All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Amber And Alice by Janette Paul

Amber And Alice
Janette Paul
Bantam (Penguin Random House AUS)
2017, 389p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Take a hilarious road trip into the Australian outback in this witty romantic comedy, with an enticing family mystery thrown in!

When Amber Jones wakes up in her sister Sage’s speeding car, with no idea how she got there (though the hangover is a clue), all she wants to do is go home. But Sage is convinced a road trip to Alice Springs will finally answer the burning question: who is Amber’s father? Because nine months before Amber’s birth, her late mother Goldie made the same trip . . .

Armed with just a name and Goldie’s diaries, Amber agrees to search for a man she’s never met in one of the world’s biggest deserts.

And that means spending two weeks in a convoy of four-wheel-driving tourists and camping in freezing desert nights. To make matters worse, her fellow travellers hate her and the handsome tour leader Tom thinks she’s an alcoholic.

But slowly the desert starts to reveal its secrets – and Amber must decide which horizon to follow…

I love road trip books – they’re an autobuy for me so when I read the blurb of this one I knew I had to get it. The thought of doing this sort of trip really intrigues me and it’s definitely something I wouldn’t mind doing in the future. But Amber, our main character, wakes up with a thumping hangover in a car with her sister, heading to a meeting point for a tour to Alice Springs. Despite declaring last night (under the influence) that she was up for it Amber is horrified and wants to leave immediately and make her way back to Sydney. Her sister Sage won’t hear of it though, begging Amber to stay on the tour, dangling a choice piece of information in front of her that this trip might lead to answers about her father, a man Amber has never met and has no information on other than his name.

Amber rather spectacularly lost her job after a drunken rant at an event the previous night so really she has no commitments. A childhood spent mostly on the road with her nomadic mother though has made Amber somewhat of a driven workaholic where she had goals and worked towards them. Her career is important to her and until her meltdown, which has gone “viral”, she’d been very successful in her chosen field. She wants to be looking for another job, not gallivanting around the country with her hippy sister….but the carrot of finding out more about her father is too hard to ignore.

Amber gets off on the wrong foot with pretty much everyone on the tour – she makes a less than ideal first impression and is bad tempered, her reluctance to be involved obvious. Even when she tries to do the right thing it doesn’t really work out, whereas Sage seems to slip in effortlessly. The good looking tour leader Tom also seems to think she’s an alcoholic, based off what he’s seen so far and the two are always struggling to keep up, often making the rest of the group late setting off.

I really enjoyed a lot of the aspects of this novel – I loved Amber, flaws and all. I sympathised with her, because although some people would thrive on that sort of upbringing, it wouldn’t be for me and I understood how she’d become because of it. Her mother was a frustrating figure and Sage was definitely more like her than Amber. Amber had always felt the odd one out in her family, Sage was a copy physically of their mother as well whereas Amber didn’t look anything like anyone in her mother’s side of the family and her mother always refused any information on her father which led to her feeling isolated. It’s why the thought of being able to find anything on him at all from this trip to Alice Springs, is so attractive, so much so that she agrees to stay with the tour (after several false starts).

I do have the say that the character of Sage drove me nuts….from pretty much the first page but what she does at a point on the tour to Amber infuriated me. So much so that I had to put the book down for a while because it made me want to throw it. It felt quite contrived unfortunately, I could see it coming from the time they arrived in Coober Pedy. It just felt like the flakiest, most stereotypical thing a character like Sage could do in order to frustrate Amber and also throw her together with Tom in a more intimate manner. And yet there’s very little payoff because the romance in this book is very low key and doesn’t really kick off until the book is almost over – I’d have liked a bit more to be honest. There are some nice interactions between Tom and Amber but it does feel like it takes a bit of time to get where it’s going.

Overall though I did really enjoy this – loved the setting, travelling west through New South Wales to South Australia and then up into the Northern Territory.  I enjoyed the different characters taking part on the tour and the little quirks and quibbles that came up from spending so much time together in such a way. As I mentioned I really liked Amber as well and hoped that she got the information that she was after. Only Sage annoyed me and I would’ve liked a bit more in the romance stakes but those are quite small quibbles really. This book had humour and charm – Janette Paul is better known as Jaye Ford, writer of crime suspense/thrillers but she could definitely carve out a nice rural niche for herself too, if she chose to.


Book #107 of 2017

Amber And Alice is book #35 of the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge


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Review: Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

Dead Letters
Caite Dolan-Leach
Corvus (Atlantic Books)
2017, 332p
Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Ava doesn’t believe it when the email arrives to say that her twin sister is dead. It’s not grief or denial that causes her scepticism – it just feels too perfect to be anything other than Zelda’s usual manipulative scheming. And Ava knows her twin.

Two years after she left, vowing never to speak to Zelda again after the ultimate betrayal, Ava must return home to retrace her errant sister’s last steps. She soon finds notes that lead her on a twisted scavenger-hunt of her twin’s making.

Letter by letter, Ava unearths clues to her sister’s disappearance: and unveils harrowing truths of her own. A is for Ava, and Z is for Zelda, but deciphering the letters in-between is not so simple…

This book was…..messed up.

