Sunday, October 30, 2016

'Guide Me Home' by Kim Vogel Sawyer


Working in the massive cave might allow Rebekah the chance to bring joy back to her family. But will it claim more than it gives?
After tragedy leaves its mark on Rebekah Hardin s family, she plans to help her parents and six siblings honor her beloved brother s memory and alleviate their poverty by working as a guide in the dangerous cave system. Kentucky s renowned Mammoth Cave presents profitable opportunities in for hardworking, capable"men." But Rebekah is determined and if it means presenting herself as a"himself," then she s up to the job. 
Under the wing of experienced guide Tolly Sanford, Reb begins to learn the complexities of the cave and the two are joined by an aspiring young cartographer, Devlin Bale. 
The university student has traveled to the hill country to map tunnels not to fall for a girl in disguise. 

Genre: Christian historical fiction

The story is about Rebekah, the eldest daughter in a family of girls. Their only brother Andy died in an accident in the nearby caves, and she's anxious to buy a good quality headstone for his grave, knowing it would please her parents. The only job she can find is a guide in the same caves that claimed his life, but it means she'll have to dress and pose as a boy.

It's also about her sister Cissy, the second eldest daughter, who is a far more restless and discontented soul, seduced by the luxuries and pleasurable lifestyles she reads about in magazines. Cissy aspires to escape the hillbilly lifestyle which is all she's ever known, to hit the big city and make the most of her assets.

It's interesting how an author's style may skew a reader's attitude. It's clearly written in such a way that we're supposed to deplore Cissy's selfishness and cheer for Bek's generous, easily satisfied nature. But I can't help noticing that Cissy's attitude is one we're most often urged to take on board in modern internet articles and self help books. Follow your dreams, don't settle for what you've always known, move out of your comfort zone, explore the world as much as you can because you don't know what you're capable of until you try. It makes me wonder whether this novel is promoting old-fashioned, outdated ways of thought, or if the wholesome, pastoral mindset really does have a lot going for it despite the obvious limitations. I think every reader needs to decide for themselves.

Anyway, the two sisters are presented as different in every possible way, but they're alike in one respect, which is a weakness for the same handsome fellow the moment they see him. He's Devlin Bale, a likable uni student who plans to chart a map of the Mammoth Caves for his land surveyor's degree. His good-natured, city boy ways made him one of my favourite characters, although he comes across a bit overly naive at times. He had nothing but suits packed in his luggage, for a couple of months of exploring caves. Come on dude, even rich kids know you need casual clothes for strenuous recreation.

The scenes in the caves are good, bringing out both awe for their beauty and respect for their possible terror. But the story reminds me of the type of Christian novel from the 1980s, with an in-your-face, straight preaching agenda. At times it verges on proselytising rather than having characters simply living out their faith an appealing, respectful way. As soon as Rebekah vows to stop Devlin from heading to hell, the tone of the book changes like a snap of the fingers, which was a bit disappointing.

Thanks to WaterBrook and Blogging for Books for giving me a review copy through NetGalley

3 stars

Thursday, October 27, 2016

'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery


We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building's tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.
Then there's Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.
Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma's trust and to see through Renée's timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

This is another best seller I only just got around to reading. The back cover told me 'resistance is futile. You might as well buy it before someone recommends it.' It sounded so promising I took them up on that and found the story wasn't what I expected. It sometimes got my back up.

The novel focuses on the inner lives of two main characters, Renee is an apartment building concierge who has a secret passion for delving into philosophy, literature and art. Paloma is a highly gifted twelve-year-old who is so disenchanted by what she sees in the world around her that she decides to set the apartment on fire and commit suicide when her thirteenth birthday arrives.

These two characters almost scared me off writing a review, because I'm pretty sure they'd tear me to shreds, as they do everyone else. They blast the people around them non stop (in their own heads), often for what seem to be fairly forgivable transgressions, such as accidental misuse of grammar and wrong placement of commas. And they keep waffling off on long tangents, full of dense words in big paragraphs which kept losing my attention.

Apart from being so pedantic, they sometimes come across just as snobby as the snobs they enjoy cutting down to size. For example, neither of them can stand Pierre Arthens, the food critic. They wonder why he'd choose to waste a talent with words on such a frivolous subject. Well, isn't that strong prejudice against those who believe good food is worth writing about? I'm sorry for any food bloggers who might happen to read the book.

Another thing neither Renee nor Paloma can stand is pretension. They make their snidest digs at people who show it, yet both like to elevate their own positive qualities. Renee calls herself an autodidact, which means a self taught person, but isn't it arguably a pretentious word to use? And Paloma keeps a record which she actually calls her 'journal of profound thoughts'. I have no problem with them being a bit pretentious, but wish they'd shown some grace toward others who also share the very human tendency of wanting to show themselves off to the best advantage.

