Reading Rewards - reviews

The Changi Brownlow

With ANZAC day tomorrow and the blockbuster footy match between Collingwood and Essendon, now is the perfect time to borrow this book I reviewed quite some time ago. 

From the cover of The Changi Brownlow by Roland Perry: "In the harshness and brutality of Changi Prison a group of Australian POW’s dug deep and fought to maintain their spirit in the best way they knew how – Australian Rules Football.
From Snowy River country came Peter Chitty; from Fitzroy came ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn, the winner of the 1933 Brownlow Medal. Together they helped form six teams to play ‘the season’ – culminating in Victoria versus ‘the Rest of Australia’, with the Changi Brownlow winner declared before the final game. The bonds these men forged on the makeshift playing field of Changi were to sustain them when so many were later sent to labour on the Thai-Burma Railway. Ravaged by cholera, starved and worked to death, fewer than half survived. This is their moving and powerful story."

And a powerful one it is indeed. Initially slow to start, it’s worth sticking with, particularly if you don’t know much about this horrendous chapter in the history of Australia’s participation in World War Two. It’s gut-wrenching reading in parts, while others have you leaping up from your chair to punch the air in celebration of bravery, mental and intestinal fortitude and sheer physical endurance. I believe if you’re a footy fan you may enjoy this book more than those who aren’t into the code, but above all, it is an amazing story of human spirit more than anything else – one that was a privilege to read and one I highly recommend.

Die for Love

Die for Love by Elizabeth Peters

From the cover:  The annual Historical Romance Writers of the World convention in New York City is calling to Jacqueline Kirby, a Nebraska librarian who desperately desires some excitement. But all is not love and kisses at this august gathering of starry-eyed eccentrics and sentimental scribes. AS far as Jacqueline is concerned, the sudden “natural” death of a gossip columnist seems anything but. And when she’s approached by a popular genre star who fears for her own life, the resourceful Ms Kirby quickly goes back to work … as a sleuth. 

This is apparently the third of the Jacqueline Kirby series written by the very talented “MJM” - Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) who, aged 85, died peacefully at home in August last year (2013). A huge fan of her other series – Amelia Peabody, this one seemed a bit light on. But when you’re talking about romance, why am I so surprised. Narrated by Grace Conlin, there’s an undercurrent of “I don’t really like men” coming through and Jacqueline herself is not short on ego, so it can be a bit annoying. Otherwise, a reasonably pleasant way to avoid mind-numbing drivel on drive-time radio to and from work. 


Shadows by Tim Bowler

From the cover:  Jamie is under pressure from his father to succeed. In the competitive world of squash, his dad is determined that Jamie should succeed where he failed. The emotional and physical bullying that Jamie has to endure makes him recoil into himself until he feels backed into a corner and doesn't know where to turn. Then he discovers the girl hiding in his shed and sees an opportunity, not only to help her, but to get away from his own life too. Together they go on the run - but danger is coming after the girl and it's surely only a matter of time before they're both discovered.

These YA books by Tim Bowler really have some rather strong storylines in them, too strong I think for the younger end of the genre.  This one is full of violence e.g. the Dad beats up the son every time he loses a squash match, then makes him walk home; a 15- year old pregnant run-away not only gives birth under a ring road overpass but bites off the umbilical cord then carts the baby around in her haversack; and two violent brothers who used to prostitute the girl come hunting for her to drag her back.  Yep, just your standard teen read.  Narrated well by Mark Meadows, this adult found that although the characters are well-drawn and the story gripping, it's quite a disturbing book and not one I'd recommend.

