Review: Springtime by Michelle de Kretser

 

Title: Springtime: A Ghost Story

Author: Michelle de Kretser

Published: Allen & Unwin October 2014

Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the leaf-hung depths of the garden. She wore a long pink dress and a wide hat, and her skin was a creamy white. There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stood still.

When Frances met Charlie at a party in Melbourne he was married with a young son.

Now she and Charlie live in Sydney with her rescue dog Rod and an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis. They are still getting their bearings – of each other and of their adopted city. Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.”

Status: Read on October 23, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

I requested this for review because though I own de Kretser’s award winning Questions of Travel I have yet to read it.

Springtime is an introspective little piece – a short story, (presented in hardcover, smaller than a mass paperback with largish type) rather than a novella.

It is a brief portrait of a woman facing the uncertainty and impermanence of change, time and fate. The tone is ethereal, the language graceful but it didn’t really speak to me beyond that.

 

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Review: I’ll Be Watching You by Beverly Barton

 

Title: I’ll Be Watching You

Author: Beverly Barton

Published: Avon UK October 2014

Listen to an Excerpt

Status: Read from October 21 to 22, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publicist}

My Thoughts:

I’ll Be Watching You by Beverly Barton is a romantic suspense novel with elements of erotica and mystery. After spending fifteen years in jail for a crime he did not commit, Reed Conway is determined to return to Spring Creek and prove his innocence by outing whoever really slit his step father’s throat. When Ella Porter, the daughter of the man who secured Reed’s conviction, receives a vulgar and threatening anonymous letter the day after Reed is paroled, Reed is an immediate suspect but after Ella confronts him, she As threats against the Porter family escalate Ella, swayed by Reed’s sexy charm, begins to believe in his claim that he is being framed now, as he was fifteen years ago, but can she really trust a man convicted of murder with her life?

Unfortunately I wasn’t terribly impressed with this story. The plot resembles a daytime soap opera arc with the a small cast tangled in an almost incestuous web of abuse, deceit, betrayal, adultery, obsession, and murder. The suspense is okay but the plot shocks are fairly heavily foreshadowed and when the killer’s identity was revealed, I realised I wasn’t surprised in the least.

The narrative is written in the third person using multiple perspectives, including that of the anonymous killer. If I am honest, I didn’t find any of the the characters very convincing as individuals, not helped by their convoluted relationships to one another.
Nearly thirty and a circuit judge, Ella Porter lacked the presence or personality I would expect from such an accomplished, mature woman. She’s a daddy’s girl, believing him to be infallible and completely clueless about the state of her parents marriage. And despite believing that Reed is a killer who plans to harm her, she dissolves anytime Reed looks her way.
Reed is described appealingly “A good six three. Broad shoulders. Biceps bulging…surprisingly tanned…thick tawny hair curled about his neck and ears…A lazy, raw sensuality oozed from his pores.” However the moment he is distracted by Ella he completely forgets about searching for the killer who framed him, despite spending the last 15 years in prison waiting for his opportunity to prove his innocence.
The chemistry between them is a bit contrived (bad boy meets good girl) but the erotic scenes are written well enough, if a little florid. Be aware that Ella and Reed aren’t the only couple to share some steamy moments, and there are several erotic encounters through the book.

There is a distinct southern small town feel to the setting, both through the use of double barreled first names like Jeff Henry and Joe Brierly and the brief descriptions of the town and its social structure. The language is a bit odd though, sometimes feeling very stilted and formal for such a contemporary setting. I think it was an attempt by the author to distinguish between class – but it just came off as weird.

Though I’ll Be Watching You didn’t really work for me, it was a quick and undemanding read. it seems to have an appreciative audience from readers who enjoy the soap opera style melodrama and sexy bits, so if that is you..enjoy!

 

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Review: Heartbreak Hotel by Debbie Moggach

 

Title: Heartbreak Hotel

Author: Debbie Moggach

Published: Vintage Digital: Random House UK August 2014

Status: Read from August 13 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

When aging actor Russell ‘Buffy’ Buffery inherits a B&B in rural Wales he stuns his family and friends by abandoning London to run it. Buffy finds he enjoys his role as host, but the crumbling manor is in desperate need of maintenance, and a steady occupancy rate, and he needs to find a way to fix it before it all falls down around him.

