Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: The Painted Sky by Alice Campion

Title:  The Painted Sky

Author: Alice Campion
ISBN: 9780857984852
Pages: 350 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: romance, women’s fiction, chick lit, Australia
My Rating:  four cups


Alice Campion is the pseudonym for five members of a Sydney book club who challenged themselves to write a '21st Century Thorn Birds'. The result is a captivating rural novel, brimming with romance, mystery and suspense. Nina never knew what happened to her father, the celebrated artist Jim Larkin. One minute he was her devoted dad, the next he'd disappeared without trace. Seventeen years later, she's still haunted by the mystery. Until a call from outback Wandalla changes everything. At first, Nina's inheritance of a waterless property and a farmhouse stuffed with junk seems more like a burden than a gift. But this was her father's childhood home - and possibly her last chance to discover the truth. So what is the local solicitor, Harrison Grey, not telling her as he hands over the keys? Why does the area's wealthiest resident, Hilary Flint, seem to hate her so much? What is the significance of the gold locket with cryptic engravings that Nina always wears? And why, on top of everything, is she inexplicably drawn to her soon-to-be-married neighbour, Heath Blackett?

My thoughts:

As soon as I read this book’s tag line in connection with  ‘Thorn Birds”, I was intrigued! A 21st Century Thorn Birds remake! Now whilst I might not be fully convinced on that score, I have to admit to being captured from the very first paragraph:

“Yearning can be like white noise in a life. It can be part of the background hum of thought and feeling in a way that’s barely detectable. Sometimes on the verge of waking we hear it whispering, telling us that something is missing, but then we let the music of the day drown it out”.

It really is quite incredulous when you stop to think that five individuals who belonged to the same book club wrote this tale. This story is good, very good and when you consider the amount of collaboration that must have been undertaken, it truly is quite incredible. If you go looking for the change in ‘voice’, ‘tone’, or ‘style’ you will be sadly disappointed – it is seamless. These five women have come together to produce a story that has a little bit of everything – romance, mystery, suspense – that undulates throughout to a solid conclusion.

The central character, Nina, is portrayed realistically. It is all about her journey and struggles as she attempts to discover the truth about her missing father.

“The thread that still attached her to anything at all was this quest to find her father, and she was going to give it every atom of effort she had”

However, what she also finds is a whole lot more. Nina bravely confronts the Australian bush, leaving behind the city life in her quest and, through circumstances and the people she meets, starts to unravel the mysterious disappearance and start to uncover the truth about herself and where she belongs. You see Nina evolve from an indecisive wanderer to a grounded, strong individual with real purpose.

I also very much enjoyed the setting – outback, rural Australia (maybe the only real tie to ‘Thorn Birds’). The vivid descriptions of the land and the people that lived there were realistic and inviting. There were some great characters that lent real depth to the story and it’s portrayal of country life. My only small criticism is the ‘baddie’ – the woman who wanted to steal all the fame and fortune was just ridiculously bad. Her actions and a certain ‘showdown’ had me cringing and thinking it was slightly far fetched.

Overall however, this is a great read; pure Aussie escapism with multiple characters and intrigues to engage you throughout.

“The rich soil of The Springs that she imagined. But then, as he smiled, his eyes became Heath’s – silvery grey against that painted sky”.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Review: The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker

Title:  The Mermaid’s Child

Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: 17th March 2015 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Pages: 350 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction, adult
My Rating:  two cups


In this fantastical novel, the acclaimed author of Longbourn brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother...who just might be a mermaid. Malin has always been different, and when her father dies, leaving her alone, her choice is clear: stay, and remain an outsider forever, or leave in search of the mythical inheritance she is certain awaits her. Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters, Malin embarks on a gruelling journey that crosses oceans and continents—from the high seas to desert plains—and leads to a discovery that she could never have expected. Beautifully written and hauntingly strange, The Mermaid’s Child is a remarkable piece of storytelling, and an utterly unique work of fantasy from literary star Jo Baker.

