Review: Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McIerney

 

Title: Hello from the Gillespies

Author: Monica McIerney

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin AU September 2014

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Status: Read from September 25 to 27, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Australian-born but Dublin-based Monica McInerney is an internationally best selling author of novels that explore the joys and challenges of family and relationships. Hello from the Gillespies is her tenth novel, following on from her most recent successes, The House of Memories and Lola’s Secret.

For thirty three years, Angela Gillespie has sent a lighthearted letter on December 1st, updating family and friends on the lives of the Gillespies, who live on a large sheep station in outback South Australia, but this time when she sits down to write her annual missive she forgoes the usual niceties and vents her doubts about her marriage, her concerns about their financial affairs, her worries about her children, her frustrations with an interfering aunt and wonders, what could have been. The letter was never meant to be sent but Angela is interrupted by an emergency (her youngest son accidentally amputating the tip of a finger) and her husband, who hasn’t bothered to read the letters in years, thinks he is being helpful when he presses send.

Hello from the Gillespies offers a warm hearted, funny and sometimes poignant glimpse into family life. When Angela’s letter makes all their secrets public, the fall out for the family, which includes her husband Nick, their adult daughters Genevieve, Victoria and Lindy and ten year old son Ig, is mixed. As they struggle to come to grips with the truths laid bare, an unexpected twist in the tale challenges the very foundation of the Gillespie family.

McIereny’s characters are appealing and believable. As a wife and mother, I identified with Angela’s frustrations and concerns. It is a rare woman I suspect who hasn’t at least once wondered ‘what if?’ Perhaps my only niggle is that I felt the adult daughters behaved in ways more appropriate for twenty something rather than thirty something year old’s (I don’t have a lot of patience for the adultescent trend). However, the situations the characters find themselves in ring true, albeit slightly exaggerated, as do the dynamics between the family members.

Despite its length, the story had no trouble keeping my attention with several twists to the plot keeping it interesting, though the conclusion was predictable. The writing is accessible with natural dialogue. The settings, which includes the Gillespie station and brief glimpses of Ireland, London, New York and Adelaide, are authentically portrayed.

A heartfelt, witty and perceptive story about family, friendship and love, Hello from the Gillespies is an entertaining and charming read.

 

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Review: Rain Dance by Karen Wood

 

Title: Rain Dance

Author: Karen Wood

Published: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 24 to 25, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Rain Dance is an enjoyable Australian rural romance for an young adult audience from accomplished author, Karen Wood.

When the Harvey family loses their house to the bank, they are forced to relocate from their coastal home to an isolated property in Gunnedah to fulfil a temporary building contract. Fifteen year old Holly, along with her two older brothers, Brandon and Jake, and younger sister, Eva, have no option but to make the best of the situation but she can’t imagine ever considering the arid land home.

Seventeen year old Kaydon Armstrong is shocked when he returns home from boarding school for the holidays to learn his father has made a deal with an investor to expand their cattle farm. Given the current drought conditions, Kaydon is suspicious of the investor’s motives but his father isn’t interested in his doubts and is determined for the deal to go through.

Rain Dance is an engaging story set in Gunnedah, a regional area in New South Wales. There is a sweet romance that develops between teenagers Holly, a vegetarian, and Kaydon, a fifth generation cattle farmer, action packed scenes when an accidental fire sparks and threatens Holly and her family, and a touch of intrigue when it becomes obvious the investor willing to bankroll the Armstrong’s plans for expansion has his own agenda.

While Rain Dance is aimed at a young adult audience Wood doesn’t shy away from illustrating the realities of life. She explores the affect of the financial crisis through the Harvey family’s losses, the emotional and financial strain drought has placed on regional farmers and raises the environmental risks of mining. Wood also examines some difficult themes through some of the minor characters. Kaydon’s best friend Dan has been struggling since the death of his father in a farming accident. Dan’s mother has been unable to maintain the farm and, with the family on the verge of losing everything while the insurance company delays payment, Dan is growing increasingly desperate. Jake, Holly’s brother, has admitted to being gay and is feeling lonely, and Holly’s mother has just been diagnosed with cancer, with the only treatment available hundreds of kilometers away.

