Reading Rewards - reviews

Power Play

Power Play by Danielle Steel

I am a fan of Danielle Steel, and quite frankly I think her writing has improved with age. She no longer writes the soppy love stories that people have branded her with.

I listened to this book on audio and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of two CEO's of major companies in the USA and the effect of having this powerful position can have on a person.

The male CEO has wound his life into a very complicated secret web where he is actually living a double life until his company delivers an ultimatum, which life will he choose?

Meanwhile the female CEO has put a personal life on hold while she heads up her company, and does not trust herself to find love or someone who will accept her for who she is, not as a powerful head of a company.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, as always, look forward to Danielle's next offering.

Before the Poison

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson

From the cover:  Through the years of success in Hollywood composing music for the world's most lauded films, Chris always promised his wife they would return to the Yorkshire Dales one day. Now, after his wife's death, Chris feels he must not forget his promise. Back in the Dales, he rents an isolated house that will allow him the space to come to terms with his grief and the quiet to allow him to compose his piano sonata. But when he finds that the house was the scene of a murder in the 1950s, and that the convicted murderer was one of the last women hanged in England, he finds himself increasingly distracted by the events of sixty years before...

Apparently this author has written a series spanning some 20 years, the ‘DCI Banks novels’, and this is his first departure in writing a stand-alone novel.  It’s a good effort, the first chapters are atmosphere laden, hooking the reader in immediately.  There’s just something about an old house, a past murder, and the solitude of the English countryside to set the scene!  I like that the main character, Chris, is a composer – far more original than a retired policeman or something of a similar ilk.  He possesses some empathetic traits which makes us feel immediately comfortable – cooking, having a drink, playing music on his iPod, watching DVDs.  But overall, it’s a strange story, one that builds up to its conclusion which, as far as Chris is concerned, was an interesting journey in finding out the past, but that’s the end of that and now on to another day.  Which I guess is pretty much true to life when you search out the answer to a problem and find it. Deb.

Unknown Woman

"It is Tuesday May 15 and accidental housewife Lilith Grainger wakes to find herself in a photograph on the front page of the newspaper, in a place she shouldn't be, in a world her privileged family knows nothing about. Lilith's relationship with her selfie obsessed 14-year-old daughter, her overweight son, her good husband who works long hours, her convenience friend Nikki, her mother-in-law Garland who has launched a successful career as a sculptor at 63, are all laid bare.

The Unknown Woman by Jacqueline Lunn is a portrait of a woman who doesn't know who she is anymore and a portrait of modern life."

I usually enjoy books that are categorized "Contemporary Fiction" and especially by a new Australian author. However this book frustrated me, every chapter was about a different character in the book, the neighbour, the mother in law, the daughter, the husband, the son etc. in fact it could have been a short story book.

The main character Lileth, was an actuary before she married and gave up working to look after her husband and children, however she seems to be searching for something, and you never find out quite what that was. She becomes obsessed with her neighbour and definitely steps over the boundary between busybody and concerned neighbour.

I persisted with this book hoping that it would all come together at the end, but sadly, it didn't for me.

~ Janine

Dead Man's Time

Dead Man’s Time by Peter James

From the cover:  A vicious robbery at a secluded Brighton mansion leaves its elderly occupant dying and millions of pounds worth of valuables stolen.  But as Detective Superintendent Roy Grace rapidly learns, there is one priceless item of sentimental value that the old woman’s powerful family cherish above all else.  And they are fully prepared to take the law into their own hands, and will do anything, absolutely anything, to get it back.
I have only just found out that this book is one of the ‘dead’ series featuring DS Roy Grace – Dead Simple, Dead Like You, Dead Tomorrow etc. – and I can picture it being a very gritty UK TV series, it just has that ‘feel’ about it.  Although there are references to a previous wife, and various “old buddies” from other cases, it was fine reading it as a stand-alone book (or in this case, an audiobook very well narrated by Daniel Weyman).  Despite being quite violent, it was a good story, starting in New York in 1922, and moving through a murderous trail linking the antiques world of Brighton UK, the Irish mafia, the crime fraternity of Spain’s Marbella, and the NYPD in 2012.
In a parallel storyline, Grace finds himself up against that most dangerous of all adversaries - a man burning with vengeance who is moving ever closer to destroying Grace’s life by planning to carve up the face of his 7-week old baby son and kill his wife.  He rents the house next door, plots all the comings and goings, sets up listening devices, and even gets into the roof of their home to ‘familiarise’ himself before doing it all for real.  Very creepy indeed.  
All in all, one for the UK crime buffs and anyone else who enjoys a slightly different police procedural.

