All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Things We See In The Light by Amal Awad

The Things We See In The Light
Amal Awad
Pantera Press
2021, 364p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: “In the cafe, I watch as a woman takes a photo of her plate an impressive, glossy lime-coloured dessert with shards of chocolate perched on top. I want to feel that ease and confidence, too. Like this is my city again, and I know my way around it”.

Eight years ago, Sahar pursued her happily ever after when she married Khaled and followed him to Jordan, leaving behind her family, her friends and a thriving cake business. But married life didn’t go as planned and, haunted by secrets, Sahar has returned home to Sydney without telling her husband.

With the help of her childhood friends, Sahar hits the reset button on her life. She takes a job at a local patisserie run by Maggie, a strong but kind manager who guides Sahar in sweets and life.

But as she tentatively gets to know her colleagues, Sahar faces a whole new set of challenges. There’s Kat and Inez, who are determined that Sahar try new experiences. Then there’s Luke, a talented chocolatier and a bundle of contradictions.

As Sahar embraces the new, she reinvents herself, trying things once forbidden to her. But just when she is finally starting to find her feet, her past finds its way back to her.

Ok I have to admit, I borrowed this on a whim from my local library/Borrow Box based just on the description and it didn’t occur to me that it might’ve been connected to another book. But when I began reading it, I got the feeling that I was definitely missing something and that a lot of things were being talked of like I should know the background or how this character had feelings for that character, etc. I looked it up and there’s a previous book by the author from about 2012, that deals with Sahar’s friend Samira, who appears pretty regularly in this book and I assume all the background of these characters are given during Samira’s story (which sounds really interesting and I definitely want to read it now).

But this book kicks off with Sahar arriving on her friend Lara’s doorstep, unannounced, having left her husband and marriage in Jordan where she has lived for the past 7 or 8 years. Sahar appears to have always been a rather devout Muslim, but right now, she seems to be having a bit of a personal and even religious crisis. Her marriage is over, incidents have happened that have tested her. She is on the cusp of a new beginning, that means living with Lara in Sydney and getting a job at a well known and popular pasty cafe and sweets place. Before marrying, Sahar made cakes and ran her own small business but in this new job, she’s starting at the bottom and working her way up. She bonds with her fellow workers, even the grumpy and intense Luke, after a rough start and together they implement a sort of challenge for Sahar, where they will all give her things to do that take her out of her comfort zone. Lara and Samira join in too, adding their choices.

This book is told in a back and forth kind of way, with sections in the present day during Sahar’s arrival back in Sydney interspersed with snippets of her life and marriage in Jordan, beginning in the first year and moving forward. Slowly, Sahar’s story is revealed and the reader learns what her marriage was like, how her feelings evolved, the struggle she faced and the tragedy that at last drove her to leave her husband and marriage and return to Australia, where she grew up. You could tell how affected Sahar was by what had happened and how she couldn’t talk about it yet, even with her closest friends. For her, I think there was also a lot of confusion and maybe not shame, but something similar, about the way things had gone in Jordan. A lot of complex feelings to work through and things to come to terms with.

I really enjoyed this and found it incredibly easy to read in a single sitting. I liked that Sahar is somewhat a bit older than books that usually deal with people trying to find themselves – she was probably closer to my own age (late 30s) and struggling at times, with the frustration of being a ‘beginner’ in the pastry place, to wanting more freedom and the chance to showcase her talents, express herself. She’s also somewhat struggling with who she is as a person, choosing to change some things about herself, things about her religious expression and also finding her self-confidence again, recentering herself. I thought Sahar’s journey was so well explored and I loved her growing friendships with Kat and Inez from the pastry place.

There’s a bit of a romance with Luke, who is a talented chocolate worker and I also liked that it was not all smooth sailing. For a start it’s complicated because they work together and both of them have a lot of issues that they need to overcome. The conflict and the resolutions felt realistic, two people negotiating something that neither of them had expected (or maybe even wanted) but that they thought could really be something.

I really liked all the characters (definitely want to know more about Lara’s background and how she came to be in the relationship she’s in at the beginning of this book) and so I am off to hopefully find a copy of Samira’s story, Courting Samira which will hopefully give me all the background information I should’ve had before reading this one. Having said that though, I think you can still definitely read this without having read that first book – this is really Sahar’s story and although she references her friends and their individual situations, the journey she takes is the focus.

8/10

Book #177 of 2021

This is book #77 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Digging Up Dirt (Poppy McGowan Mysteries #1)
Pamela Hart
Harlequin AUS
2021, 352p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Renovations are hell. And that’s before you find the body beneath the floorboards. An intriguing mystery from a stylish new voice in crime fiction, for readers of Kerry Greenwood and Holly Throsby.

When your builder finds bones under the floor of your heritage home, what do you do? For TV researcher Poppy McGowan, the first step is to find out if the bones are human (which means calling in the cops and delaying her renovations) or animal (which doesn’t).

Unfortunately, ‘help’ comes in the form of Dr Julieanne Weaver, archaeologist, political hopeful, and Poppy’s old enemy. She declares the bones evidence of a rare breed of fat-tailed sheep, and slaps a heritage order on the site. The resultant archaeological dig introduces Poppy to Tol Lang, the best-looking archaeologist she’s ever met – and also Julieanne’s boyfriend.