Two years ago Ava fled her home, the family vineyard in the Fingers Lakes region for France and postgraduate study. Her twin, Zelda, had betrayed her, as had someone else. Their family was falling apart – their father gone, their mother a victim of disease that had ravaged her body and mind. Ava couldn’t escape fast enough and she stays away for two years, until she receives the email that her sister and twin is dead. She comes home immediately but she doesn’t believe it to be true. This is exactly the sort of crazy scheme Zelda might do in order to get what she wants. Ava soon finds herself seeking clues, all the letters of the alphabet, from A to Z. And when she gets to the end, she will have the truth.

Ava is even by her own admission (and that of several other characters) a difficult character. She’s somewhat standoffish, quite cold, not affectionate or loving. To be honest when you look at her upbringing and her life it’s not really hard to see why she might be like that. Her mother is a vicious narcissist, perhaps trapped by her own demons and her father traded in one family for several others years ago.

The family own a struggling (very struggling, as Ava finds out) vineyard. The twins’ parents are extraordinarily heavy drinkers and the twins themselves have been steadily drinking since their teenage years. To be honest, the amount of alcohol consumed in this novel was a real struggle for me…..I don’t come from a family that drinks much and I left behind the teen years of drinking long ago. I can take it or leave it now but the bottles religiously consumed day after day became quite exhausting. Life was a neverending circle of  drinking until sick or passing out and getting up the next day and doing it all over again. No wonder everyone was basically a wreck. I’m not sure they’d had a sober thought for years.

The mystery is decent – if Zelda isn’t dead, why has she faked her death and left this elaborate scheme for her sister? And if she is actually dead…why has she left this elaborate scheme for her sister? It’s clear that Ava and Zelda have a lot of unresolved issues from what happened two years ago. Zelda is sorry, but in the way that careless people are sorry. Like she’s saying it because she thinks that’s what she needs to say in order to get Ava to forgive her and restore the status quo. Because we only ever see Zelda through Ava’s eyes and through some letters she writes, most of which revolve around this game, it was difficult to get a true handle on her personality but what I did know made it hard to sympathise with her throughout most of the book. I don’t think it was really until nearly the end of the book that I began to understand Zelda a little. Began to understand them both as a unit.

I enjoyed parts of this – I liked Ava’s analytical mind and the way in which she skipped from clue to clue. The game however, seemed to rely on a lot of things being done at the right times, etc in order to work and at times it was a bit difficult to believe that things would go so smoothly, despite how well the twins knew each other. I did find the alcohol distracting though, the entire story revolves around it and it got a bit tedious if I’m honest. I understand that centering the story around a vineyard means grog is going to be a big part of it. But it was more than that. It was an obsession with pretty much everyone in the book a raging alcoholic, including some being self-aware about it but with kind of a philosophical shrug and a “meh what can you do” type thing. Maybe a lot of the problems in this novel might’ve been reduced greatly if everyone had just sobered the heck up for a bit.

It kept me interested, I will say that. I did greatly want to find out what had happened to Zelda, if she was really dead or if like Ava believed, she had staged this whole thing as some sort of elaborate plot. However there were things that I didn’t enjoy and things that I felt perhaps went a bit too far for plausible believability. It’s certainly an interesting debut though and I did enjoy quite a lot of the writing so I would definitely read something by this author again in the future.


Book #105 of 2017

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Review: The Law Of Attraction by Roxie Cooper

The Law Of Attraction
Roxie Cooper
HQ Digital
2017, eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

“Well, it’s fair to say your background isn’t conventional in terms of the average barrister…” Dolus points out. “Well that depends on your definition of conventional and who wants to be average anyway?”

Northern girl Amanda Bentley isn’t your average lawyer.

She spent her teenage years in the Working Men’s club and hanging out in the park to avoid going home. Fresh out of law school she lands pupillage at a top set of Chambers and is catapulted into a world completely alien to her own, fighting prejudice and snobbery at every turn.

Piling on the pressure, this year it is announced two candidates have been accepted but there’s only one job at the end of it. And her competition? Marty, her smarmy law school nemesis.

Throw into the mix an ill-advised romance with the staggeringly sexy Sid Ryder and Amanda quickly realises winning pupillage isn’t just about how good a lawyer you are.

But even if she does come out on top, all of it could be for nothing if her colleagues ever discover who she really is and one very dark secret.

I struggled with this book. It sounded fun and feisty but I had a really hard time getting into it. Amanda is obviously very smart but I got bored of hearing about her platinum blonde hair and how people would judge her on her looks and not realise how good a lawyer she was. She has recently graduated and the book opens with her interview to gain pupillage (this book is set in London, I’m not British so I don’t really know what that is so I had to google it. It’s like being an apprentice with the end goal practicing independently at the Bar) at a prestigious firm. There are so many candidates and in the end they can’t decide between two so they award it to two people on a sort of probation for twelve months where there’s only one job at the end. So basically they make it a big competition and of course the other person that gets the probation apart from Amanda is her university nemesis!

