All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Simple Gift – Steven Herrick

9780702231339_The Simple Gift__Final front coverThe Simple Gift
Steven Herrick
UQP Books
2014 (originally 2000), 205p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Billy is sixteen and is about to voluntarily become homeless. Life with his abusive father has become more than he can bear and one night he packs some belongings into a backpack and leaves his home and dog behind. He attempts to hitch at first, not having much luck in poor weather and ends up riding on a freight train heading west.

He ends up in the town of Bendarat where his days begin to follow a pattern. He sleeps in a disused rail car at the train station siding yard and each day he treks to the library where he reads. He bathes and washes his clothes in a river. And every night he heads to the local McDonald’s where he buys a lemonade and then forages for pickings families leave behind.

Old Bill lives in the railcar down from Billy’s and it doesn’t take long for Billy to befriend the hobo, taking him breakfast and cups of tea despite Old Bill’s initial reluctance. Old Bill tells him about work at the cannery and to his own surprise, finds himself fronting up for work with the kid as well. Slowly, Old Bill’s story tumbles out of him, how he came to live the life he’s now living and the grief and heartbreak that drive him to drown his sorrows.

Caitlin is the daughter of wealthy parents and has only known privilege. She works at McDonald’s of her own choice and finds herself intrigued by the boy that comes in each night who clearly has no where better to be. They strike up an unusual friendship, the three of them. The rich girl, the homeless boy and the hobo.

The Simple Gift is a YA novel by Australian author Steven Herrick written in verse. It’s being reissued this month by UQP books after originally being published over a decade ago. I’ve only read one novel in verse before and I was a bit ambivalent about it so I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about this one. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised how well the medium conveyed the story and how much I came to enjoy the three characters and their relationships.

Billy’s depiction of his home life is never graphic but it doesn’t need to be. In fact apart from his leaving, I think there’s only one scene in the book that showcases what his father was like and how he treated Billy. The fact that Billy would actively seek out homelessness, in all its uncertainties is telling. However, Billy is also exceptionally lucky, that really does have to be addressed. If you’re going to run away from home, then Billy’s adventure is pretty much how you’d want it to go. It starts off pretty dismally with him attempting to hitch in the driving rain but from there it picks up as he experiences the true reach of human kindness. In Bendarat he finds a warm, safe, dry and free place to sleep where he remains unmolested for the duration. However this seems to only add to the story – that you can find the best of the human spirit even in some of the worst situations.

Although I was interested in Billy and his situation, my attention was quickly diverted by Old Bill and what had happened to him. Upon first meeting he comes across as a gruff drunk, someone who has probably reached the point of no return. As his story slowly unfolded it was both heartbreaking and easy to believe. He wouldn’t be the first to have turned his back on a comfortable life after tragedy, perhaps believing that he doesn’t really deserve his easy home and life. At first Bill is sort of reluctant for Billy to shoehorn his way into his life – you can tell he’s been alone for a long time now and that’s the way he prefers it. He keeps the memories locked tight away and he passes the days in a fog of nothingness. But Billy is friendly and persistent and he and Old Bill are both beneficial to each other. When Old Bill has a chance to help Billy, he takes it without hesitation, giving the younger man a real chance to make something of himself and escape the situation that he has found himself in. Billy is smart and well behaved, the sort of boy you can place your trust in. He’s wise for his years and he has ambition. It’s perhaps a little neat, a little easy but it’s still a beautiful story.

I found less interest in Caitlin’s story and her connection with Billy but I will say that it was quite refreshing to have the rich girl not be a mean stereotype. Caitlin is compassionate and quite well grounded. She doesn’t see anything beneficial about having everything provided for you. She chooses to work at McDonald’s to save her money for her future so that she can be independent. She’s very down to earth and accepting of other people – she doesn’t bat an eyelid when she invites Billy for dinner when her parents go away and he turns up with Old Bill in tow.

As I mentioned, I’m unfamiliar with novels written in verse having only read one before this but I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. The three characters blended so well together and the sparse word count didn’t detract from the story and I was able to fully picture it in my mind. I’d definitely read another Steven Herrick book – I saw Black Painted Fingernails on a few blogs a while back so I might start with that one and go from there.

8/10

Book #11 of 2014

Aussie-Author-Challenge-2014-final-badge

 

The Simple Gift is book #1 of my Aussie Author Challenge for 2014. This one ticks a lot of boxes: new to me author, YA genre, unusual delivery (verse).

litexp-challenge

 

Also counting this one towards my Literary Exploration Challenge 13/14 and ticking off the Poetry category. That’s two novels read for this challenge so far this year and 20/36 over all.

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Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

Murder In MississippiMurder In Mississippi
John Safran
Penguin Books Aus
2013, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley/print copy courtesy of The Reading Room.com

When Australian documentary maker John Safran was filming his TV show Race Relations he spent a couple of days in America with one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists culminating in a prank where he announced at a function that the man had African heritage. ABC was hit with a legal letter rescinding permission to show the footage on the TV show and that was that. A year later he heard that the man he had met with, Richard Barrett, had been brutally murdered. And that the killer was a black man.

Safran decided to fly to the United States to cover the murder and the trial, intrigued by the way in which things had played out. Had the young man taken offense to Barrett’s views and just cracked? Then more and more bizarre information, half truths and stories kept coming out. Was the murder a dispute over money? The young black man, Vincent McGee had been working for Barrett, doing odd jobs like mowing the lawn. Or was Barrett secretly gay? With an attraction towards young black men? One of McGee’s original statements said that Barrett had made unwanted sexual advances towards him, which was why McGee had killed him.