Madonnas of Leningrad

Have you read the first novel by Debra Dean called the Madonnas of Leningrad?  If not can I urge you to grab yourself a copy and get reading?

This is not a long read.  It is not a difficult read.  But it is a beautiful read.

The main character is a Russian woman called Marina.  By peering into her life we are taken on a journey which flits between the present where Marina lives in America as an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s and the past where Marina is a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Russia during World War 2.

Marina gives us an insight into the packing up of the entire museum’s collection to protect the art from the bombings as well as the everyday life and suffering of the 2000 citizens who take shelter in the basement of the museum.

You could be forgiven for thinking  from my description that this is a thoroughly depressing book, but never fear. Debra Dean has such a soulful writing manner and her descriptions of the artwork ensure the novel remains a hopeful and altogether lovely story.

Surprisingly enough, Debra had never visited Russia before she wrote the Madonnas of Leningrad. This made her feel as though her readers may perceive her as a bit of a fake so when she received  her advance payment for the novel from her publisher she visited Russia with her husband and began planning her next novel which is called “The Mirrored World.”

It is sitting on the desk next to me as I type so please excuse me if I leave you now! I can’t wait to immerse myself in Debra Dean’s Russian world all over again.

~ Raelene

Ember Island

Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman

An Australian story set on a fictitious island in Moreton Bay. In 1876, Tilly, a young English woman, reeling with shock and guilt after her tempestuous marriage ends in horrific circumstances, gets as far from England as she can - she has a new identity and a job on Ember Island, as governess of the Superintendent’s daughter Nell.  She befriends a female convict and a dangerous relationship develops.  Tilly doesn’t know that Nell is watching and writing it all down, hiding tiny journals all over Starwater, her rambling manor home. 
More than 100 years later, bestselling author Nina Jones, struggling with writer’s block and a disappointing personal life, is being pestered by a reporter digging into her past who insists on speaking to Nina about her great-grandmother, Nell. 
Retreating to Starwater, she finds Nell’s journals hidden in the walls and becomes determined to solve the mystery.  Though Tilly and Nina are separated by many years, Starwater House will change both their lives.  Intriguing!

City of Veils

The City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris. 

From the cover:  The burkha-clad body of a young woman is discovered on a Jeddah beach; soon afterwards, a strong-minded American woman finds herself alone and afraid in the most repressive city on earth.  Investigating policeman Osama Ibrahim, forensic scientist Katya Hijazi and strictly devour Bedouin guide Nayir Sharqi join forces to search out the truth in the scorching city streets and the vast lethal emptiness of the desert beyond. 

This not my usual cup of tea but as it was recommended by a colleague I gave it a go.  First up, the narrator, Jonathan Keeble, does an excellent job with the myriad accents, both male and female.   This is, in essence, a classic police procedural, but in a totally foreign setting.  It is quite unsettling as a lot of it is presented from the veiled woman’s point of view.  It does drag a bit in the middle, but the sand storm towards the end is gripping!  Overall, it was worth the 14 hours listen but I wouldn’t be in rush to get something in the same vein. 

Miles Franklin shortlist

The Miles Franklin Literary Award is an annual literary prize awarded to "a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases". The award was set up according to the will of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954), who is best known for writing the Australian classic My Brilliant Career (published in 1901) and for bequeathing her estate to fund this award. As of 2013, the award is valued A$60,000.  The 2014 shortlist has just been announced, with the winner awarded on 26 June, 2014. 

