Friday, January 29, 2021

Review: The Night Letters

Title: The Night Letters
Author:  Denise Leith

Publisher: 7th October 2020 by Ventura Press

Pages: 400 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: fiction, contemporary, cultural Afghanistan

My Rating: 4 cups


For five years, Australian doctor Sofia Raso has lived in Kabul’s vibrant Shaahir Square, working with Dr Jabril Aziz to support the local women. She knows that living peacefully in Kabul requires following two simple rules: keep a low profile; and keep out of local affairs. 

Yet when threatening night letters from the Taliban taunt the town, and young boys disappear from Jamal Mina, Kabul’s largest slum, Sofia can no longer remain silent. While the square is encased by fear, an elegant former warlord proves an unlikely ally, and a former lover re-emerges with a warning. As the search for the boys intensifies, and Sofia feels herself being drawn back into a love affair she thought had ended, it soon becomes clear that answers will bring a heavy price.

 Gripping and evocative, The Night Letters takes you to the heart of Kabul in a story of secrets, friendship and love in all its imperfect guises.

My Thoughts

‘After five years of living in Afghanistan she was finding her silences harder to hold, and yet remain silent she did. The stakes were simply too high to do otherwise. Silent and invisible was what Sofia needed to be ... She might be living in Afghanistan but she would always remain an outsider ...’

This is the second novel in the past few weeks that has taken me to a place I have never been or knew little about (the other being Iraq in When the Apricots Bloom). I very much  enjoyed Denise’s portrayal of life in Afghanistan for both the locals and expats. This is an intriguing story about life in Kabul when the Taliban took over Afghanistan as told mostly by Sofia Rosa, an Australian doctor living and working there. Having lived the expat life myself, I was most appreciative of how she captures the totally different lifestyle compared to my Western one. 

‘Sofia wanted to experience more of life than ‘normal’, and now that she had there was no way she could ever step back into the ‘normal’ of Sydney.’

Sofia lives and works in Shaahir Square and develops life changing relationships with the local community and the women she is there to assist. The book does include some other points of view, however, Sofia’s contributions are obviously the strongest. The reader is given an honest and engaging window into life in Kabul under the Taliban from all points of view. Such an obviously oppressive system to live and work under and it is this that makes for a most compelling plot aside from what life is like on a day to day basis. 

‘What sort of tenacity or desperation, she often wondered, forced people to build in such a place? Life was hard enough in the cities; in the country it could be soul-destroying. People aged quickly and died early in Afghanistan, but it was not always disease, childbirth, bad diet or even war that killed them. Sometimes it was just life.’

Although it was slow to start I became invested in many of the characters, particularly the Afghan women and their stoic determination - both young and old - to work for good. I have mixed feelings about the ending. On the one hand, one of the lead characters signing off for the novel as a whole was bittersweet. Yet on the other hand I did not feel that, after investing in the lives and the serious nature of some of the plot lines, there was enough of a satisfactory conclusion. 

‘What you do with the women in the square is enough. It’s more than enough and we’re so grateful that you are doing this. We can’t change Afghanistan, Sofia. None of us can individually and certainly outsiders can’t.’

All up, however, I very much enjoyed my time spent in Kabul and the glimpse it provided into what truly is a whole other world. With a little romance, themes of protection of the young and vulnerable and a taste of life on the street it will be a book that I definitely recommend.

‘Without any doubt, the women of Afghanistan were marshalling their strength and gathering their resources and would one day be a force to be reckoned with.’

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, January 28, 2021

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens

Publisher: 12th December 2018 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 370 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, mystery, coming of age

My Rating: 5 cups


For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her.

But Kya is not what they say. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life's lessons from the land, learning the real ways of the world from the dishonest signals of fireflies. But while she has the skills to live in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world–until the unthinkable happens.

In Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens juxtaposes an exquisite ode to the natural world against a profound coming of age story and haunting mystery. Thought-provoking, wise, and deeply moving, Owens’s debut novel reminds us that we are forever shaped by the child within us, while also subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

The story asks how isolation influences the behavior of a young woman, who like all of us, has the genetic propensity to belong to a group. The clues to the mystery are brushed into the lush habitat and natural histories of its wild creatures. 

