Reading Rewards - reviews

Sweet Wattle Creek

Sweet Wattle Creek by Kaye Dobbie 

In the years following the Great Depression, Belle Bartholomew arrives in the rural Victorian town of Sweet Wattle Creek to claim her inheritance – a decrepit hotel once owned by Martha Ambrose in the early 1900s. Belle is determined to solve the mystery surrounding her birth and find out why the hotel was bequeathed to her. However, she runs into opposition from the locals who want to keep the town’s secrets under wraps.

In the 1980s, journalist Sophie Matheson is on a quest to find Belle and her family after discovering an antique wedding dress. But as the Sweet Wattle Creek Centenary approaches, Sophie’s own past catches up with her. She must find out who exactly Belle and Martha were and uncover the link between the two women…

Why We Love It: Kaye Dobbie’s Sweet Wattle Creek is an intriguing story of three women that kept us turning the pages and wondering what was coming next. It’s a masterfully woven tale that transports us back in time to the turn of the nineteenth century, to the 1930s, and takes us forward again to the 1980s. 

from the Team at Better Reading

The Fish Ladder

The Fish Ladder: a journey upstream by Katherine Norbury

Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by a loving adoptive family, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the landscape of the British countryside.

One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out—accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie - with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape grounds the walkers, providing both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief evolves into a journey to the source of life itself: a life threatening illness forces Katharine to seek a genetic medical history, and this new and unexpected path delivers her to the door of the woman who abandoned her all those years ago.

Combining travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, and fragments of poems with tales from Celtic mythology, The Fish Ladder has a rare emotional resonance. It is a portrait of motherhood, of a literary marriage, a hymn to the adoptive family, but perhaps most of all it is an exploration of the extraordinary majesty of the natural world. Imbued with a keen and joyful intelligence, this original and life-affirming book is set to become a classic of its genre. 

Although the beginning to this story took a while to draw me in, I’m so glad that I stayed with it. The writing meanders and flows just like the crystal streams that Katherine follows. Gently and beautifully, landscape and people intersect. Katherine Norbury is able to focus on the minutiae of her surroundings and to describe all her journeys perfectly. If you enjoy biographies, nature or the Northern English/Scottish environment then I can highly recommend this book. I listened to the e-audio book which is read quietly and evocatively by the author. 


The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood 

Stan and Charmaine are left homeless by an economic downtown in the near future. They roam the dangerous roads of America, living out of their car, avoiding robbery, gang rape, even murder, and scrounging a meagre living any way they can. When they see a television ad at the bar where Charmaine works, promising hope of a safe life in a controlled new society, Charmaine can’t resist the lure of soft, white towels and hot running water.

Once inside though, reality is not quite so wonderful as the TV images portrayed. Charmaine has a job ‘dealing with’ the unsavoury elements in the perfect world of Positron and its alternate world, Consilience. Stan’s job is to tend the chickens that help to feed the residents of this supposedly utopian society. One month they live in their neat suburban house and on alternate months they go into the Positron ‘prison’, a system that makes everything run smoothly, according to the propaganda.

Why we love it: Margaret Atwood is at her best in this stunning novel about a crazy, dystopian world. The Heart Goes Last is a horrifying, funny and honest look at what humans will do to survive at any cost.

from the team at Better Reading

Wrong Way Round

Wrong Way Round by Lorna Hendry

When Lorna Hendry, her husband James and young kids left Melbourne on a one-year trip around Australia in a 4WD with a camper trailer (having only been camping once before they left), they ignored all advice and drove across the Nullarbor and up the west coast of Australia. They may have been travelling the wrong way around Australia, but it was the best decision they ever made. 

Lorna returned to Melbourne three years later, having crossed deserts and rivers, taken ill-advised short cuts in the most remote areas of the country, stood on the western edge and the northern tip of the country, stumbled onto its geographic centre, and lived in remote communities in Western Australia. 

Wrong Way Round is a story about four people who had to get out of the city to become a family. It's about this beautiful and harsh country. And it's about the adventures that you can have if you step outside of your door and turn left instead of right.

The map at the start of the book shows the family's travels and they are truly epic.They left home in Fitzroy and headed towards the Coorong in South Australia learning as they went. Putting up their campervan, annexe and tent was one learning experience as was trying to fill the requirements of the correspondence school curriculum for their boys. They learnt as they went along and by the end of their first year had become seasoned travellers. One year turned into three as they worked in the far north of Western Australia, visited new places and tried to never take the same road twice.  An enjoyable and easy read that is as much about family as it is about travelling around our country. 