It gets a bit much when they keep referring to the 'nasty little minds' of their friends and relatives. After all, is a bit of pretension and social snobbery any worse than being harsh and critical? And if others aren't as intellectually-minded as Renee and Paloma, well, can they even help it? At the start, I thought it would be nice to be as clever as those two, but changed my mind if it means thinking condemnatory, grumbly thoughts about my fellow men all the time. I'd rather be oblivious and easy-going.

One main theme is Renee's anxiety to keep her highbrow taste in reading a secret from the people she works among. She gets pretty obsessive about it, and I found myself wondering why she'd feel so strongly. It turns out her motivation for hiding her passion is fear that people will think she's trying to set herself above her station. But since she disparages most of her acquaintances anyway, why would she care what they think? If it comes to that, if you lived in the apartment building, would you care if the janitor read Tolstoy? I clean houses and also write books. What's wrong with having a variety of jobs and interests? Are Parisians really as judgmental and shallow as she thinks? I did enjoy the scene when it dawns on Renee that she's actually made a friend, even though their races, social status, financial situations and evident 'success' appear to be poles apart.

I wasn't a fan of the ending. Whoa, the last few pages were more eventful than the rest of the book put together, but I felt it was sad and needless drama. I'm sure others could tell me why it had to be that way, but I still don't think I'd buy whatever they had to say.

Even though I'd never recommend it or read it again, I found it interesting enough not to put down (only just), and there's the occasional quote-worthy observation to make us think. It occurs to Renee that 'literature's mission is to make the fulfillment of our essential duties more bearable', and Paloma decides that she won't be vain about her high intelligence since nature made her that way, and she can't take the credit.

Overall, I think the coolest part of the book is the fact that Paloma's family's pet cats are named Constitution and Parliament.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How to have a cosy reading experience on a budget

On the surface, this post might seem redundant. What could be cheaper than reading a book, right? But have you noticed how envious social media can make us, if we pore too long over their wonderful, reading-associated images. There are spacious, well-stocked reading nooks, picture windows with stunning views, special chair-cum-bookshelves, pretty book lights and many other things which some of us can't afford to implement.

Still, I've discovered that it's possible to add a bit of luxury to your reading experience without paying much for it. We've had to stick to a really strict budget for several years, but here are some treats to pick up with a good book, to make it special just the same.  

1) Radox Bath Salts
A bubble bath is a relaxing place to read. Buying scoops of epsom salts from health food shops can get pricey, so one of my staples is only about $7 from the supermarket shelf. These bath salts smell really heavenly and make the bath water a lovely shade of emerald green. They also lather up beautifully when you sprinkle them in while the hot water is running. The description draws me in too, whether or not it really lives up to its claim. 'Herbal Mineral Salts to help soothe tired, aching muscles.' It's good to think that happens as an extra benefit while you're engrossed in a good story.

2) Moser Roth Chocolate
This is one of my favourite secrets. We've only had our Aldi bargain supermarket in town for a fairly short time, and Moser Roth is one of its home brands. It's so creamy, delicious and decadent, I won't choose any other brand now. It comes with different flavours and fillings, but the plain milk variety is my favourite, because it's so good, just like chocolate should be. I like it better than common old Cadbury or Nestle even though it's cheaper, and it's on a par, if not better than expensive brands like Lindor. A block of Moser Roth is only about $2.80. I don't eat it every time I"m reading, of course, but if a book's really good and I'm looking forward to getting back to it, well, those might be the times.

3) Essential Oils
I always like to have a little bottle of lavender oil around. I put a few drops in bath water, or you can rub it on your temples to relax you and take away headaches too. It's about $14 for the larger sized bottle, but takes a long time to get through, so it's well worth it.

4) Cup of Tea
There are all sorts of varieties on the market these days, and they're all fairly exotic, spicy, fruity or floral, however you like it. Even good old Earl Grey isn't a bad choice for lazing back and reading a book.

5) Nice smelling Candle
You see them often in shops for exorbitant prices of $60 to $80, but there are cheaper ones around. I have a couple of friends who make candles which they sell for a fraction of the price of commercial ones. It looks to me as if purchasing all the equipment for candle making, such as wax and scents, quickly adds up. Since they're willing to invest good money for their hobby, I'm more than willing to support them by investing in fragrant candles for mine. It's nice to have a candle burning on my bedside table while I read or write. There's something about a flickering flame that always calms me down for reading, even when I haven't realised I've been stressed to start with.

6) Hammock
It's probably the most expensive item on my list, but it was a combined Christmas and birthday present on special from a local camping store, and probably around the $100 mark. It sits on our verandah, fairly sheltered all year round. On nice days it's a great spot to take a book or kindle. Nothing like swaying in a gentle breeze while you're reading. I'm not much an outdoor reader by choice, because I don't find nature the most comfortable place to sit. Your legs can get boggy on the ground depending on the weather, and tree bark is hard to lean against. So if you want to make the most of warm sunshine and fresh air while you're indulging in a good book, I do recommend investing in a hammock,

What cheap luxuries do you take when you're reading books? Give us some recommendations if you can. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

'The Bishop's Girl' by Rebecca Burns


The body had no name. It was not supposed to be there...

