Book Review: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Discreet Hero The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, March 2015

Synopsis- Felicito Yanaque has raised himself from poverty to ownership of a trucking business. His two sons work for him. He receives a threatening letter demanding protection money. The police don’t take him seriously, Felicito refuses to pay up and gets sucked into a nightmare. He becomes a reluctant public hero. Then his mistress is kidnapped, and matters become seriously complicated. And he finds that his troubles have begun very close to home.

His fate is interwoven with the story of Rigoberto, a wealthy Lima insurance executive. His boss and old friend, Ismael, suddenly announces that he is marrying his housekeeper, a chola from Piura, to the consternation of his twin sons, a pair of brutal wasters. Ismael escapes to Europe with his new bride, leaving Rigoberto to face the twins’ threats, and their claims that he connived with a scheming woman to rob an old man of his fortune. Rigoberto is hounded by the press and TV. Meanwhile, his only son is having visions of a mysterious stranger who may or may not be the devil…

Review- The Discreet Hero is the Nobel Prize Winning title by Mario Vargas Llosa, which was translated from Spanish to English in this edition. The South American setting and the award credentials attracted me to this book.

In the first couple of chapters we are introduced to the main cast of characters with two parallel storylines that later intersect.

Felicito Yanaque is a successful trucker businessman who is content with his life; he has a wife, two adult sons and a young mistress named Mabel. Until he receives a blackmail letter suggesting he pays an ongoing ‘insurance’ or else he may experience problems. A usually quiet and non-confrontational man, his inner pride is challenged and he declares that he will not let these people walk all over him. A value deeply installed in him as a child. He reports the matter to the police immediately and when another letter arrives, he publicly shames them in the local newspaper. When his business is burned to the ground and his beloved Mabel is kidnapped Felicito must decide whether to give in or fight for his rights.

Meanwhile, following a near-death experience, successful insurance business man Ismael has decided it’s time to retire. Not only will he retire, but he will marry his much younger servant Armida and do everything in his power to wipe out the inheritance of his despised twin sons. The marriage is witnessed by his driver and also good friend Rigoberto. Following the wedding, he leaves for Italy for an extended honeymoon while his friends suffer the backlash of his sons’ rage.  Rigoberto’s life is turned upside down as he’s threatened by Ismael’s sons. While he and his wife deal with the unusual circumstances of their son’s new friend.

The Discreet Hero is slow to start and actually quite slow to finish too! It didn’t quite live up to my expectations and perhaps this is partly due to the translation or maybe just the way in which it’s written. There are plenty of dramas that happen throughout the story but they didn’t have much of an impact on me because of the way they were revealed; usually via a character relaying what happened, rather than the reader being swept up in the moment by the action. This is the biggest downfall, in my opinion.

The two main characters Felicito and Ismael were quite similar, both with two sons and deceit in the family. I’d have liked to see a bigger contrast between the two. I’d also expected Peruvian politics and the social situation to play a bigger role in the story, but even this felt dampened down. Overall, I didn’t enjoy this story as much as I’d hoped but it was interesting in terms of the setting and the secret lives of the characters.

Overall Rating

3/5

“It was okay”

The Discreet Hero can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

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Book Review: Season of Salt and Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Season of Salt and Honey Season of Salt and Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Pan Macmillan, April 2015

 Synopsis- Francesca ‘Frankie’ Caputo has it all figured out. She’s finally going to marry the man she loves and then they will live happily ever after. But when a freak accident cuts her fiancé Alex’s life tragically short, all of Frankie’s future plans suddenly disintegrate.

Drowning in grief, Frankie flees from her overbearing Italian-American family, and escapes to an abandoned cabin owned by Alex’s parents in a remote part of Washington forest.

As her heart slowly begins to heal, Frankie discovers a freedom that’s both exhilarating and unsettling to everything she has always known for sure. So when her old life comes crashing back in, Frankie must decide: will she slip quietly back into her safe, former existence? Or will a stronger, wiser Frankie Caputo stand up and claim her new life?

Review- Season of Salt & Honey is Hannah Tunnicliffe’s second novel and has stayed true to her style of incorporating intense human emotions, sound characterisation and lots of scrumptious food (and recipes!). Last year I read The Colour of Tea which is set in China; but the setting for Season of Salt and Honey is completely different. It’s in the Washington wilderness.

Frankie Caputo is devastated by the sudden loss of her high school sweetheart and fiancé Alex. On the day of his funeral, she escapes the stifling indulgences of her American-Italian family and hides away in Alex’s family’s compact cabin in the Washington forest. It’s not long before she’s tracked down by Alex’s brother, her sister Bella, her father and a few opinionated Aunties. Despite their protests, she stays on and begins to come to terms, not only with the loss but the painful possibility that she may have lost Alex long before he died.

