Happy Easter 2014

I hope you all have a lovely Easter long weekend. Thankfully the weather has been amazing!

I’m spending the day with friends for good food and fun.

Lauren

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Aussie Book Review: The Return by Silvia Kwon

19308548 The Return by Silvia Kwon

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Hachette Australia, March 2014

 Synopsis- War ends and the world changes, as it always does. The enemy are no longer the enemy – just people living their lives. But hate is hard to extinguish. The scars of war are not always visible, and they don’t always fade. They haven’t for Merna Gibson and they definitely haven’t for her husband, Frank. He won’t ever forget what was done to him and his mates. The nightmares, the aches, the pain of seeing things a person should never see stay with him, always. The long-ago war colours their family life.

For Merna, at home on the farm, Japan is very far away. For Frank, it isn’t far enough. But their son, Paul, doesn’t carry the same beliefs. For him, Japan is a place of possibility, a country to embrace. Father and son live worlds apart even when at the same table. Hate and prejudice has created a gulf between the two.

When a woman comes into their son’s life, it is left to Merna to try to bridge the gap. Caught between the two men she loves she is determined to keep her family together, while still everything keeps changing.

Review- The return is the debut novel by Australian writer Silvia Kwon.  Set in a rural town in Victoria; Merna and Frank Gibson are about to have their life turned upside-down.

Never the same since he fought to protect Australia from the Japanese during the war, Frank is a man who is content with making a life on the land. He’s temperamental and at times unpredictable, but Merna has accepted their relationship for what it is and has made a life for herself alongside her husband.

However, Frank’s patience is tested when his son not only starts working for Toyota but goes off to work in Japan for three years. From a different generation, Paul doesn’t completely understand Frank’s reticence, but then again they’ve never been close enough to share their feelings and Frank’s antagonism only encourages Paul’s rebellious streak. Merna mourns the absence of her son and she’s desperate for her family to be close and in contact. But it’s the icing on the cake when Paul returns to Australia, pulls up in his Toyota and presents his beautiful Japanese wife.

While the war is in the past, the trauma of his days fighting the Japanese is still very real for Frank. There’s a sense of betrayal and anger toward Paul for his decision. Paul on the other hand simply fell in love with a foreign woman in a foreign place and was brave enough to not only face his parents but their local community with choice he makes.

This story really surprised me. To be completely honest, when I first started reading this story I thought to myself “here we go, this story is going to be really slow and I’m going to find it boring because I can’t relate to the age group of the main characters Frank and Merna.” Interestingly, the author skilfully presents the perspective of each of the characters through the eyes of Merna and I could empathise with Frank’s hurt, Paul’s open-mindedness, Merna’s protectiveness and Miko’s curiosity. The intergenerational relationship issues, traumatic memories, and present-day family dynamics are wholeheartedly explored in a respectful and honest way. The divide of the father-son generation was profound and I must admit I felt myself siding with Paul’s openness to new experiences and his non-judgemental attitudes- though not at the expense of seeing the importance of Frank’s experience and the war that stole his youth.

A though provoking and fascinating exploration of family, identity and change. A brave debut novel by a talented Australian author.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

The Return can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2014 challenge:

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Book Review: Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

17586508 Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Pan Macmillan, March 2014

 Synopsis- “How much money does it take to change your life?”

Unfulfilled at her job and unsuccessful in the dating department, Janice MacLeod doodled this question at her desk. Then she decided to make it a challenge.

Over the next few months, with a little math and a lot of determination, she saved up enough to buy two years of freedom in Europe.

But she had only been in Paris for a few days when she met a handsome butcher (with a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig)—and never went home again.

A love story in the vein of Almost French and Lunch in Paris, Paris Letters (February 4) is a joyful romp through the City of Light, and an inspiring look at what can happen when we dare to create the life we want.

Realizing that her Parisian love affair would be forever, MacLeod began her own business on Etsy, creating beautifully-illustrated letters from Paris inspired by artists like Percy Kelly and Beatrix Potter. She now paints and writes full-time, bringing beautiful things to subscribers around the world and reviving the lost art of letter-writing.

