Book Review: Girl at War by Sara Novic

Girl at War  Girl at War by Sara Novic

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Hachette, June 2015

 Synopsis- Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.

Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost. With generosity, intelligence, and sheer storytelling talent, Sara Nović’s first novel confronts the enduring impact of war, and the enduring bonds of country and friendship.

 Review- A wonderfully confronting fictional debut novel that takes the reader into a young woman’s experience of the recent Bosnian-Croatian war.

Ten-year-old Ana Juric happily plays with her best mate Luka, but as a civil war looms her sense of safety and security is turned upside down. Air raids, invasions and racial killings are just the beginning. Her carefree childhood is transformed into fear and conflict. Her parents are stressed, her baby sister Rahela is ill and Ana is trying to make sense of all this change. Her parents manage to get Rahela across the border so she can seek medical assistance in the United States, but upon their return Ana is faced with a tragedy, and the memories will last a lifetime.

Orphaned and disoriented, Ana stumbles into a rebel group as her only chance of survival. With some help, she escapes the conflict and flees to America to be fostered by the family who cared for her sister. Though she is reunited, educated, provided stability; the memories of the war that she has so keenly suppressed finds its way to the surface. It’s at college that Ana has a realisation about the role her past has played in shaping who she is- her strengths but also her weaknesses. Terrified of facing the emotional pain she left behind, she learns it may be the only way to move forward and heal her fragmented sense of identity.

Told in Ana’s viewpoint, the narrative alternates between Ana’s childhood experience of the war and the adult Ana (in her 20’s) who faces her past on a trip back to Croatia. Girl at War is a confronting novel drawing on the realities of war, the individual experience and the transfomative power of friendship, culture and sense of identity. I’d highly recommend this novel.

Overall Rating

5/5

“Highly Recommended!”

Girl at War can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

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Aussie Book Review: Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Leap Leap by Myfanwy Jones

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, May 2015

 Synopsis- A few weeks after finishing their final exams high school sweethearts have an argument at a party. Joe wants to go – Jen begs him to stay. They fight in the corridor, following their usual script, and then he walks out and leaves her. A few hours later she dies.

Three years on, after burning up his own dreams for the future, Joe is working in dead-end jobs and mentoring a wayward teenager not dissimilar from his younger self. Driven by the need to make good, he spends all his spare time doing parkour under an inner-city bridge, training his mind and body to conquer the hostile urban environment that took his love and blighted his future.

Somewhere else, a middle-aged woman, Elise, is treading water in her life as her marriage breaks up. We watch as she retreats to the only place that holds any meaning for her – the tiger enclosure at Melbourne Zoo, where, for reasons she barely understands, she starts painting the tigers and forms a close connection to them.

Joe is broken by grief, but the outside world won’t let him hide forever. A cool and bewitching girl turns up on the doorstep of his share house, somehow painfully familiar to him. Then there is the skateboarding chef at the bar where he works, the girl with the Cossack-blue eyes, who wants to be his friend. And someone going by the Facebook tag Emily Dickinson wants to reminisce about his dead girlfriend and won’t leave him alone.

Can Joe staunch the flooding return of desire – or is it time to let go of the past? And will he make the nine-foot leap from girder to pillar or does he want to fall too?

While at its heart is a searing absence, Leap is driven by an unstoppable and exhilarating life force, and the eternally hopeful promise of redemptive love. Funny, moving, quirky and original, Leap is an effortlessly enjoyable novel that quietly creeps up on you until its final jaw-dropping pages and a narrative twist that will take your breath away.

Review- This book turned up unexpectedly and I was very close to dismissing it due to other reading commitments. But when I saw that it was by an Australian author and it was a relatively short novel I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did!

 I was drawn into this story almost immediately. Written in first POV of Joe, a young man in his 20’s who is just drifting through life. He works two jobs, shares a house with a couple of mates and has the intriguing hobby of ‘jumping’ at all hours of the morning and night. He builds up his strength and endurance and pushes his body to the limits.

