Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

 

 

Title: The Word Exchange

Author: Alena Graedon

Published: Hachette Au April 2014

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

My Thoughts:

“The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.”

In Alena Graedon’s alternate history literary thriller, The Word Exchange, the printed word has all but disappeared in less than four short years. Set in New York in 2016,Just weeks before the publication of the third and final printed North American Dictionary of the English Language(NADEL), its curator, Doug disappears leaving behind a cryptic message for his daughter, Anana. Concerned and confused, Anana, with the support of a colleague, Bart, begins to search for her father, and stumbles upon a shocking conspiracy that threatens to destroy the very foundation of civilisation – language.

The population in The Word Exchange depends on ‘super’smart personal devices, known as Memes, for almost every want and need and to perpetuate that reliance, the company, Synchronic, responsible for the devices has recognised and exploited the profitability in owning not only the means of communication, (ie the Memes) but also language itself through the Word Exchange. Synchronic does this by essentially forcing the development of a new language, but one without any rules or context, thus forcing users to consult (and pay) the Exchange in order to communicate. Only a handful of people, including Anana’s father, Doug, object, and predict disaster but it is too late when meme users begin to develop ‘Word Flu’, essentially aphasia (the loss and the comprehension and formulation of language) that leads to more serious individual and societal complications.

The Word Exchange is, in part, a cautionary tale about society’s increasing reliance on digital communication and information, and its possible impact on language when paired with corporate greed. If you are appalled when the Oxford Dictionary updates with words like ‘vacay’ and ‘phablet’ and insist on spelling every word in full when you send a text message, The Word Exchange will leave you feeling horrified, yet vindicated.

I think The Word Exchange is both an ambitious, complex, and clever novel and a frustrating, vexatious, and pretentious read. The concept, while not unique, is intriguing and creative but for me the execution was largely alienating. The pace is almost glacial til halfway through and littered with incomplete info dumps, Anana is a weak and annoying heroine who uses disruptive footnotes in her ‘journal’, and the prose is wildly overwritten, even allowing for intentional irony.
But for all that there are moments of brilliance in the narrative, like when, for example, we begin to understand and relate to Graedon’s premise as Bart’s aphasia progresses and made up words proliferate, stripping his journal writing of context and meaning.

I am, in all honesty, torn. The Word Exchange is simultaneously too much, and not enough, an intelligent story but somehow lacking in common sense. If you are curious, I do think it is worth the attempt, but I wouldn’t judge anyone who gives up on it.

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Review: The Tea Chest by Josephine Moon

 

Title: The Tea Chest

Author: Josephine Moon

Published: Allen & Unwin April 2014

Read an Extract

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

My Thoughts:

The future of the ‘The Tea Chest’, a boutique chain offering gourmet and custom tea blends, is in doubt after Simone Taylor’s sudden death. Judy, Simone’s step-sister and part owner, is desperate to sell but Kate Fullerton, who inherited Simone’s share of the business, is determined to follow through on her mentor’s vision and launch a new store in London. It’s a huge undertaking, a scary financial risk, and means leaving her husband and young sons behind in Australia for months, but if it succeeds, Kate’s wildest dreams could come true.

A charming debut novel from Josephine Moon, The Tea Chest is a story about self belief, friendship, love and tea.

As a tea designer, with no experience in running a business, Kate knows she needs help and during the process of readying the store recruits Leila Morton, and sisters Elizabeth Clancy and Victoria Plimsworth. All four women, have something to prove, to themselves and others, and need to work together to launch The Tea Chest on time, and on budget, but their path is strewn with obstacles, both personal and professional.

A third person narrative shifts between the perspectives of the four women, providing individual back story while moving the story forward, and an additional narrative begins about a third of the way into the book to share Judy’s story. To be honest I found this thread a bit distracting as it seems so removed from the main action, though ultimately it explains Judy’s motivation for selling.

The technicalities of tea making didn’t really interest me, as I don’t drink tea (or coffee) but Moon infuses Kate’s passion for blending with a romanticism and glamour that is appealing, and I’d certainly be tempted to stop and browse in The Tea Chest should I pass it on the street.

I thought The Tea Chest was a light, easy read with a lovely message about trusting yourself and reaching for a happy ending.