Jess is a researcher on a quest to give the one-hundred-year-old skeleton, discovered in the exhumed grave of a prominent bishop, an identity. But she's not sure of her own - her career is stalling, her marriage is failing. She doesn't want to spend hours in the archives, rifling through dusty papers in an endless search for a name. And when a young man named Hayden makes clear his interest in her, Jess has to decide what is most important to her.

Genre: historical and contemporary fiction, general market, drama, mystery.


Wow, this book takes us on a real journey.

A group of supporters were exhuming the body of Bishop Anthony Shacklock, who died in France in 1917. They intended to return him home to England. To their shock, the crudely wrapped remains of a young woman had been buried with him. The discovery of her identity eluded researchers for years, but Professor Waller refused to give up.

He gives archivist Jess Morris the job of following leads on his behalf. She resents the time it takes from her own projects, especially since the professor never gives his staff any credit. Her marriage to Alec is floundering, and she's started a clandestine affair with Hayden, her best friend's son. Yet Jess finds herself reluctantly drawn in to the mystery, especially concerning Allegra, a woman who might have had links to Shacklock and the mystery girl.

It's not a mystery in the true sense of the word. There weren't really red herrings to follow in the story, but rather a matter of major revelations showing up at the right time. Rebecca Burns' brilliant way of writing the dual timelines puts us right in the picture, whether it was turn-of-the-century Greece or the war torn France of 1916. Toward the end it started shifting quickly between the modern story and the older ones, and I was hooked. The final revelation has stuck in my mind. It's not a particularly happy story for some, although it works out not too badly for others.

What I found most intriguing was watching it dawn on Jess that she could apply something from the old experiences of others to her own situation. She grows to regret the churlish way everyone referred to the unknown girl as 'the cuckoo' and sees her as a person whose identity had been suppressed and overshadowed. So while Waller was anxious to break through for his own selfish purposes, Jess grows to care more for the nameless girl herself.

The main men had mixtures of strengths and weaknesses. I was all set not to like them at first. There's Hayden, pursuing his relationship with Jess even though she stood to lose such a lot more than him, with husband and children. And Shacklock, making the same mistake twice within the same family circle! You'll see what I mean when you get there. Inexcusable really, but I couldn't help finding them both likeable.

Ironically, Hayden and Shacklock gave similar lines of sound advice, so many years apart. Shacklock tells Allegra, 'If you decide against it (the theatre) make that your decision. Be true to what you want to do. Don't be restrained by the perceptions of other people.' And over one hundred years later, Hayden tells Jess, 'Make a decision about where you want to be and don't torture yourself with it. It's that simple.'

Who were my favourite characters? The first was Billy Butterfield, Jess' modest research colleague. What a champion. And Allegra, whose two most beloved people did such disappointing things to her. Her sweetness and futile quest stayed with me the most. Maybe it's because I have a beautiful seventeen year old daughter of my own. So close to home, my heart breaks.

So overall, any book which sticks with me like this deserves a high ranking.

Thanks to the author and Odyssey Books for my review copy.

5 stars

'Mother Tongue' by Julie Mayhew


If you leave home, is your heart left behind? 

Darya Ivanova is looking forward to September. She has looked after her little sister, Nika, since she was a baby. Now Nika is starting school. Maybe Darya can find a job with her own tidy desk. Perhaps even a boyfriend. But when an unimaginable tragedy strikes, Darya's life plans are fractured. Stalled. She is afraid. What if she never knows real love? What if she never finds somewhere she belongs?

If only she could get to Moscow. There, Darya could escape. There, she could become someone else . . . 

Genre: YA fiction, general market, families

This novel is based on an actual event in Russia, the Beslan School siege of 2004. Over 1000 hostages were taken in the terrorist attack, and many were killed. In this story, main character Darya Ivanova loses her cheerful little sister Nika, who was starting her first day of school.

The first half of this novel deals with ways in which different family members cope with their intense grief. Darya takes up smoking, distracts herself with housework and cooking, and longs to make a fresh start as an office worker or secretary in Moscow where she believes she might be able to shake off the pain. Her ambition is to 'sit at a desk in a good blouse and skirt, learn to type and have a glass pot with sharpened pencils.' Her younger brothers, Boris and Igor, respond to the tragedy with hostility toward the perpetrators, and heightened vigilance in case of more attacks. Their mother falls into heartbroken inertia. When they think they've dealt with the pain, they find that simple triggers have a way of returning it stronger than ever. This is all described with sensitive and heartbreaking detail.

Darya makes friendships with aid workers Zlata and Vitaliy. She develops a crush on Jonathan, a handsome journalist from New York who is teaching English to a group of young women. One day Jonathan offers Darya the chance to fulfill her dream of looking for work in Moscow. The second half of the book shows how she fares, and the results of his generous gesture.  It has a 'City Mouse, Country Mouse' sort of feeling. Initially wide-eyed and eager to assimilate, Darya becomes disenchanted enough with her experience to consider returning home. (You have to read the book to find out whether or not she does.)

