All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Drifter by Anthea Hodgson

The Drifter
Anthea Hodgson
Penguin Random House AUS
2016, 354p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Cate Christie is a party girl, unable to commit to anything, until she is involved in a tragic accident that changes everything. To escape her guilt and her parents’ bitter disapproval, Cate leaves Perth for her aunt Ida’s isolated farm in country Western Australia.

Henry is a drifter, a young swagman-like character who wanders onto the Christie family property and takes up residence in a disused shed. With secrets of his own, the last thing he wants is to get tangled up in Cate and Ida’s lives.

Against their own better judgement, the fates of Cate and Henry and Ida inexorably intertwine and they learn to face the realities of life, death and letting go.

A witty, charming and moving debut rural romance about what makes a good death and, more importantly, what makes a good life.

Recently a friend recommended this to me with the claim that it was the ‘perfect rural’. I thought I definitely had to try something that had attracted such high praise because I’m always looking for good rurals, I find them really perfect for when I am either in a reading slump or can’t decide what to read next. My local library had it sitting on the shelves so I thought I would check it out and now I am definitely going to have to buy my own copy for my keep shelf because I absolutely loved this.

Cate is a party girl, living up life in the city in a blur of nights out with her friends and temporary jobs that don’t really go anywhere. She’s about the experience and her parents have expressed their frustrations at her lifestyle but Cate doesn’t care because she’s too busy having fun. Until a tragic accident sends her fleeing the city to her aunt Ida’s isolated farm. When Cate arrives she realises that her idea to stay at the farm and ‘help out’ might not be such a bad one. Aunt Ida is clearly struggling with some things and she could definitely use a hand around the place. And someone to deal with the fact that there’s a stranger bunking down on the property.

Cate negotiates the stranger, Henry’s help around the farm for some of the more muscle jobs in exchange for staying in residence. Both Cate and Henry have secrets but almost against their will they build a friendship with a definite undercurrent and it is amazing. I loved both of them together so much. Cate is in a real state of almost breakdown and she’s suffering from both grief and guilt in equal measures. She is forced to reevaluate her life and decide if the way she’s been living is the way she wants things to be or is this a good reason to find something that she really wants to do? To make a commitment to something, instead of just drifting from one temp job to the next, banking enough cash for cute outfits and nights out. At first heading to the farm feels very much like Cate is hiding – avoiding her parents and their judgement and demands that she sort herself out as well as other people whom she feels she has caused pain. Cate’s journey of accepting the tragedy of what has happened and moving past it forms the backbone of the entire story. She’s able to find a place that she belongs, forge a new relationship with her Aunt Ida and truly get to know her and also get to know the farm and the local community. Cate becomes involved in the running of the farm and instrumental in bringing it back to life again and she also becomes part of the community as well, participating in bakes and church meetings. It’s a form of acceptance that I’m not sure she really had previously and it means a lot to Cate that even when some discover why she’s there in the first place, they still accept her and support her.

The characters in this novel are so full of life and realness (is that a word?). I loved the character of Aunt Ida and the way that she and Cate reconnect and her memories of her late husband. I feel as though she added a real dose of warmth and humour to the book and she was the sort of character that I believe many readers will identify with as she’d remind them of a grandmother or aunt or great aunt or someone that they know. Aunt Ida’s friends are also colourful and the sort of get-things-done country ladies that are probably the backbone of a lot of small towns. I liked the scenes with them all together, there was a real sense of camaraderie and devotion but in an understated kind of way.

And then there’s Henry. Man did I love Henry. He’s a mysterious, possibly even slightly shady character in the beginning, living in an unused outbuilding, helping himself to a spare fridge. He’s basically minding his own business but has helped Ida out in unseen ways but then finds himself confronted by Cate. Their abrupt interactions give way to something deeper and honestly, I was on board for the whole thing a ridiculous amount. They have oodles of chemistry and deep down, they have a lot in common. I had a fun time guessing Henry’s secret (as well as Cate’s actually) and thoroughly enjoying the ride of their relationship. They both made mistakes but there was also true acceptance between them.

