Review: Sara Barnard – Fierce Fragile Hearts

Fierce Fragile Hearts
Sara Barnard

Suzanne has spiraled down to being depressed and suicidal, and checking out on life into a mental institution but is now back and willing to try again. Again. In her bed-sit, she needs to work out what she can and can’t cope with – and decide whether to let people get close enough to hurt her or love her.

Suzanne is a tormented character with multiple facets that I loved. The magic here was that I could see things from her perspective and her flawed logic, even as I hated the way that she treated people. Strangely enough, I had just read Supernormal (this non-fiction looks at the affects of abuse and its creation of resilient people), and I recognized a lot of the theory of those findings here. I was particularly satisfied by the ending, as Suzanne makes some really powerful choices.

This should have a trigger warning attached. The scenes in which Suzanne is depressed and self-destructive are very confronting and elicited many strong memories for me. I almost cried multiple times. Then, I couldn’t hold it in anymore when I got to an important character dying, and I cried! I’m not sure if it was a sad or happy cry either.

What I do know is that this novel is amazing, and I’m going to want to read it again, and it’s companion book Beautiful Broken Things again. Sara Barnard is also the author of A Quiet Kind of Thunder and Goodbye, Perfect. The best part about this author is that she is still relatively new on the scene, and I know that I can expect further wonderful things from her. 5 stars for this novel.

Pan Macmillan | 12th February 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Meg Jay – Supernormal

Meg Jay

“…nearly 75% of us experience adversity by the age of 20. But these experiences are often kept secret, as are our courageous battles to overcome them. Drawing on nearly two decades of work with clients and students, Jay tells the tale of ordinary people made extraordinary by these all-too-common experiences.”

Meg Jay has really delved into this topic with insight and sensitivity. Some of the chapters really resonated with me, even as I struggled with the concept of the horrible human circumstances that some people grow up with (eg. sexual/physical/mental abuse, neglect or alcoholism). The statistics on how many brilliant people come from adversity were really eye opening.

Jay debunks the myth of normality and summarises the research that indeed suggests that a normal childhood is rare, and in fact having an adverse childhood can make people stronger and more resilient. Jay lists a set of words that ‘Supernormals’ might identify with, and not all of them are positive. Many Supernormals report feeling inadequate or like they are wearing a permanent mask or running a constant charade.Yet, there is hope for them to come to recognise that they ARE good enough and that they aren’t fakes.

What was the most important thing that I took away from this book? That the key to survival and to thrive is to be resilient. To just keep going. But also, to recognize that to be strong is sometimes to ask for help, whether that be from close family or friends who can actively and openly listen to you, or a kind and understanding therapist who is invested in your life. The final thing is that forming relationships is an essential part to being human, and those that most need them are often the most afraid to form them.

Remember that I had just read Shapeshifters, a similarly written non-fiction novel about changes in the human body. Supernormal was better written in my opinion, because the research and the human stories were intertwined and really complimented one another. I found this book to be superior! It was fascinating and horrifying in equal measures, and I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of it and using it as a conversation starter.

Allen & Unwin | 21st February 2018 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

A Curse so Dark and Lonely
Brigid Kemmerer

Harper hasn’t led a sheltered life in Washington, DC. Her mother is dying of cancer, and her older brother Jake is still determined to protect her, even though she’s able to look out for herself. When she tries to protect another girl, Harper instead finds herself sucked into Rhen’s world – Rhen the Prince who is trapped to repeat the autumn of his 18th year until a girl falls in love with him.

Three months is such a short time to fall in love with someone, yet Kemmerer avoided making them cliche into love at first sight. I liked the way she set it up with Harper knowing exactly what was going on, even if at first she didn’t want to believe. Harper doesn’t want to fall for Rhen and she’s such a strong protagonist that the reader doesn’t want her to either. We’d be ok if you chose Grey!

I’m not sure if Harper’s cerebral palsy was consistently approached in the latter half of the novel. In the beginning, it is quite obvious what her limitations are, and how far she is able to push herself. When the creature comes though, she seems a lot more stable. I’d have to reread to make certain (Oh what a problem, I’ll have to reread it!!)

