Review: I See You Made an Effort by Anabelle Gurwitch

Title: I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50

Author: Annabelle Gurwitch

Published: Blue Rider Press March 2014

Status: Read from March 11 to 12, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I was oblivious to Annabelle Gurwitch’s identity before selecting I See You Made an Effort for review otherwise I probably would have given it a wide berth. I don’t have a single thing in common with a Jewish/atheist actress/comedienne living in Hollywood, and I still have ten years until I turn 50 anyway.

That being said I found this collection of essays on reaching middle age readable, sometimes touching, and even occasionally funny.

The most moving story is about the slow death of her friend from pancreatic cancer and the story of ‘The Sandwich Generation’ which includes the recurrence of her mother’s breast cancer.

I laughed at Annabelle’s trampoline induced injuries, ‘This is Fifty’ and her parents technological cluelessness.

The ’4am Club’ was the essay I could relate to most with those same questions and fears running nightly through my own head.

I was least interested in her accidental membership of a cult or the price of her anti aging serum, though I can see how the two are connected even if Gurwitch misses it.

I didn’t think I See You Made an Effort was anything other than an okay read but I’m probably not the right audience for it either, you might be.

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Review: Kids These Days by Drew Perry

Title: Kids These Days

Author: Drew Perry

Published: Algonquin Books January 2014

Status: Read from January 06 to 09, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

When Walter is unexpectedly downsized and his wife announces she is pregnant, he and Alice are left with no option other than to relocate to Florida and live rent free in Alice’s dead aunt’s condo. Generously, Walter’s successful brother in law, Mid, offers him a job assisting with the maintenance of his various business interests, but it soon becomes obvious that something isn’t quite right about Mid’s dealings and added to his general anxieties about impending fatherhood and his family’s future, when things begin to spiral out of control Walter has no idea what to do about it.

This book didn’t really work for me, I found Walter largely irritating, as his constant angst became wearying. While I understood he was struggling to deal with the upheaval in his life – the loss of his job, the forced move and the impending birth of his first child, for a thirty something year old who had a successful career, he was painfully clueless and I couldn’t really identify with him much at all. I did have some empathy for Alice, especially when she had difficulties with the pregnancy, and Mid and Caroyln’s rebellious teenage daughter, but most of my sympathy lay with Mid’s wife Carolyn, who obviously put up with a lot with regards to her husband’s scheming.

The action in the novel stems from Mid’s dubious business interests, in which he involves Walter. There is some mystery as Walter tries to make sense of Mid’s investments, and his clandestine meetings with a pair of law enforcement agents. The story descends into a bit of a farce as Mid’s schemes begins to fall apart, though it is amusing to think of he and Walter fleeing the police in a canary yellow Camaro and Mid flying off in a parachute buggy as Walter stands open mouthed below.

I think I just wasn’t the right audience for this story which perhaps better suits hipster readers who have managed to grow older, without actually growing up.

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Review: A Wicked Kind of Dark by Jonathan K. Benton

Title: A Wicked Kind of Dark{The Minaea Chronicles #1}

Author: Jonathan K. Benton

Published: Odyssey Books September 2013

Status: Read from September 12 to 13, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

A Wicked Kind of Dark is a debut urban fantasy novel and the first in a planned series named The Minaea Chronicles. Author Jonathan K. Benton introduces eighteen year old Robert Duncan, who as a child was badly hurt in a fall and lost six months of his memory, a period he calls the Winter of No Content. Robert has always wondered about the mysterious gap, then a static filled phone call, a portrait of a somehow familiar flame haired woman and graffiti appearing all over London referring to the coming ‘blood moon’ triggers the unraveling of his childhood secrets and reveals the kingdom of Minaea.

The real world setting is divided between modern day London, where Robert currently lives, and rural Scotland where he spent his childhood. It was in Scotland that Robert met Luthien, a young girl who became his best friend as they played in nearby castle ruins imagining a fantastic world they named Minaea. Luthien was presumed to have died in the same accident that injured Robert but the recent events in London seem to suggest otherwise.

Benton’s fantasy world, Minaea, is heavily influenced by Tolkien, and I wonder if A Wicked Kind of Dark began as some kind of fan fiction. There are several direct references to the novel but also evident parallels combined with the author’s own touches. One of these is the concept of ‘twin souls’, Robert and Luthien are paired with Minaea’s Lord and Lady of the Light – Rafael Lae (The Sparkling Man) and Tala Lae, and they need each other to fight the demon Jakal’s evil plan to destroy Minaea and invade Earth.