 When a young nurse answers an ad for a spare room at the share house, there’s an instant attraction between them.  Joe finds himself being challenged emotionally and psychologically as their relationship develops only in the darkness of the night. Meanwhile, he develops a deeper friendship with colleague Lena who he starts to share his story with. Joe is an interesting character with many strengths and flaws. He is grieving the loss of his ex-girlfriend, wracked with guilt and struggling to find a way to move forward- or whether he has any desire to do so. He’s been punishing himself for years.

 The parallel story with the POV of newly separated mother Elise who has a secret, she likes to study the tigers at the local zoo. Every week at the same day and time she sits and watches, draws them and fantasises about their inner world. This connection allows her to understand her own grief and loss and find a way to get her relationship back on track with her husband. The connection between Joe and Elise isn’t revealed until much later in the story.

What I found so mesmerising about this story, was the sharp writing style, often abrupt and to the point. There’s no fluff in this book, every word and sentence serves a purpose. I liked that and it made the story flow and intrigued me to turn the pages faster. Though Leap is passable as a YA novel (or new age?), the contrasting story with Elise prevents it from falling into this genre. Leap is a character-driven novel, uniquely structured and written and trusts that the reader is smart enough to figure out the messages that lie beneath the text. I’d definitely recommend this novel.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Leap can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #13 reviewed

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Aussie Book Review: Season of Shadow and Light by Jenn J. Mcleod

Season of Shadow and Light  (The Seasons Quartet)  Season of Shadow and Light by Jenn J. Mcleod

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Simon & Schuster, May 2015

 Synopsis- Sometime this season…

The secret keeper must tell.

The betrayed must trust.

The hurt must heal.

When it seems everything Paige trusts is beginning to betray her, she leaves her husband at home and sets off on a road trip with six year old Matilda, and Nana Alice in tow.

But stranded amid rising floodwaters, on a detour to the tiny town of Coolabah Tree Gully, Paige discovers the greatest betrayal of all happened there twenty years earlier.

Someone knows that truth can wash away the darkest shadows, but…

Are some secrets best kept for the sake of others?

Review- Season of Shadow & Light is the third in a loosely linked series by Jenn J. Mcleod. On a whim, Paige takes off on a two week holiday with her Nana Alice and her six year old daughter Matilda to escape relationship problems with her unfaithful husband. She also hopes to find out more about her deceased mother by returning to her hometown in the country.  But there’s flooding and car issues so their road trip takes a detour to Coolabah Tree Gully, much to Alice’s dismay- she’s pretty keen to get on the road and keep a close eye on Paige. However, Paige and Matilda quickly make friends with the local townsfolk and Paige particularly enjoys the attention of local chef, Aiden.

The narrative alternates between Aiden, Paige and Alice and it’s through these differing viewpoints that their past, secrets and dreams are unveiled. I quite enjoyed how Mcleod lets the story unravel slowly, the past catching up with the present and placing an obstacle in the paths of the characters who wish to create a better future. At times I found Alice a little frustrating, I really wanted her to come clean with Paige much earlier on, but the suspense does carries the story toward the climax at the end. Aiden and Paige are likeable, realistic characters and Mcleod sensitively allows their attraction to blossom while allowing Paige the space to process the breakdown of her marriage. Matilda adds energy and life to the story, while Alice adds wisdom and complexities to the character development and the plot.

An enjoyable, character-driven read with just the right amount of suspense and small-town antics to make this a worthy addition to Mcleods Seasons series.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Season of Shadow and Light can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #12 reviewed

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Blog Tour: Difficult Themes in Stories by Helene Young and Prize Pack Giveaway!

As part of the Northern Heat book blog tour, Helene Young has stopped by to chat about a confronting theme she fleshes out in her latest romantic suspense novel, Northern Heat. You can read my review here.

Difficult Themes in Stories by Helene Young

One of the things I love most about writing is being able to bring resilient female characters to life. Many of my girls have non-traditional careers, but that’s because I know women who are currently doing those jobs and excelling at them. It’s important for me to show the strengths and the weaknesses that make them extraordinary, everyday women.

