All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Bruny by Heather Rose

Bruny
Heather Rose
Allen & Unwin
2019, 424p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

How far would your government go?

A right-wing US president has withdrawn America from the Middle East and the UN. Daesh has a thoroughfare to the sea and China is Australia’s newest ally. When a bomb goes off in remote Tasmania, Astrid Coleman agrees to return home to help her brother before an upcoming election. But this is no simple task. Her brother and sister are on either side of politics, the community is full of conspiracy theories, and her father is quoting Shakespeare. Only on Bruny does the world seem sane.

Until Astrid discovers how far the government is willing to go.

Bruny is a searing, subversive, brilliant novel about family, love, loyalty and the new world order.

How far indeed?

Astrid Coleman works as a conflict resolution officer for the United Nations, helping broker deals in some of the most war torn and dangerous parts of the world. But her home is Tasmania, even though she hasn’t lived there in many years. Her brother is the current Premier, her sister the leader of the Opposition. When the highly controversial bridge that is under construction connecting Tasmania to the small island of Bruny is bombed, her brother begs her to come home and help out, in an official capacity. Astrid is reluctant but she arrives in Tasmania to make peace between the various factions – those that don’t want the bridge and those that are for change.

This book is the very definition of ‘the plot thickens’. It starts off kind of slow, quite methodical, Astrid (Ace to her family) coming back to Tasmania after a lengthy absence and getting to know the key players, who is against the bridge, who is for the bridge, who might have sought to bring it down. What the fact that it has been bombed means in terms of the construction of the bridge and what happens now moving forward. The more Astrid talks to people the more information she gets that slowly starts raising her well trained alarm bells. Even her sister Max is sure, it’s more than just about the bridge. Something greater is going on here, some bigger master plan. And when Astrid finally realises what is going on, it is both an incredibly shocking, unexpected revelation and also, strangely, scarily plausible.

This is a brilliantly constructed story, so much is woven into it. It honours Tasmania and the beautiful landscape as well as serves as a warning for the future. The complex relationships in Astrid’s family were so interesting – their father was a stalwart Labor politician in Tasmania. Then he had one child on either side of the divide – a son that was a Liberal, a daughter that followed him into Labor. And Tasmania is the birth of the Greens as well, so there are three parties vying for supremacy in the up coming election. Despite the fact that Max, Astrid’s sister and JC, her brother and the premier, are at each other’s throats and opposites politically who regularly tear strips off each other in parliament, it’s managed not to affect their sibling relationship. With Astrid back as a supposedly impartial observer and conflict resolution expert, she finds herself desperately hoping that the things she feels she might uncover, won’t affect her own relationship with her siblings.

I really enjoyed Astrid’s family, particularly her elderly father who only speaks in Shakespearean quotes after quite a severe stroke. He used to be an actor and it seems as though the quotes are what has stuck when he cannot communicate in other ways. He has a plethora of them at his disposal and seems to politely interject them into conversation at the most relevant moments. His granddaughter, one of JC’s daughters, amuses herself by googling them for the play reference and keeps a record of the ones he speaks. Despite the fact that he cannot really communicate with Astrid except in pithy one liners from plays that are hundreds of years old, the two of them have a beautiful relationship that leaps off the page. She knows how much he loves them, perhaps loves them enough for two parents as Astrid has a somewhat more difficult relationship with her mother who was not what one would describe as maternal.

It concerns me that I feel as though what this book reaches for is not too far outside the realms of possibility. The world is changing – this is set at an undisclosed time in the future. The Queen of England is gone, replaced by a King. America have withdrawn from the Middle East (seems as though the first steps of that have been set in motion) and possess a foreign policy that makes countries like Australia have to look elsewhere for allies. There’s a lot of talk about how much land in Australia has been sold to foreign investment and in this book, fresh milk is flown from dairy farms in Tasmania overseas every week. Tasmania is rich in natural resources and its relatively small population keeps it that way but it’s ripe for over development just as much as anywhere and in Bruny there are already rumblings about various natural industries that are feeling the strain of over-commercialisation. The world’s population is growing and they will have to be fed somehow.

This was a very smart political thriller – it’s not all bombs and explosions like the one that begins the novel, it’s also about the quietness of digging into the background, investigating something based on little else but a suspicion and a hunch. Astrid is very good at what she does and there’s a good reason for that. I loved the reveals that come about 3/4 of the way in, the ways in which they explode across the page and stir up the population. The thing is, it is a thriller but it almost doesn’t feel like reading one. The language and word play is amazing, in times this book feels almost quiet and reflective and then in others it’s such sharp political commentary that it’s almost blistering. It’s the best of a bunch of genres, the family relationships, a bit of romance, the devotion to Tasmania and the profiling of it as a special place that deserves to be left as pristine as possible. The ‘jobs and growth’ bleat of the right in Australia which we’ve been battered with for years now, regimes obsessed with a surplus and willing to sacrifice the environment, health, education and pretty much anything else to get there. The incompetency of Labor to actually get most things done, the idealism of the Greens in their home state.

This kept me riveted – it’s the first of Heather Rose’s books that I’ve read but it definitely won’t be the last.

8/10

Book #175 of 2019

Bruny is book #67 of the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge for 2019

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Review: I Am Change by Suzy Zail

I Am Change
Suzy Zail
Black Dog Books
2019, 340p
Personally purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

They told her that her body belonged to men and her mind didn’t matter. They were wrong.