Safran spent months in Mississippi interviewing everyone he could that was connected to the case (and some people that weren’t) as well as others that he thought might be able to give him any sort of insight into what it is like living in parts of Mississippi. He talked to white supremacists, black journalists and civil rights campaigners, the family of the victim and the accused as well as even the killer himself, swapping Walmart Green Dot Cards for information. But the more Safran searches for the truth, the more bizarre this case becomes.

I have been reading more non-fiction lately and this is my first true crime read in a long time. I remember Safran and his rise to fame in Race Around The World and his parody song Not The Sunscreen Songboth of which were pretty popular when I was in late high school. Since then he’s made some documentaries, such as the aforementioned Race Relations as well as John Safran’s Music Jamboree and John Safran vs God. These days he also has a radio show on JJJ with the notoriously cranky priest (and fellow from the Penguin stable) Father Bob Maguire. Given Safran had a connection with the deceased, having spent some time with him, albeit to perform a prank, he was perfectly placed to then cover the strange situation of his murder.

Safran immerses himself in the case and no one can question his dedication. He relentlessly pursues people to talk to him, questing for information, even just their time. He writes with a conversational slightly self-deprecating style that still occasionally injects the humour he is so well known for as he gives away as much about himself as he does about the case and the people who surround it. The more information he collects, the more bizarre the case becomes and the more questions Safran has. Barrett was a known white supremacist who lived in a predominently black neighbourhood and had a black man, Vincent McGee working casually for him. McGee, perhaps the world’s most inept criminal, was apprehended for the crime almost immediately and set about confessing… several times, each confession being a different story. In the first instance, McGee claimed that Barrett had made unwelcome advances towards him, a claim he later rescinded in favour of saying it was over money. Members of his own family believe that there might’ve been a sexual exchange for money but that McGee would be so afraid of this coming out that he would change his story several times.

Reading about these parts of Mississippi is almost like visiting another world. Barrett claims to be the founder of the American skinheads, a believer that the only real Americans are white Americans. A dragger of the heels in terms of segregation Mississippi is the sole state that retains the Confederate flag on its state flag and white supremacist groups are still funneling money into separatist schools. And yet despite Barrett’s beliefs, he chose to live in an area with many African Americans, most of which had no idea about his politics and who mourned him when he died. They found him friendly and helpful. Barrett proved to be a bit of a man of mystery, even to the FBI who had a file on him but couldn’t really seem to discern his motives or his true agenda.

It’s probably unfortunate for Safran that McGee plead guilty which meant that the trial didn’t take place for him to cover but he was still able to gather enough information through his interviews in the lead up to the hearing. Some of his interactions with McGee himself prove to be perhaps unintentionally, some of the more comedic conversations particularly McGee’s devotion to acquiring Walmart Green Dot cards which are, I think, a bit like a pre-paid VISA. Prisoners can only be given cards in a certain amount so Safran has to buy multiple ones, splitting the cost over several of them and giving the codes to McGee down the phone and McGee then uses them to buy prepaid phone credit. In one conversation McGee expresses interest in coming to Australia until he discovers that we don’t have Walmart and therefore, no Walmart Green Dot cards either.

Murder In Mississippi doesn’t suffer too much for the lack of a juicy trial, it’s still an intriguing story full of half-truths, rumours, conflicting views and a victim who was many things, none of them seemingly compatible with the others. And it’s proved me wrong in some of my assumptions about true crime, that it’s all a bit dour. I do hope Safran finds himself another crime to write about in the future, I’d happily read it.

8/10

Book #297 of 2013

Aussie Author Challenge

Murder In Mississippi is the 17th novel read for my Aussie Author Challenge 2013, challenging myself to read more books by male Australian authors.

LitExp Challenge

 

 

 

It’s also the 17th novel read for my Literary Exploration Challenge 2013, crossing off the true crime category.

 

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The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Narrow RoadThe Narrow Road To The Deep North
Richard Flanagan
Random House AU
2013, 467p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (my husband also bought a copy and I read the paperback version)

In 1943, Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon in a Japanese POW camp working with others on the Thai-Burma railway, also known as the Death Railway. With the Japanese determined to get the railway built for the Emperor, they push men beyond their physical and mental limits, ignorant of the fact that they’re dropping dead of exhaustion, starvation and disease everywhere. They don’t care about the wellbeing of their prisoners and they couldn’t care less about the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war. What they care about is honour and serving the Emperor. And serving the Emperor means getting the railway built. To fail would be a loss of honour so great that no Japanese man would be able to live with himself.

Dorrigo has a position of authority and he uses it to try and negotiate more food and medicine for his men. Their camps are overrun with cholera, with dysentery, with beriberi, with tropical ulcers that are eating the men’s flesh right down to the bone. But even in the midst of all this agony, suffering and starvation, Dorrigo is still haunted by the love affair with his uncle’s wife back in Australia two years ago before he shipped out. They met without realising who each other were and embarked on a passionate secret relationship after the discovery. Dorrigo swore he’d return for her but news he receives whilst on the railway changes his life forever.

Australian author Richard Flanagan needs no introduction for most people. The Tasmanian writer has won numerous awards for his previous novels. Gould’s Book of Fish won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize and Wanting was the New Yorker book of the year, the Observer book of the year and winner of the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Western Australian Premier’s Prize and the Tasmania Book Prize. My husband sent me Flanagan’s second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping when we first met as a kind of literary compatibility test I suppose. I should mention that I failed that test because this is the first of Flanagan’s novels that I have completed. But it’s a good place to start in many ways.

