Sunday, July 12, 2020

Review: Spirited

Title: Spirited
Author: Julie Cohen
Publisher: 14th July 2020 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 343 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 4 cups

A moving and gripping story about three women who keep unspeakable truths, from the Richard & Judy recommended bestselling author Julie Cohen.
Viola has an impossible talent. Searching for meaning in her grief, she uses her photography to feel closer to her late father, taking solace from the skills he taught her - and to keep her distance from her husband. But her pictures seem to capture things invisible to the eye . . .
Henriette is a celebrated spirit medium, carrying nothing but her secrets with her as she travels the country. When she meets Viola, a powerful connection is sparked between them - but Victorian society is no place for reckless women.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, invisible threads join Viola and Henriette to another woman who lives in secrecy, hiding her dangerous act of rebellion in plain sight.
Faith. Courage. Love. What will they risk for freedom?

My Thoughts

‘Viola recalled a lifetime of kneeling by her father, witnessing this miracle when a moment became fixed in time forever. It was chemistry, pure science; but watching this, it was quite easy to believe that it was magic instead. Childhood captured, innocence inscribed on glass, a fairy made out of a living, breathing child.’

I have read and enjoyed Julie Cohen's writing before as I find it quite insightful and, although different in some aspects, this book is similarly engaging. I don’t think the synopsis really captures the essence of this book, as it does not even mention one of the main characters, so be prepared to venture off into unknown territory. 

This story is told from multiple POV and in varying timelines with different locations. At its heart it is a tale about grief, loss and finding love in unthought of places and people. Set in Victorian England, it therefore breaches what would be the expected social codes of the time. Julie took the opportunity to use the spiritualism versus science platform as a window into a society that was on the cusp of some significant changes. This makes for very interesting historical reading. 

As stated previously, the synopsis fails to include some vital details, another of which is the time spent in India. Yes, this book focuses on Viola and Henriette as outlined, however, Viola's husband - Jonah - is for me, perhaps, the most interesting character. His life and what he experienced in India are both important and pivotal to the story. The mystery as to why he cannot open up to his wife is slowly revealed, and despite the questionable ending, is most engaging. 

This story is slow to unfurl as all the characters and their history are told. However, once the story does get going the puzzle pieces move around the storyboard for a worthy and well told tale - love in its many forms, Victorian social mores, guilt and grief, cultural differences, religion versus science - all come to play as the three main characters undertake their story arc. 

Spirited is a different style of story from Julie but at its heart it's a tale of love and acceptance. There is much to ponder from the various themes woven throughout and seen from the eyes of well thought characters. There are sure to be surprises along the way for the reader with unconventional twists making this a book worth reading. 

‘What would it be like to stay here  and to help make this place new ... see the past as a gift to the present, a lesson that love can teach us?’

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

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Review: Last Survivor

Title: Last Survivor
Author: Tony Park
Publisher: 30th June 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia
Pages: 416 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: fiction, mystery, thriller, Southern Africa
My Rating: 4 cups

Joanne Flack is on the run - suspected of stealing a rare African plant thought to be extinct and worth millions of dollars.
Sonja Kurtz is hired by the CIA to hunt down Joanne and find the link between the missing plant and a terrorist group hiding out in South Africa.
Joanne is a member of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society who take it upon themselves to track down the plant ... and the traitor in their midst who is willing to kill for it.
My Thoughts

‘South Africa also has the highest proportion of critically endangered cycads in the world. These plants are in far more trouble than rhinos, though they don’t get nearly as much attention.’

I always highly anticipate a new release from Tony as reading one of his books guarantees you will be taken on an amazing ride. Definite page turners set against an inspiring African backdrop, it provides sensational escapism which is something we all crave currently. Tony uses his tried and true formula for his novels - a fast moving thriller with deadly outcomes in exotic, yet often, dangerous African locations. This can be read as a standalone, however a couple of characters reappear from roles in previous books. 

On this occasion 'Last Survivor' revolves around a stolen cycad (had to look that one up - a rare species of an ancient plant) with the only female species in the world, worth million of dollars, stolen. Thus ensues a fast paced drama across the Southern African continent with a short spell in London. Throw in some jihadi terrorists, a Saudi prince, a mercenary and some retired fighters (The Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society) and you have all the necessary components for an exciting action story.

These are fast paced reads - lots of action, leading to the ultimate major showdown between goodies and baddies, with a little sexual tension thrown in, making these not only readable, but very engaging. However, don't cast this aside thinking it is lacking in substance. Tony’s novels always contain noteworthy commentary on a range of topics, on this occasion, terrorism, corruption and preservation to name a few. 

