With the characteristic humour which fans of Shepherd's previous award-winning and best-selling novels have come to love, Reinventing Rose tells the t...moreWith the characteristic humour which fans of Shepherd's previous award-winning and best-selling novels have come to love, Reinventing Rose tells the tale of a newly divorced school teacher from Bookerville, California. After having met her internet lover Scott offline for outrageously good sex, Rose buys a ticket and flies to Sydney to hook up once more with her handsome Aussie hunk. It's the start of the US summer school holidays and she's giving her adventurous side full rein. On arrival, however, she discovers Scott's not only married, but also his wife has a baby. He's a "love rat" of the first order, and only too happy to get rid of Rose before she even leaves the airport.
Scott's betrayal isn't the only unwelcome discovery Rose makes as we follow her adventures "down under". Her struggles to reinvent herself as a stranger in a strange land, however, are made a whole lot easier - and funnier! - by her outgoing Aussie flatmates, botoxed beauty editor Carla and artist-cum-trust-fund heiress Sasha, as well as their fiercely independent neighbour and friend, international model Kelly. These girls - women - are drawn with flair and deserve to star in books of their own.
Who will enjoy Reinventing Rose? Fans of chick lit and humorous romance, and anyone who enjoys fun, feel-good fiction.
This is an edited version of a longer review which appears on my blog.
The language - I kept having to stop and write down one-liners, so superb is Newton's command of prose.
The...moreThis book is outstanding in so many ways.
The language - I kept having to stop and write down one-liners, so superb is Newton's command of prose.
The setting - a careful rendering of Sydney unlike any I've read. It is so refreshing to read a book of the city one has grown up in that is so finely evoked in terms of place, weather, character and idiom. Newton mentions many things I can identify with, from reference to the man made of tyres along Sydney Road as one drives down to Manly (long gone, probably), to the waterfront of Greenwich Point with its oil terminal - and also places I'm not so intimately familiar with, like the multicultural suburbs of the south-west.
The characters: I found the protagonist's personal life absorbing, her mixed Irish-Vietnamese background disconcerting (brave of Newton to portray this cross-cultural perspective), and her relationships with others complex, nuanced and believable.
Plot: who cares, when you have all these other things so superbly drawn? But the plot was fascinating. It managed to weave in so many aspects of Sydney life, cultural, historical, political and personal.
Pace: This was a page-turner, but not a fast read. I was absorbed and found myself staying up late (and once waking up at 3am and reaching for the book). At the end, I wanted to finish - because in some ways I found the topic exhausting and confronting, but at the same time I didn't want my journey with the characters to end.
The only reason I didn't originally give this memoir five stars is because I wanted more. A year later, the book still lives vividly in my mind and I...moreThe only reason I didn't originally give this memoir five stars is because I wanted more. A year later, the book still lives vividly in my mind and I know that's the work of a talented author, so I've re-rated it.
The Young Widow's Guide to Home Improvement is both a love story and a memoir of loss. There are no surprises: it's all laid out in the title. The author Virginia Lloyd falls in love and discovers too soon that the illness which her beloved is being treated for is terminal. The memoir alternates between "after" - young widowhood - and "before" - courtship and newly wed. The pivotal moment is the death of John, Virginia's husband, way too soon at the age of 47.
But death isn't the book's theme. The book sings of love and grief, with a persistent chorus to cherish what one has while it lasts, to make the most of each day.
I started this book on Sunday morning and wished I hadn't as I had to go out and wanted to keep on reading. On Monday morning I read it - weeping - on the bus on my way to my sister's birthday lunch in the city. I had to force myself to shut the book before I wanted so as to leave time to recover and greet my sister without tears. I finished it last night and wanted to email Virginia at once to tell her how much I loved her story, how it had moved me. But how can you send an email like that to someone who has lost - and written about so beautifully - the love of their life?
