Aussie Book Review: The Lace Balcony by Johanna Nicholls

The Lace Balcony  The Lace Balcony by Johanna Nicholls

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Simon & Schuster, August, 2014

 Synopsis- Vianna Francis, known in the colony as ‘The Sydney Venus’, is a notorious young mistress in keeping to a former gentleman convict, who uses her to entice wealthy men to his gaming tables. A woman of mystery, Vianna is a magnet for scandal.

Was she the mistress of a Royal duke? A lady’s maid who learned the tricks of the world’s oldest profession when in service to a Parisian courtesan? Or the widow of a young man executed on the gallows?

Men of high rank are determined to possess this passionate, mercenary beauty. The L’Estrange half-brothers were born only months apart. One brother is an idealistic dreamer, the other a volatile adventurer. And the rivals have two things in common – a fatal attraction to get-rich schemes that run afoul of the law – and their obsession with Vianna.

Review- The Lace Balcony is the third Australian historical fiction novel with romantic elements to be released by Johanna Nicholls. I completely devoured her first two novels (Ghost Gum Valley & Ironbark) as early Australian fiction is quite rare to stumble across by modern day writers. So when I learned of this book’s release, I was really excited to read it.

Set in the late 1820’s, The Lace Balcony tells the story of Fanny Byron who arrives in Sydney with her 2 year old sister Daisy with no money or job. She’s vulnerable in a new country and needs an income to survive. A gentleman named Severin takes her under his wing and uses young Daisy as the motivating force behind Fanny making her fortune as the renowned Vianna Francis who makes a reputation for herself as the Sydney Town Venus. A courtesan who is ‘protected’ by Severin but performs as a singer/ entertainer luring in men to his gambling business.  When the money runs low, he manipulates Vianna into a contract to perform 7 night’s straight; each night she is to choose a man to dine with and at the end of the week, she chooses the highest bidder to keep her as their mistress for one year in the hope of settling debts and ensuring young Daisy’s needs are met.

While her relationship with Severin is quite toxic; he is controlling and abusive; though she does develop affection for him and of course her survival is heavily dependent on his keeping. However, she is propelled forward knowing that she has experienced one fleeting moment with a young felon by the name of Will whom, on a whim, she kissed as his last request before he was executed. It is some time before she discovers that Will is actually Mungo Quayle and he wants to take her as his wife. In the midst of all this Mungo Quayle’s half-brother Felix L’Estrange is bidding on Severin’s gambling contract to win her as his mistress.

Three men, three different paths.

The Lace Balcony is told from the perspective of Fanny (a.k.a Vianna), Felix and Mungo as they each make choices that bring them together and inevitably drive them apart. It’s fair to say this story is quite lengthy at over 500 pages long and to be honest, it was well over the 100 page mark when it finally drew me in and kick started that desire to want to find out more. Up until that point it was a slow start and I was uncertain about where this story was heading.

While I enjoyed the plot twists and Mungo’s enthusiasm and passion invested in gaining Fanny’s trust and affections, I experienced mixed feelings about Fanny herself. As a reader I felt quite frustrated by her at times. I could completely understand her vulnerability and how a vulnerable woman can end up in an abusive relationship- especially during that time period… but it was frustrating to see Fanny, at times, play the martyr and have the belief that she deserved that life. Sometimes she was brave and stood up for herself and other times she was passive and helpless. Unfortunately her motivation to look after Daisy just didn’t feel that believable. Especially since any interaction with Daisy shared with the reader was quite minimal at the beginning of the story and then we don’t see her again after that… so Fanny’s connection and protectiveness of Daisy wasn’t instilled at the outset so her desire to continue choosing a life as a courtesan was even more frustrating because it was apparently all for this step-sister. As a reader I tended to like and relate to Mungo more than anyone else in the novel, so at least I could root for him to achieve his desires at the end of the story.

It probably sounds like I didn’t enjoy this story, but I actually did. I like the plot, I love the setting and era and I also enjoyed the varied secondary characters, but I really struggled to relate and empathise with Fanny (a.k.a Vianna) which did impact on my experience as a reader.

 Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

The Lace Balcony 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: Glass Houses by Rachel Caine

Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires, #1)  Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires #1) by Rachel Caine

Paperback

TBR pile

Allison & Busby, 2006

 Synopsis- The debut of an exciting new series set in Morganville, Texas, where you would be well advised to avoid being out after dark.

