one final time.

Who will survive, and who will fall?

“If, however, darkness wins, there is no strategy
to keep from all that will be lost, and so will always be.”

And so it is over. Or is it?

This is the final book in the Medoran Chronicles, a series that has to take the award for biggest surprise because when I read the first book I had no idea I’d end up so invested in this world. With every book, Lynette Noni upped the stakes, expanded on her world building and storytelling and in the end, brought me one of my favourite YA fantasy series, ever.

Alex faces a test to get the Tia Aurans to join her in her fight against Aven and his Claimed army. They decide that she must face six tests to prove her worthiness as an ally. Alex finds herself not only facing the tasks with Kaiden but also the trio of Jordan, Bear and D.C., who followed her through the Library and also Declan, who rounds the group up to 8. Alex has never been more conscious of the fact that if she fails to convince the Tia Aurans, the prophecy states she will fail.

I actually thought that most of this book would be the battle with Aven, but it isn’t. It’s all about the build, the final task that Alex and her friends must undergo in order to learn more about themselves, in order to try and convince the Tia Aurans to join them. The tasks are not easy. Each day Alex is faced with three gates and she must choose one and walk through. The gates have names which relate to the type of task she will face and they can sound innocuous but end up being far from it.

This book is, as the series has always been, about friendship. It’s about the core group of Alex, Jordan, Bear, D.C and the additions of Kaiden and Declan, sticking together, helping each other and being there for each other throughout the best and worst of times. All of them have experienced terrible things and they’ve had their moments. But they keep remembering what’s important, and that’s keeping that friendship together, staying united. It’s about the friends they make along the way as well, the unique way in which Alex forges alliances and pledges herself to people and keeps them by her side. She has to learn to let go of guilt she’s accumulated over some of the choices she’s made, some of the consequences of actions and also learn to have faith. She has to face her fears and realise she will have to face Aven…..and what happens after that, lies in her hands.

Despite the fact that this book is built around Alex and her friends undergoing a series of tests that could kill any and all of them at any moment and it’s all building towards a showdown with a madman who wants to destroy the entire world, this is still a book with so much hope in it. At times, the odds they face seem insurmountable. Every time they make a small bit of progress, something happens elsewhere that sets them back or increases the danger or the chance of failure. But they still keep going. They still keep making plans, looking for alternatives, ways around the obstacles. And the friendships grow and strengthen and remain unwavering, no matter what. We are reunited with some old friends from previous books (including one of my favourite characters, whose fate I had feared for) and we get some closure with some that fell along the way.

I was never really sure how this was going to play out. I mean, we all know what happens if Alex fails…..but as she has reiterated so many times along the way, “I am not a murderer”. So how was she going to be able to defeat Aven without killing him? He was never going to be the type who would yield and then just go oh well you bested me, I guess I’ll stop killing everyone now and torturing you. And for Alex to fail……didn’t bear thinking about. Alex failing means that everyone we know, this world as we have come to know it, is dead.

What we get is a perfectly contrasted finale which underscores just how much Alex had to learn and trust in herself and her abilities and all that she has undergone in order to do this task. In order to come out on top. It’s rare that a series gives you such a wonderful ending where you truly feel satisfied in that everything has been for something and that all you’ve read has contributed to the final moments. But Lynette Noni has managed that here and after my heart rate calmed down, I had to go back and reread that final section again, just to take it in properly and appreciate how it had played out.

I have enjoyed so much, the entire process of reading this series. I’ve been lucky, in that I only started it in late 2017 so my wait for books has been much shorter than others. The last page states that although this adventure is over now, we need to stay tuned for a return to Medora in the future…..and I cannot wait. I would love to revisit this world and hang out with all these characters again.

A phenomenal ending to a truly great series.

10/10

(Couldn’t help myself. I had to rate it 10 just because of the way it played out).

Book #31 of 2019

Vardaesia is the 13th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back
Bri Lee
Allen & Unwin
2018, 358p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

EGGSHELL SKULL: A well-established legal doctrine that a defendant must ‘take their victim as they find them’. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim’s weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime.

But what if it also works the other way? What if a defendant on trial for sexual crimes has to accept his ‘victim’ as she comes: a strong, determined accuser who knows the legal system, who will not back down until justice is done?

Bri Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a bright-eyed judge’s associate. Two years later she was back as the complainant in her own case.

This is the story of Bri’s journey through the Australian legal system; first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge’s associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland-where justice can look very different, especially for women. The injustice Bri witnessed, mourned and raged over every day finally forced her to confront her own personal history, one she’d vowed never to tell. And this is how, after years of struggle, she found herself on the other side of the courtroom, telling her story.

Bri Lee has written a fierce and eloquent memoir that addresses both her own reckoning with the past as well as with the stories around her, to speak the truth with wit, empathy and unflinching courage. Eggshell Skull is a haunting appraisal of modern Australia from a new and essential voice.

I’d heard a lot about this book before it was announced as part of the Stella Prize Longlist last week. It’s been getting a lot of praise and attention in the blogging circles I frequent and I’d been curious about it. In my determination to read as much of the longlist as I can, I requested it from my local library.

This is not an easy book to read and it would be a massive, massive ***trigger*** for anyone who has ever experienced sexual abuse or assault and also self-harm and disordered eating. And the book deals with a lot of sexual assault and trauma to children as well, both from Bri’s own past and through her job as an associate to a Judge for the Queensland District Court. With her boss, the Judge, Bri travels around Queensland to various locations for him to sit in court and hear and adjudicate on criminal matters. A lot (an overwhelming number really) of these cases relate to sexual abuse and assault of children and Bri is party to all of the often gruesome details.