“What if I don’t want to marry?” Lilian held her breath. She had never said the words out loud. “Not want to marry?” Her aunt frowned. “What else would you do?”

Set in a Ugandan village, Lilian has learned to shrink herself to fit other people’s ideas of what a girl is. In her village a girl is not meant to be smarter than her brother. A girl is not meant to go to school or enjoy her body or decide who to marry. Especially if she is poor.

Lilian has the misfortune to be born a girl in a Ugandan village. All she wants to do is go to school, complete her education and become a teacher or maybe an author. She has these big dreams but because she’s female, it’s likely she’ll be married off in her teens, not long after she becomes a ‘woman’. Her older brother experiences so much more freedom than she does and is waited on hand and foot, experiencing the sort of privilege Lilian can only dream about.

Fortunately for Lilian, she has a father that understands her desire to learn and even though things are hard and he spends most of his time working away, he tries hard to come up with the money for Lilian’s school fees so that she can continue to learn. Even though there are people in her life who encourage her, like her father, like a female teacher at school, Lilian still faces hardships as a young female student at school in Uganda.

This book is a nice little reality check, for how much I take my education for granted. That school, which was something that I just had to do, almost like a chore most of the time, is something that other kids actually dream about getting to do. Lilian is so desperate to go to school, it seems like such a simple thing. But in her world, money for education is spent on boys so that they might one day provide for a wife and raise a family. Girls get married and have their own children, they don’t need such extravagances. Lilian’s mother is a woman who has seen some hard times and she’s determined to preserve her culture and instruct Lilian so that she may as well. She doesn’t understand her daughter, who dreams of something more. Who has no interest in getting married, especially not to someone she doesn’t know and love. Her life is marked by tragedy – the disappearance of one of her older sisters, who like Lilian, did not want marriage and the death of a younger sister, who did not make it past infancy. These events colour her mother’s treatment of her and Lilian’s despair of ever being seen and understood by her mother is so terribly sad at times.

This book was inspired by the stories of 30 real Ugandan girls, who spoke with the author of their experiences. It is those experiences that are used to shape Lilian’s story, of a girl who wants to learn, and the things which girls in Uganda experience. Purity is worshipped and Lilian’s mother is militant about telling her to not ever talk to boys, or let boys look at her. Girls can have their reputations ruined – they alone endure the fallout and some of them are abused by men who are twice their age, taking liberties in exchange for offering starving girls some extra food. One of Lilian’s school friends swaps favours for stationery from rich boys and offers to help ‘hook Lilian up’ in the same way. But Lilian isn’t interested in that, she has a crush on one of her brother’s friends and dreams of them being together one day, him a doctor and her a respected author. She is sure he will be different to others, who expect their wives to stay at home and cook and clean and tend the children that arrive, perpetuating the cycle that Lilian longs to escape.

So much value is placed on marrying Lilian off at what is considered the “right” time – when she’s still young enough to attract a high bride price. She will essentially still be a young teen, fourteen or fifteen years old. The would-be grooms are generally much older, as much as twice the girl’s age. Marrying before sixteen is illegal in Uganda but like several other things in this novel, there appears ways around it. Lilian is taken to her aunt to learn how to please a man and the inference seems to be that Lilian’s aunt will be in the room her first time, to make sure she’s taken her lessons well and that she can provide instruction if need be. Which is horrific in and of itself but in Lilian’s aunt’s day, the aunt would have sex with her new groom in front of her and show her exactly how it was done. There’s not a single bit of emphasis on how a new groom must please his wife and it seems the best thing Lilian can hope for is a husband who at least doesn’t beat her. Every single time she kind of gets a ‘win’ in her determination to finish school, it ends up being one step forward and two steps back.

Imagine fighting to go to school and then when you win the fight, having to spend a week out of every month at home, because you can’t go when you have your period. They can’t afford proper sanitary napkins or the like and many girls use leaves. Apparently in their culture it appears to be terribly bad if boys or men catch even a glimpse of leaked menstrual blood and so the girls spend the time they have their periods at home, missing out on almost a quarter of the learning. It makes it difficult for them to keep up with the male students, which would seem to just further perpetuate the divide. Girls also leave as they get married, leaving the numbers very unbalanced. For girls like Lilian, completing her education isn’t just about finding the money, which is difficult enough in itself, meaning her father must work long hours far from home. It’s also about overcoming cultural expectations, keeping herself strong against the pressure to marry.

I really loved the experience of reading this book. It’s made me search out the stories of other women and girls from Uganda. This book also includes a foreword from one of the women the author met with, who told her story which is incredible. Especially about how she feels, seeing a story she recognises and relates to, on paper.

This is wonderful, confronting, amazing, heartbreaking in some parts but also incredibly feel good in other parts. It’s a huge rollercoaster ride of a book.

9/10

Book #172 of 2019

I Am Change is the 66th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

It’s also the 4th book completed for my Mate-A-Thon Challenge.

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Review: There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett

There Was Still Love 
Favel Parrett
Hachette AUS
2019, 210p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Prague, 1938: Eva flies down the street from her sister. Suddenly a man steps out, a man wearing a hat. Eva runs into him, hits the pavement hard. His hat is in the gutter. His anger slaps Eva, but his hate will change everything, as war forces so many lives into small, brown suitcases.

Prague, 1980: No one sees Ludek. A young boy can slip right under the heavy blanket that covers this city – the fear cannot touch him. Ludek is free. And he sees everything. The world can do what it likes. The world can go to hell for all he cares because Babi is waiting for him in the warm flat. His whole world.

