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: 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: Where The Road Leads Us by Robin Reul

Where The Road Leads Us
Robin Ruel
Sourcebooks Fire
2021, 253p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Jack is on the verge for leaving for college, but before he does, he wants to track down his estranged brother, Alex and find some closure in the wake of their father’s death. Meanwhile, Hallie has just found out some upsetting news about a friend in Oregon, and she has a small window to go see him before it’s too late.

Jack and Hallie are practically strangers. They shared a class together years ago and haven’t seen each other since, though they have more in common than they’d ever imagine. And when fate puts them into the same rideshare to the bus terminal, it kicks off an unconventional and hilarious adventure that may lead them to their own true selves…and maybe to each other.

I love a good road trip book and this caught my eye because I quite liked the cover. It wasn’t exactly as I expected but it ended up being a quick and easy read that passed the time.

Jack is graduating from high school and it’s also his 18th birthday but he wakes alone, his family fractured and elsewhere. Then his girlfriend breaks up with him, stating that it’s better to have a clean break now than fall prey to the statistics of long distance relationships. It gets to be too much for Jack and all of a sudden the thoughts are crowding his brain about whether or not the future mapped out for him (paid summer internship in New York followed by enrolment at Columbia University) is really what he wants. He decides to track down his brother Alex, whom he hasn’t seen in years and see if he can at least try and repair something there, before leaving California.

Hallie and Jack had a creative writing class a few years ago before Hallie left school due to illness. Due to some circumstances, they end up at the bus station together and then on a wild ride to track down Jack’s brother in San Francisco after Hallie’s attempts to get to Oregon to visit a person she connected with online, someone who understood what she’d been going through because they were too, fell through in the saddest of ways. They spend only about 24 hours together but it’s a powerful time, both of them sharing things with each other and building something. But Hallie is reluctant to exchange contact details – she has some problems that she needs to get through first and she’s a “if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen” type of person. She’s willing to leave it up to fate if they cross paths again.

I originally thought this might be a road trip book where they went to Oregon to see Hallie’s friend. But instead they end up travelling from LA to San Francisco with a ride share driver and it’s a fun adventure with their car getting stolen, some dog napping, an attempt at stopping a wedding and Jack trying to find the brother he hasn’t seen or spoken to in years. The last time he saw Alex, he was in a very bad way and Jack’s family has kind of disintegrated since then. Jack is really struggling – his mother is off on a book tour, as she’s a successful self-help author, missing not only his high school graduation but also his birthday. His father died relatively recently and that is definitely something that Jack has not dealt with and he’s still obviously experiencing a lot of grief. He’s confused about his future and just who it’s really for – is he doing it because it’s what people want or expect of him? What about what he wants? And then there’s Alex and discovering that his parents have known where Alex is, despite what they told him.

There’s a lot of quite heavy stuff in here and it’s sort of balanced out by fun things that happen when they’re driving but this book is definitely tackling quite a lot of serious topics: cancer, death of a family member, drug addiction, parental distance and almost abandonment, death of a friend, mortality, end of a relationship, it’s pretty much all here. It isn’t a long book but there certainly is a lot of story in it.

The narrative switches between Jack and Hallie, giving you insight into their background and how they’re arrived at the places they are today as well as exploring the present and their impromptu road trip together. I enjoyed their interactions and how the fact that they didn’t really know each other that well (but obviously remembered sharing a class together) allowed them to be free with each other, to tell each other things without embarrassment or reluctance, I guess. Jack is supposed to be going to Columbia after the summer and doing the internship in New York before that so for the most part, they do think that they’re unlikely to see each other again after this although they arrange to meet again in six months time at a specific place the went to, just to see if it’s meant to be, which was an idea I really liked.

For the most part, I enjoyed this even if I did feel at times that the narrative felt a little crowded, which for me meant that a lot of things were not really explored in a way that felt adequate. Even Jack’s conversation with his mother toward the end of the book felt like it left a lot to be desired and I understand that this is not the sort of book that is going to have a nice neat ending but there still felt like so much was unsaid and ignored. Like Jack’s mother’s actions in leaving him alone at that time in his life, her opinions on what he wanted for his future. I also didn’t love the way the interaction with Alex went, although maybe it felt realistic of someone who had been removed from a family – still it felt like Alex was kind of bottling out on something.