This book made me bawl my eyes out like a million times, so maybe read with tissues! But it’s absolutely amazing, probably one of my favourite reads for the year. Can’t wait for Anthea Hodgson’s next novel, The Cowgirl. The good thing about it taking me so long to read this? I only have a couple of months to wait for that next book.

9/10

Book #178 of 2017

The Drifter is book #54 of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Greatest Gift by Rachael Johns

The Greatest Gift
Rachael Johns
Harlequin AUS
2017, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Mother: female parent of a child

Mum: the woman who nurtures, raises and loves a child

Radio host Harper Drummond lives for her career. Every day she meets fascinating people doing extraordinary things, but has begun to wonder whether there could be something more for her out there. She’s financially secure, happily married to Samuel and has a great group of friends – what more could she want? It’s only when she interviews one special couple that she starts to think about whether she could make a different kind of contribution.

Claire and Jasper Lombard are passionate about their thriving hot air balloon business and know they’re lucky to find such joy in their work and in each other. But while Jasper has accepted that he will never be a father, Claire has found it hard to come to terms with her infertility. She doesn’t want Jasper to regret choosing her over a child in the years to come. Is there a way to give themselves a real chance at being a happy family? Can they find someone who will give them the greatest gift? Or will it come at a greater cost?

Where do I even start with this book? There’s a reason why books by Rachael Johns take up one of the largest sections when my books are arranged by author on the shelves!

At first glance, Harper Drummond and Claire Lombard would have little in common or to draw them together. Harper is a focused career woman, 34 and living and working in Sydney. She works as a radio host, interviewing a wide variety of people – famous people but also interesting people. She does a lot of research and clearly loves her job. She’s married to Samuel, a lawyer who works long hours with the aim of obtaining partnership at his firm. Very early on in their relationship, Samuel and Harper agreed that they never wanted children. They were very happy having a life where they were free to work long hours, socialise and not have much in the way of commitments. They’re even too busy for pets, so there’s no way they’d be able to fit a baby into their lives.

Claire on the other hand, has always wanted to be a mother but a childhood illness stole her fertility. Now she knows that in order to live her dream, she’ll need a very precious gift from someone. But in Australia those gifts are hard to find – egg donation and surrogacy for profit are illegal in Australia and anything done must be altruistic. Claire wants to carry and nurture a baby so surrogacy isn’t the best option for her. Instead she needs someone who might be willing to donate a piece of themselves to her so that she might live out her dream of becoming a mother. Harper is struggling with finding a way of leaving her mark, of doing something to make a difference and so these two women are brought together by a desire to change something.

This book is made to be discussed. It would be such a fabulous option for book clubs or groups of friends. There’s just so much in here that is perfect for a bit of spirited debate. I find egg donation and altruistic surrogacy really interesting because I once offered to be a surrogate mother for a friend of mine and I truly believe I would’ve done it, had circumstances played out in a way that would have allowed it. There’s a lot to unpick about the legal rights and what happens if one person suddenly wants to play more of a role than was previously agreed or circumstances change drastically in the case of the people accepting the donation. Rachael Johns really goes about this book meticulously but also with warmth and sympathy towards all the parties involved. When I was reading this I would find myself frequently pausing just to stop and think about things that the book was throwing up – what would I do in that situation? What would my husband think/say/do if I wanted to do something that was happening? How would we go about it? I found it so interesting on so many levels but this book will also tug at your heartstrings. There’s a lot of emotion in the story, all brilliantly told without feeling overly dramatic. This book is a reminder that life can be cruel but also deliver the greatest joy.

I feel as though I say this in every review of a Johns book but with each new novel she really does grow as a storyteller and writer. As she moves more into the women’s fic/life lit genre she is really tackling some powerful issues and examining different parts of society and life experiences. This book is beautifully written, a page turner from the get go but for me it was just definitely the way the book made me think about my own beliefs and the ability I had to so easily put myself in the characters shoes that really made it such a good reading experience.  I love a book that can really make me consider my thoughts and opinions on various topics and ones that spark a good conversation. This is a fantastic read – definitely a must for Rachael Johns’ fans and if you haven’t tried her books yet then this one would be an excellent place to start.

