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.

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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Sunny Girls is available to purchase from

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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.

 

Tumbledown Manor is available to purchase from

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Review: Best to Laugh by Lorna Landvik

 

Title: Best to Laugh

Author: Lorna Landvik

Published:  University of Minnesota Press September 2014

Status:  Read from September 13 to 15, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I’ve read and enjoyed several of Lorna Landvik’s novels so couldn’t resist sampling this offering. Partly based on Landvik’s own early years in Hollywood, Best To Laugh is a funny yet poignant coming of age story set in the 1970’s.

Candy Pekkala is a half Korean, half Nordic, American born twenty two year old who trades Minnesota for California with a half formed idea of becoming a comedienne. She sublets an apartment from her cousin in the once famous Peyton Hall, right in the heart of Hollywood, bordered by Sunset, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards and takes up a series of temp jobs while she tentatively hones her act in local comedy venues.

Candy’s quirky neighbours play a large role in the novel. There is the body building daughter of a television star, a retired animator, a Romanian fortune teller, a substitute teacher who supplements his earnings with game show wins, an elderly man who once owned the most popular nightclub in town, his son, a punk rock singer, and an assortment of actors, actresses and executives waiting for their big break. Orphaned at a fairly young age and raised largely by her grandmother, Candy creates an extended family among the residents of Peyton Hall who give her the confidence and support she needs to pursue her dreams.

There isn’t a lot of story to Best to Laugh but it is an engaging read with plenty of humour and a touch of wistfulness. Landvik acknowledges that the novel is a homage to the people and places that launched her career and as such it has a rosy glow of warmth and nostalgia. I enjoyed it.

Best to Laugh is available to purchase from

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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

Read an Excerpt

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.

Zac and Mia is available to purchase from

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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.

Can You Keep a Secret? is available to purchase from

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Also by Caroline Overington reviewed at Book’d Out


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Review: The French Prize by Cathryn Hein

 

Title: The French Prize

Author: Cathryn Hein

Published: MIRA: Harlequin AU September 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from September 10 to 11, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:
The French Prize is a contemporary romantic adventure set in Provence, a change of pace for author Cathryn Hein who has a reputation for her heartwarming Australian rural romance novels.

Dr Olivia Walker is a historian obsessed with finding the mythical sword, Durendal, said to have belonged to the warrior Roland, a champion of Charlemagne’s court. When she is employed by the wealthy Raimund Blacard to recover La Tasse due Chevalier Gris, ‘The Cup of the Grey Knight’, she is one step closer to realising her dream and silencing her detractors, for etched around the rim is a clue to legendary sword’s location.
For centuries the descendants of one of Charlemagne’s most trusted aides, Guy of Nabonne, have been the guardians of Durendal but in the 14th century its hiding place was lost. Foreign Legion Captain Raimund Blacard is the last of his family line and he is determined to recover the sword before his murderous rival Gaston, and to Olivia’s horror, destroy it.

In part, The French Prize is an Indiana Jones style treasure hunt for a lost relic as Olivia and Raimund search for the clues that will lead them to Durendal. The sword, and the legends of Roland and Charlemagne, are historical facts which have been incorporated into the story and then blended with Hein’s imagination.

If I am honest the romance was a touch heavy for me personally with all the yearning and the brooding, it didn’t quite overwhelm the plot but I did feel like it threatened to on occasion. That said, the chemistry, relationship development and conflict between Olivia and Raimund was believable within the context of the story.

Olivia, as a passionate historian who has chased the legend of Durendal for most of her life, is horrified by Raimund’s plans to destroy the sword and hopes to convince him to spare it. She naively refuses to let the hunt go, even with Gaston posing a very real threat, but proves capable and resourceful.
Raimund is all about duty and honour but his elder brother’s murder at the hands of Gaston has him swearing to destroy the sword, despite his family’s legacy of guardianship. Grieving and weary, he sees himself as cursed which is why he rebuffs Olivia despite their obvious mutual attraction.

Hein’s settings are nicely realised, from the landscape of the French countryside to the hidden room storing Raimund’s family treasures, her characters are well drawn and the plot is neatly crafted. Combining romance with well paced action and suspense, The French Prize is an engaging novel.

 

The French Prize is available to purchase from

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Also by Cathryn Hein reviewed at Book’d Out

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Review: The Moment of Everything by Shelly King

 

Title: The Moment of Everything

Author: Shelly King

Published: Grand Central Publishing: Hachette September 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from September 05 to 07, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A charming, witty and romantic novel, The Moment of Everything is an engaging debut from Shelly King.