This was a quick read and even though it was heavy, it still felt easy to sink into. The humour in it wasn’t particularly my sort of humour but it did help the overall feel of the book to lift the mood at times and prevent the reader from getting too weighed down by a lot of the topics.

I only read this yesterday but already I’m struggling to really remember how I felt about things that happened. Perhaps it just inundated me with so many things that I couldn’t really connect to them because there were so many. I enjoyed it as a read but I don’t feel it’s a book that will stick with me.

6/10

Book #154 of 2021

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Thoughts On: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History
Donna Tartt
Penguin Books
1993 (originally 1992), 624p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher}: Truly deserving of the accolade ‘modern classic’, Donna Tartt’s novel is a remarkable achievement – compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.

Under the influence of their charismatic Classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever as they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

Where to begin?

I’m entirely convinced I’m one of the last people in the world to read this novel. During this lockdown, I’ve been watching a lot of Booktube and the Dark Academia vibe is quite popular there. A lot of people list this book as a definitive book for that whole inspiration and I ended up getting it through my library and being able to keep it for a long time because of the lockdown. I picked it up because I was looking for something to focus on before getting vaccinated (I don’t have needle phobia but I like to not think about it) and this definitely required my concentration but it’s a very absorbing story.

It’s narrated by Richard, who transfers from his college in California to Hampden University in Vermont. He’d taken Greek and discovered a bit of an affinity towards it but upon arriving at Hampden is told he won’t be able to take Greek as the professor there chooses only a few students and apparently has carte blanche to do pretty much what he likes. Richard becomes aware of the chosen students, who are quite well known around campus: the very scholarly Henry, Francis, the twins Charles and Camilla and also a man known as Bunny. It is Bunny that Richard ends up meeting first and he becomes drawn into this group and also, accepted into study under Julian, the enigmatic professor who will instruct them on all their classes.

You know very early on (the prologue tells you) that one of the students in this group will be murdered by the other five but it takes a very long time to get to the why. We get Richard’s point of view as he becomes involved with them and the strangeness of them. Richard is not wealthy but most of the others are from wealthy backgrounds or give off the impression of having access to money. Richard takes great pains to hide his background from them, his working class and disinterested parents who don’t understand his choosing to study the classics.

I really like books set during university, especially on campus and in residential halls and I honestly feel like there aren’t enough of them. I lived in a residential hall on campus for two years and it’s a really interesting time in life. There’s so much freedom, often for the first time but there’s still the protection of being part of the university and having in place, residential advisors who provide varying degrees of discipline and care. Richard lives in a dorm and so does one of the others from the group but the rest live off campus in various types of accomodation and take off for weekends at Francis’ aunt’s country house that she only uses in the summer or something. There’s a lot of drinking (so much drinking) and speaking to each other in Greek when they don’t want people to understand what they’re saying (kind of necessary if you’re covering up a murder) and very, very complex relationships between most of them.

I think a lot of people can relate to Richard wanting to fit in at this new university. He tries to dress the way that some of the others do, he tries to give off vibes of being wealthy but not talking about it. When everyone leaves for the winter, Richard needs to earn money so he needs to stay working but the residential halls close as they’re too expensive to heat. Instead of admitting his problem to anyone, he desperately tries to hide it. He doesn’t just want to fit in with them looks and study wise, keep up with them and their conversations, but he also wants to fit in with their group. He wants to be part of that close knit thing they have going on, to be invited to their houses and apartments and included in their jaunts to the country and confided in. He has a quite different relationship with all of them and in the end, Richard becomes a core part of this group but in ways where I often wondered if he realised that at any moment, he might be a potential fall guy.

Richard is often an unreliable narrator – he lies a lot to the group about himself and his background and admits that later on, the group often found him so enigmatic as to be intimidating, which for Richard, is something he cannot really imagine. It’s difficult to imagine he confides everything to the reader and he seems careful in the way he portrays the group as well. For example, the one that ends up dead is often very much portrayed as a villain, a user, a manipulator and the others as more sympathetic, in that this is their last and only option to protect themselves from someone who would seek to use something hanging over their heads, to destroy them.