Melbourne, 1980: Mala Liska’s grandma holds her hand as they climb the stairs to their third floor flat. Inside, the smell of warm pipe tobacco and homemade cakes. Here, Mana and Bill have made a life for themselves and their granddaughter. A life imbued with the spirit of Prague and the loved ones left behind.

This is a really hard review to write. I’ve read one of Favel Parrett’s novels before (the first one, Past The Shallows) and I have the second one somewhere, just haven’t gotten around to it. I bought this one on holidays down in Phillip Island at the amazing little bookstore we found there. It was a book I was curious about and I was already starting to see some wonderful things about it around, so it was definitely one I was looking forward to.

I did enjoy this. I just don’t think I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. It’s set during a couple of different time periods and also places – Prague in both 1938 and also 1980 and Melbourne in 1980 as well. I was quite interested in Prague in 1980….. it was not what I expected, sometimes I think I forget how entrenched in Communist rule it was (often by force). Experiencing it through the eyes of people who both lived there their whole lives and also were returning to visit, was enlightening. Also experiencing Melbourne through the eyes of someone who had only lived in Prague was interesting too, particularly the way in which they were overwhelmed by the choices in supermarkets and shops, the many options for the one product. Which was not the way it was in (what was then) Czechoslovakia.

There are a lot of moments in this book that are written with lovely simplicity – such as the reunion between two sisters torn apart by war, that now live halfway across the world from each other. And the ways in which the resentments of a lifetime bubble to the surface, even after just hours in each other’s company again. There’s also a moment where the sister living in Australia faces an ugly moment of racism which is heartbreaking in its deliverance, as seen through the eyes of a young child.

So there are moments here. Beautiful moments that are well written. But I have to admit, were this not such a short novel, my attention would have wandered quite a bit. There are large parts of it where I feel as though I was waiting for something to happen, waiting for more. Some of the moments felt like for me, they needed more fleshing out. I did like the relationship between Mala Liska and her grandfather, but some of the scenes just felt like unconnected bits and pieces of a story.

I admire Favel Parrett’s writing enormously and there were parts of this that I felt were truly wonderful. But as a whole, I just don’t think I connected with it as much as I would have liked. And it’s a struggle for me to find things to say about it – there were bits I liked, there were bits that for me, just felt like they were there.

7/10

Book #162 of 2019

There Was Still Love is the 65th title read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019. 15 titles to go in order to succeed at my goal of 80 books.

 

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Thoughts On: The Innocent Reader by Debra Adelaide

The Innocent Reader: Reflections On Reading & Writing 
Debra Adelaide
Picador
2019, 272p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Books are impractical companions and housemates: they are heavy when you are travelling, and in the home take up a lot of space, are hard to keep clean, and harbour insects. It is not a matter of the physical book, it is the deep emotional connection that stretches back to my early years. Living without them is unimaginable. These collected essays share a joyous and plaintive glimpse into the reading and writing life of novelist, editor and teacher of creative writing Debra Adelaide. Every book I have read becomes part of me, and discarding any is like tearing out a page from my own life.

With immediate wit and intimacy, Adelaide explores what shapes us as readers, how books inform, console and broaden our senses of self, and the constant conversation of authors and readers with the rest of their libraries. Drawing from her experiences in the publishing industry, the academic world, her own life and the literary and critical communities, she paints a vibrant portrait of a life lived in and by books, perfect for any student, bibliophile, editor, or simple: reader.

I don’t think I’ve ever really reviewed a collection of essays before. I find short stories difficult to review and tend to avoid reviewing collections for that reason. Funnily enough I think the last lot of short stories I reviewed was also by Debra Adelaide. But I am interested by people who love books as much as I do and I thought I might identify with this specifically as a reader. After all I think most readers have books that they feel influenced their formative years and Debra Adelaide writes a sort of love letter to one of hers, The Lord of the Rings trilogy here. For her, that was eye opening and she read them at a time when they weren’t hugely popular, unlike when I read them, which was in conjunction with the release of Peter Jackson’s epic movie trilogy. I’d read The Hobbit years earlier and I’m not afraid to admit that I tried the LotR trilogy at about 12 or 13 but got bogged down in the Tom Bombadil section (I don’t think I’m the only one) and I didn’t revisit them until the movies came out. I actually watched each movie and then read the book which is not the usual way in which I do things, but for that it was what worked for me. Adelaide mentions reading the trilogy to her son and him getting bored the first time around – later she realises that if she skips the bits that Jackson skips in his movies, it works much better and I think I kind of felt the same way!

Like the author, I read voraciously as a child, much to the chagrin of older people often within my sphere. I heard quite often, the ‘get your nose out of a book and go and get some fresh air’ or ‘you’ll damage your eyesight’ etc because I was always reading. I also am not sporty and related a lot to the essay in which Adelaide talks of how organised sport can be a form of torture for the uncoordinated, people who would just rather be reading. I hated sport in high school and P.E. – at least as we went up through the years we got more priority to pick and we could pick things less “sporty” like ten pin bowling. Adelaide found a way to avoid sport by simply not signing up and going to the music room to read which worked well until she was caught. I must admit I feel a bit disappointed I never tried such a thing myself. When I got to year 12, we no longer had to do sport so sometimes I’d go to the library. It would be quiet – all the other years were off doing sport, a lot of the year 12 kids went home early as sport was the last three periods on a Thursday. I’d book a computer or find a book and read until it was time to get the school bus home. That was my ideal way of passing a few hours and most of my friends found that a bit weird. I didn’t have any ‘reading friends’ in high school after about year 9, when one of my only kindred spirits moved away. From then on I learned not to talk about books much – no one cared and reading became a solitary thing. I think even now sometimes it’s amazing to me that there are a whole bunch of people out there that love it as much as I do and actually want to talk about it.