A strength of the story is its social conscience element regarding homelessness. Robert, in his quest for answers, becomes involved in a London Soup Kitchen with people whose lives have been changed by an encounter with The Sparkling Man.

Primarily where the novel doesn’t quite work for me is that I felt A Wicked Kind of Dark seemed more like a MG (middle grade) fantasy later edited in an attempt to expand its appeal to a more mature young adult audience and I think the story is weakened as a result. It was just an okay read for me.

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Review: The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

Title: The Bookstore

Author: Deborah Meyler

Published: Gallery Books August 2013

Status: Read from August 15 to 17, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher/Edelweiss}

My Thoughts:

I imagine there are few avid readers who could pass up a book set in a bookstore and the Owl is the type of store many wish would exist on their block.

“The store is narrow, about ten feet across, with a central staircase leading to a mezzanine. There are books on both sides of the stairway, in ever more precarious piles, and it is a hardy customer who will pick her way carefully up the stairs to the dusty stacks beyond. Downstairs is a tumble of books that I sometimes surreptitiously straighten. There are sections labeled with old notices, but they flow into each other in an unstoppable tide, so that history is compromised by mythology leaking into it, mystery books get mixed up with religion, and the feminist section is continually outraged by the steady dribble of erotica from the shelves above. When books do manage to make it to shelves, instead of being in piles near their sections, they are shelved double deep and the attempts at alphabetization are sometimes noticeable, with “A”s and “Z”s serving as bookends to the jumble in the center.” p8

Open from morning to midnight and staffed by an eccentric group of people, including two homeless men, the second hand bookstore is a wonderful setting. While it was center stage I read eagerly, delighted by the laconic owner, George and his enigmatic assistant Luke, content to imagine sitting behind the counter with a book in hand while a succession of customers wandered into the gloom.

Esme is The Bookstore’s protagonist. A British PhD scholarship student at Columbia she falls pregnant to her boyfriend, Mitchell. They have been dating only a couple of months and she is worried what the pregnancy will mean to their relationship if she makes the decision to keep the baby. But before she can tell Mitchell (though it is obvious he suspects) he cruelly dumps her and Esme is left reeling. Choosing to have the baby anyway, Esme knows she will need some extra income so she applies for part time position advertised at the Owl.

Sadly I found Esme less endearing as the story unfolded. The bright, articulate woman we are introduced to at the beginning of the story dissolves into the lovelorn victim of Mitchell’s shallow charms, oblivious to his self serving manipulations. The focus on the on again/off again relationship reduces Esme to a caricature rather than a character and I quickly grew tired of her inane interactions with Mitchell.
Unfortunately there is not really any plot to speak of either aside from the anti-love story and the novel’s ending is ambiguous and unsatisfying. I realised, three quarters of the way through, I cared little about Esme and her pining for Mitchell and was simply waiting to revisit the Owl.

That leaves me in a bit of a quandary, there were elements of this novel I liked, the Owl and its characters obviously and even the writing style, but the almost farcical relationship between Esme and Mitchell was an irritant and in the end I can’t say The Bookstore was any more than OK.

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Review: Always Watching by Chevy Stevens

 

Title: Always Watching

Author: Chevy Stevens

Published: Allen & Unwin July 2013

Status: Read from July 13 to 14, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

In Always Watching, Chevy Stevens third novel, Dr Nadine Lavoie is forced to confront the demons of her past after one of her psychiatric patients reveals a connection to the commune in which Nadine spent part of her childhood.

Those familiar with Chevy Stevens’ novel, Never Knowing, will recognise Nadine’s name as the psychiatrist Sara Gallagher was consulting. Nadine, in her mid fifties, is a widow, the mother of a runaway drug addicted daughter, Lisa, and stepmother to Garret. She has recently moved into Victoria from its outskirts, leaving her private practice behind to work at St Adrian’s Hospital.
Nadine’s childhood was characterised by an abusive father and manic depressive mother. When Nadine was about twelve, her mother took Nadine and her brother to live on a commune. Nadine has few memories of her time there but feels her claustrophobia is linked to some associated stressful event.

When a suicidal patient presents at St Adrian’s, Nadine learns of her connection to The River of Life center led by Aaron Quinn, which evolved from the commune Nadine had lived with. Concerned by the information her patient provides about the Center’s operations, and still puzzled by the vagueness of her own memories, Nadine begins to ask questions about the cult. But her investigation has Aaron on the defensive and he has secrets he doesn’t want anybody to know.