Northern Heat

I also like to explore issues that confront them in their lives and their work. Often there’s an underlying personal theme. In Northern Heat it’s domestic violence. That aspect of the story grew out of conversation with a friend. She’s someone I admire enormously, but I had no idea the truth of her private life. It’s easy to think that domestic violence only affects uneducated lower skilled families. It doesn’t. My friend is a professional woman, university educated, with a beautiful son and daughter. Her husband is also a professional man with a busy career and a need to control everything in his life. That need to control consumed him. His rage was contained in public if things weren’t perfect, but not in private.

The relationship was destroying my friend. She no longer recognised the woman looking back at her in the mirror. The bruises and scars were as much emotional as physical, an eroding of her self-esteem, her beliefs, her right to an opinion. I was talking about Northern Heat to a couple of my male colleagues who are in the cut-throat world of Industrial Relations. They were both shocked at the statistics on domestic violence. The younger one accepted that a marriage where a woman had no power, no independence and lived only to keep her husband placated could be damaging. The older one didn’t see it quite that way. There’s a long way to go in educating the whole community that violence in a relationship can take many forms and is unacceptable.

When the violence is physical it’s easier to identify it. The more insidious type is the one that erodes a woman or child’s self-esteem until they are dependent on the perpetrator. It’s all about power.

Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED talk is worth 16 minutes of your time.

Over the six months when I was writing Northern Heat I was talking at libraries and reading groups. Without exception when I mentioned that my current work-in-progress was about domestic violence, a woman would find me in a quiet time and share her story, show me her bruises, or describe her nightmare. Never have I had so many people volunteer their stories, including sons and daughters who’d struggled to come to terms with their own families.

It was harrowing at times and I found myself crying with them as they relived what they’d been through. And they were united in telling me that their stories needed to be told, that this invisible crime needed to stop.

Rose Batty has done so much to raise the profile of the problem in the year since her son’s death, but the change needs to come from the community, from us. We talk about zero tolerance for speeding on the road or for drink driving. Violence in a relationship is just as damaging to the fabric of our society.

I hope I’ve done justice to the stories that were shared with me. Kristy, Abby and Freya, my characters in the book who are dealing with domestic violence and the aftermath, all draw a little from the resilient, determined brave women who’ve stood up and said, ‘Enough.’

For anyone experiencing domestic or family violence, dial

1800 RESPECT

 Lifeline provides crisis support and is available 24 hours a day on

131 114

 If the situation is life-threatening, please phone 000 immediately

Helene Young Author Photo (QF)Find Helene at www.heleneyoung.com

Follow on FB at: HeleneYoungAustralianAuthor

On Twitter: @heleneyoung

Or Instagram: heleneyoungauthor

Prize Pack Giveaway!

To celebrate the upcoming release of Helene’s sixth book on 27th May 2015, she’s giving away six prize packs. Four of them are duos of SAFE HARBOUR and NORTHERN HEAT and one major prize is a complete set of her six books. For international readers there is a duo of e-books to be won.

To enter leave a comment here or share the post and/or the trailer on social media site and she’ll double your chances!

Hope to see you through May at the following blogs.

5th May:               http://bookdout.wordpress.com

7th May:               http://auslit.net

10th May:            http://deannasworld1.blogspot.com.au

12th May:           http://www.jennjmcleod.com

14th May:            http://ausromtoday.com

17th May:           https://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com

19th May:           http://writenotereviews.com

21st May:            https://australianbookshelf.wordpress.com

24th May:             https://nevendbookshelf.wordpress.com/category/reviews/

26th May:           http://teddyree-theeclecticreader.blogspot.com.au

28th May:           http://australianruralromance.com

31st May:             http://talkingbooksblog.net

2nd June:              Wrap up and announce the winner on my blog-

http://www.heleneyoung.com

Northern Heat – Release date 27th May, 2015

Northernheat_banner2draft

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Aussie Book Review: Northern Heat by Helene Young

Northern Heat  Northern Heat by Helene Young

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Penguin Random House, May 2015

 Synopsis- In steamy northern Queensland, Conor is rebuilding his shattered life. Working at Cooktown’s youth centre has given him the chance to make a difference again, and the opportunity to flirt with Dr Kristy Dark. The local GP is hiding her own secrets and struggling to raise her feisty teenage daughter alone.