There are some other really interesting pieces in here too – I found Adelaide’s talk of reading getting her and her son through after he was diagnosed with leukaemia quite heartbreaking. Her child was probably just a bit younger than my youngest is now and it’s terrible to think of such young children being diagnosed with those types of illnesses and having to put their bodies through the gruelling treatment. Adelaide is quite frank about how reading helped her survive – she read beside his bed as he fought fevers, she read to him when he was well enough, to help distract him I suppose and in a way, continue his education. She didn’t make him do much actual work, but kept up with reading, which I think is really wonderful. I have never had a child become ill like that but I too have found solace in books during really dark times in my life and so I can honestly understand how books were a lifeline for her, something constant to lose herself in.

Adelaide seems to be quite experienced in numerous bookish things – she’s been a reviewer (or written reviews for publication), an editor, is published etc. There’s quite an interesting essay in here on book reviewing which…..I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It doesn’t seem complimentary in some ways (no qualifications, no standards etc). It’s kind of hard to go past this quote:

Book reviewers might flatter themselves that their critical words make a difference, but if they do then it is not a difference felt by the author. In fact the main reaction to a book review, the lasting reaction on the part of the author, is that he or she loathes the reviewer forever. He or she generally forgets the favourable comments and fixates on the unfavourable ones, even if they have occupied a small space in the overall review. Genuine critical reviews, those that engage with a book’s shortcomings, are arguably a waste of time: an author cannot recall the book and rewrite it, and authors wounded by savage comments never consider the criticisms to the extent that they improve the next work….

Yikes. Look I’m not a book reviewer, I’m a book blogger and there’s definitely a difference. But I feel that regardless, reviews are for readers. They’re for people to decide if this is a book they might enjoy engaging with. I don’t know anything about writing as a craft, just what works for me as a reader. And what works for me might for others as well. And conversely, what doesn’t work for me might be what others adore. Reviews give readers a bit of an idea about what they might be able to expect prior to going into a story. Some people enjoy a certain type of read…..and they won’t buy something if it doesn’t give them the happy ever after they want or if like, me, they hate surprise cancer books. Adelaide does qualify with the fact that she’s written reviews and knows their impact and tried to be critically professional but also respectful of a new author. But ultimately once it’s out in the world, it’s for readers (something Adelaide herself states in this book) and everything that comes after that, is for the readers.

6/10

Book #157 of 2019

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Review: Undara by Annie Seaton

Undara
Annie Seaton
Harlequin AUS
2019, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Within the treacherous caves of Undara, a betrayal will test the bonds of friendship and family. A page-turning new eco-adventure for readers who love Di Morrissey. When entomologist Emlyn Rees arrives at Hidden Valley she wants nothing more than to escape her marriage breakdown by burying herself in the research team’s hunt for new species of insects in the depths of the dramatic Undara lava tubes. However, little does she suspect she will be the key to solving a mystery that’s more than one hundred years old.

Travis Carlyle is initially resistant to letting some city folks tramp over his cattle station, but soon the researchers’ findings and a growing friendship with Emlyn bring opportunities to turn around his struggling farm. With a broken marriage behind him and children to care for, Travis needs to plan for the future and this could be his family’s best chance.

But when things start going wrong for the farm and around the dig site, Emlyn and Travis are at a loss to understand why. Are they cursed with bad luck, or is there a more sinister force at play? Are the tall tales of enigmatic stockman Bluey turning true? As the unseen saboteur grows bolder, Emlyn and Travis are caught in a race against time to save the station … and their lives.

Wow, so this was a heck of a read!

Firstly, I didn’t know anything about lava tubes before I read this, so this was also an opportunity to learn about that as well. The book is packed full of information about them but in a way that services the story. Emlyn is an entomologist about to undertake a research project, leaving her ex-husband behind. It’s pretty clear that Emlyn has had a really rough time lately, she’s definitely recovering from some serious injuries and her marriage has broken down, for reasons that are not exactly clear. Her ex husband is worried about her state of mind and about her being alone in such an isolated place before the rest of the team arrive. Although she is alone, the man whose property she’ll be conducting the research on, Travis Carlyle, is not too far away and he’s struggling in similar ways to Emlyn.

For Travis, the family farm has been everything. Times have been hard lately, but Travis is determined to keep going for the sake of his twin teenage sons. They live with their mother now, since she left, along with their two year old daughter and Travis’ life hasn’t been the same since. He resents the intrusion of Emlyn and her research team but he desperately needs the injection of cash they will give him for the inconvenience. It’s that or the gold mining company sniffing around and Travis is determined that the farm won’t be degraded by mining.  Although stand offish around Emlyn at first, the two come to have a sort of understanding, especially when Emlyn thinks she might’ve stumbled on the perfect answer to Travis’ money issues, as well as a way for her to heal herself. The only thing is, there’s someone determined to sabotage everything.

This story has so much in it – Emlyn is clearly grieving, she’s determined to leave her marriage behind as well despite the fact that it seems like she doesn’t really want to. Travis is in the same predicament, his wife having left him a year ago with barely an explanation. I appreciated the way this book took my expectations and turned them upside down. It made me realise how much I’ve become conditioned to expect something when reading now and at first I wasn’t sure if I was going to like having my expectations thwarted but as the book moved on, I realised just how right this path was.