Beneath the Skin

Beneath the Skin by Nicci French

Zoe, Jennifer and Nadia are three women with nothing in common ... Except for the man who wants to kill them. He sends them terrifying letters, full of the intimate details of their lives, and promises that he will bring those lives to a violent, horrible end. But not before he has enjoyed himself. Invisible and apparently unstoppable, he delights in watching the women suffer, thrilled by his power to leave them utterly helpless, alone in their terror and confusion. Except they're not all as helpless as he thinks.

The book is in three parts with each section devoted to one woman’s story.  They are wildly different people – in age, circumstance, looks and personalities and it’s this thread that has us (and the police) mulling over what common denominator would attract a killer.  

I’ve read a few other titles from the married writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Their psychological thrillers are usually pretty good and this is definitely one of the better ones as it has a couple of unique offerings … One: Jennifer’s killer is declared in Part 2.  But it’s a three part story so what’s left to say?  Plenty.  And two: the crime squad investigating the murders is shown quite blatantly to be not exactly bumbling but definitely inept and inadequate.  This is a ‘French’ trait that has cropped up before in their books, particularly in ‘Losing You’ where the main character seethes with rage and frustration at police procedure. 

Sometimes you can tell which team member has written which chapter (particularly noticeable in Secret Smile published in 2003) but no so in this title.  The suspense underpins most of the story pretty much up until the end, and, in this Bolinda audio version downloaded from our catalogue, is helped even further by a first-class narration from Julie Maisey.  We have this title in all print and audio formats.  



Those Girls

Those Girls by Chevy Stevens
From the cover:  Life has never been easy for the three Campbell sisters. Jess, Courtney and Dani live on a remote ranch where they work hard and try to stay out of the way of their father’s temper. One night, a fight gets out of hand and the sisters are forced to go on the run, only to get caught in an even worse nightmare when their truck breaks down in a small town. 

As events spiral out of control, they find themselves in a horrifying situation and are left with no choice but to change their names and create new lives. Eighteen years later, they are still trying to forget what happened to them. But when one of the sisters goes missing, followed closely by her niece, they are pulled back into the past. And this time there’s nowhere left to run….

This is a gripping tale and not for the faint-hearted! The violence endured by these three sisters is unspeakable and hard to read at times. Chevy Stevens just has a knack of weaving a most intriguing tale which you don’t want to put down despite the horrific situations that unfold. It is a tale of bravery, strength, resilience and love.

~ Narelle

The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

After a childhood of poverty and petty crime in the slums of London, William Thornhill is sentenced in 1806 to be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and children in tow, he arrives in a harsh land that feels at first like a death sentence. But among the convicts there is a whisper that freedom can be bought, an opportunity to start afresh. 

Away from the infant township of Sydney, up the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill encounters men who have tried to do just that: Blackwood, who is attempting to reconcile himself with the place and its people, and Smasher Williams, whose fear of this alien world turns into brutal depravity towards it. As Thornhill and his family stake their claim on a patch of ground by the river, the battle lines between old and new inhabitants are drawn. 

I was drawn to read this book after watching the beautiful and touching three-part drama on TV. Secret River is about early encounters the settlers had with the Aboriginals of the Hawksebury River. In the early days an uneasy but tolerant relationship evolves from both cultures. William is clearly torn whether to be tolerant or dismissive of the original owners.  Eventually Thornhill is pressed to decide when the original owners decide to burn his corn crop. The decision Thornhill makes affects him and his family for the rest of their lives. This book is a moving detailed description of how tough life on the land was for ex convicts, and gives some insight into the atrocities the original inhabitants may have endured at the time. It is also a stunning narrative of the alien Australian landscape that William Thornhill comes to love. Available in regular and large print, audio and e-book.


The Perfumer's Secret

The Perfumer's Secret by Fiona McIntosh 

On the eve of the First World War, Fleurette, the only daughter of the wealthy Delacroix perfume dynasty, is being forced to marry a man she loathes, Aimery De Lasset, head of the pre-eminent perfume manufacturer in France. It is only the cathedral bells tolling the rally to the frontlines that save her from sharing his bed. When she receives an unexpected letter from Aimery's estranged brother, Fleurette is left holding a terrible secret, and the sparks of a powerful passion. Her discoveries risk shattering the two families and their perfume empires, bringing tragedy down on them all. This novel is an intoxicating feast for the senses, a highly sensual and sensational story of deception, duty and desire.

