Review: Colm Toibin – Brooklyn (A)

Colm Toibin

Eilis is content living in 1950s Ireland and expects to keep on living there for the rest of her life – until her charismatic sister Rose books her on a ship to America. She is sent away in search of better opportunities than home can offer post-war, and sure enough in NY, Eilis works in a shop and is studying bookkeeping. She remains desperately homesick though, until she meets Tony, an Italian golden retriever-esque plumber. But her family suffers
a tragedy, and on her return she is swept up in the life she could have lived back home. Eilis is torn between two promising, parallel versions of a life she will have to choose for herself.

I’ve loved the movie adaptation for years but somehow never thought to check if it was a book – until I heard there was a sequel being released. Brooklyn was super short – I finished it in two evenings – but pretty weighty. I was moved by the compassionate portrayal of so many ordinary people with unimportant lives, for whom the little things that happen are the big things that make up a life. Toibin wove a lot between the lines; even though these characters leave most things unsaid, you can feel the tug of desires and duty, motivations malicious or sacrificial, as an undercurrent to most interactions. Though it was written with a light hand – deft and funny, it felt real and complex.

I also sympathised with Eilis’ actions – some self-sabotage, some in avoidance or confusion. She tended to go along with everyone’s expectations whilst privately ignoring her own reservations until the last minute, then blowing everything up. There was also that warped sense of place in regard to travel: that feeling that you’re growing and changing when you’re travelling and everything seems so vivid and tangible you believe it of yourself, then the ease of returning home and slotting into your old self with the trip becoming like a dream.

I understand not much actually happened in this book, but maybe that’s why I loved it, and could recommend to others who enjoy character rather than plot driven novels. I am very curious to read the sequel now.


Review: Vi Keeland – The Invitation

The Invitation
Vi Keeland

Stella’s roommate bailed on her with a bounced check for the last two months rent, so Stella feels as if Evelyn owes her something… an invitation to a swanky wedding at the library?! Stella and her bestie crash the wedding, enjoy the food, and then Stella is caught out by the bride’s brother. Uh oh! Little does Stella know that this chance invitation could help her get her startup off the ground.

Many reviewers hated this book for the same reason I liked it! Thankfully, a lot of the text was dedicated to how the venture capitalists could support Stella’s Signature Scent start-up. There aren’t too many loooonnnngggg sex scenes that have them going at it like bunnies all night (and getting a blow by blow of the action). Does anyone read those $3X scenes and actually enjoy them? I’m also very over people saying ‘is it spicy?’ No, there’s no delicious cooking in this novel, just home-made mac’n’cheese.

Is there anything more stereotypical at the moment than the female male character having a gay male bestfriend? I feel like this trope is one of the top picks of the season (yes, I realise that it’s a 2021 book). There’s a bit of #enemiestolovers, but it’s not like you don’t already know how a romance is going to work out. I did like the slight twist, but again, I saw it coming from a while off and I knew that Stella and Hudson would make it up anyway.

This shouldn’t have been called ‘The Invitation’, it should have been titled Signature Scent! The business idea behind this book, which is for someone to answer questions and decide how much they like each of 10 scents to create their own scent, is brilliant. In fact, I could have sworn that I’d read a book on that premise before… anyway, I enjoy reading about chemistry and perfumes, and anything with at least a bit of science I can get excited about.

Given that other reviewers give this book a bad rap due to the lack of sex, I’m not going to be reading any more of this author’s novels. I’m giving this one a solid 3 stars – an enjoyable way to pass the day, but not really nailbiting or rereadable.

Review – Lauren Roberts – Powerless

Lauren Roberts

Paedyn Gray is not only a thief, she’s also an Ordinary. Having no gift is a fate punishable with death and banishment of any hiding her. Paedyn has been trained as a psychic to cover her Ordinary-ness but also has a dab hand at fighting. She usually tries to stay out of trouble but unwittingly saves one of the Princes and finds herself battling for her life in the Purging Trials…

Sooo, it’s kind of like Hunger Games but a little less predictable because it’s not always obvious who needs to be the survivor, and who is going to win. I enjoyed the various powers that Kai got to play with, and I think more could have been done with it. Also, as if you’d fall for the illusionist twice…

The romance scenes were completely cringe-worthy. I found myself skipping over them and hoping I wasn’t missing important story details. Of course, #enemiestolovers trope is a thing, but can’t we have a book or two that is just epic battles? My dissatisfaction with this type of thing is entirely the fault of Fourth Wing. At least there’s no sex?