Bella, her estranged sister stays with her, despite Frankie’s continuous rejection of her presence. There’s an interesting dynamic that develops between the two sisters as they get to know each other again, understand their past choices and find a way to move forward.The cabin is tucked away, surrounded by a little community that often has appearances from Merriem the informally appointed guardian of the community and there’s also father and daughter duo, Jack and Huia.

I really enjoy Tunnicliffe’s writing style, the way the story slowly unfolds and with it each layer of the main character falls away until you discover their true fears and defenses. Frankie is a likeable character whose grief didn’t overpower the story, cleverly contrasted by bright personalities Bella and Huia. It was nice to see Frankie grow and develop throughout the story in such a small time frame. She keeps people at arm’s length which I found frustrating at times, but this was less prevalent as the story progressed. I’d really recommend Season of Salt and Honey.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Season of Salt and Honey can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

Hannah Tunnicliffe’s recipe for Spring Risotto

Excerpt from Season of Salt and Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Excerpt from Season of Salt and Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe

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Book Review: Four Ways to Click by Dr Amy Banks

Four Ways to Click: Rewire your brain for stronger, more rewarding relationships Four Ways To Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships

 by Dr Amy Banks & Leigh Ann Hirschman

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, March 2015

 Synopsis- Research shows that people cannot reach their full potential unless they are in healthy connection with others. Dr Amy Banks teaches us how to rewire our brains for healthier relationships and happier, more fulfilling lives. We all experience moments when we feel isolated and alone. Research has found that many people cannot name one person they feel close to. Yet every single one of us is hardwired for close relationships. The key to more satisfying relationships – be it with a significant other, family member, or colleague – is to strengthen the neural pathways in our brains that encourage closeness and connection.

There are four distinct neural pathways that correspond to the four most important ingredients for healthy and satisfying relationships: calmness, acceptance, emotional resonance and energy. This ground-breaking book gives readers the tools they need to strengthen the parts of their brain that encourage connection and to heal the neural damage that disconnection can cause.

Review- Four Ways to Click is a non-fiction novel developed by American Psychiatrist Dr Amy Banks who specialises in relational psychopharmacology and therapy for people who suffer from chronic disconnection.

She has a very clear writing style which unpacks complicated neurological jargon and research and translates it into and easy to understand format. There’s a foreward by Dan Siegel who is very well known in the area of neuropsychology.

I was attracted to this book because on both a professional and personal level; I like to understand how people are in relationships and my core work is all about relationships. The neurological element drew me in to find out more.

Having read many, many psychology and attachment-based text books, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this book was to read. She takes complex concepts and breaks them down for the lay person. There are plenty of clinical examples which I found really useful. It actually had quite a similar style to The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, a book that was ground-breaking upon its release. It claimed that the brain is elastic and we can train our brains to recover from physical and emotional trauma. Four Ways To Click seems to build on this idea but looks at it from a relationship-based perspective. How can people retrain their brains to engage in healthier relationships? Dr Banks’ explains how this can be done via her model known as CARE- Calmness, Acceptance, Resonance and Energy. While much of the neurological information about brain plasticity wasn’t new to me, I did like how she applied this to human relationships and provided practical examples of how to retrain the brain.

I’ve recommended this book to many of my colleagues, but I think it’s a book that’s equally inviting of people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life that are interested in understanding their relationship patterns, or just interested in people in general.

Overall Rating

4/5

“I loved this book!”

Four Ways to Click can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

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Book Review: The Umbrian Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi

The Umbrian  Supper Club  The Umbrian Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Allen & Unwin, March 2015

 Synopsis- The only sauce is olive oil – green as sun-struck jade – splashed in small lustrous puddles, through which one skates the flesh, the fat, the bones, the potatoes, the bread. In the last, best drops, one skates a finger.’

Luscious and evocative, The Umbrian Supper Club recounts the stories of a small group of Umbrian women who – sometimes with their men and, as often, without them – gather in an old stone house in the hills above Orvieto to cook, to sit down to a beautiful supper, to drink their beloved local wines. And to talk.

During the gathering, the preparation, the cooking and the eating, they recount the memories and experiences of their gastronomic lives and, as much, of their more personal histories. For a period of four years, it was Marlena de Blasi’s task, her pleasure, to cook for the Supper Club – to choose the elements for supper, to plan the menu and, with the help of one or another of the women in the club, to prepare the meal. What she learnt, what they cooked and ate and drank and how they talked is the fundamental stuff of this book.