Unemployed, after being made redundant by a Silicon Valley tech start-up, Maggie Duprès spends her days reading bodice rippers in the Dragonfly Used Bookstore, owned by her landlord and friend Hugo, waiting for a fresh start. She imagines it will come from an offer to join a new start up or an opportunity brokered by her best friend, Dizzy, instead, Maggie discovers it in the margins of a tattered copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The Moment of Everything is about love, loss and finding your own truth. It is an entertaining story, with occasional bittersweet moments and a real warmth and honesty.

Love is a complicated concept for Maggie, being aware of her father’s affairs and her mother’s seemingly blind devotion and acceptance, she is cynical about romance and relationships. Meeting Rajhit, and falling hard for him, distresses her because she is always waiting for the betrayal she believes to be inevitable.

“I think I’d always been scared of what love meant in my life because I was afraid of it controlling me, of what I would have to give up for it.”

Maggie knows what she doesn’t want – a marriage like her parents or to work in a bookstore. She thinks she wants a casual, fun relationship and the status and wealth of a career in high tech. It is only when she decides to make the Dragonfly profitable while waiting for ‘the’ job that she discovers that the store is exactly what she needs, and only when she nearly loses it all, what she really wants, what will make her happy.

“I’ve always thought…that the moment right before you get what you want is often better than when you actually got it.”

Of course as a bibliophile, the setting of the novel holds enormous appeal. The Dragonfly offers everything beloved about second hood bookstores from the chaotic, musty stacks to the eccentric staff and quirky patrons, with a grumpy cat thrown in for good measure. It seems an obvious cliche but King infuses the Dragonfly with life and warmth and I would love to join Maggie, Hugo and Jason sprawled in the battered armchairs positioned in front of the window.

“The kind of people who come to the Dragonfly don’t just own books, they need them, crave them, find it impossible to breathe without them. They come because they are in love with the store itself, with its handled wares and their untold takes. They come because they are wondering about about the people who owned all these books before. The come because the people whose paths they cross are like the books they find, a bit worn around the edges, waiting for the right person to open them up and take them home.”

Well crafted with engaging characters and a heartfelt storyline, The Moment of Everything is a captivating novel I’d readily recommend.

The Moment of Everything is available to purchase from

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Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

 

Title: The Children Act

Author: Ian McEwan

Published: Nan A. Talese: Random House September 2014

Status: Read from September 03 to 04, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Edelweiss}

My Thoughts:

Ian McEwan has been on my ‘must read someday’ author list for a while so I couldn’t pass up the chance to read The Children Act.

Fiona Maye is a well respected High Court judge presiding over family-related matters. Few of her cases are simple in that she must consider the matter of law with reference to the complexities of humanity, especially in circumstances where children are involved, but Fiona prides herself on presenting impartial and sensitive rulings. The case of a teenage boy, Adam, just months shy of his eighteenth birthday, in desperate need of a blood transfusion that has been refused by his parents on the grounds of religious belief, should be no more or less challenging than any Fiona has faced, yet it arises on the same day that her husband of thirty years demands the right to have an affair. Fiona, while struggling with her private betrayal and shaken confidence, hears Adam’s case but decides to visit his bedside before making a ruling and unwittingly forms a bond with the vulnerable young man.

In the Children Act, McEwan poses interesting questions about the separation, and relationship, between law and religious belief and how they apply to the welfare of a child. Fiona’s court is faced with devout Catholic parents refusing surgery to separate their co-joined twins, a woman seeking an order to prevent her Muslim husband from taking their daughter to a country from where he won’t be compelled to return, a Jewish couple in a custody dispute and the defining case, that of seventeen year old leukemia sufferer Adam whose parents are refusing a life saving blood transfusion due to their Jehovah’s Witnesses faith.

Also at issue are questions about personal freedom and responsibility which arise in both Fiona’s professional and personal lives. Who is responsible for the decisions Adam makes? Does he truly have the freedom to make a decision for himself? How responsible is Fiona for rulings she makes, and for what comes after? What responsibility does Fiona bear for the problems in her marriage? Does she have the right to deny her husband the freedom he requests?

McEwan’s style of prose is succinct yet surprisingly lyrical. There is impressive nuance within the narrative that communicates emotion without explicit description, like the offer of a cup of coffee as a truce. In terms of pacing however I felt as if the story would perhaps have better suited to the length of a novella, as the second half of the novel loses some momentum.

