All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Man Booker Shortlist #4 – Not A Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman
Anna Burns
Faber & Faber
2018, 368p
{Not} Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

So, part 4 of my 6 part Man Booker Shortlist series. By the time I’d posted my first review, the winner had already been announced – which is this title, Milkman. I had planned to leave the winner until last. I thought it might be a good idea to read the other five first and then cap it off with the one that the judges had chosen for the prize. But it was one of the first few to come in for me at the local library and it also had another request on it, so I couldn’t renew it. I had to read it last week in order to return it by it’s due date.

Okay. This might be one of my briefest reviews because here’s the thing – I didn’t finish this book. I actually DNF’d it ridiculously early for me – it was about three chapters in. I don’t DNF a lot of books, once I kind of start something I tend to finish it. Or I skim read it. But I couldn’t really skim read this. It wasn’t a skim reading sort of book.

The reason I DNF’d it, is because it actually felt like it hurt my brain to read it. Sentences that take up half a page or more, paragraphs that run for 1-2 pages. No one has a name. It’s all Someone McSomebody, Maybe Boyfriend, First Sister, First Brother-in-law, the Milkman. I had no idea who was who, to be honest. There was nothing to tether me to the characters. And in fact all I can remember from what I read is that the main (unnamed) character went for a jog. And some creeper (the Milkman) ran beside her.

Sometimes you know right away that something isn’t going to be for you. I knew from the second page with this book. I was struggling with it right away, but I persevered for a while because I’d read some really good reviews and I figured once I got past that first bit and settled into the way it was written, got used to it, I might start enjoying it. And that may have happened. But after struggling through three chapters (which took me about an hour, I might add) I decided to give up. And just accept that whatever the judges saw in this book to longlist it, shortlist it and award it the prize, I was never going to get to the stage where I would be able to see it.

Because I DNF’d this, Goodreads actually counts it so I’m including it in my count here but because my GR goal is 200 books, I’ll read 201 now, because I don’t actually consider this a completed book towards my goal.

Unfinished = unrated.

Book #186 of 2018

 

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Thoughts On: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage 
Tayari Jones
Algonquin Books
2018, 308p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. In this deft exploration of love, loyalty, race, justice, and both Black masculinity and Black womanhood in 21st century America, Jones achieves that most-illusive of all literary goals: the Great American Novel.

That would have to be one of the briefest descriptions I’ve seen in a while.

I added this book to my Wishlist way back in January of this year. I think sometime around the end of last year/beginning of this I read some feature about books to look out for coming in 2018 and made a note of the ones I wanted to read. I do that all the time – I have a wishlist for each year on Goodreads but honestly, don’t ask me how many books make it off the wishlist to the read list. When I remembered my local library existed for requesting Man Booker shortlisted books, I decided to add this one in too.

Roy and Celestial have been married for about eighteen months. They are both college graduates, each striving to have more than the generation before them. They come from different backgrounds as well – Celestial with college educated parents and from Georgia and Roy from country Louisiana. Roy has a good job which allows Celestial to stay at home and work on her art, steadily making a name for herself. They have the usual challenges in a marriage – in-laws, the pressure to provide grandchildren, etc. But it’s when Roy is arrested and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, that their marriage faces the ultimate test. Roy is sentenced to 12 years for a rape that his own wife gave him an alibi for.

A large part of this book is letters between Roy and Celestial that they exchange whilst he is in prison. The letters highlight the hopelessness of their situation and the struggle of being a couple separated by incarceration. Although Celestial knows Roy’s innocence and never doubts him (she was with him the entire time in question), she’s a young woman barely married who is suddenly almost like a widow and after a few years the strain of not having a husband longer than she had one is too much and she writes Roy a Dear John style letter to let him know that she will no longer consider herself married. For Roy, this is the ultimate kick in the teeth, because not only has he been denied his freedom but now his own wife has abandoned him at his lowest point.

Roy’s tale is horrible and his trial seemed little more than a farce. There’s no DNA evidence, his own wife takes the stand to claim he was with her, he has no motive, no criminal history, but he’s black. And the court system in southern America is awash with racism and corruption. I’m not at all qualified to comment on the racial profiling in crime or the treatment of young, black men in the system but we all read the news. There’s no shortage of high profile cases that shout out loud how it’s different for those young black men. How police shoot first and ask questions later, the lack of any real consequences for such shootings. The sheer numbers of those African Americans who are incarcerated. There’s no doubt that Roy is a victim of his appearance. Both Roy and his wife believe that his accuser was raped that night. And Roy had crossed paths with her earlier in the night. When she points him out, that’s it. He’s arrested and charged and sentenced with very little in the way of actual evidence. Celestial’s family is quite wealthy (new wealth, due to a patent her scientist father sold) and they keep the fund open for appeals, trying to get Roy justice all too late.

When Roy is finally released, his conviction quashed after serving five years, so much has happened. Celestial has moved on and with someone Roy knows. He wants his wife back but after five years apart, after the way prison has changed Roy and the way being left on her own has changed Celestial, is it going to be possible for them to find their way back to the before?

I really enjoyed this and the way it made me think. I love epistolary novels as well although this is not entirely epistolary. After that it’s split into three points of view – Roy’s, Celestial’s and her new lover. They’re three people who are just really struggling to get what they want – in some cases to even know what they want. Roy has such a firm view of the way things should be. Celestial is his wife and that’s that. She didn’t divorce him that whole time he was inside. His key still fits in the door after he gets out. I think for Roy, if he and Celestial can just make their way back, then he might be able to feel like things are going to get back to ‘normal’ for him – as much as they can be normal after being jailed for 5 years for something he didn’t do. Celestial is torn between the fact that she moved on when she thought the situation was hopeless but also her loyalty to Roy for what he has suffered. It’s messy and even ugly at times and honestly? I’m not gonna lie. I wanted Roy and Celestial to make it. To take back their relationship and erase all the damage that had been done, the ways they had been wronged. It would’ve felt like vindication. But even while I was thinking that, I was questioning if that was the best choice for them both, after everything that had happened.

