Review: $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J Edin & Luke Shaeffer

 

Title: $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Author: Kathryn J Edin and Luke Shaeffer

Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt September 2015

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Status: Read on August 30, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

In October 2014, ACOSS released a new report revealing that poverty is growing in Australia with an estimated 2.5 million people or 13.9% of all people living below the internationally accepted poverty line. Of those, 603,000 or 17.7%, are children.

And as politicians whine about the increasing costs of the welfare system (from the suite of their tax payer funded five star hotel room) and the media whips middle class society into a frenzy by highlighting the worst examples of the minority who abuse the system, the Australian government is considering implementing a program similar to America’s model of SnAP.

What $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America shows is that the American welfare system, and specifically the reliance on the SnAP program, fails to provide for or protect its most vulnerable citizens. It looks generous on paper but in practice, but it leaves families without access to cash, vital for everyday life. Without cash they are unable to use public transport, pay bills, buy underwear, or school supplies, without having to resort to trading SnAP for half its worth on the dollar, selling blood, collecting cans, or illegal activities, such as prostitution, all for a few dollars.

Statistics show that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children, and the authors introduce the reader to eight families who are struggling to survive on incomes of $2.00 per person, per day or less.

The causes of such extreme poverty are complicated. ‘Get a job’ cries the middle classes, but with scarce unskilled work opportunities and exploitative employers, the answer is not that simple. Modonna worked as a cashier in one store for eight years but when her register came up $10 short after a shift she was fired, and even though the store later found the money, she received no apology nor an invitation to return to work. Unable to keep up with her rent she was evicted and she and her teenage daughter were forced into a homeless shelter, and despite applying for hundreds of jobs, Modonna remains unemployed.

And what of the children? Tabitha is one of thirteen children. She grew up with one set of clothes, sharing a mattress with seven of her siblings in a three bedroom apartment. They often went without food especially when their mother found it necessary to trade some of the SnAP she received, at almost half its value, for cash in order to pay the electricity or water bill. In tenth grade a desperate Tabitha agreed to sleep with one of her teachers who offered her food in exchange in for regular sex. In her junior year she was forced to leave home when she intervened in a fight between her mother and her abusive partner and the man issued Tabitha’s mother an ultimatum. Now eighteen she is finishing high school and has a place to live thanks to a boarding school scholarship, but she will graduate in a matter of months and though she’d like to go to college, there is no money to do so.

There are no easy solutions to the kind of poverty experienced by Modonna and her daughter, or Tabitha and her family, but its clear the current welfare system is failing. Without cash, many families have no hope of escaping the cycle of poverty, or surviving the experience without deep physical and emotional wounds. The authors argue for sensible reforms that would go some way to alleviating the plight of those living on $2.00 per person, per day.

This is an eyeopening and important book that will challenge your preconceptions of poverty, welfare and the poor. It is much harder to blame or condemn the homeless or unemployed (or dole bludgers in the Australian vernacular) for their circumstances when you understand the challenges they face.

“…the question we have to ask ourselves is, Whose side are we on? can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive, and ultimately more effective, way?”

 

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Review: The Secret Years by Barbara Hannay

 

Title: The Secret Years

Author: Barbara Hannay

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin  August 2015

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Status: Read from August 23 to 25, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

The Secret Years is Barbara Hannay’s 49th book, in which she blends a contemporary and historical narrative to present an engaging novel about family, heroism, heartbreak and love.

Army logistics officer Lucy Hunter is relieved to be home in Townsville after her six month deployment in Afghanistan but she isn’t prepared for the changes in store for her. Her mother has exchanged her childhood home for a sterile condo apartment she is sharing with a new man, her grandfather’s health is failing, and her fiance, Sam, has cold feet. With several weeks of leave ahead of her, Lucy is at a loose end until she discovers a box of wartime memorabilia that contains clues to her family’s history that neither her mother or grandfather are willing to talk about. Hoping to understand the secrets of the past, Lucy travels to Cornwall, a place where she just might find her future.