The Children Act is an interesting and provocative novel though not as compelling as I had perhaps hoped, however I can see how McEwan has earned his stellar reputation in the literary community.

The Children Act is available to purchase from

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Review: Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan

 

Title: Apple and Rain

Author: Sarah Crossan

Published: Bloomsbury September 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read on August 31, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

A poignant and touching story, Apple and Rain is a story about family, poetry, wishes and growing up.

Apple is thirteen and has lived with her grandmother since her mother left one Christmas Eve when she was two. Her Nan is loving but strict and Apple can’t help but imagine that her mother will one day return and that her life with her will be all she has ever wished for. When Annie does suddenly reappear on a grey afternoon, she offers Apple her hearts desire, a home of their own, and with barely a backward glance Apple packs her bags, excited that her imagined perfect life is about to begin. Apple finally has the mother she loves, and the freedom she craves, but neither are quite what she imagined, and then there is Rain.

Apple(her full name is Apollinia Apostolopoulou – named for her Greek father) is a sincere character with believable thoughts, motivations and actions appropriate for her age. I found her to be very sympathetic as she struggled to cope with a teens familiar disappointments – being excluded by a best friend, targeted by a mean girl and having an unrequited crush, as well as dealing with her mother’s homecoming, and the surprise of a little sister. As her new life begins to unravel, Apple takes comfort in poetry, inspired by a substitute teacher, and a new neighbour, Del, but must also confront some uncomfortable truths about her mother, her sister’s obsession and her own needs.

Apple’s first person narrative is genuine and appealing. Crossan’s plain writing style and natural dialogue is appropriate for her audience. The pacing of the novel is good and the story is well structured.

Apple and Rain is a bittersweet tale, exploring contemporary themes in a realistic and thoughtful manner. I’d recommend it for readers aged 12 and up.

Apple and Rain is available to purchase from

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Apple and Rain arrived wrapped in brown paper with a warning label and a packet of tissues!

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Review: Mothers and Daughters by Kylie Ladd

 

Title: Mothers and Daughters

Author: Kylie Ladd

Published: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 01 to 02, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

A thought provoking and provocative story, Mothers and Daughters is Kylie Ladd’s fourth novel.

Caro, Fiona and Morag, joined by daughters Janey, Bronte and Macy, are looking forward to a weeks holiday near Broome to catch up with close friend Amira, and her daughter Tess. It should be a week of relaxation and recreation, but as the days pass, tension between mothers and daughters, and between the girls, rises, testing the bonds of family and friendships.

A novel driven by theme and character rather than plot, Kylie Ladd explores the complicated dynamics between mothers and their teenage daughters and the many issues that divide and unite them.

The relationship between Fiona and Bronte is one of the most interesting, I think. Fiona, hyper critical of her daughter, often laments that Bronte is nothing like her but in fact it is the similarities between them that provokes her. Bronte’s meekness reflects the powerlessness Fiona feels in her life and her marriage in particular and she directs her anger and resentment about the situation at her daughter. Despite Fiona’s blunt and often crass demeanor, exacerbated by her fondness for a drink, I developed some sympathy for her, and was happy to see the seeds of change.

Janey is the least likeable of the group, typifying the worst traits of teen ‘mean’ girls- vain, thoughtless, and self involved. Whereas Fiona is hyper critical of Bronte, Janey’s mother, Caro, eventually admits to willfully overlooking her daughters faults.

“I’ve been too soft on her. I’ve always told her how beautiful and clever she is, and now she believes it….I wanted her to be perfect, because it made me look good, so I acted as if she was.”

Ladd also explores the way that we often reflect our own experience of being mothered in our relationships with our daughters. Caro is anxious about being a perfect mother because hers never had the chance, Fiona essentially estranged from her own mother, has no idea how to close the gap between herself and Bronte.

Mothers and Daughters also comments on the way in which modern city/suburban life has encroached on our relationships with our children, underscored by the contrast between the relationship between Amira and Tess and the relationships between the mothers and daughters that remained in Melbourne.

Through the differing perspectives of Ladd’s characters, other issues raised in the novel include friendship, step-parenting, sex, marriage, home, and social issues such as cyber-bullying. Inspired by the setting, Ladd also explores racism and indigenous culture and community.

I glimpse elements of my own relationship with my mother, and my teenage daughter, in this story of these women and girls, and pieces of mothers and daughters I have known in the characters.

Mothers and Daughters is available to purchase from

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Also by Kylie Ladd {click the cover for my review}

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