My Thoughts

I was a little concerned coming late to ‘the party’ when it came to reading Crawdads. When a book gets such rave reviews from all quarters, my expectations are often left unfulfilled. Not on this occasion. Whilst there is nothing sensational and attention grabbing about the book as a whole, it captures more an unspoken power, a slow burn that builds connections and wraps itself around you leaving you lost in thought.

“Well, we better hide way out there where the crawdads sing ... “What dya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that." Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can - way out yonder where the crawdads sing."  “Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”            

This is truly a heart wrenching tale that I defy anyone not to feel for the main character Kya. Without going into details, this is a cleverly written dual time narrative - one in 1969 with a murder and consequent trial and the other starting in 1952 until it finally merges with the 1969 timeline. Than in itself is clever writing. From 1952 when first Kya’s mother, then siblings, then father walked out and abandoned her, Kya is left all alone and must adapt and survive from the age of like seven! Truly unthinkable! Yes, she may be the ‘Marsh Girl’ but what other human being, regardless of where they came from, would not lend assistance? Only a kind coloured couple care and that is difficult as, remember, this is the 1950s in America. Kya struggles understandably - physically, socially, emotionally ... you name it. Then whenever help is offered, is it genuine? Are the relationship understandings reciprocated or will be Kya abandoned all over again? 

“Please don’t talk to me about isolation. No one has to tell me how it changes a person. I have lived it. I am isolation.”

Interwoven throughout this struggle for survival is some of the most beautifully written prose of North Carolina marshes, wildlife and small town living. Intersperse a murder trial throughout and you begin to understand the fanfare behind this book. It is well done in all aspects. Do yourself a favour and read this book. It is beautifully written, thoughtful, emotive and will sit with you long after the final page is turned. 

“Tate, I appreciate your teaching me to read and all those things you gave me. But why’d you         

do it? Don't you have a girlfriend or somebody like that?” “Nah ... I like being out here in the quiet and I like the way you’re so interested in the marsh, Kya. Most people don't pay it any attention except to fish. They think it's wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don't understand ...”


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, January 24, 2021

Review: Magic Lessons - A Prequel to Practical Magic

Title: Magic Lessons - A Prequel to Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman

Publisher: 7th October 2020 by Simon & Schuster (Australia)

Pages: 400 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction,  magical realism, fantasy, witches

My Rating: 4 cups


From New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman comes the origin story of her beloved novel and basis for the cult classic film Practical Magic—taking us on a captivating journey to the Salem witch trials, featuring the indomitable matriarch of the Owens family, Maria.

It’s no secret that love has plagued the Owens family for centuries. But when did the curse begin, and why? It all began with Maria Owens, who arrived in America in 1680, with a baby in tow…

Born with pitch-black hair and pale green eyes, Maria was abandoned in the English countryside by her birth mother and raised by Hannah Owens who warned her, “Always love someone who will love you back.” She inherits Hannah’s Grimoire—a magical book of enchantments that include instructions to heal illnesses, ingredients for soaps that restore youth, and spells that make a person burn with love for another. When Hannah dies in an attack, Maria leaves for Curacao, where she meets John Hathorne, a magistrate from Salem living freely for the first time in his life as he falls in love with Maria. But Hathorne soon abandons her, before Maria realizes she’s pregnant. When she gives birth to a red-headed baby girl, Faith, who possesses immense magical talent, Maria embarks on a voyage to Salem to face her destiny, with or without magic.

But aboard the ship bringing her to America, fate intervenes and she meets a man who will change her life, if she’ll only let him. Her journey, laced with secrets and truths, devastation and joy, magic and curses, will show her that love is the only answer, always.

My Thoughts

‘For some, witchery was a choice, but not for them. It was in their very nature, and they must do their best with it, but how did a woman survive when she would surely be judged again and again?’

I am a fan of Alice Hoffman over the years, but you are never sure what you are going to get. Magic Lessons is a prequel to the Practical Magic series with Maria Owens, the original witch in the Owens bloodline. It would be fair to say that Alice’s writing is in itself magical in this 17th century historical fiction story. She certainly has a gift. 

‘It was a time of evil, when people were owned and women were treated no better than they had been across the sea.’