Besides, I felt angry. I wanted more of John. I wanted to get to know him better before the book's pages closed. I wanted to hear him laugh, listen to the music he enjoyed, see the photos of his travels, get to know more of what made this Irish man so special to his wife, his family and many friends.
That's the brilliance of Lloyd's book. She doesn't just depict her grief, she creates it in the reader - she carries the reader into her heart, sharing with us her grief at not having had enough time with someone special, to live and love, to celebrate and explore, before it's all over and you're left with only memories.
A fascinating YA novel set in Enlightenment Europe about a girl who grows up loving books and defending the political freedom of people producing them...moreA fascinating YA novel set in Enlightenment Europe about a girl who grows up loving books and defending the political freedom of people producing them. Won a "Highly Commended" in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. (less)
This is a book that, for me, started slowly and gained momentum as I read. To be honest, I only picked it because it had a "J" in the title. I'm combi...moreThis is a book that, for me, started slowly and gained momentum as I read. To be honest, I only picked it because it had a "J" in the title. I'm combining the Australian Women Writers challenge with the Aussie Readers "Challenge with a Twist": each month you have to read a book whose title or author starts with the same letter as that month. "Jones" = "January". I'd initially chosen Margo Lanagan's Black Juice for January, only to find it's a collection of short stories. (Lanagan's first prize-winning story, "Singing the Sister Down" is outstanding, by the way.)
Initially I had my doubts. Any book that has a writer as the central character makes me wary. I've spent too many hours of my life reading "literary" books that seem far removed from life, but I persisted with Dreams of Speaking and was well rewarded. By the end, I was in love with Jones' characters, their different ways of seeing the world and the author's language.
An aspect I particularly loved was Jones' way of interspersing the narrative with "facts". I write "facts" in inverted commas because these sections purport to be facts, but come via one of the book's key characters, Mr Sakamoto, retired Japanese gentleman traveller with a passion for Alexander Graham Bell, who befriends the main character, Alice, the young Australian writer from Perth whom he meets after she has taken up a literary scholarship to live in a studio in Paris.
From a narrative point of view, these interspersed sections of "fact" do a number of things. They provide evidence of the basis of this unlikely friendship, a shared fascination with invention and technology. The "fact" sections also a counterpoint with the shocking drama that underlies these characters' lonely obsessions: the trauma Mr Sakamoto has suffered in surviving the atomic bomb blast of Nagasaki, and the fractured relationship Alice has with her sister Nora, and her former lover Stephen. Gradually, the reader has the impression that these characters' fascination with human invention is both a retreat from a painful world, and a way of reaching out tentatively to others. This dance between distance and connection, intimacy and isolation creates a powerful tension throughout the book and leads to an ending which, for me, was one of the most moving I've read in years.
Who would like this book? People who love language, who love the idea of Australians as global people, equally at home - or at a loss - in Perth, Paris or Japan. Also anyone whose interested in Japanese character and culture, especially the post-nineteenth-century influence of the Meiji restoration with its love of European elegance and sophistication, as well as its embrace of modern technologies. People who are interested in the traumatic aftermath of WWII will find aspect of the book interesting, too - but this subject is treated in an oblique way, which, for me, has a lot more emotional power than something direct.
They say that if a book and its characters are memorable, it’s the sign of a good book: the story and characters remain vivid in the imagination long after you put the book down. It’s too soon after reading to judge whether Dreams of Speaking will have this quality for me. But I can say this: when I got to the end, I felt at war with the author: not because I felt the story failed, but because I cared so strongly about her characters and their fate. I didn't like the ending Jones chose, but I respected it: it seemed true to the characters and the messiness of life generally. Instead of being a diversion and an escape like so many of the page-turning books I've read in recent years, this story made me feel as if it had added hours to my life, expanding my heart and my mind in unexpected ways.