Including a dozen recipes, drawn from the Supper Club, The Umbrian Supper Club is a delight to read and to taste.

Review- The Umbrian Supper Club is the fifth non-fiction novel based on the experiences of chef and writer, Marlena de Blasi and those who enrich her life within the Italian community she resides. I’ve read the four previous books and I honestly can’t get enough of de Blasi’s lyrical writing style, those scrumptious recipes and how she can fascinate the reader with the most basic of human needs; food. Her writing is visual and descriptive and her intuitive and inquisitive nature draws out the personalities and characters of those around her.

In the Umbrian Supper Club we are introduced to a Thursday evening ritual of gathering, eating and chatting with a group of Umbrians. De Blasi, originally from the U.S, is known as the outsider; it’s her Venetian husband Fernando and their friend Miranda that connects her to the traditionalists in the community. When Miranda announces that she’s too old to continue hosting (and cooking) the dinners, the group of companions are thrown into despair. It is Marlena who offers to continue the ritual with no intention of trying to meet the standards set by Miranda. She will bring her own interpretation to the evenings, assisted by a different Umbrian in the cooking process each week.

The story then pulls away from Marlena’s personal experience with the next four parts of the novel being devoted to one of the women in the Umbrian clan; Miranda, Ninuccia, Paolina and Gilda. Marlena touches on her gift for listening and prompting the life stories from these women who share their experiences over a period of time as though they really were telling the stories of their lives. These women were fascinating, but I must admit I enjoyed the first part of the novel more than the rest, where Marlena is more visible and the story is set in the present.

The Umbrian Supper Club isn’t my favourite de Blasi Italian memoir, but it was still a lovely and enticing read. The recipes included are mouth-watering!

If you haven’t picked up a de Blasi novel yet, then check out her earlier novels A Thousand Days in Venice, Tuscan Secrets, An Umbrian Love Story and Antonia and her Daughters.

Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

 

The Umbrian Supper Club can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

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Aussie Book Review: Turtle Reef by Jennifer Scoullar

Turtle Reef Turtle Reef by Jennifer Scoullar

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Penguin Random House, March 2015

 Synopsis- Unlucky-in-love zoologist Zoe King has given up on men. Moving from Sydney to take up an exciting new role in marine science in the small sugar town of Kiawa is a welcome fresh start. Zoe is immediately charmed by the region’s beauty – by its rivers and rainforests, and by its vast cane fields, sweeping from the foothills down to the rocky coral coast. And also by its people – its farmers and fishermen, unhurried and down to earth, proud of their traditions.

Her work at the Reef Centre provides all the passion she needs and Zoe finds a friend in Bridget, the centre’s director. The last thing she wants is to fall for her boss’s boyfriend, cane king Quinn Cooper, so she refuses to acknowledge the attraction between them – even to herself. But things aren’t quite adding up at the Reef Centre and when animals on the reef begin to sicken and die, Zoe’s personal and professional worlds collide. She faces a terrible choice. Will protecting the reef mean betraying the man she loves?

Review- Turtle Reef is the fourth romance novel set in a small Australian community by Jennifer Scoullar. In Turtle Reef, we are introduced to an entirely new cast of characters in a very unique setting. Zoe King is a zoology graduate awaiting her chance to get her foot in the door of her chosen career. Living in Sydney with limited access to wildlife, Zoe is keen to put all this theory into practice. When she’s offered a position at the Reef Centre in small town Kiawa, known for its sugar cane and sea wildlife she doesn’t hesitate the slightest.

She’s pleased to be appointed alongside the Reef Centre’s Director Bridget with an impressive list of qualifications and achievements and her team. From dolphin training to observing the turtle reproductive cycle to training octopus to studying the ocean sustainability, there’s plenty to keep Zoe’s passion alive. But things don’t always run smoothly. First, there’s no car as promised in her contract and no independent accommodation. Instead, she’s offered a room at Bridget’s fiancé’s property. The problem is, Zoe has an undeniable attraction to Quinn that makes life a little awkward. Zoe also begins to question just how perfect and productive her charismatic boss Bridget really is.