I did admire a lot about Amanda, she had obviously worked very hard to get where she was and she was very ambitious. She didn’t have the most supportive or privileged background and there’s something in her past that haunts her but I honestly didn’t feel like it was as big a deal as she made it out to be, when it was finally revealed. It seemed like a lot of angst over nothing really, something that she was worried about being held against her but really, why on earth would anyone? It was just ammunition for Marty and his accomplice to wield but it read quite weak, in terms of what a deep dark secret could be.

I expected more romance in this – I’m not sure why, it just gave me more of a romance vibe from the blurb and cover but I definitely thought it would be a bigger part of the story. I was quite disappointed with the fact that there’s really not much (if any?) romance at all. What there was I didn’t really find all that great and I couldn’t decide if it was inappropriate or not. There seemed to be some comments that it might be but no one really cared anyway? I found it quite lacklustre and the story of the jilted uhinged ex a bit overdone. Sid was kind of boring and I didn’t really feel as though there was any chemistry between him and Amanda and there’s a few attempts at drama but it felt a bit high school. I couldn’t get into that aspect of the story line and really didn’t care if they ended up together or not.

Definitely struggled to maintain interest in this one unfortunately.


Book #102 of 2017


Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

The Marsh King’s Daughter
Karen Dionne
Hachette AUS
2017, 320p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

‘I was born two years into my mother’s captivity. She was three weeks shy of seventeen. If I had known then what I do now, things would have been a lot different. I wouldn’t have adored my father.’

When notorious child abductor – known as the Marsh King – escapes from a maximum security prison, Helena immediately suspects that she and her two young daughters are in danger.

No one, not even her husband, knows the truth about Helena’s past: they don’t know that she was born into captivity, that she had no contact with the outside world before the age of twelve – or that her father raised her to be a killer.

And they don’t know that the Marsh King can survive and hunt in the wilderness better than anyone… except, perhaps his own daughter.

Seriously, with a blurb like that who could not read this book? There’s been so many accounts of real life kidnappings, where teenage girls or young women are taken and either don’t escape or aren’t discovered for years. I’ve read Jaycee Dugard’s novel as well as accounts about Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl. However I’ve read few fiction books tackling it – Room being the only other one that comes to mind right now, although this is quite a different story to that.

Helena didn’t even know that her life was unusual for the first decade or more. She was born 2 years after her father, a man in his 30s, kidnapped her 16 year old schoolgirl mother. They lived in a very remote cabin in an area in the far north of America, close to the border with Canada. Until she was 12, Helena had no idea that her father was a criminal. She idolised him growing up, admiring him for his knowledge and desperately seeking his approval. Her father taught her to hunt and fish, often by using cruel games, although Helena didn’t recognise them as such. She believed that he was making her strong, like him and that her mother was weak. Helena could see all too clearly the contempt her father had for her mother and it was soon a view she developed too.

Escaping at 12 with her 28 year old mother, Helena had a lot of adjustment to do and she details this quite openly. Now an adult, married with two children of her own, Helena hears on the radio that her father, who was captured two years after she and her mother escaped the cabin, has killed two prison guards and gone on the run. She knows that he won’t be found unless he wants to be and that she’s probably the only one who can track him. She makes arrangements to hopefully keep her children and husband safe and then she sets off in search of her father.

Helena’s narrative is a torn one – even as an adult, who is now able to recognise the heinous crimes her father committed and realise that his treatment of her and her mother growing up was abusive and terrible, she is still conflicted by her love for him. He is her father, he shaped her in many ways. Her formative years were completely dominated by him.

Helena’s struggle was really interesting because a lot of the focus during events like this in the past in real life, are on the girl/woman who was kidnapped and the ordeal she went through. But this book is different – Helena’s mother’s experiences are related only through the eyes of Helena with what she witnessed as a child and later what she speculates as she grows older and begins to understand a little of the what her mother must have experienced. Helena’s mother isn’t a part of the book really, it’s all about Helena herself and how as an adult, she struggles to come to terms with how wrong aspects of her childhood were because at the time, she embraced the learning experiences and the chance to be more like her father, to know the land, to provide for herself. They lived without electricity, without running water, in total isolation. She didn’t even see other people apart from her father and her mother for years and years. She thought that everybody lived the way they did. It would’ve taken a lot of courage to finally do what she did in order to help her and her mother escape because if she failed, her father would probably have killed her mother and also, she had to overcome the way she’d been raised – conditioned. To obey her father above all else, to respect his word/direction as law, to realise that he wasn’t all she had believed him to be. It’s something that Helena struggles with even as an adult – she thinks she can track him but she also has to be strong enough to stand against him…and it’s possible that a confrontation with him could end the death of one of them.