Moving between the past and present, the narrative shifts between Lucy’s journey to unravel her family’s secrets, and the story of the relationship between Lucy’s cattleman grandfather, Harry, and his aristocratic bride, Georgina. Emotions run high in both timelines through scenes of wartime drama, desperate passion and captivating romance.

I liked Lucy and I sympathised with her desire to understand the past. The mystery stems from the discord between Lucy’s mother, Ro and Lucy’s grandfather, Harry, which Lucy learns is related to her mother’s brief time in England. I also enjoyed Lucy’s romance with the dashing Nick.

But it was the story of Harry and George’s courtship and marriage that I found particularly entrancing. Their love is touching, and their wartime experiences are exciting, if also sobering.

The story takes us from Australia’s coastline and outback, to London during the Blitz, from the wild bluffs of Cornwall to the jungles of Papua New Guinea as the Japanese invade. Both the contemporary and wartime settings are vividly described, as are the characters experiences of them.

The Secret Years is well written with appealing characters and a moving story. Another winning romance.

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Also by Barbara Hannay

 


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Review: The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

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Title: The Beast’s Garden

Author: Kate Forsyth

Published: Random House AU August 2015

Status: Read from August 11 to 12, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Inspired by the Grimm Brothers fairytales, most notably ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, a variant of Beauty and the Beast, Kate Forsyth weaves a compelling tale of romance, war, heartbreak and courage in The Beast’s Garden.

The Beast’s Garden opens in 1938 as Hitler begins to persecute the Jewish population of Berlin. Nineteen year old songstress Ava Falkenhorst is stunned by the violence, and horrified when close family friends, the Feidlers are targeted simply for being Jewish. When Ava’s childhood friend Rupert is transported to Buchenwald, and her father threatened with arrest, Ava permits the attentions of Leo von Lowenstein, a high ranking handsome Nazi officer torn between duty and honour. Though their marriage secures Ava’s father’s safety, Ava, who is determined to help the Feidlers and others like them, can’t trust that Leo will not betray her and hides her subversive activities, unaware that her husband is also working against the regime he serves.

With authentic and compelling detail Forsyth explores life under the Nazi regime in the lead up and during World War Two. The terrible suffering of the Jewish population and their attempts to defy Hitler are exhaustively documented, but rarely is mention made of the Germans who rebelled against the Gestapo in both small and significant ways. Forsyth acknowledges the efforts of the German people who risked their own lives to mitigate the attrition, and real historical figures, such as Admiral Canaris, and Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen of the Red Orchestra Resistance, who actively worked to disrupt Hitler’s rule.

Not that Forsyth shies away from illustrating the experience of Nazi rule for the Jewish. Threads of the story illustrate the harrowing experiences of Rupert, imprisoned in Buchenwald, a concentration camp ruled by Karl-Otto Koch and his sadistic wife known as The Witch of Buchenwald; and life for Rupert’s sister, Jutta, in Berlin as she becomes involved in the resistance and struggles to stay one step ahead of the SS.

It is the relationship between Ava and Leo that echoes the fairytales we are familiar with. Ava, the innocent, brave beauty, Leo the ‘Beast’; an unlikely love, besieged by tragedy, that blooms, like the roses that feature in their courtship. Rich characterisation ensures neither Ava nor Leo are mere cliches, and though there is a happy ending, it is hard won.

Skillfully crafted, The Beast’s Garden is another magnificent historical novel seamlessly melding truth and fiction, from Kate Forsyth. A wonderful tale of daring and courage, of struggle and survival, of love and loyalt, this is a ‘must read’.

Please CLICK HERE to learn more about Kate Forsyth and The Beast’s Garden

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Review: My Very Best Friend by Cathy Lamb

 

Title: My Very Best Friend

Author: Cathy Lamb

Published: Kensington Books July 2015

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Status: Read from August 01 to 02, 2015 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

From Cathy Lamb, comes another poignant, funny and winsome novel, titled My Very Best Friend.

After a twenty year absence, reclusive bestselling romance writer, Charlotte Mackintosh is returning home to Scotland to arrange the sale of her family’s cottage. She is also hoping to reconnect with her childhood best friend, Bridget, who has stopped replying to her letters. She is shocked to discover the cottage in a state of bad disrepair, and to learn that Bridget, who has been living a lie, is missing.