While Never Knowing had me turning the pages, breathless with anxiety and anticipation, Always Watching lacks the same tension and urgent pace. It probably isn’t fair to make the comparison but I was expecting a fast paced psychological thriller from the marketing and I just don’t think Stevens achieved that here. Apart from a burst of frantic speed near the end of the novel when Nadine confronts Aaron, I didn’t feel there was any suspense to speak of.

Neither is there anything particularly original in terms of plotting. Given Nadine’s repressed memories it is obvious something nasty happened to her and what she experiences is really no surprise given that cults target vulnerable members of society, use shocking methods to control its disciples and sexual abuse is rife.
The sub plot involving Nadine’s daughter Lisa, a drug addict living in the streets is more interesting, though neither was I really surprised by her revelations.

With some degree of regret, I can’t say Always Watching was really anything more than an okay read for me.

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Review: The Book of Love by Bella Andre

Title: The Book of Love {Sullivans #1}

Author: Bella Andre

Published: Harlequin MIRA Au June 2013

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Status: Read on May 30, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the Publisher}

My Thoughts:

I did hesitate when I was asked to review The Look of Love by Bella Andre, but my curiosity won out. Initially self published, the popularity of Andre’s Sullivan series caught the attention of traditional publishing houses and was eventually picked up by Harlequin for a seven figure amount. The Look of Love is the first to be released in digital and print under the MIRA imprint with eight more to follow over the next 12 months.

The contemporary romance series features a family, the Sullivan’s, which includes 8 genetically blessed siblings (6 boys and twin girls) with extraordinary good looks, various talents and intelligence, aged between twenty four and thirty six. The Look of Love opens as the Sullivan family gathers to celebrate their mother’s 70th birthday, introducing us briefly to all of the characters that will feature in subsequent books.

Chase Sullivan is the focus of The Look of Love. At thirty two, he is the third oldest of the children and, like all of his siblings, successful, gorgeous and single. A photographer, Chase leaves his mother’s house after the party and heads to his brothers winery in Napa Valley where he has a fashion shoot scheduled for the next few days. En route, he rescues a damsel in distress, Chloe Peterson, whose car has slid off the road during a violent storm.

Cue instant attraction where lust overrides all common sense and, within four days, a happy ever after ending for the barely familiar couple.

There isn’t a lot of thought given to creating a believable story here, with the plot simply a way to transition from one sizzling sex scene to another. And the sex is hot, I think the erotic interactions are very well written with the right balance of anticipation and fulfillment.
However the likelihood of Chloe, on the run from an abusive ex husband, placing herself in such a physically and emotionally vulnerable position is slim and I found it difficult to overlook that.
Chase himself is a contradiction. In a certain light his behaviour could said to be sweet, caring and with Chloe’s best interests at heart, but there are instances where he makes choices for Chloe ‘for her own good’ and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The Look of Love is a quick read but lacks any real substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I think it limits its appeal to romance readers who love the fantasy of instant, overwhelming attraction, and I am not one of them.

Click here to read a Q&A with Bella Andre

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Review: Saving Grace by Fiona Mccallum

Title: Saving Grace {The Button Jar Series #1}

Author: Fiona Mccallum

Published: Harlequin April 2013

Status: Read from March 28 to 29, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy Harlequin Australia}

My Thoughts:

Saving Grace is the fourth book by Fiona Mccallum set in South Australia and the first in a new series named The Button Jar series. In this contemporary rural fiction novel, Emily Oliphant has endured three years of marriage to John Stratten and, when he destroys her hope of developing a B&B (literally) and threatens her only companion, a puppy named Grace, she decides she can’t take his cruelty anymore. Despite her mother’s vehement disapproval and her own doubts, Emily leaves and must find a way to rebuild her life and her dreams.

After struggling with Mccallum’s lead protagonist in Wattle Creek, I was hoping to find Emily a more personable character. Unfortunately I quickly grew frustrated with Emily’s passive attitude which swings wildly between self pity and bitterness. There were glimpses of strength but too fleeting, and almost immediately undone by semi hysterical rhetoric. To be fair, I was not completely without sympathy for Emily and thought that her thoughts and behaviours were not unrealistic, especially as she wavers, but I found her pessimism wearing.

I often find when I can’t relate to the main character of a book it influences how I feel about the story as a whole, and that is certainly the case here especially as very little else happened plot wise. Saving Grace is a character driven novel and without the connection to Emily I care little about what happens to her. This novel feels as it ends abruptly with very little progress or resolution. There is some growth but generally at the instigation of others and I really wanted for Emily to take a more active role.

I did like Barbara quite a lot though, I appreciated how supportive and practical she proved to be, given the newness of her friendship with Emily. I also liked the way in Emily’s father extended his quiet support to Emily, especially in the face of her mother’s endless criticism and disapproval.