The people she meets include Viktoria, a street-wise girl who takes her under her wing, and Ekaterina, a young waitress who longs to leave Moscow to live in Venice, although she already possesses Darya's dream of living in Moscow. The irony of this is not lost on Darya.

The brief descriptions we get of lifestyles in Moscow whet our appetites to learn more. There are crowds on their way to Red Square and the Bolshoi, the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Kremlin. Julie Mayhew weaves great metaphors into her writing, such as likening the Hotel Alexander, where Darya is staying, to a living being with a heartbeat and veins. It's done with a subtlety that you could blink and miss, but gives the story great texture.  I really liked her writing style.

The issue in the end isn't whether or not Darya should stay in the city or return home. That becomes irrelevant. Having the free choice to make that decision for herself is what the book is really all about. Darya realises that Viktoria paints bright, exciting pictures with her words, 'and her ambitions for me began to paper over mine.' She decides to think carefully about Jonathan's eventual offer too. Well-meaning though it is, she learns to ponder whether or not it will fit her deepest needs. Some readers may think that Darya hasn't experienced enough of the city to make such a definite resolution.

Another interesting questions she finds herself asking is whether or not she dismiss one specific chance of happiness, just because it's originally her father's choice and not her own. Although the package may not look appealing, there's a feeling that she's on the verge of getting rid of prejudice and deciding it might be just what she wants. I love that. So after the horrific event at the start, the book ends on a hopeful and positive note.

Although she was really only in it in person for a very short time, little Nika was one of the strongest characters of the story. She lives powerfully in Darya's reminiscences, memories, and the spontaneous dreams she has at night. They are a great blend of physical and personality attributes. We see a cheerful little girl who was always ready to embrace simple pleasures, and with her imagination, transform her drab surroundings into something wonderful. Darya even reflects, 'how perfect to be her. Funny and silly, yet focused and true.' A perfect tribute to her little sister.

I was given this novel to review for the Book Curator magazine for school libraries.

5 stars  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Literary Houses that Perish

I was thinking of writing a post about gracious old literary homes in general, but when I started planning it, I realised one sad thing many have in common. Having their beloved dwellings burn down, get bombed or crumble into disrepair seems to be something fictional characters just have to put up with every so often. This reasons for this are probably many.

*  Some authors enjoy psychological symbolism, and decide that the four walls a character calls home will represent his inner state. Therefore if they're undergoing a lot of mental turmoil or destructive behaviour, well, you know what that means.
* Leaving characters destitute with nothing more than the clothes on their backs can really increase the tension, and possibly raise the stakes of the plot higher than ever.
* Maybe it's fun for authors to get pyrotechnic with fictional places, since they'd never do it in reality. It could be a good form of stress relief. You know how they say clearing out a room of your house can be cathartic? Well, how about clearing a whole mansion or two from whatever writing project you're working on?
* Ruins are sometimes regarded as romantic, so maybe it helps evoke the right atmosphere when you add one or two into your stories. A blazing fire is certainly a dramatic event which may stick in a reader's memory (although after what I'm sharing here, it could also be argued that they blend together a bit if you overdo it). 

Here's some of the doomed houses that sprang to my mind. Keep in mind, the very nature of this list makes it plot-spoilerish. Skip any if you really don't want to know.

1) Thornfield Hall
Jane Eyre Jane Eyre returns to the mansion she once called home to check that all is well with her beloved master, Edward Fairfax Rochester. She turns a corner to find that Thornfield has been ravaged by flames and lies in ruins. She learns later that Bertha, Rochester's deranged wife, finally managed to set the whole place on fire, which seemed to be a goal of hers all along. This time, she killed herself in the process. Here's my review.

2) Manderly
Rebecca It's near the end of the story. Maxim de Winter and his child wife are returning home joyfully because he's just been cleared of the murder of his first wife Rebecca (even though he really did it). They see a bright haze in the distance ahead of them, which looks like a glow of fireworks joining their celebration. They realise to their horror it's their own home going up in flames! Mrs Danvers, the creepy old housekeeper who had adored Rebecca, finally snapped and set a match to the place. I understand her in a way, considering the shenanigans she'd witnessed. Here's my review.

3) Cairngorm House
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1) Young Jacob Portman is attempting to track down the old Welsh orphanage where his grandfather once lived. He discovers that it had been bombed by the Germans during the war, and all the inmates perished. But little does Jacob know that's not the end of the story. This part of the story really displays Ransom Riggs' skill as a writer. Here are some of the impressions he put in Jacob's head at the sight of the ruin. 'What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus, as if nature itself had waged war against it, but the house seemed unkillable.' My review is here.

4) Tara
Gone with the Wind The stately old Southern plantation mansion was spared the torch during the Civil War, but Scarlett O'Hara finds it's been ravaged anyway. Its treasures have been stolen and it's grounds destroyed. During the very long story, she works hard at seeing her beloved home restored to its former glory, but the conquest is an anti-climax. Some believe Tara really represents its owner, beautiful but completely bereft of joy and happiness.