Midnight Bayou

Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts 
From the cover:  Declan Fitzgerald had always been the family maverick, but even he couldn't understand his impulse to buy a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans. All he knew was that ever since he saw Manet Hall, he'd been enchanted - and obsessed - with it. Determined to restore Manet Hall to its former splendour, Declan begins the daunting renovation room by room, relying on his own labour and skills. But the days spent in total isolation in the empty house take a toll. He is seeing visions of days from a century past, and experiencing sensations of terror and nearly unbearable grief - sensations not his own, but those of a stranger. Local legend has it that the house is haunted, and with every passing day Declan's belief in the ghostly presence grows. Only the companionship of the alluring Angelina Simone can distract him from the mysterious happenings in the house, but Angelina too has her own surprising connection to Manet Hall - a connection that will help Declan uncover a secret that's been buried for a hundred years.

A few years ago I had a binge on Nora Roberts books then veered off in another reading direction.  I had been quite taken with her writing style and that little touch of ‘magic' that wound through her stories lifting them out of the routine romance genre.   She is a prolific author, with some 209 novels published to date. Many of these are series  – The Donovans, Dream, the Key trilogy, the Garden trilogy, Chesapeake Bay, the Gallaghers, Three Sisters Island etc. – and some stand alone titles, as this one was.  It is also part of the Nora Roberts 2009 movie collection, which also includes Northern Lights, High Noon, and Tribute.
Once again I fell under the spell of her characters and the setting, and as I love a good haunted house story, I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook which was well narrated by James Daniels and Sandra Burr. 

The Beatles biog

The Beatles: the authorised biography by Hunter Davies.
Playaway format narrated by John Telfer

From the cover:  During 1967 and 1968, Hunter Davies spent 18 months with the Beatles at the peak of their powers as they defined a generation and rewrote popular music.  As their only ever authorised biographer he had unparallelled access, not just to John, Paul, George and Ringo, but to friends, family and colleagues.  He collected a wealth of intimate and revealing material that makes this the classic Beatles book; the one all other biographers look to.  Hunter Davies remained close with the band and as such has had access to more information over the years.  This 40th anniversary edition contains new material which has never been revealed before, from the author’s archives and from the Beatles themselves, that will bring new insights to their legend.

If you’re old enough to remember ‘Beatlemania’, ‘the Mop Tops’ and ‘the British Invasion’, don’t worry, there’s still a lot to enjoy in this book!
I began losing personal interest in the Beatles when they went through their Indian and drug phase but I still loved their music, with Rubber Soul (one of their earliest) and The White Album (one of their latest) being amongst my all-time favourite albums.  What I found most interesting in this biog is the information on their early days – school, and parents, and exams (or lack thereof), and ‘mucking around in a stupid beat band’.  Being Australian, we didn’t really know any of their background, we just got carried along in the tide when they swept DownUnder in 1964.  
As you would imagine, there’s a wealth of material in here, from the influential Brian Epstein and George Martin, to the impact their success had on the lives of their Mums and Dads, to those closest to the guys who stuck with them through thick and thin, and of course the tawdry decade of legal stoushes during the break up of Apple.  Strangely enough, the book sort of had three endings – one at the end of 1968 when the decision to stop playing live was made; an update on the 'studio years', John & Yoko and the aftermath of John's murder; and yet another with Paul’s band Wings and the death of Linda McCartney.  John Telfer's narration, including the many disparate accents was beautifully delivered, and this was indeed a book to take you on a Magical Mystery Tour, the likes of which will never be seen again.

Scare Me

Scare Me by Richard Parker  
Narrated by Rupert Holiday Evans

From the cover:  When did you last Google yourself? Wealthy businessman, Will Frost, gets woken in the middle of the night by an anonymous caller, asking him exactly this. When Will goes online, he finds a website has been set up in his name, showing photographs of the inside of his home, along with photographs of six houses he has never seen before. In the first of these strange houses, a gruesome murder has already taken place. Will is then told that his own family is in mortal danger. The only way he can keep them safe is to visit each of the houses on the website in person before the police discover what has happened there.

Seven houses. Seven gruesome homicides. Seven chances to save his daughter's life... Scare Me is a tale of modern urban terror, for anyone who is ever worried that someone might one day use the internet to track them down and cause them and their family harm.