I’ve never been to far north QLD or western QLD so the descriptions of the land were really interesting and provided a great grounding in the setting for me. It’s almost 3000km from where I am to where this book is set – 31hrs without stopping, google maps tells me! It’d probably take 4-5 days to drive that distance and it’d be interesting to see just how many different types of landscape you would go through on that journey. Travis’ life farming in this place isn’t easy, so much relies on the weather and he’s been struggling even more since export methods and laws changed. But he’s so passionate about it, about keeping it within his family for his boys, both of whom are interested in and enjoy working the land but also have different ambitions and thoughts about what they want for their future.

Throughout this book is a sinister sort of side plot which really steps up and takes over about 3/4 of the way through and the way that Annie Seaton built the tension was honestly remarkable. I was actually getting anxiety just reading it and it’s the sort of thing where you just want to keep reading as fast as you can so you can find out how it is all going to play out. It was really expertly done, the usage of the isolation as well as the unusual landscape (the tubes and caves) was really perfect. And the mystery from the past played into the present nicely as well.

I really enjoyed this for the clever story and also for the way it made me think about my expectations and how I think when starting a new book. I liked the challenge that this gave me and how it sort of made me reassess that about my reading habits!

8/10

Book #146 of 2019

Undara is book #63 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Heart Of The Cross by Emily Madden

Heart Of The Cross 
Emily Madden
Harlequin AUS
2019, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

From Ireland to Kings Cross, a legacy of loss and hope echoes across the generations …

Tinahely, Ireland, 1959 Rosie Hart is content leaving her home behind to follow her new husband to Australia. But she soon discovers there is no room for her or their young son in the life he has built in vibrant Kings Cross. As their marriage crumbles, Rosie will need to fight for the golden future her son deserves … until the day her world is shattered and all hope turns to dust.

Eighteen years later, haunted by her past, Rosie is determined her daughter Maggie will follow the path she has set out for her. But when Maggie rejects her plans and moves out of home, all Rosie can hope is that she has also left behind the grief that plagues the Hart name.

Sydney, 2017 When her grandmother dies and leaves Brianna Hart a secret apartment in Kings Cross, Brie wonders what else Rosie was keeping from her. As Brie chases the truth of Rosie’s past she uncovers an incredible story of passion, violence, love and tragedy.

Is the Hart family’s legacy of loss inescapable, or has Rosie gifted her granddaughter with a future of hope?

Emily Madden is one of those authors that I’ve always wanted to read but never quite gotten around to so I was happy to get the chance to check out her latest release. Set over three generations, beginning with Rosie in Ireland migrating to Australia to join her husband Tom and ending with Rosie’s granddaughter Brie having to return home to Australia from overseas after her grandmother’s death.

Rosie marries Tom Fuller swiftly after a short romance, Tom already having planned to leave for Australia. Rosie stays at home in Ireland with their young son for almost three years until Tom is ready for her. When she arrives in Australia, Tom has changed. He’s not the man she knew in Ireland and Rosie is forced to learn to survive in her own way. She meets an array of characters in their new home in Kings Cross, people who support her during her darkest times and people that she supports and comes to love. But tragedy isn’t finished with Rosie yet and in the 1980s, she is determined her young daughter Maggie not squander her potential and make something of her life. But Maggie sees Rosie’s strict love as stifling and unwanted and the two are soon estranged. And then there’s Brie, Maggie’s daughter who ends up being raised by Rosie only to spread her wings and explore the world, leaving Australia and her high school love Josh behind. Now Brie is back and she’s about to unravel the mystery of Rosie’s life and discover some secrets that have been hidden for 50 years.

I really enjoyed a lot of this – especially Rosie’s experience coming to Australia with a young child. She hasn’t seen her husband in nearly three years, he’s never met their son. For the most part, Rosie has been alone but she’s excited to join Tom and make their lives together, even though she worries that Tom’s letters have changed in recent times. It doesn’t take Rosie long to realise that things are not going to be as she expected – Tom is distant, short with their son, takes what he wants from her and spends most of the time he’s not at work drinking in the pub. He has closed world views and Rosie finds herself relying on her neighbours and the proprietors of shops nearby in order to make things work. For a while it looks as though things turn a corner for Rosie, but the greatest of tragedies awaits her.

Brie’s story coming home in 2017 to bury her grandmother and settle her estate is also really enjoyable to read. I really loved that a lot of the story is set around cafes that Rosie used to own, Brie finds herself befriended by one of the new owners and visits there constantly. I love a good, local cafe and I think that this atmosphere was captured really well in the novel. Brie finds herself a new tribe in Sydney as well as connecting with her old school friends, including the boyfriend that she left behind, Josh. There’s still a lot of chemistry between Brie and Josh but there’s also some resentment too, for the way that Brie left Josh behind, for the way that she went about it and how he found out.

There’s an intriguing mystery running through the book, about why Rosie had this secret apartment and how come Brie never knew about it. The answers are there to be pieced together as you read through some of the historical portions of the novel but the confirmation was still quite heartbreaking. This is a lot for Brie to take in coming on top of the death of her beloved grandparent, who was really the only family figure she had in her life that she can remember. She is also at the stage where this trip home kind of makes her reevaluate her whole life and what is important, which would she rather? To take a new job or to make a home for herself, a permanent base with people who love her, with friends and a partner.

