Reading Rewards - reviews

The Lessons

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

From the cover:  Hidden away in an Oxford back street is a crumbling Georgian mansion.  Its owner is the charismatic Mark Wintres, who gathers around him an impressionable group of students.  For a time they live in a world of learning, parties and love affairs.  But university is no grounding for adult life, and when, years later, tragedy strikes they are entirely unprepared for the consequences. 

The Lessons has the dubious distinction of polarising reviewers, some almost 5 stars and others only 1, which taunted me into borrowing it.  And my opinion?  Despite this book offering some quality writing, I found it to be a grubby, depressing tale - one which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  It is also too long with the author waxing lyrical over the human state and could have done with more hefty wielding of the editor’s scissors.  I borrowed the Playaway audio format which was well narrated by Will Rycroft but that still brings no recommendation or stars here, sorry. 

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country's rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself.

Why we love it!  The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightfully told tale, the sort of story that had us laughing and crying from one sentence to the next. It’s a book lover’s book and also a food lover’s book, alternately offering wise nuggets of reading advice and sensual descriptions of food and love. It is also an audacious quest tale. We loved the vivid descriptions of French wine country as Perdu and companions travel along the waterways of France. Its evocative images made us want to jump on a plane. But that not being an option, it was the perfect read to transport us to another world. According to Perdu, some books are “friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues.” The Little Paris Bookshop is that kind of book.

The team from Better Reading

Down to Earth

Down to Earth : a guide to simple living by Rhonda Hetzel

Rhonda Hetzel gently encourages readers to find the pleasure and meaning in a simpler life, sharing all the practical information she has gathered on her own journey. Whether you want to learn how to grow tomatoes, bake bread, make your own soap and preserve fruit, or just be inspired to slow down and live more sustainably, Down to Earth will be your guide.

Starting off life as a nurse, Rhonda then moved onto a busy life as a journalist and technical writer until she began to feel completely burnt out by it all. She realised she needed to reassess her priorities and wanted to spend more time at home living a slow and content life.

Rhonda gives lots of advice and tips throughout the book on how her and her husband Hanno slowly began to change their home to a more sustainable household. For instance they began growing the majority of their fruit and vegetables, making their own household cleaning products, baking their own bread daily and baking and cooking everything they eat, instead of using convenience foods. Rhonda mentions that there is a lot of work involved in living a “simple life” but this is far outweighed by how much satisfaction you feel.


The Soldier's Wife

The Soldier's Wife by Pamela Hart

It’s 1915, the world has been thrust into chaos and young Australian men are enlisting. In haste, Ruby marries her beloved Jimmy Hawkins though she has known him just a few weeks. After a brief but passionate honeymoon, his inevitable call to the front parts them and Ruby must cope as best she can, even as each day she waits on tenterhooks for the dreaded telegrams to arrive. 

Ruby tries to forge a new life for herself in Jimmy’s absence, becoming a bookkeeper at a Sydney timber merchant. While it’s inevitable that they must take on men’s roles, there is growing resentment and disapproval of these independent women. Ruby is surprised by her 
own reserves of courage in the face of adversity, but sometimes her quick temper and outspokenness get her into trouble. If and when Jimmy returns, will she be the same woman he married?

Why we love it!
The Soldier’s Wife is a beautifully told story of love and loss and the profound and terrible impact of war. It’s deeply insightful, getting into the lives of the women left behind in Sydney and how they coped while their men fought on the other side of the world. We loved the vivid descriptions of wartime Sydney and fell in love with the headstrong heroine Ruby. She really gets under our skin so that we can almost feel her longing, as well as the frustrating injustice she faces with the restrictions and social pressures placed on a young woman moving into new times. Hart skillfully builds up suspense in this poignant novel and its dramatic conclusion is breathtaking.

Pamela Hart previously wrote as Pamela Freeman, winning the 2006 NSW Premier’s History Prize for her historical novel The Black Dress. The Soldier’s Wife was inspired by the story of her own Anzac grandfather.

From the team at Better Reading

Heartbreak Hotel

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

Russell 'Buffy' Buffery erstwhile thespian and thrice-married newly- acquired B&B owner has hit on an idea: So you've split up. It happens to the best of us. But marriage is a division of labour and chances are you've relied on your Better Half for something you can't do yourself, like fixing the house, gardening, car maintenance or sorting out the finances. When they've gone, you're as helpless as a baby. Enrol on Courses for Divorces and in a week you'll be able to stand on your own two feet. 

Join Buffy and his raggle-taggle group of singletons and divorcees as they seek solace and late-flowering love in this novel.