This book tells the story of Maria Owens (and later on her daughter Faith) from her start in England, then onto Curaçao, Salem and finally New York. I will admit to being a bit nervous in the beginning as it was somewhat slow to get going. It begins with Maria abandoned as a baby and raised by a witch. It then progresses to her being a servant in Dutch Curaçao and finally to Salem and New York. 

‘A woman alone who could read and write was suspect. Words were magic. Books were not to be trusted. What men could not understand, they wished to burn.’

As ever, Alice Hoffman’s writing is the real attraction - it is beautiful. Her capacity to portray not only a sense of place and time but also authentic and real people and stories. This book required finesse given it covers historical events such as the plague, life in a Dutch colony and the Salem witch trials. Her attention to detail is exceptional and I love how she gave voice to a period when women had no power. Then to bring in all things magic - everything from listed ingredients for curing ailments to evoking black magic and spells. Tying it all together is a tale of love and loss, betrayal and revenge. It is dark at times and sad,  yet you cannot help but get swept along with Maria and Faith on their journey.

If you have not read (or seen the movie) fear not, for this can certainly be read as a standalone. The attraction of an Alice Hoffman book always brings an element of surprise - what will be on offer this time? Magic Lessons is a beautifully written tale that I would recommend. 

‘Fate is what you make of it. You can make the best of it, or you can let it make the best of you.’

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.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Review: Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life

Title: Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life
Author:  Kate James

Publisher: 26th January 2021 by Pan Macmillan Australia

Pages: 290 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: non fiction, self help

My Rating: 5 cups



Many of us experience feelings of being stuck in the wrong life and disconnected from our true selves.

Australian mindfulness expert and bestselling author Kate James has coached thousands of clients in similar situations.

Now, in Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life, Kate introduces us to a range of techniques, based on her knowledge of mindfulness, positive psychology, ACT, creativity and neuropsychology, that will help us clarify our goals, realise our purpose and connect more fully with the wonder of life.

Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life will help you to:

- get to know yourself well

- overcome the thoughts and beliefs that inhibit inner peace and limit you in your life choices

- find your way to your version of a fulfilling life.

Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life is the perfect companion for negotiating transformation in an unsettled age.

My Thoughts

‘... when you change the relationship you have with yourself, you discover that there’s a whole different way of living in this world.’


January, more often than not, starts with a set of goals or intentions for people. As we embark on a new year, and after the lessons of last year, I highly recommend reading Kate’s book as a good place to start in making changes for the better in your life. There are so many books, videos and apps in the area of self help, but this little gem of a book really hit the spot for me. 


It became clear very early that Kate (and this is the first book of hers I have read) really has an amazing approach to life and a wealth of experiences that allow her to share some wise and profound insights whilst offering advice to her readers. This will certainly be a book that I go back to time and again as the practical questions and recommendations assist in providing that sense of balance and calm that we all seek.  


‘In many ways, the path to a meaningful life is uncomplicated. It’s about recognising that the short amount of time we get to spend on this earth is a blessing. And we need to make as much of it as we can.’

Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life has many practical ideas to not only assist you in finding a purpose but transform the way your overactive mind operates - to appreciate why it is you think certain thoughts and those that may in fact hinder a transformation to a happier way of being. I very much enjoyed the poignant stories from both Kate herself and her clients. Their honesty was clear and meaningful, making the messages real and accessible. This is all supported with well researched data and offerings for further study into some of the concepts. There is also a ‘workbook’ of sorts with questions to contemplate and reflect upon at the end of chapters, that allows the reader to put into practice or consider how one could effectively initiate some of the recommendations. 

‘It involves momentarily quieting your discursive thinking and putting aside your preference for things to be any other way than what they are. With this open and accepting mind state, we often find that it’s actually not that difficult to feel a greater sense of acceptance of our thoughts, our feelings and our lives.’

This is one of the best books of this genre that I have read. For many of the chapters I felt that Kate was speaking to me personally and I furiously highlighted certain passages. We are all on a path and to make it more enjoyable this book certainly offers refreshingly and positive ways to really enjoy your individual journey.  At a time when we may be feeling more disconnected than connected, Kate offers purposeful advice to take practical steps to lead a better life. 

‘Maybe the most significant lesson was the importance of finding beauty in everyday, ordinary things. We often work on our personal development goals thinking there’ll be an endpoint where we have it all figured out and where life will be rosy and happy. After losing Reneé, I realised that genuine contentment is learning to be right here - to embrace this flawed and imperfect and very brief life and to find a way to love every part of it. Something Reneé and I  had in common was a desire to make every day beautiful, regardless of our external circumstances.’