My thoughts

From the blurb, my italics:

“Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters (Strange? Most certainly. Wonderful? Not according to my interpretation), Malin embarks on a gruelling journey (repeatedly defying death to the point of surreal ridiculousness) that crosses oceans and continents—from the high seas to desert plains (both of which she was left for dead – but of course survived)—and leads to a discovery that she could never have expected. (she’s right back where she started! Go figure!)”

Sorry to be so trite. But to say I struggled with this book would be an understatement. I excitedly took the opportunity to read Jo Baker’s novel after receiving so much enjoyment from her ‘Longbourn” tale.  Firstly, as you can read above, I have issues with the blurb – um, it’s misleading.  The description leads you to believe that it will be a fantasy tale, inclusively of mermaids somewhere throughout. This could not be further from the truth. Let me state right now, there is no fantasy and not a hint of magical realism. The reality of the situation is that this is a very dark, cruel story, a gruesome historical drama. So if you like that kind of genre, with a lot of emphasis on ‘doom and gloom’ then this may be the book for you. It was not the book for me, sorry to say.

If you are able to overcome the repeated horrible and torturous situations the lead character finds herself in, (for it most certain is cyclical  - I think I counted eight settings where Malin would find herself abused in some form or other) you would still be hard pressed to try and accept the long list of near-death scenarios that she finds herself in, that it becomes ridiculous – unbelievable. Maybe there is fantasy after all.  For Malin does pass as a pregnant boy after all! For me, however, the constant repetition of violent encounters just starts to numb the reader, to the point that you become blasé. Here we go again. It just became too much for me and most definitely was not my cup of tea at all.

“Rest: just a moment’s rest. I sank down to my knees, fumbled in my bad and drew out the canteen. I tugged at the stopper, brought the bottleneck to my lips. The water slid across my tongue and was gone”.

Why give it two stars? Jo Baker can write! Her prose is very good, powerful and picturesque. She really immerses her reader in time and place. So whilst I loved ‘Longbourn’, I would steer clear of  ‘The Mermaid’s Child’ unless you are comfortable with a dark and cruel read.

“What was the point of struggling, of dragging yourself on for another day, another mile, when all that you were stumbling on towards all the time was death”.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: Above Us Only Sky by Michele Young-Stone

Title: Above Us Only Sky
Author: Michele Young-Stone
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster (March 3, 2015)
ISBN: 9781451657678
Pages: 256 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: fiction, fantasy, historical fiction
My Rating: 2.5 cups 


From the author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, which Library Journal called, “ripe for Oprah or fans of Elizabeth Berg or Anne Tyler,” comes a magical novel about a family of women separated by oceans, generations, and war, but connected by something much greater—the gift of wings.

On March 29, 1973, Prudence Eleanor Vilkas was born with a pair of wings molded to her back. Considered a birth defect, her wings were surgically removed, leaving only the ghost of them behind.

At fifteen years old, confused and unmoored, Prudence meets her long-estranged Lithuanian grandfather and discovers a miraculous lineage beating and pulsing with past Lithuanian bird-women, storytellers with wings dragging the dirt, survivors perched on radio towers, lovers lit up like fireworks, and heroes disguised as everyday men and women. Prudence sets forth on a quest to discover her ancestors, to grapple with wings that only one other person can see, and ultimately, to find out where she belongs.

Above Us Only Sky spans the 1863 January Uprising against Russian Tsarist rule in Eastern Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Lithuania gaining its independence in 1991. It is a story of mutual understanding between the old and young; it is a love story; a story of survival, and most importantly a story about where we belong in the world. This “is a raw, beautiful, unforgettable book” (Lydia Netzer, bestselling author of Shine, Shine, Shine).

My Thoughts:

In an effort to catch up on my reviews, I’m going to keep this fairly brief. I didn’t love this book. I didn’t hate it either, but I must admit it turned out to be quite different from what I expected. On reading the description of “a family of women connected by the gift of wings” I presumed this to be a rather magical or paranormal tale, but it isn’t particularly. While the wings are certainly a part of the story and there are some hints at magical elements, these aspects almost feel extraneous – tacked on and, for the most part, unnecessary. At its heart, this is a story about family more than anything else, and the familial link between these women seems more than enough to carry the tale across generations without the added detail of wings.