This book is brutal. And nasty.  And definitely too long – three houses would have been elegant sufficiency.  The whole  premise that underpins this story is quite terrifyingly real – I could easily imagine this happening if someone was sick enough to do it.  It’s a very disturbing book but one that is almost impossible to put down.

Pulitzer Fiction prize

2014's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has been awarded to Donna Tartt for her latest novel The Goldfinch.

Tartt's sprawling epic tells the story of Theodore Decker, a Manhattanite who winds up in possession of a renowned painting, Carel Fabritius's "The Goldfinch."  Theo heads to Las Vegas, New York City's Lower East Side, and Amsterdam, where the events of his life are intermixed with his burgeoning theories on art and love.

The Goldfinch was Tartt's third novel, following her critically acclaimed The Little Friend, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003. Tartt began writing her first book, The Secret History, while studying at Bennington College.

The Goldfinch was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013, and has been nominated for the BAILEYS Women's Prize for Fiction in 2014 - yet to be announced.

The Spirit Keeper

The Spirit Keeper by K. B. Laugheed is an intriguing tale set in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. It is the story of seventeen-year-old, Katie O’Toole, the thirteenth child of Irish immigrants. On 2nd March 1747 Katie was removed from her family by 'savages'. She was taken captive by two strange Indians who claim to have been searching for her. Syawa is a gifted Holy man with captivating and mystical ways, and his travelling companion, Hector, Syawa’s strong and courageous bodyguard. Together they take Katie on an epic journey across the American frontier.
Katie is their ‘Creature of Fire and Ice’, with her red flaming hair and clear blue eyes, destined to bring a great gift to their people. She is to become their ‘Spirit Keeper’. And indeed she shows great spirit, bravery, strength, intelligence, and faith during her arduous journey with these two Indians. 
It is a compelling account of two very different cultures and how they connected through love, loss, and loyalty. It is a wonderful first novel for K. B. Laugheed and a great read!
~ Narelle

Big, Beautiful & Sexy

Big, beautiful & sexy : my journey from Idol to showgirl : an intensely personal story by Casey Donovan with Naomi Evans.

From the cover:  Thrust into the limelight in 2004 as the youngest ever winner of Australian Idol, Casey Donovan has experienced the best and worst that winning a reality TV show can offer.

The success of her debut album and landing the boyfriend she always wanted gave way to media coverage of her weight, family struggles and being dropped by her record label. But battling her demons in a very public arena, Casey fought back receiving critical acclaim for her roles on stage shows The Sapphires, and The Flowerchildren - The Mamas and Papas Story.

Casey's career has powered from strength to strength. She is now regarded as one of Australia's most acclaimed indigenous entertainers with a career spanning music, stage and screen. In this intensely personal account of the last ten years, Casey opens up about her family life, her passion for music, and her gratitude to those that continue to believe in her. And for the first time, she tells the painful truth behind her first love, a relationship which consumed every aspect of her life, ruining friendships, family and almost her career.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I read it in a day. It’s a warts-and-all story of how early fame can sometimes not be a good thing, and doesn't prepare you on how to cope with life thereafter. Casey has risen above this and continues to grow within herself and I wish her every success in the future with that amazing voice of hers.

Poirot and Me

Poirot and Me by David Suchet

From the cover:  Hercule Poirot, with his distinctive moustache and fastidious ways, is one of Agatha Christie’s finest creations and one of the world’s best-loved detectives.

Through his television performance in ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot, David Suchet OBE, CBE (pronounched Soo-Shay) has become inextricably linked with the ‘little Belgian’, a man whom he has grown to love dearly through an intimate relationship lasting more than twenty years.
No one could have been more surprised than David when he was asked to play the role back in 1988.  By the end of 2013, David Suchet will have played the detective in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote.  In Poirot and Me, he shares his many memories of creating this iconic television series and reflects on what the detective has meant to him over the years.