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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Review: Accidentally Wes Anderson

Title: Accidentally Wes Anderson
Author: Wally Koval

Publisher: 12th January 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 368 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: non fiction, travel, photography

My Rating: 5 cups


A visual adventure of Wes Anderson proportions, authorised by the legendary filmmaker himself: stunning photographs of real-life places that seem plucked from the just-so world of Anderson's films, presented with the fascinating human stories behind each facade.

Wes Anderson's beloved films announce themselves through a singular aesthetic - one that seems too vivid, unique, and meticulously constructed to possibly be real. Not so - in Accidentally Wes Anderson, Wally Koval collects the world's most Anderson-like sites in all their faded grandeur and pop-pastel colours, telling the story behind each stranger than-fiction-location.


Based on the viral online phenomenon and community of the same name, Accidentally Wes Anderson celebrates the unique aesthetic that millions of Anderson fans love - capturing the symmetrical, the atypical, the unexpected, the vibrantly patterned, and distinctively coloured in arresting photographs from around the world.


Authorised by Wes Anderson himself, and appealing to the millions who love his films, this book is also for fans of Cabin Porn and Van Life - and avid travellers and aspiring adventurers of all kinds.

My Thoughts

Let me just say from the outset .... this book is stunning. Given that armchair travel is more than likely the only kind of travel that many of us will be undertaking for the foreseeable future, the beautiful photography in this book is sure to go some way to filling the desired visual stimulation. Herein lies an absolute bucket list of inspiring worldwide locations with attached tourist guide-like details. 

Koval and his wife started what has since become a famed catalogue of some of the most visually striking destinations throughout the world. The photography of this book includes contributions from many people and from many locations. The constancy through it all was that the image would embrace the style of filmmaker Wes Anderson. This shared love became known as AWA - Accidentally Wes Anderson and reportedly now has over a million followers sharing their locations on Instagram.

This stunning feature book includes locales from every continent (yes! even Antarctica!) in its mission to discover the often bizarre, quirky and unique landmarks. This is not the generic, well trodden touristy paths but rather the undiscovered, unheard of, often bypassed gems. With a well catalogued list, each page has rich colourful entries that detail more than just location and date.

A key aspect of this book is in fact the accompanying text. WOW! It often reads like a short narrative detailing a background story which truly adds a layer of depth and appreciation to the whole experience. This is not just a pretty book to flip through - the historical context and story is absolutely fascinating, providing readers with true meaning and understanding.

Accidentally Wes Anderson is the perfect companion to fill the hole in our global pandemic days. It is an invitation to travel the world on an adventure that is unique and fulfilling. What a wonderful coffee table conversation starter, a visual aesthetic delight that is sure whet your whimsical appetite for the wonders of our world.

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.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review: The Valley of Lost Stories

Title: The Valley of Lost Stories
Author: Vanessa McCausland

Publisher: 2nd December 2020 by Harper Collins Australia

Pages: 406 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: contemporary, mystery, women’s fiction

My Rating: 4 cups


Beautiful, beguiling and treacherous ... Big Little Lies meets Picnic at Hanging Rock in a secluded valley over the Blue Mountains.

Four women and their children are invited to the beautiful but remote Capertee Valley for a much-needed holiday.

Once home to a burgeoning mining industry, now all that remains are ruins slowly being swallowed by the bush and the jewel of the valley, a stunning, renovated Art Deco hotel. This is a place haunted by secrets. In 1948 Clara Black walked into the night, never to be seen again.

As the valley beguiles these four friends, and haunts them in equal measure, each has to confront secrets of her own: Nathalie with a damaged marriage; Emmie yearning for another child; Pen struggling as a single parent; and Alexandra hiding in the shadow of her famous husband.

But as the mystery of what happened seventy years earlier unravels, one of the women also vanishes into this bewitching but wild place, forcing devastating truths to the surface.

My Thoughts

I read and loved Vanessa’s first book, The Lost Summers of Driftwood, and was therefore full of anticipation to read her latest release. Here she has proven, yet again, that she is a skilful writer capable of creating true atmospheric stories with locations that will draw her readers in. 