Now obviously identifying things have been changed but this book is still graphic enough to be upsetting and it’s a shocking realism of just how many cases there are of sexual abuse. And how difficult it is to get a conviction. Bri’s anger is palpable as case after case goes not guilty with no closure or recognition of their trauma for victims. The constant flow of cases also brings back to the surface memories of the incident she experienced as a child and her decision to finally confess it to the relevant people in her life and press charges in an attempt to find that closure and move on and make sure that if anyone else ever complains about her abuser in the future, there is already a conviction against him.

Speak to pretty much any woman and it’s likely you’ll find they have a story of an incident in their past that made them uncomfortable, or that crossed a line, or that escalated into violence or even rape. This is Bri’s experience as well, after she spends a year working with the Judge and after she decides to bring charges on her abuser. So many women have stories, most of them are kept inside. Bri knows the system, she’s a law graduate who has worked within it. She has patience and determination I think, to go through years of adjournments and delays when many people may have just decided to give up, make it all go away. Bri has a strong case and she’s an adult when she goes through the process – many victims are children going through giving statements and evidence and even being subject to cross-examination.

This book does little to endear defense lawyers to me. I know everyone is entitled to a fair trial but it’s infuriating to read about women being questioned on how much they drank, what they were wearing, why they waited to tell people of their abuse. None of these things fucking matter. Or even worse, children being questioned on their memories, on what happened, on whether or not they imagined it or made it up. What a harrowing experience for anyone to have to go through. The defense also regularly challenges women on juries of cases featuring sexual abuse or assault, trying to limit their voice and impact as much as possible. Bri Lee is frank about how much of an emotional toll the process takes on her over the several years it takes to get to trial when it becomes obvious that her abuser is not going to plead guilty and I think about young children or teens going through that, standing up against an adult. There are a huge number of cases where it’s young girls accusing their stepfather or stepfather-type figure. It was exhausting at times, reading about the number of times they were told not to tell their mother or they (or the mother) would be hurt, or the relief at when abuse stopped only to find it was because the abuser had moved onto their younger sister or the times they told their mother and weren’t believed, or it was dismissed because the abuser was supporting the family financially. So much of sexual abuse or assault is a ‘he said/she said’ type of case, often where there is no real concrete evidence because it can be years before it is reported. Even when there is clear evidence (the Brock Turner case comes to mind where he was literally caught in the act by two individuals) the reporting is skewed in favour of the abuser and the sentences can be woefully inadequate. It’s all about what it will do to the abuser’s life and prospects, not about what it has done to the victim’s.

This is a powerful, emotional and often disturbing read. I read it over two days because I needed a bit of a break from the things it was making me think and the pictures it was putting in my head. And I’m just reading it, not living it. I can put the book down and walk away…..the victims cannot do that.

9/10

Book #30 of 2019

This is the 3rd book read of the Stella Prize Longlist and the 12th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Bluebottle by Belinda Castles

Bluebottle
Belinda Castles
Allen & Unwin
2018, 247p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

With sea-salt authenticity, Belinda Castles sets the Bright family in the sprawling paradise of Bilgola Beach. But darkness is found both in the iconic setting as well as in the disturbing behaviour of one of the family.

As he tilted the blinds she saw her mother in her tennis whites, standing at the kitchen bench, staring out into the dark bushland that bordered their houses. That was what Tricia did these days, looked into the bush as though it would attack one of them.

On a sweltering day in a cliff-top beach shack, Jack and Lou Bright grow suspicious about the behaviour of their charismatic, unpredictable father, Charlie. A girl they know has disappeared, and as the day unfolds, Jack’s eruptions of panic, Lou’s sultry rebellions and their little sister Phoebe’s attention-seeking push the family towards revelation.

Twenty years later, the Bright children have remained close to the cliff edges, russet sand and moody ocean of their childhood. Behind the beautiful surfaces of their daily lives lies the difficult landscape of their past, always threatening to break through. And then, one night in late summer, they return to the house on the cliff…

Just last week, the Stella Prize Longlist was announced, which is an award for a work written by an Australian female author. Originally created after a slew of men won the Miles Franklin, a prestigious literary prize, it shines a light on work by women. The last two years I haven’t done a lot in regards to the list, just reading 1-2 titles but this year I decided to give the longlist the best crack that I could. I’d already read one, Chloe Hooper’s excellent The Arsonist: A Mind On Fire and my local library was able to help me out with 8 more. There are a couple of titles they don’t have so I probably won’t be able to read everything but I’m going to go as close as I can.

This is the first of the titles I picked up from the library, a story of a family of five who move to a clifftop house overlooking one of Sydney’s northern beaches in the mid-1990s. Dad Charlie has bought the house on a whim, dragging his wife and three children there to see it as a ‘surprise’. It’s a prime location, perched right on the edge almost, of the cliff. It’s an older house, complete with horrific shaggy carpet and a green formica kitchen but Charlie, flush from a property deal, has grand plans.

Charlie and Tricia have three kids – Lou, 15 and a promising swimmer who will benefit from the proximity of the ocean pool, Jack, less than a year younger than Lou and Phoebe, who is around 7 or 8. Lou is Charlie’s golden girl, talented swimmer, lean and blonde. Jack is mostly the recipient of Charlie’s disdain. He’s not particularly athletic, he seems to have anxiety (probably mostly brought on by Charlie himself) and doesn’t fit the mould of Charlie’s ideal son. The two older children recognise that their father is prone to some pretty severe mood swings. When Charlie is happy, when he’s busy with plans and dreams, the world can be a good place.