9/10

Book #175 of 2017

The Greatest Gift is the 53rd book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell

Untidy Towns
Kate O’Donnell
University of Queensland Press
2017, 298p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Seventeen-year-old Adelaide is sick of being expected to succeed on other people’s terms. She knows she just has to stick it out at school for one more year and then she’ll be free. Instead, she runs away from her fancy boarding school back to her sleepy hometown to read and dream.

But there are no free rides. When Addie’s grandad gets her a job at the local historical society, she soon finds out that it’s dusty and dull, just like her new life. Things change when she starts hanging out with Jarrod, a boy who seems full of possibilities. But it turns out he’s as stuck as she is. And Addie realises that when you want something in life, you’ve actually got to do something about it.

A heartfelt tale about love, friendship and finding your own way.

I hadn’t heard of this book before it popped up on my doorstep but I was immediately intrigued. It arrived packaged so beautifully, wrapped in paper that looked like the old Melbourne to Warrnambool train timetable, with a postcard, a little button and a page marker that looked like a V-line ticket before Myki became a thing. For pretty much the entire time I’ve lived in Victoria I’ve also lived on the Warrnambool line although I’m close to Melbourne so really it’s another line by the time it gets to me. But for about six months my husband caught the train to and from Warrnambool twice a week and his family also live in Colac, which is on that line so it’s one of those areas that I’m pretty familiar with.

Adelaide is 17 and only has something like 8 months of school to go when she realises that she can’t do it anymore. She walks out of her Melbourne boarding school and gets on a train bound for home. She seems paralysed, suddenly having a crisis of confidence with the weight of expectation. All her life she was referred to as the smart one who would go far, there was talk of medicine and law and all of a sudden she seemed to realise that she didn’t know anymore what she wanted. She just knew that she couldn’t stay at the school a moment longer, nor did she want to enroll at the local high school. It’s unacceptable that she do nothing so her grandfather negotiates a job for her at the local historical society of her small town.

With so much expectation placed on teens sitting their year 12 exams, it feels authentic to read about a teen who chooses not to do it that traditional way anymore, to give herself some time to breathe and decide what she really wants, rather than applying for what people expect and marking time doing a degree that she doesn’t want to do. I admired her for that, because I don’t think it’s the easy option that some people might assume, especially when you return from a fancy Melbourne boarding school. So many people would be asking that dreaded question about “what do you want to be” or “what are you doing when you finish school” and at 17, half the time you don’t know. You don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life, if what you’re passionate about now will be the same thing you’ll be passionate about at 25, 45, 65. Sometimes, like Addie, you just can’t decide at all what it is that you want to do and she doesn’t seem to want to waste time when she doesn’t know. To be honest I could say so much about the school system and the pressure of deciding what you want to do and competing with the entire state for the chance to be able to do it. So much riding on a score.

I really enjoyed reading a YA novel in a small town setting. I’ve read so many centred around the cities of Melbourne and Sydney that it was really nice to be in a tiny town with a very different feel, atmosphere wise. There’s a university in Warrnambool that seems within commuting distance but for many, furthering their education requires moving to Melbourne, so do many job prospects other than continuing on the family farm. Addie has to address the fact that she kind of distanced herself from her old friends when she moved to Melbourne to go to school but it isn’t long before she slips back into a group to socialise with, a group that includes a boy named Jarrod.

And so there is a romance in this book and it’s funny and sweet and really awkwardly authentic. The two of them are cute together but both of them make mistakes and have to negotiate getting to know each other in this tiny town with parents and grandparents and family reputations. I liked how present Addie’s family were. Her mum was great – definitely far more laid back than my parents would’ve been if I’d told them I was jacking in school in year 12 with so little time to go! But Addie’s mother, whilst being remarkably accepting, also manages to get Addie to agree to what she wants as well in a way that doesn’t involve drama. I also really liked Addie’s evolving attitude towards the historical society throughout the book, as well as her role and how she views the people that give their time to it. This book reminded me that adults can be very present in a YA novel and have a wonderful positive impact on the younger characters.