I downloaded the Bolinda e-Audio and surprisingly experienced many laugh-out-loud moments listening to this English romp in the Welsh countryside.  ‘Buffy’ is very genial character; author Deborah Moggach has bestowed him with so many true-to-life quirks and foibles that you feel totally comfortable with him.  She is also quite an astute observer of human nature, particularly with the ‘over 50s’ where long drives make your back hurt, spider veins and liver spots are part of your landscape, comfort instead of matching underwear is a dim memory, and things just ‘don’t quite work like they used to’. The male Nicky Henson delivers a terrific narration, so if you’re looking for a light-hearted, humorous read that is full of warmth and understanding, I can recommend this.

Agatha Christie Competition

The estate of Agatha Christie has launched a quest to find the best-loved novel by the queen of crime.  Famous fans including Val McDermid and David Suchet have entered a public vote to mark the 125th anniversary of the crime writer’s birth.  More than 80 books are in the running to be named the world’s favourite Agatha Christie novel, and the public vote was launched online on 27 April.

Christie’s books have sold more than 1 billion copies in English, with another billion sold in foreign languages, according to her estate. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was also the first to feature Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and was published in 1920.

The winner of the public vote will be announced in September, the month of Christie’s birth.  You can cast your vote at - voting closes 31 May, 2015. 


The Daughterhood

The Daughterhood by Natasha Fennell

What woman can resist a book about mother/daughter relationships, and with Mothers’ Day approaching, this one is doubly alluring for any female. 

When Natasha Fennell’s mother is diagnosed with what is probably a terminal illness, she is forced to confront her feelings about her mother in the knowledge that her time with her is limited. This in turn led her to seek out other women with a view to exploring the wide range of complex associations daughters have with their mothers. 

Love for their mothers, regret for opportunities missed, resentments and emotional complexities all bubbled to the surface. Through these conversations, a friendship blossomed with Roisin Ingle, a popular columnist at the Irish Times. After a call out in Roisin's column, hundreds of responses poured in and there The Daughterhood was formed.

There are good relationships, bad relationships, no relationships, feelings of love, disconnection, guilt, gratitude, all coated in a veneer of the realisation of the reality of mortality overshadowing them all. The reader cannot but help think of her own relationship with her own mother, and with the huge variation in the stories told, will surely find one with which to identify.

This book is touching, confronting, and hugely personal for any reader. You will find yourself many times sitting there nodding your head thinking: “That’s just like my mother and me”.

Sorry though, not really one for the blokes.

False Advertising

False Advertising by Dianne Blacklock 

Helen always tried to be a good person. She recycles, obeys the water restrictions, she is even polite to telemarketers. As a mother, wife, daughter and nurse, Helen is used to putting everyone's needs before her own. But it only takes one momentary lapse of concentration to shatter her life forever.

There was no momentary lapse for Gemma. Her customary recklessness leaves her pregnant, alone and estranged from her family with her once-promising advertising career in tatters.

So when Gemma barges unceremoniously into Helen's life, things will never be the same again for either of them. Two very different women who have one thing in common - their lives have fallen short of their expectations. But is fate offering them a second chance.

Its no secret that I really enjoy Dianne Blacklock's books, and this is her last one.  I was hoping a new one would be on the way soon, but I'm led to believe it is a little way off yet.

I really loved this story. I love the way Dianne makes the characters be so real. I felt for Helen, the young widow who still believes she is married, and I loved Gemma and her family, her OTT mother and her sister. Dianne weaves an interesting plot in this book and I really believe it would make such a wonderful movie - hey there movie producers you need to option this one!

Vale Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell was born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in London in 1930, and passed away aged 85 on 2 May, 2015.   She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1996 Birthday Honours and a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh.

Rendell's novels included the Inspector Wexford crime series and the psychological thrillers she wrote as Barbara Vine.  Her debut, From Doon with Death, introduced the world to Wexford in 1964. 
Baroness Rendell received many awards, including the Silver, Gold, and Cartier Diamond Daggers from the Crime Writers' Association, three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, The Arts Council National Book Awards, and The Sunday Times Literary Award. A number of her works have been adapted for film or television.

A Commonplace Killing

A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby

On a damp July morning in 1946, two schoolboys find a
woman's body on a bomb site in north London...

The woman is identified as Lillian Frobisher, a wife and mother who lived in a war-damaged terrace a few streets away. The police assume that Lil must have been the victim of a vicious sexual assault; but the autopsy finds no evidence of rape, and Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper turns his attention to her private life. How did Lil come to be in the bomb site, 'a well-known lovers' haunt? If she had consensual sex, why was she strangled?  Why was her husband seemingly unaware that she had failed to come home on the night she was killed?