Flanagan’s father is a survivor of the horror of the Thai-Burma railway and this book delves deep into the reality of the prisoners of war. Flanagan spares no intimate detail as he describes what the men were forced to do, slashing their way through thick jungle over rivers in utterly miserable and life-threatening conditions. The men were starved, medicine was non-existent and the conditions brought a new meaning to the term ‘unsanitary’. And this book lets you have all of that in all of its glory. A word of warning: don’t attempt to read the middle of this book if you are eating. Or going to eat. Or ever want to eat again at some stage. It is gruesome, it is graphic, it is quite honestly, horrible stuff. My husband warned me that it was hard going but I assumed he was talking of torture, or graphically described killings. No, no he was not. He was talking of other things and although it’s difficult to get through, it’s a necessary part of the story. Because that’s what conditions must have been like in a camp that was overrun with people suffering dysentery, cholera and various other ailments that attack the physical body.

And somehow in all of this suffering, Flanagan manages to build a rapport between the men, a relationship as they struggle. They help each other, covering for each other when the weakest are too weak to work, they risk themselves to clean the sick and tend to them even though in most cases it is useless. They give the men funerals after their deaths, even after the pastor himself has succumbed. And one of the best scenes in the book for me occurs after the end of the war, when some of the survivors visit the local fish and chip shop back in Australia of a buddy who didn’t make it. They carry out something that he always wanted to do before the war and later, feeling bad for the damage they caused, they go and apologise to the owner and explain. He invites them to sit and share a meal with him, telling them to forget about paying him back. It really epitomises the bond that these men developed. Even though they got so sick of the guy’s story about the fish and chip shop, they honoured him in a way that they knew he would enjoy. Perhaps it was the only way in which they could.

Although there is a love story wound through this book, for me it definitely took second place to the story of the railway and the war. Dorrigo is at best of times, a difficult character and he’s at his most readable advocating for the prisoners and attempting to stand up to the Japanese, not by brute force, but by changing the way they think of honour. It often doesn’t work, but he tries to do it anyway. I did like the fact that the novel explained the fates of most of the characters, even long after the war had ended and we weren’t really left wondering about people.

Jennifer Byrne used the term ‘masterpiece’ to describe this novel when the ABC’s The Book Club discussed it recently. The story is grim but the writing is utterly superb. Kind of makes me wonder how I failed that test so many years ago!

8/10

Book #296 of 2013

Aussie Author Challenge

The Narrow Road To The Deep North is the 16th book read for the Australian Authors ChallengeLitExp ChallengeIt is also the 16th novel read for the Literary Exploration Challenge. This time I’m ticking off the category of Literary Fiction

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Unbreakable – Kami Garcia

UnbreakableUnbreakable (Legion #1)
Kami Garcia
Simon & Schuster UK
2013, 305p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster AU

Kennedy’s father walked out when she was just five years old and ever since then, it’s been just her and her mother. After a night out at the movies with her friend, Kennedy comes home and finds her mother dead in her bed – heart failure, according to the medical report. Kennedy is left alone to pack up the house before she is to be sent to a boarding school in upstate New York. Reluctant to leave her home, she spends one more night there alone….

Her world unravels when a spirit attempts to kill her. She is rescued by Lukas and Jared Lockheart, identical twins who tell her that her mother was part of the Legion, a secret society responsible for protecting the world from a demon that was accidentally raised by the group some 200 years ago. Each Legion member chooses a blood relative to take their place. They tell her that her mother’s death was no accident and on the same night that Kennedy’s mother was killed, the four other members of the Legion were all killed too and their chosen representatives became the new Legion.

But Kennedy was never told anything about the Legion. She hasn’t been trained, she doesn’t have the skills to fight paranormal ghosts and spirits, she didn’t know anything about it before Lukas and Jared burst into her room to save her from death. However they take her with them, enfolding her into their group believing that now the group knows all the other members, perhaps they will be stronger together than they ever were apart. But is Kennedy who they believe she is? The Legion need her help to save the world before the demon is able to enter it and destroy it. But Kennedy doesn’t know what she’s doing and there’s every chance she could be making a huge mistake.

I was immediately intrigued when I heard about this new series, written by Kami Garcia who is best known for her collaborating with Margaret Stohl on the Beautiful Creatures series. The first book was recently made into a movie and although I haven’t read that series yet, I do own a couple of them. I was curious as to what her writing would be like alone and I so I was excited to receive a review copy of this one.

It’s a series that is certainly full of action almost from the very beginning. Kennedy is a teen that has to face not only the death of her mother, who is really the only person that she has left in the world, but then the information that it wasn’t really natural causes and that her mother was part of some secret society that had been around for generations, charged with protecting the world from the wrath of a demon accidentally raised centuries ago. She knew nothing about this, she wasn’t told about it, groomed for it like all the rest of the new members of the Legion were: identical twins Lukas and Jared, mechanical wizard Priest and ward and magic specialist Alara. Kennedy is like a newborn, clueless and almost helpless. They don’t know what her specialty is (all Legion members have one, passed down to them from the blood member who chose them to succeed). She feels awkward, left out and like she doesn’t belong – she’s never really belonged anywhere and even though she’s freaked out about everything she’s been told, you get the feeling that Kennedy desperately wants to belong somewhere. The other four are very confident in themselves and what they’re doing and although they take her along for the ride, at times it feels like they have to adjust things in order to accommodate her lack of training. This makes her feel bad, especially when she makes a critical mistake that leads to the group having to flee their safe place. Deep down Kennedy worries that perhaps she’s not the one they think she is, that she’s not the missing fifth member and soon or later they’re going to realise that and probably, well, kick her out. And it seems that the further you get into the book, the more you realise that her fears for that might not be totally unfounded. There’s definitely a few questions about whether or not Kennedy is the legitimate fifth member and if she is, why hasn’t she had something happen to her that the others have had happen to them? And if she isn’t, then who is the legitimate fifth member and where are they? I’m not really sure I have the answers for those, but I do have a few half-baked theories!