My first ever introduction to Agatha Christie’s books came through my bedroom window when I was about 10 years old.  My grandmother snuck it to me, with the obligatory torch, one night when Mum and Dad demanded, unfairly of course, “lights out”.  Cat Among the Pigeons featured the little Belgian with the little grey cells and from then on I was hooked.  Having over the years watched sundry actors play Christie characters, most of them not at all what I had pictured in my head, David Suchet’s portrayal is without doubt the quintessential Poirot! 

This captivating book is very well written, and does indeed take us further into the character, along with other acting work (particularly in the theatre) that came Suchet’s way.  But it’s the strength of this multi-award winning character actor, his commitment to Dame Agatha’s intent and his promise to Rosalind, Christie’s only child, that his portrayal will never be comical or embarrassing, that is remarkable.  The way he goes about bringing Poirot to life and keeping him true is absorbing.  There are photos to enjoy, an extensive index of people and characters in the book, and the 300+ pages were fascinating.  Highly recommended for fans of either gent!

Good As Gone

GOOD AS GONE by Douglas Corleone

From the cover:  Ex U.S. Marshall Simon Fisk is pitted against some very formidable foes in this fast-paced, riveting thriller as he relentlessly searches  for a kidnapped young girl.  Simon’s own daughter, Hailey, was abducted and after ten years, is still missing.  His wife later committed suicide.  Now working as a freelancer who specialises in retrieving kidnapped children for their custodial parents, Simon is unwillingly drawn into the Sorkin case by the French police.  His investigation will take him from Paris to Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia as he tries to rescue Lindsay before it is too late.  Simon is a man who strongly believes in right and wrong and that keeps the violence and deaths to a minimum during the course of his investigation.  While he remains a step behind the kidnappers, his quick thinking keeps him moving rapidly and continuously forward.  

 In a novel that touches on police and political corruption, child pornography, exploitation of women, and the lingering effects of Chernobyl, Simon’s search for Lindsay is thoroughly engrossing.  It is virtually impossible to find the reason for Lindsay’s kidnapping – the author brings the story to a stunning and completely unexpected conclusion.  Pulse-pounding adventure!

Aurelius Awards

The Aurealis Awards were established in 1995 by Chimaera Publications, the publishers of Aurealis magazine, to recognise the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers.  The 2013 Aurealis Award winners were announced at a ceremony in Canberra on Saturday 5 April and the winning titles are:

Science-fiction novel:  Lexicon by Max Barry
Fantasy novel: A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan
Horror novel: Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near
Young adult novel (tied):  These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner, and
Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near
Anthology (tied): The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2012 ed. by Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene, and
One Small Step, An Anthology of Discoveries ed. by Tehani Wessel
Collection: The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton
Children’s book:  The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty MurrayIllustrated book or graphic novel (tied):  Burger Force by Jackie Ryan, and
The Deep Vol 2: The Vanishing Island Tom Taylor & James Brouwer
Fantasy short fiction:  The Last Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Science-fiction short fiction: Air, Water and the Grove by Kaaron Warren
Horror short fiction:  The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins
Young adult short fiction:  By Bone-light by Juliet Marillier

Harlan Coben's Six Years

SIX YEARS by Harlan Coben

From the cover:  Six years have passed since Jake Fisher watched Natalie, the love of his life, marry another man.  But six years haven’t extinguished his feelings, and when Jake comes across her husband’s obituary, he can’t keep away from the funeral.  There he catches a glimpse of the grieving widow … but she is not Natalie.  As Jake searches for the truth, his picture-perfect memories of Natalie begin to unravel and soon even his life is at risk.

It's very rare that I dither over a book review.  One minute I thought this was quite good, with a strong and different storyline; but then again the main character, Jake, was so annoying and unbelievable, he became irritating.  The book would have been better if it didn’t drag in the middle, and the more it went on, the more convoluted it became but it also picked up in pace.  I toyed with the idea of ditching it, but I just had to stick with it to find out how it all played out!  