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Review: The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan

 

Title: The Dead Ground {Paula Macguire #2}

Author: Claire McGowan

Published: Headline:  Hachette Australia April 2014

Status:  Read from April 07 to 09, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

The second book from Irish crime fiction writer, Claire McGowan, The Dead Ground is part police procedural/part thriller as forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, and the Missing Persons Unit, searches for an abducted infant, a missing pro-choice doctor and a newborn, ripped from her mother’s womb.

The grisly opening scene, set during the height of ‘The Troubles’ sets the tone for the shocking crimes that follow in The Dead Ground. This isn’t a story for the faint of heart as the MPRU and Serious Crime team struggle to trace a child abductor and a killer who may be the one and the same.

Paula’s personal issues are entwined in the cases her unit are investigating. I could sympathise with Paula’s prevarication with regards to her personal life but I was irritated by her lack of assertiveness and clear thinking in her professional role. Distracted by her own problems, Paula makes poor choices, including withholding evidence, ultimately putting herself in the path of a killer. I wanted to like her more than I did, and perhaps if I had read the first book to feature Macquire, The Lost, I may have been more forgiving of her flaws in this one.

McGowan courts controversy with her exploration of the abortion debate. Vehement religious opposition means termination is still illegal in Ireland and the few, like Dr Alison Bates, who are willing to offer women options are subject to public vitriol. The irony of the doctor being brutally murdered, and the lack of sympathy for the woman from right to lifers, is inescapable.

Fast paced, provocative and intriguing, The Dead Ground is a story of murder, madness, and the missing.

 

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Review: Crimson Dawn by Fleur McDonald

 

Title: Crimson Dawn

Author: Fleur McDonald

Published: Arena: Allen & Unwin April 2014

Read an excerpt

Status: Read from April 04 to 06, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Fleur McDonald’s fifth novel to combine her love of rural Australia and her farming experience with drama and romance, Crimson Dawn is an engaging story of betrayal, resilience, and family secrets.

Reeling from betrayal and tragedy, Laura Murphy throws herself into the management of Nambina, the family sheep station which now belongs to her. Eight years later, Laura is proud of what she has achieved including developing prize winning Merino rams and setting up a successful farm school that teaches young women the basics of managing a property but then things slowly begin to wrong, one of her rams is poisoned, she suspects one of her students is doing drugs and then her neighbour, and former best friend, announces she has a claim on Nambina, and threatens to take away everything she loves.

There are several tangled plot lines in this story which ultimately reveal unexpected connections, including Meghan’s claim on Nambina, the identity of Laura’s mother, a drug and sex party ring and most significantly, the parallel narrative within the novel which tells the story of a young boy, who left his abusive home in the 1930′s, as he grows into a man. McDonald does well to draw these and other minor threads together in a manner that is plausible, though not entirely probable.

The story did feel a little disjointed to me, especially to begin with, as the contemporary chapters move quite quickly from 2000 to 2001 to 2003 before finally settling in 2008, while the parallel historical timeline makes similar leaps. I personally would have preferred for the contemporary story to have been grounded in a single time period.

Laura is a likeable heroine, her own hard work and determination has seen her build a successful property and business and she is satisfied with the life she has created for herself. But she has been unable to move on from the shocking betrayal of Meghan and Josh, once her best friend and fiance respectively, and has become emotionally closed off from all but family. When Nambina is threatened, McDonald gently guides Laura into the realisation that she doesn’t have to face this latest betrayal alone and introduces Tim, the local vet with whom Laura forms a tentative, and ultimately lovely relationship.

While I do think the storyline was just a bit too ambitious and the flow of the narrative suffered as a result, I did enjoy Crimson Dawn. Laura is a protagonist I can admire and I always appreciate the authentic details McDonald provides about everyday life on rural properties.

 

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Review: Skeletons by Jane Fallon

 

Title: Skeletons

Author: Jane Fallon

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin March 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from March 19 to 20, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

British author Jane Fallon’s fifth novel, Skeletons, exposes the myth of a happy family by revealing the explosive secrets and lies they keep from one another.

After Jen Masterson covertly observes an intimate argument between her father-in-law, Charles, and a young woman outside of his office, she becomes convinced he is having an affair. Jen would rather pretend she saw nothing at all but horrified at the threat to the happy family she adores, she decides to confront the stranger, completely unprepared for the shocking secret she will uncover. Now Jen knows the truth, a secret she can’t share with her husband of twenty years, Jason, nor her best friend, Poppy, who also happens to be her sister-in-law but for how long can she pretend nothing is wrong? For how long can she live a lie?