Not only does this one have action and ghosts and demons and teens that are not afraid to kick ass, it’s also got the beginnings of an equally sizzling and sweet romance. I definitely wanted more of that – there’s mere hints here and there and a little bit of action near the end but it’s complicated! Kind of an interesting love triangle but not really a triangle, more like the possibility of one but I really liked the way in which it was written. Definitely going to be a long wait until the next book in this series.

8/10

Book #258 of 2013

LitExp ChallengeCounting this one towards my Literary Exploration Challenge for 2013, ticking off the Young Adult category. That makes 15 books read for this challenge.

 

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On The Trail Of Genghis Khan – Tim Cope

Genghis KhanOn The Trail Of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through The Land Of The Nomads
Tim Cope
Bloomsbury Publishing
2013, 509p
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ

Australian Tim Cope had long been drawn to the nomadic lifestyle of Eurasian steppes in a time gone by. Inspired by the groups that still live this way, even to this day, he decided to undertake an extraordinary journey: to follow the steps of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan on horseback, beginning in Mongolia, trekking through Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine until he reached the banks of the Danube in Hungary.

In his original plan, he thought this journey might take around eighteen months. However, due to bureaucratic delays, horse and supply issues, health problems and personal tragedy it would take twice that by the time he finally found the Danube. Along the way he would meet many families from different cultures and experience the generous hospitality of the various nomadic and stationary peoples of this area, even from those who had nothing to give. He would see some of the world’s most beautiful, untouched scenery and experience torturous weather conditions – 50°C in the summer and down to -30ºC in winter. He would have to avoid would-be horse thieves and those who would wish to rob him, wolves and various other creatures – even the tiniest ones such as flies and mosquitoes could prove devastating. He would have to rely on being able to find food and water for his three horses and at times, the pickings were very lean. He would also come to rely on his horses and the dog Tigon that was presented to him as a travelling companion, bonding with them in their shared experience of crossing such a vast continent alone.

On The Trail Of Genghis Khan is the story of a man who wanted to connect with a more simple existence and leave the trappings of most of modern day society behind in order to pay tribute to one of the greatest leaders of all time.

Ever since I heard about this book, I immediately knew I had to read it. I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction but every now and then, something really catches my eye and this was one of those. The idea of someone undertaking such a trek was fascinating. Travelling through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea, the Ukraine and reaching Hungary would bring such a wide variety of conditions and hazards and also give me more information about areas that interest me and that I don’t know much about. I read a fiction book mostly set in Kazakhstan earlier this year and since then, I admit that I’ve been interested in the area, mostly because it’s been so underrepresented in the books that I’ve read.

This book is more than just the story of a young man who undertook an epic journey. It also describes the history, politics and surroundings in the most amazing way. This is an area foreign to me, given where I’ve grown up – it’s filled with a poverty that I can’t understand. The nomad way doesn’t really interest me in terms of it being something I’d like to do myself – I’m too much of a sook. But it’s fascinating to read about and attempt to imagine. A lack of trappings, the simplicity of growing and raising almost everything you need yourself, moving around the landscape following the weather sounds peaceful and beautiful and it can be. But it can also be the exact opposite.

The dangers that Tim Cope faced are well documented in this book. As I mentioned – this is an area where most, if not all people, are very poor. Extremely poor. Almost everywhere he went, he faced threats and violence. Various people attempted to steal his horses and belongings (with varying levels of success) and although many people were welcoming and hospitable, sometimes offering up food and fodder that they could ill afford to share, others were hostile, unwelcoming and some downright threatening. Drinking is common – even the poorest of families possess vodka in large amounts (perhaps homemade? I am not sure but it’s definitely not the Stolichnaya we can buy at the store) and almost everything revolves around the liquor. The book is an honest portrayal of the highs and the lows in an area that has been buffeted by politics, power and corruption.

But the good outweighs the bad. So many people were warm and welcoming, offering up hospitality, food, drink, fodder, companionship, information and an insight into their lifestyles. The journey took Cope about three years and although his then-girlfriend started out with him for the first couple of months and he occasionally had guides, much of his trek was conducted alone apart from his horses and after a while, Tigon. Companionship was important both for Cope to learn about the people and lifestyle that so fascinated him and also for his own sanity during his journey.

On The Trail Of Genghis Khan is such an amazing story, in so many ways. It’s one of those engrossing reads made all the more wonderful because it’s all true. It’s a great way to learn about an area that you might not know so much about – really learn about it from someone who has been there, has experienced it and has seen it in all its glory and negativity. There’s so much information here and it’s all delivered in such an appealing way. I admire Tim Cope for sticking it out even though there were delays, bureaucratic disputes and personal tragedy that all sought to derail his adventure. It took courage and determination and a real ability to adapt to the most difficult of conditions and the most changing. I loved reading about the way he came to feel about his animals (particularly his dog Tigon, who now resides in Australia with him after a lengthy wait and quarantine stay). He cared about the horses and reading about how much he relied upon them both for pleasure and practicality was lovely. His careful consideration about them at the end of the journey and his continued interest in their lives is heartwarming.

I’d read a lot more non-fiction if I could find books like this.

