Book Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

It’s been 12 years since Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, was first released. It was an instant best-seller, received with much acclaim. For me, it’s been one of those books I’ve picked up many times and yet never read. The same went for her second novel The Swan Thieves. Sometimes these books just pass you by, don’t they? Maybe it’s your mood when you’re in the book store, or where you are in life.  More often than not it’s simply a matter of time – a lack thereof.

Elizabeth’s latest release however, caught my eye almost immediately. The blurb suggested a mystery, a coming-of-age story and historical fiction, and this book is all of those.

The Shadow Land is the story of Alexandra Boyd, a young woman who travels to Bulgaria from the U.S. to come to terms with the loss of her brother in her early teens. Bulgaria fascinated them both as children, so Alexandra has lined up a job there teaching English. The day she arrives, mere moments after she’s been taken to a hotel from the airport, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and inadvertently holds onto one of their bags.

Alexander discovers that the bag contains human ashes, which the couple was surely taking to bury somewhere. The only clues she has are a photograph she took, the name on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov – and an off-hand comment that they were travelling to a nearby monastery. She enlists the help of a grumpy young taxi driver who insists she call him Bobby. Like Stoyan, Bobby turns out to be so much more than what he seems at first.

Alexandra and Bobby embark on a journey that takes them across Bulgaria in search of a family whose lives had been so impacted by Bulgaria’s communist-era past that, decades later, they’re still running from it.

To be honest, before reading The Shadow Land, there wasn’t much I could tell you about Bulgaria, except that it was somewhere in Eastern Europe and was, for a period of time, a communist country allied with the Soviet Union. I have a vague memory of Bulgaria being involved in the Cold War from my International Politics unit during my university days. Something like that anyway.

The Shadow Land opened my eyes to the impact of communism more effectively than any university unit. It brought it to life for me through the eyes of Stoyan Lazarov and those he loved. Isn’t it just amazing the way fiction can do this? So many times in my life people have tried to tell me you can only truly learn from non-fiction, from text books, criticism and first-hand accounts. Fiction, they say, is just a story, an escape from reality. But fiction brings history to life in a way non-fiction often struggles to do. It brings depth, context and emotion to what could otherwise be dry facts spouted monotonously by a bored university professor.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Kostova for bringing this aspect of history to life for me in a way that’s engaging, beautifully detailed and rich with emotion.  I’ll be going back to look at her other books now for sure.

Amanda x

 

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On Books and Babies

So, as I’ve discovered recently, this whole new mother thing is damn hard. I’m actually writing this one handed while my little owl of a newborn, Sophie, has one of her marathon feeding sessions. Of which there are many. Very many. I’m surprised she hasn’t doubled in size already to be honest. I’m surprised there is anything left of me to be doubly honest.

I won’t bore you with the details of my plight, as I’m sure so many of you already know how strange and surreal this whole thing is, but I want to mention one small advantage of breast feeding. I didn’t consider this at all until a friend from work mentioned it, just before I went on leave. A great deal of the pain and frustration of learning to feed your baby can be diluted somewhat with a great book open in front of you. And when the time stretches into hours of your day and night, you can actually read a lot (when you’re not struggling to keep your eyes open at least). So, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Illustrated by Jim Kay

I mention this edition in particular because it’s large and stays open when you lay it flat, which makes it a lot easier to read – hands free! Plus I read this one aloud, you’re never too young to hear Harry Potter after all. It’s been so nice to re-read this book, especially with the 20th anniversary being talked about so much. It makes me feel so old though! My mum bought me my first copy of HP as a gift for making it through year six camp (gosh I hated school camp) all those twenty years ago. She said the man in the book store told her it was a great read, and he was right (thank you booksellers, just thank you). I remember how in the following years the entire landscape of reading shifted. Suddenly it wasn’t such a nerdy thing to be a reader. I stood in those massive lines waiting with hundreds of kids to get the later books and finally felt like I was a part of something. I’d found my community. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there just like me, who have J. K. to thank for that.

I just had a thought – maybe Sophie’s taking so much time feeding because she wants to hear how it ends? What a smart cookie. Hehe.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Inga Moore

I have this lined up because I’m getting close to the end of Harry Potter. It was one of my favourites growing up and I can’t wait to revisit it. This edition is a large hardback like Harry Potter above and has beautiful illustrations. I wonder how many other lovely classic editions I can justify buying for this purpose? Any suggestions?