With appealing characters, a strong sense of place and a well crafted plot, Rain Dance is a lovely read. I’d recommend it for adult fans of the rural romance genre to share with the teens (age 12 and up) in their life.

 

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Review: Rachael’s Gift by Alexandra Cameron

 

Title: Rachael’s Gift

Author: Alexandra Cameron

Published: Picador:Pan Macmillan September 2014

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Status: Read from September 20 to 22, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

An intriguing story about love, ambition, manipulation and betrayal, Rachael’s Gift pits husband against wife as they disagree about what they think is best for their child.

Rachael’s Gift unfolds from the alternating perspectives of husband and wife, Camille, a high-strung art historian who investigates the provenance of artwork, and once dreamed of being a famous painter, and Wolfe, an easygoing Aussie bloke who surfs every morning and shapes surfboards in his garage, who are the loving parents of Rachael. Fourteen year old Rachael, precocious and charming, is a gifted artist and Camille is determined to protect the future she has envisioned for her daughter at any cost. Wolfe is proud of Rachael’s talent but is increasingly concerned about his daughter’s gift for lying, especially when she accuses a teacher at her prestigious private school of sexual misconduct.

“She shook her head in disbelief, ‘You’re going to ruin her. Don’t you realise? I can’t let you do it.’ Her chest heaved and then some kind of realisation dawned in her face. ‘Oh my god, you don’t love her. You wouldn’t do this if you did.’
I felt as if my veins were bursting, ‘Of course I love her,’ I shouted, ‘It’s because I love her!’
‘This is not love.’
I stabbed my finger in her face, ‘You love her too much.'”

Unwilling to compromise, Camille flees with Rachael from their Sydney home to Paris, ostensibly to attend a family memorial service for her recently deceased mother, and to further investigate the provenance of a painting at the center of a dispute, but also with the hope she can wrangle Rachael an interview at the prestigious Beaux-Arts Institute. In Paris, Camille is faced with truths she would rather ignore and lies she has forgot she has told, but her focus is Rachael and she must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for the chance of her daughter’s success.

Meanwhile Wolfe, who arrives home to find his wife and daughter have fled without a word of warning, is left to cope with the fall out as word leaks of Rachael’s allegations. Wolfe is reluctant to believe his daughter would go so far as to ruin a man’s life with spurious allegations, but he can no longer ignore the evidence that suggests it is not only his daughter is a liar, but his wife too.

The protagonist’s of Rachael’s Gift are skillfully drawn and developed. Rachael is not unlike a modern day Lolita, whose age belies her innocence. Cameron portrays Camille’s and Wolfe’s emotional upheaval with authenticity. I sided with Wolfe in his arguments with Camille but as a mother I also understood her instinct to support her daughter.

Cameron also raises some of the modern concerns of parenting such as cyber-bullying, sexual predation and the narcissism of youth, and questions the choices parent have in an era where they are expected to protect their children from the consequences of their own behaviour and to support their ambitions without censure.

The pacing is perfect. There is increasing tension as the situation in Sydney spirals out of control and as the relationship between Camille and Rachael begins to fracture in Paris. The conclusion is startling in its honesty.

Part domestic drama, part psychological suspense this is a compelling read and an impressive novel from debut Australian author, Alexandra Cameron.

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Review: Lyrebird Hill by Anna Romer

 

Title: Lyrebird Hill

Author: Anna Romer

Published: Simon & Schuster Au September 2014

Listen to an excerpt

Status: Read from September 18 to 19, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

As in Romer’s debut novel, Thornwood House, the past casts deep shadows over the present in Lyrebird Hill, a haunting story of family secrets, mystery and murder.