But Charlie isn’t always happy. Sometimes from a look or a word, the children know that things are going to go very different that day. Charlie is unpredictable and often irrational and they try as best they can to manage him out of these moments. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes they are not. Lou levels her mother with plenty of questions as to why this is the way it has to be, wishing her mother to take a more active role, but Tricia seems to prefer to pass off the management of Charlie to the older two, staying in the kitchen preparing meals and keeping up the facade. Her passiveness in the face of Charlie’s increasingly unstable behaviour is a real source of anger for Lou, who I think wants more from her mother in terms of help for them, rather than just them being left to deal with it, or smooth it over. Presumably Tricia has been dealing with it in her own way for over a decade now, so perhaps she’s figured out the easiest way, even if it is the one that seems to place most of the pressure on her kids.

Before they moved, a young girl who went to school with Jack went missing. As Charlie’s behaviour becomes increasingly more troubling, Lou becomes more concerned that Charlie’s obsession and inappropriate actions around it mean that he’s hiding something terrible. It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone and twenty years into the future, the family are still feeling the after effects.

It’s clear well into the future, with the children mostly in their 30s, that they are still very much shaped by what happened during that time after they moved into the clifftop house. Charlie’s moods and whims are what ruled their days and even in the future without that hanging over them, it still seems like they are still feeling that control. I’m not sure if Charlie displayed signs of a mental illness? He seems certainly manic at some stages, although if there were depressive stages, they were off page. There were mentions of how he got without work though, without something to stimulate and entertain him. Charlie was very fickle, flitting from one idea to the next, involving people with enthusiasm only to abandon it later. He buys the house without consulting his wife or considering her thoughts and feelings on the move and has all of these grand plans which amount to little more than a few lines scribbled on paper. Charlie is an interesting character, seen mostly through the eyes of his children who have varying feelings on him. Jack is particularly affected by Charlie’s ‘parenting’ which seems to be of the ‘toughen him up’ variety when directed at Jack.

I enjoyed the back and forth telling of this, with split narratives from the 90s and then 20 years later. It’s drawn out very well – this isn’t a long novel so the pacing is well done and it doesn’t feel either too frenetic or too slow to move. This is wonderfully atmospheric and really showcases that northern beaches lifestyle but seen through the lens of a less than perfect family trying to live that perfect life.

7/10

Book #29 of 2019

Bluebottle is the 11th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

 

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Review: The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers

The Orchardist’s Daughter
Karen Viggers
Allen & Unwin
2019, 386p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A story of freedom, forgiveness and finding the strength to break free. International bestselling writer Karen Viggers returns to remote Tasmania, the setting of her most popular novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife.

Sixteen-year-old Mikaela has grown up isolated and home-schooled on an apple orchard in southeastern Tasmania, until an unexpected event shatters her family. Eighteen months later, she and her older brother Kurt are running a small business in a timber town. Miki longs to make connections and spend more time in her beloved forest, but she is kept a virtual prisoner by Kurt, who leads a secret life of his own.

When Miki meets Leon, another outsider, things slowly begin to change. But the power to stand up for yourself must come from within. And Miki has to fight to uncover the truth of her past and discover her strength and spirit.

Set in the old-growth eucalypt forests and vast rugged mountains of southern Tasmania, The Orchardist’s Daughter is an uplifting story about friendship, resilience and finding the courage to break free.

I found this story really interesting in lots of different ways.

Mikaela lived a very isolated life on her parent’s farm. Her father had strong ideas about what constituted men’s work and what was women’s work and Mikaela stayed mostly inside being homeschooled in Jesus by her mother and helping with chores. Occasionally though, her father allowed her outside work and these times were her favourite. She has a real connection to the land and after her parents are lost in a house fire and the farm sold, she moves with her brother Kurt, 10yrs her senior to a logging town. There they run a fish and chip shop while Kurt saves for them to purchase another farm.

As Mikaela approaches 18, she dreams of freedom. It’s what she should be experiencing, freed from the oppressiveness of her home life but instead Kurt seeks to restrict her more and more. He doesn’t like her talking to the customers but his own demeanour is less than friendly to the people they rely on for their livelihood. He doesn’t allow her to go out on her own, locking her inside the premises at the back of the shop when he goes out. Mikaela is concerned about the flashy new purchases that Kurt is making when they should be saving for a farm, to get back on the land. That’s what she desperately wants.

Leon is new to town, a ‘Parkie’ which puts him at odds with a lot of the locals who are loggers by trade. Tensions are simmering in the small town, ready to reach boiling point as the logging is shut down and the men are without work. Leon tries to fit in by playing for the local footy team but he faces ostracisation and hostility, people making assumptions about him before even getting to know him and what he stands for. You’re either a logger or you’re not – and if you’re not, then they’re against you.

Leon and Mikaela don’t interact a lot at first, but his appearance in town is the catalyst to a lot of things being set in motion. Leon befriends the son of his neighbour and tries his best to integrate himself into the town in lots of different ways. I really enjoyed the budding friendship between Leon and Max, the young boy next door who is struggling with a bullying issue at school and struggling with home issues as well. Leon is perhaps the first one to really notice what’s going on with Max as well and not just dismissing it as a school kids being school kids type of thing. Leon is remarkably persistent, even in the face of some pretty awful treatment by some of the men in town, determined to forge good relationships and try and fit in. I guess he knows his job and life will be easier if he can be accepted and he’s willing to do whatever that takes. Leon’s willingness to help in troubled times and the fact that he keeps just showing up means that eventually people start coming around to him.