Jen is caught on the horns of a dilemma, her aim is to protect the family she has made her own but keeping this enormous secret is a burden she finds impossible to bear, Fallon shares Jen’s circular debate about the issue until she is paralysed by indecision. I lost patience with Jen at times, even though I could sympathise with her quandary, there is an element of self absorption in the way in which Jen handled the entire affair, no matter how often she claimed otherwise, which is underscored by her relationship with her own parents.

Generally, I thought Skeletons to be well written with confident prose and dialogue, though I did feel the pace dragged somewhat in the middle. The ending is a little surprising but I think it also wholly appropriate. Trust is a crucial element of any relationship after all and it was brutally severed in the aftermath of the secret being revealed.

I found Skeletons to be a satisfying read, exploring a thought provoking moral dilemma which I think would particularly provide interesting fodder for book club discussion.

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Review: Safe With Me by Amy Hatvany

Title: Safe With Me

Author: Amy Hatvany

Published: Allen & Unwin March 2014 /Washington Square Press March 2014

Read the first three chapters

Status: Read on February 28, 2014 {Courtesy Allen & Unwin and Washington Square Press/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Told from the perspectives of Hannah, Olivia and Maddie, Amy Hatvany’s Safe with Me is an emotive story of tragedy, grief, friendship, secrets and second chances.

A year after her twelve year old daughter’s tragic death, Hannah is still struggling with the loss, burying herself in work to distract herself from the memories, the crippling grief mitigated only by the knowledge that part of Emily lives on in those who received her donated organs.
Olivia was just days away from losing her daughter to liver disease when fifteen year old Maddie received the transplant she desperately needed and after decades of enduring an abusive marriage to ensure the health of her child, Olivia can finally make plans for the two of them to escape.
After years of illness and hospitalisation, Maddie can finally lead a more normal life but she’s worried about fitting in at a regular high school, and devastated when the first girl she meets makes snide remarks about her hair and clothing.
To cheer Maddie up, Olivia treats her to a cut and colour at the new and exclusive salon in town where they meet stylist, Hannah. Hannah is stunned when Olivia reveals that twelve months previously, Maddie received a transplant and can’t help but wonder if the teenage girl before her lived because her daughter died. Tentatively Hannah initiates a friendship with Olivia, and the women are surprised at the ease with which they confide in each other but there are some secrets neither are willing to share.

I was absorbed by the intensity of tragedy and emotion that unfolds from the first page of Safe With Me. Hannah’s grief is raw and visceral as she faces the loss of her precious daughter, the agonising decision to donate her organs and then living without her. Olivia’s love and concern for her ill daughter is evident and when we learn of the physical and emotional abuse she has endured for Maddie’s sake we both admire and pity her. Maddie evokes immediate sympathy as a very ill girl and then as an awkward teen as she struggles to rebuild her life.

But if I am honest, on reflection, the plot of Safe With Me resembles a soap opera episode or a lifetime movie. I wish Hatvany hadn’t opted to combine two such emotive issues – organ donation and domestic violence. While I think the author approaches both issues with sensitivity and compassion, it also seems calculated and somehow cheapens the seriousness of both.
I also took issue with some elements of the storyline, I would have liked the author to have developed the friendship between Hannah and Olivia more, for example. Hannah and Maddie’s outrage over Olivia withholding her suspicions that Maddie was the recipient of her daughters liver, seems disproportionate, after all they had shared little more than a hairdressing appointment and a coffee date.

I’ve struggled with this review because while my heart was touched by this story when I was immersed in it, as I began to write down my thoughts I grew increasingly cynical about it all. I can’t deny that Safe With Me is a gripping, affecting read in the moment but some readers, like me, may ultimately find it disingenuous.

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Review: The Fourth Season by Dorothy Johnston

Title: The Fourth Season {Sandra Mahoney #4}

Author: Dorothy Johnston

Published: Wakefield Press November 2013

Status: Read from February 25 to 28, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

I was wary of accepting The Fourth Season for review as it is the final installment in a quartet of mysteries featuring Sandra Mahoney but I was assured it would work as a stand alone so I ignored my doubts, tempted by the setting and premise, and decided to go throw caution to the wind. In hindsight I should have trusted my intuition because though this novel is well written, I was frustrated by my lack of understanding of the lead protagonist, Sandra Mahoney.