Is this pretentious? Yes. They’re studying Greek and Latin and the classics. Is it a lot of drinking, drug taking, and wondering how on earth they actually complete their assignments? Also yes. But I found it so compelling! I really got sucked into the charisma of the characters and their weird friendship, the strange dynamics that were often at play, the idea of late nights and academic conversation. And of course, whether or not they’d get found out. The writing is slow and meandering and many people might not like that but it didn’t bother me in this story. I never felt like I was spending too much time in this story at all and even as long as this was, there was so much left unsaid and unanswered.

I really enjoyed this – and now I’m off to order a copy of The Goldfinch because I have to read more Donna Tartt.

8/10

Book #168 of 2021

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Review: Taking Down Evelyn Tait by Poppy Nwosu

Taking Down Evelyn Tait
Poppy Nwosu
Wakefield Press
2020, 264p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: The door creaks open and standing in the entrance is my absolute worst nightmare.
Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect brain.
Perfect sneer.
Evelyn Tait.

Impulsive Lottie – heavy-metal fan, expert tomato-grower and frequent visitor to the principal’s office – is in even more trouble than usual. Her best friend Grace has dropped an unlikely bombshell: she’s dating Lottie’s mortal enemy, good-girl Evelyn Tait.

Studious Jude, the boy next door, has the perfect war plan. Lottie will beat Evelyn at her own good-girl game, unveiling Miss Perfect’s sinister side in the process.

Taking life more seriously starts as fun, but soon offers its own rewards . . . so long as Lottie can manage gorgeous Sebastian’s sudden interest, Jude acting weird, and the discovery that she might actually be good at something.

Taking Down Evelyn Tait is a story about family, friends and embracing who you are. Even if that person is kind of weird.

This is the second novel revolving around students from the same school. I read the first, Making Friends With Alice Dyson recently and really enjoyed it. I also have a copy of the third, Road Tripping With Pearl Nash which is out this month so I thought before I read that I would finish this one. You absolutely don’t need to read them in order, I think Evelyn Tait gets a mention in the first book and one of the characters from the third book pops up a couple of times in this one but they don’t really interact so there’s no background information or anything.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I did Alice, but I still thought it was a fun read.

Lottie is a bit of a mischief maker. She’s a metal music lover – and I loved this about her. I went through a big metal stage when I was at university and I still listen to quite a lot of those old bands. I really enjoyed that portion of her character, especially when she’s defending it to others who see it as acting out or attention seeking. But Lottie knows her stuff and is happy to articulate the differences between black Norwegian metal and death metal and a whole bunch of other sub-genres. She’s very passionate about it and although people think she listens to it because she’s angry, she denies that’s the case.

Lottie’s best friend confides in her that the person she likes is Evelyn Tait – Lottie’s actual nemesis. Only Lottie suspects that she knows the real Evelyn – everyone else just sees the sweet exterior, the perfect grades, the student who tries hard and has good extracurriculars. But Lottie, the student who is often always in trouble, she knows better. And her other best friend helps her come up with the perfect scheme: beat Evelyn at her own well-behaved game and expose Evelyn for who she really is.

I really enjoyed the way the story revealed the truth behind the relationship between Lottie and Evelyn and how they just don’t know each other from school, that was fun. And I could 100% understand why they didn’t get along. Both Lottie and Evelyn were thrust into a situation swiftly and with no real consultation and they also didn’t really get a chance to ever have a break from each other. People in their situation need time and space apart and there was little surprise it had boiled over into hatred, competition and sneaky stupid pranks and attempts to undermine each other.

I found Lottie a bit of a struggle though. Like her frame of mind is understandable sometimes but there are other times when the way she behaves and her actions and things she says are just….quite out there. I was kind of amazed by her at times, I know she’s only 16 and she’s dealing with a lot but there are many others around her dealing with things and managing to be the voice of reason. Her “craziness” was a bit tedious and I enjoyed the book more in the latter part when it got toned down a bit and Lottie actually took a moment to think of people who were not named Lottie.