Helena is a fascinating character, completely honest in her thoughts and revelations, even when they’re not exactly palatable. She has lived a life different to everyone she knows and she takes great pains these days to hide who she is – even her own husband isn’t aware of who her father is. But despite the fact that she never talks about it, she clearly thinks about it a lot. She has not visited her father, despite the fact that he’s incarcerated not far from the house she lives in, but he seems to be on the periphery of her mind. When she hears of his escape, she seems to feel that she has to be the one to go after him, to perhaps confront him, maybe even get some answers for why he did what he did to her and her mother. He’s an expert at mind games though, and as much as Helena knows this, it was obvious she would truly struggle to assert herself against him, even now. She needed sufficient motivation.

I really enjoyed this. Loved Helena’s frank narration and the intricacies of the story, the way in which Helena was raised was rendered so well. The suspense built really nicely as well, as Helena tracked her father and attempted to be one step ahead of his every move but I do feel that it was Helena’s internal struggle that was the star of the story. Her back and forth over her father’s character, his actions, how it has shaped her even as an adult. It was a really well done portrayal of what it might be like for someone who had grown up in such a way and then been thrust into ‘regular’ life at 12 years of age.

I’ll definitely look for more of Karen Dionne’s books in the future. This is the first one I’ve read but I’d be keen to read more.


Book #101 of 2017


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Review: The Story Of Our Life by Shari Low

The Story Of Our Life
Shari Low
Aria Books
2017, 410p
Copy courtesy Harper Collins AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Colm strolled into my life fifteen years ago. If there’s ever such a thing as love at first sight, that was it for us both. A few weeks later we married, celebrating with those who cared, ignoring the raised eyebrows of the cynics. We knew better. This was going to be forever. The dream come true. The happy ever after. Until it wasn’t.

Because a couple of months ago everything changed. We discovered a devastating truth, one that blew away our future and forced us to revisit our past, to test the bonds that were perhaps more fragile than they seemed.

So now I ask you again, what would you do if your ‘happy ever after’ was taken from you?

Because this is what I did.

I’m Shauna.

And this is the Story of Our Life…

Ok, I have to admit, I read a slightly different blurb online to the one I’ve included here, which is on the back of my cover. The blurb I read online was, I think, a bit misleading which is perhaps why this one is different. I went in expecting the story to go in a certain direction and although it does eventually go in that direction, it’s only a very small part of what’s going on and most of the focus is elsewhere.

Shauna had commitment issues due to being raised by self-absorbed parents completely and utterly disinterested in their only offspring…until she met Colm. The attraction was immediate and they fell into a relationship and married just weeks later. It was love at first sight and for many years, their relationship and life, was idyllic. It had its ups and downs and money worries like just about every other married couple but they remained in love and devoted to one another. Only Shauna’s longing for a child and Colm’s ambivalence about whether or not it happened provided a real blight on their marriage.

Fifteen years later, their world is rocked by horrible news, something that changes everything about who they are as a couple and what the future holds for them. I find books like this quite hard to read because they force me to address what I’d do in these sorts of situations and it’s never really a pleasant thing to think about.

The book is told in a back and forth manner, beginning rather vaguely in the present and then taking the reader back to 2001 when Shauna and Colm meet. The book jumps back and forth in time constantly, with chapters giving the year in which they take place as well as a relevant title, like 2001 “When Shauna Met Colm”, 2009 “The Revelation” and 2016 “Balancing the Books”. This works pretty well because you get a chance to really have the background of Shauna and Colm established (as well as their friends’) but in a way that allows more of the present day to feature evenly throughout the story, rather than having it chronological and all of the things currently taking place at the end of the book.

I found this book very realistic, from Shauna and Colm’s whirlwind courtship, to the dramas they faced in the present day – it just felt very genuine. They went through things that many couples do, they struggled to get businesses off the ground and just get ahead. But even though they had their difficulties and both of them had their faults, they still managed to maintain this really wonderful relationship underneath all of that. It went through ups and downs, ebbs and flows and wasn’t incredibly idyllic all of the time. This book was a very bittersweet portrayal of a lasting romance and relationship and it definitely left me with some emotional reactions.

When the biggest challenge of all was revealed, that felt realistic too. I don’t want to spoil what it is because I think the book works better if you don’t know – the clues are there before the reveal but it unfolds in a way that feels right, like how it would if you were living this yourself. Colm and Shauna both make mistakes and I’m not sure how I feel about the same mistake that they both make. I felt like in a way it sort of took away from the main part of the story because I spent a lot of time thinking about those mistakes and wondering if it was really realistic – it felt like the only part of the book that was a bit jarring for me and I can’t work out if that’s because of my personal feelings about it or if it was just unnecessary to the story. Going to have to ponder on that one a bit more.

Apart from that though, I did really enjoy this book – it was a great introduction to Shari Low and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more of her books as she has quite an extensive backlist to explore.


Book #100 of 2017


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Review: See You In September by Charity Norman

See You In September
Charity Norman
Allen & Unwin
2017, 423p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Cassy blew a collective kiss at them. ‘See you in September,’ she said. A throwaway line. Just words, uttered casually by a young woman in a hurry. And then she’d gone.

It was supposed to be a short trip – a break in New Zealand before her best friend’s wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they’d see her again.

Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community’s leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay.

As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group’s rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home – before Justin’s prophesied Last Day can come to pass.

