All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Three Miss Allens by Victoria Purman

three-miss-allensThe Three Miss Allens
Victoria Purman
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2016, 395p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In 1934, the three Miss Allens – Ruby, Adeline and Clara – arrive in the seaside town of Remarkable Bay for their annual summer holiday. It’s the last time they’ll spend summers as a family. Adeline is engaged, Ruby is weighing up an offer, and Clara is just eighteen and about to start her life. But by summer’s end, the lives they have known will change irrevocably and a mysterious secret will tear the family apart.

Eighty-two years later, Ruby’s great-granddaughter Roma Harris moves to the now sleepy Remarkable Bay, retreating from tragedy. Roma’s distant cousin Addy arrives too, fleeing a life with too much drama. It’s only when the women discover an old guest book that they start asking questions about the mysterious third Miss Allen. Who was she? Why has she disappeared from the family’s history?

If they solve this mystery from their past, could it change the women’s future?

I love a historical-contemporary blend. They’re one of my favourite types of stories to read but they can be difficult to balance at times. You can find yourself far more invested in one part of the story so it’s nice when both parts are equally as fascinating.

In 1934, sisters Ruby, Adeline and Clara are escaping the Adelaide heat with their mother, staying in a large B&B in the seaside town of Remarkable Bay. Adeline has just secured what is a very desirable match and is giddy over the prospect of her coming marriage. Ruby has received an offer but it’s not one that makes her dreamy. And Clara, the youngest at just eighteen, is harbouring a terrible secret that will divide her family. What should be a summer of careless fun ends up being complicated, ripe with new possibilities but also bringing terrible shadows.

In the contemporary part of the story, Ruby’s great-granddaughter moves to the very same Remarkable Bay after suffering a tragedy. Having quit her job in Adelaide and sold her home, she buys a large house overlooking the bay intending to do it up and restore it to its former glory. Joined by her cousin Addy, who she hasn’t seen for many years, the two women find a book that gives them a glimpse into their own history. They seek to unravel what became of the third Allen sister, Clara, who neither of them have ever heard of.

I really enjoyed Roma’s story. I’m a big fan of renovations both watching them on tv and reading about them as well. It’s something that I think I fantasise about doing one day but it’s also one of those things that will never really be more than that because I don’t think I’d actually be very good at it! But I love the idea of it, especially when it’s about restoring something of significance, such as the old place that Roma purchases. It’s not without its issues, having been severely neglected in the later part of its life but the bones are there and she knows what it could be. What Roma is doing is therapeutic for her as she seeks to heal from a tragedy and discover what she wants from her life now. Things have changed dramatically and she’s taking steps to move forward and although people think it’s ill advised, the house is the first step.

Roma is less than impressed when her busy brother sends their cousin Addy to check up on her. Addy is facing her own problems and once she arrives in Resurrection Bay she decides that she wouldn’t mind staying for a while to help Roma out. The two of them are intrigued by the mystery of the third Miss Allen….

….like I was. Clara’s secret isn’t difficult to guess but I do have to say that I didn’t expect everything that came after it. This book really doesn’t hold back in highlighting some of the difficult situations for women of the time….each sister experiences the troubles of being without real power in society, beholden to the rules and whims of the men in their lives in some way or other. I found each of their stories riveting but I think it was Clara’s that touched me the most. I’ve known someone in Clara’s position and although things are different now, I felt that I had the most sympathy for her, especially because of how isolated she must’ve felt. She would’ve most likely known the fate that awaited her as soon as her secret was discovered and I felt for Ruby too, who discovered it but was horrified by what came next. I found the family dynamics in 1934 very interesting. Despite the fact that their mother seems strict and careful with Ruby and Adeline, there’s still quite a lot that they manage to get up to (Ruby in particular) without her knowledge.

Back in the present day, Roma and Addy are working through an adjustment to spending time together. They holidayed together as teenagers, Addy spending time with Roma’s family and they each remember that time somewhat differently, each shaped by their own experiences. They haven’t seen each other in some time and it’s a bit of a learning curve, reestablishing their relationship and it’s not always smooth sailing. The house provides a refuge for both of them and Remarkable Bay seems a healing sort of place, where both of them discover a vision for what they want their lives to be. And who they want it to include.

I enjoyed this story from start to finish…… I liked Roma and Addy and really connected with Roma’s desire to restore the house to its former glory. The relationships in this story, the good bad and ugly are so well done and felt authentic in both timelines. I could’ve read a book twice this long with these characters, both in the past and the present day.

8/10

Book #204 of 2016

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Blog Tour Review: A Quiet Kind Of Thunder by Sara Barnard

quiet-kind-of-thunderA Quiet Kind Of Thunder
Sara Barnard
Macmillan Children’s Books
2017, 320p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.
Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder.

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

From the bestselling author of Beautiful Broken Things comes a love story about the times when a whisper is as good as a shout.

I’m not sure where to start….so many things to say!