8/10

Book #239 of 2013

LitExp Challenge

 

I’m counting this book towards my Literary Exploration challenge, ticking off the non-fiction category. It’s the 14th novel read for the challenge.

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The Sky So Heavy – Claire Zorn

Sky So HeavyThe Sky So Heavy
Claire Zorn
University of Queensland Press
2013, 294p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Fin is just an ordinary teenager – coping with his parent’s separation and his father’s subsequent remarriage, struggling his way through high school and crushing on one of the most sophisticated girls in his class, trying to get her to notice him. They study for history together but Fin would definitely like more than that.

But then one day changes everything. A nearby country was supposed to be testing nuclear weapons only they turned them on neighbouring countries, almost obliterating some off the map. Australia is greatly affected by the fallout – the electricity and phones fail rendering most people clueless as to what’s going on. It’s dark, freezing cold and snow is falling. His father, who left to follow his new wife after a family argument, has not returned by the next day. Fin and his younger brother Max are alone. The small amount of warning he was given by his mother that something had gone wrong had allowed him to stock up on some cans of food and fill containers with water. They have enough to get by – for now.

But there is no sign of things improving. The local supermarket shuts its doors when the owner realises that there are no supply trucks coming through. Fin realises that he is going to have to ration what they have to get by. They face angry neighbours and even an irate police officer, who tries to steal what food they have left. Teaming up with a boy from his school, Fin knows they have to leave their area in the Blue Mountains and try and make it to the inner-city where his mother is. She’ll have the answers, she’ll have information and she’ll be able to help him. They also take Fin’s crush Lucy at the request of her mother who sees their trip as Lucy’s best chance for survival.

But making it to the city isn’t going to be easy – especially when the little group discover that there is now a divide. The haves and the have nots. And to get through they’re going to have to break some rules.

The Sky So Heavy is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the lower Blue Mountains in NSW. The main character is Fin, a relatively normal high school boy who finds himself thrust into a very non-normal situation when a nearby country mess up their nuclear testing either by accident or design. They not only utterly destroy nations closer to them but the nuclear fallout has an immediate and devastating affect on Australia as well. Fin is left in a position of responsibility over his younger brother Max when he is separated from adults and he has to assume a sort of parental role over him, working to make sure that he’d kept fed, warm and also relatively calm. Max is only 12 and this situation is devastating for anyone but for the younger, the lack of authority makes it even more confusing.

This is a surprisingly realistic book. It’s not too far to stretch that there is a country who might want to test nuclear weapons although the specific country isn’t named in this book. When the temperatures drop and it begins to snow and the power and phone fails, Fin realises that out in the burbs and beyond, they seem to have been forgotten. They get one army drop of food and then that’s it – they’re on their own. No supply trucks are coming through and when Fin decides to attempt to get to his mother in Sydney, they get to a checkpoint where they realise that people aren’t being allowed in unless they carry ID that states they’re residents of the metropolitan area. The city is being ‘saved’ in a way – but the rest of the state is not. The decision has been made to sacrifice many in order to potentially save some.

For his trek into the city, Fin has teamed up with Noll, a boy from his school who was outcast presumably for being the only Asian kid around, and Lucy his crush as well as his younger brother. Although they encounter the odd difficulty along the way, it does seem to be relatively easy for them to get where they need to go – there aren’t other cars on the roads and what threats they do encounter, they can see off. This bit felt a bit unrealistic as essentially they’re just a bunch of kids in an environment that would’ve gone borderline feral, survival of the fittest. However the core character’s personalities felt realistic and authentic. Fin was a still a kid really and his solution when his father disappeared and didn’t return was ‘find our mother and get to her. She’ll fix this’ which is I think, what most kids would think. They need to be told what to do, what is happening. The fact that there was no power, so no radio, television or internet and no newspapers making their way through was eerie. It’s very difficult to imagine a world in crisis where you can’t actually find out any information about what’s happening where. We are so reliant on technology these days.

I like to think in a similar situation I’d be inside the zone but in reality, I’m on the other side of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, which would be a perfect place for a checkpoint. So I’d be outside of it. I thought this book carried an interesting message about the decisions that people who are in charge have to make, difficult decisions that don’t sit well with them but need to be made and enforced nonetheless. It brought up some very uncomfortable hypothetical situations in my head about what various people in power in this country might do in such a situation. I wasn’t sure I liked the answers anymore than Fin did.

This is a clever, well written book that makes it all too easy for the reader to put themselves in Fin’s shoes and think about what they’d do, how they’d react. How far would you go to be able to get to someone you thought could help you? How far would you go to save someone you cared about? It’s a fantastical story and yet far more relevant than I’d like right now.

8/10

Book #225

LitExp ChallengeCounting this one towards my Literary Exploration Challenge and ticking off the category of post-apocalyptic. It’s the 13th book read for the challenge.

AWW2013

The Sky So Heavy is book #83 of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2013

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Vampire Academy – Richelle Mead

Vampire AcademyVampire Academy (Vampire Academy #1)
Richelle Mead
RazorBill (Penguin Books Aus)
2007, 332p
Read from my local library

Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, half human half Moroi vampire. The Dhampirs are guardians for the Moroi, protecting them from the threat of the Strigoi. Two years ago Rose and Lissa left St Vladimir’s, their exclusive boarding school and went on the run. Despite the many dangers out there, Rose has managed to keep Lissa, a Vampire Princess and the last of her line, safe. But now they’ve been recaptured and dragged back to St Vladimir’s. There are few repercussions for Lissa but Rose has to prove her worth and fight to be allowed to stay at the school, close to Lissa where she can keep an eye on her. Two years on the outside has dulled her training and so Rose is ordered into extra sessions with the guardian Dimitri, one of the ones who found her and Lissa and brought them back.