A powerful story of family, faith and finding yourself, See You in September is an unputdownable new novel from this hugely compelling author.

I find cults really fascinating to read about – I’ve read a few books centred around some before, but mostly non-fiction accounts of Jonestown and the like. I think that tackling a cult in a fiction novel can be quite difficult because it’s hard to portray the true charisma and power of a leader. So much of it relies on atmosphere, emotions, sheer numbers of people all claiming to experience the same thing. It’s really hard to make that believable on paper.

Cassy was supposed to be travelling for the (English) summer months with her boyfriend before returning to London to finish her law degree. Things have been a struggle with Hamish and when something happens that’s the last straw for Cassy and she impulsively breaks up with him and accepts a lift from a van full of people. They convince her to come and visit them where they live sustainably on a large piece of land they call Gethsemane in rural New Zealand. It’s a relatively decent sized community, ranging in age from tiny babies to people in their seventies and they’re not all raving hippies. There are doctors, carpenters, engineers, people specialising in permaculture and other farming aspects. It seems incredibly idyllic and somewhat disillusioned and swayed by the calm pressure of the residents, Cassy finds herself agreeing to stay. She feels as though she’s finally found where she belongs, where she should be.

The narrative is split between Cassy and her time at Gethsemane, and Diana, Cassy’s mother back in England. When they get word that Cassy won’t be coming home, they inform the police, her father even goes to New Zealand to attempt to get her to come home but they are met with stonewalling at every turn. Cassy is legally an adult and has chosen to stay at Gethsemane. The community isn’t doing anything unlawful, they keep to themselves mostly and there are no reasons for police to interfere. Diana and Mike, Cassy’s father are also hit with terrible repercussions from Mike’s attempt to bring Cassy home and that, combined with Cassy’s choosing to stay in New Zealand, to cut herself off from her family for their “negative influence”, slowly erodes their marriage and their very lives, including that of Cassy’s younger sister Tara.

The thing is, I can see the appeal of a place like Gethsemane in part – the idea of living off the land has always kind of appealed to me despite the fact I’m completely hopeless at that sort of stuff. But New Zealand is so gorgeous, it’s all too easy to imagine something like this, growing food and raising animals. The community has its own school and is very communal, with residents having no real possessions as such and taking group meals. However, dig a little deeper and there’s always a sinister side – Cassy signs over her entire inheritance from her grandparents, about £32,000 which is probably close to $60,000NZ and that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to how much some people have given to Justin, the charismatic leader of the community, once they have joined and decided to make their lives there.

Which brings me to Justin himself – he’s an enigmatic figure, appearing randomly, seemingly all knowing and all seeing. He’s a good public speaker, powerful with his words and gifted at making people think that he’s listening, that he’s understanding. He chooses his followers well, sees what they want and need and works a way to give it to them and in return they give back to him. There’s utmost unfaltering loyalty towards him and any sort of questioning is termed “negativity” and results in ostracisation and thinly veiled threats. Even children don’t belong to their parents but to the community, with Justin choosing their names (and often, much more than that). Justin’s charisma covers a layer of delusion though, that he’s a Messiah, some sort of saviour and he’ll be the one to lead those at Gethsemane to a better place. I think that Charity Norman did a good job writing Justin to be as compelling as was probably possible and it’s easy to read over this sort of stuff with a practiced, cynical eye when you’re not the one on your own in a foreign country, being targeted with the full force of friendship and values, being made to feel included and special. There’s so much idealism in the lifestyle that I think for some people, by the time the real indoctrination about the end of the world and the saviour and all that stuff sets in, it’s way too late. They’re already fully invested. And any dissenting thoughts are shut down so quickly with shunning and deliberate acts that make a person feel unbalanced, so they almost overcompensate, throwing themselves into rabid belief in a way to be accepted again. I saw it in Cassy several times.

I think this book is brilliant. I loved the split narrative that gave such a gut-wrenching account of what it was like for Cassy’s parents to know that she was on the other side of the world, not even able to be contacted. It damaged them all in so many ways, their family unit. It made me think much more about what it’s like for the families when this happens – usually my thoughts focused on the people who joined themselves. When they have no families, you can perhaps understand why this becomes such an attractive option. But Cassy had a tightknit, loving family unit – yes there were some issues and pressure to finish her degree, get a job, be successful. For Mike and Diane, it was just unthinkable that this had happened to the girl they had raised to be a strong, independent woman in an atheist household. But it does happen. It’s not just fiction.

Another amazing read from Charity Norman, 2 in a row from her now. I’ve still got her earlier books to read, really must get to those ASAP.


Book #99 of 2017


Review: Lake Hill by Margareta Osborn

Lake Hill
Margareta Osborn
2017, 320p
Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

All her life Julia Gunn has been weighed down – first by a controlling father, then by a staid older husband, and always by a long-buried secret from her teenage years.

Now she’s going to do something for herself.

Except en route to a new life on the coast at Lakes Entrance she finds herself – courtesy of a rockslide – stuck in the remote mountain town of Lake Grace.