I have to be honest; I was disappointed with this story. I’ve read two of Scoullar’s former titles Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek and really enjoyed them, but Turtle Reef just didn’t live up to my expectations. From the outset, it didn’t feel like the arc of the story was clear. She turned up at Turtle Reef to work and I thought there’d be quite a focus on Zoe finding her feet at a professional but there was a lot of interpersonal dramas that got in the way of this growth. For much of the story I felt Zoe was a narrator, relaying the lives of Bridget, Quinn, his brother Josh and also Leo. Even though Zoe was an outgoing and direct personality, as a reader I often lost her on the page. The romance storyline was a little confusing because she’s attracted to Quinn who is clearly head over heels and engaged to Bridget but then Zoe starts to spend time with Leo (Bridget’s father!). Occasionally Quinn’s POV was added into the mix which shed light on the imperfections in his relationship with Bridget. Perhaps I was a little challenged ethically, because Zoe and Quinn developed feelings for each other while he was in a relationship with someone else- no matter how nutty she was.  As for Bridget’s gradual decline in her state of mind throughout the story, this wasn’t clearly explained and her motivation at times was weak.

*spoiler alert* I also found it strange that Bridget was sent off to a psychiatric institution without there being any clear understanding of her mental state. There were a few holes in the plot that didn’t make sense to me (and as a psychologist I can’t help but question them!!). *end*

While there were a lot of things I didn’t like about the story, there are some definite strengths. I liked Zoe as a character, I just wish she was developed further and showed some growth. I was interested in the role that Josh plays in the lives of Zoe and Quinn and thought he added a great dynamic to the story. I especially loved the setting; it’s a unique Australian setting with such fascinating wildlife. I’d have liked to see more of this.

Overall, Turtle Reef wasn’t quite what I hoped, but I did find it to be a quick and easy read. Based on her previous novels, I’d still be interested in reading anything else released by Scoullar in the future.

Overall Rating

3/5

“It was okay”

Turtle Reef can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #6 reviewed

 

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Aussie Book Review: Crystal Creek by Charlotte Nash

Crystal CreekCrystal Creek by Charlotte Nash

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Hachette, March 2015

Synopsis- Medical student Christina Price has worked hard to rise above an upbringing filled with neglect and the assumption that she would never amount to anything. She promised herself she was never going back to Townsville. But when a twist of fate lands her in a Townsville army base clinic, she must confront past hurts if she wants to succeed and, just maybe, find love.

Captain Aiden Bell is used to the hard life of an army officer. But his career has taken an emotional toll that he hasn’t dealt with until meeting Christina stirs memories, desire – and hope.

Review- I have fast become a big Charlotte Nash fan. Crystal Creek is the third loosely linked medical rural romance novel released by this clever Australian author. In Crystal Creek, we are introduced to Captain Aiden Bell who is the brother of Dr Daniella Bell who had the leading role in Nash’s debut novel Ryder’s Ridge. He’s posted at the Army base in Townsville nearby the Hospital where Daniella is also posted; it’s the closest the two have been in proximity for work/ living in many years.

Aiden’s a devout captain, with his career taking priority over lifestyle and love since his fiance left him while on deployment and wiped out his savings and assets. Until he meets quiet and studious medical student Christina Price who arrives at the army base GP clinic on rotation. Despite the 7 year age gap, their transient lifestyles and the fact that they’ll both be out of Townsville on different postings in less than two months; Aiden finds himself drawn to Christina and unable to fight the attraction.

Christina Price has had a tough life; her childhood unstable, her mother an alcoholic and Christina was forced to grow up far quicker than her peers. Her first experience of stability when living part-time with her maternal Aunt was cut short quickly without a clear explanation and then she was left to fend for herself and look after her dysfunctional mother. One chance encounter with a kind school nurse, was all the determined Christina needed to decide she wanted to get into medicine and she would work her butt off to get there. There was no way she’d end up an emotional mess like her mother. When her mother was accepted into a care facility, Christina could finally focus on her studies, earn a living through casual jobs and live independently. Her determination to survive was sometimes at the expense of forming friendships or having a social life. So when she turns up at the Townsville Army Base to start her placement her studious, work and study-focused life is challenged by the pull of friendly and lively locals like her peer Katie, her mentor Travers and his best mate Aiden.

Initially confused by Aiden’s interest and low in confidence, it’s not long before she can’t resist his charms and his quiet, solid presence. It’s a scary leap of faith to trust someone, to depend on them but she takes the risk and their friendship deepens into a passionate romance. With deadlines looming, Christina and Aiden must reconsider their priorities and figure out whether their relationship is worth pursuing beyond time and distance.

What can I say? I loved this book. Aiden’s a wonderful, strong and intelligent character which is also true for Christina. While reading the story, I picked up on a lot of anxiety that filtered through from Christina’s character which sometimes (in other stories) can be a bit repetitive and annoying, but she was so well set up as a character that it was completely understandable and I enjoyed seeing her grow in confidence and in her emotional connections. Nash has a wonderful way of weaving small town character with interesting medical dramas and slow-building romance all into the one book. Highly recommend this author and can’t wait to read the next one!