My Very Best Friend is a story about friendship, about love, about childhood and coming home. It features a decidedly odd but endearing heroine, a handsome Scotsman, a broken woman and a community of quirky characters.

It deals with serious issues including sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, grief, and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There are some unbearably tragic moments in the novel that had tears welling in my eyes, others that had me gritting teeth at the injustice.

But what Lamb does best is to remind us that life, for all its sorrows, can be utterly glorious. Charlotte and Toran’s reconnection will have you sighing and swooning, the ladies of the St Ambrose Garden Club (aka The Gabbing and Gobbling Gardeners) will have you screaming with laughter as they lead rowdy drunken sing-along’s in the town square and ride bikes in their lingerie at midnight, and a surprise reunion will have you smiling so hard your cheeks will hurt.

It has a few flaws, including a somewhat slow moving, muddled start and a little repetition, but I’m willing to forgive all because Lamb redeems herself with such fantastic characters and heartfelt commitment to the story.

Witty, wise and wonderful, My Very Best Friend is another winner for me.

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Review: Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh

 

Title: Kingdom of the Strong {Darian Richards #4}

Author: Tony Cavanaugh

Published: Hachette AU July 2015

Status: Read from July 27 to 28, 2015 — I own a copy

My Thoughts:

Kingdom of the Strong is the fourth crime thriller by Tony Cavanaugh to feature ex homicide detective Darian Richards. In Promise and Dead Girl Sing, Darian reluctantly came out of retirement, on his own terms, in order to stop a serial killer and a human trafficker respectively. In The Train Rider, he faced off with his nemesis, and lost. In Kingdom of the Strong, Darian is asked by his oldest friend and mentor, Police Commissioner Copeland Walsh, to return to Melbourne to investigate a decades old cold case.

Deputising QLD officer, Maria Chastain, Darian finds himself down the hall from his old squad, tasked to prove that the coroner’s open finding in regards to the death of eighteen-year-old Isobel Vine in 1990 in no way implicates any of the four officers who were present at the original crime scene, one of whom is about to be named Walsh’s successor. The pair quickly rule out suicide, but given the scant evidence, uncovering the truth more twenty years after the fact is a tremendous challenge.

As in previous books, Cavanaugh presents a rather cynical view of policing where ego and politics makes a mockery of the service. Darien is perhaps predisposed to believe the worst of the four officers who he can prove behaved questionably as young constables, but not definitively responsible for murder. There are plenty of twists and turns as Richards and his team are sidetracked by one of Isobel’s former teacher’s, an aging drug dealer, a hit man who takes a run at Maria, and Casey Lack, Maria’s boyfriend. Few will be able to unravel the carefully crafted mystery before Darian does.

Kingdom of the Strong is a dark and gritty crime novel, but flashes of humour relieves the bleakness. I particularly enjoyed Isosceles frustration with the ‘old-school’ investigation, and Darien’s rather macabre ‘murder’ tour of Melbourne.

In my review of The Train Rider I wrote that I hoped the author would reconsider his depiction of his ‘uniformly beautiful, bright and sensual.’ female characters, and I was surprised when the author got in touch to thank me for the criticism, promising to do better. Though there are few female characters in Kingdom of the Strong, I’m pleased to say I think Cavanaugh has done just that. The teenage victim, though long dead, is a nuanced character, and Maria has a more defined role in the story (with Isosceles ogling her cleavage far less often).

While Kingdom of the Strong can be read as a stand alone, I’d encourage readers to seek out Cavanaugh’s backlist, you won’t be disappointed.

*P.S. Thank you Tony, for your generous acknowledgement in Kingdom of the Strong.

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Review: Set in Stone by Ros Baxter

 

Title: Set in Stone

Author: Ros Baxter

Published: Harlequin MIRA June 2015

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Status: Read on July 07, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

“Lou was being brought home, finally, to face the music”

Louise Samuels swore she would never to return to Stone Mountain, but twenty years later she’s tossing back Tequila, dancing to Acca Dacca, and kissing the one man she hoped to avoid, Gage Westin, at her high school reunion. And despite her plan to return to the city with her best friend Sharni within twenty four hours, Lou is nursing a hangover when she learns her estranged mother is in the midst of a crisis and she feels compelled to stay.