I think this is a beautifully written book. It beautifully showcases life in a small town for teenagers but I really enjoyed the relationship aspect of the book – family, friendship and romantic. All are wonderfully done and this book definitely left me wanting more from Kate O’Donnell.

8/10

Book #164 of 2017

Untidy Towns is book #50 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Baby Doctor by Fiona McArthur

The Baby Doctor
Fiona McArthur
Penguin Michael Joseph
2017, 331p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House Australia

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

‘The right people turn up in your life at the right time if you let them.’

Sienna Wilson is living her dream in the city – a rewarding obstetrics job in a leading hospital, an apartment with a view, and handsome Sergeant McCabe on call whenever she needs him. The last thing she wants is a posting to investigate a medical mystery in a remote outback town.

But on arrival in Spinifex, Sienna is brought to life in new and exciting ways. In a community riddled with secrets, she meets troubled young barmaid Maddy, and tough publican Alma, both with their secrets to hide.

As they draw strength from each other, new friendships, new loves and new babies are born, proving that when strong women join forces, they can overcome even the greatest odds.

A couple of years ago I read Red Sand Sunrise from Fiona McArthur and absolutely loved it so when I received this one in the mail I was very excited to see that it featured some familiar faces, namely obstetrician Sienna, who gets her own story here. Now working in Sydney, Sienna is summoned to the remote Queensland outback town of Spinifex by formidable local matriarch Blanche McKenna who wants Sienna to investigate an unusual occurrence in the area where three babies were born with the same birth defect. Location and timing are their only common factors and Blanche wants this investigated and fixed so that it doesn’t keep happening. She has the money to ensure that Sienna’s hospital employer are happy to see her go and it will of course bring Sienna closer to her sometime lover, Sergeant Douglas McCabe, who is the Spinifex local officer.

Sienna is the quintessential city girl with her designer clothes, high heels, harbourside apartment and reliance on technology and excellent coffee. She’s also a career girl who has worked hard to get where she is and has visions for her future and her department. The fact that she is granted a bit of bargaining power with her boss thanks to Blanche’s donation is one reason why Sienna is okay with heading north – and Sergeant McCabe might be another. Also I think the idea of a medical mystery (and the chance to perhaps solve one) intrigues Sienna and taps into her professional ambitions.

When Sienna arrives in Spinifex she has ideas of staying with Douglas that he quickly vetoes, saying it’s not a good look for his reputation and standing in the town. Instead accommodation has been arranged for Sienna at the local pub where she meets tough publican Alma, who enjoys a flutter on the ponies and hides a painful secret loss from her past, as well as worker Maddy. Sienna’s keen eye notices something about Maddy almost straight away and she hopes that when she employs the young woman to help her with data that Maddy might open up to her about her troubled situation.

Despite her lack of desire to be in a small town, Sienna does seem to settle in there quite well and scores herself an office with internet and an assistant in record time so that she can begin her research and her investigation. It’s a very unusual birth defect to occur three times so close together in such an area and Sienna has only some vague ideas she needs to see if she can hammer into possible genuine hypothesis. I found the mystery and Sienna’s research into it really interesting. It definitely went in directions that I did not expect, which was great.

I also really liked the character of Maddy, a shy young woman who is experiencing some shame at her situation and isolation. There are people there for her, Maddy just needs to be brave enough to ask for and accept the help that they would offer. She retreats into herself but her planning and preparation has to be commended. Maddy is very smart and I would seriously love to see her pop up again in a book in the future so that we can see how she is doing. Her journey was very important and tackles a situation that’s really a very unfortunately common scenario in Australia at the moment and Maddy could’ve easily become a more gruesome statistic. Maddy contributed a real balance to Sienna’s quite brash personality and Alma, the tough publican was another older woman who shines, which seems a common theme in Fiona McArthur’s books.