When Julieanne is found murdered in Poppy’s house, both she and the increasingly attractive Tol are considered suspects – and so Poppy uses her media contacts and news savvy to investigate other suspects. Did Julieanne have enemies in the right-wing Australian Family party, for which she was seeking preselection, or in the affiliated Radiant Joy Church? Or at the Museum of New South Wales, among her rivals and ex-boyfriends? And who was her secret lover?

Can Poppy save herself, and Tol … and finally get her house back? 

This was…..okay. I think for me, the strength was really the setting. I really like inner-Sydney and sometimes books focus a lot on different areas of Sydney and they become too commonly represented in fiction. But Annandale is a fun suburb and Poppy’s job working at the ABC takes her around the city, to places like Luna Park and I feel like the feel of Sydney really came through. I was also interested in the renovation process, as Annandale is quite an old suburb and it seems like there’s a lot of things that could complicate the renovation, should there be a discovery of historical interest. Even the fact that the bones are sheep, not human, doesn’t let Poppy off the hook immediately. There are apparently, types of sheep that would be very interesting to historical societies!

Where I didn’t really enjoy this book, was the heavy themes of politics and religion and the combination thereof. I think the big church is kind of supposed to be like Hillsong? It had all the markers: a charismatic pastor who might be not quite what he seemed, his submissive and obedient wife and the perfectly turned out and well behaved children as well as a few people connected quite high up and the fact that they were dipping into pushing “family values” in politics where the only values they care about involve one white man, one white woman joined in holy matrimony before Jesus and the obligatory few children, all of whom attend church, wear purity rings and etc. As well as that, Poppy’s parents are devoted Catholics and expect Poppy and her siblings to all be virgins up until they marry (it’s 2021 and Poppy is like, 30 but okay Mum and Dad). Poppy is expected to attend Mass whilst living under their roof and all of that about religion just makes me feel very uncomfortable. Just let people make their own choices. Poppy is pretty clear in this about believing in God but it definitely seems like she’s forced into certain aspects of her parent’s beliefs. Also she sees herself as the disappointment of her family: she’s not married and her parents all seem infinitely surprised when she turns out to be good at her job or does well getting a plum interview. I also wasn’t sure how realistic that was, a researcher elevated to basically getting all the amazing interviews surrounding this murder and not one actual news reporter has any questions for Poppy about that.

There’s also a lot of weirdness about the romance. Poppy has a boyfriend, Stuart but he’s very boring and also turns out to be a liar and when Julieanne arrives to look at the bones, she brings her latest boyfriend, Bartholomew Lang (known as “Tol”). There’s this attraction between Poppy and Tol but his girlfriend is found dead in her house, which you’d think, might be a bit of a dampener, they’re also both “persons of interest” but they just keep having moments and both are quite flippant about dead Julieanne. I know she and Poppy were not friends and she and Tol were only together a few weeks or months but yikes, some of it just felt really, really cold. And I was not really keen for them to be a couple. Tol is also supposed to leave to go back on some dig overseas so I don’t know if he’ll return in future books – why do I feel like he’ll return just enough to mess up anything Poppy might have going with anyone else. Be one of those characters that pops in and out, when he is in-between digs, just doing enough so that Poppy maintains an interest in him.

I would be interested in reading the next instalment of this, hopefully without the religious and political overtones (sometimes, some of the issues with the conservative political party, felt mentioned really often) just to see whether it was the particular story itself that didn’t work for me or the character of Poppy as well because at the moment, I’m not really sure.

Didn’t love this one, didn’t really dislike it. It’s just in the middle.

5/10

Book #174 of 2021

Digging Up Dirt is book #75 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Highland Fling by Meghan Quinn

The Highland Fling
Meghan Quinn
Montlake
2021, 350p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Freshly fired from her third job in a row, Bonnie St. James has lost her way. So when she and her best friend stumble upon a “help wanted” post to run a coffee shop in the Scottish Highlands, they apply on a whim. Who knows? Maybe traveling to a new place is just what she needs to figure out her next move.

When the friends arrive in the tiny idyllic town of Corsekelly, they instantly fall for the gorgeous Highland landscape and friendly townspeople. But Bonnie finds a less-than-warm welcome in Rowan MacGregor, the rugged local handyman. Busy wrestling his own demons, Rowan’s in no mood to deal with the quirky American—even if she is a bonny lass.

As Bonnie and Rowan’s paths inevitably cross, insults—and sparks—fly. Can the pair build on their similarities to help each other find purpose and direction…and maybe romance too? Or will their passionate tempers fling them apart?

I actually preordered this (got it really cheap) after seeing it highlighted somewhere. Maybe a Goodreads romance wrap up or something like that. I’ve been buying a lot of books like this lately (contemporary romance with a lot of humour) but to be honest, the results have been hit and miss for me and this one? Is another miss.

I almost DNF’d this many times. Look, I understand that arriving in a foreign country is daunting, particularly when they drive on the other side of the road. But there’s a whole scene which is just so over the top and paints Bonnie in the most ridiculous manner and I thought okay, maybe it was just because she was so stressed. But no. Bonnie is pretty much like that, all the time.