This book was one of those reads where I just clicked with it right away. Steffi is an amazing narrator. She’s been selectively mute for most of her life. That’s quite a misleading term, ‘selective mute’ because it’s not something at all that Steffi chooses. But she can talk – there’s nothing physically preventing her from talking. There are just a range of things that make it impossible for her to talk in many situations. From the time she was a small child, Steffi has struggled to speak. Things have gotten better for her at some times and then regressed. In high school now, with her best friend having left, Steffi finds it very difficult. She is introduced to new student Rhys on the flimsiest of reasons. Some time in the past, Steffi learned some sign language as an alternative way to communicate and because Rhys is deaf, they’re thrown together. Steffi’s sign language is pretty rusty but Rhys can also lip read if people are looking at him and speaking clearly.

Steffi isn’t just a selective mute. She also has several other diagnosis including anxiety and this book is one of the best depictions of that I’ve seen. Steffi’s internal thoughts provide such an accurate picture of anxiety, how it can strike at any times, even when everything is going well for her and how she can panic about the smallest of things. When I was reading about Steffi going through one of these attacks, it was almost like experiencing it. I don’t have anxiety….I have things that make me nervous and I have a fear of public speaking that’s so great I feel physically ill just thinking about it, but I can do it. But this definitely helped me understand what life is like for someone who has a condition of anxiety.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was Steffi’s relationship with her family. For a long time I read YA books where parents were absent or just non-existent in the story but this is not the case here. Steffi’s parents are divorced and both her parents have remarried. She spends time at each house and interacts with her parents, her stepmother and stepfather and younger half sister. She wants to go to university when she finishes school but it’s something that she and her parents, in particular her mother, are at odds over. Steffi’s mother doesn’t believe she would cope in such an environment and her mother seems to have ‘markers’ for her, things that if Steffi can accomplish she might be able to do these things. Of her parents it definitely seems that her mother has had the hardest time accepting Steffi’s mutism and Steffi details some of the ways in which her mother tried to get her to speak as a child. All of the parental-offspring interactions felt real, the good, the bad and the ugly.

I loved Rhys as a character. He was a nice guy, a sweet guy. There were plenty of awkward moments between him and Steffi but so many cute ones too. The evolution of their friendship/relationship felt realistic as well and I liked the multiple ways in which they communicated, including by text and an app. Those sorts of ways enabled both of them to be on level footing…..Rhys didn’t need to be lipreading and Steffi didn’t need to be mixing her signing with writing down words she didn’t know how to sign. There’s just something about how easy they were with each other that was very appealing. Being with Rhys made Steffi brave in lots of ways and she really does have a moment where she has to act on her own and I think she learns a lot about herself. The way in which she accepts her issues but also that they are for no one else to fix, that she’s not for anyone to ‘take care of’ is an awesome moment of true acceptance of herself but also belief that she can and will improve. There’s no ‘magic’ solution for Steffi, she knows that. And she needs to make sure that others know it too.

Reading this book was just a really good experience – it encompassed so much. A sweet story or love and friendship, a girl’s struggle with an unexplained condition (and several other diagnosis’) and a complex but realistic family dynamic that contributed to the story. This is the sort of book where you think about the characters long after you’ve finished reading it. The sort of book where you want to recommend it to everyone you know. A book not just for the quiet ones, but for everyone.

8/10

Book #216 of 2016

 

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Blog Tour Review: To The Sea by Christine Dibley

to-the-seaTo The Sea
Christine Dibley
Pan Macmillan AUS
2016, 447p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

On a clear summer’s day, Detective Inspector Tony Vincent answers a call-out to an idyllic Tasmanian beach house. Surrounded by family and calm waters, seventeen-year-old Zoe Kennett has inexplicably vanished.

Four storytellers share their version of what has led to this moment, weaving tales which span centuries and continents. But Tony needs facts, not fiction: how will such fables lead him to Zoe and to the truth?

As Tony’s investigation deepens, he is drawn into a world where myth and history blur, and where women who risk all for love must pay the price through every generation.

This has to be one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve never been to Tasmania but it’s long been on my list of places I want to visit. Given it’s proximity to me in here in Victoria it’s also probably the most likely place on that list that I will actually visit one day. I read few books set here but it has so much potential and that potential has been well tapped here.

On a summer day young DI Tony Vincent gets a call to investigate the disappearance of a teenager, believed possibly drowned off the south Tasmanian coast. When he arrives there, he finds things very confusing. There are a large number of people staying at the house for the holidays but with the exception of perhaps the missing girl’s mother, no one else seems either a) overly concerned or b) stricken with grief at the thought of their missing sister/cousin/etc. The more DI Vincent digs into this situation, the stranger it becomes. Although one must always respect the danger of the sea, by all reports the missing girl, Zoe is an exceptional swimmer. And the conditions on the day she vanished were calm. No one actually saw her go into the water and when he calls out the divers, they’re very convinced that if something did happen to Zoe, they can ascertain the location very easily. Numerous searches bring more questions than answers….and no body.