However, despite how much I enjoyed a lot of the story, I still do feel that for me, there were a few aspects that needed a bit more time devoted to them or fleshing out, particularly in the case of someone wanting to contest the will. It honestly just seemed like unnecessary drama to stress Brie out and was resolved in the quickest of ways, mostly off page, which, considering the revelations, was a bit disappointing. I felt as though there was some opportunity for closure there, for a better picture. Basically the lawyer tells Brie someone is contesting the will, we won’t know who until this point in time, don’t worry about it. And then later on it’s like well, it’s all fine now. I don’t know how the person who was contesting the will thought they’d be able to do that? And get away with it? There was just a lot of unanswered stuff there that I really felt could have been incorporated into the story, that would’ve been nice. And for me personally, Jack was a problematic character, which was unfortunate as the reader is supposed to like him! But when I was reading him, he just came off as arrogance and control wrapped in a different package.  He wasn’t particularly well fleshed out either, there was a lot about him that remained a mystery to the reader and you just have to presume Rosie had more information. Also, I wasn’t really sure why Rosie chose to keep everything a secret, I guess some things are painful to talk about but there are just so many secrets that don’t really need to be. A lot of things also fell very neatly into place, in some ways, a bit too neatly as well.

This was a very good story that I think, with just a little bit more could’ve made an excellent story. I did really like the glimpse of Kings Cross, such a suburb full of character, in the late 50s and 60s and the way in which the different cultures that made Australia their home were incorporated.

7/10

Book #144 of 2019

Heart Of The Cross is book #62 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle by Sophie Green

The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle 
Sophie Green
Hachette AUS
2019, 425p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

It’s the summer of 1982. The Man from Snowy River is a box office hit and Paul Hogan is on the TV. 

In a seaside suburb of NSW, housewife Theresa Howard takes up swimming. She wants to get fit; she also wants a few precious minutes to herself. So at sunrise each day she strikes out past the waves.

From the same beach, the widowed Marie swims. With her husband gone, bathing is the one constant in her new life.

After finding herself in a desperate situation, 26-year-old Leanne only has herself to rely on. She became a nurse to help others, even as she resists help herself.

Elaine has recently moved from England. Far from home without her adult sons, her closest friend is a gin bottle.

In the waters of Shelly Bay, these four women find each other. They will survive shark sightings, bluebottle stings and heartbreak; they will laugh so hard they swallow water, and they will plunge their tears into the ocean’s salt. They will find solace and companionship in their friendship circle, and learn that love takes many forms.

This is the September read for an online bookclub I am a part of and because the year is going so quick, I only realised the other day so I quickly put in a request at my local library and the book, although checked out until late in the month, was miraculously returned and waiting for me within days. I ended up reading it the day I picked it up, just to make sure I was super prepared for the up and coming discussion!

The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle is set focusing around a small beach town beginning in the spring of 1982. Mother of 2 Theresa has made the decision to take up ocean swimming each morning. She’s a busy mum with a lazy husband who thinks she has let herself go so the only time she can really fit this into her life is at dawn. It isn’t long before she spots Marie, a woman in her 60s who also swims every morning. Marie is a proficient swimmer who has been swimming in the ocean every day for decades. It’s something she used to do with her husband but now that she’s a widow, Marie is on her own again. They begin swimming together, Theresa behind Marie and soon they are joined by Elaine, an English woman who has moved to Australia with her husband. They met and lived their married life in England but now he’s wanted to return home and with their children grown and doing their own thing, Elaine finds herself at a loss in her new country. She doesn’t seem to fit in, until she helps with a rescue at the beach and meets Theresa and Marie. Last to complete the group is Leanne, a young nurse who has only just learned to swim. Although she agrees to swim with the group perhaps for safety reasons, Leanne is determined to hold herself apart and give nothing away. A painful past means she relies on herself and trusts no one.

I really enjoyed this story. Each of the women have interesting backstories and different personalities and the way in which they come together is not this amazing gelling and automatic friendships. They are all prickly in some ways, some more than others, they have misunderstandings and moments where they don’t want to share. They have Theresa who helps bind them all together with her exuberance and friendly personality. The women are in different stages of life – Leanne is the youngest, single, Theresa is about my age, in her late 30s with two children and a husband that needs a royal kick up the backside. Elaine is older, one of her sons is at uni, the other graduated and working and Marie should be enjoying life with her husband after his retirement, however he passed away several years ago, which has left her cash strapped and at a loss with life. Swimming becomes the anchor for all of them and they confide more and more in each other as they spend more time together. And when tragedy strikes one of them (also again, a book that contains my greatest trigger!), the other three pull together with such determination and strength and love in order to help and keep that person’s every day life afloat. I found that the way the story revolved around each lady really gave a strong picture of all their lives. I really appreciated the way the slow bond between the woman formed, and how strong it became. They broke down a lot of barriers within themselves and each other to create something between four women who didn’t have a lot in common to begin with, except swimming.

There’s a lot of charm to this book, it’s a feel-good (despite the elements of sadness and some uncertainty about the future) story with warmth and a really lovely friendship. Women supporting each other without judgement (in some case, learning not to judge, or to let go of the urge to judge) and just being there for each other in many different ways. They each bring something to the group and each come to lean on the other women for emotional support. The friendships become so important to them and quite often it highlights how support from other areas is lacking in their lives. They have created their own village so to speak and it was really lovely to read about that.