Ros Baxter’s newest novel, Set in Stone combines romance with a touch of suspense in a rural setting.

The suspense is derived from two plotlines. The first involves a mining company which seems determined to exploit Stone Mountain vulnerable because of drought, perhaps by any means. It’s a topical issue of interest in regional areas that Baxter integrates well.
The second is the painful secret that has haunted Louise for twenty years, which continues to affect her relationship with her mother, Skye, and Gage. The eventual reveal is a surprise, but explains Lou’s wariness with both of them well.

Louise’s romance with Gage has been simmering for twenty years and their reunion is passionate, but complicated in a believable way. Baxter develops their relationship nicely and I enjoyed the tension between them.

“Because it was the kind of kiss that you get lost in – not just lost in time and place, but lost in another person. It was a kiss that took all the pieces of your identity and common sense, and scattered them like petals on the breeze, right at the same time that it anchored you in the brutal, beautiful moment.”

The writing is accomplished, with genuine dialogue and good pacing. I loved that Baxter headed each chapter with a song title, though I was stuck with the resulting earworms for a while.

I really enjoyed Set in Stone, the characterisation is genuine, the plot, and subplots, well thought out and the distinctly Australian setting is appealing. A great read, recommended for fans of contemporary and rural romance.

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Review: Hush, Little Bird by Nicole Trope

Title: Hush, Little Bird

Author: Nicole Trope

Published: Allen & Unwin June 2015

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Status: Read from July 02 to 05, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Nicole Trope’s fourth novel, Hush, Little Bird is a thought provoking and heartbreaking story.

Hush, Little Bird is told from the alternative first person perspectives of two very different women, both serving sentences in a minimum security prison, linked by the actions of one man, Simon, a former television celebrity, Birdy’s childhood abuser and Rose’s late husband.

It is a harrowing tale that details the suffering of a young, vulnerable girl at the hands of her abuser and the lasting consequences of his actions; and the implosion of a dutiful wife’s life when her husband’s shocking secrets are revealed. Trope gives each woman, both victims, a voice that ultimately shatters the silence
they have taken refuge in to protect themselves.

A story of innocence betrayed, regret, forgiveness and revenge, Hush, Little Bird is told with keen insight and compassion for the victims of abusers. Though this may be a confronting read for some, it is a story that needs to be told.

” I do not want them silenced. I want them to know that they have been heard.”

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Also by Nicole Trope (click cover to read my reviews)

Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Title: The Book of Speculation

Author: Erika Swyler

Published: St Martins Press June 2015

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Status: Read from June 27 to July 01, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

In Erika Swyler’s gorgeous debut novel, The Book of Speculation, Simon Watson receives an old ledger that once belonged to a traveling carnival in the mail, along with a note mentioning a connection to his late mother’s family. Struggling with his recent redundancy, the inevitable crumbling of his family home into the sea, and the return of his sister, Simon develops an obsession with the book which reveals a troubling history. For generations, the women of his family, all with a talent for holding their breath, including his mother, have drowned on the same date.

Dual narratives reveal Simon’s growing concern for his fragile sister as July 24th approaches, and the truth of the tragic curse that has haunted their family since the early 1800’s beginning with Evangeline, ‘The Atlantis Mermaid’. Similar themes are reflected in both tales – lust, guilt, love, betrayal, loss, and magic, and tangible connections are drawn with a tattered deck of tarot cards and the appearance of horseshoe crabs.

“At the corner of a page, just above a quickly jotted note about oppressive heat and fog, is a delicate brown illustration of a horseshoe crab. I shut the book and leave the house as quickly as my ankle allows. I need to get into the water, to clear my head….On the sand, crabs scramble around my feet and over each other. The tide has come up since the afternoon, hiding the thousands more horseshoes that lurk beneath.”