I don’t think this book is remarkable enough for me to recommend to other readers, but it’s also not terrible. Maybe when you’ve read as many books as I have, it’s all too predictable? That sounds very full of myself, but I’ve read A LOT of books recently that I just haven’t reviewed. This could be a book for you if you enjoy #friendstolovers, #lovetriangle and #awkwardlove. Just don’t go looking for any deeper meaning.

Review: Abra Pressler – Love and Other Scores

Love and Other Scores
Abra Pressler

Noah’s just drifting from place to place in Melbourne – the best part about his life is his older adult housemate and the drag queen who drops in to visit him at his job. Gabriel is driven from country to country in pursuit of a Grand Slam tennis title – barely thinking about anything other than his sport. A chance meeting at a bar starts some heat between them – but what secrets are each of them hiding?

The blurb promised me twists and turns, but it really was exactly what I expected it to be (including Noah’s delay at various crucial points). I think it still counts as a ‘meet-cute’, and apart from the sex scenes (pretty tastefully written, nothing too racy) it doesn’t have that much new to offer. I did read it pretty quickly, just to see if it would turn out as expected. It did.

This book is good in that it presents monogamy, but not in a boring or ‘they settled for it’ way. I’ve read a LOT of books with sex happening all over the place, and it’s refreshing to have two men (rather than teenagers) interacting and not having it all about sex or teenage hormones. I also liked the individual charm that was included in the scenery, and I could see them sneaking (both huge men!!) through the backstreets of Melbourne.

I HATE TENNIS. I find it super boring, I don’t understand the rules and I can’t think anything too positive about a sport that regularly leaves people vomiting on the court from heat exhaustion. Oh, and don’t mention the huge amount of traffic the Australian Open causes in Melbourne. I associate tennis with hot summer nights and a lack of sleep.

If you are looking for an Australian novel with a gay sporting protagonist, this is it! It gave me echoes of Anything But Fine and Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell, but for an adult audience rather than a teenager one. I’m not excited by tennis, but this book was still a good solid read.

Pan Macmillan | 28 November 2023 | AU$26.99 | paperback

Review: Kim Lock – The Three of Us

The Three of Us
Kim Lock

Elsie isn’t quite satisfied with the life of a 1960s housewife – there’s only so many times she can wash the sheets and try to make food from her Women’s Weekly cookbook. Her husband Thomas keeps himself busy at work, and Elsie is lonely enough to approach the quiet stranger next door. Aida is unmarried and confined to her house for the next nine months, determined to keep to herself.

I really enjoyed this novel because it portrays life as a polyamory thruple that isn’t just about having mind-blowing and random sex all the time! Instead, it delicately probes what it looks like to be in a committed relationship with more than two people. I was plesently surprised by the whole book.

I dealt with the multiple perspectives quite well, even if I didn’t quite ever connect with Thomas. Thomas has two women – which is something that most men would say they wanted – but he’s a perfect gentleman about the whole thing. The framing of the novel is a little odd, and to my mind unecessary. It was quite clear to me what would happen, the only surprise was the, well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise!

I had never read anything by Kim Lock, but maybe I should go and seek out a few more of her novels if they all have this beautiful relationship aspect. I was very impressed and surprised to find it from an Australian author. Although I used to hate Australian fiction for being dry and boring (like our weather!), newer authors are changing my mind. Amazing stuff.

Review: Danielle Paige – Wish of the Wicked

Wish of the Wicked
Danielle Paige

“For centuries, Farrow’s family—the Entente—have been magical advisors to the Queen. Until a new queen, Magrit, takes power, outlaws magic, and executes the entire Entente race. Only Farrow survives. Since that day, Farrow has dreamed of revenge. The best way to reach the evil queen is through her son, Prince Mather, who is nearing the age when he must select a bride. When a special ball in his honour is announced, Farrow sees her opportunity. All it will take is a young woman named Cinderella who dreams of true love. But the closer Farrow gets to the prince, the more she finds herself drawn to him.”