Why we love it: The Perfumer's Secret is a romance for the senses. In her signature style, Fiona McIntosh weaves together history and fiction, transporting us to wartime France with her vivid descriptions of the scents that shape her heroine’s life, for better or for worse.

from the Team at Better Reading

Man Booker Prize 2015

Novelist Marlon James has become the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. The book, a fictional account of the attempted assassination of Jamaican reggae singer/song writer/musician - Bob Marley, is set amid political upheaval in Kingston in the late 1970s.

James received £50,000 (about $76,000 US) for the prize. The Man Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious awards in literature, awarded to a novel written in English and since 2014, to a writer of any nationality. According to Michael Wood, the chair of the judges, this year’s decision was unanimous.


Australia's Second Chance

Australia’s Second Chance: what our history tells us about our future by George Megalogenis

George Megalogenis is one of my favourite Australian authors, so when his latest book came across my desk I pounced on it, and was not disappointed. In it, George expands on his theory that we first glimpsed in his previous book and in the recent documentary DVD which he narrated,“The Australian Moment”. He argues that immigration was the source of Australia’s past economic and social achievements, and will be in the future if only we acknowledge and build on it. 

Going right back to Governor Arthur Phillip and concluding with the present turbulence concerning “boat people”, George uses his awesome knowledge of Australian history, politics and economics to demonstrate how Australia’s place among the highest income per capita nations was due to our welcoming great waves of immigrants - from the gold rushes to the post WWII period and through to the latest arrivals from our Asian neighbourhood. He warns that shutting off this movement would condemn us to cultural and economic poverty. You may say it’s dry stuff, but George’s writing makes it engaging, even compelling. This book is a must for anyone interested in Australian history and society!



Bird by Sophie Cunningham.

To her lovers and friends, Anna Davidoff was a mystery. Beautiful, charismatic, irresponsible yet disarming; famous, in a way, but ultimately unknowable. To her daughter, she is no less an enigma even now, thirty years after her death. Of course Ana-Sofia knows the stories of Anna's unlikely transformations. How the young post-war refugee from a devastated Soviet Union became a Hollywood starlet, a muse to jazz greats, a friend of the Beats - and along the way a heroin addict. How later, ordained as a Buddhist nun, she died alone in a Himalayan cave at the age of forty-three. The stories, too, are famous. But now Ana-Sofia is the same age Anna was when she died. Successful, content, single in New York City and hopeful of new love. But Anna has begun to haunt her. 

This book is based on a true story.  It is an emotional journey into some fascinating times, but ultimately I got lost among the female characters and their perspectives and didn’t really enjoy the whole Buddhist thing – it just didn’t seem right! 


Our Zoo

Our Zoo by June Mottershead

George Mottershead's ambition since childhood had been to open a zoo without bars. In 1930 he moved his family, including his four-year-old daughter June, to a property called Oakfield at Upton near Chester in England hoping that this would be the place to fulfil his dream. 

June's book chronicles her early years at the zoo, the struggles with local authorities, efforts to house and feed the continuously expanding stream of animals, to draw in the public and just to make ends meet. The zoo managed to keep open during the Second World War and began a huge period of expansion afterwards. June's parents and grandparents, working class people with very little money to fall back on, were extremely dedicated people who worked every day for very little financial reward, but her father in particular had amazing drive and vision and has had a huge impact on the way zoos are run today. 

Chester zoo is now one of the world’s top zoos and a leader in conservation of species. June and her husband were both keepers there for most of their working lives and her children and grandchildren have been involved as well. 

The story of Chester Zoo's early years has been made into a TV series and though June, now in her 80's, enjoyed the series she wanted to tell the real story with all its highs and lows and it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.  



Orient by Christopher Bollen.

Orient, seated at the toe of the north leg of Long Island, ebbs and flows with the seasons. When the days start to grow, the first SUVs begin to roll in, filled with beach towels, croquet sets, and the summering multitudes of nearby New York City. But when the season reaches its close and the swell recedes, a town remains in its wake. Mills Chevern rode into town in Paul Benchley's passenger seat on that last day of summer. Who is this foster kid? Where did he come from? Why did Paul, that nice, lonely, middle-aged neighbour bring him to the quiet streets? It's not long after Mills rolls in that all hell breaks loose: the local handyman is found bloated to bursting in the bay, an elderly neighbour is discovered face-down in her garage, and a grotesque creature washes up on shore. As the town swarms with fear, Mills (we're certain that's not his real name) finds himself the chief suspect in a riddle of violent deaths, one he must solve before his own time runs out.