Enemies to lovers has a bit of a knack to it for me, because it’s difficult to get the enemies bit right without making the bickering feel really annoying and in this book, the bickering between Bonnie and Rowan is really annoying. They are so childish and awful (particularly Bonnie) and it’s peppered with weird moments like the bats and drunken dancing. Everyone smiling smugly and “knowing” that they’re into each other is weird, especially because they keep saying it in front of both of them and they’ve only known each other like, three hours.

I wanted more Scotland, more actual cafe stuff, more showcasing the small village and the differences for them after coming from LA. Instead so much is focused on Bonnie and after all that focusing, here’s what I know about Bonnie:

  1. She likes cake
  2. She’s been fired a lot, for someone who is early 20s
  3. She’s horny
  4. That’s it. That’s all.

Bonnie is self-involved, self-absorbed, a bad friend and not a great girlfriend either. Luckily this is balanced out by the fact that Bonnie’s friend Dakota is almost as bad a friend as Bonnie is and Rowan is a terrible boyfriend with an anger management problem and Daddy issues out the wazoo. These people are both terrible to each other and probably it’s best that they don’t inflict themselves on normal people.

The first 75% of this was a 1-star book. However the last section is actually much better: Rowan and his family have to actually address the toxic mess that their family has become, a lot of stuff that’s been simmering below the surface between a lot of characters is aired out and addressed and resolved and there’s some genuine emotion and feeling in this portion of the book. And actually, I didn’t mind the sex scenes either. Bonnie’s a confident character in bed, an instigator and I liked the way they were written.

But. I felt like there were still things that were so unnecessary in this book and in the behaviour of all the main characters, in particular, Rowan’s blow up. It’s true that he catches Bonnie in a place that makes him feel raw and exposed and that he’s also just received some devastating news. But screaming in her face was so off-putting – it felt like such a display of toxic masculinity when he could’ve chosen to confide in her, to connect with her, to bring her into his life. Instead he went over the top ridiculous in his manner of telling her off and it honestly gave me red flags. I had liked Rowan better than Bonnie up until that point but reading that really put me off him, despite the circumstances.

I felt like the set up of this book – the girls moving to Scotland to take over the cafe – was actually lost for a really big portion of the book. I just wanted to read more about that, and I get the cafe wasn’t thriving, and why….but it seemed like they waited a really long time to implement the (very good) changes that Bonnie came up with. Like, what were they doing every day? Just sitting in an empty building, doing nothing? It was kind of weird. I feel like there could’ve been a lot more about that, as well as exploring the area and interacting with people. I have this feeling that some of the other characters might pop up in books in the future…..but I don’t think I’ll be reading them.

This was a really disappointing read for me but it has a lot of very high ratings on Goodreads, so might just be a case of me just not vibing with the story and the characters.

3/10

Book #175 of 2021

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Review: The Happiest Man On Earth by Eddie Jaku

The Happiest Man On Earth
Eddie Jaku
Pan Macmillan AUS
2020, 208p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It is up to you.

Eddie Jaku always considered himself a German first, a Jew second. He was proud of his country. But all of that changed in November 1938, when he was beaten, arrested and taken to a concentration camp.

Over the next seven years, Eddie faced unimaginable horrors every day, first in Buchenwald, then in Auschwitz, then on a Nazi death march. He lost family, friends, his country.

Because he survived, Eddie made the vow to smile every day. He pays tribute to those who were lost by telling his story, sharing his wisdom and living his best possible life. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’.

Published as Eddie turns 100, this is a powerful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful memoir of how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.

Oh my God. This book. This book.

I always try to be kind of objective, whether I love a book, hate a book or am indifferent to it. But sometimes that’s impossible and this book, is one of those books. I just….I can’t even explain really, how reading this book made me feel.

I’ve seen this book around a lot since it was published last year – I’ve almost bought it on Audible a few times and the other day, I finally borrowed it from my local library. It’s very short. I actually read it in about an hour but for me, this is the perfect example of a book not needing to give you a million details or describe everything, in order to have an impact.

Eddie Jaku is a survivor of the Holocaust who now lives in Sydney, Australia. He’s 101 years old at the time of my writing this review and is an OAM (Order of Australia Medal) recipient, has done a TedTalk and published this book around the time of his 100th birthday, the story of his life.

Eddie was born in Leipzig in 1920 and by the time he was in high school, the Nazi Party was already rising to prominence in Germany and as a result, he was prevented from attending higher study because of his Jewish faith. Although not particularly a religious person, his family observed a lot of the traditions, often to please his mother’s much more devoted parents. Eddie’s father placed a high importance on education and he secured false papers for Eddie to study at a boarding school, 9 hours by train away from his family. It’s a decision that ended up saving his life multiple times over the years that would follow, as due to his skills as a mechanical engineer, Eddie was often classified in the different camps he would be sent to, as an “Essential Jew”, with a skill the Germans valued in their war effort, which meant that he would be kept alive.