 Review- “How much money does it take to change your life?”

That’s the question that prompted Canadian copywriter Janice to completely overhaul her life, make a plan and work at her dream to pay for her own European sabbatical. Working in a corporate firm, Janice is fed up with her job and dreams of packing up her home, submitting her resignation and jumping on a flight to Europe for an adventure. She realises there’s a lot of hard work ahead of her to get to that point but she admirably commits to her goal and methodically and purposefully implements a plan to make her dream a reality.

She de-clutters her home, her mind and (some of) her emotional baggage; saves up a lot of cash to allow for 2 years of travel and is finally able to buy her tickets and depart. Her first stop is Paris and despite her battle with the language and the customs she slowly begins to fall in love with the city… and the handsome butcher on Rue Mouffetard.

Oh how I loved this book. It was just the perfect mix of humour, wonder and an engaging voice that made Janice’s memoir so interesting. With my (2013) European honeymoon still fresh in my mind, it was a joy to envision the places that Janice peruses during her time in Paris. I was also excited to recognise Rue Mouffetard where Janice meets Christophe. My husband and I stopped at one of those chicken stands and purchased a bag of those yummy baked potatoes dripping with chicken juice (I know it sounds pretty gross… but it was delicious!).

I could completely relate with her about the struggle to learn a foreign language. After taking a one-week Italian language class with my husband in Rome last year I felt completely overwhelmed by even attempting a conversation with a native speaker. Like Janice I could speak it and read it but as soon as someone spoke to me I was completely baffled as to what they were saying! It’s so hard to decipher the words spoken in a foreign language and then to actually make sense of those words! Unlike me however, Janice perseveres and her extended break in Paris allows her to practice and learn and develop her confidence in the French language.

The love story between Janice and her handsome, Daniel-Craig look-alike butcher was so lovely to see unfold. How on earth do two people who speak different languages fall in love? Well, Janice and Christophe manage to do just that and they get along perfectly fine! What I also found really interesting was the letter-writing business that Janice founds to fund her stay in Paris. She combines her love of art; writing and Paris into a job that she loves that can be shared with subscribers around the world. What a great idea!

I think this book was just good timing for me… while I sat at home on the back patio, listening to the rain patter on the tin roof and eating vegemite toast I could be transported into charming Paris.  I could reminisce on my time in Europe while living vicariously through Janice’s adventures- without even leaving the comfort of my home.

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a good travel memoir and this one was right up my alley. Janice has a great writing voice; she’s open, insightful and honest. I think I’ll even subscribe to her blog!

Overall Rating

5/5

“Highly Recommended!”

Paris Letters can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

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Aussie Book Review: Tiddas by Anita Heiss

TiddasTiddas by Anita Heiss

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Simon & Schuster, March 2014

Synopsis- A story about what it means to be a friend …

Five women, best friends for decades, meet once a month to talk about books … and life, love and the jagged bits in between. Dissecting each other’s lives seems the most natural thing in the world – and honesty, no matter how brutal, is something they treasure. Best friends tell each other everything, don’t they? But each woman harbours a complex secret and one weekend, without warning, everything comes unstuck.

Izzy, soon to be the first Black woman with her own television show, has to make a decision that will change everything.
Veronica, recently divorced and dedicated to raising the best sons in the world, has forgotten who she is.
Xanthe, desperate for a baby, can think of nothing else, even at the expense of her marriage.
Nadine, so successful at writing other people’s stories, is determined to blot out her own.
Ellen, footloose by choice, begins to question all that she’s fought for.

When their circle begins to fracture and the old childhood ways don’t work anymore, is their sense of sistahood enough to keep it intact? How well do these tiddas really know each other?

Review- ‘Tiddas’ an Aboriginal word for sisters (or “sistas”) and is a powerful term that describes the connection between the five women in this Heiss novel. Despite the absence of a blood connection, Izzy, Nadine, Xanthe, Veronica and Ellen share a bond that has lasted a lifetime irrespective of proximity, family commitments and jobs. Growing up in Mudgee that have all found their way to the Brisbane area where they are trying to make the best of their circumstances and support each other via their monthly book club catch ups.