Back on campus, the two girls are a novelty – everyone wants to know everything about why they went on the run and what happened when they were out there. Rose is reckless, the type that’s always in trouble and being forbidden to do anything other than go to her classes or her training sessions with Dimitri doesn’t sit well with her. She’s always looking to rebel and she finds plenty of opportunities. Both her and Lissa find themselves drawn towards a forbidden romance – Rose with her instructor, the older guardian Dimitri, a Russian with a mysterious past and 6 tattoos to honour his kills. Lissa finds solace in the outcast Christian. She’s perhaps the only person to pay him any attention at the school and in return he may be the only person aside from Rose who sees her as she really is, not as the image she has carefully projected.

Danger is everywhere for the Moroi, especially the royalty. But Lissa’s special abilities add another element of danger and they live in fear of discovery. Back on campus is supposed to be the safest place they can be but Rose knows better. Danger lurks for them there too.

So, the Vampire Academy series. Everyone loves it and raves about it but when it first came to my attention, I was a bit vampired out and so I didn’t try it. It’s been hovering around on my radar for the past couple of years – I even borrowed the first book once before from my local library but never got around to starting it. However I decided to finally get into it and settled down with the first book before I had any of the rest. I know that’s a rookie mistake – when I get into a series, I want to read them start to finish back to back!

I really love Rose. She’s feisty and funny and she likes doing her own thing – rules aren’t a big deal for her, unless it’s about keeping Lissa safe. She puts Lissa first in pretty much everything. She’s pretty (Moroi are very thin and flat chested, the Dhampir much curvier so much is made of Rose’s bigger breasts) but sort of vulnerable at the same time. She’s a tough talker but underneath she needs the same sort of reassurance as any girl. She’s a bit of a troublemaker who lacks discpline and her years out of the academy have made her soft so she has to undertake extra training with Dimitri.

Which brings me to him. I know he’s got quite the fanbase out there and why not? He’s awesome. Tough, skilled, dedicated and a bit aloof, it’s his job to ensure that Rose lives up to her potential. Rose seems to enjoy baiting him (or trying to) at first but it isn’t very long before they get under each other’s skin. Dimitri is 24 though, quite a bit older than Rose’s 17 and he’s an instructor at the school. Anything between them would be forbidden, especially as Dimitri is also one of Lissa’s guardians (Rose will join him to protect her officially when she graduates). That brings up a conflict of interest. Rose and Dimitri have chemistry in spades even though they only have a few really deep scenes together. Given that I know this spins out to 6 books, obviously there’s going to be lots of heartbreak and attraction etc during that time and I’m happy to see that the groundwork laid in this book is pretty good.

I liked Lissa less as a character in the beginning but gradually as the story unfolded, she became more fleshed out and there began to be reasons for some of her more odd behaviour. I liked her more with Christian, an outcast for having Strigoi parents, considered probably dangerous by the rest of the students, than I did before she was friends with him. The two seem to work well together – she’s a blonde Royal Princess and he’s definitely not in her social league but he sees her and understands her better than another royal would. Lissa’s story got more and more interesting and I hope that continues to be explored and developed over the books and we get more insight into her mysterious abilities and what it means for her future.

I can see why this series is so popular and it’s bound to get a resurgence in that popularity when the movie is released. I wanted to read the books so that I could go and see the movie without having anything spoiled as I’m so interested in the adaptations of YA novels that are currently in production. The book is filled with interesting characters and a great take on the vampire world – the Moroi are mortal and considered the ‘good’ way to be whereas the Strigoi are immortal and evil. The Dhampirs can only have children by a Moroi, not with each other but do not usually have longlasting relationships as Moroi tend to marry their own and raise more Moroi children. The Dhampir often give their children into service early and continue to serve as guardians to protect the Moroi. This of course throws up more interesting challenges for Rose and Dimitri in the future!

Looking forward to the next book – have requested the following 5 from the library and most are ready to be picked up so I sense a marathon coming on.

9/10

Book #206 of 2013

LitExp ChallengeCounting this one towards my Literary Exploration 2013 challenge in the Paranormal category. It’s book 12 so I still have 24 to go! Really need to get a wriggle on with this one.

 

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Fever Moon – Karen Marie Moning

Fever MoonFever Moon (A Fever Graphic Novel)
Karen Marie Moning (Adapted by David Lawrence, Illustrated by Al Rio & Cliff Richards)
Ballantine Books
2012, 184p
Read from my local library

There will be some ***SPOILERS*** for the Fever series here.

I have to admit, I’ve never read a graphic novel before – I’ve never been interested in reading them either, really. However for the Literary Exploration challenge that I’m doing this year, one of the categories is graphic novel, so I knew I was going to have to hunt one down eventually. When I was going through my obsession with the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning, I noticed when I was searching my library catalogue for Fever books to request, that they also had this, Fever Moon, a graphic novel set within the Fever world. It takes place during the last book Shadowfever, taking a tiny part of that story (Mac’s encounter with the Fear Dorcha at the club Chester’s) and builds upon it, giving the Fear Dorcha his own story.

I have to admit, the story isn’t the strongest part of this book but I suspect they seldom are. After all, you have very few words to work with and in the case of the Fever series, it’s a world that takes a lot of words. It starts off well but the end is noticeably weak and there are clear departures from series canon.