Yet maybe fate is on her side. Because Lake Grace is home to Rick Halloran – ex-rodeo king, sculptor and grazier – and the man with whom she enjoyed a brief, unforgettable romance twenty years ago.

Not only that, but Julia has dreamed of running her own cafe, and she’s just spotted a For Sale sign outside the prettiest little tea-room by the lake . . .

Julia is finally on the verge of the life she’s always wanted.

Then her long-buried secret knocks at the door . . .

In Margareta Osborn’s 5th full length novel we head to the beautiful Gippsland area in eastern Victoria where Julia Gunn is on her way to a new life. Having been widowed young, only in her thirties, she’s resigned from her job and has decided to move to Lakes Entrance and buy a cafe/tearoom. Only fate intervenes and she finds herself stranded in the mountain town of Lake Grace – not quite where she wanted to be, but lovely nonetheless. Especially when she spots something for sale that will work perfectly with her dream.

Lake Grace is also the home of Rick Holloran, Julia’s first….well, everything. Many years ago they shared a brief romance as teenagers before Julia’s strict pastor father whisked the family away to another town. Julia has never forgotten Rick, nor what eventuated from that romance. When they cross paths again, a lot of the chemistry they experienced as teenagers is still there.

I’ve always wanted to go visit that part of Victoria – I’ve never been. The coastline is stunningly beautiful and there’s some lovely high country too. Julia has left Melbourne behind after the death of her much older husband and is determined to finally be able to live her own life. Having been dominated by first her controlling and abusive father and then to a much lesser extent, her husband, who always had certain expectations, she no longer feels that pressure and can finally just be herself. Live her own life.

Julia has definitely been through some difficult times and now, even some twenty years later, they still weigh quite heavily on her. A fresh start won’t banish those thoughts but I think that for Julia it’s the first step in perhaps moving forward. Fate lands her in Lake Grace and she is regarded with suspicion for being a journalist at first – Lake Grace is highly protective of some of its residents for reasons that are probably very genuine and admirable but at the same time, Rick Halloran in particular is well, a bit of a jerk to her. He doesn’t recognise her immediately, although he’s aware that she’s familiar and he’s too caught up in assuming that she’s a journalist come to harass him.

Those with the Halloran seal of approval are welcomed with open arms though and the community rallies behind Julia after that first awkwardness to help her once she buys the tearoom with the intent to reopen it. Julia makes a friend in Rick’s much younger sister as well as the locals who run the pub and work for Rick in various capacities. As well as this, there’s the budding friendship with Rick himself, which definitely has potential. Julia has something that she knows she needs to confide in him, but she fears his reaction.

There are a couple of good twists in this book and a little bit of mystery running through the story too which was good. It creates good conflict for Julia and Rick as they are attempting to establish their relationship. Certain things in his past have made Rick….well, a bit of a control freak to be honest. He’s quite bossy and he likes basically having what he says goes. Both his sister and Julia are grown ups and don’t need to be told what to do and I thought it was good that they called him out on it. Rick definitely needed to learn to ‘let go’ and step back a bit!

I really enjoyed this story, particularly the way that all of the characters came to life and played an important role. I do have to admit that in the scene where they were all introduced in the local pub, I found it a tad overwhelming – but as Julia got to know them all properly, I did too. I really liked the character of Ernie, the town’s retired doctor who offers to help Julia out in the kitchen, hiding a talent for some baking. Many of the characters had sadness or secrets or something that just added to the whole picture of the town that Osborn had created here. I also liked the way that Julia really found something of herself in Lake Grace, a place to settle and call home and an occupation that made her happy. There was romance but it was never really the strongest feature of the novel – it was about Julia and her journey, coming to terms with what had happened in her past, trying to make her peace with it and move on to a stronger future. There were people she’d met along the way that were clearly going to be a part of that future but her individual journey was for me, the strongest part of the book and this was well represented.


Book #98 of 2017


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Review: Defectors by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster UK
2017, 304p
Uncorrected proof courtesy Simon & Schuster AUS

Blurb {courtesy of the publisher/}:

Moscow, the Cold War, 1961. Stalin has been dead for eight years. With the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet Union’s international prestige is at an all-time high.

Former CIA agent Francis ‘Frank’ Weeks, the most notorious of the defectors to the Soviet Union, is about to publish his memoirs, and what he reveals is reportedly going to send shock waves through the West. Weeks’ defection in the early 1950s shook Washington to its core – his betrayal rippled through the State Department, prompting frantic searches for moles and forcing the resignation of Simon, Frank’s brother and best friend.

So when a Soviet agency approaches Simon, now a publisher in New York City, with a controversial proposition to publish his brother’s memoirs, he finds the offer irresistible since it will finally give him the chance to learn why his brother chose to betray his country. But what he discovers in Moscow is far more than he ever imagined …

Definitely could not pass up the opportunity to read this once I’d read the blurb. I don’t really read much set in Russia and definitely not post-WW2 era Russia.