The premise of Heartbreak Hotel, and the reputation of author Debbie Moggach, is what drew me to select this novel for review, unfortunately I was disappointed by the novel’s structure. The drawn out stories of some of the individuals who eventually wind up at Heartbreak Hotel seemed disconnected to the narrative and the idea of the ‘Courses for Divorces’ was terrific but never fully exploited. The last half of the book, when the characters are brought together, is much stronger than the first.

I did like the Moggach’s characters, most of them find themselves at the B&B after a disappointment of some sort or another. Buffy is an interesting man, he had a successful career as an actor but now aged 70 he is reinventing himself as well as grappling with the missteps he made as a husband and father. For many the guests of Myrtle House their stay at the B&B has surprising consequences including new love and the kindling of new dreams.

Heartbreak Hotel is often amusing and has some charm, but ultimately it was just an OK read for me.

 

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Review: 21st Century Dodos by Steve Stack

 

Title: 21st Century Dodos: A Collection of Endangered Objects (and other stuff)

Author: Steve Stack

Published: The Friday Project: Harper Collins UK June 2014

Status: Read on June 20, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

If you remember sliding your home made mix cassette tape, recorded in silence from the Radio Top 40, into your Walkman and strapping your calculator watch to your wrist before disappearing to play unsupervised in the local park until dinner time, then the nostalgic appeal 21st Century Dodos will be a source of nostalgic appeal.

Subtitled “A collection of endangered objects (and other stuff)” this is a light and humourous tribute to the end of an era. At just forty it seems almost obscene that so much of my childhood is now obsolete – rotary phones, Polaroid cameras, 10c mixed lolly bags (Cobbers were my favourite), school blackboards and roller skates but I enjoyed the reminder of these simple pleasures, and treasures.

It might hearten Steve Stack to know Australia still has Woolworths stores and my boys are currently participating in Bob-a-Job week (though I go door to door with them). Not having grown up in England however there are a lot of things mentioned in the book that I’m unfamiliar with, retailers, television shows and product brands among them.

21st Century Dodos is a fun read, for anyone over about 35 I would think, but as it is heavily skewed towards British culture it is to those readers that grew up in England during the 1970/1980’s that I would recommend this book.

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Review: The Unknown Woman by Jacqueline Lunn

 

Title: The Unknown Woman

Author: Jacqueline Lunn

Published: Random House May 2014

Status: Read May 15th, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

This is a story of a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, a neighbour, and daughter in law. Lilith Grainger is a forty-something-year-old housewife and stay at home mother whom, it seems, is no longer sure who she is, or what she wants, outside the parameters of her relationships with others.

Though dedicated to providing for the needs of her family, she quietly yearns for something more, something unknowable. Lilith’s family and friends see none of her inner turmoil, but neither does Lilith quite recognise it. She drifts through her life doing what is expected, what is needed, keeping busy, but with little passion. Eventually Lilith’s restlessness and repressed distress prompts her to act out in odd ways.

The Unknown Woman is a commentary on motherhood, identity and modern life, but not as an experience I’m familiar with. Though I’m a SAHM, and have been for ten years, Lilith’s angst doesn’t resonate with me. I have made a conscious choice to stay at home and I have developed interests and relationships outside of my immediate circle that stimulate and challenge me. In fact I’m dreading having to return to full time paid employment at some point in the future, though finances will eventually force my hand. I think this is why in part I felt frustrated with Lilith and her story, she has so many options, and a cushion of wealth to explore them, but instead chooses to wallow in a self induced coma of misery. I wanted to feed her a course of anti-depressants and send her to volunteer at a women’s refuge to find some much needed perspective.

I didn’t feel compelled to turn the pages of The Unknown Woman, but I did want to know how Lilith resolved her angst and what happened to her. (view spoiler). While I couldn’t fault the standard of writing, this was not a story I connected with.
I much preferred Lunn’s first novel, Under the Influence.

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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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