The story is told by four people: Tony as he investigates, Zoe’s older sister, her father and her mother. Tony is warned that Zoe’s mother Eva is “fragile” or possibly unwell. Her reality may not be the reality Tony is used to. But as the days tick by and there’s no sign of Zoe, Tony begins to hear Eva’s story and in that, the story of Zoe.

The stories spun in this book are so intricate and involved and it’s utterly impossible not to be drawn into them. Eva tells the story of the women in her family going back many generations, a tale of myth and legend and strange happenings. It’s not something that I haven’t read before but this seemed to put a new and fresh kind of spin on it, finding a way to incorporate it into a contemporary world in a unique way. I don’t think it’s easy to blend this sort of mythical element into a modern day setting but Christine Dibley accomplishes this so well. The way in which the story slowly unfolds kind of alongside Tony’s investigation makes it feel quite a natural evolution.

There is a lot of blurring of the lines in this book as Tony’s ideas of what is fact and what is fiction slowly evolves as time moves on and there’s still no sign of Zoe. He’s told some impossible-to-believe things by people who swear they are telling the truth and saw it with their own eyes. There’s no sign of Zoe, alive or her body, where the currents would’ve taken her if she’d truly gotten into trouble where it was that she was believed to go missing. Despite the fact that no one saw her go down to the beach, most of her family continues to believe that she got into trouble in the bay on a quiet night and drowned. I tend to think along the same lines as Tony so my evolution almost ran alongside of his as I got deeper into the story and became more and more invested in the unusual tale of Zoe and Eva’s female lineage. In stark contrast, Zoe’s older sister is not a believer in any of the stories and seems the most convinced of all that her sister has drowned.

The writing is beautiful and evocative. The setting of the Tasmanian coast was stunning and the description of the family’s beachside mansion made me feel like I was there. But it was more than that, the whole book was able to spin a mood, a real atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. That little bit of magic in a way, that made me want to be involved with this family. Despite the fantastical element they felt very real, with the normal quirks and foibles that any family has. Discord, separation, jealousy but also love. A large age gap between Zoe and her siblings meant that none of them really seemed to know her very well at all, to the point where Tony questions everything he’s every been told since he arrived at the house. I really enjoyed the character of Tony and his approach to the investigation. He seems very young to be a DI but he’s very methodical and despite his easy going demeanor he isn’t easily intimidated or put off by people who don’t want to answer his questions or by his own superior.

I really really enjoyed this book….from the very first page. I think I read it in almost a single sitting because I didn’t want to put it down. This is a remarkable debut and I really look forward to Christine Dibley’s next book.

8/10

Book #217 of 2016

 

 

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Review: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa

german-girlThe German Girl
Armando Lucas Correa
Atria Books
2016, 342p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. But now, in 1939, the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; her family s fine possessions are hauled away; and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. Hannah and her best friend, Leo Martin, make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.

A glimmer of hope appears in the form of the “St. Louis,” a transatlantic liner that can provide Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart on the luxurious ship bound for Havana. Life on board the “St. Louis” is like a surreal holiday for these refugees, with masquerade balls, exquisite meals, and polite, respectful service. But soon ominous rumors from Cuba overshadow the celebratory atmosphere, and the ship that once was their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence. Hannah and Leo must make an impossible choice or risk losing everything that matters.

Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a package from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet this elderly relative. Hannah tells them of her astonishing journey on the “St. Louis” and, for the first time, reveals how she and Leo honored the solemn pact they had made. By connecting the pain of the past to the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives her young great-niece a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.

What an interesting book this was. I love how reading fiction can still provide you with information that you didn’t know before. Prior to reading this book I didn’t know anything about the SS St Louis which is actually a real ship that was declined access to Cuba’s port carrying a load of Jewish passengers fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany. It brings to mind the current situation that is a contentious issue in Australia even today, some 80 years later – boat people fleeing their situation only to be denied entry to the country when they reach it. It seems the more things change, the more the stay the same. It’s just a different group of people being demonised each time.

Hannah is a young Jewish girl living in Germany in 1939. Her mother’s family seem to have a lot of wealth and her father is a very respected University lecturer or at least he was before Jewish people were classed as lower citizens. Whereas people used to welcome her mother everywhere, envied her beautiful dresses and jewels, Hannah and her family are now seen as “unclean” or “dirty”, something she doesn’t really understand. Although Hannah is Jewish her looks actually epitomise the Aryan ideal which allow her to move with some freedom around her neighbourhood. Hannah and her family are basically sitting on a timer…..there’s only so long until they’ll have to get out of Germany and they are frantically trying to organise that before her father is taken away, like some others have been. When they board the SS St Louis with her childhood friend Leo and his father it seems like they will be safe and free at last.