Two sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating...moreLet Her Go by Dawn Barker
Two sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating illness and a number of miscarriages, and finds herself infertile. Both have reasons for wanting to have a baby: Zoe, to complete her long-held desire to be a mother; Nadia, ostensibly, to help her deserving sister. After years of counselling and legal advice, they enter into a surrogacy agreement. They are adults. They care for each other. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward seventeen years to a troubled teenager, Louise, who is getting busted for stealing drugs, self-harming, engaging in drunken sex and whose performance at school is deteriorating. She knows her – unnamed – parents are fighting, senses it has something to do with her, but has no idea of the trauma that followed her birth or the bitter custody dispute that tore her extended family apart.
In Let Her Go Dawn Barker – a psychiatrist by training – successfully juggles different points of view as well as jumps forward and backward in time. Throughout the novel, the reader has a sense that something really terrible could happen – or maybe has happened already – but the suspense isn’t gratuitous. It derives organically from the fraught emotional situations she forces her characters to confront. As I approached the novel’s climax, I was struck by the story’s similarity to the Judgement of Solomon, as if Barker had taken elements of this classic dilemma and brought it alive in a modern context. Both women have good claim to the child; how will the child’s best interest be served?
If Barker’s debut novel Fractured grabs the reader and forces her along a terrifying path, Let Her Go is more like a slow burn, but it’s no less powerful for that. For anyone who has yearned for a child and not been able to conceive or carry to term, the narrative is excruciatingly real at times, almost unbearable. Similarly, Barker captures the pressure on a marriage of women coping with hormones, fears and jealousies. Both Zoe and Nadia are portrayed at times in a poor (but very human) light. Zoe comes across occasionally as unreasonably demanding and judgemental towards her husband, a man with secrets who has never seemed as enthusiastic about the surrogacy and who fails to pull his weight. In portraying the deteriorating relationship, Barker uses irony to good effect: the reader is ahead of Zoe in sensing the effect of her behaviour on her husband, and waits in suspense for the explosion we fear will come. Nadia (understandably) seems at times to be selfishly blind to anyone’s needs but her own, and the reader is torn, sympathetic to her suffering, but alarmed at the lengths she is willing to go to get her way.
I can count on one hand the number of Chick Lit or contemporary women's fiction I've read that hasn't been written by friends, so I wasn't sure what t...moreI can count on one hand the number of Chick Lit or contemporary women's fiction I've read that hasn't been written by friends, so I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel. That said, I found myself quickly swept up into the world Heidke created and caring about her characters' fates.
Although it is ostensibly Stella's story, it is actually an ensemble piece, tracking the lives of Stella, her friends and their families. While Stella is the most well adjusted - despite being faced with, initially, the most fraught family circumstances - her friends Carly and Jesse, and Jesse's sister Louisa are more than minor characters. They not only support but also, in some ways, take over from Stella's story, as the story circumstances force them to undergo greater character growth and change.
The setting of the story is solidly suburban Sydney, North Shore, middle-class and privileged, but these characters' lives are shown to be anything but bland. Heidke manages to knit together mundane preoccupations which will be familiar to many women: work, husbands, children, ageing parents, repartnering after a failed relationship, fears for the future and regrets over the past; and she does so with skill, humour and more than the occasional insight into human frailties, making the novel overall a very quick, entertaining and engaging read.
Heidke makes no apologies for the everyday focus:
"In another country, there might be a tsunami, a suicide bombing, war - but in Jesse's world, the kids still needed to be fed, their homework completed, their teeth brushed." (p147)
Heidke writes with the confidence of knowing there are lots of women who will relate to and enjoy her insights into the everyday lives of the characters her story depicts.(less)
Compelling reading. A study of relations among various people associated with the Hobart police force. Told from a series of viewpoints, it builds a c...moreCompelling reading. A study of relations among various people associated with the Hobart police force. Told from a series of viewpoints, it builds a compelling portrait a small-city community wracked by corruption, fraught Black-white relations, political correctness, professional jealousies and peccadillos.