I did find it a bit funny that Douglas was so adamant about Sienna not staying there and about them not really showcasing that they were, if not in a relationship, then ‘intimately acquainted’. It felt a little bit outdated but this was a very small town – honestly I’m not sure if it was tiny town morals or Douglas himself. He and Sienna were very different but they did work together. I liked their interactions in the previous novel and it had developed nicely in the time between that book and this one. It was also great to catch up with Eve, Sienna’s sister again, as well as her mother-in-law, Blanche McKay. Made me want to read Red Sand Sunrise all over again.

Another really enjoyable rural romance from a very strong author who always creates a great story. I love the intricacy to this one, there’s so much more than what meets the eye and Fiona McArthur’s own background in midwifery really does give such a solid believability to the ins and outs of the plot as well as a focusing on issues in rural medicine, which I find really interesting and I don’t come across a lot. As soon as I finish one book, I’m always looking forward to the next one.

8/10

Book #163 of 2017

The Baby Doctor is book #49 in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: Secrets Between Friends by Fiona Palmer

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Book #155 of 2017

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

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Blog Tour Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Book #150 of 2017

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

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

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

Visit Lisa Bigelow’s website 

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Review: Chrissy And The Burroughs Boy by Cathryn Hein

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

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Book #136 of 2017

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

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Review: The Eye Of The Sheep by Sofie Laguna

The Eye Of The Sheep
Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin
2015, 308p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

“Ned was beside me, his messages running easily through him, with space between each one, coming through him like water. He was the go-between, going between the animal kingdom and this one. I watched the waves as they rolled and crashed towards us, one after another, never stopping, always changing. I knew what was making them come, I had been there and I would always know.”

Meet Jimmy Flick. He’s not like other kids. He finds a lot of the adult world impossible to understand – especially why his Dad gets so angry with him. Jimmy’s mother Paula is the only one who can manage him. She teaches him how to count sheep so that he can fall sleep. She holds him tight enough to stop his cells spinning. It is only Paula who can keep Jimmy out of his father’s way. But when Jimmy’s world falls apart, he has no one else to turn to. He alone has to navigate the unfathomable world and make things right.

Sofie Laguna’s first novel, One Foot Wrong received rave reviews, sold all over the world and was longlisted for both the Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s Awards. In The Eye of the Sheep, her great originality and talent will again amaze and move readers. In the tradition of Room and The Lovely Bones, here is a surprising and brilliant novel from one of our finest writers.

Usually I have a disinterested relationship with prize winners. There’s been very few that I’ve read and really loved but I had heard so many good things about this book from so many different corners and the cover was so lovely that I decided that I absolutely had to give it a go. It appears that August is the month of reading books that have been on my TBR shelf for some time. I chucked this in the car and read it a few chapters at a time at school pick up. My kids’ school is super busy and if you want a good park you’d better get there 30-40m before school even ends. That’s perfect because it gives me some good reading time (and some amusement watching people attempt to reverse park). This is definitely a book to challenge that distant relationship.

Jimmy Flick is definitely an unusual sort of child. He doesn’t really read social cues, he has trouble expressing his emotions adequately and reading tense situations and he tends to kind of explode when he can’t really process what is happening. His father Gavin works in Altona at some sort of plant and doesn’t really possess the patience to cope with Jimmy’s differences. Frustrated with aspects of his life, Gav often seeks solace in the bottle. Days his dad drinks beer aren’t too bad but Jimmy and his brother Ned know that when their dad reaches for the Cutty Sark in the cupboard, it’s going to be a bad night and they’re best to make themselves scarce. Because the narrative is Jimmy’s and he’s a 6yo child with learning and processing difficulties, he’s not really aware of what is happening between his mother and his father after his father has been at the bottle too much. His innocence of the situation makes it all the more hard to read.

Everything that happens in this book is told through Jimmy’s eyes. He provides the insight into his parent’s marriage, his father’s struggles, particularly after losing his job and the tension in the family as his older brother Ned grows bigger and stronger and less tolerant of Gav’s ways after being at the bottle. But it isn’t until something terrible happens to Jimmy that the entire family dynamics alter drastically and Jimmy and his mother are left on their own. His mother is unwell (chronic asthma) and is also floundering with the decisions she has made. Her illness is getting worse but so is her ability to cope with it and she withdraws, keeping her and Jimmy isolated from the world with some devastating consequences.