This book is written as Eddie, as a much older man, sitting down and speaking to you, the reader, as though the two of you are alone, having a conversation. It’s incredibly effective, for multiple reasons, but the often slightly matter-of-fact way that Eddie recounts some of the things he experienced, such as the repeated separations from his family, the realisation that they’d been killed at Auschwitz, the repeated beatings, the atrocities, the starvation, the situation and conditions in the camps, does not detract from the impact of them. You don’t necessarily need vivid description for most of these – to be honest, your brain does the rest. This was the reality for millions of people and even though Eddie obviously survived multiple ways in which he could’ve died (starvation, hypothermia, disease, gassing, being shot, beaten, etc) I also appreciated that he included the difficulties that came after he was rescued by Allied soldiers during the March of Death and taken to a hospital. I feel as though that is something that is often missing from stories about WWII and the camps. Eddie and his fellow survivors had severe malnutrition and that caused multiple physical health issues. And then there’s the mental scarring as well.

Although this book claims he’s the happiest man in the world, it wasn’t always the case and Eddie does talk about the feelings after his rescue and release and how he had a lot of anger and unresolved feelings for a while. And how talking about it was finally the thing that helped – sharing his story with others, listening to the stories of others. He talks about doing his TedTalk and visiting schools and sharing his story with the students as well as being instrumental in helping set up the Jewish Museum in Sydney. After moving to Australia in (I think) the 50s, Eddie and his wife Flore have worked tirelessly, including in their own real estate agency up until their 90s!

A large portion of this book is devoted to how important Eddie views family. Both during his childhood, in Germany, when he was separated from them when studying as well as the tireless efforts to find them and be reunited at various points during the war after each of them kept getting arrested and either escaping or being released. He talks of the importance of family now, his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How he felt holding his firstborn son and his second son and the joy his family gives him, the way he talks about them and about his wife, who he fell in love with at first sight, is lovely to read. That he’s managed to find happiness and joy and enjoy his life after the years of horrible things that happened to him, is a wonderful thing.

Everyone should read this book. Even though it lists some atrocities, the likes of which are hard to imagine and talks about how truly horrible to each other humans can be, there’s still the fact that it’s so pure. That Eddie comes across as this pure soul and it’s truly remarkable.

10/10

Book #173 of 2021

Devastatingly, Eddie Jaku passed away just yesterday, aged 101. I’m incredibly sad to read this, having just finished this book. He was a remarkable man and the world is a poorer place without him.

Some time after reading this and writing and scheduling this review, I realised it actually fulfilled the requirements of my 2021 Read Non Fiction Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out.

This book is perfect for the prompt ‘Wartime Experiences’ as it deals first hand with what Eddie went through during WWII at various concentration camps and his attempts to escape incarceration more than once. This means it’s also the 6th book read for this challenge and my participation is technically complete! But I’ll try to fit in a couple more before the end of the year, if I can.

1. Biography

2. Travel

3. Self-help

4. Essay Collection

5. Disease

6. Oceanography 

7. Hobbies

8. Indigenous Cultures

9. Food

10. Wartime Experiences

11. Inventions

12. Published in 2021

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Review: Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr

Please Don’t Hug Me
Kay Kerr
Text Publishing
2020, 288p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: A funny-serious own-voices story about what happens when you stop trying to be the person other people expect you to be and give yourself a go.

Erin is looking forward to Schoolies, at least she thinks she is. But things are not going to plan. Life is getting messy, and for Erin, who is autistic, that’s a big problem. She’s lost her job at Surf Zone after an incident that clearly was not her fault. Her driving test went badly even though she followed the instructions perfectly. Her boyfriend is not turning out to be the romantic type. And she’s missing her brother, Rudy, who left almost a year ago.

But now that she’s writing letters to him, some things are beginning to make just a tiny bit of sense.

If I had to think of one word to describe this book, I think it’d be “raw”.

I’d had it on my radar for a while, mostly for the cover I think. Who doesn’t love a cinnamon donut? I wasn’t sure why the cover was cinnamon donuts, but it turns out that when our main character Erin has a bad day, her best friend brings her hot cinnamon donuts from a donut chain here in Australia called Donut King (who do absolutely excellent hot cinnamon donuts). This was something I could definitely get behind. I know donuts would definitely make a bad day better for me.

Erin is autistic and at the moment, she is going through a time. She’s in her final year of school, navigating everything that brings and means especially with her diagnosis, which means that situations that are not stressful for others, or that they enjoy, are not something that Erin enjoys. She only really has one proper friend, the rest of the group are just friends with her best friend and seem to regard Erin as an inevitability and generally treat her with indifference ranging to hostility. Erin doesn’t enjoy parties or large social gatherings but she’s saving for schoolies anyway, because it’s sold as this defining experience – the reward of all your 13 years hard work. Losing her job doesn’t help with this and for some unknown reason, Erin is writing open letters to her older brother Rudy.

Erin and Rudy are clearly very different – Rudy comes across through Erin’s letters as a larrikin, a life of the party sort, the type of person that everyone loves to have around, who pulls pranks and occasionally gets in trouble – maybe pushes the envelope a bit. He’s also a source of conflict in the house, due to his mother’s enabling and protecting of him when he does things like drop out of TAFE (technical college) and the like, versus their father’s frustration with him. For some reason, Rudy isn’t around anymore and Erin’s writing to him is a form of therapy as some sort of anniversary approaches. There’s a couple of possibilities for Rudy’s absence from Erin’s life and it’s not until well into the book that the reason for Rudy not being there for Erin to talk to is revealed.