The wings do bring about the introduction of some interesting side characters, but therein lies another issue I had with this novel. It isn’t a terribly long book, but it is told from many different viewpoints and perspectives. There are just so many characters and facets here that it becomes frustrating to follow. We barely get comfortable with one story and POV before it switches to the next. The writing is also somewhat disjointed, jumping backward and forward between time periods, sometimes abruptly and in the middle of a section, causing reader confusion. More than once I was forced to backtrack or reread in order to determine where I was in the overall timeline of the narrative, or to clarify a particular character.

Despite these issues, there are some appealing themes explored here – family ties, love of country, the search for belonging, love and loss, regret and resilience – and the history of Lithuania, particularly the wartime perspective, is interesting and well-conveyed. I found the sections chronicling the history of the Old Man, Ingeburg, and Daina the most compelling but was engaged enough overall to keep reading to the end. The novel as a whole felt jumbled, however, and was not as cohesive as I would have liked, leaving me disappointed. I do love the cover though - I only wish I would have loved the book just as much!

“Life speeds by until forty-eight years seems like one bar in a song, like one scene in one act in one opera. Like one stroke of paint on the Mona Lisa.”

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Ivy Lane: Complete story by Cathy Bramley

Title:  Ivy Lane: Complete story

Author: Cathy Bramley
Publisher: 26th February 2015 by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers
ISBN: 9780552171236
Pages: 416 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: romance, women’s fiction, chick lit
My Rating:  four cups


Tilly Parker needs a fresh start, fresh air and a fresh attitude if she is ever to leave the past behind and move on with her life. As she seeks out peace and quiet in a new town, taking on a plot at Ivy Lane allotments seems like the perfect solution.

But the friendly Ivy Lane community has other ideas and gradually draw Tilly in to their cosy, comforting world of planting seedlings, organizing bake sales and planning seasonal parties.

As the seasons pass, will Tilly learn to stop hiding amongst the sweet peas and let people back into her life – and her heart?

My thoughts:

Ivy Lane is a first person narrative from the main character, Tilly. However, that doesn’t stop you from getting to know the other characters well and there are so many to meet. In fact, I really enjoyed the secondary characters and found myself just as much invested in their development throughout the book as with the main characters. So many of them were easy to relate and become attached to – on more than one occasion I found myself wishing that I was jumping on my bike and peddling down to share with the folk at Ivy Lane.

“Despite my attempts to remain aloof I felt as if this tight little community was pulling me in”.

As one might expect from a book centred around life on a shared garden allotment, this is not an action packed, fast paced read. Instead you are presented with a sweet chick lit stroll that unfolds at a gentle pace with a satisfying journey to complete.  And it’s funny! There are some great humorous moments sprinkled throughout this tale:

“I glanced round, hoping that someone else would need the loo soon. Where were all the weak bladders when you needed them?”

I have to admit to having a real affinity to Tilly. I just loved her teacher tales (being a teacher myself) and the fact she was a ‘home body’ (also like myself) had me nodding my head in empathetic agreement.

“Unfortunately, as soon as I pushed open the door I knew I’d made a mistake. The pub was packed, noisy and for a stay-at-home girl like me, totally intimidating”.

I did have a few issues with certain parts of the story. Tilly’s past was dragged out just a tad too much for my liking.  I confess to some ‘eye rolling’ when Tilly would tear up (again!) or be found running from the room (again!).  And the romantic aspect which later developed was also a bit predictable but I was willing to overlook that – it is chick lit after all!
“”I blinked rapidly as unbidden tears popped into my eyes. Here we go again”.

Overall, however, this story offers a guaranteed happily ever after.  It’s great escapism and the perfect read to curl up with for a restful retreat.  It’s a tale of friendship, love, trust and understanding when the time is right to move on. You will be glad you took the trip to Ivy Lane; in fact, you will find it hard to leave. I have heard a whisper that the author is writing another story based on a minor character – sign me up now! I would love to venture back into this garden!
“It was really happening, plot 16B was coming back to life. And as I returned Gemma’s hug, it occurred to me that perhaps I was too … we could do it, me and my plot. We might be battered and damaged, but we could start again and hopefully come back stronger”.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.