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Charming Stories: Close to Home

IMG_4237Close to Home by Robin Barker

I have been a huge fan of Robin Barker’s baby and toddler books – the best on the market as far as I’m concerned – so was incredibly curious to read her first foray into fiction.

Stories of life, love & family from the bestselling author of Baby Love.
A distraught father is prevented from comforting his little boy. A baby’s life is put in danger by a well-meaning but offbeat couple. Two mothers fight each other for the love of their son. A couple’s desperation for a child leads to a chain of unpredictable events … 

First Impressions: I flicked through the book and liked how the stories were in chronological order from 1955 to the present based on the setting rather than when they were written. The first short story was enjoyable in an old-fashioned way so I looked forward to seeing how this tone progressed and developed across the decades.

Highlights: My favourite stories in the collection were the two personal memoirs. Not only were they interesting, they flowed really well and were tender and heartfelt, as you would expect. My favourite short stories were three set more recently: First Love, Baby Royal and Mother’s Day most likely because they are about problematic contemporary issues with no obvious solutions.

If I was an editor: The collection works really well as a whole but I would have liked a bit more subtlety in some of the stories. I thought some of the descriptions were too obvious and intended casual references to race were a little artificial. However, I certainly didn’t find this distracting enough to even consider abandoning the collection.

Overall: A mix of 3 and 4 star stories

Close to Home: 4 Stars

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Beautiful Grit: Foreign Soil

 Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

A desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way.

First Impressions: The first story, David, had me hooked. I kept turning the pages just knowing it was going to be an upsetting (I have a son) yet worthwhile read. I liked the juxtoposition between the two characters’ stories too. I didn’t realise this was a technique the author excelled in.

Highlights: There is no weak story in this collectioin. All of the stories were thought provoking and I was always torn between pausing for a while after each story to reflecct, and charging on to the next story. Some stories like Hope were excellent but I wasn’t necessarily moved by the ending, and the tititular story, Foreign Soil, was not necessarily moving until the end. However, in all situations the stories were brilliant. Do I have a favourite story? Maybe Foreign Soil but I did enjoy the 90s pop culture references in Shu Yi.

What I loved most about this collection is that the stories are ordered like this for a reason. I have assumed this about other collections in the past but this collection just works so well. One example is that the patois in some stories increases in complexity as the stories progress. It seemed to me that the slang in each story is particular to the context. I may be wrong about this as I kept moving to the next story and didn’t have time to think about it further but from what I could gather, this really added to my enjoyment.

If I was an editor: I would want to know when the author can have her next short story collection ready to publish?

Overall: I never thought a short story collection could be such a page turner. Oh so compelling!

Foreign Soil: 5 Stars

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Hilarious Horror: Audition

Audition by Ryu Murakami

Documentary-maker Aoyama hasn’t dated anyone in the seven years since the death of his beloved wife. When his best friend comes up with a plan to hold fake film auditions to help choose a new bride, he decides to go along with the idea. Of the thousands who apply, Aoyama only has eyes for Yamasaki Asami, a delicate ballerina with a turbulent past. There is more to her than Aoyama can see and by the time he discovers the terrifying truth it may be too late.

First impressions: As with many modern Japanese authors I read, I really enjoyed Murakami’s writing style and the way the characters and story is introduced. It could also be due to  a great translator!

Highlights: Your apprehension is there right from the first page. You know something terrible is going to happen and it keeps niggling at you. Why is Aoyama so naive? The foreshadowing of doom is so ridiculously obvious it is hilarious. I think this is a feature of contemporary Japanese fiction and I love it.

If I was an editor: I would say there is a little too much gore for me at the end but I still had a smirk on my face when reading it.

Overall: The ‘other’ Murakami wins my vote! More please!

Audition: 5 stars

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Claustrophobic: The Anchoress

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

1255: Running from her grief, seventeen year old Sarah chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a small cell at the side of the village church. During her internment she begins to realise she cannot keep the outside world away and maybe her soul is still in danger.

First impressions: The title of this review says it all – I could feel the claustrophobia as Emma entered her cell in the opening pages. Great writing and a marvellous reading experience!

Highlights: Not only did I feel like I was in the cell with Emma throughout the novel, the author perfectly captures all the nuances of medieval village life. Much to my surprise there is much more to the story than just an secluded life in a cell. The life of an anchoress is quite era-specific and I became really interested in the story and finding out about this practice. Finally, I loved the ending. Perfectly fitting and not what I was expecting.