I initially thought to myself that this would be just another Beauty and the Beast retelling. But no! The characters in this felt real enough to come off the pages, and weren’t your normal run-of-the-mill prince/princess. Not to mention that deliciously evil sorceress. What I was very sad about was the fact this this is a series? duo? I’m not sure. But I have to wait a whole year for the next one! The conclusion to this one was satisfying though, and I really felt like the last chapter could have been left out.

I was very keen on reading this novel when it came in the door, and I had read it within two days. My hopes were high due to my enjoyment of Letters to the Lost and Thicker than Water and I was not disappointed. I still need to read More Than We Can Tell, and you better believe I’m even more excited to get my hands on it now. 5 stars for this novel from me. Thanks Bloomsbury!

Bloomsbury | 4th February 2019 |AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Uzma Jalaluddin – Ayesha at Last

Ayesha at Last
Uzma Jalaluddin

When does Ayesha get to choose her own path? As a high-school substitute teacher with little interest in getting married, she feels pressure to meet her extended family’s expectations. This includes looking after her cousin Hafsa, who is determined to have 100 marriage proposals before settling down. When her path intersects with Khalid, the two must decide for themselves how much they are willing to sacrifice – and gain.

You can tell that this novel is written by someone who actually understands Muslim culture, and isn’t just writing a novel in the ‘genre’ because it’s ‘popular’. Often I find in novels that there is a lot of going on about hijabs, when really most of the time it’s not anything out of the ordinary for the woman in question. Ayesha is comfortable with her faith even as she rebels against some of the requirements and expectations of her family.

I envy them their faith. I hope that people who do not understand or do not want to understand Muslim culture can read this novel and have their views changed. The sad fact is that many people are like Sheila the Shark – out to tarnish everyone of a religion/culture/group/minority with the sins of one person. This novel hopefully starts poking holes in those assumptions. Ayesha is a believable character that I found it easy to relate to.

Now, given the hassle of organising my own wedding lately, you’d expect that I felt indifferent or fearful of this novel. But my own life is far removed from this one. My parents certainly have never considered arranging a marriage for me (and I’d be pretty surprised if they did). Many people see arranged marriages as old fashioned and stuffy, but others of my friends who are older and having trouble finding a life partner feel differently. I guess it also depends how close you are to your parents.

Um, this is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice? Ugh, suddenly my star rating wants to go down a bit… No, I think this novel stands fine on its own and shouldn’t be compared to a stodgy Jane Austin novel. It’s a clean, touching romance novel that still had some bite and edge to it. I’m giving it 4 well deserved stars because I found it really difficult to put down, and I found myself second-guessing the story right up until the last 3 pages.

Allen & Unwin | 4th February 2019 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Bren MacDibble – The Dog Runner

The Dog Runner
Bren MacDibble

Ella and Emery have a long way to go to get to Christmas’s place. Armed with their five big doggos and a dry-land dogsled they must head away through rough terrain to reach the relative safety and food of Emery’s mum’s place – but will their other parents ever catch up?

This is another wonderful, thought provoking novel from Bren MacDibble. Her first novel, How to Bee, examined how a world without bees would survive. This novel takes this a step further, envisioning a future where grasses and grains have been lost to a deadly fungus. This novel is probably another candidate for a upper primary school reader novel and thought-provoker.

The story slips out in nibbles, teasing the reader along even as Ella and Emery make it further and further away from the city. I was occasionally irritated by the way Ella ‘spoke’, but the action kept me reading. The way this is written, Ella could be a boy or a girl, and I think that makes it easier for any reader to empathize and truly consider her circumstances. This is a really possible future for Australia and the world – we are so reliant on grains for basic food and feeding livestock. Have we learnt nothing from the Irish Great Famine?

If this novel does nothing else, hopefully you enjoy the fast paced travel and fraught hideaways of Ella and Emery. They are brave kids, and I think the novel is really realistic in the way Ella reacts to the world falling apart around her. If Ella had been ok with eating dead humans all of a sudden, I would have been really concerned!

I’m giving this 4 stars, and I am looking forward to when I have a younger reader in this age bracket to read and review it with me.