 

Overall Rating

5/5

“Highly Recommended!”

Crystal Creek can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #5 reviewed

 

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Aussie Book Review: Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp

Claiming Noah  Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp

Paperback

Review copy provided by publisher

Simon & Schuster, March 2015

 Synopsis- Catriona and James are desperate for children, and embark on an IVF program. After a gruelling round of treatments, Catriona finally falls pregnant, and they donate their remaining embryo anonymously.

Diana and Liam are on a waiting list to receive an embryo. Sooner than expected, they are thrilled to discover one is available.

After a difficult pregnancy, Catriona gives birth to Sebastian. But severe postnatal depression affects her badly, and quickly turns into deadly psychosis. For her protection and her baby’s, she’s admitted into psychiatric care. When she comes home, she again struggles to bond with her baby, but gradually life finds its own rhythm.

Meanwhile, Diana has given birth to a beautiful little boy, Noah.
But when he is two months old Noah is abducted … and Diana and Liam’s nightmare begins.

Where is Noah?

This gripping, emotional thriller binds together the stories of Catriona and Diana and will leave you on the edge of your seat.

What if your child belonged to someone else?

 Review- I must admit, when this book turned up for review, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I thought, how could a perinatal story compete with the likes of psychiatrist and author Dawn Barker? Fractured and Let Her Go, were extremely well written and stayed with me long after I put it down. Secondly, perinatal mental health is the field in which I work- did I really want to read about it in my spare time? Thirdly, I’M PREGNANT (13 weeks- very exciting!), did I really want to read about distressing perinatal issues while I was in the anxious first trimester of my own pregnancy?

In short: yes, yes and yes. Claiming Noah does compare well to Barker’s. Yes I will pick up a perinatal book because I just can’t help myself and yes, I thought I could handle a depressing story while I was in an emotional & hormonal state. Was it worth it? Yes.

Claiming Noah is the debut novel by Australian author Amanda Ortlepp. It’s a dual viewpoint narrative, with the two female characters who are at the point in their lives where they wish to start a family.

Catriona is in her early thirties and has agreed to undergo IVF so that she can have a baby with her husband James. He’s desperate for a child, and despite her ambivalence she agrees, even though she doesn’t feel particularly maternal. After a serious of procedures and a miscarriage, they finally fall pregnant and have a baby boy named Sebastian. During the pregnancy they decide to adopt out their remaining embryo anonymously.

Diana and Liam also have fertility issues and are on the waiting list for an embryo adoption. They are quickly matched to a donor and fall pregnant successfully. Only a month after Catriona, Diana gives birth to a baby boy named Noah.

Catriona, a once driven and successful career woman is struggling immensely with the transition to motherhood. Everything feels overwhelming and completely out of her control. She soon becomes depressed and has convinced herself that Sebastian doesn’t like her and that she’s just not cut out to be a mother. Left untreated, Catriona hides the symptoms and develops a rare but serious perinatal mental illness known as puerperal psychosis. To protect her and the baby, Catriona is admitted to a psychiatric hospital to be medicated and monitored. When she returns home, she continues to struggle in her feelings toward Sebastian and decides to return to full-time work while James becomes a stay-at-home dad.

At two months old, Diana and Liam face devastating news when their son is kidnapped. There are no clear leads for two years, in this time Diana and Liam’s relationship fall apart and they are both in the midst of grief. When the two couples’ lives intertwine, the story pulls the readers heartstrings in both directions. It’s a story that brings up many ethical and legal dilemmas in this day and age where IVF and adoption is so prevalent.

There were times I found this story quite hard to read, where normally I could look at the issues objectively, I found myself thinking about my own experience of pregnancy and the approach of motherhood. It’s certainly thought-provoking, but it’s also moving and thankfully the ending leaves the reader with some hope.

Claiming Noah touches on many sensitive perinatal issues including fertility issues, miscarriage, perinatal mental health and IVF embryo donation. Underneath all these big issues are real people with complex lives, complicated relationships and a spectrum of coping strategies. What Ortlepp does so well is bring the characters to life, she pulls apart their relationships until your left with exposed fears, entrenched defensive mechanisms and the everyday push and pull of relationships.

Overall Rating

“I really liked this”

4/5

Claiming Noah can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

This book was read as part of the AWW2015 challenge:

Book #4 reviewed

 

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