The Good:

  • The illustrations. They are pretty fabulous and quite similar to how I pictured the characters in my head. Okay, I didn’t picture Mac with the ginormous breasts but even I’m aware that if you’re a woman in a graphic novel, you’re Pamela Anderson. Barrons was pretty much how I pictured him (in human form, less so in the other). Probably the only one that really was a departure was Dani because she’s fourteen in the books and looks like yet another pornstar here.
  • Mac takes control in this one – she’s not helpless and she’s not useless. Her actions might not quite marry up with Mac from the actual books, but I approved of the fact that her loyalty and her devotion shone through and that she wasn’t afraid.
  • Um, there’s Barrons.

The Bad:

  • The aforementioned weakness of the ending. It makes little sense and comes about really randomly, like no one even cared how to end it.
  • It wasted too much time rehashing stuff that had already happened in previous books, like Alina’s death, Mac arriving in Dublin, being turned Pri-ya, etc. They make for pretty pictures but that time could’ve been better spent actually having a better story and the space to resolve it satisfactorily.
  • Barrons’s big B belt buckle…what was that?

The Ugly:

  • Barrons in beast form taking a cell phone call and telling Mac, no he didn’t eat anyone. It’s pretty established that when he’s in that form, he cannot speak, let alone operate a phone. Also, where was his phone? When he changes, he leaves all his clothes, etc behind. In fact, Mac picks up his car keys and takes his car, because he left those behind when he switched. Not quite sure how he managed to keep a cell phone on him, even if he was able to operate it. Which he is not.

Did I enjoy reading this? Yes, I did. It was a bit of fun and I really loved the visual aspect of it. However, it didn’t satisfy the part of me that loves a good story. That’s why I read. I like to get lost in worlds and characters and relationships and this is too brief an experience for that. However I can certainly see them as a way to add to the experience of enjoying a novel, to put a visual to the text. Some people prefer to have their own ideas of what the characters in novels look like, some don’t even care. I liked having this aspect of the Fever world, I could feel the chemistry between Mac and Barrons even in their brief interactions here.

7/10 – 5/5 for the graphics, 2/5 for the story

Book #181 of 2013

LitExp Challenge

Fever Moon is book #11 of the Literary Challenge 2013 fulfilling the category of graphic novel.

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Red Sparrow – Jason Matthews

Red SparrowRed Sparrow
Jason Matthews
Simon & Schuster UK
2013, 431p
Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster Aus

Nathaniel Nash is a CIA officer working in Putin’s Russia currently handling one of the most high level moles. Codenamed MARBLE, the high ranking Russian official of the SVR, the successor of the KGB, he has been feeding the American’s information for over 10 years. All meetings with MARBLE are meticulously planned and carried out but one night after spending 12 hours attempting to make sure that he wasn’t followed, Nathaniel is nearly caught. His superiors determine that he needs to get out of Russia, somewhere a little less hot and he is transferred to Helsinki.

Dominika Egorova is a former ballet dancer who is recruited to “Sparrow School” by her uncle of all people. Sparrow School teaches operatives to seduce foreign agents in order to trick them into giving them information. When she finishes the course, Dominika is sent to Helsinki to target Nathaniel Nash, whom the Russians believe to be handling a very high level traitor. Dominika is ordered to seduce Nathaniel for information but doesn’t realise that he may be working her in turn.

Dominika has more than just the trained set of skills in her possession. She has synesthesia, the ability to see music and emotions as colours and her ability to see colours around a person allow her to decipher whether or not she can trust them. In Nate, she finds that he only ever exudes the most beautiful purple, a colour of trust and passion, never a murky yellow or brown colour of deceit. Although she is supposed to be working him over for information, Dominika finds herself becoming slowly disillusioned with some of the things that her beloved Motherland does.

The more time Nate and Dominka spend together, the more complicated things become. Neither of them are able to report much progress at first to their superiors and each are determined to get their career on track by getting their information. But things become complicated as real feelings begin to come into play which won’t only threaten their lives but international security as well.

Jason Matthews is a former CIA agent so it’s clear that he knows his subject well. I have to admit, I’m a bit naive, I thought the days of America and Russia spying on each other and recruiting double agents and knocking off each other were long over but apparently not. Putin is portrayed as a power hungry megalomaniac in this novel, determined to raise up Russia’s profile and not allow America to humiliate his country any longer. Russia is often painted as a mischief maker, providing aid and arms to countries and regimes where it might annoy America the most. Given Matthews is an American who worked in international security for his company, America is pretty much portrayed as being awesome, always right and the ‘good guy’s. Never ever the bad.

I think that’s fine, as in a novel like this you generally need a good guy and a bad guy. Nathaniel is typically an idealist, youngish and determined to prove himself. He’s from a Southern family of lawyers who mocked him when he joined the CIA and ran a pool of how long he would last – the last thing he wants to do is return home a failure. He is privileged with handling MARBLE but when one night meeting goes wrong, he’s whipped out of Russia and feels the sting. He wants to recruit Dominika as a way to raise his profile again, prove that he can do it, that he has what it takes. He doesn’t count on falling in love with her.

I have to admit, I might be naive but I thought Nathaniel was as well! He’s a CIA agent in Russia, almost caught meeting a high ranking Russian source. He ends up in Helsinki and not long later, finds himself crossing paths with a beautiful Russian woman who works for the SVR but he refuses to believe that there’s anything suspicious about this. You’d think that he’d be cautious of any and all Russians who attempt to make contact with him, especially in such a casual, offhand way. But even though it is suggested to him several times that Dominika might be an agent working him, he refuses to believe it until Dominika, disillusioned with her task, pretty much comes out and says yeah, I’m an agent and I’m working you.