Ruby Cardel can’t remember the events surrounding the tragic death of her sister, Jamie. She knows only what she has been told, that Jamie died in an accident when they were children, slipping and falling into the river that bordered their property, Lyrebird Hill and that Ruby was found nearby, bruised and disorientated, her memory of the past year gone. Though Ruby has built a life for herself, opening a bookstore in Coffs Harbour and is in a relationship with handsome self help guru, Rob, her sister’s death continues to haunt her, and she is stunned when her mother is forced to confess that Jamie’s death was no accident. Despite a persistent feeling of dread, Ruby decides it is time to uncover the truth about that fateful day and returns to Lyrebird Hill in the hope of finding the answers she seeks.

As Ruby tries to unravel the mystery of Jamie’s death, a second narrative emerges telling the tale of Brenna Magavin. In 1898, nineteen year old Brenna was the carefree young mistress of Lyrebird Hill, owned by her father. When financial ruin threatened to force the sale of the property, Brenna agreed to marry a family friend, a peer of her father’s, in exchange for the clearance of the debt, only to discover she made a deal with the devil. When Ruby discovers a tin full of letters written by Brenna buried at Lyrebird Hill she learns her family’s history is blighted with tragedy, betrayal and murder and fears it is a legacy she has unwittingly perpetuated.

The dual narratives of Lyrebird Hill weave a captivating and complex tale as the mysteries surrounding Jamie’s and Brenna’s fate unravel. The atmosphere darkens as secrets are revealed and danger lurks. There is unspeakable violence, bitter regrets and shocking treachery but also a thread of redemption, of truth and even triumph.

The prose is lush and lyrical evoking both the landscape of Lyrebird Hill and the fraught emotions of Romer’s characters. There are distinct modern gothic undertones to the story, with a hint of fairytale morality. I did find the pacing a little slow, more so in the contemporary timeline, but the stunning twists presented in the conclusion of both narratives easily compensate for the small lag.

An absorbing and atmospheric tale, beautifully told, I enjoyed Lyrebird Hill and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

 

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Review: The Sunnyvale Girls by Fiona Palmer

 

Title: The Sunnyvale Girls

Author: Fiona Palmer

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin September 2014

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Status: Read from September 22 to 23, 2014 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

The Sunnyvale Girls, Fiona Palmer’s sixth novel, is an engaging story about family, self discovery, and romance.

‘Sunnyvale’, a sheep and wheat farm in regional Western Australia, is home to three generations of women, matriarch Maggie, her daughter Antonia (Toni) and granddaughter, twenty year old Felicity (Flick).

A dual narrative featuring a contemporary and historical timeline has become a popular element in recent rural romance novels. In The Sunnyvale Girls, Felicity discovers a hidden cache of unopened letters addressed to Maggie, and unearths a secret Maggie has kept for over 50 years. Through Maggie’s memories, we learn the origins of that secret – a forbidden wartime romance between Maggie and a young, handsome Italian POW billeted to Sunnyvale during the last years of World War Two. Toni is shocked by Maggie’s revelation, but Felicity reacts to the news with excitement and convinces Toni to accompany her to Italy to try and find Maggie’s lost love.

Both timelines feature family drama, romance and a hint of mystery. Palmer explores the individual journey’s of the three women with a deft hand by challenging her characters emotionally.
Maggie’s story reveals a bittersweet tale of first love, thwarted by prejudice and circumstance. Her secret is easily guessed, but the storyline is sweet, the historical details are interesting and I was eager to find out why Rocco never returned for Maggie as promised.
Toni, already simmering with long held resentments and low self esteem, is furious with her mother when Maggie’s secret is revealed. It makes her question the choices she has made in the past and forces her to confront the decisions she needs to make about her future, especially where Jimmy, Sunnyvale’s farm hand, is concerned.
Felicity is simply curious about Maggie’s past and excited at the prospect of reuniting her grandmother with her lost love. Having fought her mother’s attempts to get Felicity to explore the world beyond the boundaries of Sunnyvale, Italy is a revelation for Felicity, especially when she meets a handsome Italian waiter.

Palmer has always had success with creating a strong sense of place in her novels, drawing on her familiarity with the Australian rural landscape. The author’s descriptions of Italy, particularly of the village of Montone in which Maggie and Flick stay, are similarly evocative. (Check out Fiona’s guest post at Book’d Out to learn about her research trip to Italy.)