It’s always interesting reading about this period in history from the point of a child because to me their inability to understand really underlines the ridiculousness of prejudice. Hannah takes the muttered statements about being dirty or unclean as literal criticism and her confusion is obvious. She’s no dirtier than anyone else and her family have always been deferred to in many ways prior to this. Her attempts to understand are very well written and I thought that the childlike innocence versus the struggle of what is occurring during a time like this was captured very well. Hannah is a really interesting character (the book starts with a heck of an opening line) and I loved her narration and her portrayal of the adult relationships operating around her. Her friendship with Leo is very sweet and although they’re both very young, they’ve already made plans for their future. So much is uncertain but they’re still kids who believe that they’ll always be in each other’s lives, no matter what.

At times, some of the story is pretty grim. As they do escape Germany it’s not the camps grim but more along the lines of what some people will do to avoid being taken to those camps kind of grim. And I found that as a parent, although the idea was horrible, I could understand it.

I have to admit that although the modern day portion of the story was fine, I wasn’t particularly engaged with it. I merely kept going with it because it would eventually complete Hannah’s story for me, what happened after the SS St Louis reached Cuban waters and the passengers on board were told that their papers were no longer valid and they wouldn’t be granted entry. Anna, although well removed from the horrors of WWII has suffered as well and her mother has not exactly been the most present of parents for most of her life. The trip to Cuba gives Anna some background, gives her her heritage but it is Hannah’s voice that makes this book shine.

8/10

Book #219 of 2016

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Review: The Dangers Of Truffle Hunting by Sunni Overend

dangers-of-truffle-huntingThe Dangers Of Truffle Hunting
Sunni Overend
Harper Collins AUS
2016, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Is life too short to play it safe?

Kit Gossard’s life is neatly mapped out. A secure photographic job. A partner ready to commit. A wedding in the family vineyard for her mother to preside over. So why the apprehension? Why a hunger for something … more?

Then someone new appears. Earthy, reserved, magnetic, this new man brings out feelings she has long suppressed, and suddenly Kit can’t contain her simmering discontent. Black truffle hunting, illicit pastry lessons, vine fruit on flesh – Kit is seduced. It feels right. Before it all goes wrong.

Artful, sexy, sophisticated, The Dangers Of Truffle Hunting explores how a man can be more to a woman than a destination.

I love the food channel and watching people cook and I also love reading books that feature food or revolve around it in some way. In this novel, Kit’s parents own vineyards and her father is planning on purchasing the land next door where he has been cultivating crops for a new venture. Kit is a food photographer but she seems to have been pushed into this sort of work by her fiance Scott, who is seen as very “steady” and “stable”. He designs/creates furniture and doesn’t give Kit the sort of passion or encouragement that she craves anymore. He thinks that she should focus on her food photography despite the fact that it doesn’t fulfill her at all.

What Kit actually wants to photograph are messier, dirtier things. She doesn’t want food sitting looking perfect and fake, she wants to see it enjoyed, crushed, smeared etc. She begins photographing her own things for her own online magazine as part of a creative outlet…..inspired by a worker at her parent’s vineyard, someone who is everything that her staid fiance is not.

Kit is an interesting character but she was also quite a frustrating one although on some levels I can understand it because it seems to many people seem to want to shoehorn her into being something that she isn’t. Scott doesn’t play a particularly large role in this story and although he does seem to care for Kit, it’s in a sort of distracted way, like he cares about how their lives look. The foodie photographer and the hot furniture designer getting married and setting themselves up for a charmed life. Kit is at times, crying out for attention from him, desperately trying to get him to notice her or show her some affection but he’s disinterested and yet Kit keeps persisting with this for far longer than really seems realistic. Even after she meets someone else that challenges her and inspires her. Even after she realises that this buttoned up life is not really what she wants. She does have to deal with the fact that Raph, the person she meets working on her parent’s farm, is not exactly who she thought he was….and that seems to be her motivation for going back to what she knows is safe and secure. But….I’m not sure why she had to keep persevering with Scott when it clearly wasn’t satisfying her. Her mother is overly critical of Kit’s weight and appearance and seems more suited to being some sort of Paris fashionista rather than the wife of a vineyard owner. She’s always questioning her daughter in a manner that borders on cruel and Kit seemed wearily conditioned to accept this judgement of her looks. Her mother also pressures her to set a wedding date to Scott, accompanying her wedding dress shopping, taking over and just being generally horrible about everything. Likewise in her professional life, Kit finds herself so constricted by her uptight food magazine employer and every time she tries to attempt to add some of her own creativity to the brief, she is shot down. Everywhere she turns in her life……..except in one or two directions, there are people and things working against her.

Perhaps that is why I did love the dynamic between Raph and Kit….he had this whole mysterious “slightly assholy but not completely” thing going on and the way in which his story played out was really enjoyable and I actually didn’t see it coming which made the reveal pretty shocking. I really liked the way that he brought out Kit’s personality, made her want things and focus on the sort of photography that she was really interested in. Raph was my sort of character….interesting and hiding quite a large secret. He’s not entirely likable for a large portion of the story because he’s so mysterious and stand offish and clearly there are some possibly nefarious things afoot when his secrets begin to come out but he’s also not unlikable either. He and Kit both heave their flaws but you can see how they would actually work together whereas it was impossible to see Scott as doing anything other than stifling Kit and making her feel as though she needed to act in a completely different way.