5) Milderhurst Castle
The Distant Hours This is the wonderful, heritage listed place where eccentric author Raymond Blythe lived with his three daughters. Parts had been burned down before, but never the entire place. That is not until the end of 'The Distant Hours' when Percy, the eldest of the ancient twins, decides that the castle has served its purpose, along with her and her sisters. She's the one who strikes the match and turns it into their burial place. My review is here.

6) Silver Bush
Pat of Silver Bush (Pat, #1) If you're a canny reader, you can see it coming. L.M. Montgomery was bound to sacrifice Silver Bush, because her heroine Pat had always loved it too much, to the extent of placing it above the people in her life, including the man she didn't realise she was in love with. Pat's sister-in-law accidentally left a candle going and burnt the place down. But LMM made it pretty clear that's what it took to help Pat realise that there was life beyond Silver Bush. She took being a homebody to a whole new level.

7) Pembrooke Park
Secret of Pembrooke Park This is a more modern pick, from one of my favourite authors, Julie Klassen. Yeah, you guessed it, it burns down, just like the others. Since the building itself is regarded as important enough to be mentioned in the title, that's often a clue that it's doomed. Here is my review.

However, not always. Here's one that arguably should have been destroyed but wasn't.

Wuthering Heights8) Wuthering Heights
After all that went down beneath its roof, Emily Bronte decided to leave Heathcliff's house of hell standing. Good on her for that. It was an original stroke, considering how many other authors possibly wouldn't have left it alone. Not only is Wuthering Heights still standing by the end, but the two remaining members of the younger generation have made some major repairs and planted a flower garden. In a way, I guess that's one in the eye for Heathcliff. Check out my review.

And just to finish off with, I'll give you the reverse. A home that shouldn't have been burned but was... in the movie version!

9) The Burrow
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6) It occurs in one of the weird, additional add-on scenes to the movie version of 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.' Although it never happened in the books, the Death Eaters torch the Weasley home to the ground in a failed attempt to harm Harry, who they know is staying there. You might remember images of Bellatrix Lestrange setting her ring of fire, and then doing her wild victory dance around the house as the place set. Don't leaf through the book to find out where it happened, because it didn't. The writers of the screen version simply succumbed to the temptation to make a visually impacting spectacle of the Death Eaters' evil, as if we hadn't figured it out already.

So those are my picks. Have you read any of them? Or can you add a doomed house or two of your own to the list. I'd love to hear about it.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

'Chocolate Soldier' by Hazel Barker


When World War II breaks out and men over eighteen are conscripted, Clarence Dover, a conscientious objector, refuses to go rather that compromise his principles. Instead, he joins the Friend's Ambulance Unit. From the London Blitz to the far reaches of Asia the war tests Clarence in the crucible of suffering. In the end, will he be able to hold his head up as proudly as the rest and say, to save lives, I risked my own?

One man will stand as God's soldier, not the war's soldier.

Genre: Christian faction, WWII memorobilia

We're straight away introduced to Clarence Dover, a young man convinced he'd rather serve his country in some other capacity than killing his fellow men. A tribunal grants his request to be a conscientious objector (conchie) provided he does something useful to help the war effort. So Clarence joins the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and the story tracks down what happens to him, starting in London and taking him through India on his way to China.

The attitude of the general public toward conchies was an eye-opener. The brave young men were doing a lot of good and making enormous sacrifices, yet had to put up with taunts of cowardice, which proved to be completely untrue. Even their families were implicated in the shame, and Clarence went through the heartache of being frowned upon by his sister and sweetheart, at least for a little while. No doubt that was why his friendships with fellow conchies became so strong.

I didn't come across the author's note and epilogue until the very end, but finding out that these characters were real people didn't surprise me at all by that stage. I had a strong feeling that Clarence and his friends and family would turn out not to be fictional. The story isn't written as a traditional plot structure, and the strong and original, often random anecdotes, give the impression of true tales. Sure enough, it turns out Clarence was the author's uncle-in-law. Knowing that adds to the interest level.

What different times these war years were for young people to be alive. The parts which took place in London kept putting me in mind of those 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters, because it was just that time and place. Then the events in India and China are described in all their exotic detail. Although people led such interesting lives, they were times when young folk wouldn't have spoken of following their dreams, as they do nowadays. Circumstances dictated that you simply did what you could. Your own desires had to be put aside for the good of your country.

Some of the events are horrific, and what keeps us turning pages is wondering whether or not Clarence will change his attitude. Will circumstances beat down the man? From the start, he's presented as very highly-principled and sensitive. Attitudes which might have come across seeming a bit sanctimonious from his mates somehow don't from him. You wonder whether the anger at seeing what the enemy is doing will make him re-consider his conchie stance after all. There are times he's tempted to change his views, such as longing to defend innocent victims, so it's interesting to see if he comes out the same way he went in.