One thing I really liked in this book was the relationship between Roy and his father (Big Roy). Just the way they connect, in that sort of awkward manly way that shows deep feeling but not outright declares it. Everything Big Roy did for Roy as a child, the ways in which he loved Roy’s mother. Those family dynamics were so wonderful – how they strive and sacrifice for each generation to have more than the one before it. I also liked Roy’s relationship with Celestial’s father (he exchanges a couple of letters with him in jail as well) and the way that evolved and their steadfast support of him during his time in prison. Everyone who knew Roy never questioned his innocence, even if they weren’t there like Celestial was.

This was well written and thought provoking. It’s not necessarily about the legalities of being wrongly incarcerated, I think it’s more about the collateral damage. What Roy missed out on, what he lost, whilst being inside. The way that some relationships fell apart and yet others didn’t. Or were perhaps made somewhat stronger for his experience.

8/10

Book #188 of 2018

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Review: Return To Rosalee Station by Mandy Magro

Return To Rosalee 
Mandy Magro
Harlequin MIRA
2018, 310p
Copy courtesy of Harlequin AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Bestselling Australian Author returns to the world of her debut novel, Rosalee Station, with a new tragic and harrowing story of love and second chances, set deep in the heart of the Australian outback. Can they find the path to forgiveness and healing, or will grief keep them apart forever?

After eight years of marriage, Sarah Walsh had thought she and Matt would be together forever. But when a fatal accident serves up the cruellest punishment any mother could face, their relationship falters. Sarah is helpless as Matt flies off the rails – she braves one last–ditch attempt to try and make him see they need to work together to get through the heartache. But will it be enough? And what about her – how does she go on alone?

Reeling from devastation and guilt, Matt gets the wakeup call he needs to save his marriage before it’s too late. But the way forward is littered with obstacles, and he can see it’s only by returning to the outback beauty and isolation of Rosalee Station that he has any chance to reclaim the man he once was. But will this separation end up costing him everything?

In her latest release, Australian rural romance author Mandy Magro revisits a familiar location and couple. Matt and Sarah’s meeting and courtship was detailed in her 2011 release, Rosalee Station. Now I haven’t read Rosalee Station but I honestly don’t think that matters because it skips forward a significant amount of years – Matt and Sarah have now been married for 8 years but 12 months ago the couple suffered a devastating and traumatic loss. Because of this, their marriage is slowly breaking down, exacerbated by Matt’s descent into alcoholism due to guilt because he blames himself for the accident that stole something precious from them.

The thing is, whilst it may have been an accident, the resulting consequences are actually undeniably Matt’s fault. He was careless, probably doing something he’d done a million times as a child and probably even as an adult without thinking twice. And maybe 99.9% of the time you can do such a thing and be fine. But there’s always that chance something will go wrong – and when it does, it turns Matt and Sarah’s lives completely upside down. They are shattered and broken. I don’t know the rules of driving around farms but I honestly couldn’t believe that Matt didn’t face some sort of legal repercussion – he was the driver, he was responsible for his passengers, including a minor who isn’t able to make these decisions for themselves.

Moving on. It’s a year later and Matt and Sarah are in a bad place. Matt drinks every night and Sarah has had to take drastic action in the form of kind of an ultimatum but he finally seeks help. He decides that in order to really make this work, he has to leave Sarah and their own farm and return to his family’s farm, the titular Rosalee Station. Sarah is really upset by this, she wants to be able to help him through it but Matt is adamant he needs to do this without her around.

I commend Mandy Magro for tackling alcoholism and also for examining a couple who have had the heady highs and are now experiencing the worst of the lows. It’s interesting to me, to read about a couple going through a bad time and how they work through it together and come out of it. That kind of didn’t happen here as Matt removes himself from the marital home to deal with his problems and they don’t really part on the best of terms so they don’t even really have much in terms of communication. They are essentially living these two separate lives with the outcome hanging on if Matt can kick the drink. The thing is, I don’t really think Matt does anything to address the reason why he drinks. He refuses counselling and intends to just go cold turkey. His GP convinces him to fill some prescriptions for medicines that will help him with his withdrawal symptoms and at first he even refuses that. Matt’s expectations seem unrealistic and I guess that’s quite true of a lot of people that need to break out of an addiction cycle. The thing is, I don’t think just going “I’m not going to drink anymore” is enough when you are drinking for the reason that Matt is. That reason isn’t just going to magically go away without being actually examined, dealt with and moved past. Or at least moved past enough to function as a human being without using alcohol as a crutch because it’s not something that people just ‘get over’ and move past.