There’s a strong presence of Aboriginality in this novel, with most of the women identifying as Aboriginal and working in roles that support their local communities. I really enjoyed this aspect of the story and even though it did feel a little forced in the beginning, I did enjoy the more relaxed undertones that emerged through the book and the challenges that these women faced. I also admired their strength, their connection with their Aboriginal heritage and their determination to be good role models and advocate for those who are underprivileged. I found each of the women in the novel interesting, but I could most relate to and empathise with Izzy and Xanthe… perhaps because I work in the perinatal field I’m around pregnancy and new mums all the time, so their stories really stuck with me the most.

Izzy has just been offered a role as the first Aboriginal woman to have her own television show in Australia but discovers she is pregnant. It’s unplanned; her relationship with the baby’s father has never been made ‘official’ and becoming a mother was never part of her life plan. Her career was her life.

Xanthe is happily married to her English husband Spencer and after five years they are desperate to have a baby together, but the pregnancy just isn’t happening. I could completely understand her obsessiveness to conceive and the discomfort this caused for her friends. I could also relate to both Izzy and Xanthe’s emotional experience when Izzy announces her unplanned pregnancy. I liked how these two women manage to work through this and support each other.

Nadine was also a fascinating character, but one I believed experienced the least growth, presumably because the growth would occur long after the story in Tiddas finishes. I was relieved to see this successful novelist and alcoholic develop some insight and take charge of her life.

Veronica, a newly divorced woman who is redefining her identity and the carefree Ellen who is content with the occasional fling; play a smaller role in this story but were certainly integral to the dynamics of this close-knit group and also experienced a sense of self-awareness and found a way to take control of their life also.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my first Anita Heiss novel; I admire the story she created with five such different women while giving them each the space to shine in the novel. Tiddas is a fascinating book about women, relationships, culture, duty and connection.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Tiddas can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2014 challenge:

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Eva Stachniak’s Guest Post on Catherine the Great

Today on The Australian Bookshelf, author of Empress of The Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great stops by to chat about the inspiration behind her novel. 

Empress of the Night: UK e-book   Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

The Winter Palace re-imagined the rise of Catherine the Great through the watchful eyes of her servant.

Now, in Empress of the Night, Catherine takes centre stage, reliving her astonishing rule over an empire, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.

 

GUEST BLOG

Catherine the Great has been in the news quite a lot these days. After all she was the Russian Tsarina who—with her lover and political partner Grigory Potemkin— took the Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783. Her political goals were clear. Following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Catherine wanted to assure Russia’s access to warm-water ports and secure Russia’s position as a formidable force at the political gaming table of the 18th century Europe.
I’ve given much thought to Catherine the Great’s life and her political decisions. I’ve written two novels about her. In The Winter Palace I showed her through the eyes of her spy and confidante; in the just published Empress of the Night I portrayed her as a politician and a woman. One of the sections of Empress of the Night shows Catherine during her famous Crimean Journey, a trip organized for her by Potemkin who wanted to present to his beloved matushka her newly conquered lands.
In April of 1787—as soon as the ice on the Dnieper River had cracked—a fleet of luxurious barges painted red and gold and decorated with the imperial double-headed eagle departed from Kiev carrying the empress and her courtiers. Potemkin made sure nothing went amiss. He had printed guidebooks with descriptions of towns and villages they would pass. He created instant gardens for his empress and her court at every stop, gardens he would order packed and recreated over and over again. Ever since the annexation of the Crimea, Potemkin had been building roads, establishing ports and towns, and —as Catherine demanded—integrating the Crimean Tatars into her Empire without destroying their Muslim culture.
The Crimean journey is a key section in Empress of the Night. Catherine was triumphant then, at the zenith of her power. Delighted with Potemkin’s achievements, she admired her newly established towns and met her newly acquired subjects. She received visitors, the Polish King and the Emperor of Austria among them, impressing them with Russia’s might.
But victories come at a price. The Polish King left the imperial barge a defeated man and, in a few years, Poland would erupt in another bloody uprising against Russian domination. The Ottoman Turks would be getting ready for another war by the time Catherine returned to the Winter Palace. I believe that in 1796 when Catherine lay dying, paralyzed by the massive stroke, her thoughts returned to these moments. Perhaps, by then—confronted with her own mortality—she realized that triumph can blind. That payments for all conquests may last many lifetimes.
As we are witnessing right now.