Don't be put off by the bad language and the occasional repeated phrases. Erskine spent 10 years with the police force and knows the lingo. It's confronting but - in my opinion - not gratuitous. My only major beef with the book is that I found the male characters more convincing than the female ones. Hopefully, this shortcoming will be redressed with Erskine's second book, The Betrayal, which has already gone into a second printing before release.
If you’re a fan of Jaye Ford’s Beyond Fear, Dawn Barker’s Fractured and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’re going to love Dark Horse. It’s quite a ride....moreIf you’re a fan of Jaye Ford’s Beyond Fear, Dawn Barker’s Fractured and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, you’re going to love Dark Horse. It’s quite a ride. I would have read it in one sitting, if I hadn’t had to sleep. I curled up in front of a glowing slow combustion stove and, while the weather went crazy outside, was swept into the drama.
Brown has a style that I love: it’s immediate, the descriptions are fresh, the action is urgent. I could almost feel the Victorian alpine hills crowding in, felt every bump and jerk of the heroine’s ride up the mountain on her endurance-trained horse, held my breath at the enormity of what she faced going up, when she reached the summit and going down again. It’s that kind of book: suspenseful, urgent, adrenaline-pumping.
And it’s clever. I’m used to twists in suspense fiction and I can usually read the signs. This book proved no exception, except I realised I was being played. Every time I anticipated the narrative, there was an unexpected payoff; each time I thought something was unlikely or stretched credulity, it proved well motivated or explained.
It was the perfect read for a rainy day, better than a movie.
Do I go away with things to think about? I’m not sure. It ranges over what, to me, is very interesting territory: the extremes of human emotions and behaviour; infidelity; depression/mental illness; the breakdown of relationships; childhood trauma and its effects on the family. It belongs to the “family drama with crime” genre that writers like Wendy James and Caroline Overington are so successfully carving a niche in. It’s edgy. It’s sexy, too. But I’m not sure the degree to which it touched me emotionally and intellectually, or simply thrilled me. (To explore this further would necessitate spoilers.)
What it did do is confirm for me that Australian women psychological suspense writers are right up there among the best in the genre. I’m also glad I have two more Honey Brown books, The Good Daughter and After the Darkness, tucked away for another rainy day.
A slightly longer version of this review appeared on my blog.(less)
"With the right kind of mindfulness, William Blake tells us, one can behold infinity in a grain of sand." – Janette Turner Hospital on Harmless
When a...more "With the right kind of mindfulness, William Blake tells us, one can behold infinity in a grain of sand." – Janette Turner Hospital on Harmless
When a writer like Janette Turner Hospital pens a back-cover blurb for another Australian author, I pay attention. What is it about Julienne van Loon’s novella, Harmless, soon to be released by Fremantle Press, which has attracted such a gifted admirer? The snippet from Hospital quoted on the front of the book states: Harmless is “suffused with a tough and totally unsentimental compassion”.
I notice, too, review words like “unsentimental”; it seems to be used often when female literary authors are praised. Sentimentality implies emotional manipulation, and a lack of subtlety and nuance. The term has been used to dismiss the work of a plethora of “female authors”, especially those writing in genres such as romance. But what does “unsentimental” mean? I’m tempted to think it’s code for “writes like a man”, or “give this book a girlie-looking cover at your peril”. It’s praise, but is it gendered praise?
I felt uneasy through a fair bit of this book. At first I wasn't sure whether I was being played with, but then I realised the story line is pretty st...moreI felt uneasy through a fair bit of this book. At first I wasn't sure whether I was being played with, but then I realised the story line is pretty straight forward, even though it ranges over a number of different points of view and deftly incorporates a variety of styles.
There's the first-person narrative of the brittle main character Ella; the stage-managed diary entries of her narcissistic younger half-sister, Jess; the folksy-jolly emails of her step-brother Charlie; and the heartfelt letters of her estranged husband Aidan.