In this gripping murder story, Siân Busby gradually peels away the veneer of stoicism and respectability to reveal the dark truths at the heart of postwar austerity Britain.

This book was agonisingly, teeth-grindingly slow, but it is so well written it just drew me in.  The main character, DDI Jim Cooper, is a sad man leading a weary life and there is no light at the end of the tunnel for him until a refreshing young policewoman sparks a glimmer of hope.  

The story is set in post-war London where they are still using ration coupons, the buildings are still bomb sites, and the population is either on the borderline of starving or turning to crime to get away from powdered eggs and ‘a pub with no beer’.  It’s all very, very depressing.  

The murder is depressing; the characters, no matter which side of the honesty line they stand, are depressing ... Actually, without doubt, this is the most disheartening book I’ve ever read.  It’s all just so bleak.   

At the end of the book there is a note about the author, who was undergoing terminal cancer care at the time of writing, so it’s probably no wonder there is such a pall of hopelessness throughout.  

It’s actually quite a worthy read but if you’re a bit that way yourself, I’d give it a wide berth.  I borrowed the audio download from our Bolinda catalogue and it was very well narrated by Daniel Weyman.

The Story of Before

The Story of Before by Susan Stairs
'I wonder today how no one else could see the bad thing coming. Not that I knew back then what the bad thing was; and if I had - if I'd known one of us was going to die - would there have been anything I could have done to prevent it? I play it all back in my mind, over and over. The clues were all there.' 
From the cover:  On New Year's Eve, eleven-year-old Ruth and her brother and sister sit at a bedroom window, watching the garden of their new Dublin home being covered in a thick blanket of snow. Ruth declares that a bad thing will happen in the coming year - she's sure of it. But she cannot see the outline of that thing - she cannot know that it will change their lives utterly, that the shape of their future will be carved into two parts; the before and the after. Or that it will break her heart and break her family. This is Ruth's story. It is the story of before.
This is one of those rare debut novels that is a great find. Beautifully written, it evokes many memories of childhood, particularly fighting with siblings(!), but also the freedom we had to roam far and wide without a worry in the world.  In this book, the children roam their new housing estate, with the sights, sounds and smells realistically depicted.  Throughout the story there is an underpinning tension which increases as their lives begin to unravel at Hillcourt Rise, but we also know there is worse to come which propels us toward the finish.  Narrated through eleven-year-old Ruth's eyes, the story taps into humour, tension and heartbreak.  It's a memorable first offering from this author and is highly recommended. Deb.PS - An event in this book has become the premise for Susan Stairs' second novel which is currently being written. Bring it on!


Hush by Karen Robards

When Riley Cowan finds her estranged husband Jeff dead in his palatial home, she's sure it's no coincidence. The police rule it a suicide, but Riley thinks someone's out for blood - specifically someone Jeff's father ripped off in one of the biggest financial fraud cases of all time. She suspects that someone is trying to send a message to Jeff's father: Tell me where the money is, or everyone you care about will die. Riley's in-laws might be billionaires, but she's afraid that not even their dirty money can protect her from an irate investor who will stop at nothing to get his hands on his misappropriated cash. Enter Finn Bradley, Philly-based FBI agent and Riley's love interest from way back when. Finn agrees to help Riley, and the two reignite sparks they both thought were extinguished long ago. But can they discover the killer's identity in time, before he resurfaces and strikes again?

This is one for those who enjoy a really good suspense thriller. 

The Road to Hope

The Road to Hope by Rachael Johns

Nurse Lauren Simpson is known in Hope Junction for the wrong reasons - and she's over it. Watching the man she's always loved marry someone else is the last straw - she decides to get out of Hope. But her resolve is tested when the hot new locum doctor arrives in town. Doctor Tom Lewis also has skeletons in his closet - including a painful breakup and devastating family news. He's hit the road with his vintage ute and surfboard, to travel the outback and live in the moment. When Tom and Lauren meet the attraction is instant, but for Lauren Tom threatens to be just another fling and Tom has his own reasons for hesitating. Everyone else - their friends and patients - can see how perfect they are together, but just what will it take for them to admit this to themselves?

Why we love it:
Rachael Johns shows why she is the queen of rural romance with a return to Hope Junction, a host of familiar characters, a seductive temptation, and the promise of new beginnings.  She has once again touched on the heart of life in a small country town in this sequel to Jilted

For fans of rural romance, The Road to Hope is the perfect page-turner treat for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

From the team at Better Reading

South of Darkness

South of Darkness by John Marsden

Thirteen-year-old Barnaby Fletch is a bag-and-bones orphan in London in the late 1700s. Barnaby lives on his wits and ill-gotten gains, on streets seething with the press of the throng and shadowed by sinister figures. Life is a precarious business.