Some of the changes in Clarence are subtle. Maybe people who are quick to take offence at things they see on social media could learn from his example. Several times he finds the speech and attitudes of those around him offensive, but decides to purse his lips, knowing it's not wise on his part to expect everyone to share his points of view.

Altogether, this is an interesting read about an entirely different time period. Not least interesting is the title. Just for a teaser, it has something to do with Bourneville village and the Cadbury factory being located near where they first start out, along with Clarence's boyish weakness for chocolate which never changes. It's a good, accurate story which must have taken lots of research.

Thanks to Rhiza Press and NetGalley for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, October 10, 2016

'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' by Ransom Riggs


A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Genre: YA fantasy adventure, best seller, books which became movies

I saw this book in K-Mart and knew it was being released as a movie soon, so made an impulse buy. Wow, it blew me away in many ways. To start with, it's a sort of cross between Peter Pan and Groundhog Day, but unique in its own way, with the help of 50 very creepy vintage photos used as text illustrations. Here's a quick rundown of what happens.

Jacob Portman's grandfather always told him stories about a strange orphanage-like place he attended when he was young. Everyone assumes his tales are made-up, but then he's savaged by a fierce monster which only Jacob manages to glimpse. With his dying breath, Abe Portman gives his grandson a cryptic plea to discover his old home and speak to the proprietress, because the safety of the world might be at stake. Jacob's parents believe he has PTSD and refer him to a psychiatrist. He even begins to doubt the evidence of his own senses, but finds a way at last to track down his grandpa's past.

Miss Peregrine's children take giftedness to whole new level! Maybe her own special talent is up there with the best of them. 'No one here is embarrassed of their gift,' is her firm rule, and the non-judgmental, all inclusive generosity of her establishment is fun to read. There are kids with potentially useful gifts, like invisible Millard, strong girl Bronwyn and Emma with her fire hands. But then there are odder ones, like Hugh , who has bees swarming inside of him, and Claire, with mouths on both sides of her head. They are all just part of a happy gang thrown together as family.

I found these children so compelling and lovable. Although they know the world would consider them freaks, they are all just innocent, affectionate kids who respond to friendliness and demonstrate team work when necessary. We can't help wondering about Jacob himself. Does he have to have a special gift to even manage to get there? He's told it's the same gift as his grandfather's, and we're left to figure out what that means for a while.

Manipulation of time in stories is always a drawcard for me, and the time loop Miss Peregrine manages to keep her charges safe is fascinating. So are the deeper questions it raises. Is it possible to get sick of perfection if you experience too much? The restrictions of science prevent them from leaving without dire consequences even if they want to. Is a pleasant, heavenly, predictable prison still a prison nonetheless? There are so many dystopian novels around, and this one is sort of utopian in its own way.

However, evil forces are at large, based on the same motives they always have been, excessive ambition, power hungry pride and a thirst for immortality. Jacob finds out that he arrived in the nick of time, to offer his assistance to Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children.

In the interview at the end, I found out that the author Ransom Riggs shares one of my interests, which is old photos. I like to stare at them with a surreal feeling of wishing I knew all about the subject. He actually collects them from old antique shops, and chose 50 of them to build his story around. An interesting way of getting inspiration.

I've also reviewed the sequels, Hollow City and Library of Souls.

4.5 stars.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

'An Aussie Summer Christmas Novella Collection'

Collection includes six brand-new novellas with a holiday theme, all set on Australia's beaches! 

I was offered the opportunity to read and review this set of six novellas, which have been released in time for Christmas. I'll say at the outset that several of these authors are friends of mine, and people I've known for some time. I've even collaborated on a novel with two of them. They have all had loads of collective experience in the romance genre, and their work has been enjoyed by many. It sounded like a great idea to put together this holiday collection, so I was happy to have a read.

 It's great to see the hot Christmases we enjoy down in this part of the world get highlighted as they deserve to be.  They're the only type of Christmas I've ever known. They might not be the traditional snowy type, but are festive in their own unique way, which is shown in these novellas. It might feel a bit weird for international readers to snuggle by their fires reading about tropical barbecues, yacht races, swimming and sunbaking, but it should be fun. I like to think each of these stories might be taking place simultaneously on the very same Christmas. Given the set's name, 'An Aussie Summer Christmas' perhaps that's the case. Here's a quick run-down of each of the stories. Keep in mind that the threads which draw them together are Christmas and romance.

Melbourne Memories by Marion Ueckermann
Justin Taylor, an ex-rock-star and former drug addict is on the run because he owes a huge sum of money to his old drug dealer, Danny. Ella Anderson is the owner of Barista Art Cafe, the most popular coffee shop in Melbourne. She's attracted to the mysterious stranger with his guitar and wants him to open up to her, while he fears that she'll run away if he reveals too much. The descriptions of the cafe draw me in. I'd love to order a hot chocolate and experience the signature foam art from this story.