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Fiona McFarlane – The Night Guest
Cory Taylor – My Beautiful Enemy
Tim Winton – Eyrie
Alexis Wright – The Swan Book
Evie Wyld – All the Birds, Singing 


One Summer: America 1927

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson
It was the summer that saw the birth of talking pictures, the invention of television, the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror, the horrifying bombing of a school in Michigan, the ill-conceived decision that led to the Great Depression, a semi-crazed sculptor with a mad plan to carve four giant heads into an inaccessible mountain called Rushmore, the thrilling improbable return to greatness of Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight, and so much more. In this hugely entertaining book, Bill Bryson spins a story of brawling adventure, reckless optimism and delirious energy, with a cast of unforgettable and eccentric characters, with trademark brio, wit and authority.

As usual, Bill has made history more interesting – the book is full of fascinating detail – and while not as humorous as some of his books – he is never afraid to show up the fools, villains, heroes and all the foibles of human nature.  Well worth reading but it does take a while – it is 553 pages long!


Switchback by Matthew Klein
From the cover:  Timothy Van Bender, Yale graduate and hedge fund manager in Palo Alto, lives a magical life. One Tuesday, Timothy wakes to learn that his hedge fund has lost $24 million on a bad bet against the yen. With his company on the brink of collapse, he gets a call from his wife, who phones to say goodbye, moments before jumping off a cliff at Big Sur to her death. Timothy can't believe it - neither can the local police.

Then Timothy’s secretary Tricia shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his dead wife, and knowing secrets that only Katherine could know. Has he been given a second chance at happiness or is he being played for a fool in an elaborate scam that may cost him his life?

For a debut novel, this one sure packs a punch.  It’s an interesting blend of high-tech Sci-Fi meets High Finance crossed with Romance.  Strange, but it works.  I initially thought I’d get lost in the murky mire of futures trading and hedge funds, but luckily that didn’t happen as the story switched into next gear and moved into technology and the human brain.  This is where you either say “oh please” or hunker down for the ride.  I stuck with it all the way, and at the end of the book was impressed with general lack of holes in this twisting, absorbing story.  It’s very different and I might add, well narrated by Chris Patton.  I might keep an eye peeled for Klein’s second book, “Con Ed”. 

The House of Memories

The House of Memories by Monica McInerney 

From the cover:  Following a tragic accident, Ella O'Hanlon flees to the other side of the world in an attempt to escape her grief, leaving behind the two people she blames for her loss: Aidan, the love of her life, and Jess, her spoilt half-sister.
In London Ella is taken in by her beloved uncle Lucas, whose extraordinary house holds many wonderful memories for her. Along with other members of the very colourful Fox family, Lucas helps Ella to see that she is not the only one still hurting, and that forgiveness can be the greatest healer in a family and in a marriage.

I was dithering a bit over borrowing this but decided to on the spur of the moment and am very glad I did.  It’s a hard book to listen to, not hard as in difficult to get into, but hard going as it’s very emotional.  It made my heart ache for anyone who has ever loved and lost a child.  The agony of the parents, the blame game, the way people handle grief and the way that is perceived by others are all portrayed exceptionally well in this very moving and life-affirming novel.  I loved the way the author portrayed 20 month old Felix – his little quirks like walking on the top of the fence, pretend sweeping with the big broom around the house, and shouting out his name; his humour, his voice.  I loved that it was Australian and that there are some richly drawn characters in here, like Charlie – Ella’s stepbrother, who has just the most wonderful sense of humour, and her Uncle Lucas in London is just a gem of a man!  But it is Aiden, the husband Ella flees from because their combined pain is too much for her to handle, and his deeply personal notes to his dead son, that resonated the most with me ... so much so that when listening in the car I had to pull over to the side of the highway and grab a handful of tissues to mop up the tears.
The excellent narration by Catherine Milte was a bonus! She handled the male and female voices, both kids and adult, together with English, Irish, and German accents with aplomb and I highly recommend this audio version. 