 

Eva Stachniak was born and raised in Wrocław, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 to pursue her post-graduate degree in English at McGill. She has worked for Radio Canada International (Montreal) and Sheridan College (Oakville) where she taught English and humanities. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. The Winter Palace, her first novel of Catherine the Great, an international bestseller, has been included in The Washington Post 2012 list of most notable fiction. Empress of the Night, her second Catherine novel, has just been published in Canada and the US. It is currently available in the UK, Australia and New Zealand as an e-book. Eva Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel which takes place in inter-war Europe among Russian exiles.

 Eva Stachniak
www.EvaStachniak.com

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Aussie Book Review: Making Soapies in Kabul by Trudi-Ann Tierney

Making Soapies in Kabul  Making Soapies in Kabul by Trudi-Ann Tierney

Paperback/ ebook

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, March 2014

 Synopsis- On an impulse, Trudi-Ann Tierney, Sydney producer and former actress, goes to Kabul to manage a bar. She quickly falls into the local TV industry, where she becomes responsible for producing a highly popular soapie.

Trudi’s staff are hugely inexperienced. They include Habib, the Pashto poet who wants to insert allegorical scenes involving fighting ants into the scripts; Rashid, the Dari manager, who spends all day surreptitiously watching uncensored Hindi music videos; and the Pakistani actresses who cross the border to Jalalabad (‘Jallywood’) to perform roles that no Afghan actresses can take on without bringing shame to their families.

Trudi lives among the expat community – the media, the burnt-out army types now working as security contractors, the ‘Do-Gooders’, the diplomats – in dubious guest houses like The Dirty Diana. This is ‘Ka-bubble’, where the reckless encounters with each other, with alcohol and of course with recreational drugs are as dangerous as the city’s streets.

Here are crazy people living crazy lives, and locals trying to survive as best they can against the backdrop of war.

Review- I have a soft spot for travel memoirs because I quite simply like to live vicariously through other people’s travels… it keeps me satiated until I can have a travel hit of my own. So, when Making Soapies in Kabul showed up on my doorstep, I couldn’t help but accept it for review even though I felt completely overwhelmed by the influx of Feb/ Mar review books that arrived while I’m in the midst of renovations!

Amid the chaos of my own home, I found brief interludes where I could sit down and read Trudi-Ann Tierney’s adventures in a land just as chaotic and thrilling. Sydney-based writer and television producer Trudi-Ann accepted a bar manager role in Afghanistan on a whim that she may land a role in the TV industry over there. Working in a bar in a country where alcohol is closely monitored wouldn’t rate among one of the safest or smartest jobs in the world, but Trudi-Ann throws herself into her work and embraces the teachings of living in Afghanistan.

Miraculously, Trudi-Ann does manage to get a position in the local TV industry… not quite the first job that comes to mind when I think ex-pat in the Middle East, but that’s what makes this story so interesting! She works with inexperienced locals, quirky ex-pats from across the globe and creates elaborate television drama with little to no resources. Somehow she and the team manage to pull it all together and make several successful television shows that rate highly among the Afghans (well, some of them).

What I love about travelling and in turn about travel memoirs is discovering something new about a culture and the way that people live. I thought it was fascinating how the actresses would cross the Pakistan border to perform the roles that would be too dangerous for Afghan women to play. It was also funny to think that they thought Trudi-Ann, in her late thirties, was an old woman and that despite her authoritative position and being a woman she gained the respect and admiration of the people she worked with.