I found this a delightful and easy read, a good way to pass a spring afternoon. I have a copy of Sophie’s first book, The Inaugural Meeting Of The Fairvale Ladies Book Club in audio but I don’t really have a lot of luck with audio books – I lose concentration too easily so I think I will have to get myself a print copy.

8/10

Book #143 of 2019

The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle is the 61st book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Matters Of The Heart by Fiona Palmer

Matters Of The Heart
Fiona Palmer
Hachette AUS
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Western Australia, 2019: The Bennets are a farming family struggling to make ends meet. Lizzy, passionate about working the land, is determined to save the farm. Spirited and independent, she has little patience for her mother’s focus on finding a suitable man for each of her five daughters.

When the dashing Charles Bingley, looking to expand his farm holdings, buys the neighbouring property of Netherfield Park, Mrs Bennet and the entire district of Coodardy are atwitter with gossip and speculation. Will he attend the local dance and is he single? These questions are soon answered when he and Lizzy’s sister Jane form an instant connection on the night. But it is Charlie’s best friend, farming magnate Will Darcy, who leaves a lasting impression when he slights Lizzy, setting her against him.

Can Lizzy and Will put judgements and pride aside to each see the other for who they really are? Or in an age where appearance and social media rule, will prejudice prevail?

So I love Jane Austen – I think probably most romance readers do. But there’s no denying that Austen reworks can be very hit and miss. Some are brilliant, others lack anything original and don’t bother to put anything fresh on the take. However, that’s not the case with Fiona Palmer, who reworks Austen into a contemporary setting in rural Australia. This is definitely a first for me in terms of Austen adaptations. This year alone I’ve read one set in Pakistan and one featuring Muslim characters but set in Toronto but it’s great to find one with a very local flavour!

Lizzy Bennett is a passionate farmer, although things have definitely been better at Longbourn. She has recently taken the reins from her father and now most of the decisions made are hers, and she’s trying to get them back into the black. Lizzy is one of five sisters and is part of an overwhelming and boisterously noisy family. The two youngest are still teenagers in school who don’t really understand the precarious money situation. Middle sister Mary is away at university and Jane and Lizzy are the two eldest, with Jane running a nearby daycare centre ‘in town’. When wealthy Charles Bingley purchases the neighbouring property it definitely gets local gossip mills going because Charles is from a very wealthy family with numerous properties and also because he’s quite single. Unfortunately Charles comes with even wealthier friend Will Darcy who definitely gets off on the wrong foot with a lot of people in town, mostly with Lizzy.

It’s a well known plot. And this is just super fun. All the key elements are there – the Bennetts and their loud, messy, slightly down on their luck family with a bit of an embarrassing mother. Beautiful Jane and lovely Charles Bingley and sassy, determined Lizzy and socially awkward Darcy. This is really, really enjoyable reading and I read it in one sitting and loved every bit of it. It’s comfortingly familiar but also just different enough to make you feel like it’s fresh. Palmer reworks the Collins/Charlotte situation slightly and of course in this day and age, the thing that hinges P&P together, Wickham and Lydia, doesn’t work. So that gets a bit of an upgrade too. This has that laid back, rural Australian feel where it’s local rodeos and pub events. Fiona Palmer is an actual farmer so she is hugely knowledgeable which is something she passes on to Lizzy who is passionate about farming and her family property and determined to make it profitable again. She hasn’t had formal higher education but reads voraciously to educate herself on farming practices and best methods etc which means she can talk on just about any subject with skill. The chemistry between her and Darcy is incredibly good and I enjoyed their conversations and the way in which Palmer upgraded Darcy’s interest in Lizzy.

You definitely don’t have to be an Austen fan to read this either and it works perfectly well if you’ve never read P&P at all. Although the characters are based on Austen’s story, they are also fully fleshed and evolved characters in their own right and their concerns and day to day lives are completely different of course. It’s more than just a romance, like P&P was, it also gives social commentary in the same way, mostly about farming difficulties and the struggle to keep smaller, family owned properties afloat as the weather wreaks havoc with crops.

This was a lot of fun, really loved it from beginning to end! If you’re an Austen fan, a rural fan or even just a romance fan, it’s a highly engaging read that I think most will enjoy.

8/10

Book #159 of 2019

Matters Of The Heart is book #60 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019. I’m now 3/4 of the way through my challenge to read 80 books for the year by Australian women authors.

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Review: The Breeding Season by Amanda Niehaus

The Breeding Season
Amanda Niehaus
Allen & Unwin
2019, 263p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The rains come to Brisbane just as Elise and Dan descend into grief. Elise, a scientist, believes that isolation and punishing fieldwork will heal her pain. Her husband Dan, a writer, questions the truths of his life, and looks to art for answers. Worlds apart, Elise and Dan must find a way to forgive themselves and each other before it’s too late.

An astounding debut novel that forensically and poetically explores the intersections of art and science, sex and death, and the heartbreaking complexity of love. The Breeding Season marks the arrival of a thrilling new talent in Australian literature.

I don’t find this an easy review to write. I requested this book for review because I was really interested how it would explore grief, a devastating loss, one that can really either bind couples together or force them apart. But the more I got into this book, the less that grief seemed to dominate the pages. It does in the very beginning, with Elise barely able to move, can’t even get out of bed, can’t or won’t talk to husband Dan, who spends his days wandering their house as the rains beat down, trapped in his own grief, a grief that Elise doesn’t seem to recognise. In the beginning there’s a lot of sympathy for them, to have experienced such a terrible, awful thing and be dealing with it, or trying to. But the more the book went on, the more complicated my feelings became, the more it seemed to leave that actual grief behind and get a bit lost.