Losing You

Losing You by Nicci French

From the cover:  Nina Landry is supposed to be taking her two children on a Christmas holiday.  But the road from Sandling Island seems littered with obstacles.  Most pressing of all, her 15-year-old daughter, Charlie, has yet to return from a night out.  Has Charlie run away? Or has something more sinister happened to her?  As a series of half-buried secrets leads Nina from sickening suspicion to deadly certainty, the question becomes less whether she and her daughter will leave the island for Christmas – and more whether they’ll ever leave it again …

I’ve read a few other titles from the writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Their psychological suspense novels are usually pretty good and this is definitely one of the better ones.  Sometimes you can tell who’s written which chapter but Losing You is a very tight and well-paced drama, helped all the more by the first-class reading in the audio format.  Don’t let the name of the excellent narrator, Adjoa Andoh, throw you – this is as British as British can be – and as the tension ramps up, Adjoa’s reading reflects it perfectly. 

I think one of the things that had me nodding in total agreement was Nina’s rage and frustration with police procedure.  She is almost screaming at them for action, believing the longer they sat in the police station taking yet a third statement, precious minutes were ticking away when they could be out searching.  Her 11-year-old son elicits the reader’s sympathy too, as he is shoved from pillar to post to keep him out of the way while Nina asks some very hard questions in her frantic investigations all over the island.  But … her new boyfriend, Christian, somehow seems to drop out of the picture totally, which was a bit odd.  Mind you, to be stuck on the freeway in a monumental traffic jam for at least 7 hours could have something to do with it. (Is that possible?) Also, the cousin Renata who arrives and helps to hold the fort at home while Nina is racing around, fades out of the story too.  Very odd.

Despite that, the last couple of chapters are stomach clenching – a very good sign of a captivating story!  If you enjoy this genre, be sure to check this one out.

You Can Buy Happiness

You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s cheap): how one woman radically simplified her life and how you can too by Tammy Strobel
There has been a shift amongst some individuals lately from the idea of “bigger is better” to simplicity and conscious living. In this book, which is more biography than self help, Tammy and husband Logan’s life is explored. 

They used to be drowning in debt and Tammy was a shopping addict. Tammy started a blog called Rowdy Kittens and started discussing how to simplify life. Logan and she decided to down size (or smart size) and build their own home. This home is a tiny one on wheels! They sold their cars and started to ride their bikes everywhere. As a result of spending less on their old consumerist lifestyle they are now debt free and much happier. 

Tammy discusses the opportunities which have arisen as a result of downsizing, such as a deeper connection with local people. This book is a lovely inspiring read for anyone interested in low environmental impact living.

The Vanishing

The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

From the cover:   Recently widowed and rendered penniless by her Ponzi-scheming husband, Julia Bishop is eager to start anew. So when a stranger appears on her doorstep with a job offer, she finds herself accepting the mysterious yet unique position: caretaker to his mother, Amaris Sinclair, the famous and rather eccentric horror novelist whom Julia has always admired...and who the world believes is dead. When she arrives at the Sinclairs' enormous estate on Lake Superior, Julia begins to suspect that there may be sinister undercurrents to her "too-good-to-be-true" position. As Julia delves into the reasons of why Amaris chose to abandon her successful writing career and withdraw from the public eye, her search leads to unsettling connections to her own family tree, making her wonder why she really was invited to Havenwood in the first place, and what monstrous secrets are still held prisoner within its walls"--

What’s not to like about a haunted mansion on a huge tract of land beside a dark and scary wood, snow falling and footsteps leading to and from the kitchen window and creepy ghost children singing nursery rhymes?! Toss in the eccentric matriarchal owner who was a horror novelist, add three large dogs to keep evil at bay, some séance work, our very naïve protagonist who happens to be a dead ringer for ‘Seraphina’- a famed clairvoyant who is in a large painting over the fireplace; add a bit of love interest, a power failure, some handy loss of memory and voila – a slightly above average yet nonetheless entertaining novel with a neat little twist at the end.  Not a bad choice for a light and breezy read - it's not meant to be literature – and no need to check over your shoulder when reading this one. 