A lovely rural romance, with appealing characters, a strong storyline, and a historical twist, The Sunnyvale Girls is another enjoyable novel from Fiona Palmer.

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AWW Feature: Visiting Italy with Fiona Palmer and the Sunnyvale Girls

 

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Fiona Palmer is the bestselling author of five rural romance novels  The Family Farm (2010); Heart of Gold (2012); The Road Home (2012); The Sunburnt Country (2013); The Outback Heart (2013)  and today is celebrating the release of her sixth, The Sunnyvale Girls.

Three generations of Stewart women share a deep connection to their family farm, but a secret from the past threatens to tear them apart.

Widowed matriarch Maggie remembers a time when the Italian prisoners of war came to work on their land, changing her heart and her home forever. Single mum Toni has been tied to the place for as long as she can recall, although farming was never her dream. And Flick is as passionate about the farm as a young girl could be, despite the limited opportunities for love.

When a letter from 1946 is unearthed in an old cottage on the property, the Sunnyvale girls find themselves on a journey deep into their own hearts and all the way across the world to Italy. Their quest to solve a mystery leads to incredible discoveries about each other, and about themselves.

You can read my review of this lovely novel,  The Sunnyvale Girls by clicking HERE

While writing The Sunnyvale Girls, Fiona visited Italy in 2013 with her family, a long way from the tiny rural town of Pingaring in Western Australia, three and a half hours south-east of Perth where she lives. She posted about her trip on her blog and today I am sharing part of her journey with you.

 

Montone

* © Fiona Palmer. Republished with permission – see Montone Part 2

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After Venice we jumped on a train to Florence, changed trains to get to Arezzo and this is where we picked up our hire car to drive to Montone. I could tell you a few funny stories of starting to drive on the wrong side of the road (yes, I found myself here on the odd occassion) and indicating to turn off a road which left us gliding to a stop with a reving motor. You see where the flicker is normally for me was the gear leaver, so I kept accidently kicking the car out of gear when I wanted to indicate. But it didn’t take long to figure out and we were on our way south towards Perugia.

What made us stay here was my mum. She had seen this place advertised in a magazine and some Australians actually own Casa Valdeste where we stayed.  It looked perfect. Montone was founded between AD 800 and 1000, is a working village. The village is set on a small mountain, 482 metres above sea level, and is within easy reach of a large number of delightful medieval towns and cities in Umbria and Tuscany. And it all sounds so perfect right? Well it was even more amazing than we expected.

The village was inside/on top of this huge wall and from our window in Casa Valdeste we could see everything. And when the fog rolled in you felt like you were in the clouds on a mythical floating island.

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Below is our door to Casa Valdeste.

You can see more at Steve’s website here. From his website is the description of our little place.

Accommodating four guests, Casa Valdeste is a beautiful late 14th-century, terrace-style two-bedroom cottage on three floors, 60 metres from Montone’s centrepiece, Piazza Fortebraccio, the main square in the medieval village of Montone. The walls are of stone, about one metre thick and buttressed on the south-western side.  The house features huge oak and chestnut beams on all ceilings, double-glazed chestnut windows, world-renowned Cotto d’Este floor tiles and exquisite ceramic wall-hangings.

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I have heaps of photos all just from Montone. Every door we wanted to steal and bring home, the walls, the windows and shutters. It was heaven. I’d go back again in a heartbeat. We were like kids searching out every nook and cranny, places hidden away around arches or through tunnels. Is it not just the most gorgeous place?

Below is one of the main entries into the village.

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And the lights. I loved the lights!

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And it snows here too. (Not sure I’d want to be driving around those tiny roads and hairpin turns in snow! Heck it was scary enough without it at times. Especially when a big truck is coming the other way and hes cutting the corner!!)

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The view from our little mountain was breathtaking. We would sit for ages just watching.