A lot of this story is bogged down in the day to day rituals and life – lots of descriptions about showering, breakfast, car drives, farm work, etc which does tend to take away from the more serious topics. Once Matt makes the decision to stop drinking, I thought there would be quite a bit more about that but it’s not as dominant a part of the story as I thought it would be. The thing is, alcoholism is a disease and it’s something someone like Matt will probably fight on and off (ie some days it’ll be easier, others much harder) for the rest of his life. Anytime something bad happens, he will have to control that instinct to drink it away. A lot of this is kind of glossed over because Matt doesn’t really talk about his drinking. I’m also not sure how serious he really was at times, because he stays somewhere he knows there’s a bottle of spirits. There were a few instances of Matt’s behaviour that felt like actual red flags for me – such as his reaction to Sarah going to a rodeo for her birthday as well as his thinking about Sarah when the two of them are separated. At times he seems almost resentful of the fact that she isn’t constantly calling to check on him or praise him or whatever, seemingly forgetting that he told her he could only do this a thousand kilometres away from her. I think Sarah was quite patient and she really did try to show him that she loved him but she also had her limits as well. I think it’s very difficult to know how you’d be in this situation unless you were actually living it but there were times when I felt like Matt seemed quite a lot of work. He was very resentful, full of self-loathing and guilt which is also why I questioned how successful he’d be without some sort of counselling to deal with those feelings and move forward. This could’ve been an opportunity to address men and seeking that sort of help. I actually feel like the book opted out of addressing some of the harder parts of Matt’s journey and it also gave us kind of like a “magic ending” which doesn’t show the ongoing effort.

Whilst I think this was a great idea, for me it did miss with the execution. There are so many things that just didn’t work for me – the dialogue is very over the top – if it’s not excessively flowery declarations of love and the like, everyone sounds like Alf Stewart and Steve Irwin had love children and populated this novel with them. The level of ocker is…..distracting. Very distracting. And I just think I expected a more in depth look at going cold turkey quitting a pretty hardcore drinking habit and addressing the sorts of things that led to that and this book didn’t really deliver on that for me. It was more about the day to day things and even though I knew Matt was going through a very difficult time, I didn’t warm to him as a person. I had sympathy for him, because he made a mistake and was going to have to deal with it for the rest of his life. But I didn’t like him. And some of his behaviour seemed a bit problematic to me, like when Sarah feels bad for saying she’ll go to the rodeo with her sister-in-law because she knows that Matt won’t like it. It felt like a very surface story and didn’t dig anywhere near as deep as I think it should have.

5/10

Book #187 of 2018

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Review/Feature: Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater

Well Read Cookies
Lauren Chater
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 175p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

This gorgeous, whimsical gift hardback celebrates beloved works of literature in the shape of beautiful iced biscuits. Feast your eyes on 60 mouth-watering classics in full colour from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Tolkien and F. Scott Fitzgerald, modern masterpieces by Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Geraldine Brooks and Melissa Ashley, and beloved children’s tales by Dr Seuss and J.K. Rowling.

With all the tender love and care of a true book lover, author and baker extraordinaire Lauren Chater shows you how to translate your favourite books to the plate – and start making your very own sweet morsels of edible art. Filled with beautiful photographs and insider tips on achieving cookie nirvana, now you can have your books and eat them too.

Lauren Chater is the founder of the popular blog, The Well-Read Cookie, and author of the acclaimed historical novel The Lace Weaver.

This book combines two of my favourite things – books and food, specifically sweet food. I’m a big cookie/biscuit fan. But food inspired by books? That’s even better so I was really keen to see just what books had inspired author Lauren Chater to bring out her artistic side in the form of shaped and decorated cookies. Thanks to the wonderful people at Simon & Schuster AUS, I have permission to share some of the photos of my favourites and the accompanying pieces that go along with those photos in the book.

Firstly I do want to say that there are decorations for all types of skill levels here and it’s quite easy to start with something more simple and then work your way up to some of the more complicated pieces. Although I do bake, including biscuits, I’m not really a decorator and my freehand drawing skills are woeful but I think with practice, I could probably accomplish quite a few of these. Some of them though……some of them are seriously, seriously clever and intricate and they look like they take a little bit of skill. There’s also several recipes (one of which I will be sharing here also) included at the back of the book.

The first one I knew I had to share, is one of my favourite books and has been since I was a child. I have kids of my own now and they have loved it too and it’ll probably always be a favourite in our house. I don’t think it matters how old you are, this book is a timeless classic and I can honestly see these decorated cookies as being a hit at any birthday party. The book is of course…..The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

Are these not the cutest? I absolutely love them! I showed these to my kids too and they got a huge kick out of them, it’s perhaps something we will try as a school holiday project. You could have so much fun with these, making not only the tiny caterpillar from the beginning of the story but everything he eats and how big he is at the end plus his metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly! Here’s what Lauren had to say on this book…..

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

Why are children so obsessed with books about food? From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Possum Magic, food and literature continues to be an utterly magical combination. What is it that makes us go gaga for Suessian green eggs and ham and dreamy Sendak-style aeroplane doughnuts? Psychologists suggest food is associated with memory, so perhaps when parents read to children from picture books which feature fantastical feasts and pleasant picnics, a love of food is absorbed along with the language.

Nowhere is this combination of edibles and idioms more apparent than in Eric Carle’s classic tale of gluttony and greed, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Brimful of fruit, condiments and sweets, it’s the ultimate guide to a week’s worth of overeating, but it’s also a lesson in growth and transformation.

The compulsion of the caterpillar to consume everything in sight is an instantly recognisable childish trait. The mere whiff of a pickle takes me straight back to my school days, and whenever the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘cake’ are mentioned together, I find myself reaching for the fridge – because, as everyone knows, the perfect accompaniment to a Matilda-style Bruce Bogtrotter chocolate cake (thank you Roald Dahl) is a slice of Swiss cheese.

When I was making these hungry caterpillar cookies, my children offered very helpfully to cut the holes out of the ‘fruits’ instead of what they usually do, which is squirt the icing straight into their mouths. I recommend using the bottom of an icing tip to get a good-sized hole and piping an outline around the hole first before you flood so that the icing doesn’t drip down inside. You’ll need a 1.5 mm tip for the caterpillar’s details.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

I actually haven’t read this next book but honestly these cookies are so beautiful I couldn’t not choose them to share. These strike me as being a bit more ‘next level’.