Written on the Skin

Written on the Skin:  an Australian forensic casebook by Liz Porter    

From the cover:  A crime scene investigator notes the tiny indentations on the fragments of a tin can identified at a bomb site, enabling him to find the can opener that made them - and the bomb-maker who used it. A forensic dentist identifies the thief who dropped some chewing gum, with his teeth marks in it, during a burglary. Liz Porter's riveting case book shows how forensic investigators - including pathologists, chemists, entomologists, DNA specialists and document examiners - have used their expertise in dozens of fascinating crimes and mysteries.

I borrowed the Bolinda audio version and can highly recommend it.  Elizabeth Kaye narrates this Australian forensic casebook - a Ned Kelly Award winner in 2007 -  presenting the particulars of selected cases solved by forensics including the 2002 Bali bombing, a fatal hit-and-run in Victoria and the Lindy Chamberlain case amongst others.  We begin to appreciate that crime technicians don't have the glamour jobs seen on the popular CSI-type shows that pepper the TV airwaves. Each of the 10 chapters deals with one special area used to solve cases, including 'Reading the Blood', 'Reading the Bones', and 'Reading the Crime Scene'. Porter's writing style mixes science with storytelling, taking readers through labour-intensive tests of bugs, bones, blood, and DNA. It’s a fascinating window into a world where tired, over-worked people have a burning commitment for justice and a truthful outcome.  Not for the squeamish, obviously, but a fascinating read nonetheless.

ABIA Shortlist

The 14th Australian Book Industry Awards shortlist has just been announced.  The nominated Books of the Year fall into the following categories (plus two children's categories):

International Book of the Year:

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt
THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
I AM MALALA by Malala Yousafzai

General Fiction Book of the Year:

ELIANNE by Judy Nunn
WATCHING YOU by Michael Robotham
THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by Liane Moriarty
THE TOURNAMENT by Matthew Reilly
THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

Literary Fiction Book of the Year:

BARRACUDA by Christos Tsiolkas
EYRIE by Tim Winton
THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane
BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

General Non-fiction Book of the Year:

THE GOOD LIFE by Hugh Mackay

Illustrated Book of the Year:

LOVE ITALY by Guy Grossi
GURRUMUL by Gurrumul and Robert Hillman

Biography of the Year:

A LONG WAY HOME by Saroo Brierley
THE CROSSROAD by Mark Donaldson, VC
MADNESS: A MEMOIR by Kate Richards

The shortlist has been compiled by a panel from more that 100 booksellers and publishers.  The winners will be announced at a Sydney gala dinner on Friday 23 May.

Never Say Goodbye

Never say goodbye by Susan Lewis.

"Josie Clark is a loving wife and mother. She and her husband Jeff don’t have much and it’s often difficult to make ends meet. But Josie will do anything to protect her family and keep them safe.

Bel Monkton is a successful property developer, living in a beautiful house by the sea. She seems to have everything going for her, but she’s lonely. And she’s let the shadows from her past cloud her future.

Josie’s life couldn't be more different to Bel’s. But three years ago, tragedy tore Bel’s life in two. Now it’s happening to Josie."

This book is one that I couldn't put down. It is beautifully written with the individual stories flowing throughout. It tells the story about two women who meet in the most heartbreaking of circumstances with a common situation in both their lives. You can't help but feel for both of them. Josie getting a devastating diagnosis of her own, and Bel, through her own circumstances is still reeling from her own loss in her family. Josie and her husband Jeff live in a small English town and are existing on the breadline with one child in prison and the other just announcing her engagement. Josie does her best to see her son regularly, even though her husband won't, and worries about how they are going to give their daughter her dream wedding, then comes the crushing blow to her health.