In both books I have really liked the love interest of the main character. I think the author really writes interesting and believable teenage boys with flaws and a manner that feels like a genuine teenager. I always like the interactions and the pacing and outcome are always exactly what I want.

I’m quite excited for the next book, which is a road trip story – one of my favourite types! I thought this one was good but not as enjoyable as the previous one and it’s one that might change a bit if I re-read it knowing everything about Lottie that I know now.

6/10

Book #146 of 2021

Taking Down Evelyn Tait is book #64 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

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Review: The Dating Plan by Sara Desai

The Dating Plan
Sara Desai
Penguin Random House
2021, 351p
Read via my local library/Libby

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Daisy Patel is a software engineer who understands lists and logic better than bosses and boyfriends. With her life all planned out, and no interest in love, the one thing she can’t give her family is the marriage they expect. Left with few options, she asks her childhood crush to be her decoy fiance.

Liam Murphy is a venture capitalist with something to prove. When he learns that his inheritance is contingent on being married, he realizes his best friend’s little sister has the perfect solution to his problem. A marriage of convenience will get Daisy’s matchmaking relatives off her back and fulfill the terms of his late grandfather’s will. If only he hadn’t broken her tender teenage heart nine years ago…

Sparks fly when Daisy and Liam go on a series of dates to legitimize their fake relationship. Too late, they realize that very little is convenient about their arrangement. History and chemistry aren’t about to follow the rules of this engagement.

I added this book to my Wishlist a little while ago and I actually intended to buy it but then I saw it on Libby, another app my library uses to loan out eBooks, as well as audiobooks and magazines. I am still very much in my romance binge so I nabbed it and started it the next day.

I love the fauxmance trope so much, it’s one of my favourite things in romance. So I was super keen for this but unfortunately, it was so disappointing. In fact it’s practically a DNF – I skimmed huge swathes of this because I found Liam such a terrible person and so many things about well, everything in this story, didn’t make sense.

The idea that Daisy is still so angry over something that happened a decade ago, was a bit weird and yet her actions around Liam directly contradict her words. She keeps talking about how she hates him, how he ruined her life and yet she lets him kiss her the first time they see each other, she agrees to fake-marry him even as she’s saying she never wants to see him again. Daisy is swayed by the fact that if she were fake-married to Liam, her desi Aunties would stop trying to marry her off. But the way this comes about is such a big old mess and Liam is much less “sorry for standing you up for prom a decade ago and disappearing without ever telling you and your family that basically cared for me for years if I were alive or dead” and more “I’m so hot, you know you want a piece of this”. Ugh.

After they agree to fake marry, in order to fool her family, Daisy (who is a Planner and Very Meticulous and Organised) maps out dates for them. One of those dates is an ice hockey game and because they’re in California (Silicon Valley I guess?) they go to the SAP Centre, to see the San Jose Sharks play the Toronto Maple Leafs. I was super excited about that because the Sharks are my team, until the book described the San Jose jersey as blue. No no no no no. It’s not blue. It’s teal – the teal is a huge part of their identity and I know some people would be like oh god, teal is just blue but those people are definitely not anyone who have any business ever going to a Sharks game. The author either knows enough or did enough research to get the stadium correct, they name dropped a couple of players but then described Liam and Daisy doing something at the “halftime” break. There is no halftime break in hockey – it’s played in 3 periods and after periods 1 and 2, there are intermissions. The “halftime” point of the game would be somewhere in the middle of the second period and if this is just a word used so people who aren’t hockey fans understand something, it still doesn’t make any sense because it’s a time that doesn’t exist. Why not just say break? It could’ve been after the first or second, who cares?

Also there’s just so much about Liam’s life that makes no sense. He was some sort of errand boy for a motorcycle club? And somehow segued this into being a fancy venture capitalist who is the only partner-type-person without an MBA. And Daisy did most of, if not all his homework for him, back in high school. And he manages to accomplish becoming a fancy partner in a very short amount of time, given it’s only a decade since high school or so and he’s been busy doing errands first. There’s a lot of family members in this and they are glaring stereotypes: Liam’s family are Irish so they drink too much and fight each other at family gatherings. Daisy’s family is Indian, so they are trying to arrange her marriage and doing things like accosting her with prospects at a work function where she is participating in an important pitch for funding, and spend a lot of time forcing food on her and Liam. The Aunties are very full on (the “Shark stew” at the hockey, what? No one does that) and there are a lot of them when maybe it would’ve worked better if there was only 1 or maybe 2 at the very most. And there is just what feels like dozens of Daisy’s work colleagues and relatives and people at the bar Liam drinks at and most of them could’ve been cut from this story without having a single effect on it.