These are so beautiful. The detail is incredible and you could really use decoration to give each cookie an independent look and feel, based on the amazingly colourful birdlife we have here in Australia. The book these are inspired by is The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, which I vaguely remember being published a couple of years ago. I went and looked it up upon reading Well Read Cookies because I found these so amazing to look at and I think I might have to read it.

The Birdman’s Wife
Melissa Ashley

Books about taxidermy occupy a very unusual spot in literature. After reading Melissa Ashley’s debut novel, a vibrant reimagining of the life of 19th century artist Elizabeth Gould, I was keen to explore the dark side and find out if anyone else had been brave enough to write about this macabre topic.

My research led me to quite a few places (including the hilarious Crap Taxidermy – I recommend), but none of the books I read were as good as The Birdman’s Wife. Somehow, Ashley manages to get right under the skin (oops!) of her characters and inject the perfect amount of tension into the story of this little-known Australian artist. Bad puns aside, the book was an eye-opener into the way 19th century English migrants responded to the Australian landscape by attempting to study and tame its elusive fauna and wildlife – and thereby understand themselves. And thankfully, attitudes about the preservation of wildlife are changing as society develops a more respectful response.

I used a copper cookie cutter to make these delicate hummingbirds – which were painted by Elizabeth Gould and referenced in the book – and edible paint to create the watercolour effect of the feathers.

A few tips about using edible paint:

  • It’s best to apply edible paint sparingly using a good brush. If you use too much in one go, it creates pockmarks or holes in the icing which is not the look you’re going for.
  • I recommend a nice watercolour sable-hair brush if you can get it. Your cookies are works of art, like Elizabeth Gould’s, so you want the best quality brush you can afford!

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

It’s pretty hard not to want to create some of these amazing cookies (and there are so many more in the book) so to get started, I can share Lauren Chater’s recipe for a basic vanilla sugar cookie:

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

makes around 16

250g unsalted butter, softened

1 egg

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla essence

6 cups flour, plus extra for rolling out

1/2 tsp baking powder

STEP 1 Place softened butter and caster sugar in a large bowl and mix until smooth and light in colour (about four minutes).

STEP 2 Add in vanilla essence and beat in egg, until combined.

STEP 3 Slowly beat in the baking powder and flour, one cup at a time. After two minutes or so of beating the dough should start pulling away from the edge of the bowl and form a lump. Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface.

STEP 4 Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place in fridge for at least four hours.

STEP 5 Preheat oven to 180°C (355°F). Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out desired shapes. Place them on flat baking trays and put in freezer or the fridge for at least 20 minutes before baking to preserve shape.

STEP 6 Bake each tray for 18 minutes, turning halfway to ensure consistency.

STEP 7 Allow to cool completely before decorating.

Extracted from Well Read Cookies by Lauren Chater, published by Simon & Schuster Australia, RRP AU$24.99. Photography © Lauren Chater

Honestly, if you love books and enjoy food, especially food that’s related to books, then I can recommend this. There’s so many interesting little tidbits in here about the books chosen, a lot of which I think are books many people have read and can connect to. If you’re part of a book club, so many of the ones included here would make such an awesome snack and there are ones like the caterpillars that would work so well for kids. Even some of the cookies which are based on books that aren’t children’s books, would be great for kids to try, such as snowflakes, dogs, witches and more. The pictures are all incredible (and all taken by the author!) but I loved reading about the books as well. I always find new ways to add books to my TBR and this book was honestly just one more way.

This was so fun and the sort of book you can go back to time and time again and always get something different.

8/10

Book #182 of 2018

Thank you to Simon & Schuster AUS and Lauren Chater for allowing me to use the photos, extracts and recipe!

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Man Booker Shortlist #3: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Everything Under
Daisy Johnson
Jonathan Cape
2018, 264p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.

A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As daring as it is moving, Everything Under is a story of family and identity, of fate, language, love and belonging that leaves you unsettled and unstrung.

This was my third read from the Man Booker shortlist and it was….a bit of a mixed bag. I can’t say that I liked it and at the time of reading it, it was my least favourite but I’ve since read (or attempted to read, so stay tuned for that one) another one that was such a struggle it makes this seem like my favourite book in the entire world.

The story here is of a non-linear structure, going back and forth in time and revolving mostly around Gretel and her mother Sarah. During most of Gretel’s childhood they lived on a boat moored on a river and had almost nothing to do with anyone else. Gretel and her mother had their own language and when her mother abandoned her at sixteen to the ‘system’, it was a learning experience for Gretel that some of these words that were so part of lexicon were made up or adapted from mispronunciations of words that Gretel had done as a baby or small child. Perhaps this fascination with words led to Gretel’s career, working on updating the Oxford Dictionary entries. It’s a slow, methodical process, a solitary lifestyle that suits her just fine. She’s been looking for her mother ever since her mother left, constantly calling hospitals and morgues, dreading one day getting that call.

When Gretel finally does reconnect with her mother, Sarah is suffering Alzheimer’s and the writing around this was definitely my favourite part of the entire book. Johnson writes this with empathy but also with stunning frankness – the ugliness of this illness, the way it strips a person down of who they are and what they know. It was really well done and Gretel’s patience and determination to nurse her mother through this stage was admirable.

What didn’t work for me was the magical realism bit – or the rest of the book. Admittedly I only know the bare bones of the Greek myth it draws its inspiration from but I didn’t particularly find the unravelling mystery of the character of Marcus/Margot particularly interesting or shocking. Some of the events were later on but it also seemed a bit forced, like this didn’t seem a logical conclusion of the interactions. Perhaps that’s the magical realism kicking in, the mysterious creature they all fear which must be stopped, which they have their own word for. It just seemed like too much was happening, with the inclusions of Marcus/Margot/her family/Fiona and Gretel’s own interactions with them as well as the childhood story, the Bonak or whatever they called the river creature, the adult relationship between Sarah and Gretel.