Bel has sacrificed her own happiness to help care for her niece and nephew after the loss of her sister. Her brother in law has just remarried and is intending on taking his children and new wife to the other side of the world. These children are her only link to her twin sister, how will she cope without them.

A mutual acquaintance brings Josie and Bel together and a great friendship and support begins, which changes both of their lives, while fighting the biggest battle of all.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which will appeal to readers that like stories about female friendships, but beware, you may have to have your tissues handy.

~ Janine

Stella Prize

The winner of the $50,000 Stella Prize 2014 is Clare Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

The prize is named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin. Both non-fiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry.
This is the first time a non-fiction work has won the Stella Prize. Last year’s inaugural winner was Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds.

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Desert Queen: the many lives and loves of Daisy Bates by Susanna De Vries 

From the cover:  In the 1890s, when a woman's role was seen as marrying well and raising a family, Daisy Bates reinvented herself from humble governess to heiress, traveller and woman of science. She would become one of the best-known and most controversial ethnologists in history, and one of the first people to put Aboriginal culture on the map. Born into tough circumstances, Daisy's prospects were dim; her father an alcoholic boot maker, her mother dying of consumption when Daisy was only four years old. Through sheer strength of will, young Daisy overcame her miserable start, and in 1883 she migrated to Australia with a boatload of orphans, passing herself off as an heiress who taught for fun. Marriage followed - first with the young Breaker Morant, then bigamously with two other husbands. For decades she led a double life. But who was the real Daisy Bates?

This story, this part of Australian history, is an eye opener if nothing else.  I’m unfamiliar with the name Daisy Bates and her travails in outback Australia with the aboriginal population has never made it into any of my history lessons at school, nor in any Australian reading I’ve picked up since.  (I must be living under a rock as I’ve since learned there are at least six books, a play, an opera, a film at least three portraits, a dozen or so book chapters and numerous journal and newspaper articles!) It is my bête noire that Australian school children are taught more about American presidents or English history than that of their own country – but we won’t get started down that route.  Suffice to day, this is not a thrilling story, but it is one that holds interest as Daisy Bates remains to this day - despite all the previously mentioned books, plays etc. - a total enigma.

The immortal crown

The game board has been setPlayers have made their movesThey have survived the gods…and each otherHowever the game is far from over…
Series: Gameboard of Gods, The Immortal Crown
Mae Koskinen and Justin March have survived their first round with the battling gods, however as more fight for control of the humans, especially those considered special, things will become even more dangerous. Accompanying a diplomatic entourage to the enemy sate of Arcadia, Justin and Mae will continue their investigation into the supernatural return of the Gods. However when gods are involved nothing is predictable and  Justin and Mae will find themselves making choices they never could have imagined. They must battle not only the gods and each other but also themselves. What is to come will be the hardest battle yet…Choose a side. Choose a god. Because soon there will be no choice…the gods are back.

The immortal crown is a stunning sequel to its predecessor Gameboard of gods and lived up to every high expectation I have come to hold about Richelle Mead’s novels. As with the first Mead has imaginatively crafted a tale of a dystopian future shrouded in mystery and mythology. The immortal crown is a thrilling and engaging read, the complexity of not just the characters, who are so wonderfully portrayed within the descriptive writing of Mead, but also in the world and the plot delivered, will have you hooked from the very first page. While at times the complexity of the plot is overwhelming, so many gods, so many moves and counter-moves, I couldn'thelp but appreciate the effort and the intelligence taken to plot such an intricate tale. What really strikes a chord in this is the reversal of traditional roles; the female, Mae, gets to be the strong defender while the male, Justin, is the weaker intellect. Secondary characters round out  the tale with some shocking and surprising plot twists put into play. It is a credit to Mead’s writing prowess that she can elicit a full range of emotions from just one story; reading this I felt everything from love to frustration to anger, joy and intrigue. Imaginatively crafted. Fast paced. Enthralling. This is everything you could possible hope for from a novel; great characters, amazing worlds, suspenseful plots and even a touch of romance. Do not let this one pass you by…

Courtney :)