When he hears of a paradise on the other side of the world – a place called Botany Bay – he decides to commit a crime and get himself transported to a new life, a better life. To succeed, he must survive the trials of Newgate Prison, the stinking hull of a prison ship and the unknown terrors of a journey across the world. And Botany Bay is far from the paradise Barnaby has imagined. When his past and present suddenly collide, he is soon fleeing for his life – once again.

A riveting story of courage, hope and extraordinary adventure.

John Marsden’s brilliant young adult series – Tomorrow When the War Began, had much to offer the adult reader and it will always be up there on my great reads list.  Such a shame that his first ever book for adults falls dismally short of expectation. Perhaps that’s the problem … Expectation.  

The e-audio format I downloaded from our Bolinda site was capably narrated by Paul English, but the characters aren’t very engaging, and I’m at a loss as to the publisher’s blurb that describes this as “riveting”.  It is a slow slog; and I found the constant religious passages tedious. I also felt a bit annoyed as the Tomorrow series is set in a bushland gorge that the locals call ‘Hell’, and the name ‘Hell’ is used again here as the London area in which Barnaby’s pathetic existence is drawn out. Marsden could’ve come up with something more original, surely.  Basically, the story is told well enough, but it’s nothing new and has appeared throughout time in many guises under the hands of many scribes.  

I felt quite ‘ho-hum’ at the end and much and all as I would love to recommend it, I can’t.  Re-read Ellie and her friends’ escapades in the Tomorrow series to enjoy this talented writer at his best. 

Fit Not Healthy

Fit Not Healthy: how one woman's obsession to be the best nearly killed her by Vanessa Alford

Vanessa Alford was obsessed with becoming one of Australia's top marathon runners; so obsessed that she pushed her body to breaking point - literally.

Her body fat percentage dropped to 14%; she developed stress fractures and felt physically unwell most of the time, but she continued training, ignoring the concerns and advice of family and friends.

Looking back now, Vanessa says she was in denial about the need to rest and feed her body in order to give it the opportunity to recover from the physical damage and mental strain she put it under. She was always looking for another way, another practitioner who would confirm that she could heal whilst maintaining a rigorous training schedule that included running over two hours a day. It was only her desire to have a baby and the shock of being unable to fall pregnant that shattered her wall of denial and allowed her to see clearly what she was doing to herself.

Vanessa is now fit AND healthy, and she and her husband have a happy, healthy baby girl and are expecting another child. Others are not so lucky. They are still battling the internal and external voices that say leaner and fitter is always better; that women can be healthy at the same body fat percentages as men; and that you do not need to eat more, even if your body is telling you it is hungry. It is Vanessa's hope that her story can save at least one of woman from herself. Fit Not Healthy is a story for our times.  - - - 

This is a very graphic description of what can happen to someone when they are so driven to achieve that commonsense and reality seem to escape them. Vanessa was a typical high achiever and obviously very intelligent women, who let that "voice" in her head completely take over her life, and she was very lucky that she seems to have come out the other side reasonably OK.

A runner by choice who achieved many personal goals including placing in the top runners at the 2005 Melbourne Marathon, but those accolades and admiration by her peers and friends and family actually proved to be counter-productive in her mind and she just drove herself to run further, exercise more, and caused her to develop sport-related anorexia, which almost killed her.

This book was very honest, and I'm yet to be convinced that she has "recovered" completely, but I would hope that commonsense has come to find her and that "voice" in her head is gradually disappearing. A recommended read for any aspiring sports person. I read this book in a day!


Lone Star

Lone Star by Paullina Simons

Chloe is eager to drink in the sights and sounds of the Old World as she embarks on a European adventure with her closest friends. Buried in the treasures of the fledgling post-Communist world, Chloe finds a charming American vagabond named Johnny, who carries a guitar, an easy smile - and a lifetime of secrets. As she and her unlikely travelling companions traverse the continent, a train trip becomes a treacherous journey into Europe's and Johnny's darkest past - a journey that shatters Chloe's future plans and puts in jeopardy everything she thought she wanted. From Treblinka to Trieste, from Carnikava to Krakow, the lovers and friends crack the facade that sustains their lifelong bonds to expose their truest, deepest desires and discover only one thing that's certain: whether or not they reach their destination, their lives will never be the same.