When a severe cyclone menaces the coast, threatening to destroy everything in its path, tensions come to a head – and the weather is not the only danger. Cut off from the world and with her life on the line, Kristy will have to summon her courage and place her trust in Conor, or they’ll both lose someone they love.

Review– The arrival of Northern Heat in my letterbox was just the buzz of excitement I needed after a hard day at work. It’s Helene Young’s sixth romantic suspense novel, and remarkably she’s continued to deliver at a standard that satisfies her loyal fan base. Northern Heat is another spine tingling, suspenseful novel set in northern Queensland with a dash of romance and hope to propel the reader from page to page, chapter to chapter. I couldn’t put this down!

Conor drifts from town to town, which for most looks like a life of luxury, but Conor has an underlying agenda when he rocks up to beautiful Cooktown in North Queensland. He wants to track down the man who murdered his wife and daughter. It’s his only reason to live and he doesn’t care if he has to go down with a fight. So his attraction to local doctor Kristy Dark that has taken him by surprise. Could he really fall in love again? Was there a chance for a future despite the tragedies of his past?  When Conor witnesses a murder, his life immediately entwines with Kristy’s and together they take a dangerous path toward unravelling the plans of Cooktown’s villains.

“Thank you for trusting me.

For giving me hope there could be a tomorrow for us.”

Following the death of her young son and her husband, Kristy relocated to Cooktown with teenage daughter Abby hoping to create stability and security. Work and Abby are the only things on her mind until Conor enters her life and everything is turned upside down. Kristy struggles to fight the attraction to Conor while his very presence threatens everything she has built in the past year.

Conor and Kristy have both experienced trauma, grief and loss in their adult lives and while this does connect them it also draws out their internal struggles with trust, guilt and moving forward.

Young packs in plenty of drama, suspense and romantic heat in her latest novel. She also draws on a very confronting and prevalent issue in society, domestic violence. She explores the spectrum of the much misunderstood abusive dynamics in intimate relationships. Kristy’s experience of psychological abuse by her former husband is highlighted as just as damaging as the physical violence experienced by her friend Freya in her marital relationship. Both women coped with the situation in different ways, and in Kristy’s case her husband’s death was not the end of her suffering. In fact the lingering effects of intimate violence had an impact on Kristy’s sense of worth and her ability to trust men. However, she was courageous in her support and validation of Freya’s situation and I admired how Kristy helped her friend find the means and strength to take charge.

I was engrossed in this novel from the very beginning; the characterisation was fantastic, the plot smart and fast-paced, the romance was intense and hot, and the setting beautiful! Highly recommended. I’ll be counting down the days until Young’s next release….

Overall Rating

5/5

“Highly Recommended!”

Northern Heat can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

Tomorrow on the blog, the Northern Heat Blog Tour. Helene stops by for a guest post and there’s a book prize pack giveaway.

Northernheat_banner2draft

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #11 reviewed

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Aussie Book Review: The Falls by Cathryn Hein

The Falls  The Falls by Cathryn Hein

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Penguin Random House, April 2015

 Synopsis- For as long as she can remember, Teagan Bliss has wanted to manage her family’s property. She’s invested everything in the farm, knowing that when her parents retire she’ll be ready to take the reins. But when a family betrayal leaves her reeling, Teagan is forced to rethink her entire future.

Heartbroken, Teagan flees to her aunt’s property in the idyllic Falls Valley. Vanessa is warm and welcoming and a favourite of the locals who drop in regularly for cocktail hour. Teagan soon catches the attention of sexy local farrier Lucas Knight, and with a new job, new friends and the prospect of a new relationship, she slowly begins to open up again.

But the village is a hotbed of gossip and division and when Teagan gets caught up in town politics, Lucas and Vanessa become concerned. As the tension in town escalates, Teagan must decide who to trust. But when she realises those close to her have been keeping secrets, the fallout may split Teagan apart forever.