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Okay so I haven’t been reading this one as much – my husband has been reading it aloud to Sophie and me every now and then. He does the best Winnie-the-Pooh voice and his Eeyore is top notch. I actually missed the boat on this one in childhood, I’ve never read it. Turns out it’s hilarious! If you haven’t read it for yourself (or for your little ones) you definitely should! I am completely in love with the cleverness and complete uniqueness of the little stories.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

I read this in hospital. It was the perfect light, entertaining read to distract from the shock of a newborn in special care and your entire body suddenly being the property of anyone and everyone. Jody has had plenty to say about Sara Foster over the past couple months and she’s entirely right.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I’m reading this late at night and I’m really enjoying it so far. Elizabeth Kostova wrote The Historian, which was hugely popular years ago. The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, which is interesting.  It’s a part coming-of-age story, part mystery. I love the detail in Kostova’s writing and I’m entirely absorbed in the story. I want to know how this all comes together. There will definitely be a review to follow of this one.

Anyway, please give me all your newborn advice, I’m more than happy to hear it all. And I’m even happier to hear your latest, greatest book recommendations!

Hope you’re all well.

Amanda x

Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Alright, we admit it – Jody and I are generally pretty sexist when it comes to books. We’re not sure why but we tend to lean towards female writers, probably because they more often have female lead characters who are easier to relate to. They’re just more familiar, more comforting. But recently, we both made an exception. We read about a book coming out by Mark Lawrence. His name was familiar to us because of his popular Broken Empire series. We’ve both often picked up the first book of that series, but never committed.

When we read about his latest book Red Sister though, the blurb sounded right up our alley. Jody found it first on iBooks and downloaded the sample. Then we we spotted it on a new release trolley in one of our local bookshops, waiting to be put on display. Never fear, where there’s a book we must read, there’s a way. We snuck up to that trolley and furtively slipped two copies off the stack. We were pretty impressed with our book-ninja moment. I’m sure they would have given them to us if we’d asked, but this was much more entertaining.

Red Sister is the story of Nona Grey, who’s accused of murder at eight years old but saved from the gallows by a sister from the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Nona soon discovers the girls who live at the convent come from various walks of life and are trained and tested to find their fit in one of four disciplines, the most infamous of which is Red. The girls who demonstrate their suitability for the Red discipline become trained assassins, skilled in armed and unarmed combat, feared and revered across the land. Nona must catch up quickly if she has any hope of surviving the rigorous training and education regime at the hands of the sisters, some of whom are downright merciless. Along the way she does manage to find moments of kindness and friendship, small lights in the grim, dark tunnel of her short life so far.

Nona is a likeable character right from the start. She’ll draw you into the book, then help you through some of the overwhelmingly violent scenes at the beginning. You’re immediately on her side, and her strength and courage keep you turning the pages. She’s a fighter who goes through a lot in the short time before her internment at the convent, and even more from then on.

The book incorporates flash-forwards every now and then which really make you wonder what’s going to happen to get the characters to that point. It’s a technique we’ve usually seen in suspense novels but it works here too. It can be a little confusing, but at the same time, completely engaging.

What really hooks you in though is Mark Lawrence’s incredibly descriptive writing. He’s built this world with so much rich detail and so much thought that it feels entirely credible. Combine that with a thoroughly well-planned story, and we can only hope it will be continued as a series.

Jody says “this book has now restored my faith in fantasy” and she’s right. It’s so much more than those flash-and-burn fantasy-romance books around at the moment. It’s like the difference between sitting down for a six-course degustation meal compared to a quick fast-food drive through.

If you like Robin Hobb and Trudi Canavan, or even Patrick Rothfuss – those long-form, epic fantasies – you’ll love this one. We sure did.

Jody & Amanda

Why it’s so darn hard to review suspense (but we really want to)

Right. So we know it’s been ages since our last review, but we’ve been busy dealing with some of those personal things that get in the way, like Amanda finding out she’s having a baby and Jody’s baby starting high-school.

Still, we have been reading, maybe even more than we did last year, but we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a sticky situation. We both like reading suspense. Thrillers, crime, whatever you want to call it, although we’d say our preference is more for the gentler, less gory kind. We’re all for the psychological, slow-burn read.

What we don’t like is giving spoilers. So we’re stuck. Do we write a long review and risk giving away too much information? We think not.