Everything in this book is told from Erin’s point of view in one of her letters to Rudy: her life at school, her at times tenuous friendship with her best friend, the fracturing of her family, her struggles with the world around her and her anger at Rudy for not being there anymore to make things better. It’s very powerful to read a lot of Erin’s thoughts and things that happen to her from her own point of view, particularly things where she doesn’t understand what she could’ve done differently to achieve a different outcome or understand the outcome itself.

Throughout the book, Erin finds strength to stand up for herself in certain circumstances, such as against her boyfriend Mitch, who treats her with condescension verging on gaslighting, as well as choosing options that make her comfortable rather than her doing things because her friend wants to. She develops a voice, perhaps through writing the letters and getting some clarity whilst writing them. We also learn what happened to Rudy and how/why he isn’t around anymore and the impact that has had on everyone in and around Erin’s circle and especially, how that has impacted on Erin herself and how the letters are helping her process all of her feelings.

This is a quick read but very powerful. It’s an own voices story, with the author also being autistic and I think that it really shows in Erin’s character, that this comes from a place of deep understanding. There’s such an openness in the letters, perhaps because she’s writing to someone that she really cares about and through those letters, you get a good idea of the sibling relationship Erin and Rudy shared, despite being quite different. The things they knew about and confided in each other, the small ways in which Rudy tried to help Erin during difficult times, when things had become overwhelming for her. It all contributes to make the story of what happened, all the more deeply effective.

Despite the often dark tones, I felt like the ending of this book had a hopeful, uplifting sort of feel as well. Erin really did grow as a character throughout the course of the book and had learned in some ways, to express herself and put herself first in terms of what she wanted to do for herself and there were some positive signs for her family as well.

Would definitely recommend.

8/10

Book #172 of 2021

Please Don’t Hug Me is book #74 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: The Name Curse by Brooke Burroughs

The Name Curse
Brooke Burroughs
Montlake
2021, 334p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In this flirty wilderness adventure by the author of The Marriage Code, two hikers who drive each other crazy discover they might have a lot to learn from one another about navigating life, love, and living up to family expectations.

Ever since her father died, Bernie’s life has been stagnant. When concerned friends and family suggest she join a hike through Alaska to gain new perspective, Bernie reluctantly agrees to go, even though she’s never been the adventurous type, unlike her namesake, Great-Aunt Bernice.

Matthew is a struggling screenwriter who needs a week off the grid to gain some inspiration for a new project and to process the reappearance of his absent father.

When the two meet at the trailhead, it’s annoyance at first sight. He’s dismayed to discover that he’ll have to share a tent with Bernie, who doesn’t know the first thing about camping, while she finds he’s a little too into “roughing it” to be a reasonable human being. But as they’re forced to hike through the wilderness together, their relationship becomes a surprising source of empathy and inspiration…and maybe other feelings too. Can the two adversaries find the path to breaking the curse of family expectations—and each other?

I think this one might just be a case of, “it’s not the book, it’s me”. It has a lot of very positive reviews on Goodreads but for me, I just found it a big struggle to get into the story and to connect with any of the characters. They had so little chemistry and the conflict was very lacklustre.

I was drawn to this because I adore books set in Alaska, I love anything about Alaska. I love watching documentaries about it, reading books there, watching people that live there going about their lives. It’s so beautiful and so different to what I am used to. This was also a bit of an enemies to lovers trope, which is also one of my favourite things so I thought this would 100% be a hit for me. Unfortunately, it just really wasn’t.

Loved the idea – although as much as I love Alaska, the idea of a 5-day hike is kind of my worst nightmare. But I love the idea of reading about other people doing such a hike, especially when they’re as unprepared for such a thing as Bernie is. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a girl who likes my creature comforts (a working bathroom with running water please) so this sort of adventure is not for me but it definitely makes for an interesting setting within a story.

Bernie is stuck in a bit of a rut – still living in her childhood home, she is forced into taking some annual leave by her boss after allowing too much to accumulate. Her mother, thinking Bernie needs to have a bit of an adventure, live up to her namesake of her crazy Great Aunt Berniece, buys her a Groupon of a 5-day hike up Mount Dinali in Alaska. A mix up leads the organisers to believe that Bernie is a man, and they place her in a tent with Matthew, a screenwriter from LA who is escaping the city in search of fresh inspiration for his next project. Bernie and Matthew do not hit it off and it’s made all the more awkward by the fact that they will continue to have to share a tent.

I usually love a bit of forced proximity and “There was only one bed!” (or in this case, tent) but these two just had no actual chemistry, for me. They bickered a bit early on, but not in a hot, sexy filled-with-tension sort of way. More like in just a two people nitpicking everything sort of way. Also Bernie is one of those people that does things or has things happen to her which are supposed to be funny but in that way that just makes you cringe internally when you read them with secondhand embarrassment.

I also found it really weird that Bernie was named after her aunt and everyone seemed to expect her to be like her adventurous aunt? Like it’s said that she was named after her because she was such a funny baby, doing all these funny, crazy things but….you literally name a baby usually within moments of it being born, or at worst a few weeks later. Bernie did seem to be a bit wild and adventurous when she was younger but her desire to be like her much-admired Dad has meant that she’s reined that side of her in and it seems that people keep almost being disappointed (mostly her mother) that she’s not like that anymore and she should be more spontaneous or out there or crazy or do wild things. It took up a rather large part of the story and considering Great Aunt Berniece is no longer with us and actually, barely rates a mention as an actual human not connected to Bernie’s existential struggle, I did find my patience running out with this as well as Bernie’s lack of communication with her mother and asserting herself as an adult. She can’t seem to decide anything about her life, whether it’s to sell the family home, take a holiday, be wild or not, etc.