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We used Montone as our base and drove around this area to Perugia, Gubbio, Umbertide etc.  After 11 days we were soon becoming familiar with the area. We would drive to the nearby train station and did trips to Florence, one to Pisa and also Lucca.  Below is the medieval town of Gubbio and the leaning tower of Pisa!

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And on the weekends we would take walks around Montone. We did a 12km walk one day. It was all good until the last 4km which was all up hill!! But it was great, on this walk we saw the farmers out in their fields, some shifting sheep with lots of dogs and we ate along the way. Grapes and figs just growing on the side of the roads. We were blessed on this trip. Everything went so well. (except maybe the washing machine that decided to flood itself and short out the power lol!)

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It was a sad day when we packed up to leave Montone and head to Rome. This was a big highlight of our trip and if anyone is thinking of travelling to Italy I recommend staying at Steve’s place. It felt like we really got to experience the heart of Italy.

****

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The Book of Days by K.A. Barker

 

Title: The Book of Days

Author: K.A. Barker

Published: PanMacmillan September 2014

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Most people believe the best way to forget someone is to throw them down a well. Or lock them in a room with eight keys, or bury them at a crossroad in the thirteenth hour. But they’re wrong. The best way to forget someone is for them never to have existed in the first place.

When sixteen-year-old Tuesday wakes from sleep for the first time, she opens her eyes to a world filled with wonder – and peril. Left only with a letter from the person she once was, Tuesday sets out to discover her past with the help of her charming and self-serving guide, Quintalion.

Along the way she runs into mercenaries, flying cities, airships, and a blind librarian. But what is her connection with the mysterious Book of Days – a book that holds untold power..

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Review: Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown

 

Title: Tumbledown Manor

Author: Helen Brown

Published: Arena: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 16 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

New Zealand born columnist Helen Brown is probably best known for her bestselling memoirs, Cleo and After Cleo. Tumbledown Manor, set in Australia where the author now lives with her family, is the journalist’s first fiction novel.

Lisa Katz (nee Trumperton) would rather forget she is turning 50 but is delighted when her family gathers to celebrate in her Upper East Side apartment, her daughter Portia has flown in from the west coast, her son, Ted, and her sister, Maxine and her husband, from Australia. As Lisa’s husband of 20 plus years delivers a speech honouring her, an extravagant arrangement of roses is delivered and Lisa reaches for the card, only to learn the bouquet was intended for Jake’s mistress. With her life in shambles, Lisa decides to return to Australia and to reclaim her ancestral home in the Victorian countryside. Trumperton Manor, nicknamed Tumbledown Manor by the locals, isn’t in great shape but Lisa is eager to make it her home despite flood, fire, family secrets, a feral cat and an overly familiar landscaper.

The themes of Tumbledown Manor mainly focus on family, love, acceptance and moving on as the plot centers around Lisa’s desire to make a new life for herself by renovating Tumbledown Manor. There is plenty of humour, a surplus of family drama, a touch of romance and a hint of mystery surrounding a past death in the manor’s stables, which eventually exposes a dark family secret.

I have to admit I wasn’t particularly fond of Lisa. While I sympathised with her over her marriage collapse, I thought her to be a prickly and somewhat self absorbed character who didn’t demonstrate the personal change I was expecting. I think several characters (eg Portia, Zack and Aunt Caroline) could have been dispensed with to give Lisa more opportunity to grow, and their absence wouldn’t have been noticed. I did like the laconic charm of Scott, the local landscaper/handyman who serves as the romantic interest, and is a fount of patience where Lisa is concerned. I also liked Ted and his ‘flatmate’ James. My favourite characters though were Mojo (the feral cat) and Kiwi (the cockatoo) who steal the limelight in every scene they appear in.

I was a little disappointed that the bulk of the renovations to the manor take place in the background. There are brief mentions of uncovering flagstones, furniture shopping and the ‘Grey Army’ being up and down ladders in between eating egg sandwiches but there is no real sense of the house being bought back to life, though the grounds get some attention.

Despite the appealing premise and some engaging, well written scenes and characters unfortunately, Tumbledown Manor wasn’t much more than an okay read for me.