I did enjoy this book although it was not without a few issues for me…..I didn’t really see the necessity of the plot featuring Kit’s friend and brother, which seemed random and sloppily constructed with no real sort of direction. Kit’s relationship with Scott also felt drawn out for too long to be believable, especially when people are trying to reason with her and she seems to be deliberately burying her head in the sand and ignoring all of the glaring signs. But ultimately I did very much like the read, especially the settings and the descriptions of food and the workings of the vineyard.

8/10

Book #218 of 2016

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Review: No Living Soul by Julie Moffett

no-living-soulNo Living Soul (Lexi Carmichael #9)
Julie Moffett
Carina Press
2016, eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Although I never expected it, my work as a computer geek has me traveling around the world, solving mysteries and fighting bad guys. Sometimes with my friends, but always with trouble by my side. So you’d think by now, I would’ve expected to be plagued by danger when I headed to Egypt with my best friend, Elvis Zimmerman, and boyfriend, Slash, to help track down Elvis’s missing and estranged father. Nope.

Genius runs in the family, and we quickly discovered Elvis’s father is hot on the trail of an ancient and elusive artifact. One that people are willing to kill to find. Tombs, tablets, scarabs, and code come together as we follow a set of clues that has been waiting millennia to be discovered. Cracking code is my speciality, but I never expected to tackle one from fifteen hundred years before the advent of written language.

But the sands of time are running out. We are facing death as it was before the pyramids even existed. If the artifact falls into the wrong hands, we won’t be able to rewrite history. So it’s up to us to find and safeguard the secret to ensure no living soul ever encounters it…again.

This series is still going strong, book 9 now and it continues to be a model of consistency in terms of how much I enjoy each one. I know I sing Lexi’s praises in each book but she is quite refreshing. Yep she’s socially clueless (and sometimes some of these moments are a bit OTT) but she’s so competent at her job that I really enjoy that whole aspect of it. She has great intuition and she rarely needs help. She’s no damsel in distress.

The books alternate action close to home with ones that are set overseas and this is one of the latter with much of the action taking place in Egypt. Apart from a bit of skepticism about Slash getting the okay from his FBI minders to even do this trip (Egypt is not exactly described as the safest of foreign locations for tourists, let alone ones that the American government like to keep their eye on) I was able to sink into this story pretty easily. I found the introduction of the Zimmerman twins’ father really interesting as there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about them, despite both of them being so close to Lexi. Particularly Elvis, who plays rather a large role in this story.

Her relationship with Slash continues to evolve (the two are about to begin living together) and although Lexi has a couple of moments of insecurity in Egypt she kind of still just gets on with things instead of allowing it to dictate her every thought and action. The thing with these two is there’s still a lot of delayed communication which can be a bit frustrating and Lexi has a tendency to kind of jump the gun and think the worse, probably because this is her first real proper relationship. There are times when she is bluntly honest with Slash and yet other times she sits on things when getting them out into the open would’ve been much better.

I find these books just really easy…..something that I can pick up and know that I’ll enjoy it, find the story something that holds my interest. I can also go back and reread most of them, which I’ve done several times to relive the evolution of her relationship with Slash which has been a really fun ride. He’s the one that I’ve liked the best from the 2nd or 3rd book.

Bring on book 10.

8/10

Book #188 of 2016

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Review: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

fifth-avenue-artists-societyThe Fifth Avenue Artists Society
Joy Callaway
Allen & Unwin
2016, 354p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The Bronx, 1891. Virginia Loftin, the boldest of four artistic sisters in a family living in genteel poverty, knows what she wants most: to become a celebrated novelist despite her gender, and to marry Charlie, the boy next door and her first love.

When Charlie instead proposes to a woman from a wealthy family, Ginny is devastated; shutting out her family, she holes up in her room and turns their story into fiction, obsessively rewriting a better ending. Though she works with newfound intensity, literary success eludes her-until she attends an elite salon hosted at her brother’s friend John Hopper’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Among painters, musicians, actors, and writers, Ginny returns to herself, even blooming under the handsome, enigmatic John’s increasingly romantic attentions.

But just as she and her siblings have become swept up in the society, Charlie throws himself back into her path, and Ginny learns that the salon’s bright lights may be obscuring some dark shadows. Torn between two worlds that aren’t quite as she’d imagined them, Ginny will realise how high the stakes are for her family, her writing, and her chance at love.

From the blurb, this sounded like a book that was right up my alley. Loved the sound of the setting – the Bronx in 1891 and a family that although well bred, were living basically in poverty. There’s a lot of artistry in the family but the girls have few prospects for marriage due to their poor financial situation. Virginia has been in love with Charlie, the boy next door, since she was a child and she has good reason to believe that it’s not unrequited. She expects Charlie to propose – he’s the artist to her writer, the two of them making a team. However Charlie stuns her and breaks her heart when he proposes to a wealthy woman instead.