The aspects of the various styles and characters that unnerved and sometimes irritated me, I discovered, were carefully crafted: I was meant to feel that way. Just as I was meant, slowly, to come to see the complexity behind the tragic events that provide the background to this story.
Last year, as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I came across a genre-bending category: "family drama with elements of crime". I'm not sure this book fits: it's perhaps not dark enough; but it's almost. The story is very human. It portrays characters who act and react badly, who have been driven to extremes by circumstances. Who don't or can't always see things from others' points of view.
It's a moving and uneven story; uneven not through lack of writerly skill, but because the narrations of the characters - and the characters themselves - aren't always what they seem.
Who will enjoy The House of Memories? People who love reading about Aussie ex-pats in London and imperfect blended families; and readers who don't mind being stretched emotionally in a way that resolves with a sense of hope, if not happiness, at the end.
Fall Girl by Toni Jordan is a mixture of romantic comedy, mystery, chick lit and fable, with an underlying Cinderella-c...moreGambling, Greed and Gullibility
Fall Girl by Toni Jordan is a mixture of romantic comedy, mystery, chick lit and fable, with an underlying Cinderella-cum-Robin Hood motif. The Cinders-Robin character is “Ella” – although that’s only one of the aliases she uses. Ella is an honourable young woman, in her own way, almost an innocent abroad, despite her years’ experience as a “grifter”. She, along with her circus-retinue-like family, have put the “artist” into “con artist”, as Jordan writes, and made a vocation out of duping people.
In her Acknowledgements, Jordan writes that Fall Girl was inspired by the work of the late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist. The research Ella regurgitates while playing her role in the latest con makes me think this novel could make an excellent text for high school students; but the science is never laboured and the book certainly doesn’t take this, or any other theme, too seriously.
For me, Fall Girl had enough wit, charm and whimsy that made it a quick, delightful read. While the characterisations border on caricature and the plot is farcical, the dialogue is witty and laugh-out-loud in places. Underlying the plot is a cleverly serious point about gambling, greed and gullibility, but the satire is gentle, not cutting; the people depicted as foolish, rather than malicious.
This is a book for kids, so I'm not the target audience, but I found it an enjoyable read. I picked it up as part of the AWW2012 challenge and also bo...moreThis is a book for kids, so I'm not the target audience, but I found it an enjoyable read. I picked it up as part of the AWW2012 challenge and also bookdout's Eclectic Readers challenge (which requires participants to read widely drawing on lots of different genres).(less)
I have to say straight up: I'm not the target audience for this book. I borrowed it from a friend to read for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challe...more I have to say straight up: I'm not the target audience for this book. I borrowed it from a friend to read for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge,* thinking it would be a quick read and might help bring me up to 50 by the end of the year. Life got in the way, and I only finished it today (January 2, 2013). It's not the first HM&B Australian medical I've read - years ago, I enjoyed reading a couple by Marion Lennox set in Tasmania. While this one isn't up to Lennox's standard, it does have an interesting aspect to recommend it.
- SPOILER AHEAD -
The story - like all good Harlequin Mills &Boons (HM&Bs) - centres around the hero and heroine, two doctors who specialise in Emergency Medicine. They meet on a transcontinental train on the way to a conference where one, the English hero, Gil, will be the key note speaker. The heroine, Euphemia, is a doctor with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) who has escaped to live life in the Outback after devoting her childhood and young adulthood to helping care for a brother with Down's Syndrome. As a teenager, Eupehmia - or Phemie, as she's known - had genetic testing and discovered herself to be a carrier of the "translocation trisomy 21 chromosome... [the] defective chromosome usually related to children being born with Down's" (p61).