In 1949, Frank Weeks, who worked for the newly-formed CIA defected to Russia and has been living behind the Iron Curtain ever since. It’s now 1961 and Frank has written his memoirs, which explains why he betrayed his country and what he saw in Communism that made him want to turn his back on everything that he knew. Frank’s younger brother Simon works (conveniently) in publishing, having resigned from his government job after Frank’s defection. Although Simon didn’t know anything about Frank’s spying until after he was exposed, the taint was already on him. Frank has asked Simon to come to Moscow and edit his manuscript, the first time that the brothers will have seen each other in over a decade.

As far as Simon is aware, Frank is mostly ‘retired’ these days and he doesn’t really expect the memoir to reveal too much. It’s KGB approved which means it’s probably already been heavily edited or sanitised but perhaps the opportunity to see his brother and get the answers he desires himself is too good an opportunity to pass up for Simon. He finds himself in Russia, escorted everywhere by a giant of a man. When Frank drops a bombshell on him, Simon is suddenly thrown into a dangerous situation, one that he and Frank might not be able to escape from.

I enjoyed this book for lots of reasons but one was the glimpse into Russia from an American point of view. It’s the height of the Cold War – 1961. Simon has been granted access to a place few Americans probably went and was able to see what life was like for people who had served the way Frank had. Simon hears stories of KGB-only hospitals and an American journalist he meets is happy to tell him stories of the regular population being unable to source vegetables in the winter and that the foreign journalists all take turns doing trips to Helsinki in order to acquire things that they can’t get in Russia.

I think Simon was perhaps always somewhat suspicious, even just a little, of Frank bringing him to Russia to edit his manuscript. It’s difficult to talk freely in Russia, due to bodyguards and the walls having ears, but eventually Frank and Simon find a private moment for Frank to confess something to him, something that he wants Simon’s help with. It seems a somewhat impossible task but the wheels are put in motion anyway.

This is a quiet book, in a way. The clues are subtle, the small giveaways that make up the twists not always immediately discernible. It’s intellectual espionage, a deadly dance of secret meetings and relaying plans. Simon ends up being far more clever than I originally gave him credit for – or maybe he just really knows his brother. I enjoyed him piecing together things and making his own plans as well. I also really liked the inclusion of Frank’s wife, who also has history with Simon. Years in Russia and tragedy has changed her and her role in this defection was not exactly what I expected either.

Everything built really nicely and because I’m me, I didn’t see the last major twist but I thought it was excellent. There were so many things in play at the end, people double crossing and triple crossing each other, Simon having his own agenda, Frank definitely having his. I had a feeling that it could really only end one way but it was probably the way that worked out to be the most true to the story being told.

I enjoyed all aspects of this book – Simon’s mixed feelings on arriving in Russia, his reunion with a brother that had been much loved, that he was still so confused about, the glimpses of Russia and what it was like to be there, including heading to a dacha for the weekend, the clever games of cat and mouse. I’ve never read any of Joseph Kanon’s books before, although I’ve heard of a couple of them. Definitely going to have to add them to my TBR pile now because I’d love to read more like this.


Book #96 of 2017


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Review: Black Tie Optional by Ann Marie Walker

Black Tie Optional (Wild Wedding #1)
Ann Marie Walker
St Martin’s Press
2017, eBook
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Everything about Coleman Grant III oozes power and sex. And not the perfunctory kind either, but the sheet clawing, heart stopping, gasping for air after you’ve screamed so loud you can’t breathe kind. From his dark wavy hair that stands in an artfully rumpled mess, to the blue eyes that sear your skin, to his full, sensual lips – on the surface he’s pure perfection.

Too bad he’s an asshole. An arrogant, uptight corporate raider hell bent on destroying the environment one species at a time.

Everything about Olivia Ramsey screams hippie humanitarian. From her blond hair tied in a sloppy bun, to her faded jeans with the Bonnaroo patch sewn on the thigh, to her combat boots still splattered with mud from the previous day’s site visit.

So it makes perfect sense that they would get married. In Vegas. Stone-cold sober.

Cole needs a wife. Olivia needs to save an endangered species. But what starts as a marriage of convenience soon turns into a battle of wills and sexual tension. Love is a game, and Olivia and Cole are ready to win.

I’m a big fan of the arranged or forced married or marriage of convenience trope and so when I read the description for this, I definitely had to read it.

Cole and Olivia are total opposites – he’s the CEO of a family corporation who is driven to work in his ginormous car every day, lives in a glass and chrome castle in the sky and stops and picks up his take away coffee. Olivia is a conservationist, fundraising for various causes and every day she attempts to talk to Cole and convince him to move a site he’s going to develop in order for her to save some sort of endangered species of bat.

It’s a game they play every morning but when they run into each other in Las Vegas, the game changes slightly. Cole has just discovered that he’s been unsuccessful in his latest attempt to extricate himself from a clause in his father’s will that says he must marry or he loses his company and the incentive of saving her latest cause is enough for Olivia to agree to temporarily marry him. They might be total opposites but they discover that they get along just fine in bed. Maybe even better than fine.