I don’t know why these characters liked each other. They barely have any serious interactions and I know they have history but “liked each other 10 years ago” is not exactly cause for a relationship, especially when one of them ghosted the other on the night of her prom. Liam is so off-putting in his first few scenes, he’s arrogant and jerky and smug and I didn’t like him from the first time he appeared on the page. And the ending is lacking in finesse for me, it’s very much “and everyone did a backflip and we all lived happily ever after as one big family”.

Not for me, this one.

2/10

Book #133 of 2021

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Review: An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

An Uncertain Grace
Krissy Kneen
Text Publishing
2017, 238p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Some time in the near future, university lecturer Caspar receives a gift from a former student called Liv: a memory stick containing a virtual narrative. Hooked up to a virtual reality bodysuit, he becomes immersed in the experience of their past sexual relationship. But this time it is her experience. What was for him an erotic interlude, resonant with the thrill of seduction, was very different for her – and when he has lived it, he will understand how.

Later…

A convicted paedophile recruited to Liv’s experiment in collective consciousness discovers a way to escape from his own desolation.

A synthetic boy, designed by Liv’s team to ‘love’ men who desire adolescents, begins to question the terms of his existence.

M, in transition to a state beyond gender, befriends Liv, in transition to a state beyond age.

Liv herself has finally transcended the corporeal – but there is still the problem of love.

An Uncertain Grace is a novel in five parts by one of Australia’s most inventive and provocative writers. Moving, thoughtful, sometimes playful, it is about who we are – our best and worst selves, our innermost selves – and who we might become. 

This was….interesting.

In a few different ways. I’ve heard quite a lot about Krissy Kneen’s books before but I’ve never read her. I knew this was slightly outside of the parameters I was seeking when I was scrolling through Borrow Box but the opportunity to try something was too good to pass up and I thought I’d give it a go. Especially as it’s quite short and quick reads are my jam at the moment.

It’s a set of five stories, loosely connected by a character that appears in or is relevant to each of them. It’s set sometime in the future, and for me, the first story is by far the most interesting.

It’s about an older professor who is given a special suit and a memory stick by a student he also had a relationship with which allows him to experience her memories as if he were her, feeling what she felt, experiencing what she did. He finds himself reliving their relationship from her point of view and it was….very different to his own memories of it.

I thought this was such an interesting idea! The professor is quite a lech, ogling his students, and seems to pick out ones to have sexual relationships with quite regularly. After the dissolution of this relationship with Liv, he finds out what it was like to be in her shoes, how she was feeling when he “made his moves” and at various points during the relationship.

If only! He’s forced to confront certain truths about himself and seeing himself through someone else’s eyes definitely is a bit of a wake up call. It showcases how differently people can see things and how someone can misread signs, mistake responses. It would allow for such clarity about issues – not just a “you said this” but to actually experience things, the way a certain person did.

The rest of the stories were a mixed bag for me. One of them I found as disturbing as I did interesting – the story of a young robot? who was been created for the purpose of allowing the study of pedophiles and their responses as well as removing the danger from human children. The robot? synthetic boy? is programmed to enjoy the attention from the adults and have a sexual response and look, I know it’s not a “real” child but it was programmed to act like one so it was weird to read that sort of behaviour and reaction. “Changing” or “rehabilitating” pedophiles doesn’t seem to be very successful so studying them and learning from their responses as well as removing the danger to children in the community was an interesting idea even if it was still….a bit creepy. Watching men having sex with beings designed to look and act like children would take a certain type of researcher.