Instead, here’s a list of suspense novels we’ve read so far this year in brief:

Jody

Behind Closed Doors & The Breakdown by B.A.Paris: From the first page of both these books I was hooked! The storylines are both psychological suspense and both are fast-paced reads, great for a weekend away (if they don’t scare the bejesus out of you). Behind Closed Doors was quite hard to read in places, so keep that in mind. Overall, they’re both lighter suspense though. Both 5 stars.

Three Hours Late, Hush Little Bird and The Secrets in Silence by Nicole Trope: Aussie author Nicole Trope tends to deal with difficult topics and her books can be quite confronting. Hush Little Baby was particularly hard to read as it dealt with child abuse. I felt like I didn’t want to keep reading but at the same time I had to know how it ended. Nicole writes in a similar style to Caroline Overington so if you’re a Caroline Overington fan you’ll love these.

Hidden Hours by Sara Foster: I devoured all Sara’s previous books at the end of last year and she’s getting better and better! I’m sorry I’ve finished her latest book – I didn’t even pace myself! Normally if I know I’m going to enjoy a book I savour it, read it slowly, will it not to end – but not this one! I just had to know how it ended! I want everyone to know about her so you read her books because I think they’re amazing and she’s a bit of a hidden Aussie gem.

Amanda

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer: a fast-paced read told from two perspectives – eight-year-old Carmel who’s been kidnapped by someone she believes to be her estranged grandfather, and her mother Beth, who has to find some way to live day-to-day with a Carmel-shaped hole in her life, all the while believing that she’s out there somewhere. It is not so much a thriller really – you as the reader know where Carmel is, you know what has happened to her. But you want a resolution for all of them. It’s mainly a story about grief, a little girl missing her mother, and a mother missing her little girl. Seeing each other everywhere and never quite connecting. 4 stars.

Storm and Grace by Kathryn Hamer: Australian author Kathryn Harmer has written six books, but this is the first I’ve read. It’s a strange story about male dominance and abuse, saved by the vivid descriptions of freediving and the curious world Heyman creates for her characters. I would love to talk to someone who has read this one! 3 stars.

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt: based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 and written by Sarah Schmidt, a new Aussie talent. Eerie and gothic, I read this book quickly over a day or so, finding the cast of characters compelling and oh-so-readable. I was left feeling like more could have been made of it though. 3 stars.

So there you have it. We’re back, and we’ve got other reviews on the boil so look out for them soon!

Hope you are all doing well and reading plenty.

Amanda & Jody

Book Review: Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

About half way through this book I wasn’t sure what I would write when it came to reviewing it. Whether I even wanted to review it. There are so many books which we read and don’t review either because we don’t have time, or we just don’t have anything to say about it. We’ve never posted a review for a book we don’t like, not because we haven’t read boring books, but because why would we bother to share our dislike? What would we say? Reading is such a subjective thing, both Jody and I struggle regularly over books that are bestsellers, flaunted as the next great thing, the best thing you’ll read all year.

Sorry, tangent. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is an enjoyable enough read, but half way through I was thinking this is just another light, society novel where money and marriage is everything. The main character, Babe Paley, has been brought up as a society ‘swan’ and is the perfect wife to her detached, cheating husband. She plans his meals, dresses for dinner, puts on a face. Always, puts on a face. Smiling, smiling, while inside she battles low self-esteem and an inkling that maybe life shouldn’t be quite like this. She leads her friends like the 1950s style icon she is, but with a rare kindness and generosity – seen as a vulnerability by those around her.

Enter Truman Capote. The eccentric, narcissistic, eventual alcoholic who befriends and enthrals Babe Paley and her friends. Especially Babe, who finds Capote a confidant, a “True Heart”, a best friend. Someone who shares her vulnerabilities and seems to understand her. She opens her heart to him and Capote, the story teller, the infamous writer, does what comes naturally. He tells it to the world and Babe and her friends are betrayed.

The thing is – what really made me stop and think – is that there is a nice symmetry to this book. It’s a kind of non-fiction novel, in the same way Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers was. The characters existed, the events seem largely constructed from well-documented happenings. The great Black and White Ball in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hall thrown by Capote in 1966 is legendary. Capote and Paley’s friendship is well documented.

Perhaps it’s just that the idea of being and doing everything for your husband and never knowing your true self is entirely objectionable to my feminist sensibilities. Perhaps it just made me think, so much of their lives is just a face. Constructed, created. So how much of it was genuine? Did they die with no regrets or did they wish, just a little bit, they had lived for themselves more. Loved for themselves more?