Set in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the mystery central to the novel involves a murdered young woman, environmental activist and science student, Laila Fanshaw, her body found floating in Lake Burley Griffin. Private Investigator Sandra Mahoney is shocked to learn her husband, Ivan, is one of several suspects with no alibi for the time of Laila’s death. It seems he had imagined himself in love with the girl, but he refuses to discuss the situation with Sandra so when she is approached by another suspect desperate to clear his name she takes the case, hoping to prove both her client’s and her partner’s innocence.

Sandra isn’t sure what to make of the information she finds as she slowly uncovers a complex web of lies, betrayal and dark secrets. Initially she suspects environmental politics may have played a part in the murder but a second death twists the investigation in a whole new direction, one that leads back to her client.

The first person, present tense perspective has a noir-ish feel as Johnston combines Sandra’s methodical investigation with ruminations on life and her relationships but I struggled with the introspective nature of the narrative in part, I assume, because of my lack of familiarity with the protagonist. There was a lot I felt I didn’t understand about Sandra, from her relationship with Ivan and her children, to her professional status. What is obvious is that Sandra’s personal interest in the case bleeds into her professional obligations as she struggles with her clients secrets, her husband’s indifference and her children’s fears.

This is a literary mystery, lacking the pace, though not the intrigue of its more commercial counterparts. I can’t fault the writing but the style didn’t quite work for me and I don’t think it was right for me to start at the end, rather than the beginning.

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Review & Giveaway: The Curl Up and Dye by Sharon Sala

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Introducing The Curl Up and Dye, the start to a new series by author Sharon Sala.  Sharon Sala, who has also written under the name Dinah McCall, has 85-plus books in print, published in four different genres.  The Curl Up and Dye is her first foray into women’s southern fiction described as ‘Wally Lamb meets Steel Magnolias’ in which Sala introduces the residents of Blessings, Georgia.  At the heart of this community lies Ruby Dye’s beauty salon, privy to the romance, drama and secrets of the small town and its characters.

I had the chance to ask two questions of Sharon Sala after reading her prequel novella, Color Me Bad. Read on to discover her answers, and my thoughts about The Curl Up and Dye.

Q: What was your worst hair dye experience?
Sharon Sala: The worst hair color experience I ever had was when a salon owner used a shampoo especially for women with gray hair (I’ve had gray hair since I was 30) and it turned my hair purple. It was a nice shade of lilac but I was appalled, just the same.

Q: Why do you think clients spill their secrets to hairdressers? What is the most indiscreet or funniest thing you have overheard in a salon?

Sharon Sala: I think people tell secrets everywhere, but a beauty shop makes people feel better about themselves, and when they do, they usually talk about everything. The funniest thing I ever heard at a beauty shop was from a kid about ten years old. His mother had dropped him off to get a haircut and as the lady was finishing his haircut, the boy piped up with the information that his Mama was going to pay her when she got back, and she hoped to hell the check didn’t bounce. LOL

My Thoughts:

LilyAnn Bronte was once the envy of her high school classmates. Sweet, popular and beautiful she was valedictorian, head cheerleader, crowned ‘Miss Peachy-Keen Queen’ and dating star quarterback, Randy Joe. But then Randy was killed in Afghanistan, having enlisted after the tragedy of 9/11, and LilyAnn’s blessed life fell apart. Grieving for her fiance, she withdrew and ten years later she is overweight, out of shape and alone, still visiting Randy’s grave every week. Its the arrival of a handsome stranger in town that finally inspires LilyAnne to reinvent herself, unaware that his notice is not something you would want.

While a large part of this story is about LilyAnne’s efforts to rebuild her life, the focus is firmly on the romance between LilyAnne and her neighbour, Mike Dalton. Having been in love with LilyAnne since the tenth grade, Mike is hoping that the changes she is making will include the way she sees him, but she remains largely oblivious until Ruby, the owner of the Curl Up and Dye Salon, chooses to give them both a little push. The development of their romance is beset by miscommunication, misguided attempts at provoking jealousy and the misinterpretation of intentions, and though a happy ending is never really in any doubt, it is satisfying when LilyAnne and Mike finally get it together.

What did surprise me was the subplot involving the stranger, T.J. who proves to be a nasty piece of work. I really wasn’t expecting some of the violence that occurs during the course of the novel, and it may be confronting for some readers caught unawares.

To offset the drama there is humour and southern snark, quirky characters and a charming small town atmosphere. The Curl Up and Dye beauty salon is the place to which all the characters gravitate, best introduced in Sala’s prequel novella, Color Me Bad, in which LilyAnne briefly appears.