As the stories go on, we get further into the future as Liv refines her technology more until she intends to transcend out of her ailing body and keep her conscious. I did lose interest the further I got into the book because for the most part, there wasn’t a lot of new stuff being imparted and the various types and amounts of sex got a bit tedious after a while. I guess I like story to go with my sexual content and this just didn’t feel like it was an interesting enough story. The characters felt interchangeable in many ways and no one really stood out as having anything resembling a defined personality. For the character tying everything together, I didn’t feel we got to know anywhere near as much as we should have about Liv. I felt like there could’ve been so much more exploration and I know her story doesn’t come up until last but so much was just glossed over.

Some of the futuristic views were interesting, the portrayal of a world seemingly riddled by climate change – fishing is a thing that no longer exists in the future, presumably because the oceans have been fished to complete exhaustion. A city with a river that has risen so much it’s swallowing high rise apartment buildings and the people use boats to moor floors up from where the ground used to be.

I felt like this had some really interesting ideas but the writing was at times, off-putting for me and I’m not sure it came together in terms of the connections and Liv as a central character. Didn’t fall in love with it but I didn’t hate it either.

5/10

Book #134 of 2021

This is the 55th book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

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Review: The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni

The Prison Healer (The Prison Healer #1)
Lynette Noni
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 416p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Here at Zalindov, the only person you can trust is yourself.

Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer.

When the Rebel Queen is captured, Kiva is charged with keeping the terminally ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal: a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water and earth, assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals.

Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order: Don’t let her die. We are coming. Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the queen will be granted their freedom.

But no one has ever survived.

With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun. 

I really enjoyed Lynette Noni’s first series, The Medoran Chronicles. I felt like each book got stronger writing and story wise. I also quite enjoyed the duology she produced after that so I was pretty excited to read this.

Firstly, I love the idea of this. There are maps at the beginning of the book, both one of the greater world and then also a much more detailed map of the prison itself. And I always love getting a chance to study the world before I begin the story, to orient myself with it, and then being able to go back and have another look as I become more familiar with different places (in this case, the whole story takes place at the prison but occasionally other places are mentioned).

I thought Kiva’s situation was pretty interesting – she’s the prison healer and that position does afford her a few privileges, such as being excused from the backbreaking work in the quarries and tunnels that are the death of scores of other prisoners. For information given to the Warden she enjoys a certain element of protection, although she endures the wrath of her other inmates. When Tilda, the so called Rebel Queen, a threat to the established Crown, is found and captured and brought to the prison, Kiva receives a message from her remaining family on the outside to keep Tilda alive and get her through the Trial by Ordeal. They are coming.

Okay. So far so good. The book is however, a bit long. And there’s a lot of people just doing…whatever, which for a strictly monitored prison, seemed unlikely. Especially Jaren, the new prisoner who seems to have taken a liking to Kiva and spends most of his time seeking her out and not much time at all doing whatever he’s supposed to be assigned to. Kiva is occupied both with keeping the desperately ill Tilda alive and also with a mysterious stomach flu that is killing more and more people in the prison every day. She’s undertaking research to try and find out where it’s coming from so she can isolate the cause and treat the patients but she’s having no luck. And then she is caught up in the Trial by Ordeal.

The Trial by Ordeal was kind of disappointing. There are four components to it, a trial of air, one of fire, one of water and one of earth to represent the four types of magic possessed by those of royal blood. It’s supposed to be some big entertaining spectacle (for all the prisoners? Why are they being entertained?) and even the Crown Prince and Princess have arrived to view the first one in years but then get banned from watching after the first one and why does anyone have the authority to ban them? They’re royalty. But the ordeals themselves, apart from the first one, are actually conducted in places where nothing can really be witnessed anyway and the trials themselves didn’t really make any sense.

And then there’s the ending, which when I read it I was like oh….that’s quite good. What a twist. But then after a few moments I suddenly twigged that I’d actually read several books that contain twists quite similar to this one and that this book combines a few of those into one scenario. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining but it just has very similar vibes to a few other books…..undertaking a specific challenge where it’s believed there’s no possible chance of success but oh look out, success!, a secret identity, a viper in the nest type ending.