I really wanted to fall in love with Saving Grace, and I am sorry I didn’t. I consider my opinion to be the result of a personality conflict with Emily, and not a reflection on the author but I can only describe it as an okay read (hence the 2 stars).

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Review: Chasing Sprits by Nick Groff

 

 

Title: Chasing Spirits: Behind the scenes adventures with  TV’s hit Ghost Adventures Crew

Author: Nick Groff with  Jeff Belanger

Published: Allen & Unwin March 2013

Status: Read from March 08 to 09, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy Allen & Unwin}

My Thoughts:

Chasing Spirits is the story behind the popular ‘documentary’ show, Ghost Adventures, that investigates haunted locations around the world. Currently in it’s fifth season on The Travel Channel, it is hosted by Nick Groff, Zak Bagans and Aaron Goodwin. Even though I hadn’t heard of the show, I was looking forward to reading Chasing Spirits as I have a fascination for the paranormal. I find the idea of things that go bump in the night intriguing, though if I was ever to confront a ghost I would run screaming in the opposite direction (and I am completely incapable of watching any of the Paranormal Activity movie franchises).

In Chasing Spirits, Nick Groff shares how his childhood experiences, including a near death experience and an encounter with a menacing ghostly figure collided with his love of film in his college years to  conceive the idea for paranormal investigation documentary. As amateur filmmakers, Nick, Zak and Aaron borrowed the cash to upgrade their equipment, talked their way into known haunted locations and devoted themselves to the project. The documentary was picked up by the Sci Fi Channel and was the seed for the television series to follow.

The behind the scenes detail of how Ghost Adventures evolved will probably be of interest fans of the show who have gotten to ‘know’ Nick but I found myself wading through it in order to get to the parts that interested me specifically. I think had I been familiar with the show (I don’t have Pay TV, i.e. Cable TV, where it is exclusively shown in Australia) I might have enjoyed the whole book more instead I found myself skimming his complains about editing and focusing on his accounts of his interactions with the paranormal.

I didn’t really like the structure of the book. I found the insertion of both the Q&A and the location history text boxes distracting and thought the information could have easily been worked into the main text, or more carefully placed.

The impact of Nick’s accounts in the book are much stronger when combined with visual evidence. I was disappointed to find a handful of photos of Nick as a child and on location but no photos or stills from encounters. However I spent quite a while after I had finished the book browsing the Ghost Adventures website and viewing the videos available that complement the incidents Nick writes about.

Even though I think Chasing Spirits is probably a book more for fans of the Ghost Adventures series, a reader with an idle interest in similar shows, or paranormal investigation, should find themselves entertained.

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Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

 

Title: The Last Runaway

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Published: HarperCollins Australia Jan 2013

Synopsis: When modest Quaker Honor Bright sails from Bristol with her sister, she is fleeing heartache for a new life in America, far from home. But tragedy leaves her alone and vulnerable, torn between two worlds and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Life in 1850s Ohio is precarious and unsentimental. The sun is too hot, the thunderstorms too violent, the snow too deep. The roads are spattered with mud and spit. The woods are home to skunks and porcupines and raccoons. They also shelter slaves escaping north to freedom. Should Honor hide runaways from the ruthless men who hunt them down? The Quaker community she has joined may oppose slavery in principle, but does it have the courage to help her defy the law? As she struggles to find her place and her voice, Honor must decide what she is willing to risk for her beliefs. Set in the tangled forests and sunlit cornfields of Ohio, Tracy Chevalier′s vivid novel is the story of bad men and spirited women, surprising marriages and unlikely friendships, and the remarkable power of defiance.

Status: Read from January 08 to 09, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy TheReadingRoom}

My Thoughts:

Girl with a Pearl Earring, was a bestseller for Tracy Chevalier so when I received a copy of The Last Runaway I was looking forward to read it. Set in the 1850′s, this novel follows Quaker Honor Bright, accompanying her betrothed sister, on her journey from England to a new life in America. When tragedy strikes, Honor must continue to Ohio on her own where she struggles with an unfamiliar society, far from her family and friends.

Unfortunately I was rather underwhelmed by The Last Runaway. The larger themes examined are the difficulties of choosing between principles and practicalities, passion and duty, but the contradictions are only cursorily explored.

Honor lacked the spirit I expected from a lead character, even as a Quaker woman of her time. She makes little effort to connect with her new life and her passive demeanor is uninteresting. Her letters home reveal more of her character, but it’s only a glimpse without sharing nay real insight. For me, Honor’s rebellion against her husband and the Society by not speaking for six months, came across as a passive aggressive ultimatum rather than the spiritual choice Chevalier intended.