Lone Star is a compelling coming-of-age story. Chloe and Hannah are best friends and are dating two brothers, Blake and Mason. They all grew up on the same street, went to the same school, and on the surface all is well, but Simons is skillful at keeping secrets and teasing them out slowly but surely through the narrative. We found reading about the friends’ travels through post-communist Europe captivating, and the descriptions of Treblinka, in particular, heartbreaking. The bestselling author of Tully and The Bronze Horseman Trilogy has delivered another epic love story – perfect reading for a long, lazy day in bed.

From the Better Reading team

The Stella Award 2015

The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women’s writing.  The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, and was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry. The Stella Prize seeks to:

  • recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature
  • bring more readers to books by women and thus increase their sales
  • provide role models for schoolgirls and emerging female writers
  • reward one writer with a $50,000 prize – money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing

The winner of the 2015 Stella Prize announced last night at a Melbourne event is Emily Bitto for The Strays.

Of the winning book, Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the 2015 Stella Prize judging panel, said:  “Emily Bitto’s debut novel The Strays is about families, art, isolation, class, childhood, friendship, and the power of the past. It’s both moving and sophisticated; both well researched and original; both intellectually engaging and emotionally gripping."

Emily Bitto has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Heat and the Australian Literary Review. The manuscript of her debut novel was shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The Strays was shortlisted for the 2015 Indie Prize and is currently longlisted for the Dobbie Award.  She lives in Melbourne where she runs a new Carlton winebar, Heartattack & Vine.


Pulitzer Prize 2015

The Pulitzer Prize is an award for achievement in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the United States. It was established in 1917 by provisions in the will of American (Hungarian-born) publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and is administered by Columbia University in New York City. Prizes are awarded yearly in twenty-one categories. In twenty of the categories, each winner receives a certificate and a US$10,000 cash award. The winner in the public service category of the journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Prize generates interest across the globe, particularly in the areas of Fiction and Non-Fiction writing.  
In these two categories, the 2015 winners are:

FICTION - All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 

GENERAL NONFICTION - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

For the full list of winners, click

For the history of the Pulitzer Prize, click



Numbers by Rachel Ward 
Narrated by Sarah Coomes 

From the cover:  Since her mother's death, fifteen-year-old Jem has kept a secret. When her eyes meet someone else's, a number pops into her head - the date on which they will die. Knowing that nothing lasts forever, Jem avoids relationships, but when she meets a boy called Spider, and they plan a day out together, her life takes a new twist and turn. Waiting for the London Eye, she sees everyone in the queue has the same number.  Today's number. Today's date. Terrorists are going to attack London.

This is one of those Young Adult novels that offers much to the adult listener.  Very well narrated by Sarah Coomes whose many English accents are delivered with aplomb, it’s a convincing and incredibly moving story, one that had me laughing or in tears. Luckily, for once, I actually picked a book which turns out to be No. 1 in a trilogy and not no. 6 or whatever! I must borrow the next one - The Chaos.

There Was A Little Girl

There Was A Little Girl: the true story of my mother and me by Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields never had what anyone would consider an ordinary life. She was raised by her Newark-tough single mom, Teri, a woman who loved the world of show business and was often a media sensation all by herself. Brooke's iconic modeling career began by chance when she was only eleven months old, and Teri's skills as both Brooke's mother and manager were formidable. But in private she was troubled and drinking heavily.  At the age of 13 Brooke appeared in the controversial film "Pretty Baby", then in her teenage years was in "The Blue Lagoon" and "Endless Love". She abandoned her career and attended Princeton University and graduated with a degree in French Literature before returning to the stage and screen thereafter.

As Brooke became an adult the pair made choices and sacrifices that would affect their relationship forever. And when Brooke’s own daughters were born she found that her experience as a mother was shaped in every way by the woman who raised her. But despite the many ups and downs, Brooke was by Teri’s side when she died in 2012, a loving daughter until the end. Only Brooke knows the truth of the remarkable, difficult, complicated woman who was her mother. And now, in an honest, open memoir about her life growing up, Brooke will reveal stories and feelings that are relatable to anyone who has been a mother or daughter.

This was a very interesting portrayal of the child star and the ugly parent syndrome. Brooke was an only child to a parent who was basically an alcoholic her whole life. Her relationship with her mother was 'interesting', as although they were extremely close, Brooke's mother controlled her life and her mind, never worked and basically lived off her daughter's earnings.  Brooke talks about her marriage to Andre Agassi and subsequent marriage to Chris Henchy and their two daughters. She also tells of her mother's eventual decline and the effect that had on her and her family.

This was a fascinating book.  I had earlier read "Open" which is Andre Agassi's biography where he speaks in part of their marriage as well, so I found it interesting to compare their stories.