Whilst I found this very easy to read and it’s not a long book so it only took about two hours, I struggled with it in other ways. Some of it is beautifully written and I appreciated that. There’s imagination here as well but this is not really my kind of magical realism. Perhaps the jumps back and forth in time and the vagueness contributed to that but half the time I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on and it seemed the book asked questions only to jump somewhere else and leave you hanging for a while before it bothered to answer them, which got frustrating. The whole thing of Marcus/Margot felt so drawn out it got ridiculous after a while. For me this was just okay but my primary interest was the relationship between Sarah and Gretel. To be honest, everything else was just a distraction.

4/10

Book #184 of 2018

 

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Review: Season Of Salt And Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Season Of Salt & Honey 
Hannah Tunnicliffe
Pan Macmillan AUS
2015, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A NOVEL OF LOVE, GRIEF AND ANTIPASTI.

Francesca ‘Frankie’ Caputo has it all figured out. She’s finally going to marry the man she loves and then they will live happily ever after. But when a freak accident cuts her fiancé Alex’s life tragically short, all of Frankie’s future plans suddenly disintegrate.

Drowning in grief, Frankie flees from her overbearing Italian-American family, and escapes to an abandoned cabin owned by Alex’s parents in a remote part of Washington forest.

As her heart slowly begins to heal, Frankie discovers a freedom that’s both exhilarating and unsettling to everything she has always known for sure. So when her old life comes crashing back in, Frankie must decide: will she slip quietly back into her safe, former existence? Or will a stronger, wiser Frankie Caputo stand up and claim her new life?

Okay so I read a lot of books. Over 200 a year. Unfortunately I cannot read everything that I receive for review or even everything that I buy….there’s just not enough time in the day for that! So I have huge TBR piles that lurk in my house, making me feel guilty about all my unread books even as I’m busily buying new ones. Occasionally I pull something out of the ‘slush pile’ and I’ve had this one on my TBR for a couple of years now. I always kind of avoided it because the loss mentioned in the blurb didn’t really make me want to pick it up. But yesterday I decided I could go with it and that it was time to finally give it a go. Weirdly, when I went to add it to GR, I discovered that I’d apparently already added it, three years ago. I don’t remember reading it so I’m pretty sure I added it by mistake or meant to add something else. My memory is really good and even though I do read a lot of books, I don’t really tend to forget reading an entire one. I may blank out on bits and pieces of the plot or character names years down the track….but not the entire thing. Nothing about this was familiar to me so I’m pretty sure this was my first time actually reading it!

Frankie lived a content and peaceful life for the most part, with her fiancé Alex, who had been her high school sweetheart. They were planning their wedding, although Alex’s life seemed to more revolve around surfing than their life together. When he is tragically lost to her, Frankie flees his funeral in grief, making her way to a cabin belonging to Alex’s family. It’s quite rustic, with an outhouse and little in the way of creature comforts but Alex enjoyed its proximity to the beach and had fond memories of time spent there as a child with his grandfather. For Frankie, it’s a quiet escape away from her somewhat overbearing Italian relatives, although her peace is broken by the arrival of her estranged sister Bella, who seems to want to make friends.

I enjoyed quite a lot about this book. We don’t really get a lot of Frankie and Alex as a couple, just some flashbacks and later on quite a bit more fleshing out about their status prior to his death but I felt as though Frankie’s grief was really well done. Grief can be a funny thing to try and write in books, it can be hard to strike that chord so that it feels really powerful but not overdone or a bit fake. Frankie is deep in a fog and she really just has to get away from everything, which is apparently not really understood by her family. Her family are Italian-American and very close knit…..quite overbearing and demanding and it’s something I’ve experienced to a smaller degree, marrying into a family that also originates from Italy. There’s a lot of expectation and skipping things isn’t really deemed okay, even if you just saw all these people like a day or two ago. They value those big family gatherings and they can be very intimidating to people who aren’t familiar with them or come into them as adults. So when Frankie talks about how Alex didn’t really know how to handle her family events, I can understand where she’s coming from.

Food is a strong part of this novel, from what Frankie’s Aunties are always making (meatballs in sauce, arancini balls, canolli, all those strong traditional foods Italians are famous for) to the vegetables and herbs that a neighbour Frankie meets grows in her garden. There are recipes included too, which was really good because I love books that celebrate food and share that food with the reader. There’s a risotto recipe in this book that I’m desperate to try – I love risotto, it’s one of my favourite meals and we have a couple of go-to ones that we constantly have on rotation here and I’m thinking of adding this one to it. Just with less garlic!

If I had a criticism of this book, it was probably that the revelations about Alex felt a bit like a cop out, especially as he wasn’t around to defend himself or explain or clarify anything and the reader and Frankie were just kind of left with half the story, which did little to really impact on anything. It felt like a clumsy attempt to get Frankie to realise that maybe she should be ready to move on or that she’d grieved something that didn’t exist in the way that she thought it did. Also I’m a bit of a sucker for a romance thread and I’d have liked just a touch more here. I know what was going to happen, what the end game was but just one more interaction would’ve been a really nice touch for me.

7/10

Book #185 of 2018

 

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Review: In The Dark Spaces by Cally Black

In The Dark Spaces 
Cally Black
Hardie Grant Egmont
2017, 319p
Purchased personal copy

“What will happen when you don’t come back?”