Santa Next Door by Lacy Williams
Will Harris is a computer coder who likes his peace and quiet. He resents the happy, noisy neighbour in the unit above his. Bridie Taylor senses that he dislikes her, but doesn't hold it against him. When a sudden emergency throws them together, he can't help warming to her despite himself. It's a lovely story about not judging people on first impressions. She's a very memorable character, as a person who has been through a major health crisis and is now simply enjoying life.

Seaside Christmas by Narelle Atkins
Gus Donovan is a pastor's kid and former party boy who now works for a senator. Chelsea Somers is the girl who was once attracted to him, but felt he friendzoned her after just one date. Now that they've renewed their friendship, will their evident niggling differences be a major issue? For a start, she hates politics, which is his whole life. This story also delves into the complications family situations can throw into a relationship, especially if they've known each other for some time and it hasn't been altogether pleasant.

A Christmas Resolution by Rose Dee
This story either returns or introduces readers to Rose Dee's trademark tropical location, depending on whether you're familiar with her writing. Breeah grapples with feelings for Troy, although she was widely known to have dated his brother Hayden in the past. There is an incident from their history which creates awkwardness between them. And meanwhile, Breeah has discovered evidence of a mysterious romance from her grandmother's past which seems to present parallels to her own situation, if only she can discover the mystery man.

All is Bright by Andrea Grigg
Amy is a self-professed good girl and physiotherapist who knows her life appears to be picture perfect to the outside world. What she never reveals is the turmoil which bubbles beneath, convincing her that her life is second rate and also that she's a far worse person than anyone would believe. Not only has she concealed feelings of irritation and resentment toward her sick sister Tess, who is now deceased, but she's always been deeply in love with Tess' husband, Josh. He meanwhile, receives a letter from his wife beyond the grave, through their solicitor, making a shock suggestion.

Falling for Maddie Grace by Meredith Resce
I hope this story gives international readers a curiosity and appreciation for our great national sport, AFL football. Maddie Grace is one of the first female field umpires, proud to be succeeding in a formerly male dominated arena. During a match, she has a nasty collision with one of the players, Zac Beecham, which knocks them both out. In the aftermath, they discover the media has made all sorts of wild conjectures about their platonic relationship which might jeopardise their careers if taken to the extreme. This must surely be the first AFL romance ever written, and I found myself chuckling all the way through.  

I'd recommend this set to ladies who'd like a good beach read over the summer holidays.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Bad Boys with Depth

This week, I'm going with the topic from The Broke and the Bookish Top Ten Tuesday. It's all about villains. 

I'm glad of this opportunity to talk about some of the deep and complex 'bad boy' characters in film and literature. You'll find no cardboard, one-dimensional villains who simply enjoy causing pain on this list. They all have good reasons for the paths they chose to walk, which make perfect sense in their own minds at least. They stretch our ability to feel empathy for mean characters to the limit, and I can't help liking every one of them (except perhaps for Heathcliff. That's stretching it a bit far.)

I'm going to focus on male characters in this blog post, simply because I've written a couple of posts about mean and wicked female characters, so it's time to balance the scales. And since I'm going to talk about my choices at some length, I thought I'd better half the list, to stop the blog post growing out of hand. Here goes.  

1) Edmund Pevensie
C.S. Lewis didn't have to spell it out for us to get this boy. Edmund wants to crank up his image and be in the ranks of the big, cool kids like Peter and Susan, rather than finding himself forever relegated with the little kids like Lucy. His position as third born was unfortunate for him, and he'd do anything to elbow his way up, even teasing and lying. Although it appears personal, his put-down behaviour at the start of their adventures is not about Lucy at all. It's about him and his impression management.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)Once you're bewitched by the deliciousness of enchanted Turkish Delight, your responsibility for your own actions is arguably out of your control, to a certain extent. It is easy enough to talk yourself into anything when a persistent voice in your mind tells you that rebelling may be in your own best interest. I believe his niggling resentment of the others, combined with the lies the White Witch told him, convinced Edmund that betrayal wasn't really betrayal. It was more like sound common sense in his deluded reasoning. In the broad scope of the Narnian world, Edmund represents us all, so we're being sort of hypocritical if we come down too hard on him.

2) Heathcliff
One thing you have to concede by the end of his story is that he didn't stomp around making people's lives hell just for the fun of it. His only targets were people he believed stuffed his own life up, and their offspring. And he only did it to prove to them that he could, and to restore what he believed was justice, and the way things should have been all along. His enemies had pushed him aside as a contemptuous write-off. In his mind, he owed it to himself to make them sorry.

Wuthering HeightsHis horrid surrogate brother Hindley degraded Heathcliff and made sure his sister Catherine would regard him as a contemptible marriage prospect. The effeminate Edgar Linton actually did win Catherine's hand. So Hindley and Edgar became the main targets on Heathcliff's hit list. To Heathcliff's way of thinking, making a thorough job of it simply extended into the next generation, and continued after those two had passed away. He almost thwarted himself with warm feelings for Hindley's son, Hareton, Then he reminded himself that since Hindley's son wasn't a born fool like his own, keeping him in his place would be all the sweeter. And off he went on his destructive path again. You can't say that someone that calculating, conniving, and clever doesn't have depth.