Leon also forms a friendship with Mikaela, connected to the wilderness. Mikaela loves being outside in the forest and she’s passionate about preserving and saving the local wildlife. She has a connection to the local Tasmanian devil population and she manages to sneak out for several trips to help monitor them. The more time Mikaela spends with others (not just Leon, also some other locals) the more she realises that what is happening to her is wrong. She’s legally an adult now, even if her brother says that she cannot be independent until she’s 21. She should have the right to come and go as she pleases. Instead her life is shaped by her brother’s moods – sometimes Kurt is in a good mood and they go explore the forest and he’ll answer questions about his childhood. But most of the time Kurt’s moods aren’t good and this is when Mikaela knows any sort of effort to engage him will be futile. Kurt’s moods are also escalating as well, trapping Mikaela in a steadily increasing dangerous environment.

There’s quite a lot of (mostly off page) violence in this novel. One of the men on the football team regularly beats his wife and the town seems to turn a blind eye. There’s Max’s trouble with an older school boy, which also seems to largely go unnoticed for a long time, other than by Leon and to a lesser extent, Mikaela. There’s Kurt’s restrictive treatment of Mikaela, locking her up and sending her to the back whenever he doesn’t want her talking to people in the shop. He becomes more and more paranoid as well, particularly after witnessing a few interactions with Leon. And then there’s Leon’s home life, which is bleak also. His ill father isn’t able to cope with being a shadow of his former self and tends to take it out on Leon’s mother when Leon isn’t around. Leon’s mother constantly forgives him and urges Leon to do the same, thereby sweeping it under the rug and diminishing it in importance.

As a reader, I really enjoyed the role that books played in the narrative with Mikaela. She loves reading but her brother restricts her access. However Mikaela discovers a kind local who is happy to lend her books – choosing them rather carefully I thought so that Mikaela might learn something from each one she reads. Mikaela has lovely insight and it’s clear that she should really be finishing a more formal education, studying literature or something similar, as she works towards returning to the land in some way, which is ‘home’ for her.

This was a really intriguing story showcasing issues of family violence, the struggle of making a living versus conservation and small town dynamics. I really appreciated the setting and the deeply flawed characters and their relationships. The writing is beautiful and drew me into the story from the very first page and kept me riveted until the end.

8/10

Book #27 of 2019

 

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Review: The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence

The Lost Girls
Jennifer Spence
Simon & Schuster AUS
2019, 338
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A haunting tale of love and loss that will make you think twice …

What would you do if you had the chance to change a pivotal moment from your past?

How far would you go to save someone you loved?

These are just two of the fateful choices a woman must face in this highly original and hauntingly evocative detective story of love and loss.

At the core of the enigmatic Stella’s story, past and present, is a mystery she is compelled to solve, a beautiful young woman who went missing fifty years ago – and a tragedy much closer to home she must try to prevent.

As Stella unravels the dark secrets of her family’s past and her own, it becomes clear that everyone remembers the past differently and the small choices we make every day can change our future irrevocably.

This book was something that had my attention from the first page. I honestly ended up so much more involved in the story than I ever expected to be going into it.

Stella is returning home when she finds that she cannot open the door to her apartment block. In fact, it doesn’t even look the same anymore. When she walks around the corner to her old house, she’s confronted by herself – from 20 years ago. Stella immediately sees an opportunity to right the greatest tragedy of her life. She passes herself off as an aunt to herself from 20 years ago and infiltrates her old house, determined that her small actions change the course of history.

What a fascinating premise for a novel and Jennifer Spence executes this so well. Stella gets on a bus to go home and finds herself back in 1997. Opal cards for public transport don’t exist. Her mobile phone has no service – and no charger cord in this ‘now’ either. Most importantly of all, she can observe her own family from the point of view as an outsider. But of an outsider who is terribly invested in the future, because she is the future.

It begs the question – what would we change, if we could? If we could go back in time to some arbitrary point in our lives. Maybe it’s a point in time where the most innocent of things triggers a terrible event. Maybe it’s a decision, a crossroads, where later on, you know you picked the wrong choice. What would you change about your life, if you could? And if you were able to go back and alter that path, in small subtle ways…..what would you set in motion?

Because the thing is, when you go back in time….you can’t just ‘fix’ things and everything will all be fine. All actions have consequences, which is something that Stella discovers the longer she stays in the ‘before’ time. It creeps up on her slowly, so slowly and the way in which this is written is so good. Stella has excellent motivation for wanting to be able to change things and I understand that. And when Stella goes in, she goes in knowing that she might alter the outcomes in some ways but create different issues so she tries to be subtle.

Stella is able to interact with her family from 20 years ago by pretending to her 1997 self that she’s an aunt, a woman who vanished as a teenager years ago. The mystery of what happened to Linda has definitely been something that hung over the family, particularly Stella’s mother, who was in her teens when Linda was born and played a significant hand in raising her. This gives Stella a way of being involved quite intimately with the family without having to ingratiate herself, as Stella-in-1997 is more than willing to accept that her aunt who hasn’t been heard of in decades has just randomly turned up on her doorstep. She’s given a different perspective on not only her marriage but also the lives of her children and the relationships she had with them at the time.