This book broke my heart in so many ways. Jimmy’s childlike (well he is a child, but his narrative reads younger and less aware than a child of his age, as he grows in the novel) makes everything so heightened, be it his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s illness and the terribleness that comes after. Jimmy is so beautifully portrayed – his innocence, his struggles to deal with things like school and even tense situations at home and the methods Paula (his mother) has developed for coping with his outbursts and for calming him down. Her devotion to Jimmy is never ending and he is the catalyst for a decision that changes everything.

Despite his difficulties…or perhaps because of them? Jimmy is such a brave character. It doesn’t appear that he really processes danger or difficult situations and because of this he can be easily manipulated but he also throws himself into things anticipating the reward at the end. Jimmy’s journey is truly devastating at times, he loses so much and his ability to express how he feels is severely stunted so no one around him is really grasping the severity of his situation (or they don’t care, which in some cases, is also quite possible). This book made me feel so much – I was so sad for Jimmy and at times it also made me blisteringly angry for him as well.

The writing is beautiful and clever – it takes a little while to get used to being in Jimmy’s head (perhaps a bit longer for me because I was reading this in snatches every day) but once you settle into the rhythm it’s such a genuine voice and it enhances the story incredibly. Sofie Laguna has a new book due out next month and after this, it’s a must read for me.

8/10

Book #133 of 2017

The Eye Of The Sheep is book #43 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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Review: The Road To Ruin by Niki Savva

The Road To Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government
Niki Savva
Scribe Publishing
2016, 326p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Kevin Rudd was given no warning, but even he lasted longer than Abbott. Julia Gillard had plenty of warnings, but even she lasted longer than Abbott.

Abbott ignored all the warnings, from beginning to end — the public ones, the private ones, from his friends, his colleagues, the media.

His colleagues were not being disloyal. They did not feel they had betrayed him; they believed he had betrayed them. Their motives were honourable. They didn’t want him to fail; they wanted the government to succeed, and they wanted the Coalition re-elected.

Abbott and Credlin had played it harder and rougher than anybody else to get where they wanted to be. But they proved incapable of managing their own office, much less the government. Then, when it was over, when it was crystal-clear to everyone that they had failed, when everyone else could see why they had failed, she played the gender card while he played the victim.

In The Road to Ruin, prominent political commentator, author, and columnist for The Australian Niki Savva reveals the ruinous behaviour of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Based on her unrivalled access to their colleagues, and devastating first-person accounts of what went on behind the scenes, Savva paints an unforgettable picture of a unique duo who wielded power ruthlessly but not well.

This is not usually my sort of book. For a start, I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction of any description and I generally don’t pick subjects I don’t like. I’m not a Tony Abbott fan by any description, nor am I an (Australian) liberal voter (for the Americans, it’s basically our equivalent of Republicans). But I had to admit, after all the turmoil in Australian politics from 2007 onward, I was curious. Abbott was a ruthless Opposition leader during a tumultuous Labor period and he finally wrested victory in a 2013 election after Labor had become a joke of in fighting and trading the leadership (and therefore, the Prime Ministership) back and forth like a couple of kids arguing over a toy. It was widely believed that a change would bring stability and consistency back.

All of the LOLs because after Abbott sat back and watched as Labor imploded as he waged a vicious campaign, it turned out that the top job wasn’t as easy as the whole pointing out what the top person was doing wrong. Abbott was, quite frankly, probably even more of a disaster than Rudd and Gillard put together. Disclaimer: I like Julia Gillard. She was actually my local member and although there was a savage backlash against her after the leadership spill, I do wonder what might’ve happened if she’d just been left alone to get on with it. Instead she was constantly undermined by Rudd, savaged by Abbott and the Press about personal things as well as professional and little attention was paid to the things she was doing/wanted to do. Instead all the focus was on when she would lose the leadership, if there was going to be a challenge, how come she wasn’t married, why was her partner a hairdresser (that’s weird, isn’t it? No, not really homophobic press), why didn’t she have any children (that’s also weird, hey? Also, not really) and she’s got a big ass and wears horrible clothes.