And herein lies the biggest problem for me with this book – Charlie.

He was boring. A wet blanket who took the ‘easy’ way out and proposed to a woman he didn’t love, shattering the one he did, for financial reasons. Because the book begins when this occurs and we really only get a couple of flashbacks, to be honest, I couldn’t understand at all why Virginia was so in love with him. There was nothing that particularly stood out about him, that made him seem exceptional. His most defining characteristic was that he turned his back on a poor happiness in order for rich misery. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he continued to attempt to hang around on the periphery of Virginia’s life. The way in which Virginia went to pieces after Charlie proposed to someone else dragged out until I just wanted to shake her and tell her to have some self-respect. And he continues to draw out this situation by coming around every day, trying to see her – as if there’s anything he could say that would make her feel better.

I really wanted the story to move on from Charlie and it kind of does in a way but he’s always lurking there in the background. The idea of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society was fascinating but I didn’t find it a big enough part of the story. There was a nice ‘cameo’ by Edith Wharton and references to her husband Ted which was cool. But ultimately I expected more interesting things from that society rather than it just being the backdrop for something else, a sort of shadowy story line where some odd things are clearly happening. It’s incredibly easy for the reader to put together what is going on but perhaps the time and Virginia’s upbringing means that it’s not obvious to her. Or perhaps there are things that she just doesn’t want to see as she’s trying to move on from Charlie and I actually liked where it was going. It was a bit mysterious, a bit shadowy and Charlie still occupied her thoughts a lot but I could see how it might actually be able to go somewhere…..

I never really got the unconquerable love that Virginia and Charlie seemed to have, or how Virginia could be so weak when it came to him but perhaps that’s a product of the time. I really wanted her to find happiness with someone else who made her feel worthy….let Charlie lie in the bed he made. But it seems as though there are little in the way of consequences for Charlie – he continues to do whatever he want and be involved with Virginia and her family, often spending large amounts of time there. His wife is basically a non-existent character and there is little, if any reaction to his continued feelings towards Virginia which dip into inappropriate more than once.

I did really enjoy the family dynamics…..this was a family that went through some hard times and had some real discord and one thing I found interesting was the resentment that was often shown toward Virginia from one of her sisters. Virginia also displays somewhat progressive attitudes on certain things for the time (which I did wonder about as seeing quite unrealistic or very unlikely) although it may just be that she cared so much about that person that everything else didn’t matter to her, the way it did for other members of her family.

There were things I liked about this book but there were things that I also found not explored well enough or disappointing. The character of Charlie was so bland I couldn’t see why anyone would bother with them let alone why Virginia was so enamoured with him and the character of John felt a bit random in a way. He was constructed to give Virginia something else to think about but he wasn’t present enough for her to really develop a genuine interest. She also ignores some blatant red flags which seems a bit foolish. In fact, foolish is a good way to describe a lot of what Virginia does.

6/10

Book #214 of 2016

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Review: The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

girl-from-veniceThe Girl From Venice
Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster AUS
2016, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

Author Martin Cruz Smith is probably best known for his series featuring the Russian investigator Arkady Renko which kicked off with Gorky Park. Years ago I read an installment of this series for a challenge, a novel that was mostly set in Cuba. Although I liked it, I probably lost a lot not having read the series from its beginning, which is what I would usually do. This is a stand alone novel from Cruz Smith set in Venice at the close of the second World War.

Cenzo is a fisherman. He knows the canals inside out, knows the best time to fish for certain species, the best way. One night he pulls the body of a young girl out of the water and is almost immediately set upon by a German gunboat. They are searching for something but Cenzo’s dead body turns out to be very much an alive one and she is able to avoid detection. Giulia is an Italian Jew who had been hiding out with her family and other Jews until they were betrayed. Her family probably executed, she flees the Wehrmacht SS and Cenzo chooses to shelter Giulia, taking her back to his small shack and concealing her presence there as he goes about his usual routine in order to avoid suspicion in a time when everyone is suspicious of everyone else and everything. He then helps her escape through one of his rebel friends.

To be honest, the plot gets rather complicated from there and involves Cenzo’s movie star brother who comes to the village as leverage to force Cenzo to lead people to Giulia. Cenzo and his brother have some very troubled history involving an extra-marital affair and the death of their other brother. Half of the plot went over my head as Cenzo went with his brother and met random people and avoided others all in the search for Giulia. The war is coming to an end and there’s much focus on what Mussolini will do and what will happen to him. Most in the book are by now, disdainful of ‘Il Duce’, and much of the focus appears to be on his wife vs his mistress. I had a bit of trouble keeping track of who everyone was in the book and what their role was…..sometimes even why they were there.