‘You had a couple of farmers who had lost everything they had ever worked for and owned and they made a few bucks selling some plants that they’d grown themselves. What’s the harm in that, even if they bent the rules? Their government was busy stealing from its own people.’

I really enjoy Tony’s books as once having lived in Africa, I love to lose myself in its pages for a brief respite to the wonders that can be found there. Yes, he will take you on a  thrilling journey, however, at its heart it is clearly apparent the great love and appreciation Tony holds for this special place on our planet and I will always sign up for that.

‘And yet, she told herself as she watched the elephant move down to the river, there was this. No crooked politician or gang of criminals could rob her or anyone else of the simple joy of seeing a sight as grand as this.’

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Review: The Goldminer’s Sister

Title: The Goldminer’s Sister
Author: Alison Stuart
Publisher: 8th July 2020 by HarperCollins (Australia)
Pages: 378 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, suspense
My Rating: 5 cups

Gold is a fever. Will it lead her to love ... or death? A suspenseful romance set on the turbulent goldfields of 1870s Australia, for readers of The Postmistress and The Woman in the Green Dress.
'There are people in this town with the gleam of gold in their eyes and cold steel in their hearts.'
1873. Eliza Penrose arrives in the gold mining town of Maiden's Creek in search of her brother, planning to make a new life for herself. Instead she finds a tragic mystery - and hints of betrayals by those closest to her.
Mining engineer Alec McLeod left Scotland to escape the memory of his dead wife and child. Despite the best efforts of the eligible ladies of Maiden's Creek, Alec is determined never to give his heart again.
As lies and deceit threaten Eliza's life, Alec steps in - although he has problems of his own, as he risks his livelihood and those he holds dear to oppose the dangerous work practices at the Maiden's Creek Mine.
When disaster draws the pieces of the puzzle together, Eliza and Alec must save each other - but is it too late?
My Thoughts

‘One thing I’ve learned after my years out here is that gold is a fever, just like they say. It can change a man.’ 

The Goldminer’s Sister is a rich historical drama from 1873 set in a fictional gold mining town in the state of Victoria, Australia. The lead character of Eliza Penrose is a fabulously strong and determined woman for her time who pushes on, despite of and against the odds surrounding agitation from the local community and other surprising sources. 

This story is engaging on so many levels as both people and location jump off the page and all you want to do is read to the very end. Eliza is a fabulous leading lady for this tale, strong and courageous despite the tragedies that have befallen her. Her determination to pursue the truth is what endears her to the reader and you want her to not only survive but also succeed. The male lead of Alec elicits similar feelings of strength and survival and with a range of secondary characters, likewise realistically portrayed from rich and poor to villain and hero. It makes for riveting reading.  

Much research was done with regards to the harsh realities of the time in terms of living conditions, class and gender. The fictional town of Maiden’s Creek is based on a small town in the south east of my state Victoria, Walhalla, and the mining operations that took place there last century. Both the living and working conditions in these mining towns would have been extremely tough and add into the mix dangerous characters and scenarios and it makes for quality reading. This, of course, comes from Alison’s quality writing not only in plot and the rich descriptions of location, but also her factual knowledge with regards to the logistics of mining for that time. However,  this is a multidimensional tale and with strong themes of women's rights, working rights, educational rights... even childbirth drama - there is much to appreciate throughout this book. 

I was totally engaged and loved reading The Goldminer’s Sister for all of the reasons discussed. With strong themes of love and loss, greed and kindness, mystery and suspense, I am so happy to have discovered Alison’s writing and can’t wait to see what historical adventures she will take her readers on next. 

‘You’re an idealist, Eliza,’ Cowper said. ‘You can't save every underprivileged child in the world.’ ‘But she has so much potential,’ Eliza said.

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

GRTL make it onto YouTube thanks to Darry Fraser!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Review: The Details

Title: The Details on Love, Death and Reading
Author: Tegan Bennett Daylight
Publisher: 8th July 2020 by Simon & Schuster (Australia)
Pages: 200 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: non fiction, biography and memoir
My Rating: 2.5 cups

A book about the connections we form with literature and each other
Tegan Bennett Daylight has led a life in books - as a writer, a teacher and a critic, but first and foremost as a reader. In this deeply insightful and intimate work, Daylight describes how her reading has nourished her life, and how life has informed her reading. In both, she shows us that it's the small points of connection - the details - that really matter: what we notice when someone close to us dies, when we give birth, when we make friends. In life's disasters and delights, the details are what we can share and compare and carry with us.
Daylight writes with invigorating candour and compassion about her mother's last days; her own experiences of childbearing and its aftermath (in her celebrated essay ‘Vagina'); her long admiration of Helen Garner and George Saunders; and her great loves and friendships. Each chapter is a revelation, and a celebration of how books offer not an escape from ‘real life' but a richer engagement with the business of living.
The result is a work that will truly deepen your relationship with books, and with other readers. The delight is in the details.
My Thoughts

‘A great book changes with you.’