I have read other Harlan Coben novels before and this is definitely nowhere near his best but at least it was a bit different to the general run-of-the-mill formula in this genre.  Gotta love the playaway format and it was well narrated by Mr. Kerry Shale.  

If anyone else has read it, what did you think of it?

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Storm Catchers by Tim Bowler 
Narrated by Mark Meadows 

From the cover:  Ella is snatched away from the house in the middle of a storm. As the kidnappers make their demands, Fin's guilt is replaced by a fierce determination to find his sister by whatever means he can, and bring the criminals to justice. But as the drama unfolds, a complex web of family secrets is revealed. It emerges that Ella's kidnapping is revenge for mistakes Fin's father made, years before. The consequences will change all their lives forever. 
Although in the Young Adult (YA) genre, adults should enjoy this - I certainly did!  Set in Cornwall, this was a thoroughly entertaining novel that had a bit of mystery and a bit of supernatural mixed in with adultery, crime and blackmail! The setting was evocative – there is so much atmosphere when you have a crumbling old lighthouse teetering on the brink of a storm-swept cliff face.  Couple that with an old house equipped with a hidden passage, a little boy who communes with ghosts and a dangerous smugglers cave, and you’re pretty much set up for a rollicking story.  (I don’t think it’s quite suitable for those at the younger end – there are some quite disturbing parts in it).  Overall, a very enjoyable book!

Miles Franklin longlist

The Miles Franklin Award is regarded as Australia’s most prestigious literature prize, having been established through the will of My Brilliant Career author, (Stella Maria Sarah) Miles Franklin. First awarded in 1957, the Award is presented each year to the novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.
The longlist includes two debut novelists and two past winners:

Tracy Farr - The Life And Loves Of Lena Gaunt
Richard Flanagan - The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Ashley Hay - The Railwayman's Wife
Melissa Lucashenko - Mullumbimby
Fiona McFarlane - The Night Guest
Nicolas Rothwell - Belomor
Trevor Shearston - Game
Cory Taylor - My Beautiful Enemy
Tim Winton - Eyrie
Alexis Wright - The Swan Book
Evie Wyld - All The Birds, Singing

The Miles Franklin 2014 shortlist will be announced at a public event at the State Library of New South Wales on Thursday 15 May 2014, with the winner to be announced on Thursday 26 June 2014. 

Murder and Mendelssohn

Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood Narrated by Stephanie Daniel.    Book 20 in the Phryne Fisher series
From the cover:  An orchestral conductor has been found dead and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson needs the delightfully incisive and sophisticated Miss Fisher's assistance to enter a world in which he is at sea. Hugh Tregennis, not much liked by anyone, has been murdered in a most flamboyant mode by a killer with a point to prove. But how many killers is Phryne really stalking? At the same time, the dark curls, disdainful air and the lavender eyes of mathematician and code-breaker Rupert Sheffield are taking Melbourne by storm. They've certainly taken the heart of Phryne's old friend from the trenches of WW1, John Wilson. Phryne recognises Sheffield as a man who attracts danger and is determined to protect John from harm. With Mendelssohn's 'Elijah', memories of the Great War, and the science of deduction ringing her head, Phryne's past must also play it's part as MI6 becomes involved in the tangled web of murders.
So much potential, and such a disappointment, though it’s possibly a better one to read than listen to ‘thanks to’, god forbid, narrator Stephanie Daniel singing.  This unfortunately has cropped up before in other Phryne Fisher audiobooks and it’s cringe-worthy.  Luckily her narration isn’t.  That aside, the intrinsic wherewithal of choirs, musical orchestration parts, and technical conductor-speak is a tad mind numbing.  The oratorio details for ‘Elijah’ are equally so.  And the blatant chapter where homosexual Sheffield demands his curiosity about the female body to be unveiled by Phryne - “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” with dear friend John Wilson “supervising” every clinical inch-by-inch discovery, makes for disturbing listening and is totally unnecessary. I hope Kerry can get back on track with what is generally agreed to be a delightfully entertaining series. Deb.