‘And don’t you feel it? There’s something about this place. This whole valley. After all, I'm not spiritual, but I don’t know ... I can’t really articulate it. I feel like anything could happen. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, given I live such a boring life.’     

Set in two timelines (which Vanessa handles seamlessly) a mystery slowly unfolds. This is a book with a number of themes. Foremost is the theme of friendship with the four women who go away, and tied into that of course, are the issues each of them face and how these are brought to the surface through their interactions. Whether it be parenting or marriage issues, Vanessa covers all bases with each of her Mums. I also very much enjoyed the second yet shorter narrative on Jean from the 1940s and her sad plight. 

 ‘The dark cliffs loomed above her, a reminder of just how far they were from everything. There was no sound save the movement of leaves in the breeze and the occasional hoot of an owl. But she sensed the thrum of life under the inky blanket. She looked up. The sky was clear and star-strewn. There was a brightness to the night sky that you didn’t get in the city. It was like looking to the edge of the universe. Perspective. How tiny her worries. How small her

world. She took a deep breath. They really were in the middle of nowhere.’

Perhaps, however, the highlight of this book, which sets it apart from similar ones, is the true gothic feel Vanessa brings to it. The location itself is critical to the tale and when cleverly combined with key aspects, the reader has an old school gothic mystery in their hands. Locked doors, possible ghost sightings, no phone coverage, go hand in hand within this remote Australian bush refurbished hotel. 

Whilst I did not find this as strong a read as Vanessa’s first book and parts of the mystery are somewhat easy to deduce, there is enough on offer through other aspects of the story with its subplots to keep the reader turning the pages. A little mystery in both a historical and contemporary context with a set of female mother/friend issues is quite an undertaking but Vanessa certainly pulls it off. 

‘So many stories lost, steeped into the soil, into the valley’s soul.’

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Review: Pianos and Flowers

Title: Pianos and Flowers
Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publisher: 19th January 2021 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Pages: 192 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: short stories, historical fiction

My Rating: 3 cups


A delightful compendium of short stories inspired by images in the renowned photographic archive of The Sunday Times.

A picture can paint a thousand words, but what about a vintage photograph?

In 2015 Alexander McCall Smith wrote a book entitled Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories, in which he imagined the stories behind five chanced-upon black and white photographs. Who were those people, why were they smiling, what made them sad? He so enjoyed the experience that when The Sunday Times generously offered him access to their early 20th century photograph archive he jumped at the opportunity.

My Thoughts

‘A lot of people don’t notice the interesting things around them. They go through life thinking everything is very dull, and all the time it’s the opposite.’

I am a huge fan of the author, Alexander McCall Smith. He is a prolific and incredible writer with his No.1. Ladies Detective Agency being a firm favourite of mine. Therefore, I was intrigued to learn about his latest short story collection. Previously, Alexander had written for the Sunday Times when he was asked to take photos from their archive and imagine the lives behind some of the everyday people captured. He did not know who the people were or the context behind the photograph. It is something I am sure we are all guilty of, looking at old photos and wondering about the lives of the various people we gaze upon. Here, Alexander uses his incredible imagination, takes tiny visual clues and creates a fictional story based on that. 

‘When we look in retrospect at the saliences of our lives, we realise, sometimes with astonishment, that this is how they are shaped: a single event; a chance word of advice; an apparently minor decision by another - any of these may dictate what happens to us and what we ourselves do.’

The stories vary but overall it is the pearls of wisdom I seek in Alexander’s writing. The detail and precision is incredulous with some of the stories being as profound as I expected. He has such a readable style and easily brings to life fictional dreams and desires from these still images. Alexander takes you for a brief interlude, a small snapshot, into what may have led the people to be at that place and time for the photograph to be taken. It makes for light and entertaining reading. 

Whilst I enjoyed the concept for this book, I have to admit that I am not a fan of the short story. It probably worked as a newspaper feature and would provide a good ‘inbetween’ read as a book. However, I did not find myself fully engaged and that may be due to the narrative structure rather than the narrative voice. Alexander has a true gift for writing and to take such a simple stimulus and weave stories around it testifies to that. 

‘Some lives are like that - they leave little trace, as unrecorded as were those countless lives led before writing and photography gave some degree of permanence to our human experience.’

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.