I thougth because this had a fairy godmother aspect it would just be like the Twisted Tales I kept seeing in the newest releases brochure – and therefore that it would be a standalone and I’d be free to read it and then move on. But nooo, it has to be the first in a series. I wondered why the first half of the book took so longer to get started – it was just setting the stage to painfully draw things out to a non-conclusion.

I’ve read Stealing Snow by this author a long time ago and I found it to be just ok. Wish of the Wicked isn’t even ok because it’s written clearly to be the start of a series. I polished this off in an evening of fevered reading because as I got towards the end  and saw the 480th page coming I thought that the ending would be swift and deadly. Nope.

I love the idea of being a wishing fairy rather than any of you standard transformation, lightning and food fairies. I also appreciated the ideas of the Fates – I thought their embodiment was pretty cool. But ugh! The ending just killed the rest of the boom for me. So disappointing.

I read this as a proof copy, and there were definitely some awkward turns of phrase and subpar dialogue that I assume will be solved in the final copy. Could I have loved this book? Yes, if it had been condensed and a standalone. I could tolerate Farrow, I thought the idea of body double companion was neat and I was ok with the queen just dying. Not neat enough for me to recommend that you read it. Sorry.

Bloomsbury | 7 November 2023 | AU$17.99 | paperback

Review: Hisashi Kashiwai – The Kamogawa Food Detectives

The Kamogawa Food Detectives
Hisashi Kashiwai

“Down a quiet backstreet in Kyoto exists a very special restaurant. Run by Koishi Kamogawa and her father Nagare, the Kamogawa Diner treats its customers to wonderfully extravagant meals. But that’s not the main reason to stop by… The father-daughter duo have started advertising their services as ‘food detectives’. Through ingenious investigations, they are capable of recreating a dish from their customers’ pasts – dishes that may well hold the keys to forgotten memories and future happiness.”

The concept is quite novel, yet something that we all should know the basics of. It’s not just about the taste of a meal that evokes the memory, it’s also the scent and sight – the anticipation of it. This is a great bite-sized (haha) read for those who enjoy Japanese cuisine and love to hear about each of the dishes in turn. It made me crave some sushi or sashimi (which is sort of odd, since that wasn’t really the food the Kamogawa’s specialised in).

I found the set up of the Detective’s Agency quite weird. Why was it Koishi who did the interviews? It seemed like Nagare was the one with the expertise who might know the right questions to ask. Koishi also let a lot of her own feelings and perceptions out when doing the interviews – something that I felt would hinder it rather than adding to the memories brought out in people. The concept would never work if Nagare didn’t seem to have a geographical and food memory running the spread of Japan.

I didn’t understand why, if their food was so popular, Nagare complained about sushi being too expensive! Why not make a little more money by advertising to just a couple more people. I get not wanting to be run off their feet like a popular resturant, but also, making enough money to cover Nagare’s trips around Japan might be useful?

Pan Macmillan looks for books with great translators, or take the effort to choose novels that read well in their non-original language. I felt that this translation could have been a little more nauanced in tone, but I can only think that the original text was a little stilted.

This is more like short stories rather than a novel – so go into it expecting that. I don’t care much for short stories so it was never going to get more than three stars from me. If I had any say in what comes next in the series, I’d recommend having at least 10 stories in the book to make it a decent read (rather than the 1 hour or so I spent reading it). If there is a plot outside each of the eaters, I didn’t see it.

Pan Macmillan | 10 October 2023 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead – The Lost Library

The Lost Library
Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Evan’s dad rescues mice rather than killing them. Evan eats apples that look a bit odd. One day, a little free library appears, triggering a mystery hunt for Evan and the truth about the lost library of Martinville.