It also gives her the opportunity to explore Linda’s disappearance, given the reactions of certain people when she ‘shows up’ again. It’s always been something that people have never been able to answer and caused the family and others a large amount of pain. Stella’s time warp becomes the key to finding out what happened to Linda and why. I really enjoyed the struggle of Stella to ‘be’ Linda, especially around her family. She has to sort of keep her distance from her own children even as she desperately wants to help them (ie interfere). She also gets the chance to interact with her mother (who is deceased in the 2017 timeline) and even though her mother knows she isn’t really Linda, she seems drawn to Stella anyway and is willing to give her a chance. I really liked the way that Stella proved that she was really from the future – she does it twice and her second list encapsulates all the big moments that the average Australian is likely to remember from 1997-2017.

I don’t read a lot of time travel books but I always really enjoy them. It’s something that I think intrigues people because of the chance it gives them to either experience a different timeframe/lifestyle or to change something that they think was a mistake or could better their lives in some way. This was really intriguing and I enjoyed Stella’s journey and her attempts to change a path of a loved one. I’ll definitely be looking out for Jennifer Spence’s future books.

9/10

Book #23 of 2019

The Lost Girls is the 6th book read for The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Lawson’s Bend by Nicole Hurley-Moore

Lawson’s Bend
Nicole Hurley-Moore
Allen & Unwin
2019, 321p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In the hot summer of 2008, a tragic accident at the lake on the outskirts of Lawson’s Bend forever scars the townsfolk. At an end-of-year celebratory campout, several students from the local high school drown and Henrietta Bolton loses her best friend, Georgie, to the murky waters. Unable to accept this as an accident, Henny runs from the small country town vowing never to come back.

Stephen Drake has never left. Instead, he’s tried to settle down, working with his dad on their small farm. Stephen had dreams of a different life but after the night at the lake, nothing seemed important anymore.

Years later, Henny is forced to return to Lawson’s Bend when her beloved mother dies. Henny’s plan is to finalise her mother’s estate, sell the house and get the hell out of town as quickly as possible. But there is Stephen…

Ever since they were kids Stephen has had a soft spot for Henny and it was he who saved her life that night amid the panic. Yet he never had the courage to tell her just how he felt. But now she’s back in town, Stephen wonders if he has a second chance.

Henny got the heck out of her country town a decade ago after a terrible tragedy. She’s spent her time since that drifting from job to job, travelling, not really doing much. When her mother dies suddenly, Henny is forced back to Lawson’s Bend for the funeral and also to pack up the house and make some decisions. There are some people still in town that never left – people she went to school with who have made their lives in the small central Victorian town and Henny is pleasantly surprised to be reconnecting with some of them. However when there’s another tragedy at the reservoir Henny realises that she still has unanswered questions about what happened all those years ago. She wants to find out the truth – about what is happening now and also what really happened back then and why some people’s accounts don’t seem to add up.

I really enjoyed the setting of this book – Lawson’s Bend is somewhere not too far from Bendigo (which is a couple hours from where I live) and even though I’ve not really been up to that way it’s familiar enough to me to remind me of plenty of places I have visited and spent time in. It’s quite clear that the town was deeply scarred by what happened to the kids at the reservoir almost a decade ago – three teens drowned, including Henny’s best friend. When her visit back to Lawson’s Bend coincides with a 10 year memorial ceremony and sculpture being unveiled, Henny suddenly begins reexamining that time and asking a lot of questions, especially after another incident. She even begins wondering about her own mother’s death and how it suddenly occurred in an area that she was intimately familiar with and visited every day. Henny starts asking questions of the locals, stirring up memories – and there’s definitely someone who isn’t happy with her inquisitiveness.

Which, to be honest, I could kind of understand on a smaller scale. A lot of the people are still very upset by what happened and have tried to move on. Henny isn’t particularly subtle with her amateur investigation and even when variously people tell her that she’s upsetting people, Henny doesn’t really care. I think I’d have liked to see a little more sensitivity in her attitude to be honest. I mean I know she was badly affected too and she’s the only person that at the moment, seems to see a few issues but you kind of have to show a bit of compassion and understanding to people who maybe just have been trying to move on with their lives and do the best they can. Having her come along and stir things up would no doubt be quite upsetting but Henny doesn’t seem to really care about that at all. Or she cares a bit but ultimately it doesn’t change anything, she just keeps bulldozing her way along.

Henny connects again with Stephen Drake, who had a crush on her all those years ago in high school. Stephen stayed in town working on his family’s farm due to several circumstances and he sees Henny’s arrival as a second chance. If she will give him a go. Henny keeps telling him that she’s not sure Stephen is her type. He’s a nice guy and she tends to go more for the bad boy type. But as Henny begins reevaluating her life and what she actually wants, suddenly a life in Lawson’s Bend – and with Stephen – doesn’t seem so unlikely. I really liked Stephen as a character, he’s a genuinely nice guy who has always really cared for and about Henny and even though he doesn’t really believe that things are suspicious the same way Henny does, he tries to be supportive. He’s also the voice of reason in their fledgling relationship when it seems like Henny doesn’t really understand how to interact after an argument. His relationship with his father is really nice too. I enjoyed the scenes with the two of them a lot.

This was an enjoyable read with a bit of intrigue.

7/10

Book #22 of 2019

Lawson’s Bend is the 5th book read and reviewed for The Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.

 

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Review: Zebra & Other Stories by Debra Adelaide

Zebra & Other Stories 
Debra Adelaide
Picador
2019, 324p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A body buried in a suburban backyard.

A suicide pact worthy of Chekhov.

A love affair born in a bookshop.

The last days of Bennelong.

And a very strange gift for a most unusual Prime Minister…

Tantalising, poignant, wry, and just a little fantastical, this subversive collection of short fiction – and one singular novella – from bestselling author Debra Adelaide reminds us what twists of fate may be lurking just beneath the surface of the everyday.