Despite this little hiccup in what I thought would be CIA standard protocol to be suspicious, I enjoyed this book. It brings to mind a vision of the Cold War and two countries with their finger on the button, dancing around each other, but neither of them pushing it.  I think Dominika was a great character, part passionate Russia devotee, part idealistic little girl who wanted to dance, part robotic seduction agent churned out by Sparrow School. Her synesthesia added a great element to the story, giving her that edge, the ability to know when she was going to be duped or when she could trust someone. Although I liked the fact that she and Nate seemed to bring out things in the other that no one else did (and their conversations were first rate) I am not sure if I really bought into the fact that they were supposed to be in love. That just didn’t come across as well as I think it could have, or should have, especially towards the end. Speaking of the end, I have to say, it left me very deflated. It’s not something that was unsurprising but Matthews threw me a lifeline of hope and then viciously yanked it away from me in the dying pages. It made me feel a bit flat. But I have no doubt that it served the story well – I was meant to feel that way. It further reinforced the good vs evil message that the whole book was constructed around.

I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a possible series, but it does end rather openly. There’s loose ends that could be tied up in further volumes or it could all just be left up to the reader’s imagination.

7/10

Book #155 of 2013

LitExp ChallengeUsing this novel to tick off the category of Espionage in the Literary Fiction Challenge. That makes 10 novels read so far for this challenge.

 

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The Asylum – John Harwood

AsylumThe Asylum
John Harwood
Vintage (Random House AU)
2013, 288p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Georgina Ferrars awakes to find herself in a private asylum with absolutely no memory of how she came to be there. Although she apparently checked herself in as a ‘voluntary patient’ when she wants to leave she is persuaded not to by the doctor. Although she remembers her name and bits and pieces about her life are coming back to her, the doctor in charge tells her that she checked in under another name.

Georgina is an orphan who has been living with her uncle in London. She beseeches the doctor to contact her uncle, who must surely be missing her by now. The doctor does so but then he receives a telegram back saying that the woman in the asylum cannot possibly be Georgina Ferrars because Georgina is currently at his home in London with him and has not been missing at all. Georgina is stunned – she cannot imagine how this could possibly have happened. The doctor even visits the home of her uncle himself and assures her that yes, he did see a young woman there who was Georgina Ferrars and spoke with the staff present and they all said that Georgina had not been missing. Because of his young patient’s ‘fragile mind’ the doctor chooses to keep the woman who believes that she is Georgina in the asylum, sectioning her himself.

Georgina knows that something has gone terribly wrong. She knows who she is, she remembers her mother, her childhood, even her uncle but there are definitely things after that that are a blank. She still has no memory of how she came to be at the asylum and what had convinced her to check herself in. If she is Georgina then who is the woman at her uncle’s home and what is her motive for being there and claiming to be Georgina? And if she is not Georgina then who is she? And what is wrong with her? The questions whirr around in her mind as she copes with the daily rituals of being in the asylum. Although the therapy is gentle and it’s not as bleak as some similar institutions, Georgina slowly uncovers the secrets behind its hidden doors and just why she’s there – and what they plan to do to her.

I was super keen to read Asylum because along with amnesia, a mental asylum setting is definitely one of my favourite things. This one starts off well – this is set back in late Victorian times in England so anyone even remotely showing signs of mental distress was usually locked away in a sanatorium and forgotten about. Medical practices were barbaric and what was the norm then is looked upon with horror and disgust now. However, Georgina lucks out a little – the mental asylum in which she makes up is certainly progressive in most ways although its lead doctor does use some unorthodox treatments, including acting out delusional patients greatest fantasies.

Georgina’s panic upon wakening to find out where she is and that she checked herself in there voluntarily, was excellently done. Her fear and disbelief, her anger and terror were all conveyed brilliantly, as well as her frustration when it became obvious that they didn’t believe her. I found myself getting frustrated on her behalf. As more and more evidence seems to come back that she is not Georgina Ferrars, the spirit and fight slowly goes out of her – but never all the way. She shows such remarkable resilience and cunning when really you couldn’t blame her for just curling up in a ball somewhere and weeping over her lack of fortune. Instead she concentrates on gathering her knowledge, on trying to remember how she came to be there. She has little to go on, other than the fragments of memory in her mind and knowing that somewhere, there is a diary. The woman claiming to be Georgina in her uncle’s home wants it back and Georgina is certain it holds the key to everything – that she really is Georgina, what she’s doing here and exactly who the other woman is. She wants to find it, seeing as she’s sure she would’ve brought it with her and when she does, she’s going to use it in order to secure her freedom.

I thought that the first probably two thirds of this book really were excellent and I was absolutely riveted. However the latter part and the ending weren’t quite as climactic as I expected and the unravelling of the story didn’t have quite the impact I was after. I would’ve liked a little more time spend on the ending, especially what happened to Georgina after the rather dramatic incident and I wanted to know what she decided to do with her life after all the information came out. Also a lot of the reveals came about by greatly detailed letters and diaries which was awfully convenient. I’ve kept a diary for years on and off but I’ve never recorded my entire day right down to every conversation I’ve had with people, word for word. It was the same for some of the letters that delved deep into the past to help bring about the answers. It made for good reading because it fleshed out a lot of the backstory but there was a part of me that kept thinking about how utterly unlikely it all was.

The Asylum was a good read that kept my attention but I wish more had been made of the creepy setting and that the ending hadn’t been quite so abrupt.

7/10

Book #138 of 2013

LitExp ChallengeI’m counting this book towards my participation in the Literary Exploration challenge for mystery. I think the mystery is the strongest part of the novel – is she really Georgina? If not, then who is she? And if she is, who is the woman who claims to be Georgina? This is the

 

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