This is such a cute, quick read. I’m not its intended audience (middle-grade fiction) but I really enjoyed it anyway. Who wouldn’t love a cat, a lost library and a ghost? The writing is lovely and light, and it was easy to get lost in Martinville. Although I could eventually guess the ending, I was happy just to float along.

Initially I was really worried that it was going to skip between perspectives to many times for me to follow. Nope! It did it just enough that the reader feels confused and then reassured. The concept of a Little Free Library is awesome, even if I did worry about the books left in the potential rain!

If you enjoyed The Cat Who Saved Books, then you’ll also love this one. I’d highly recommend this for any of the young readers in your life. It touches on trickier topics such as not fitting in, and the transistion to higher levels of school (in a USA context), but ultimately it’s a feel-good mystery solved satisfactorially. 4-5 stars from me.

Text Publishing | 3 October 2023 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Patrick Ness & Tea Bendix – Different for Boys

Different for Boys
Patrick Ness & Tea Bendix

“Anthony “Ant” Stevenson isn’t sure when he stopped being a virgin. Or even if he has. The rules aren’t always very clear when it comes to boys who like boys. In fact, relationships of all kinds feel complicated, even with Ant’s oldest friends. There’s Charlie, who’s both virulently homophobic and in a secret physical relationship with Ant. Then there’s drama kid Jack, who may be gay and has become the target of Charlie’s rage. And, of course, there’s big, beautiful Freddie, who wants Ant to ditch soccer, Charlie’s sport, and try out for the rugby team instead.”

Built on the idea that being a virgin is about having had sex between a boy and a girl, this short story attempts to prove that it’s different for boys who have sex with boys. Unforunately, that’s not what I took away from it. All I saw was a boy refusing to admit he was gay, one poor kid who is clearly gay, one (potential) Ally and one homophobic but horny boy.

Storyline? Boy possibly has sex, but it doesn’t count as sex if it’s ‘just physical’. Kissing could be sex. This uses outdated language and outdated ideas. At least in Australia, I’d think the topic of being a virgin is uninteresting at this point. As a Queer person, I can’t say that losing my virginity was something even worth talking about – I certainly didn’t think about it! Is Ness trying to comment on the statement ‘boys will be boys’?

I don’t get it. This is like a picturebook for teenagers. All the interesting language (read: foul swearing) has been blackboxed out, and it took me maybe 10 minutes tops to read it. Would I want to be caught in public reading it? Probably not. Can I think of someone to gift it to? No. I finished reading it, but only because it was so short. 1 star from me.

Walker Books Australia | 1 March 2023 | AU$24.99 | hardback

Review: Brandon Sanderson – Secret Project #2

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England
Brandon Sanderson

“A man awakes in a clearing in what appears to be medieval England with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or why he is there. Chased by a group from his own time, his sole hope for survival lies in regaining his missing memories, making allies among the locals, and perhaps even trusting in their superstitious boasts. His only help from the “real world” should have been a guidebook entitled The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England, except his copy exploded during transit. The few fragments he managed to save provide clues to his situation, but can he figure them out in time to survive?”

This is fun in some ways, but pretty stupid in others. I’m ok with carp diem! Ie. Fish the day. It’s not seize the fish, which is what John thinks/pretends it. One of the best things about these Secret Projects is that this one and Tress are filled with plenty of odd metaphors and random puns. My favourite!

What else positive can I say about this book? Well, Sanderson definitely seemed to have fun writing it. It still has his lyrical prose and multi-faceted characters. I mostly just feel sorry for John since he isn’t the brightest, but he does try to be likeable at times. I’d certainly lose my temper a bit if I ended up in his original home situation (which is gradually pulled out of the text slowly). He’s just too ‘meh’, and I couldn’t care enough in it or the premise of travelling down different dimensions to ‘time travel’.

Go on and bite me, but I didn’t like this novel. That’s not to say that I love everything in The Cosmere equally and was influenced by the fact that this is NOT a Cosmere novel. I just didn’t care for the topic or the narrator. Yes, I’ve read it twice now, but even just trying to explain the plot to my wife made me think ‘Woah, why am I reading this again?’ I don’t think I’m going to revisit it, unless I’m looking for a happily-ever-after that can be knocked over quickly.