A brutally efficient Opposition Leader, Abbott proved woefully inadequate as a Prime Minister, dithering around doing little and delegating to his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. This book examines just how dysfunctional the two of them were as a pair and how it brought down their government and led to the situation where a spill for the top 2 jobs (PM and Deputy PM) was enacted and Abbott was shown the door. For all his talk, Abbott lasted less time in the top job than either Rudd or Gillard and arguably had a much kinder time due to the influence of a press sympathetic to the right wing (thanks Rupert Murdoch, Alan Jones et al). Despite numerous warnings from well, just about everyone, Abbott steadfastly refused to sack his Chief of Staff, an apparently domineering woman prone to temper tantrums, screaming abuse, sulks and methods that isolated Abbott from almost everyone, including key members of his party and backbenchers who had concerns. She ran an office where everything had to be routed through her and often concerned herself with things like picking flowers or meals for banquets, meaning that important paperwork piled up on her desk and nothing got done. If someone offended Credlin or she didn’t like them, then that person wouldn’t get an audience with the PM. Quite often Abbott made people apologise to Credlin after she had screamed at them or after she had gotten angry about something.

I’m not really interested in whether or not they were having an affair (ugh) because their personal life isn’t my business. But never before had a Prime Minister and his CoS had a relationship like those two did. She fed him from her plate, fixed his hair and make up, accompanied him on holidays and basically guarded his office like an over zealous guard dog. She tried to do everything but the jobs she was doing are not meant for one person, they’re meant for many, which meant that a lot of things began to slide. It created a toxic working environment and atmosphere and Abbott was told many times, if you do not sack her, you will end up losing. He either could not or would not believe it…..right up until Malcolm Turnbull trounced him in a vote for leadership of the Liberal party and therefore, the Prime Ministership. He seemed to operate under some sort of delusional bubble that everything would be fine – he was the meme of that person you see going “This is fine, this is fine, totally fine” as the entire world goes up in flames around them. He is basically Ross from Friends in the episode “The One Where Ross Is Fine”.

Niki Savva was once an advisor to Peter Costello (former Treasurer in John Howard’s lengthy Liberal government reign) and she seems firmly entrenched in the Liberal Party and its ideals so at times this book seems somewhat sympathetic, even as its critiquing Abbott’s mistakes. There’s also no opportunities lost to take a few snide shots at the previous Labor government and its leaders as well. However the book is still quite savage on Abbott and Credlin with plenty of named sources who were prepared to talk and offer up some examples and stories about what life was like under this regime in the office and I’ve read that zero of the claims made in the book have been publicly disputed since its publication. There’s no comment from either Abbott or Credlin themselves, although Savva does include instances when one or the other or both called for her dismissal from writing a column in a national newspaper and his requests to her to stop criticising his Chief of Staff whilst Abbott was still in power. It seemed throughout this novel that Abbott’s primary concern was always Credlin – who was criticising her, who was upsetting her, who was not respecting her. He deferred to her time and time again like a nervous child checking with his mother for approval before doing anything. Ultimately it seemed that he rated her above his desire to be Prime Minister because he failed to heed the warnings and his devotion to her cost him the thing he had worked so hard to obtain.

I enjoyed this. Even if it was just for the perverse pleasure of reading about the downfall of a politician I didn’t like and whose values I do not share.

7/10

Book #134 of 2017

 

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Review: The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

The Way Back
Kylie Ladd
Allen & Unwin
2017, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

All she wanted was to escape. But why does she still feel trapped. A gripping psychological drama by the author of Mothers and Daughters and Into My Arms.

Charlie Johnson is 13 and in her first year of high school. She loves her family, netball and Liam, the cute guy who sits next to her in Science – but most of all she loves horses and horse-riding. Charlie’s parents have leased her a horse, Tic Tac, from the local pony club, but one day they go out for a ride in the national park and only Tic Tac returns…

Four months later, long after the police and the SES have called off the search, Charlie is found wandering injured and filthy, miles from where she was last seen. Her family rejoice in her return, but can anyone truly recover from what Charlie’s been through? When a life has been shattered, how do you put the pieces back together? 