 

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Review: Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

 

Title: Zac and Mia

Author: A.J. Betts

Published: HMH Books for Young Readers September 2014

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Status: Read from September 11 to 13, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A.J. Betts won the Text Prize for YA and Children’s Writing in 2012 for her unpublished manuscript of Zac and Mia. Set in Western Australia, it is the story of two teenagers who meet while receiving treatment for cancer.

Seventeen year old Zac Meier is partway through an enforced period of isolation after a bone marrow transplant to treat his second re-occurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. Stuck in the adult oncology ward, with only his mother and the nurses asking about his bowel movements for company, when a blast of Lady Gaga penetrates the thin adjoining wall of his hospital room, Zac is intrigued by his new neighbour, Mia.
Before her diagnosis of osteosarcoma Mia gave little thought to the future but she could never have imagined she would face it as a ‘one legged freak’. Furious with everyone and everything, including herself, and desperate to deny the reality of her situation, Mia tries to run as far away as she can from her old life.

The narrative is shared between the perspectives of Zac and Mia. Betts characterisation is credible and I felt her portrayal of her protagonist’s emotions and behaviours was realistic.

Zac is an easy character to like, he is sweet, thoughtful and deals with the indignities cancer treatment forces upon him graciously. His family is supportive, with his mother rarely leaving his bedside. He has a sense of humour about his situation, and remains hopeful even despite his bleak odds of long term survival.

“I don’t moan about treatment because what’s the point? The way I figure it, this is just a blip. The average life span for an Australian male is currently seventy nine years or 948 months. This hospital stay, plus the rounds of chemo and the follow up visits, add up to about nine months. That’s only 1.05 percent of my life spent with needles and chemicals, which, put into perspective, is less that one of the tiles of the eighty-four on the ceiling. So, in the scheme of things, it’s nothing.”

Mia is a seemingly less sympathetic character, she is bitter, angry and absorbed by her own misery after her diagnosis, however I never held that against her. In truth, Mia is simply terrified and, completely overwhelmed, lashes out indiscriminately.

“Lucky?
While my friends were dancing at Summadayze, I was kept in observation with intravenous morphine. I pitched in and out of the world, visited by shrinks who attempted to talk about change and perspective and body image and luck. Then they hooked me up to more chemo. I couldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk, didn’t watch when the wound was unbandaged or the staples taken out. I tried to trick myself beyond my fucked-up body, slipping between vivid dreams until the morphine was taken away and I was left to live like this.”

The relationship that develops between Zac and Mia is well crafted and believable. Despite their differences, the pair form a tentative friendship, starting with a few taps on the hospital wall dividing them. It isn’t until Mia unexpectedly turns up on Zac’s doorstep once he is home though that the pair really begin to get to know one another.

While there is a touch of romance, it is important to note that Zac and Mia isn’t a love story. This is a story about friendship, understanding, family and finding the strength to face life’s difficult challenges. It is poignant and sweet, though Betts doesn’t gloss over the darker realities of battling cancer.

The comparisons between Zac and Mia and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are almost inevitable given the similar premise, so I think it is important to point out that author interviews have them drafting their novels at about the same time and published only months apart (Text publishing 2012) . I loved The Fault In Our Stars but of the two, I think Zac and Mia is the more genuine story.

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Review: Can You Keep a Secret? by Caroline Overington

 

Title: Can You Keep a Secret?

Author: Caroline Overington

Published: Random House AU September 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from September 09 to 11, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

It happens on very rare occasions that I can’t quite figure out how to articulate my thoughts about a book. I have written and rewritten my thoughts about Can You Keep A Secret? a half a dozen times and still can’t pull together anything cohesive.

I think it is because I didn’t like it for reasons that are purely emotive. I know that when I finished the last page I dropped my Kindle in a mixture of frustration and incredulity. Some sort of trust had been broken between the author and myself that I can only partially attribute to the protagonist’s ‘secret’, and feels too complicated to explain.

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Also by Caroline Overington reviewed at Book’d Out


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