The Curl Up and Dye is a quick, engaging read blending romance, drama and humour. Well known for her romantic suspense fiction, Sharon Sala is sure to pick up some new fans with her foray into southern fiction who will be looking forward to revisiting Blessings as the series progresses.

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Review: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

Title: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart

Author: Peter Swanson

Published: Faber and Faber February 2014

Status: Read from February 05 to 07, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy Allen & Unwin}

My Thoughts:

It has been twenty years since George Foss last saw the first girl who broke his heart. He and Audrey were inseparable for the first semester of college but over the Christmas break he was devastated to discover he never really knew her at all, not even her real name. In the intervening years he has both dreamed of, and dreaded the idea of, seeing her again and now she sits across from him, Liana Dector, begging for his help. George knows he should turn Liana away, she is a con woman, a fugitive, suspected of murder, but he finds he can’t resist and is soon ensnared in her web of lies, theft, violence and betrayal.

Swanson justifies George’s willingness to become involved with Liana’s manipulations in the present by illustrating the fervour of their short-lived college romance. Despite time and truth, George’s youthful obsession with the enigmatic Liana has barely faded and given the opportunity to be her hero, to save her, and perhaps win her back, he disregards the danger to himself. In part his involvement is also a manifestation of a mid life crisis, George’s life has been ordinary, and he has never recaptured the intensity of his time with Audrey/Liana. I believed in George’s motivation to help Liana but I can’t say I understand his compulsion, as such I didn’t really engage fully with him.

Liana is a classic femme fatale, a manipulative, intelligent, seductress who uses men to get what she wants. As the narrative shifts between George and Liana’s past and their reunion, the author slowly exposes her history, though never really confirming what George, or the reader, suspects, and makes it clear that she can’t be trusted.

As such the twist to the tale is not entirely unexpected but it does have impact. There is no tidy resolution to The Girl With a Clock For a Heart, leaving Swanson the opportunity to revive the characters at a later date. I don’t mind an open ending, and think in this case it is appropriate, but it may irritate some readers.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart has a noir-ish feel which is evident in his characterisation and Peter Swanson’s admiration for Hitchcock shows in his storytelling. It didn’t grip me but the novel is an easy read and a solid debut thriller.

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Review: When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

Title: When Mr Dog Bites

Author: Brian Conaghan

Published: Bloomsbury ANZ February 2014

Status: Read from January 27 to 28, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

When sixteen year old Dylan Mint overhears part of a whispered conversation between his mother and his doctor he becomes convinced he is dying and with just six months or so to live, he develops three ‘Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It’. The first is to shag Michelle Malloy, the second is to find a new best bud for his best friend Amir, and the third is to get his father home from the war before time runs out. It’s a deceptively unambitious plan but given anytime he gets anywhere near Michelle he has the irrepressible urge to shout ‘slag’ in her face, Amir is an Autistic Pakistani who smells of curry, and he can’t directly contact his soldier father who he believes is on special ops in the Middle East, it might not be as easy as it seems.

Set in Glasgow (Scotland), this quirky coming of age tale features a teenage protagonist with Tourette’s, a condition that causes verbal and physical tics. A student at a ‘special school’, Dylan is almost seventeen and like most adolescent boys he has his priorities, dictated by his hormones, which forms the basis of his personal bucket list. As a character, Dylan is endearingly awkward with an optimistic and thoughtful nature and though he struggles with his condition, he is determined to not let it drag him down. What did concern me about the portrayal of Dylan was his naivety, I can only assume he has more complex neurological issues related to, or in addition to, Tourette’s, which weren’t, but perhaps should have been, shared.

In addressing the themes of friendship, intolerance and family in When Mr Dog Bites Conaghan often uses humour to temper the more serious challenges Dylan faces like bullying, blackouts and learning the truth about his absent father, but there are also some sweet and poignant moments. The story unfolds mainly as you might expect, with some minor twists in the details. I do I think the language may prove to be a barrier for non commonwealth readers who may find the slang and cockney rhyming difficult to make sense of but I wouldn’t want that to put anyone off.

I liked When Mr Dog Bites, and I think it’s weaknesses were balanced by its strengths, but I was hoping for something more. However I think it will satisfy a young adult audience of around 14-18, and would be especially suitable for boys looking for contemporary fiction.

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