Why We Love It:

It’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil meets Jonathan Franzen.  While the whodunnit mystery will keep you guessing until the very last pages, it’s the dissection of small town American life that had us truly hooked – for all 600 pages.

Orient beautifully captures the angst, desperation, innocence and dark side of small town life. It’s the second novel by Christopher Bollen.

from the team at Better Reading

Vale Henning Mankell

Swedish author Henning Mankell has passed away, aged 67. The author discovered he had cancer last year, and wrote about the experience in his last book, Quicksand: What It Means To Be A Human Being. 

Mankell delighted fans with more than 40 novels, plays and children's books, selling about 40 million copies around the world, earning several awards for his children’s and youth books, among others the Nils Holgersson Plaque (A Bridge to the Stars), Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (A Bridge to the Stars), the August Prize (The Journey to the End of the World), the Astrid Lindgren Award and Expressen’s children’s book award (When the Snow Fell). 

His best-selling adult novels, which follow policeman Kurt Wallander through Sweden and Mozambique, were turned into a TV drama starring Sir Kenneth Branagh.


The House We Grew Up In

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

Meet the Bird family. They live in a honey-coloured house in a picture-perfect Cotswolds village, with rambling, unkempt gardens stretching beyond. Pragmatic Meg, dreamy Beth, and tow-headed twins Rory and Rhys all attend the village school and eat home-cooked meals together every night. Their father is a sweet gangly man named Colin, who still looks like a teenager with floppy hair and owlish, round-framed glasses. Their mother is a beautiful hippy named Lorelei, who exists entirely in the moment. And she makes every moment sparkle in her children's lives.

Then one Easter weekend, tragedy comes to call. The event is so devastating that, almost imperceptibly, it begins to tear the family apart. Years pass as the children become adults, find new relationships, and develop their own separate lives. Soon it seems as though they've never been a family at all. But then something happens that calls them back to the house they grew up in -- and to what really happened that Easter weekend so many years ago.

Way back in 2005, I read a book by this author called One Hit Wonder and rated it one of my top reads of that year, which is why I picked this one off the shelf, despite the saccharine-sounding introductory para in the publisher’s blurb. 

And while The House We Grew Up In won’t make my best-reads-this-year list, it was absorbing and kept me listening, mainly because the main character, Lorelei, suffers from something I’ve never really considered before ... Hoarding.  Hoarding stuff, to the point where there are literally tunnels between the mountains of stuff as a way of getting from one room to another.  Or not - one room’s door cannot be opened because the mountain has collapsed inside the room.  The bed is not slept in because it can’t be found under mounds of ‘stuff’.  The family is fracturing under the weight of Lorelei’s disorder and this is what makes up the bulk of the story, but it’s not the tragedy alluded to, that’s something else altogether, and I’m not going to spoil it for you here. 

The House We Grew Up In is very well written, and I must say narrated brilliantly by Karina Fernandez in this Playaway audio format.  We have the book in all audio formats plus regular and large print copies. 


Sweet Caress

Sweet Caress by William Boyd 

When Amory Clay was born her disappointed father gave her an androgynous name and announced the birth of a son. From this inauspicious start springs an entirely remarkable woman. Born in 1908, Amory survives two world wars, the first of which alters her father forever. As a schoolgirl, she learns the art of photography from her maternal uncle Greville, a talent that shapes her life.

After an unforeseen event splits her family in two, Amory finishes school and moves to London to work as an assistant to Greville, society photographer and kindred spirit. During this time, she grows from silly schoolgirl into a disgraced photographer working anonymously after causing a scandal with an embarrassing photograph.

Escaping London, Amory heads to Berlin where she meets another female photographer, Hannelore Hahn, and they begin a lifelong friendship. In pre-war Berlin her career begins in earnest; no longer photographing society belles, she starts taking secret photographs at brothels, which forms a London exhibition that sees her charged with obscenity.

Fleeing from London again, Amory takes up an offer from a handsome American, Cleveland Finzi, and relocates to New York to become a photographer with magazine Global Photo Watch. While in America, her real sexual awakening begins and she is caught between Finzi (a married man) and a charming French novelist.

Throughout the novel, Amory documents the action, everything from the fascist riots in London’s East End, to the advance of the US Seventh Army through France in World War 2, to the Vietnam War. Her first-person narration provides fascinating insight into major historical events, while touching on themes such as war, post-traumatic stress disorder, homosexuality, and infertility.