I am so undecided on this book. Initially I was attracted by two things. Firstly the cover: that seemingly 1970s style vibe from the subject herself (could easily have been me) to the sepia tinge common of that era. Secondly, the synopsis speaks to all bibliophiles. Yet by the conclusion I was just not sold on it in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, Tegan has many worthwhile offerings here for contemplation but I found there was no flow to the book and I was not onboard with all she had to say. Yet, that can be a good thing right ... to push your boundaries?  Thus my overall indecision on the complexity that is this book. 

‘Literature isn’t, for me, a classroom, it is right at the centre of my life. I don’t ‘learn’ from it. It isn’t ‘good for me’. It isn’t work or study or a hobby. It is me. I think in lines from books I’ve read. It’s alive in me all the time, I’m helpless, it runs through me like a torrent.’

Tegan is a wonderful writer. Her prose is eloquent yet rugged with her insights into reading and writing evident for all. From her own life and career, to her reflections on other authors, she offers clear and insightful ideas. She expresses her great loves and great concerns when it comes to reading and writing. With a great variance in chapter topics there is something for everyone from family to famous authors. Her understanding on the technique of writing and her advice to her tertiary students demonstrates her great love of literature. She delves into great depth on particular authors  such as Saunders. 

‘If you are a reader like I am you will have become closely acquainted with more than one body of work. There’s something particular in the reading of one author’s entire oeuvre. Easy with Austen; less so with Dickens. I have read every book written by Jane Austen, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, David Malouf, Charlotte Wood, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, James Wood, Alan Hollinghurst and George Saunders. In this way you enter into a lifelong conversation with the author. You watch their material change, their attitudes to it shifting. You learn how to read them.’

What I struggled with was the seemingly random selection of chapters and topics. It’s not that I expected a sequential tale but I found it to be disjointed overall in its approach. The common theme of reading was not strong enough to gel it all together in my opinion. Also being a teacher myself, I could relate to some of the aspects Tegan shone a light. However, I disagreed with other things, for example, her summation of young adult literature.

‘When I stood in front of a class I felt an excited kinship, and a sense of my enormous luck–to be there, right now, amongst young people, as their reading and writing took shape. I still feel lucky, because it’s a privilege to be next to young people at any stage of their lives. But sometimes, when I read their writing, I want to set up a howl of desolation. Their flimsy words scud across an empty landscape, a landscape unpopulated by all the books that came before. There’s no weight, there’s no texture, there’s no echo, there’s no depth.’

All up this is an interesting read for lovers of literature. Here you will find one reader/writer’s thoughts on the impact of a life of reading and how it holds your hand as you journey through life together.  

‘I want them to notice what a powerful tool literature is, to understand that it helps us to know ourselves and the society we live in. I want them to discover that if they learn to handle language they might not feel as though they’re worth nothing, have nothing to say.’

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: The Sea Gate

Title: The Sea Gate
Author: Jane Johnson
Publisher: 4th June 2020 by Head of Zeus
Pages: 448 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, women’s fiction
My Rating: 4 cups

A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.
After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.
Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.
As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner...
A sweeping and utterly spellbinding tale of a young woman’s courage in the face of war and the lengths to which she’ll go to protect those she loves against the most unexpected of enemies.
My Thoughts

‘For a moment it seemed as if the world shifted on its axis and she felt like a foreigner in her own village. They were so wrong, so dangerously wrong, and she had been right all along.’

Always up for a good dual time narrative, The Sea Gate ticks all the boxes venturing into Cornwall during WWII to the present day. Here is a story with strong characters involved in a family drama with some well kept secrets that lead to a present day mystery. 

The character of Olivia is the constant player in both timelines and boy! what a character she is! From a present day feisty 90 year old, to life in Cornwall as a teenager - she is overflowing with confidence and attitude - but her life has not been an easy one and the author does a fabulous job of digging deeper to see beyond the crotchety old lady persona. The characters, along with the plot, are complex and engaging. Even the parrot with the foul mouth needs to be included here. What is not to love about an old house with secrets and old Olivia telling Rebecca about her younger self during the war years. There is real growth for all the main players over the course of the story to entice the reader. 

‘Of course real life wasn’t like that. She couldn’t see a future for the two of them, not here, or anywhere, so she tried not to think about the future at all.’