This started off really promising – I loved the opening scene of Olivia waiting for Cole where he stops and gets coffee on his way to the office. We get both their points of view which is good as well – some people don’t really like being in the head of the male character, preferring the mystery but I’m the opposite. I like knowing what they’re thinking. Their banter was amusing, Cole was dismissive of Olivia and her causes, typical of a corporate jerk.

I’m not sure how believable it is that someone’s will could force someone to be married but I’ll let that go for the sake of the story as I think there was an attempt to give some reasoning behind it, even if the reasoning was a bit flawed. So I didn’t mind the set up but I think Olivia agreed to it remarkably quickly, without even really knowing a lot of the details and what being married to someone like Cole would involve.

And I think things like that ended up being a downside to this book – it was too light, it just glossed over a lot of things, rather than delve a bit deeper to better flesh out the story. It happened in many aspects of it but particularly in the interactions between Cole and Olivia and the way in which they realise that they’ve come to feel much more than dislike for each other. I’m not sure they have enough really meaningful interactions that show how this really occurred. The time spent in Olivia’s hometown tries to I think, but I wanted a bit more. I wanted more from Cole. If I’m honest, I didn’t really like him that much. Lines like “you talked less when my cock was in your mouth” don’t really endear a character to me.

I liked Olivia and I loved her family. But I was confused about the character of Cole’s grandmother, who seemed vindictive for little reason but yet stayed on the periphery – I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be misguided or truly evil. She wasn’t enough of a presence in the story to be sure although some of her actions were quite underhanded, it was more in a laughable sort of way. Either way, once again, that wasn’t a discussion that Cole and Olivia had, about how to handle her, what she might do, how to present a united front. Olivia kind of had to figure it out on her own and she did really well and I can only assume the united front came later, after they both had confessed their feelings to each other.

This was okay, I found it an easy, pleasant read without really falling in love with it.


Book #97 of 2017

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Review: Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu

Four Weeks, Five People
Jennifer Yu
Harlequin Young Adult AUS
2017, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she’s okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn’t want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future.

I write this review as a person who has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, so obviously there will be things in this book that I perhaps don’t understand or am unaware of.

The book revolves around four troubled teenagers who instead of spending their summers at a camp with their friends or at home doing whatever they wish, are attending a therapy camp for various reasons. Stella is very angry, Andrew took his edgy band look too far and is recovering from anorexia, Clarisa has OCD, Ben can’t separate fantasy from reality and Mason has narcissistic personality disorder. They are all very different and none are particularly happy about spending the summer this way.

I didn’t love this. In fact I really struggled with it, it took me almost three days to read it and it’s not a long book at all. I found none of the teenagers particularly appealing with the possible exception of Andrew, the character that seemed to be troubled the most. Being inside Andrew’s head was the only time when I thought the book came close to really hitting the sort of emotional mark it was aiming for. Andrew is obsessed with his weight – he’s in a band and they’re pretty good, maybe going somewhere. It started as a bit of a joke, a competition, getting a bit thin and emaciated looking, because that’s what boys in those bands look like. But somewhere along the line the others stopped and Andrew….didn’t. And now he can’t stop. He has to eat properly at camp and every meal has him hunched miserably over his plate, knowing they’re watching and his self-loathing with every mouthful is evident. Weigh-ins are traumatic.

But the rest of the time, it just felt like a few teens at a camp with no real activities. You don’t get a front seat to most of the therapy sessions and to be honest the two counselors that are assigned to these five struck me as borderline incompetent, especially with what occurs in the late stages of the book. There’s a lot of basically just letting them argue and one of the counselors constantly pulling Stella up on her language. It didn’t feel like a genuine camp that was addressing the problems these teens were having. Half the time the narrative is focused on what they get up to during their contraband drinking sessions and it seems ridiculously easy to both smuggle in items (Stella brings everything on the banned list, even things she doesn’t want or need just to prove that she can) and do whatever they want. None of the counselors are ever the wiser, even though one time they leave shot glasses out in plain sight. Clarisa has never drunk before but downs shots like a pro.

I’m aware that four weeks isn’t long in terms of recovery from anything but I didn’t really notice all that much growth towards recovery happening here at all. Mason is still the same insufferable person he is at the end that he was at the beginning. Ben is still struggling with living in the real world, conducting voiceovers and dramatic montages inside his head. Clarisa and Stella do seem to make some sort of improvement but it’s not really explored how it came to be other than one conversation Stella has with one of the counselors that just doesn’t do enough for me. I thought that Stella’s background needed to be explored a lot more. It’s kind of dribbled out in bits and pieces but even then it’s not as in depth as it could’ve been.

Unfortunately the biggest issue was just that this book was….bland. I was bored most of the time I was reading it. It’s just a random collection of the teens arguing, maybe a snapshot of an activity and then a bit of after lights-out drinking, repeat. There was an opportunity here I think, to tackle a couple of forms of mental illness and really portray them in a realistic way but it seems like the focus isn’t really actually on the illnesses. However I couldn’t actually decide what the focus was on because it didn’t really seem like it was on anything at all. It certainly wasn’t a recommendation for camps like that one, should they exist.


Book #95 of 2017

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