I’ve read a lot of police procedurals and psychological thriller/suspense novels about the race to save someone from an abductor or a vicious serial killer. This isn’t one of those sorts of books.

Instead this book is more focused on the ‘after’ – the what happens after a young teenager is taken against her will and held captive for almost four months in a remote area of a national park by a reclusive and troubled man. That Charlie would return isn’t a question when the reader picks up this book (unless you don’t read blurbs, but in that case you’re probably not reading reviews either) but it’s more how she will return….mentally. How will she cope with what has happened and be able to move on? How will her parents and brother deal with what happened to her while she was taken and the resulting media frenzy that always accompanies such a thing.

Charlie is a horse-mad teenager who spends most of her free time at the stables where she leases a pony named Tic Tac. She’s just started high school and is struggling through the newness of that, of being a high schooler and the negotiating of new friendships, boys, etc. Charlie is a really strong character, she never stops fighting, despite the fact that she is the one in the position of victim, of vulnerability, of relying on someone else who is keeping her captive for the very basics to keep her alive. Still though, she is thinking, trying, planning even as she’s being beaten down and trapped and starved. She backs herself time and time again which for a 13 year old girl was amazingly brave.

Charlie’s parents experience an utter nightmare and the ways in which they cope with her disappearance (or the ways in which they don’t cope, I suppose) were quite fascinating to read about. Charlie’s dad is a fireman, a man of action and he never stops. He spends hours searching, making posters, just constantly doing things in order to get through the days where she’s missing. I found it really easy to put myself in their place, to examine what I would do in such a situation. To be honest I don’t think I’d be the active, always doing things type, always certain that there was still hope. I’d probably the one that fell apart but I guess that would work in my favour, as this book bitingly observes the Australian public like their women openly messily grieving, sobbing in public on television and looking like shit. No calm Lindy Chamberlain or even Rosie Batty types thanks – that makes people uncomfortable because they’re not doing grief “right”.

The role of the media in this book deserves a mention. The media can be a useful tool in a missing persons case in getting the word out to a huge number of people. In the current climate, social media and the immediacy of the 24/7 news cycle means that precious little time is wasted. Photos can be circulated state wide in moments and everyone is walking around looking at twitter or facebook – you don’t even have to be near a televison or watching the news. But the media is very much a double sided sword because they can also be incredibly invasive and unkind in some of the things that go to print, especially when they can’t get their hands on an exclusive story. Some of the media-related things that occur in this story are horrible – psychologically damaging to someone already psychologically damaged. It’s a frustrating element that I think people might not really think about – yes the person is home. Life can go back to “normal”….but it can’t. Because there are so many things that are preventing it from going back to normal and just one of those things are the media packs camped out on the lawns/at the front doors and the stories appearing in various glossies about “What Really Happened!” except they don’t really know what really happened and mostly what’s inside will be whatever some “source close to the family” made up that day. This book is such a thoughtful examination of the after (the title after all is, The Way Back) and it made me think about how detrimental it all must be to continue seeing versions of what happened, some of which bear little or no resemblance to the truth, everywhere you go for people who go through things like what Charlie and her family did. And it’s not just limited to abductions or cases where children are missing but anything really newsworthy. It makes it even harder to return to some sort of ‘normal life’.

I really enjoyed the characterisation in this – Charlie and her more introverted older brother Dan, their mother Rachael who balances hovering somewhat protectively with a full time job and the fireman/stay at home father Matt who is less concerned about homework and asking how things are going. The relationships were intimate but also realistic: the comfortable marriage not without its issues, the breakdowns, the love, the grief. All of the emotions were so well nuanced and made it so easy to connect with both the people and their stories.

Another clever, amazingly well written book from Kylie Ladd examining the intricate thought processes during an unthinkable event from every angle surrounding it.

8/10

Book #130 of 2017

The Way Back is book #42 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

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