A genre-smashing kidnapping drama about Tamara, who’s faced with an impossible choice when she falls for her captors.

Yet this is no ordinary kidnapping. Tamara has been living on a freighter in deep space, and her kidnappers are terrifying Crowpeople – the only aliens humanity has ever encountered. No-one has ever survived a Crowpeople attack, until now – and Tamara must use everything she has just to stay alive.

But survival always comes at a price, and there’s no handbook for this hostage crisis. As Tamara comes to know the Crowpeople’s way of life, and the threats they face from humanity’s exploration into deep space, she realises she has an impossible choice to make. Should she stay as the only human among the Crows, knowing she’ll never see her family again … or inevitably betray her new community if she wants to escape?

This ground-breaking thriller is the latest YA novel to win the Ampersand Prize, a stand-out entry with a blindingly original voice: raw, strange and deeply sympathetic. With its vivid and immersive world-building, this electrifying debut is The Knife of Never Letting Go meets Homeland, for the next generation of sci-fi readers.

I’ve been hearing a lot about this book since it was published last year – perhaps even before that because it was the winner of the Ampersand Prize for an unpublished writer by Hardie Grant Egmont. Since its publication it’s been nominated for a slew of awards and was the winner of the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel. I bought it months ago, to be honest I can’t even remember when. Something reminded me of it recently so I ended up finally picking it up to read and got through it in an afternoon.

It starts on a spaceship with Tamara, who has been keeping herself hidden for as long as she can remember. And now she helps keep her aunt’s baby hidden on the ship, hidden and quiet. Because of this stealth, when the terrifying Crowpeople invade the ship, Tamara and the baby are the only ones that survive. The baby (Gub) because she hides him and herself because she manages to mimic their way of speaking, which intrigues them enough to take her hostage, back to where they live which they call the Hive.

Tamara is thrown into a terrifying situation – although she can mimic the sounds the Crowpeople make, which seems to sort of amuse and intrigue them, she cannot actually understand what they are saying. She’s seen everyone on the ship she was on ruthlessly murdered with weapons far superior to what she knows humans possess and because they’ve taken her with them, Gub has been left alone on the ship. She’s made sure he’ll be safe and has food and someone will come to pick up the damaged and attacked ship but she’s frantic to get back to him. They’re all each other have left in the world now but in order to do that, Tamara has to learn the language of her mysterious captors and understand their motives for attacking the spaceships and brutally killing everyone on board. She needs to understand how they see humans and why they feel as though this is the best option.

Tamara is only fourteen or fifteen but she’s used to fitting in where she’s not supposed to be. Children aren’t allowed on the ships so she’s always been hiding, listening and learning. The language she has to learn is an entirely different array of sounds, whistles and clicks and it’s not easy but Tamara has powerful motivation. The longer she spends there, the more she learns about their community, their relationships with each other and why they are doing what they are doing. In return she tries to explain elements of human society to them – the conversation she has about trying to explain money highlights the sheer sort of ridiculous that comes with elements of a paid society where no one does anything for free, or for the sake of it. The Crowpeople live a completely different way to that and the more Tamara experiences it, the more she wants to stop the bloodshed and find a way that the two societies might be able to coexist. But humans are a stubborn lot and it won’t be easy.

This started off creepy as heck – the author does a great job of placing the reader right in Tamara’s mind as she crawls around the hidden spaces on the ship and her visuals as she watches the ship employees cut down by the invading Crowpeople. Some sort of self-preservation kicks in that spurs her to imitate their speech and sounds and it saves her life but it means that she is taken away from everything she knows to a place where she could be killed at any moment. It’s clear that killing her is what some of the Crowpeople want (they call themselves Garuwa) and it seems they have little reason to like or trust humans either, although they do have the superior weapons. Through Tamara they learn too, that you need not always fear that which is different and communication and compromise are important. This feels like a book with Life Lessons To Learn – the Garuwa feel quite a bit similar to like an indigenous community, who all work together and don’t conform to the sort of societal structure that the humans do and the humans in their spaceships are kind of riding roughshod through the Garuwa ‘habitat’ for want of a better word, taking their resources and destroying their homes. I liked the way it played out, especially the relationship that Tamara forged with the captain that is also taken hostage and the way that she connects with some of the Garuwa themselves.

This was an interesting and unique story that worked for me. I don’t read a lot of ‘space’ books but I enjoyed this.

8/10

Book #183 of 2018

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The Man Booker Shortlist #2: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room 
Rachel Kushner
Jonathan Cape
2018, 352p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner details with humour and precision. Daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike. Allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through sewage pipes.

Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny and culminating in a climax of almost unbearable intensity. Through Romy – and through a cast of astonishing characters populating The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

So this was my second read from the Man Booker shortlist. Like Washington Black before it, I chose it for #2 simply because I liked the sound of the blurb. It felt like something I’d find interesting and that turned out to be true. There was a lot about this book that I found fascinating, a lot of really important issues that I think it raised. But the way it was written did at times, make it a bit of a slog.

Romy has been given two life sentences for murdering a man. She doesn’t seem particularly bothered about what she has done, or about going to jail. The only thing that really seems to bother Romy is her son Jackson who she has had to leave behind in the care of her mother. Romy details her life in out of sequence flashbacks – her childhood roaming the streets, her job as a stripper, her various relationships with men, the struggles of drugs or drink. Romy has seen and done things, will see and do more yet in her time in prison.