This is a really, really difficult book to review. Most collections of short stories are – there’s no one narrative or plot structure or character to talk about. Instead there’s a number of them, some of which the reader will connect with more than others. And that’s definitely what happened with me here.

I don’t read a lot of short stories, I must admit that. In fact, they’d make up a very, very small percentage of my reading. Maybe one collection a year. They’re not something I automatically gravitate towards and mostly I’ve read them at the request of someone. My biggest problem with short stories is that I’m just starting to get into the story…..and then it’s over. They leave me feeling a bit unsatisfied. And sometimes, they leave me feeling a bit dumb. There’s always one or two where I get to the end and sort of…..don’t get it. Anyway.

There were a few honestly, very good short stories in this book, a few that were very interesting and the aforementioned few that didn’t resonate with me or I didn’t quite get where they were going. I think that my favourite story in the collection is the one that addresses a host at Christmas time, frantically trying to make dishes that everyone coming can eat. Allergies seem much more prevalent these days than when I was a child, people are gluten free, dairy intolerant, etc. The dishes escalate to the point where they’re no longer even made from what they’re supposed to be. It was incredibly creative and entertaining with an underlying seriousness to the family drama of Christmas Day, the exhaustion of being the perfect host and catering for absolutely everybody and also missing out on the day’s activities because there’s so much to do and no one is bothering to help. I’m not the cook of my family – my husband wears that hat – but thankfully we rarely have to cater to specific dietary and allergy needs. The most we have is two fussy kids who refuse to eat pretty much everything, which is frustrating enough.

Some other stories I enjoyed…..there’s one that deals with a woman trying to get some medical help for her debilitating migraines. I’ve had two migraines in my life, the most recent one was last year and I was lucky in that it only lasted about five hours but it’s some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced and it came with the added fun of feeling so absolutely nauseous that I couldn’t move. I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience them on the regular, for days at a time. My mother used to get fairly regular migraines and she’d be out of action for about a day. It can be pretty difficult to get medical professionals to take consistent and regular pain seriously at times, but headaches sound so generic and if the person you’re speaking to has never had a bad migraine, they don’t understand. They aren’t just like bad headaches. They’re completely resistant to most painkillers and they impair function to the point where honestly, being forcibly knocked out begins to sound like a viable option. I felt that character’s frustration and pain and anger and despair like it was honestly my own.

There’s also a really sweet one about love in a bookstore that was just such a lovely little piece as well. And there’s a suicide story as well that’s really interesting (it’s linked to Chekhov in the blurb but I’ve never read Chekhov, perhaps because he’s considered so influential in the modern day short story, something I’ve already readily admitted to not seeking out. Russian short stories seem like they’d be a form of torture!).

There’s a wide variety of stories in this book – something for everyone. You may not like every single one but there’ll be something to enjoy, or a thoughtful one to mull over or a story that is applicable to your own life. For me, there were equal ones I enjoyed to ones that weren’t really my sort of thing or stories I didn’t overly connect with but it was still an interesting reading experience.

6/10

Book #21 of 2019

Zebra & Other Stories is book #4 of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

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Review: Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Ayesha At Last 
Uzma Jalaluddin
Corvus Books
2019, 339p
Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A big-hearted, captivating, modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice, with hijabs instead of top hats and kurtas instead of corsets.

AYESHA SHAMSI has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been overtaken by a demanding teaching job. Her boisterous Muslim family, and numerous (interfering) aunties, are professional naggers. And her flighty young cousin, about to reject her one hundredth marriage proposal, is a constant reminder that Ayesha is still single.

Ayesha might be a little lonely, but the one thing she doesn’t want is an arranged marriage. And then she meets Khalid… How could a man so conservative and judgmental (and, yes, smart and annoyingly handsome) have wormed his way into her thoughts so quickly?

As for Khalid, he’s happy the way he is; his mother will find him a suitable bride. But why can’t he get the captivating, outspoken Ayesha out of his mind? They’re far too different to be a good match, surely…

So the second I heard about this, I knew I would have to read it. A modern day Pride & Prejudice but featuring Muslim characters and set in Toronto. And I’m happy to say that it lived up to all of my expectations and was an entertaining but also thought provoking read.

Ayesha is approaching 30 and has recently taken her first job as a substitute teacher at a local high school. Teaching is not her passion but it’s a good, solid career and it will help her support her family. Ayesha has the soul of a poet and often performs at poetry nights but she’s not sure she can make that a career. She’s part of a large family that have all moved to Toronto but Ayesha’s mother and grandparents do not really see the need to arrange her marriage or pressure her in any way. Her younger, flighty cousin has just entered the marriage market and is determined to cultivate 100 proposals.

In contrast, Khalid is a much more conservative Muslim, devoting large portions of his day to prayer and visiting the local mosque often. He’s strict in his dress as well, which causes a problem with his new boss who has a very stereotypical view of Muslims. His friends think he should lighten up a bit, relax the dress sense and live a little but Khalid finds comfort in his routines and after what happened with his sister, he’s happy for his mother to choose his bride.

Things get so complicated when Khalid and Ayesha meet and both of them experience that spark of chemistry. They are not at all compatible – Ayesha enjoys freedom as someone who is basically a spinster in her community and she’s not the sort to give up her career or anything like that if she were to marry. Khalid knows his mother would never approve of Ayesha either and it should not work.