The ending did make me want to read the next book because there’s been two or three interesting things set up to be explored and I was still entertained by this even as it was reminding me of other books that I’ve read before. I actually liked Kiva, I found her quite fun to read but I have to say, Jaren bored me a lot, there felt like there was nothing all that interesting or special about him and his secret, which I think was supposed to make him special, was quite predictable although it will work well to set up some really good conflict in the second novel, when he finds out the truth about Kiva.

This book could probably have trimmed a few pages and it wouldn’t have impacted on the story and it felt like the author honestly took very little time to develop any more than three, maybe four characters. Everyone else just felt like generic cardboard cut outs.

Hopefully a fresh perspective in the next book as Kiva is able to see more of the world – I’m still interested to read it and I know from past experience that the first book can be the weaker one for this author and that the more she spends on the world the better it becomes but I’m glad I got this one from the library.

6/10

Book #139 of 2021

This is the 59th book read for the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Review: All I Want For Christmas by Wendy Loggia

All I Want For Christmas
Wendy Loggia
Underlined
2020, 240p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: This sweet and magical romance about a girl who has just one wish–someone to kiss under the mistletoe–is the perfect holiday escape!

Bailey Briggs is counting down the days to Christmas: she lives for holiday music, baking cookies, going on snowy sleigh rides, and wearing her light-up reindeer ears to work at Winslow’s bookstore. But all she really wants this year is the one thing she doesn’t have: someone special to kiss under the mistletoe. And she’s 100 percent certain that that someone isn’t Jacob Marley–athlete, player, and of questionable taste in girlfriends–and that Charlie, the mysterious stranger with the British accent, is the romantic lead of her dreams. Is she right? This will be a December to remember, filled with real-life Christmas magic . . . and, if she stays on Santa’s nice list, a wish that just might come true.

Unfortunately, this was a bit disappointing.

Look and maybe part of that is me. It’s billed as like a Hallmark movie in YA novel form and I don’t watch Hallmark movies. I don’t watch movies full stop really, it’s nothing against that specific type of movie. But I’m not that familiar with it either so maybe I would’ve looked at this a different way if I’d gone into it thinking it would probably contain some stuff that requires you to suspend your disbelief for a bit.

Bailey Briggs loves Christmas. Like, she really loves it. Her Christmas spirit is extremely high and she buys into the whole thing. Her family do too, it seems and their days are all about stringing lights and baking cookies for the neighbourhood cookie swap that they host. Bailey doesn’t understand anyone that doesn’t love Christmas and she is determined to spread that cheer wherever she goes. She also wants a boyfriend and at the moment there seem to be two candidates: handsome, elegant British guy Charlie who has a habit of showing up at the most opportune moment and Jacob Marley, who is in Bailey’s year at school and who she’s never really seem before as a potential boyfriend but he’s certainly paying her a lot of attention and her friends keep pointing out cute things about him.

Bailey was at times, not a fun character to read her perspective. She’s quite judgemental and the way she treats Jacob is not always nice. She is super into the idea of Charlie, because he’s got an accent and has “saved” her several times and she seems hooked on this idea of a sweeping romance. She did work at a bookstore, which was cool and there were times when she was fun. But a lot of her inner thoughts were a bit exhausting, particularly about Charlie (who I thought was going to turn out to be imaginary or something, at first, because in his first few appearances he seems to interact only with Bailey and no one else sees him). The actual reason Charlie is where he is is actually even more ridiculous than that. If you’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life, you might be able to sort of figure it out, it’s not exactly the same as that but it’s somewhat similar and that’s Bailey’s favourite movie and she’s even named after a character in it etc etc.

I don’t really like love triangles and this isn’t really a love triangle in the end, because of who/what Charlie is but it’s billed as that for a bit of the book. And despite the fact that Bailey seems “torn” between Charlie and Jacob, there are times when she displays some weird jealousy towards Jacob talking to other girls or being seen with them and it’s like..really? What about this other guy you’re obsessed with? I know they’re only 17 and sometimes the conflict in YA novels isn’t relatable for me anymore but this was less about unrelateable conflict and more about Bailey just being hypocritical.

Bailey was not a likeable character for a large portion of this book. I did however, really like Jacob. He felt like a realistic teenage boy, who likes a girl. Why he liked Bailey though? I have no idea.

4/10

Book #131 of 2021

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