College freshman Claire Danvers has had enough of her nightmarish dorm situation. When Claire heads off-campus, the imposing old house where she finds a room may not be much better. Her new roommates don’t show many signs of life, but they’ll have Claire’s back when the town’s deepest secrets come crawling out, hungry for fresh blood. Will she be able to face the town’s terror or will she drown like everyone else?

 Review- I’ve had the first four books of this series (in two volumes) sitting on my bookself for a long time. I’ve seen some fantastic reviews about the series so I thought it was about time I give it a go.

To be honest, I was hoping I wouldn’t like it. It’d be a relief to not get hooked on another series.

Despite my best intentions, I did enjoy Glass Houses. Too much! And because the next book was already in my hands (combined in volume 1) there was no excuse to just keep on reading! I’ll be starting on volume 2 soon… darn!

Anyway, there have been plenty of summaries for this book so I won’t go into the plot too much. Basically, 16 year old Claire starts college at Morganville as an advanced placement for her physics degree. She’s super smart (she mentions that a lot!) and quickly becomes the target of bullying by the “hot but not so smart” clan led by Monica Morrell, the mayor’s daughter. After a rather serious attempt to kill her, Claire flees the dorms and is reluctantly accepted as the new housemate at Glass Houses, where eighteen year old Michael, Shane and Eve reside. It’s there she discovers that vampires exist and are accepted (somewhat) in the Morganville community. Unfortunately, given Monica’s connections, Claire is a target yet again… this time by the vamp society. Her friends get pulled into the mess and before we know it they are all in big trouble.

I liked the four main characters in the book (housemates: Michael, Shane, Even & Claire) and I particularly liked seeing Claire become assertive and take charge of her life. What I didn’t like was the ongoing reference to her being a ‘kid’ and ‘jailbait’ by her friends because of her age. This made it hard for the reader to forget her age… so I was a little torn about whether I wanted her to have a relationship with Shane who is two years older. In Australia, the legal age is 16 for consensual sexual relationships (I think!)… in the US it’s obviously older so a much bigger deal if a 16 year old hooks up with an 18 year old than over here (in a legal sense anyway).

Anyway, whether I wanted to or not, I was drawn into the plot… I didn’t know what was going to happen and I really wanted to… so that’s why I got through the book so quickly. The cliffhanger for Glass Houses was a little unfair… because I was all ready to put the book down-but couldn’t- and ended up continuing right on to book 2!

Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

Glass Houses can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

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Aussie Book Review: Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Lost and Found Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Hachette, June 2014

 Synopsis- Millie Bird (aka Captain Funeral), seven-years old and ever hopeful, always wears red gumboots to match her red, curly hair. Her struggling mother leaves Millie in a local department store and never returns.

Agatha Pantha, eighty-two, has not left her house – or spoken to another human being – since she was widowed seven years ago. She fills the silences by yelling at passers by, watching loud static on the TV and maintaining a strict daily schedule.

Karl the Touch Typist, eighty-seven, once used his fingers to type out love notes on his wife’s skin. Now he types his words out into the air as he speaks. Karl is moved into a nursing home but in a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes.

A series of events binds the three together on a road trip that takes them from the south coast of WA to Kalgoorlie and along the Nullarbor to the edge of the continent. Millie wants to find her mum. Karl wants to find out how to be a man. And Agatha just wants everything to go back to how it was.

They will discover that old age is not the same as death, that the young can be wise, and that letting yourself experience sadness just might be the key to life.

 Review- There’s a lot of hype about this book which made me feel wary… and I was very close to giving it a miss. BUT I’m glad I didn’t!

What a quirky and fascinating look at life from the perspective of children and the elderly. More specifically, the experience of grief, loss and disappointment in those we love and in life itself.

Abandoned by her mother, Millie, young and innocent view of the world, sets out to find her mum. Along the way she collects a mannequin named Manny, a senile bloke called Karl and cranky old neighbour named Agatha. It’s hope that connects them despite their differences, occasional dislike for each other and the inevitable comfort zone testing that unravels as they join in their expedition. Its set in Australia and the story gives us a glimpse of suburbia and outback landscape as well as the Australian lifestyle and culture as they cross the country in search of Millie’s runaway mother.

Millie is an adorably vulnerable protagonist who copes with her grief and despair by committing to the mission of finding her mum. Despite the gravity of the situation, the emotional turmoil experienced by each of these characters and the harsh realities of life, Brooke Davis manages to coat the story in a light wittiness that turns this sad story into something that’s enjoyable. I really liked it. Far more than I thought I would.