Shadows of the Past

Shadows of the Past by Patricia Bradley
From the cover: Psychology professor  and criminal profiler Taylor Martin prides herself on being able to solve any crime, except the one she wants most desperately to solve – the disappearance of her father twenty years ago. When she finally has a lead on his whereabouts, Taylor returns home to Logan Point, Mississippi, to investigate. But as she works to uncover the truth, someone else will do almost anything to keep her from it.
Nick Sinclair pens mystery novels for a living, but the biggest mystery to him is how he can ever get over the death of his wife – a tragedy he believes he could have prevented. Now that his estranged brother is the only family he has left, Nick sets out to find him. But when he crosses paths with Taylor, all he seems to find is trouble.
Join the chase as Taylor and Nick search the murky shadows of the past for the keys to unlocking the present – and moving into a future they never imagined.

I found this book intriguing, thrilling and romantic - what a combination!  This debut novel by Patricia Bradley is guaranteed to have you hooked. Bradley cleverly involves the reader in the intricacies of each character and their story and just when you think you have all the answers - she tosses in another red herring!
Weaving romantic tension with believable characters and thrilling suspense has made this novel a winner of the 2012 Daphne du Maurier award and 2012 Touched by Love award, as well as a finalist for the 2012 Genesis award.
~ Narelle

Romance Awards

The winners of the 6th annual Australian Romance Readers Awards (ARRA) have been announced.  The awards are handed out in nine categories from titles published the year before, with ARRA members invited to choose and vote on three special ‘reader-selected’ awards, this time being Favourite cover, Sexiest Hero and Favourite New author.  Drumroll ... And the awards go to:

Paranormal Romance—Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh
Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Futuristic Romance—Allegiance Sworn by Kylie Griffin
Short Category Romance—The One that Got Away by Kelly Hunter
Historical Romance—Untamed by Anna Cowan
Contemporary Romance—Holding Out for a Hero by Amy Andrews
Erotic Romance—Skin by Kylie Scott
Romantic Suspense—Half Moon Bay by Helene Young
Continuing Romance Series—Sons of Sin series by Anna Campbell
Favourite Australian Romance Author for 2013— Kylie Scott
Favourite Cover—Half Moon Bay by Helene Young
Sexiest Hero—Daniel Montgomery in Outback Dreams by Rachael Johns
Favourite New Romance Author 2013—Anna Cowan

Diagram Prize winner

A tongue-in-cheek book that purports to deal with an awkward but critical issue, “How to Poo on a Date”, scooped an award for the Oddest Book Title of the Year on Friday.
The winner of the Diagram Prize, awarded annually since 1978 and based on a public vote since 2000, beat out other titles including “Are Trout South African?” and “Working-Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City”.
 The prize, which carries no cash award, is run by The Bookseller, a British-based business magazine and website for the book industry.
“The public have chosen wisely. Not only have they picked a title that truly captures the spirit of the prize, they have selected a manual that can help one through life’s more challenging and delicate moments,” Horace Bent, described as “custodian of the prize”, said in a press release.Deb

Stella Prize shortlist

Named after one of Australia’s most important female authors, Stella Maria Miles Franklin, The Stella Prize celebrates Australian women’s contribution to literature and was awarded for the first time last year to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. The prize is worth $50,000, and both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible for entry.  The 2014 Stella Prize shortlist has just been announced :

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Night Games by Anna Krien
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir by Kristina Olsson
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

The 2014 Stella Prize will be awarded in Sydney on the evening of Tuesday 29 April - we'll publish the winner details on Wednesday 20 April.