Allen & Unwin | 4th February 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: CWA NSW – Everything I Know About Cooking

Everything I Know About Cooking I learnt from the CWA of NSW

“With tried and true recipes for a perfect sausage roll snack, a succulent Greek-style roast chicken for dinner or honeycomb cheesecake slice for dessert, Everything I know about cooking I learned from CWA is the perfect kitchen companion, in a deceptively small format. Offering a range of tried and tested recipes to suit both the beginner and the expert cook…”

I put off reviewing this book because I wanted to cook some things out of it to really get a feel for its usefulness. In the end though, I didn’t cook anything out of it because I just didn’t have the motivation to go search out the ingredients, and I also don’t eat many of the items in it (like slices or some veggie dishes).

The index in this book is useless. I wanted to make scones (a CWA staple as far as I’m concerned) so I looked under ‘S’ for ‘scone’. Nope, no scones. Oh! But there is a chapter labeled ‘scones’. But then the recipe… When have I ever made scones with no butter, and with powdered sugar?  For me, scones start with the irritating process of using a fork/fingers to work the butter into the flour. I didn’t end up making the recipe.

I’m not sure how many people actually use cookbooks anymore in print format. Why would you go finding a recipe in a cookbook when you can just ‘google it’? I certainly do, unless its a recipe I have use many times, in which case I have a small box of recipe cards. And I have a tome of a recipe book (The Encyclopedia of Cooking) that I use for other popular things I make.

So who would I buy this for? I’m not sure. Its value is probably its nostalgic quality, and it could be a good starter cookbook for a beginner cook just learning on their own.

Murdoch | 1st April 2018 | AU$16.99 | hardback

Review: Gavin Francis – Shapeshifters

Gavin Francis

Humans have an enormous capacity for change. “In Shapeshifters, physician and writer Gavin Francis considers the inevitable changes all of our bodies undergo–such as birth, puberty, and death, but also laughter, sleeping, and healing.”

I started reading this book, and then put it down in favour of something else. When I picked it up again, I had to start from Chapter 1 because I honestly didn’t remember what came before that. That first chapter is one of the most interesting ones – what I would think of as true ‘shapeshifters’ such as the biology behind the myth of werewolves. After this there are discussions of pregnancy, menopause, tattoos and other body changes. Which are interesting, but just not what I expected.

This book read as a bit of a jumbled mess that I found difficult to follow and thus enjoy. I’m not sure what the purpose of this book was. It is an exploration of old folk tales and history combined with the author’s clinical practice. For me, I would have liked to hear more about the clinical practice so that I could link it to what I was reading about. If I had wanted to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I would have done so earlier!

Pick this up if you are interested in finding out the links between clinical practice and ancient texts, but don’t go expecting to hear about supernatural shape shifting. You may or may not learn something interesting from this book – it just wasn’t for me.

Allen & Unwin | 23rd May 2018 | AU$32.99 | hardback

Review: Jennifer A Nielsen – The Traitor’s Game

The Traitor’s Game
Jennifer A Nielsen

Kestra has been ordered home by her father, but instead is kidnapped by an old friend on the way there. She receives a second set of orders from the Coracks – find the Olden Blade and betray her family and monarchy. Once at home, not all is as it seems – everything Kestra remembers is wrong.

Do I actually see this ‘cruel and bloody fist’ of Lord Endrick? Nope, I do not. All I see is simple Kestra getting simple revenge on her captors, and them having revenge on her. While there was potential for intrigue, instead I felt like Kestra was holding all the cards and the reader didn’t know enough to actually imagine what was happening behind the scenes. In fact, I felt that Kestra was particularly slow in working out what was going on (even with really clear clues).

I was horrified to get slightly further into the novel and find that the perspectives suddenly changed between Kestra and Simon. I felt this was unnecessary. I didn’t see much benefit from reading Simon’s perspective – apart from the fact that across three days he went from being vaguely in love with her / hating her, to being completely in love with her.

Kestra is claustrophobic, but the majority of the time it seems well controlled. And when she’s in those situations, most of it seems to be from Simon’s perspective, so the effect of it is only what he sees. I didn’t feel the claustrophobia with Kestra at all so it wasn’t a useful character flaw that made me like her.