I recommend this story for young and old and everything in between… anyone would be able to connect with the experiences, feelings and challenges faced by each of the characters in this book.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Lost and Found 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: The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

The Bookshop That Floated Away The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, July 2014

 Synopsis- In early 2009 a strange sort of business plan landed on the desk of a pinstriped bank manager. It had pictures of rats and moles in rowing boats and archaic quotes about Cleopatra’s barge. It asked for a GBP30,000 loan to buy a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books. The manager said no. Nevertheless The Book Barge opened six months later and enjoyed the happy patronage of local readers, a growing number of eccentrics and the odd moorhen. Business wasn’t always easy, so one May morning owner Sarah Henshaw set off for six months chugging the length and breadth of the country. Books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities and cake. During the journey, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol and, on several occasions, floated away altogether. This account follows the ebbs and flows of Sarah’s journey as she sought to make her vision of a floating bookshop a reality.

 Review- In 2009, Sarah Henshaw proposed a business plan for a loan application… and was denied. What could go wrong with $30,000, a narrow canal boat and a floating bookshop? Well a lot did once she roped in the money and set out to sail along Britain’s rivers.

I’m a pretty big fan of the travel memoir genre and when I discovered this book captured two of my passions-travel and books- into one slim novel I couldn’t resist requesting a copy from the publisher. While it wasn’t your typical travel memoir, I mean England’s canals generally aren’t the adventure travel that you expect in these books, but it did have some similarities that I enjoyed.  I actually really admired Sarah’s passion for her business venture as it’s such a cool idea. Even when faced with many challenges to get her business up and started she still persevered. To take on a floating bookshop without any boating experience is a pretty big deal and I thought Sarah was quite brave to do this solo.

Sarah has to learn the ropes of the canals and boating etiquette very quickly as she encounters expert boaters, those that thought they were experts and those that sound downright mad. On her travels she barters books for food, accommodation and a warm shower… something I also admired about her. There’s no way I could cope with relying on strangers to meet my basic needs. Especially since it’s so darned cold in the UK! Social media was probably her saving grace in this respect and quite a clever way of making connections with people that she could benefit from.

Okay, so this story didn’t completely blow me away, it was rather slow in parts of the book and was really a compilation of excerpts that denote her travels. It was a journey focussed story which means the reader doesn’t get to meet secondary characters that last the lengths of the book, but to be fair, she did warn us upfront:

“This story is about a journey where I swap books for food or a bathroom or a bed. As such, it’s a series of very short, quite intense relationships with people I never get back together with. Much like a very long Taylor Swift Album”

I think I enjoyed the last third of the book more than any other part and that’s probably because it’s the point in the novel when Sarah starts to share more of herself and the emotional struggles she was faced with on her trip. I didn’t love this book as I’d hoped, but I did find her story fascinating and at least I can cross off Own a book barge from my bucket list because it all just seems too hard!  No doubt Sarah has the passion and determination to see the business succeed. An interesting read if you’re after a travel/ business memoir with a little twist :-)

Overall Rating

3/5

“It was okay”

The Bookshop That Floated Away can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

 

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Book Review: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager (Outlander, #3)  Voyager (Outlander #3) by Diana Gabaldon

Paperback

TBR pile

Arrow Books, 1995

 Synopsis- From the author of the breathtaking bestsellers Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber , the extraordinary saga continues. Their passionate encounter happened long ago by whatever measurement Claire Randall took. Two decades before, she had traveled back in time and into the arms of a gallant eighteenth-century Scot named Jamie Fraser. Then she returned to her own century to bear his child, believing him dead in the tragic battle of Culloden. Yet his memory has never lessened its hold on her… and her body still cries out for him in her dreams.
Then Claire discovers that Jamie survived. Torn between returning to him and staying with their daughter in her own era, Claire must choose her destiny. And as time and space come full circle, she must find the courage to face the passion and pain awaiting her…the deadly intrigues raging in a divided Scotland… and the daring voyage into the dark unknown that can reunite—or forever doom—her timeless love.

 Review- Well I couldn’t go to the Scottish Highlands without reading an Outlander book!

I read the first book in this series about 5 years ago, the second book about 2 years ago and I finally managed to buy a copy of the 1000+ page third book in the series Voyager, at a bookstore in Edinburgh last month. Not only are they mammoth books to read, but I found particularly in the first two, they were both quite emotionally heavy. There’s a lot of violence (including sexual), death, grief and a probably every emotion possible is experienced while reading these books. Thankfully, while Voyager was packed with plot twists, character development and laden with emotion; I didn’t experience that same heaviness (as in book one) when I finished this novel.