 Review- The latest novel by Cathryn Hein, The Falls is set in a rural town in New South Wales. Teagen Bliss is devastated by her parent’s betrayal and the loss of her dream to manage her family’s farm in South Australia. She flees to her Aunt Vanessa’s home in NSW for respite, only to discover that she feels completely hopeless and depressed. With the support and nurturance of her Aunt, Teagan starts to find some sense of worth in working on the property and picking up a local job working with horses. Her Aunt’s friend and horse farrier Lucas Knight also helps to pass the time. Teagan is instantly attracted to him, but is no emotional state to enter into a relationship- not that she believes he’d ever have a romantic interest in her anyway. They develop a close friendship and Lucas proves to be a reliable friend and a committed lover; both of which Teagan finds completely overwhelming and unable to allow herself to enjoy. Her past experiences have landed her some major trust issues.

There are a lot of characters in The Falls, which helped to create a real community feel and a sense of place in Falls Valley. However, I felt that all the other characters and sub-plots got in the way of really fleshing out the conflict faced by Teagan and Lucas. The novel felt way too long for the rural romance genre and the numerous sub-plots really slowed down the pace of the story. Though I liked Teagan, her determination and hard-working demeanour, I felt the growth in her characterisation came quite late in the book when she acknowledges that she’s not coping. I’d have liked to see this happen earlier so that she could grow from that experience. In a long-winded story, the ending seemed a little rushed in that respect. As for the hero of the story, Lucas, I found him to be way too perfect and completely unrelateable. There’s so much focus on how amazingly good-looking he is and how Teagan cannot believe someone who stepped out of a Mills and Boone novel could ever be interested in her, that it completely overshadowed him as a man with any kind of substance. He certainly proves to be a reliable and supportive friend to Teagan, but I’d have preferred for these qualities to shine through rather than his glistening chest and warrior-like hair!

I’ve really enjoyed Hein’s novels in the past, but The Falls just didn’t do much for me. I struggled with the characterisation, the plot and the romantic elements. I did however love the setting, the small-town politics and the lessons that can be learnt from slowing down and enjoying a country way of life. While it wasn’t quite up to my expectations, if you’re a fan of Hein it is worth the read and I won’t hesitate to pick up any other of hers in the future.

Overall Rating

3/5

“It was okay”

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

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #9 reviewed

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Aussie Book Review: Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy

Stay With Me Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, April 2015

 Synopsis- Tess is in trouble. Stuck on a farm outside Byron Bay, cut off from family and friends, Tess knows she must find a way to escape her violent partner to save her life and the life of her child …

A chance meeting offers a way out – but can she ever trust again? Tess embarks on a desperate road trip back to the heart of her past. But what will be waiting for her at home? Will her family forgive her – and can she forgive them?

 Review- Engrossing from the very beginning, McCarthy’s latest page-turner Stay With Me delivers a story that will definitely stay with you even once you’ve put it down. Seventeen year old Tess takes a break in Byron Bay with some friends. Raised by her three older siblings, she struggles to live up to their expectations of her and find her place in the world. Directionless, isolated and looking for an adventure, it’s when Tess meets Jay that her life turns upside down. He’s a man quite a few years older than her who pays her special attention and it’s this fascination with the budding attraction that instigates an impulsive decision to remain in Byron rather than returning to her family; much to their disappointment. Their relationship quickly becomes serious and Tess realises she’s in way over her head. Jay is controlling, manipulative and isolates her from the few friends she’s made in the town. She’s pregnant shortly after and that’s when the violence begins to escalate beyond psychological to physical. Tess does whatever she can to survive and protect her young daughter Nellie.

The story is told through Tess’s viewpoint in the present moment when she’s aged twenty-one and makes the brave choice to flee the situation, and through a serious of flashbacks and memories of her childhood and adolescence. Though it was sad, it was also completely believable that a vulnerable young teen would naively be seduced into an abusive relationship. McCarthy sensitively and realistically portrays Tess’s experience of domestic violence in this novel. The story oozes anxiety which reflects the impact of the trauma on Tess and the fear of the repercussions upon leaving the situation with her daughter. It adds a suspenseful element to the story also.

Stay With Me is very well written and adequately explores the difficulties faced by young women and their children who are abusive households. It also demonstrates just how hard it is for women in these situations to leave, and that when they do, their lives are endangered. I also felt McCarthy fleshed out the sibling relationships in a very relateable way and the tense dynamics when Tess is reunited with them. A very engrossing read.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Stay With Me can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #8 reviewed

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