I thought most of the characters in The Last Runaway tended to be fairly one dimensional, including Honor’s new husband and mother in law. I really liked Belle though, a milliner who welcomes Honor into her home during her journey and is instrumental in supporting the Underground. Belle’s brother Donovan, a slave hunter, is perhaps the most complex character in the novel but he remains largely incidental to the story.

Much is made of Honor’s role in the Underground Railway in the synopsis, however her actual interaction with the escaping slaves was minimal. She leaves food out under upturned crates and whispers instructions to those that occasionally pass through but it is passive assistance, even with the threat of the Slave Fugitive Act. While there are glimpses of the fear and desperation of the escaping slaves, it seems almost irrelevant somehow.

The ending was quite the surprise however, not what I was generally expecting though it was not quite enough to redeem the book either.

For me The Lost Runaway was not much more than okay. It gave a brief glimpse into life during a specific time and place but without the depth I thought the subject deserved and the author capable of.

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Review: Being Anti-Social by Leigh K Cunningham

@ Goodreads

Title: Being Anti-Social

Author: Leigh K Cunningham

Published: Vivante Publishing May 2012

Synopsis: Mace Evans is single at thirty-eight. When her much unloved older sister, Shannon, declares that Mace is anti-social, she embarks on a journey to understand her condition; whether she was born that way or if it is the accumulation of thirty-eight years of unfortunate encounters with other humans and dogs. For reasons unbeknown to Mace, she has an affair with a work colleague, which brings an unexpected end to her perfect marriage. And as if the self-imposed torture and regret is not enough, Mace endures ongoing judgment from her older sister and mother, which further exacerbates already tenuous relationships. With support from her four best friends, merlot and pizza, and with guidance from her life coach and mentor, Oscar Wilde, Mace recovers to a degree, but in her quest to understand her anti-social ways, she finds herself wondering about the quality of the fabric that keeps her network of friends intact. When Mace’s mother is diagnosed with cancer, Mace searches for common ground on which to connect before it is too late.

Status: Read from November 22 to 23, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

Despite Being Anti-Social’s cartoonish, pastel cover art I disagree with it being labeled as chick-lit. It lacks the light hearted approach to life and love that defines the genre and instead is a fairly serious minded analysis of character, though there are the occasional flashes of dry humor, mainly from well placed quotes by Oscar Wilde, who certainly has sage advice to offer for every occasion.

When Mace Evans is accused of being anti-social by her older sister she gives the complaint considerable thought. While she admits her idea of a good time is an evening spent alone with a bottle of merlot and a slab of chocolate on her couch, she resists the idea that she “unwilling or unable to associate in a normal or friendly way with other people”. Over the course of a year or so, as Mace approaches forty unmarried and childless, she examines her past and present relationships in an effort to define herself.

Being Anti-Social is well written but I found it difficult to sustain interest in what is essentially a first person monologue. Perhaps if I had been able to identify with Mace it wouldn’t have been such an issue but I found it difficult to like, or even understand her. She treats the people in her life carelessly, often with barely veiled contempt, and I thought her behaviour bordered on narcissistic, expecting family, friends, lovers and even colleagues to accommodate her personality ‘quirks’. Though there are incidents that counter her selfishness, and some signs of growth, I didn’t warm to her, which I think is crucial in such a character driven piece.

As I was unable to make that crucial connection with the main character, Being Anti-Social did not really work for me, despite the author’s technical proficiency. However I do think this novel would find an audience amongst readers who can relate to Mace and her journey.

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Leigh K Cunningham is a lawyer with a career as a senior executive for a number of public companies in her home country of Australia. She has master’s degrees in law (Master of International Trade & Investment Law) and commerce (Master of Commerce) as well as an MBA (International Management). RAIN, Leigh’s first title for the adult fiction market (April 2011) was named the winner in the Literary Fiction category at the 2011 Indie Excellence Awards. RAIN was also awarded a silver medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Awards (IPPY) in the Regional Fiction: Australia/New Zealand category. RAIN was #1 on the Amazon bestseller list for Women’s Fiction (December 2011). Leigh’s first two children’s books, THE GLASS TABLE and its sequel, SHARDS are recipients of silver medals from the Mom’s Choice Awards. SHARDS was also a finalist at the 2011 Indie Excellence Awards in the Juvenile Fiction category. BEING ANTI-SOCIAL is Leigh’s latest title (May 2012). It has been awarded the Gold Medal at the 2012 Readers Favorite Awards in Chick-lit.

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