Cenzo was really the most interesting character in this novel, an unlikely hero. For a simple fisherman he’s remarkably intelligent and sensitive, with a strong sense of moral self. He definitely has hidden depths – he’s also a former veteran having fought and flown a plane for his country in Africa. I enjoyed Cenzo’s journey and learning about him and the complicated family relationships he had. Cenzo’s game is a mental one rather than a physical one and I did find parts of what he did quite amusing, especially at the end with the plane. He was a very well fleshed out character and most enjoyable to read. I didn’t feel the same connection to Giulia, although I did very much sympathise with her story and the two of them did seem to be very suited. Despite the fact that the setting is romantic (even at times, with the threat of Germans and death) I wouldn’t exactly say there’s much romance. It’s definitely implied but with a lot of subtlety. The atmosphere was amazing though and I commend that.

I find this one quite difficult to judge….I liked it but at the same time, I’m not entirely sure I understood some of the complexities of the plots and the various groups that came into contact with one another. The character of Cenzo was definitely the highlight, his thoughtful manner and unexpected cleverness (seems he was underestimated by pretty much everyone that came into contact with him) were really well done.

6/10

Book #213 of 2016

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Review: Southern Ruby by Belinda Alexandra

southern-rubySouthern Ruby
Belinda Alexandra
Harper Collins AUS
2016, 519p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In New Orleans – the city of genteel old houses and ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss, of seductive night life, of Creole culture, voodoo and jazz – two women separated by time and tragedy will find each other at last.

Amanda, orphaned as a child and suffering the loss of her beloved grandmother, has left Sydney in search of a family she never knew.

Ruby, constrained by the expectations of society and class, is carrying a lifetime of secrets. Amanda’s arrival sparks revelations long buried: a double life, a forbidden love, and a loss that cannot be forgotten.

Southern Ruby is a sweeping story of love, passion, family and honour. Alternating in time between the 1950s and the eve of Hurricane Katrina, it is also a tribute to a city heady with mystery, music, and superstition, which has borne the tumults of race and class and the fury of nature, but has never given up hope.

Southern Ruby is one of my favourite types of story – a blend of contemporary and historical where both threads of the plot are equally as interesting. In the modern day setting we have Amanda, an orphan who was raised by her grandmother in Sydney after the death of her parents in her father’s homeland America. When her grandmother passes away, Amanda finds some letters in her belongings that state that her father’s family desperately fought to be in her life, something her grandmother never indicated and deliberately hid from her. Grieving and yet also experiencing anger and frustration about the things that were kept from her, Amanda flies to New Orleans to meet her other grandmother, her father’s mother Ruby as well as her father’s sister.

Ruby is very much a Southern belle, well bred but experienced poverty as a child. As Amanda gets to know her second grandmother and falls in love with her beautiful house, she learns that it houses some of Ruby’s deepest secrets. The reader is taken back to Ruby’s life as a young girl, struggling to care for her ill mother when there was no money. Ruby had been raised to be pretty, always looked turned out well and hopefully catch herself a wealthy husband in order to improve the family fortunes. Women of her class certainly didn’t work but Ruby finds herself with no offers from men and in a dire situation.

I haven’t read much set in New Orleans but it always seems like such an interesting place with its unusual landscape and its deeply troubled history. Southern Ruby spans from the time of segregation right up until Hurricane Katrina devastated the state in 2005 and it’s a really interesting journey through time. Ruby hits adulthood around the time where there is increased campaigning to end segregation and promote integration but it’s not something that is welcomed by everyone and there are some really ugly moments.

Ruby is such a progressive character…..some of this seems to be through necessity and some of it seems to just be part of her character. She holds a very forward-thinking view on integration and is willing to actually stand up for what she believes in and be involved. Her circumstances mean that she has to make some very tough decisions and although I enjoyed her process, I would’ve liked a bit more adjustment to her completely changing lifestyle. She just seems to sail through all these different challenges effortlessly. I understand she’s both determined and motivated but it’s quite a change from the lifestyle she would’ve been raised to partake in.

Amanda really has quite an emotional journey to go on. She has to deal with her feelings over her nan’s deception during her life as well as meet and get to know the American branch of her family. She will finally learn about her father as a person, rather than someone who her nan just believes is the reason for her mother’s death. She feels at home in New Orleans, connected to that side of her heritage almost immediately. I really loved the scenes where Amanda gets to go exploring or where parts of the history are discussed or shown. Ruby lives through some very turbulent and fascinating times for Louisiana/New Orleans and it was really interesting to be immersed in those periods.

This is a decent chunkster of a book – over 500p and I’ve got to be honest, I don’t read a huge amount that are this size anymore! It’s probably a little too long – there are a few parts that do seem like they could maybe have been snipped down a bit but I have to say that I was enjoying the story far too much to really care. It seemed to take no time at all to rip through it – both Amanda’s story and Ruby’s story were equally interesting and I never wished the narrative would switch back to the other. I really felt like I was visiting New Orleans in all its glory (and it’s not so glorious too). There were a few surprises I didn’t expect or guess which I felt were revealed really nicely.