I really, really enjoyed this. Khalid is a character that is unflinchingly Muslim. He’s very devout, he dresses in a very traditional manner and he is very rigid in his ways as well. Definitely a very Muslim Mr Darcy. He’s also of course, prone to judgement as well. His mother is a very domineering sort of woman, who sees choosing Khalid’s bride as a way of maintaining control over him. Khalid doesn’t care how his actions look to anyone, he is who he is. He’s also a bit socially awkward so when his new boss comes in with assumptions and begins a campaign to try and basically force him out, he doesn’t really know how to negotiate the situation. I think that part of the story was very interesting – Khalid’s boss is representative of how a lot of uninformed white people feel about seeing Muslims who continue to practice their religion openly and frequently, who choose not to shake hands or touch women, who grow beards and who don’t conform to the social norm in terms of dress. Khalid is a South Asian Muslim but his boss assumes he’s Middle Eastern (because that’s where all Muslims come from of course), saying he can go back there to where he belongs if he doesn’t like the tasks she’s setting for him (which are not in his job description) completely ignoring the fact that he’s Canadian of South Asian origin.

Few people get the chance to know Khalid well but he’s hard working and very reliable and capable of humour. Definitely a bit straight-laced but he’s helpful with a good heart and a few little hidden depths. He takes some getting used to, to allow his character to really show. I really enjoyed his devotion to cooking and how it makes him feel – and the fact that he feels as though this is a piece of himself he has to hide away. Ayesha isn’t a good cook and doesn’t enjoy it and has no real time for the traditional meetings of families in arranging marriages. She doesn’t care to fulfil a quiet role being seen and not heard. I really loved her relationship with her grandparents, particularly her grandfather who is a very interesting man. Her cousin is extraordinarily tedious (a modern day Lydia), indulged and spoiled, beautiful and lazy. She is happy to put her hand up for something and then leave Ayesha to do all the work. She’s also happy to deliberately hurt her cousin’s feelings as well. The stuff about Ayesha’s own parent’s marriage was really interesting too and I think her perceptions of that had definitely influenced the way she herself felt about marriage and the role it played.

This was highly entertaining but also didn’t shy away from highlighting discrimination and ostracisation in the workplace. I enjoyed the humour and the differing family relationships – Khalid’s family was much different to Ayesha’s and her immediate family was different to that of her uncle, etc. This all blended together really well.

8/10

Book #18 of 2019

 

I’m counting this towards my 2019 Reading Women Challenge, hosted by the Reading Women Podcast. I’m ticking off prompt #11: A book featuring a religion other than your own.

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Review: 99% Mine by Sally Thorne

99% Mine 
Sally Thorne
Piatkus
2019, 368p
Copy courtesy Hechtete AUS via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Crush (n.): a strong and often short-lived infatuation, particularly for someone beyond your reach . . .

Darcy Barrett found her dream man at age eight – ever since, she’s had to learn to settle for good enough. Having conducted a global survey of men, she can categorically say that no one measures up to Tom Valeska, whose only flaw is that he’s her twin brother’s best friend – oh, and that 99 percent of the time, he hasn’t seemed interested in her.

When Darcy and Jamie inherit a tumble-down cottage from their grandmother, they’re left with strict instructions to bring it back to its former glory and sell the property. Darcy plans to be in an aisle seat halfway across the ocean as soon as the renovations start, but before she can cut and run, she finds a familiar face on her porch: house-flipper extraordinaire Tom’s arrived, he’s bearing power tools, and he’s single for the first time in almost a decade.

Suddenly Darcy’s considering sticking around – just to make sure her twin doesn’t ruin the cottage’s inherent magic with his penchant for chrome. She’s definitely not staying because of her new business partner’s tight t-shirts. But sparks start to fly – and not just because of the faulty wiring. Soon, a one percent chance with Tom is no longer enough. This time around, Darcy’s switching things up. She’s going to make Tom Valeska 99 percent hers.

Two and a half years ago, or thereabouts, I read Sally Thorne’s debut novel, The Hating Game and it became an absolute favourite. I re-read it obsessively – I absolutely adored those characters. I’ve been waiting quite eagerly for her next book although I know it obviously won’t be another The Hating Game. However the weight of expectations plays a role in how we feel about books, so I’m stating upfront that quite possibly that has contributed here.

I didn’t love this. I actually really struggled with it and considered DNF’ing it more than once. It’s not the writing per se, I think for me the biggest problem I had was just the characters. I didn’t connect with either of them (the main two, Darcy and Tom). I found Darcy very abrasive and overly, deliberately quirky, which is something I never enjoy in a character. So much is made of how ‘different’ she is – her hair, her dress, her jobs, her inability to settle down, her free spirit. She’s also very forward and a lot of the way she thinks/talks/acts towards Tom made me think vaguely of sexual harassment and objectification. I tried role switching, making it like Darcy was a man, thinking/saying etc these things towards a female character and it made me pretty uncomfortable. Darcy also has a heart condition, which is referred to every other page or so but don’t ask me what it is because the book never makes it clear because Darcy mostly ignores it. It’s serious enough that she should be having regular visits to her cardiologist but she doesn’t bother because she doesn’t want to know, and she’s a free spirit etc. Everyone keeps talking about how this heart condition could literally kill her but she just pretends it isn’t there for almost the entire book and then at the end it’s fixed mostly off page almost as a by-the-way type of thing, which was a bit weird.