I couldn’t even begin to provide a succinct summary of the plot… so I won’t because there’s no point- this series needs to be read at the beginning… so I suggest you start there if you’re interested in this story. I will say I felt quite emotional when Claire and Jamie, and wow, the chemistry is still there.

I was hooked into the story immediately and managed to read half the book in just a couple of days with thanks to train rides and flights… it was the perfect way to kill the time.  My attention did start to wane by the last 300 pages as the ending was slowly drawn out and I wasn’t sure whether they would actually tie up the threads that had been woven throughout this hefty novel. Thankfully they did, mostly.

Well, I think there’s three more books in this series to go… it may be a while before I pick up another, but I know once I do delve into Gabaldon’s world it’s hard to get back out until you’ve turned that last page. A time-travelling romantic saga that will completely consume you from beginning to end.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Voyager can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

Really looking forward to seeing Outlander on the small screen:

Premieres on Soho on August 14th at 8.30pm (AEST)

 

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Aussie Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Paperback

TBR pile

Random House, 2012

 Synopsis- An utterly captivating reinvention of the Rapunzel fairytale weaved together with the scandalous life of one of the tale’s first tellers, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. She is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens…

Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death, sixty-four years later. Called La Strega Bella, Selena is at the centre of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition, retaining her youth and beauty by the blood of young red-haired girls.

After Margherita’s father steals a handful of parsley, wintercress and rapunzel from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off unless he and his wife give away their little red-haired girl. And so, when she turns seven, Margherita is locked away in a tower, her hair woven together with the locks of all the girls before her, growing to womanhood under the shadow of La Strega Bella, and dreaming of being rescued…

Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together to create a compelling story of desire, obsession, black magic and the redemptive power of love.

Review- Setting off on a holiday was the perfect opportunity for me to select one of the lengthy novels from my unread bookshelves. Bitter Greens was one of those books I bought after reading so many reviews that spoke highly of it, but unfortunately I hadn’t had the chance to pick it up and read it.

A rather dark fairytale re-telling of Rapunzel, gives Bitter Greens a lot of appeal. Thankfully I was hooked into this book immediately! What a relief to have a book that instantly fascinates you when you are faced with a 24 hour plane journey! I stuck my nose into this book and when I put it down I couldn’t wait to delve back into it again. At the same time, it was one of those books I just wanted to savour. I didn’t want to read it too quickly and be done with it in a couple of days. Instead I happily enjoyed this story for the first week and a half of my trip.

I don’t know what I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before, but I loved it. Each of the female protagonists were well fleshed out as characters, to the extent that I couldn’t even hate the witch Selena because I could completely understand how she evolved into the adult she was because of the trauma she experienced as a child.

Stories within stories, a blend of fairytale with reality and three strong women who know exactly what they want in life made for entertaining reading. I highly recommend this book.

 

Overall Rating

5/5

“Highly Recommended!”

Bitter Greens can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2014 challenge:

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Scotland Wrap Up

I apologise for not getting this post up sooner! I had a fantastic holiday in Scotland last month but after a rather turbulent flight home I needed a little downtime. Then before I knew it I was back at work and into things full swing!

Anyway, I promised some pics from our trip and here they are!

We spent a few days in London… loved the Camden Markets! Saw “Matilda the Musical” at the Cambridge Theatre… it was AMAZING! For those in Aus… it comes to Sydney in Aug 2015 and I highly recommend you check it out.

IMG_2952

Me at “Matilda The Musical”

 

Then we took a five hour train ride up to Glasgow (in first class!) before picking up our hire car and setting out on a road trip up the west coast of Scotland from Fort William up to Isle of Skye.

IMG_3090

Fort William

Isle of Skye is definitely one of the highlights of the trip! The scenery was STUNNING.

IMG_3164

Portree, Isle of Skye

 

Next stop was Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. We hoped to spot Old Nessie but unfortunately he was nowhere to be seen.

Finally, we arrived in Edinburgh where we experienced our first days of sunshine! We stayed for a week as I had to attend a conference for a couple of days.

 

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

On the way home we had a stopover in Amsterdam. The Anne Frank Museum was definitely worth the 50 minute wait in line.

And so that’s it! My hubby and I are so happy to be back home in our own little slice of countryside heaven. Our pooch is happy too :-)

Buddy

Buddy

 

I’ll have some reviews up shortly!

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