This is the first Belinda Alexandra book that I have ever read, but I do have another one on my TBR shelf that I picked up ages ago. Definitely going to have to bump it up my list because this was one of my most enjoyed books of the year. I just really loved the story and the way in which history and culture were weaved into such an enjoyable narrative.

9/10

Book #212 of 2016

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Review: Wayward Heart by Cathryn Hein

wayward-heartWayward Heart
Cathryn Hein
Harlequin MIRA AUS
2016, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A compelling rural romance, with a healthy sprinkling of suspense and family drama.

Jasmine Thomas should feel safe in her cosy cottage at Admella Beach after finally putting an end to an ill-advised romance. But her perfect sanctuary is shattered with the arrival of hand-delivered threatening notes. Someone has discovered her secret.

When the notes escalate to vandalism, Jasmine’s anxiety rises. But in such a small place, telling the police would mean the whole town finding out.

Digby Wallace-Jones is stumbling through the motions of life, wrapped in a fog of grief since his fiancee Felicity died. Withdrawn from his family, Digby doesn’t care about anything beyond his loss. But in a chance meeting with Jasmine, his sister’s best friend who he’s known forever, even he can see the tension she carries. Worried and feeling protective, he continues to drop by, but it’s more than that. Jasmine soothes him; and, unlike the rest of his family, he can talk to her about his pain without fear of judgement. But as much as he likes Jasmine, Digby’s enduring love for Felicity means he has nothing left to give and he pushes Jasmine away.

Jasmine knew they were supposed to stay friends ‘with excellent benefits’ but she can’t help her wayward heart from falling for this tortured, kind and sexy man. How can she ever loosen the grip Felicity’s memory has on Digby’s soul and remind him he still has a life ahead of him?

This is the third in a set of books linked together by the Wallace-Jones family. In the first, Digby’s sister Em found her happy ever after. The second featured Emily’s friend Tegan and now this book showcases Em and Tegan’s friend Jasmine as well as Emily’s brother, who has suffered terribly. The foundations for Jasmine were laid in that first book as well as readers learned she was involved in a particular relationship, something that caused tension in her friendship with Tegan. I was interested in Jasmine’s story, because I wanted to find out her motivation for her part in the relationship and how she came to move on from it.

When this book begins, Jasmine has ended that toxic relationship and is suffering from some of the fallout. It seems unfair that someone has discovered her secret after everything is finished and they’re making her life a misery invading her privacy and leaving threatening messages. She doesn’t feel as though she can file a complaint because then the whole sordid story would come out, something she couldn’t bear.

Digby is a mess. It’s been about a year since his fiancee Felicity died in a terrible accident on a family property and he’s deep in depression and grief, to the point where some of his family are incredibly worried about him. He’s also struggling with how he feels about the role his sister Em played in the events that led to Felicity’s death as well and chooses to isolate himself from his family. As Jasmine is a lifelong friend of Em’s, he knows her well and a meeting in a park one day leads to the two of them beginning to spend some time together to just watch dvd’s and hang out. Digby doesn’t feel pressured to behave in a certain way when he’s with Jasmine and she in turn enjoys an easy, judgement free companionship. Their friendship escalates into the type with benefits, both of them filling a space for the other.

But things always get complicated and Jasmine knows she has developed feelings for a man whose heart belongs to someone else. Even though Digby has begun to find a little peace and happiness in his moments with Jasmine, he’s still tormented by Felicity’s loss. Digby’s grief is a very large part of this book. It consumes him and so does his conflicting feelings for his sister Em. It’s almost like Digby has a bit of post traumatic stress disorder. He finds being around people, even (especially) his own family difficult. He hasn’t really been able to come to terms with what happened and I think he’s twisted bits of it around in his mind to make his guilt even bigger. I had a lot of sympathy for Digby, because I think to go through something like that and the way in which it happened, would be terrible of course. But my sympathy began to wane around the time that he ended things with Jasmine for “her own good”. Digby was a bit slow in realising that what the two of them had was much more than a friends with benefits situation. It had morphed into a relationship between two people that knew each other well, cared about each other. But Digby was stuck in this rut where he didn’t believe he could ever move on or deserve happiness with someone else. He needed to do something to be able to finally let go of Felicity and look to the future….and hope that it wasn’t too late.

I think that Wayward Heart was a nice addition to these linked books and I loved that we got to see previous characters again. I’m always a big fan of revisiting past couples to see how they’re getting on and I think fans of Josh and Em, Lucas and Tegan and even Harry and Summer will be pleased here. Jasmine was a really interesting character….I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about her going into the book, given some of the decisions she’d made but I felt her strength and growth over the course of the novel was perhaps its strongest feature. She’s exactly the sort of woman Digby needs, especially after what happened with Felicity. She’s very understanding of Digby’s pain and seems to make a lot of effort into really trying to make him happy without freaking him out about her developing feelings. Digby is more a typical dense male who doesn’t seem to realise that his feelings have also evolved as well until quite a bit later.

A sweet summer read from an author who always delivers.

8/10

Book #210 of 2016

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