Tom is mostly pleasant, although sometimes his character seems inconsistent. At first he’s this super nice, shy, blushes-at-everything-Darcy-says sort of guy but at some stage he Hulks out into some possessive, over-protective Alpha male when the book tries to make it super obvious that Darcy can handle herself (she works in a bar frequented by types that need handling) except when she can’t and needs help. There’s a lot of unnecessary drama surrounding Tom’s quote on the renovation and how he’s Darcy’s twin brother’s best friend and the whole ‘my sister is off limits’ thing has never really done it for me. Darcy’s brother is mostly a jerk until suddenly he’s completely not and the random way he turns out to have a relationship with someone is really bizarre. In fact, if I had to think of one word to describe this book, it’d probably be random. Things just happen randomly, things are randomly not explained, the entire conflict for the last part of the book makes no sense and I found the resolution very weak.

There were parts of this that I did enjoy – some of the banter was funny, I liked the home renovation stuff (I enjoy reading books set around that sort of thing) and I really loved Darcy’s friend and her underwear business. That was amazing. But I think for me the book needed more scenes to share the background of Darcy, Jamie and Tom, flesh out their childhood and teenage connection. It didn’t really seem to translate well to the current day setting without that and I just wanted a bit more. I didn’t really feel much chemistry between Darcy and Tom unfortunately and they just weren’t a couple that I felt myself passionately behind. This just wasn’t my sort of story.

6/10

Book #194 of 2018

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Review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)
Fiona Barton
Transworld Publishers (Random House UK)
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The New York Times bestselling author of The Widow returns with a brand new novel of twisting psychological suspense about every parent’s worst nightmare…

When two eighteen-year-old girls go missing in Thailand, their families are thrust into the international spotlight: desperate, bereft, and frantic with worry. What were the girls up to before they disappeared?

Journalist Kate Waters always does everything she can to be first to the story, first with the exclusive, first to discover the truth–and this time is no exception. But she can’t help but think of her own son, whom she hasn’t seen in two years, since he left home to go travelling.

As the case of the missing girls unfolds, they will all find that even this far away, danger can lie closer to home than you might think…

I read the first book in this series, The Widow several years ago now but somehow I missed the second book, The Child. And in fact I was only aware of this one because the publisher offered me a copy. It goes to show how hard it can be sometimes, to keep up with new releases and track a series. Having really enjoyed The Widow and liked this one as well, I am definitely going to have to go back and check out The Child.

Journalist Kate Waters gets the heads up that two young girls have gone missing over in Thailand. They’re supposed to be on the trip of their lives after high school, before getting on with the rest of their lives. It has been meticulously planned and facebook and social media and texting allow the girls to check in every day. When a few days go by with no word, when the girls were supposed to contact their parents to open their school results and their social media has gone dead, the alarm is raised.

This brings in Detective Bob Sparkes and he and Kate have always had quite an amicable working relationship. Kate perhaps feels attached to this case because her own son has dropped out of Uni and disappeared to the other side of the world (Thailand also, to be exact) to ‘find himself’. They hear from him rarely and I think this sort of thing is Kate’s worst nightmare. And something she probably this about every day.

This escalates from a missing person case where mostly people are trying to reassure the parents that kids do this all the time. They get distracted, forget to update their social media. Probably just took off somewhere on an adventure and forgot to inform anyone. And that is probably something that might’ve been the case years ago but in this day of social media where you can basically update your life in real time and communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world in seconds, it’s more difficult to believe. There aren’t too many places you can’t get wifi these days and even remote places in Thailand provide the perfect instagram opportunities. The reality of the girls’ disappearance is far grimmer.

There’s a large portion of this book devoted to the Thai police’s deliberate incompetence in an investigation which results in the UK having to step in and basically take over and start everything from scratch. This just delays everything, means that crucial evidence is probably lost and gives the parents of the girls even more distress. It seems like the Thai police are bought and paid for and they’re willing to write off foreigners as easy come, easy go. Without the dedication of Kate Waters (who ends up personally connected to the case when it seems as though her son may be involved somehow) and Bob Sparkes, it seems as though the parents would never have gotten the answers they needed to help.

Which makes me wonder how often something does go wrong overseas for travellers and how it might just be easier to write it off as an accident or this or that and close the case, rather than highlight the dangers of travelling to what is a highly popular tourist area. Lots of people go to Thailand from all over the world – it’s famously cheap, there are many beautiful beaches and there’s also a lot of interesting cultural stuff as well.

Kate is a journalist who becomes the story in this and I found that part to be very well done. Because of her experience, she’s able to recognise the tricks her colleagues are pulling on her in order to get her comfortable and try and get the story. She suddenly gets to experience what it’s like to be relentlessly door knocked and having people invading her privacy and printing things about her family. Digging into her son’s past – in fact they dig up things about her son that Kate and her husband don’t even know. They’re forced to recognise that much of what he’s told them has been a lie and they really have no idea what he’s been up to the entire time he’s been overseas. Likewise much is made of the ‘social media life’ – where you can make everything look perfect, portray that you are having a fabulous time, that everything is amazing so that all the people at home are envious and don’t realise that the reality can actually be very different. This is what happens with the two girls – because one of them has so many #livingthelife posts, her parents don’t realise that things are going wrong until she completely disappears. It takes time to gather the information they need, because no teen on holiday ever tells their parents what’s really going on!

I really enjoyed this, especially the multiple view points. I felt that way of telling it gave such a good overall picture and the reader was never really left waiting for other characters to finally stumble on things. I also liked the swerve and the way in which Kate was forced to examine her career and what it’s like to be on the other side of a press barrage. I appreciated her professional relationship with DS Sparkes and how that was tested once it became clear that Kate’s son was somehow connected but also how they worked through it, both realising that their jobs are somewhat easier when they cooperate, trade information and work together respectfully.

I honestly need to keep better track of this series! Time to go back and read The Child.

8/10

Book #17 of 2019

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