If I was an editor: I have to admit that as much as I loved the story, I did find it a bit slow in places, particularly the religious discussions.

Overall: A peculiar medieval tradition brought to life.

The Anchoress: 3 stars

 

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Six Degrees of Separation: June 2015

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation: Saturday 6th June 2015

I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling but it seems to show a realistic slice of life in a typical English town – a quaint cobbled town centre that borders a grim housing estate.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker is set in the very modern and ordinary English town of Ashford.

One other book that is also includes a glimpse of the typical English suburbs is The Engagement by Chloe Hooper.
(Read my review here)
I read The Engagement for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I am currently reading (and loving) The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader for this challenge.

Another challenge I have signed up for again this year is the Japanese Literature Challenge. Last year in this challenge I discovered Keigo Higashino and his wonderful crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X.
(Read my review here)
I really thought that this author had probably been overlooked due to the international trend for Scandi Noir crime.

If we’re talking about northern European crime novels I’d really like to read The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto. So few Finnish novels are translated into English and I always have a personal interest in them being half Finnish myself. The Hummingbird is set in a small northern Finnish town…

and Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (another crime novel I’d like to read) is set in a northern Icelandic fishing town.

Find out more about the Six Degrees of Separation meme here.

#6Degrees Rules

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Life in Old Photographs: Nine Days

Nine DaysNine Days by Toni Jordan

It is 1939. Deep in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Richmond Kip Westaway, failed scholar and stablehand, is about to live through the most important day in his young life as Australia hovers unknowingly on the brink of war. Eight more days follow, giving a snapshot of the Westaway family across the generations.

First Impressions: I adored the way Toni Jordan conjured up life in Australia in the 1930s. It leapt out at me from page one.

Highlights: I was amazed at how masterfully the settings were brought to life, particularly the earlier decades of the 20th century. I honestly felt like I was walking around in one of my grandparents’ old black and white photos. The more modern decades were also well done but eclipsed by the perfect essence of wartime Australia. I usually find some fault with novels that move forward and backwards in time, favouring one era more than another and wondering if the novel would work just as well if the author picked one story. However, the forwards and backwards in time worked magnificently in this novel and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I was affected in one of the post war chapters when old school and neighbourhood friends were catching up and discussing who made it back and who didn’t in a somewhat offhand way, but I guess those conversations started to feel normal after a while.

If I was an editor: My least favourite of the nine chapters were actually the last two. There was nothing wrong with them but I didn’t find them so compelling. However, they were definitely needed in order to make the novel complete and it’s the sort of novel where the hard punches come throughout, not just towards the end. Also, I didn’t necessarily realise that Kip’s first story is the catalyst for the other eight stories but I’d now like to go back and take a closer look at this!

Overall: Magnificent snapshots.

Nine Days: 5 Stars

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Kushiel’s Dart Read Along Week 3

Kushiel’s Dart Read Along Week 3
Chapters 19-26

Kushiel's Dart

OK, I am a week late with this post but I did have the chapters read in time… promise!

1)  We get a lot of political intrigue to wade through this week, plus a couple of pretty big dramatic revelations, not least of which was the twist of fate for Prince Baudoin and his mother. What did you make of the trial, and what became of these two?
The trial was probably more substantial than I initially thought it would be and it was definitely setting the tone for the future of the story. I was surprised by the outcome of the trial, particularly for Prince Baudoin but then I guess you can’t assume anyone is safe in fantasy! I was hoping he’d stick around.
2)  On a rather different, much more personal note for the House of Delaunay was the drama that unfolded surrounding Alcuin (poor Guy!). What do you think might become of Alcuin now that he appears to be out of the game?
I don’t underestimate Alcuin at all – I think his sombre and sad persona just hides his true intentions. He keeps his cards close to his chest! I think he will strike out alone in some way and become rather powerful…
3)  As we’d suspected last week, Phedre’s refusal to use her signale gets her into some trouble with d’Essoms – but it also gets her the result that Anafiel had hoped for… Do you think she’ll be more careful from here or will this only make that addictive slope more slippery for her?
No, slippery slope.
4)  Speaking of Phedre and trouble, what do you make of the ‘relationship’ building between her and Melisande?
I am curious to see where this leads. The two of them combined would be powerful.
It’s all about power, isn’t it?