This is the sort of book that is very bleak. It begins with the aftermath of an awful event and just kind of keeps piling them on. There’s definitely a chance that some people will struggle with the mood of this book, which is oppressive and humid, feeling just like being trapped in never-ending Queensland rains. Just when you think that there might be an opportunity for hope and a positive future, it’s snatched away and the book takes an even darker turn. It also contains my greatest trigger, which regular readers will know but I don’t particularly want to spoil that aspect of the book here. It’s the sort of thing however, that I feel as though people should be warned about because it can be very distressing to come across it when you’re completely not expecting it.

Unfortunately, although beautifully written in a very literary and lyrical sort of way, this book was just not for me. I found it very difficult to become involved in Elise’s work, which I didn’t find particularly interesting and her decision to remove herself and go on field work was a bit puzzling in the fact that it didn’t seem to play out in any really relevant way. Dan’s actions are predictable from a phone call incredibly early on in the book which for me, made him a character that was difficult to later sympathise with because his actions are so incredibly infuriating. There are twists in this book that do seem to go nowhere and have no real impact on the story and it’s almost like for me, it began to take on a bit too much. It’s not a long book and there are some plot lines in here that seem to come to a bit of an abrupt end, having served no real purpose. I found myself asking quite a bit of ‘why did this happen?’ or ‘what was the point of including that bit in there?’ with no real answers.

5/10

Book #138 of 2019

The Breeding Season is book #59 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019

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Review: The Surprising Power Of A Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

The Surprising Power Of A Good Dumpling
Wai Chim
Allen & Unwin
2019, 392p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family, and the surprising power of a good dumpling.

I had seen this book around a little bit on social media and I thought it sounded really cute so I picked myself up a copy after reading a few good reviews. The cover is really eye catching and lets face it – who doesn’t love a good dumpling?

But this book is so much more than just that cute cover and catchy title. It’s actually a really amazing exploration of mental illness and how it impacts on a family. Anna is about 16, she’s the oldest of three children. Her father works long hours at the family restaurant on the Central Coast in Gosford. As the family now live in Sydney, it’s quite a trek there and back each day and sometimes he doesn’t even bother to return, staying on a pullout bed in his office. Anna’s younger sister is a high achieving scholar at a selective school and their brother Michael is still very young, in early primary school and still requiring quite a bit of care. This often falls to Anna and her sister, because Anna’s mother has times where she cannot even get out of bed.

This is a really complex story which is incredibly well explored. Anna has frustration that she must keep hidden inside and so she puts on a bright face and lies for younger brother Michael, saying their mother is a bit tired and she will be well soon. The family are Chinese-Australian and so there are cultural aspects at play too. Anna’s father is frequently absent and unwilling to discuss the issue of Anna’s mother, perhaps because it seems that it just isn’t talked about. He seems confused and helpless at times, removing himself to the restaurant and leaving the two girls to basically struggle on as best they can, shielding Michael and trying to ensure he gets what he needs both at school and at home. Anna seems reluctant to push the issue, not really knowing how to make her father listen that this isn’t just her mother being tired, that they need some help. And when her mother does finally get out of bed, it’s not because she’s ‘better’. Things end up very bad indeed.

Anna also has struggles regarding school – she is not the stereotypical high achieving student of Asian background that it seems people expect her to be, excelling in maths and science. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and various meetings with her high school careers counsellor leave her frustrated and feeling misunderstood and typecast. There’s pressure to be more, do more, be “worthwhile” but Anna gets a lot of pleasure from helping her father in the restaurant. It’s something she used to do on a regular basis when the family lived close by to it, but now that they live in Sydney, it’s difficult for Anna to be able to undertake that travel as well as do school. She negotiates helping in the school holidays which is how she meets Rory, the new delivery driver for the restaurant. She loves being in that environment, rolling spring rolls, manning the fryers, knowing their quirks. She comes up with really good ideas when her dad is concerned that the business might be decreasing in profit and it’s something that she seems very passionate about. I love the scene where she takes Rory to her favourite dumpling place near her home and explains how to eat what she orders for them. It seemed like such a wonderful experience and was so vividly described. I’m pretty well aware that most of what I eat is “western Chinese” or western influenced Thai or whatever, rather than what would be the norm for families of those cultures and backgrounds so the talk around what the restaurant makes vs what they actually eat as a family is interesting. And later on in the book, Anna sees an opportunity for them to make a more authentic version of their cuisine as well, rather than just falling back on the popular lemon chicken, spring rolls, etc.

The food talk is wonderful, the romance is adorable but also with a really strong message too. Rory has had his own mental health issues and I think his openness with Anna helps her find some clarity in her mother’s situation as well, that this is not a quick fix (or possibly even a fix) sort of thing. It will be ongoing, there will be good days and bad days and it will be a trial and error thing to deal with. Some things will work, others will not. Anna will probably always feel that pressure and strain to keep things together in a way, being the eldest but I feel that at least her father does step up for her, understands the burden of his absence and helps to ease that so that Anna might rely on him a little more, know he’s going to be closer and around when needed. The way in which the book deals with Anna’s mother’s illness through Anna’s eyes gives a very strong picture of the effect it has on the rest of the family but also what it does to their mother as well, the way in which it makes her feel and the forms that it takes.

This was a really incredible book, very emotional and I felt it portrayed the circumstances beautifully – especially the difficulties.

8/10

Book #134 of 2019

This is book #58 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

 

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