I just also didn’t find myself at all invested in either Matthew or Bernie as a couple either, all of this seemed to happen over just a week and I just didn’t feel like the development of their relationship was something I cared deeply about. Matthew was sort of fine I guess, although I completely understand why Bernie got upset at the end of the book and the story with his dad didn’t really seem fleshed out as much as it could have been.

I’m so disappointed I didn’t love this. I have had a few fails lately, with books I thought I would adore. Maybe I don’t know myself as well as I think at the moment!

5/10

Book #167 of 2021

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Review: Whiteout by Adriana Anders

Whiteout (Survival Instincts #1)
Adriana Anders
Sourcebooks Casablanca
2021, 352p
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Angel Smith is ready to leave Antarctica for a second chance at life. But on what was meant to be her final day, the research station is attacked. Hunted and scared, she and glaciologist Ford Cooper barely make it out with their lives…only to realize that in a place this remote, there’s nowhere left to run.

Isolated in the middle of a long, frozen winter with a madman at their heels, they must fight to survive in the most inhospitable—and beautiful—place on earth. But the outside world depends on what Ford and Angel know and, as their pursuers close in and their new partnership burns bright and hot, they will stop at nothing to make it out of the cold alive.

Okay so anyone that knows me and what I like as a reader, would know immediately that Antarctica is an instant autoread for me. I love books set in Antarctica and I also love enforced proximity as a romance trope. This ticks so many of my boxes I had to buy it and it was only about $5 so I thought why the heck not.

It was actually a pretty decent read. Was it at all realistic? No. Did I care? Also no.

Angel Smith has been working at a research station in Antarctica over the “summer”, as the station cook. She’s provided the researchers and workers with tasty meals but now it’s time for the summer crew to leave and the station will be manned by a skeleton winter crew. One of the winter crew will be glaciologist Ford Cooper, who has caught Angel’s eye more than once but who has shut her down at every opportunity. Just before Angel should be boarding the plane she finds herself caught up in an attack on the station and left behind – just her and Dr Ford Cooper. With the station destroyed they need to leave – especially as Angel made sure that the people who attacked the station did not leave with what they wanted and they’ll be back. They have 21 days of food to make it almost 300 miles to a Russian research station across harsh unforgiving territory and no doubt with people on their heels with technology at their disposal, which Angel and Ford do not have.

Ford and Angel will have to rely on each other in ways that will test every single thing about them – especially Ford, who has always kept Angel at a distance for multiple reasons. Ford has some sensory issues, he seems to get easily overloaded by sounds and crowds and other things as well and he’s definitely a reclusive type of person who rarely gets close to anyone. Angel is a bit of a ray of sunshine and she’s been intrigued by him for a while. He also definitely thinks she’s attractive but doesn’t think that sort of attachment is for him. He’s happiest researching his ice in Antarctica, drilling his ice cores and whatever and living a peaceful and solitary life. The isolation and peace of Antarctica suits him but close proximity to Angel on the journey tests his control to the limit.

Look, the mystery/suspense bit isn’t the strongest. There’s a lot of people operating some sort of clandestine research of their own, and they need Ford’s ice cores. There’s a lot about how it goes “all the way to the top” (which by of course they mean the American government, because who else would be “the top”?) and the villains are at times, comically evil but also incredibly stupid. I’m not sure when this was written but what is in the ice feels uncomfortable to read at the moment but it could just be a coincidence (ok it was published January 2020 so it’s a coincidence which suddenly gains an all new realism in 2021).

However, where this book is excellent, is the romance. And let’s face it, that’s why I was reading it anyway! This is not quite enemies to lovers, but it has the forced proximity that is my jam and sexual tension for days. Especially because for a while, it has to remain unconsummated as well, one just can’t be going around being naked in a tent in quickly-turning-to-winter Antarctica where it’s -25 to -45. The tension is delicious and I really loved Ford’s inner struggle with himself and his tenuous grip on his control and it’s so much fun. I also liked the descriptions of the trip where they have to mostly ski across a large portion of Antarctica to the next research station and the growing realisation that they simply aren’t moving fast enough for the amount of food they have with them.

This is a series and it looks like the overall story is going to spin out over several books, so there is not closure here on the ‘big bad’ and what they’re doing. The author introduces some people Ford knows and those people are seemingly going to provide the basis for a potential number of books and it’s probably going to become this group vs the big evil that is trying to do something incredibly deadly. So this book ends without any real closure on that story and I did like this enough to want to read the next one because……it’s set in Alaska! Which is also one of my favourite settings. More forced proximity! People on the run! Sometimes you just want some fun.

Entertaining. Kept me invested and I really enjoyed the romance.