What makes this story stand out from other HM&B romances is the conflict which threatens to prevent Gil and Phemie getting together happily. It's not just the fact he is a career doctor from the other side of the world, although that is an issue. More importantly, it's that Phemie doesn't want to risk having children: she fears subjecting her child to the kind of life she led: in the shadow of a sibling with Down's. Having a heroine who doesn't want to fall pregnant is a risk for Clark, because, without careful handling, Phemie could seem unsympathetic. By making Phemie protective of her unborn (healthy) child, Clark ensures Phemie retains the romance reader's sympathy. But she also goes one step further (and earns my admiration): Phemie admits, much and all as she loves her brother, she's not sure she's up to the sacrifices required of a parent of someone with Down's.
Clark manages to resolve Phemie's conflict in a believable (and yes, happy) way. How? By hedging her bets: arranging for an adoption and having Phemie fall pregnant - with the hinted possibility of genetic testing in utero. Phemie and Gil will become parents, possibly of a biologically healthy child - or possibly only of an adopted child. It's a happy ending, yes, but one that touches on what I'd have thought would be a taboo subject for HM&B novels: the possibility of termination.
So why haven't I given it more stars? The written expression lets it down: cliches abound. It's symptomatic, I think, of the time HM&B authors are given to write their books: some are asked to write three or four books a year. It's not much time to craft and hone the language but, even so, some of Clark's clangers are unforgivable and do nothing to elevate the genre's reputation of being the domain of hack writers.
Who will enjoy it? HM&B regular readers and students of romance interested in topics that push the genre's boundaries.
* 'Lucy Clark' is actually the pen-name for a husband and wife team.
This is a well-written novel but I'm definitely *not* the target audience.
From the start, I found the tension Joosten skilfully creates almost unbear...moreThis is a well-written novel but I'm definitely *not* the target audience.
From the start, I found the tension Joosten skilfully creates almost unbearable. The story is stark in its simplicity: a lonely young Australian woman visiting Berlin is drawn into a relationship with a troubled young man with unresolved mother issues. For me, there was almost nothing about this man I found attractive, and the fact that the girl, Clare, allows herself to be involved with him made me question her judgement from the beginning. I wanted to like her, I felt sorry for her, but I was given little confidence she could protect herself, something which made the story like watching an accident happening in slow motion and being powerless to prevent it.
If I'd been able to detach and read the novel as a fable - which it also undoubtedly is - I might have enjoyed it more. In the absurdity of its situation, it reminded me of some of the short stories in Peteer Cary's The Fat Man in History collection. But reading it as realist fiction made it so gut-wrenchingly awful I found myself skimming to get it over with. Strangely, though, I can see it working as a movie.
Given the strength of my visceral reaction, I'll be interested to see what Joosten writes next. She's obviously a talented writer.(less)
Extract: "For the novel’s strengths, I look to the narrator Bethia, the portrayal of early settlement life in America, the previously unknown (to me)...moreExtract: "For the novel’s strengths, I look to the narrator Bethia, the portrayal of early settlement life in America, the previously unknown (to me) story of the first indigenous scholar of Harvard University, the tensions between Bethia’s book-loving character and her role as a woman growing up under a religious patriarchy, as well as Brooks’ depiction of the devastation brought to the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe (now Martha’s Vineyard) of European settlement. In terms of my enjoyment of the story, these strengths fairly weigh against the book’s weaknesses."
Full review, including discussion of Brooks' popularity in relation to that of other Australian women writers here: Devoted Eclectic
No Place Like Home is compelling reading. The reader wants to know what happens next, and along the way Overington ranges over several of the most imp...moreNo Place Like Home is compelling reading. The reader wants to know what happens next, and along the way Overington ranges over several of the most important questions facing Australia today. What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of generation do we want to be remembered as? A generation which has allowed dog-whistle politics to whip up feelings of invasion and xenophobia, instead of tolerance and compassion? People who fail to act to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, only to have our government’s policy of “stop the boats” overwhelmed by a tidal flood of global human migration when sea levels begin to flood low-lying countries? It’s exciting to see such issues being addressed in popular fiction.
This is an extract of a response published on my blog. You can read the full version here.(less)