The events in this novel take place over the course of 3 days, but it honestly felt like the action was still slow enough to occur across a week. Every time Kestra gets caught doing something she shouldn’t be there are hardly any consequences, or I didn’t actually care about the consequences. The person I did vaguely care about apparently died. I’m not even sure whether this person did die or not, it’s so uncertain whether I should be sad/angry/upset or not.

Stating that you can see someone else’s barriers going up is just pathetic. And to have it stated multiple times in the course of two pages? I should just be able to tell that from the characters’ expressions, not have them do it for me. 3 stars from me.

Scholastic | 1st July 2018 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Lynette Noni – Whisper

Lynette Noni

Jane Doe is stubborn. She committed herself to a psychiatric ward so that she wouldn’t harm anyone else, but in the end she found herself trapped in an underground facility with a daily psychologist appointment, martial arts training and a torture session with a brain chemist. Suddenly befriended by one of the staff, will Jane finally crack? And if she does, what lies in store for her?

I liked Jane precisely because she was a blank slate with little personality. I think believing you’ve killed someone important to you would definitely stunt your growth, as would not speaking for more than 2 years. I watched her grow and Speak and I was excited for her!

What about the premise? That a drug given to women for fertility can have supernatural effects on their progeny… Yes, I could see it happening. There is so much we still don’t know about the brain. And it won’t be the first time a drug given to pregnant ladies has a bad/strange outcome for offspring (Thalidomide, anyone?) I would have loved to hear more about the science behind the scenes (literally and figuratively), but this novel is ultimately about Jane and her fears.

I do have to say that a lot of smirking took place. And I couldn’t possibly condone some of the behaviour. According to other reviewers there’s a love triangle happening here. I’m sorry, I didn’t see it. Mostly I just saw Jane being terrified and stressed out. Yes, she may have noted at some point that she cared about the other characters, but I didn’t see a love story. I guess now I fear that the second novel will suffer from a gooey protagonist. Let’s hope not.

This novel came in the front door and I immediately got stuck into it. I didn’t put it down until I was finished and I ignored all else in favour of it. It was entrancing and sublime and I need to read it again – as soon as the second novel is out. Arg! I can’t wait, considering that I read this before the official publication date! … and I have now waited a year to reread and review it, and I was just as captivated with it the second time around. 5 stars. Please Lynette Noni, write us the second one! If you are looking for other similar novels in the mean time, try Burning.

Pantera Press | 1st May 2018 | AU $19.99 | paperback

Review: Ally Carter – Not if I Save You First

Not if I Save You First
Ally Carter

After Maddie’s father saves the first lady from being shot, he takes Maddie with him to make a new home in Alaska. Maddie finds herself torn away from her best friend Logan – the President’s son – and grows angrier with him over time as she sends him hundreds of letters and never gets a response. Six years later, Logan is sent to live with them in Alaska, both as a punishment for his behaviour, and to keep him safe. When he then gets kidnapped by the same people who tried to kill his mother years ago, Maddie must save his life, even if that means getting captured herself.

This book was full of plot holes, poor decisions, and just wasn’t exciting. The main character, Maddie, seemed to be either perfect or immortal. After falling off a 15-meter cliff, she’s able to trek through the Alaskan wilderness, make her way across a dangerous bridge, and run away from a man shooting at her. 15 meters might not seem like a lot, but it’s not uncommon for people to die from a fall that high. She later gets shot in the shoulder, and is still able to cause an explosion, survive the explosion, and throw a knife into a man’s back. Nothing felt like it had any meaning, and by the end the book felt boring and stale, because I knew that Maddie’s ability to shrug off fatal injuries would likely mean that nothing would happen to anyone else. The only progression that occurred throughout the book was the discussion between Maddie and Logan about the letters, and even that was resolved in a few pages.

There were some parts of the book that I enjoyed. I loved Maddie’s personality, with her mix of tough and girly, and her ability to annoy her captors. The letters at the beginning of each chapter were also a nice touch, helping to show more of Maddie’s personality, and how the lack of response made her feel.

This book wasn’t terrible, but it’s definitely not something I’d read again. I constantly found myself jolting out of the book and back into reality from a variety of just… strange occurrences, ranging from weird sentence structure, to poor decisions on the characters part, to people doing things that should’ve been impossible. I’m giving this book 2 stars as it wasn’t an effort to get through, but it also wasn’t very enjoyable.