Review: One Kick by Chelsea Cain

 

Title: One Kick {Kick Lannigan #1}

Author: Chelsea Cain

Published: Simon and Schuster UK/AU September 2014

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Status: Read from September 17 to 18, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

One Kick is the start of a new action packed series for suspense/thriller writer Chelsea Cain who is best known for her popular Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell series.

When the FBI raided an isolated farmhouse they were shocked to discover twelve year old Kathleen Lannigan, abducted six years earlier from outside her home, who destroyed their case against her abusers with a push of a button. Ten years later, ‘Kick’ as she insists she be called, is still struggling with the legacy of fear, shame and emotional trauma inflicted by her captors, and is desperate to find a way to redeem herself. Despite mastering skills in martial arts and marksmanship, amongst other things, to ensure she will never again be a victim, Kick feels useless, until a stranger breaks into her apartment and asks for her help. Bishop is hunting the pedophiles behind the recent abduction of two children and believes she is his best chance at finding them. Kick can’t refuse, but saving them may cost her everything.

With plenty of tension, convincing emotion and harrowing scenes, One Kick is a page turning thriller from the first page. The plot is fairly simple, but holds together well, anchored by Cain’s strong protagonist, Kick.

Kick is a survivor, and to be admired for all she has endured and battled to overcome, but she is damaged. She is all but estranged from her family, resists authority and is obsessed with abduction cases, though at a loss as to how to make a difference. She has never fully resolved her relationship with her abductor, Mel, and is overly attached to her aging dog, Monster. The story places Kick in circumstances that challenge her psychologically, forcing her to confront her dark past and it is impossible not to feel for her and hope that she will triumph. My only niggle with her character is that much emphasis is placed on her finely honed physical skills but when she needs to use them, they all but fail her.

Bishop is a fairly stereotypical character for the thriller genre – tough, enigmatic and ruggedly handsome, though not entirely infallible. His motivations for the hunt are revealed gradually, though his benefactor, who provides the money and resources needed to follow the clues from Seattle to San Diego, remains a shadowy figure.

Kick’s experiences as ‘Beth’ are never really articulated but what is implied is horribly confronting, and may be a trigger for some readers. Cain also exposes some of the sickening details of pedophile rings who rely on a network of safe houses, false identification and anonymous computer networks to procure and trade children while protecting their dirty secret. It makes for disturbing reading.

One Kick is a solid thriller with a strong protagonist and a storyline that is both confronting and exciting. I’m eager to see how the series and its characters will develop.

 

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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: 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.

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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.

Zac and Mia is available to purchase from

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Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

 

Title: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Author: Jenny Nordberg

Published:  Crown Publishing: Random House September 2014

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

My Thoughts:

“We are who we must be.”

In The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg reveals a hidden practice in Afghanistan of presenting young girls as boys for part, or all, of their childhood. In an oppressive patriarchal society that demands sons at almost any cost, these girls are known as bacha posh.

“[I] have met girls who have been boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked; because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a complete family to the village. Often…it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a [bacha posh] for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.”

Nordberg attempts to explain the complex role of a bacha posh by sharing the moving personal stories of a number of Afghan women, including Azita, a female parliamentarian who turns her fourth daughter into a boy; Zahra, who refuses her parents’ attempts to turn her back into a girl; Shukria, now a married mother of three after living for twenty years as a man; and Shahed, an undercover female police officer, who remains in male disguise as an adult.

The author also explores the traditional roots of the practice within the cultural, political and religious framework of Afghan society, and how it contributes to the global dialogue on gender issues. “The way I have come to see it now is that bacha posh is a missing part in the history of women.” concludes Nordberg.

Written with keen insight and sensitivity, The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating and poignant account of women’s lives in Afghanistan.

 

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Review: The French Prize by Cathryn Hein

 

Title: The French Prize

Author: Cathryn Hein

Published: MIRA: Harlequin AU September 2014

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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.

 

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Also by Cathryn Hein reviewed at Book’d Out

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Review: Already Dead by Jaye Ford

 

Title: Already Dead

Author: Jaye Ford

Published: Random House AU September 2014

Status: Read on September 08, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

“She was waiting for traffic lights at the start of rush hour on a Monday afternoon when a man opened her front passenger door, got in and pointed a gun at her chest…
‘Drive’.”

Miranda Jack (Jax) is stunned when a strange man climbs into her car and forces her to drive north on the highway at gunpoint. He is highly agitated, pressing the gun barrel into her ribs while looking frantically over his shoulder, and when Jax asks what he wants, who he is, he roars at her; I’m already dead. That’s my name now. That’s what they called me. That’s me. Nice to meet you. I’m Already Dead.”
Two hours later, Jax stands trembling on the roads edge, the man’s gun in her hand, surrounded by police, and trying to understand what just happened. Brendan Walsh, her abductor, is dead, and Jax is wondering how much of what he told her during their crazed journey is true. The investigating detective seems certain that Brendan’s ravings can be dismissed as the paranoid delusions of a soldier suffering PTSD but Jax, a journalist, isn’t so sure. She needs answers… but the questions she is asking may prove deadly.