Cornwall comes alive with detailed descriptions of sea breezes and secret coves. The plot is well thought out with lots of interconnecting pieces across both timelines that come together for a climactic conclusion. I thought it was cleverly constructed and the mystery has a super twist at the end that you will not see coming. There are multiple themes at play here from abandonment and abuse, to survival and self discovery, with subterfuge and violent confrontations.  Jane is to be commended for giving purposeful consideration to all these aspects along with the added light relief of humour and a foul mouthed parrot!

With so much going on it takes awhile to get going but by the end I was hooked. The depth of the  intrigue I was not expecting but once again Jane weaves it all together beautifully.  From the outfall of evacuees and war time prisoners, to interracial relationships, to murder and misdemeanours to caring for the elderly. When you sit back, there is a lot going on but somehow she makes it all blend together.

‘A seagull screeches overhead and when I look up I am dazzled by the golden light haloing its wings against the sky; and all at once Cornwall saves me.’

My fascination with Cornwall continues as it seems to be the perfect location for many a story with its rugged backdrop often being matched by an equally compelling storyline. The key figure here is the strength of character of Olivia who shines in both timelines and makes The Sea Gate a compelling read. 

‘I turn on my phone and find the photo I took of The Sea Gate and show it to her. ‘It’s so beautiful, and so sad. Tell me, Cousin Olivia, are you the “OK Painter”? It is you, isn’t it?’

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

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Review: Tiny Pieces of Us

Title: Tiny Pieces of Us
Author: Nicky Pellegrino
Publisher: 30th June 2020 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 320 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: family, modern contemporary
My Rating: 4 cups

My heart is less than 1% of my body, it weighs hardly anything; it is only a tiny piece of me, yet it is the part everyone finds most interesting.
Vivi Palmer knows what it's like to live life carefully. Born with a heart defect, she was given a second chance after a transplant, but has never quite dared to make the most of it. Until she comes face-to-face with her donor's mother, Grace, who wants something in return for Vivi's second-hand heart: her help to find all the other people who have tiny pieces of her son.
Reluctantly drawn into Grace's mission, Vivi's journalist training takes over as one by one she tracks down a small group of strangers. As their lives intertwine Vivi finds herself with a new kind of family, and by finding out more about all the pieces that make up the many parts of her, Vivi might just discover a whole new world waiting for her...

My Thoughts

‘My heart is less than one per cent of my body; it is only a tiny piece of me. All I can do is trust it will keep beating, that its valves will open and close, pumping blood round my body. All I can do is hope and live, like everyone ... like other ordinary people.’

I have read and enjoyed a couple Nicky Pellegrino's books yet it would seem this is a step in a different direction and I liked it. Tiny Pieces of Us will inspire you with its tale of organ transplants. At first I was somewhat unsure, but I warmed to the story and the characters as Nicky’s writing encapsulated the grateful moments along with the heartbreaking ones. 

‘No one is ever safe,’ said Stefano, matter-of-factly, ‘that’s why it’s so important to make the most of life.’ 

This is an interesting fictional look into organ donations from both sides, something I failed to consider beyond the initial donation and transplant (‘People tend to think of an organ transplant as a happy ending’). I found it eye opening and learnt a great deal. The story will take you through a plethora of emotions - everything from love and laughter to tears and heartbreak. It will prompt you to reconsider ‘family’ and the importance of connections. 

Nicky will take you on a journey of how it must be for those who have lost a loved one and also the relief of receiving an organ is in fact, the beginning of a physical and emotional lifelong journey. I appreciated seeing things through Vivi’s point of view and the many hurdles (real and imagined) she put herself through. I enjoyed the backstories behind the other organ recipients and I particularly warmed to her sister Imogen as once again Nicky invites you to consider what it might be like for family members as well. A comprehensive and, I feel, realistic portrayal of all. 

‘Don’t you ever think that we got this second chance at life so should be doing something more important?’  ‘Like curing cancer or negotiating world peace?’ ‘Perhaps not that important.’ ‘I don’t know.’ Tommy sounded thoughtful. ‘We can’t live our best lives all the time, can we? Sometimes we just have to get through the day, same as anyone else.’ 

Woven into this is also family dynamics, a career quandary and relationships with some romance which adds depth and therefore this is not a one dimensional tale. There is much to appreciate here and a grateful heart (pardon the pun) to walk away with. I have always enjoyed Nicky’s writing but feel she has really stepped it up with her latest offering and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. 

 ‘The only thing that has ever made her feel slightly better is knowing that out there somewhere Jamie’s heart is still beating, that his death meant other people had a future. She  thinks about the ones that have tiny pieces of him inside them.’

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