I loved reading about Peabody’s spectacular traveling carnival. The characters of The Wild Boy, the Seer, the Mermaid and Peabody himself are vividly drawn, their dark secrets are haunting and tragic.

“Heralded by a glorious voice, a troupe of traveling entertainers arrived. A mismatched collection of jugglers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, contortionists, and animals, the band was presided over by Hermelius H. Peabody, self-proclaimed visionary in entertainment and education, who thought the performers and animals (a counting pig deemed learned, a horse of miniature proportions, and a spitting llama) were instruments for improving minds and fattening his purse.”

The pace of the novel is measured, reflecting the melancholic, often close, atmosphere of the novel. The tension builds slowly in both timelines, as the truth of the curse is unraveled. The prose is often beautiful and enhanced by the illustrations that accompany it.

The Book of Speculation an enchanting tale.

“She knows that her name will find its way into his speculations. So will his. Because there are things you do for people you’ve known your whole life. You let them save you, you put them in your books, and you let each other begin again, clean.”

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Review: Limbo by Amy Andrews

 

Title: Limbo {Joy Valentine Mysteries #1}

Author: Amy Andrews

Read an Excerpt

Published: Escape Publishing May 2015

Status: Read on May 31, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Amy Andrews is an award-winning, best-selling Australian author who has written more than forty contemporary and medical romances. Limbo, with its blend of romance, suspense, humour and touch of the paranormal is quite a departure from her usual fare.

When the ghost of a murdered mother begs for her help to save her kidnapped daughter, Joy Valentine, country singer and funeral home makeup artist, knows the police won’t take her seriously so she reluctantly turns to the one person who might believe her, disgraced ex-cop turned private investigator Dash Dent. The police think baby Isabelle is probably dead but Joy and Dash are convinced Joy’s ghostly vision was genuine and set out to find the missing infant.

Though still a romance novel at its core, Andrews establishes an intriguing mystery surrounding the disappearance of the murdered woman, and her missing daughter. Dash and Joy slowly piece together the scant evidence available to determine exactly what happened on the day Hailey and Isabelle went missing, and where the pair have been for the six months prior to the discovery of Hailey’s body.

The characterisation is wonderful, I really liked both Dash and Joy, who are well rounded protagonists with interesting back stories. I loved their chemistry, the sexual tension between the mismatched pair is palpable and there are a couple of intimate scenes that really sizzle.
The cast of quirky supporting characters including an unconventional clergyman, a brothel madam and two horny goldfish, are equally delightful.

There is lots of humour, often found in unexpected places and while there is a little in the way of action, there is plenty of tension and suspense. The inner city setting gives the story a modern urban feel.

I finished the book in one sitting and I’m hoping Amy Andrews will follow up Limbo with another soon. Loved it!

 

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Review: The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

 

Title: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

Author: Sy Montgomery

Published: Atria Books May 2015

Read an Extract

Status: Read from May 21 to 23, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I would probably not have given this book a second glance except that just days before it was offered to me for review I had read Turtle Reef, an Australian contemporary romance novel, in which the heroine, working at a marine park, befriended an octopus. I was intrigued by the relationship and was delighted by the opportunity to learn more.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, is written by Sy Montgomery, an author, naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator. It offers a very readable and rather unique blend of personal experience, scientific knowledge and philosophical opinion about what is understood, and unknown, about the nature of octopuses.

I knew little about octopuses—not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus). But what I did know intrigued me. Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart.”

What Montogomery is able to show in The Soul of an Octopus is that octopuses are complex creatures who exhibit personality, intelligence and emotion, despite having neural systems completely alien to our own. During her time spent at the New England Aquarium she befriended several individual octopuses including Athena, who was the subject of a popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, “Deep Intellect” which went viral and was the inspiration for this book, Octavia, Kali and Karma. Through her study of, and interaction with, these extraordinary creatures she shares what she learns from both science and her experiences, while musing on the mystery of the ‘inner lives’ of the octopus, who grow from the size of a grain of rice and live for, on average, just four short years.

The Soul of an Octopus is as smart, playful, curious and surprising as the creature it features. A fascinating read I’d highly recommend.

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