Where I think this book excels is its look at the justice system and how it disadvantages those who are from poor or migrant backgrounds. Romy has no money for a defence lawyer and her court appointed lawyer seems nothing short of useless. There is crucial information and evidence that is dismissed entirely from Romy’s court case and cannot be used or mentioned at all as part of her defence. Even worse is what happens to Romy’s son after she is incarcerated. Her parental rights are terminated and when his guardian dies, Romy cannot even find out where he is or what has happened to him. There’s a repetition in this book, that the prison guards repeat to these women over and over again – “you should’ve thought about that before you committed a crime” which they say in relation to their children, wanting information about their children or lamenting the fact that they are separated from their children. One of Romy’s fellow inmates gives birth the night they arrive at the jail and what happens to her is nothing short of barbaric. They are denied the basics of medical care, the other prisoners are tasered or pepper sprayed for trying to help the girl in labour. The system is inflexible and judgemental. Romy aside, who murdered her stalker, some of these women are in jail for minor theft and drug offences, in and out of the system constantly because it’s a cycle they cannot escape. They are poor more often than not, of disadvantaged backgrounds, victims of abuse and/or drug and alcohol addictions. Romy herself is from a background where she was left fend for herself from far too young an age with a disinterested mother and an unstable home life.

So I did really appreciate a lot of Romy’s story and the stories of those she has met in her life. There are many imperfect people out there, many bad situations and this provides a bit of a look at how some people can end up in the prison system, be it for life like Romy or in and out like several others. However – this book also introduces a few other characters, some of which Romy comes into contact with, some of which may have come into contact with others in Romy’s orbit but to me a lot of those sections didn’t really go anywhere and they kind of detracted from Romy’s story. It wasn’t a particularly easy book to read at times, chopping and changing between characters and times with little indication that things were going to change. There’s also some extracts or something about the Unabomber? Which is a bit random. I also didn’t really understand how she was serving two life sentences for the murder of one person but I’m not well versed in Californian criminal law either. That seemed to suggest that Romy was much more dangerous than she honestly appeared to be, although having the key facts omitted from her court case did a lot to shape the perception of her. It seems an even greater example of the divide between the have and have nots and makes you wonder what Romy’s outcome would’ve been with a top lawyer or at least one that could get relevant facts actually admitted into evidence. If she’d had more options for the care of her son. If there’d been something for her to keep going. If the system was different. There’s a lot of thoughts that this book provokes which is I guess why it was long and then short listed. But it’s unfortunate that for me, it kept getting sidetracked and bogged down with other stuff, that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about or want to read about. It made the story sometimes lose its way for me and the lack of dialogue and choppy telling often meant it was a struggle to stay focused.

6/10

Book #181 of 2018

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Review: Mr. Nice Guy by Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer

Mr. Nice Guy 
Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer
St Martin’s Griffen
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home…

Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire’s sex columnist thanks to the boys’ club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate—and unsatisfying—encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.

Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly—that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!—when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, “Nice Guy.” Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together… and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.

It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.

I’m not going to lie, this book was really disappointing.

I requested it based on the blurb because it seemed so funny and that it’d be one of my fave thing, a kind of hate to lovers. Or really I guess sleeping together, to hate, to lovers in this case. I felt like it had so much potential to give me all the angsty feels but it did not pan out like that at all. It’s interesting to note that this has been tagged a romance on Goodreads multiple times because for me, this does not fit the definition of a romance novel (happy ever after for the core couple or at least a strongly defined happy for now with potential for the ever after).

Firstly, it’s quite slow. There’s a lot of background about Lucas and how he fulfilled his dream to move to New York, leaving behind his southern family and their social climbing ways and his former fiancee. He works as a fact checker on a big magazine for a pittance and looks up to the editor, generally referred to as “Jays”. Lucas wants to move into writing features but his ‘break’ comes when he unknowingly has a one night stand with the magazine’s sex columnist and finds out that he’s the topic of her column. His roommate, not knowing that the column is referencing Lucas, suggests that “Nice Guy”, which is what the column refers to him as, should write a rebuttal. Incensed, Lucas does and it’s published after he proves that he is the “Nice Guy” although he keeps his actual identity a secret. This segues into Jays deciding that the columnist, Carmen, and Lucas should meet up weekly, have sex and then write about it from their opposing sides.

This had so much potential – I liked a sort of role reversal, where Carmen was the one who appeared to have all the power and the experience. She’s an actual well known columnist, love her or hate her she brings in business and her frank portrayals of her sex life seem to give women a power over their own sexuality and an attempt to smash through the double standards of sexual interaction. Lucas is very inexperienced, has only really been in one relationship and he’s the one in the invisible job, slaving away in a cubicle fact checking articles on Manhattan restaurants and boring socialites.

Lucas and Carmen had zero chemistry. Nothing. They honestly just did not work for me at any stage of this book, not when they first met before Lucas knows who and what Carmen is/does for a job, not afterwards when they’re doing the experiments. Lucas even gets some sort of ‘sex tutoring’ to try and impress Carmen and it falls spectacularly flat as she rips him to shreds basically in column after column (Lucas rebutting in his ‘Nice Guy’ way) until randomly, for no real reason, she doesn’t. And to be honest, Lucas isn’t particularly a very ‘nice guy’ at all. He’s horrid to his former fiancee (and the true callousness of his actions towards her isn’t revealed until quite late in the book, after Lucas has acted in appallingly jealous and small minded ways), he’s selfish and entitled and actually, pretty boring.

The one thing that was sort of interesting was the shenanigans Lucas uncovers about the magazine and the profiles it was doing on prominent New York identities but this was kind of done in such an over the top manner about people that were complete caricatures that I think it lost its impact. I spent a large portion of the book wondering if I was supposed to take anything seriously or if it was just satirising a city and industry I don’t know well enough to be sure about. I didn’t really get the whole point of Jays and Carmen, or Lucas and Sonia. Overall this was just really not what I was expecting and what I got was not for me.