3) Severus Snape
Whoa, wondering exactly what he conceals beneath that hooked-nosed, oily-haired exterior becomes part of the crux of the whole story. We're set up to hold him in contempt from the outset. He treats Harry and his friends horribly, and holds a deep grudge against Harry, for reasons we have to discover. He is known to have a dark mark on his arm. He's dabbled in the dark arts from his youth, and still professes to belong among the Death Eaters, to their faces at least. He kills Albus Dumbledore with no hesitation, before Harry's very eyes. And he knows how to think of the most sadistic punishments for his students, and certainly never presents a warm front.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Our feelings about him swing like a pendulum all through the series.  'Is he good? No, he's bad! No, he's a good guy. No, it looks as if he's on the wrong side after all.' JKR played on her readers not knowing what to think about the potions master. By the end of the seventh book, you have to admire the complex and dangerous game he played as a double agent, It becomes clear that many key characters, including Harry himself, had their necks saved by Snape. His motivation for loyalty to Dumbledore extends way back to his lonely childhood. And at last we find out about the action which drove him with horrible remorse for the rest of his life.

I read that while the Harry Potter series was being filmed, JKR let Alan Rickman in on the secret motivations of Severus Snape's heart before they were revealed to anyone else, just so he'd have the background details to enable him to play this complex character. You may also like my post, Is Severus Snape a good person?

4) Draco Malfoy
He's introduced as the typecast, nasty little bully, but becomes so much more as he grows up during the series. Early on, we get glimpses of what really drives him. 'Oh, I get it, you're just trying to impress your father. Well, you'll find out that's an impossible task.' In the meantime, you find yourself wishing he'd figure it out for himself. 'If only you'd use that wit and intelligence for good.' In time, you see it dawn on him that he doesn't have a heart for evil and cruelty at all. Draco is good at talking the talk, but walking the walk is a completely different story. But at this stage, it seems too late. He's certain that deviating from the path Voldemort and his family have set for him will cost him their lives.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6)In so many other stories, characters choose to live the lie that they are good, when it isn't true. Draco's story is a refreshing reversal. He finds himself forced to live the lie that he's bad, because to his twisted, Death Eater family, bad is good. I love the scenes when we see his facade begin to crack. He breaks down and cries under the intense pressure, he can't bring himself to fulfill his mission to murder Dumbledore (and Dumbledore understands him just as we do). Looking Voldemort in the eye is impossible for him, and he refuses to identify Harry, Ron and Hermione to the Death Eaters under his own roof. Even though he bullied them at school, seeing them tortured and killed is much further than he's willing to go. In fledgling steps, he's becoming his own man.

Draco fans like me will love the way his character is written in 'The Cursed Child' play. Out of the shadow of his parents at last, and living with a loving wife and son instead, he's free to become the man he might have been all along, if he hadn't been brought up all wrong. A real sheep in wolves clothing this boy turns out to be, and surely any psycho-analyst's dream. I remember at one stage, JKR expressed her concern that Draco seemed as popular with young fans as Harry, and wondered how to curb their enthusiasm. I could have told her not to bother. That ship had already sailed.

5) Darth Vader
The first Star Wars trilogy presented a 'more machine than man' type of character who'd been entrenched in the dark side for so many years, you'd think there was no hope for him. He has the black and menacing dress sense to match his personality. He's the despicable Emperor Palpatine's right hand man. He tries to bring down the good Rebel Alliance whenever possible, and does his best to convince his son, Luke Skywalker, to join the dark side too. He's somebody you'd want to keep well away from. But then he makes the impromptu decision to kill the emperor to save Luke, mortally wounding himself in the process. And we have Luke's own conviction that there's still some good in his father, however deep it may be buried, and we've got to trust Luke, because he's the hero.

Star Wars: A New Hope - Screenplay
Years later, the second trilogy explores the depth of Darth Vader's character. It takes three prequels to thresh out the complex person who was once Anakin Skywalker. It takes us way back to his childhood, when he was the young Jedi prophesied to bring balance to the Force. We see his love for Padme, his rage and grief over his mother's death, and the torturous visions which he's determined won't come to pass. Intense love and passion influence his fall to the dark side, but the good was always flickering. (I don't know if it's only me, but Obi-Wan seemed a bit quick to give up on Anakin in those final, tense moments. It was pretty sad.)

I've had a go at writing several complex bad boy characters of my own, because I love the challenge of getting readers to despise a person on face value, and then decide they understand, and even love him, after all. That's good exercise for the emotion muscle. This was a great fun post to write. If you agree with my choices, please go ahead and add your thoughts in the comments. And if you can suggest any of your own favourite bad boy characters, feel free to mention them too. 

You may also enjoy my lists of Wicked Women and Mean Girls. The last ones in particular are abundant.