7/10

Book #170 of 2021

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Review: The Magician by Colm Tóibín

The Magician
Colm Tóibín
Picador
2020, 448p
Copy courtesy Pan Macmillan AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When the Great War breaks out in 1914 Thomas Mann, like so many of his fellow countrymen, is fired up with patriotism. He imagines the Germany of great literature and music, which had drawn him away from the stifling, conservative town of his childhood, might be a source of pride once again. But his flawed vision will form the beginning of a dark and complex relationship with his homeland, and see the start of great conflict within his own brilliant and troubled family.

Colm Tóibín’s epic novel is the story of a man of intense contradictions. Although Thomas Mann becomes famous and admired, his inner life is hesitant, fearful and secretive. His blindness to impending disaster in the Great War will force him to rethink his relationship with Germany as Hitler comes to power. He has six children with his clever and fascinating wife, Katia, while his own secret desires appear threaded through his writing. He and Katia deal with exile bravely, doing everything possible to keep the family safe, yet they also suffer the terrible ravages of suicide among Thomas’s siblings, and their own children.

In The Magician, Colm Tóibín captures the profound personal conflict of a very public life, and through this life creates an intimate portrait of the twentieth century.

So I have to admit – I didn’t know anything about Thomas Mann before reading this novel. I’ve never really read any 19th or 20th Century German authors, so I’ve never read Goethe either. I’ve heard of one of Mann’s novels though and my knowledge of Goethe comes from the time he’s an answer on Jeopardy but since reading this book, I’ve got several of Mann’s novels in my cart for the next time I do a book order. I really want to learn more after reading this.

This is an imagining of Mann’s life, beginning in 1891 in Lübeck and taking the reader right up until well after the Second World War. It showcases a Germany during a very tumultuous time – unification into “Germany”, connected by a shared language, the defeat in WWI and the struggle that followed, as they were demanded make reparations, which of course gave rise to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, who promised to restore Germany to its former glory. And then of course, the way in which that went, the devastation in WWII, another loss and the division of the country once more.

Mann has often been described as one of the most important voices in Germany and he actually left the country well before WWII started, heading at first to Switzerland and then to America, where he was often called upon to denounce Hitler. He ended up recording speeches to be played by the BBC, against Hitler and the atrocities being committed. Despite finding a home in America and living there for some time, enjoying prestigious positions (including one with the Roosevelt administration) Mann ended up leaving America when scrutiny on his position on communism became too much. He had, as he said, seen this all before. The cracking down on any dissenting views, the pressure to speak out against this or that, what the government wanted. He went back to Switzerland and lived the rest of his life there with his wife.

Mann and his wife had a very interesting life. They had six children, despite Mann’s personal diaries (and his novels) often exploring his homosexual feelings towards young men. His two older children, Erika and Klaus were both outspoken political commentators and often urged their father to do more about speaking out against Hitler. Despite Mann’s success as a writer, essayist and commentator and the comfortable, even luxurious living he made from his work, his family was not without tragedy. Suicide claimed the lives of several members, depression and drug dependency existed in one of his sons, his daughter survived the torpedoing of a boat fleeing Europe for Canada in the Second World War.

This is such a fascinating portrait into a time of the art of literature. Mann is often surrounded by writers, playwrights, composers and poets, they meet in cafes, especially during the war, where information is exchanged. His success means a life of leisure in many ways – summer homes, expensive new houses (although his position means that they lose a lot of their assets when they flee Germany). He’s a Nobel Prize winner and used to a certain level of respect. There’s definitely a portrayal of how different things are in America, especially with the rise against communism and the constant demand on Mann to clarify his position on everything. There’s a subtle similarity in the FBI investigating and keeping a file on Mann and trying to get him to denounce this or that.

The writing in this book is stunning – I’ve read a few of the author’s books before and he has a certain knack for grounding the reader in the setting, no matter what it is. This book takes you through Germany like you’re living it in this time, the literature scene and the politics, the struggle of some people about their “Germanness” as well. I’ve read some books lately which deal with this, particularly from the point of view of German Jewish people, how they reconcile being German with also being Jewish. Mann isn’t Jewish but his wife’s family was (they no longer practice, not that it matters during the time of WWII, Hitler wasn’t overly concerned about how devout they were) so his struggle seems to be more about his idea of Germany, what it should mean in terms of a place of literature, of free thought and intellectual debate, of culture versus what it was becoming under the eye of Hitler.

When I finished this book, I told my husband (who is a big Tóibín fan) how much I wanted to read some of the literature referenced in this novel, not just Mann himself but others too. And he said that’s what a good book is about, it builds connections and sends you on a journey – linking you with other stories and places and times it’s definitely right. This book did exactly that. It makes me want to listen to Wagner and Mahler and read some of the people mentioned, to get more of an idea of this time period. I learned quite a bit about what it must’ve been like in Germany during the two wars, which I think can be ignored sometimes. Mann and his family left well before the rise of the second war but even he remarks very often, that he should’ve seen what was coming better than he did.

This is rich and immersive, it takes focus but it’s very enjoyable.

8/10

Book #176 of 2021

This is book #27 of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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Review: The Five Year Plan by Jodi Gibson

The Five Year Plan
Jodi Gibson
Brio Books
2021,
Personal purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: At 33, Demi Moretti’s five-year plan is on track. She’s moved in with her boyfriend Wil, and is waiting patiently for her father to retire so she can take over the running of the family café.