Why We Love It: 
William Boyd takes us on a sweeping journey through the twentieth century. While not always sympathetic, Amory is a woman ahead of her time and someone readers can relate to. The photography found throughout the novel is a captivating innovation employed for the first time by Boyd and gives us further insight into Amory’s life and work. Blending historical fact with fiction, and using found photographs to illustrate the text, Boyd captures the imaginations of his readers once again.

from the team at Better Reading

Aussie wins UK Gold Dagger

Australian author Michael Robotham has taken out the coveted UK's Crime Writers Association top award, the Gold Dagger, for his latest novel, Life or Death. The Crime Writers’ Association Daggers have been synonymous with quality crime writing for over fifty years. The prestigious awards started in 1955; currently ten Daggers are awarded annually by the CWA, with the crime novel of the year receiving the Gold Dagger.

Sydney-sider Robotham was up against some heavy-weight opposition on the short list, comprising:

Stephen King - Mr Mercedes
Belinda Bauer - The Shut Eye
Robert Galbraith - The Silkworm
James Carlos Blake - The Rules of Wolfe
Sam Hawken - Missing
Attica Locke - Pleasantville.

Michael Robotham Tweeted last week ...

"Big week ahead. LIFE OR DEATH is shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. I'm up against my hero Stephen King among others. Dreaming of a joint win."

And today on Twitter ...
"I've only gone and won the CWA Gold Dagger. J.K. Rowling was among the first to congratulate me. What a classy lady."

Congratulations. Take a look at the author chatting about this book ...


Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

From the catalogue: Shanghai, 1937. Pearl and May are two sisters from a bourgeois family. Though their personalities are very different, Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid, they are inseparable best friends. Both are beautiful, modern and living a carefree life until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away the family's wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to two 'Gold Mountain' men: Americans. 

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, the two sisters set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of southern China, in and out of the clutches of brutal soldiers, and even across the ocean, through the humiliation of an anti-Chinese detention centre to a new, married life in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Here they begin a fresh chapter, despite the racial discrimination and anti-Communist paranoia, because now they have something to strive for: a young, American-born daughter, Joy. 

Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of the novel hold fast to who they are, Shanghai girls.

I really loved this book. It gave me an indication of how things were at that time, lots of historical facts and descriptions. The author did her research well! I am looking forward to listening to the sequel "Dreams of Joy" to continue their story. 

We have this title in paperback and large print formats but I listened to this on audio. The narrator, Janet Song, was wonderful! 


Want You Dead

Want You Dead by Peter James
Roy Grace Crime Series #10

From the cover:  When Red Westwood meets Bryce Laurent through an online dating agency, there is an instant attraction.  But as their love blossoms, the truth about his past beings to emerge. Everything he has told Red about himself turns out to be lies and her infatuation with him gradually turns to terror.  But Bryce is obsessed, and he intends to destroy everything and everyone she has ever known – and then her too …

I think I’ve stumbled across this series before because I recall quite liking Det. Roy Grace.  And the fact that even though this is a long-evolving series, you can pretty much read them like a stand-alone novel, though one thread is still continuing – Roy’s missing wife, Sandy.  

Don’t let the “online dating agency” bit bother you because it hardly rears its ugly head thank goodness.  This is basically a story of a narcissist’s revenge, and it’s one hell of a ride.  Despite at times wishing Red wasn’t quite so blind (what is glaringly obvious to us is not to her) – it is a gripping, stomach-clenching read and very well done in maintaining and upping the suspense.  I borrowed the Playaway which was very well narrated by Dan Weyman, but we have this title in all hard print and other audio formats.  I'm looking forward to borrowing the 11th in the series when it is released. 


The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir

After being blown away by a ferocious wind storm, astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead by his crew mates and left behind when they are forced to evacuate the planet.

From the back cover:  “I'm stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Earth. I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days. If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I'm screwed.”

The Martian is not your typical science fiction novel – there are no aliens or futuristic robots, just an advanced space shuttle which is most likely on the drawing boards at NASA today.  This is a gripping survival thriller, which just happens to be set on Mars.

Andy Weir is a self-confessed science geek who self-published “The Martian” a few years ago. The book rights were sold to a main stream publisher, and within the same week, the film rights were sold. The film, starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, was released last week. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but here’s hoping I haven’t spoiled it for myself by reading the fantastic novel first! 
Fingers crossed.