While I found the cultural aspects of the story to be the highlight and the number of odd situations that Tierney finds herself in, I didn’t feel I really got to know Trudi-Ann. She provided a lot of insight into the backgrounds and lives of those she met during her escapades but apart from working hard, drinking hard and occasionally falling apart, I didn’t feel much of a connection with the narrator of the story. It was only really when the extent of her suffering, the grief and loss and the exhaustion near the end of the book was revealed did I actually empathise with her. I guess I did enjoy seeing how she made the best of a bad situation, but in some respects I wanted to know just how hard it was to adapt to this way of living and what exactly the pull was to Afghanistan that kept her there for three years. There were times when I wasn’t quite sure where the story was heading and what the point of it was. I did get a little bit bored around the 100 page mark because I wanted to see the protagonist, who in this book is a real-life character, to show some growth and change, but I didn’t get that sense.

Regardless, it was an entertaining read and a fascinating look at a country I didn’t know much about and the exciting television industry.

Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

Making Soapies in Kabul can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2014 challenge:

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Book Review: Fountain of Secrets (Relic Seekers #2) by Anita Clenney

Fountain of Secrets (The Relic Seekers #2)  Fountain of Secrets (Relic Seekers #2) by Anita Clenney

ebook

Review copy provided by author

Montlake Romance, September 2013

 Synopsis- She’s a human bloodhound with a nose for relics, torn between her sexy billionaire boss and her hot bodyguard. Each would die to save her and to win her heart.

Kendall Morgan puts her sixth sense back to work in the second book of the Relic Seekers series, divining the history and location of ancient relics. Her boss, the gorgeous billionaire Nathan Larraby, sends her to Italy to safeguard a priceless treasure belonging to the Protettori, an ancient order of monks who guard four powerful relics that Nathan believes may be the cure for his dark curse. He also sends brooding mercenary Jake Stone to watch Kendall’s back—although her back isn’t all Jake has his eye on.

Nathan joins them, and all three tumble into a labyrinth of defenses created by the monks to protect their treasures, including the Fountain of Youth. They find themselves in England on the trail of the legendary King Arthur, who along with the Reaper, seems mysteriously connected to the Protettori.

Sparks fly and bonds are tested as Kendall and Nathan’s pasts are revealed and Jake’s becomes even more of a mystery. The trio must stay one step ahead of the Reaper if they want to survive.
Fountain of Secrets twists and turns through the shadows of myth and reality as Kendall races to uncover the Protettori’s secrets and fight her growing attraction to her boss and her bodyguard.

Review- Fountain of Secrets is the second book in the Relic Seekers series by Anita Clenney (read my review for Guardians of Stone here). While I don’t love this series as much as her Highland Warrior books, I do enjoy Clenney’s writing style and the way she incorporates humour, sexual chemistry and a touch of chaos to each story she creates. Kendall Morgan and Jake Stone have only been back from Italy for days when they are summoned by their employer and billionaire Nathan Larraby to return to Italy to safeguard the relics they’ve collected from the Protettori. Kendall has a sixth sense for relics and with Jake as her bodyguard they take their work seriously and are determined to complete the tasks designated to them.

There’s so much happening in this story that at times I was a little confused from dreams of King Arthur to the mysterious Protettori to the menacing Reaper it was sometimes hard to keep up! Not only the plot was full of action and surprises but so were the characters within the story and the relationships they develop with each other. Kendall has discovered something about her father that freaks her out, she suspects that either Jake or Nathan could be her long-lost childhood best friend Adam, only they don’t know it yet. She’s battling an emotional bond with her boss Nathan in contrast to her strong attraction to Jake and poor Kendall has no idea what to do! I enjoyed learning more about Nathan and Jake’s history and while I do have a soft spot for Nathan, I was happy to see Kendall and Jake’s relationship deepen. Jake is a likeable character even though he is a macho, sometimes chauvinistic and overprotective lout, he’s a reliable and strong support for Kendall. He’s the typical Clenney hero and I can’t help but find him endearing (even though I’d probably never go for a guy like that in real life!).

I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series and finding out how Clenney intends to wrap up the plot and character storylines. For those who enjoy romance, action, a splash of history, some exotic locations and steamy sexual chemistry, then the Relic Seekers series may just be for you!

Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

Fountain of Secrets can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

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