But when her father blindsides her by handing the café to her older brother Nick, and she suspects Wil might be cheating on her, Demi’s five year plan crumbles like crostoli.

Determined to get things back on track, Demi travels to Italy to learn more about her Italian heritage, and to give her and Wil some much needed space. And also in the hope that while she’s away, her father will come to his senses.

But her travels don’t go to plan either. Long held family feuds, a love triangle from the past, and an unexpected new friend in Leo, all come together to make Demi question everything – especially her five year plan.

Will Demi get her plan back on track?

Or will she realise that sometimes fate has other ideas?

The Five Year Plan is contemporary women’s fiction novel with a touch of humour and a lot of heart. It will appeal to readers who want to be whisked away from their day to day life and immersed in a feel-good story of food, travel, and romance.

This was an easy read romantic comedy about family, food and love.

Demi is in her 30s and she’s had a five year plan that she believes is coming together. It’s something that she’s been really focused on and then when it falls apart, she’s a bit lost. Instead of being able to get her family’s Melbourne cafe, her dad tells her that he wants to give it to her older brother, for tradition, as he’s the eldest son. Then her relationship with her boyfriend Will falls apart and as a reaction, Demi leaves for Italy, where her parents come from but haven’t been back to since coming to Australia. Her plan is to learn about the food, to work in the family trattoria there and soak up the culture.

Firstly, I loved the parts of the story set in Italy. I’ve never been overseas but I’ve mentioned often that my husband’s family are from Sicily so Italy is somewhere that interests me. He’s not interested at all in seeing it but I’d happily add it to my list if I won lotto! I think the descriptions of the food and the area where Demi’s family live are amazing and this book will definitely make you hungry and probably long for an overseas holiday, somewhere warm and beautiful. Especially after the last almost two-years, where most people, especially where I live, had done a whole lot of staying at home.

I thought that this book needed a bit more oomph – Demi seemed such a passive character. She doesn’t push things with her parents, or her brother, she doesn’t raise her concerns or speak her mind about her true desires. It’s the same with her boyfriend and when she’s in Italy, she’s passive there as well. She feels like one of her cousins doesn’t like her but never really tries to find out what the problem might be. And when the handsome man she meets and has a connection with turns out to belong to a family hers is mortal enemies with, she’s quite meek about that too.

This has kind of a Romeo & Juliet feel about it – Demi meets a man at the airport and later sees him again on the plane and thinks he’s handsome and nice. She expects to never see him again except he turns up in the same Italian village she’s visiting and then ends up being from a rival family. It’s some sort of animosity that stretches back generations and seemed to start over something ridiculous but everyone is very serious about it and at first they are able to successfully keep their budding holiday romance a secret but then her family find out and are horrified – even though Demi is only there temporarily. It’s all very dramatic, with lots of emphasis on being loyal to family despite Demi never having met these people before and knowing absolutely nothing about this blood feud.

The pacing felt a bit uneven in places – quite slow then lots would happen, then it would throttle back again. But overall I enjoyed it and felt like it was a nice, relaxing read to settle into during this lockdown. It made me desperately crave some orrecchiette and a trip to breathe in some salty ocean air.

6/10

Book #165 of 2021

This was book #72 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge of 2021

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Review: Montana by Fiona McArthur

Montana (Lyrebird Lake #1)
Fiona McArthur
Self-published
2020, 213p
Freebie via iBooks

Blurb {from Goodreads.com}: The Midwives of Lyrebird Lake – where every day brings a miracle.

Montana Book 1

For midwife Montana, finding out she was pregnant was the best moment of her life. But days later she was widowed. Nine months have passed, her daughter is born, and Montana knows she needs a fresh start.

Dr Andy Buchanan is building services at Lyrebird Lake Hospital and he wants Montana for the new maternity unit. He can’t get the beautiful new mum out of his mind.

Lyrebird Lake is the perfect place for Montana to build a new life – with Andy?

And then there’s the magical myth of the lyrebirds… 

Sometimes, you just crave a quiet read, and this book fit the bill perfectly. And I don’t mean quiet in a negative way at all – sometimes, I prefer a read with lower level conflict and less drama, just as a relaxing read or a palate cleanser, especially after quite a few high stakes or depressing reads. And I always enjoy Fiona McArthur’s books – her main characters are almost almost midwives, which I enjoy reading about and the quiet, slower pace of them is soothing.

Montana lost her husband tragically just after finding out she was pregnant. Nine months later, her daughter was born and Montana is restless. An opportunity to move north to the rural community of Lyrebird Lake presents itself and Montana grabs it. There she can relax into being a new mother but with support around her and also the opportunity to establish a maternity unit at the small local hospital. It would mean local women getting to birth close to home, rather than having to travel to a bigger hospital. Also tempting for Montana is Dr Andy Buchanan, who has experienced loss just like she has and who is making her wonder when the right time to move on is.

This was just a really nice calming sort of read, it was easy and quite quick but despite that, the pace was slower, very mellow. The characters are still well-fleshed out though and there was enough time to really develop the area of Lyrebird Lake and give the reader an idea of who they might expect to see books about in the future. I’ll definitely keep these books in mind for times when I need something to chill out with.

6/10

Book #164 of 2021

This is book #71 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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