Thrilling from the very first page, Already Dead, is an exciting tale of suspense. I read it in a single sitting, absorbed by the intensity of emotion, the fast paced action and the complex characterisation.

Jax is an interesting protagonist. Still struggling with her husband’s unsolved murder barely 12 months earlier, it is because she has no answers about his death that she becomes obsessed with investigating Brendan’s. Ford brilliantly captures Jax’s vacillating emotions through out the story creating a believable and appealing character who draws on her instincts and inner strength to expose the truth.

Ford’s exploration of the issues associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Already Dead gives added depth to this work of crime fiction. Walsh has struggled to readjust to civilian life after two tours in Afghanistan and people are quick blame PTSD for his accusations. Jax, in the wake of the abduction, is also suffering from the disorder’s symptoms – nightmares and anxiety, exacerbated by her still fresh grief and a history of tragedy. After her ordeal Jax, and Detective Aiden Hawke, are quick to dismiss her continuing sense of unease as a reaction to the stress, allowing events to quickly spiral out of control.

Well crafted with page turning appeal, Jaye Ford’s fourth novel, Already Dead, is a gripping psychological thriller. You will never feel safe idling at traffic lights again.

 

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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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Weekend Cooking: Tacolicious by Sara Deseran, Joe Hargrave, Antelmo Faria and Mike Barrow

 

wkendcooking

I’ve decided to make the Weekend Cooking meme, hosted by Beth Fish Reads  a regular monthly post at Book’d Out. Cooking is something I enjoy and I have been making more of an effort again lately, so I am looking forward to sharing some of my culinary adventures.

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Title: Tacolicious: Festive Recipes for Tacos, Snacks, Cocktails, and More

A collection of recipes for fun, accessible taqueria fare–including colorful salsas, tasty snacks, irresistible cocktails, and of course tacos galore–from the wildly popular San Francisco restaurants and acclaimed Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market food stand, Tacolicious.
Tacos may be the most universally loved, happy-making food on earth. After all, who can say no to a juicy, spicy Chile verde taco; a decadently deep-fried Baja-style fish taco; or a gloriously porky Carnitas taco? At Tacolicious, the San Francisco Bay Area’s most popular Mexican restaurant, tacos are a way of life. And now, in this hotly anticipated cookbook, co-owner Sara Deseran shares all of the restaurant’s tortilla-wrapped secrets. Whether you’re seeking quick and easy weeknight meals or inspiration for a fabulous fiesta, Tacolicious has you covered. With recipes for showstopping salsas, crave-worthy snacks, cocktails and mocktails, and, of course, tacos galore, this festive collection is chock-full of real Mexican flavor—with a delicious California twist.

Author: Sara Deseran, Joe Hargrave, Antelmo Faria and Mike Barrow

Published: Ten Speed Press: Random House September 2014

Status: Read on August 25, 2014   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Growing up, simple beef tacos and nachos were exotic meals, Mexico is after all a long way from Australian shores. Now these dishes, along with steak and chicken fajita’s, burrito’s, enchilada’s and quesadilla’s appear regularly in my family’s menu. I was curious about Tacolicious because I have never used anything except sachets of Old El Paso packaged seasoning to prepare any Mexican dishes and I know that flavour is probably sacrificed as a result.

The recipes aren’t complicated but some ingredients wouldn’t be easy to source except online, especially in my small country town. I can get chilies at the supermarket but they only come in red, green or in a jar, Velveeta cheese isn’t sold in Australia, nor is Monterey Jack. However with a few tweaks here and there almost all of the the recipes which include a range of Salsas, Snacks, Sides, Tacos, and more, seem doable.  I was a little disappointed there was no recipe for making tortilla’s though they do discuss where they source them from and compare store bought options for the home cook.

If you enjoy a drink or two there are a few dozen easy concoctions to choose from. Unsurprisingly tequila features heavily but non alcoholic options are offered also.

The overall tone of the cookbook is friendly and encouraging. There are some good hints and tips for preparation, cooking methods and presentation and the recipe steps are clearly described. Bright full page photo’s are a nice feature. The glossary and index are both useful inclusions as well.

You can view a few sample pages from the book and get recipes for Melon, mango and cucumber with chile, salt and lime and Old School Taco at the Tacolicious website. Random House shares a recipe for Roasted tomato–mint salsa along with the introductory pages in its Look Inside feature.

Tacolicious 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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