4/10

Book #180 of 2018

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Review: Shell by Kristina Olsson

Shell 
Kristina Olsson
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In this spellbinding and poignant historical novel—perfect for fans of All the Light We Cannot See and The Flamethrowers—a Swedish glassmaker and a fiercely independent Australian journalist are thrown together amidst the turmoil of the 1960s and the dawning of a new modern era.

1965: As the United States becomes further embroiled in the Vietnam War, the ripple effects are far-reaching—even to the other side of the world. In Australia, a national military draft has been announced and Pearl Keogh, a headstrong and ambitious newspaper reporter, has put her job in jeopardy to become involved in the anti-war movement. Desperate to locate her two runaway brothers before they’re called to serve, Pearl is also hiding a secret shame—the guilt she feels for not doing more for her younger siblings after their mother’s untimely death.

Newly arrived from Sweden, Axel Lindquist is set to work as a sculptor on the besieged Sydney Opera House. After a childhood in Europe, where the shadow of WWII loomed large, he seeks to reinvent himself in this utterly foreign landscape, and finds artistic inspiration—and salvation—in the monument to modernity that is being constructed on Sydney’s Harbor. But as the nation hurtles towards yet another war, Jørn Utzo, the Opera House’s controversial architect, is nowhere to be found—and Axel fears that the past he has tried to outrun may be catching up with him.

As the seas of change swirl around them, Pearl and Axel’s lives orbit each other and collide in this sweeping novel of art and culture, love and destiny.

This is a beautiful looking book – my copy was is a hardback with this gorgeous dust jacket in soft pinks and out of focus shot of Sydney Harbour with the Opera House. The Opera House is such an iconic landmark – there are probably few who would recognise it, it’s synonymous with Sydney and that harbour and it’s played a huge role in how Sydney is marketed to the rest of the world. And this book comes at an interesting publication time because of late, the Sydney Opera House has been very much in the news because there was quite a public spat between Racing NSW who wanted to use it to promote a horse race, and the Opera House Trust, who did not want to use it as the world’s most expensive billboard. There was a very ugly radio interview, the NSW Premier intervened and overruled the Trust and a petition circulated gained 250,000+ signatures of the public who didn’t approve of it advertising a horse race either. Now the Opera House has been used before – it’s regularly coloured with lights to promote what are usually charitable causes or social messages (eg lit up pink for Breast Cancer Foundation, lit up red, white and blue after the French terrorist attack) and occasionally the government has stepped in for sporting reasons – the Wallabies, Australia’s Rugby Union team is one such instance. But this was different, given it was directly promoting an industry that some people regard as inhumane and responsible for gambling issues across the country. Even some who were horse racing fans weren’t into the idea of using the Opera House as a display for the highest bidder to promote whatever. And there were others who were tired of the Opera House being “for hoity toity snobs” and why shouldn’t they do something like this.

In my time, the Opera House has always been a beloved icon, even if people don’t use it for practical reasons. This book explores the construction of the Opera House, the change of government that shaped the fallout with architect and designer Jørn Utzon and the public opinions of the building that blew out in budget and time. Interestingly when I discussed this with my mother, I found that a bit of that resentment was obvious from her, as well as the perception that the Opera House was built and designed for rich people to do rich people things in. I’ve been to the Opera House quite a few times but I’ve never actually seen a performance there. I went as a child for school and I’ve delivered various interstate and overseas friends to Sydney Harbour to point it out and show them up close (because it really looks quite different when you are right up close to it, especially the tiling, etc). To me it’s something beautiful that I don’t actually really consider the practical application of. It is just…..there. Whether or not I actually use it for its intended purpose is irrelevant. It was built coming off the back of WWII though so perhaps people born in the generation after that have a very different opinion about things being useful and worth the money.

This book has its ups and downs for me. It was really interesting reading about the construction of the Opera House and the evolving feelings and public opinion at the time. As I said, it came in the 20yrs post WWII but Australia was already being dragged into another war – Vietnam. The conscription law plays a large role in this book. Main character Pearl is a journalist, a strong woman with a painful background. She’s been searching for her two brothers after the family was split up following the death of her mother when Pearl was 14 and her father was unable to cope with so many children. She wants to find them before the draft does. Pearl is an activist, a feminist and she’s being shoehorned because of her job where you’re supposed to remain neutral. She finds herself bumped from news to women’s and it’s stifling her. Pearl meets Alex Lindquist, a Swedish glassmaker in Sydney to work on the Opera House who is baffled by Australian attitudes to many things. Lindquist longs to meet Utzon, to connect with him and tell him he understand him.

It took me almost a week to read this book which is almost unheard of for me. I have to admit that I did struggle with it quite a bit. It’s a very slow burn, a methodical book. The writing is beautiful, it seems like each word and sentence is chosen with exquisite care but I often found my attention wandering away. It takes quite a while for Pearl and Alex to cross paths and then when they do I’m honestly not sure why they do? It wasn’t until probably the last 100-150 pages that I really felt like I was ‘getting’ what others were in praising this book so strongly. There were glimpses of brilliance – the way Olsson writes Pearl’s family is remarkable, the depth of her grief and guilt, the depiction of her father. And even though Pearl’s mother is deceased, she’s a strong presence in the book, she’s constantly in Pearl’s thoughts with her opinions. But the book did limp along a little and perhaps I’m just too impatient to appreciate the quietness of this storytelling, I can fully admit that. I wanted to love it, it’s such a beautiful cover and I’d heard lots of praise about it….but ultimately I just don’t think it was for me. I can see the beauty and merit in it and at times I felt myself almost being pulled right in, but it just never completely happened.

6/10

Book #179 of 2018

 

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