This book made me think about the value of these women’s lives and how such bright sparks were dulled by the era they grew up in. How much society lost because they weren’t able to grow into their full potential. It made me wonder – has it changed that much? Aren’t we all still fighting for equality and respect? Maybe the brightest message in this book is that we should present a face to the world that is genuine, and embrace who we are, whoever it is that we want to be. So that the world understands more that there is no perfect face. We are unique and flawed and that is okay. In fact, that is awesome.

Any novel that makes you reflect on that is worthy, in my book.

Amanda x

Book Review: All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster

all-that-is-lost-between-us

Hello again! I know it has been a long time between reviews for me (so my colleagues have been reminding me). My problem is I haven’t actually read a book in quite a while; in fact the last book I read was A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet.

While I may not have been reading, that didn’t stop me from buying books only to put them on the book shelf and look at them, much to the amusement of my husband.

So the big question is, what was the book that finally got me reading again? It was the couldn’t-put-down, read-until-my-eyes-couldn’t-stay-open, All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster. Sara is one of Australia’s bestselling psychological suspense authors and in my newly-formed opinion it’s not hard to see why.

All That Is Lost Between Us is a psychological thriller, but at the same time it’s so much more. I think what sets All That Is Lost Between Us apart from other books of this time is the way Sara develops her characters. You get to know each of them and become invested in their stories. At the same time there is a suspenseful undertone to the story, which had me cuddling closer to my pillow as the goosebumps crept up my arms. What I also found amazing was the way Sara completely transported me to the English country side and the wild marsh country. I could almost feel the mist on my arms. While this book might be too light on the suspense part for some readers, it was perfect for me.

Georgia and her family are believable characters with real life worries and normal family dynamics. Georgia, 17, has withdrawn from her family and her cousin Sophia, who is her best friend. Anya, her mother and a counsellor, knows something is wrong but Georgia is always shutting her out and she doesn’t know how to reach her. Georgia’s father is dealing with his own guilt, and when Georgia’s brother Zac discovers what is behind the change in his sister the family reaches crisis point.

In the days since finishing All That Is Lost Between Us, I’ve been scouring the book stores for my next read. However, as Amanda and I have both found, there isn’t too much around at the moment that we’re interested in. My solution to this problem was to start reading Beneath The Shadows another book by Sara Foster and as of last night, or should I say the early hours of the morning, I am totally hooked! In fact I can’t wait till everyone goes to sleep tonight and I get my quiet time so I can finish.

I want to end by saying “Thank you Sara Foster for deciding you wanted to be a writer, I will be forever grateful!”

Jody

P.S

After doing some investigating today I found out Sara has a new book coming out this year, and I can’t wait. The title is The Hidden Hours and it’s out in April in Australia. Lucky I have a couple more of Sara’s books to read before then to keep me happy.

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Okay. So it’s been a while, I know. In fact, you’ve probably just about given up on us. Brushed us off as one of those flash and burn blogs that soon fade into oblivion. There’s no excuse really, except that Jody and I both fell under that dratted weather bow again. Then we were dealing with the usual end-of-year chaos which has meant that we haven’t had time to have our brainstorm book-discussions, and honestly, neither of us have even had much time to read!

But then the summer holidays came (well over here in Oz – yep, we live in the land of the Wizard!) and thank goodness for that! A few blessed days away surrounded by family, sitting by the beach, reading, eating, relaxing, all those things. Reading, most importantly, of course.

I had been saving Zadie Smith’s Swing Time just for a couple of those lazy days. There’s been quite a bit of hype surrounding it, as with any of her novels, and this one struck a particular chord with me, being an ex-dancer and all.

It’s a story of the great trials of female friendship, so there are  parallels with the Elena Ferrante’s novels I so loved last year (can you believe it is last year already?!). The unnamed protagonist and her ever-so-talented friend Tracey live a childhood imbued with dance and music, just as Zadie’s writing continues to be throughout the book. If you took note of the songs, musicals and artists she mentions, I think you’d have a pretty fabulous playlist.

Zadie writes with a frankness other authors struggle to match. Her narrator moves through life from London to West Africa, seemingly on a search for meaning, but really just floating along in fortuitous relative comfort. Meanwhile, her school friend Tracey manages to scrape through as a chorus-girl before failed relationships and the birth of her children leave her struggling to make ends meet. Which was the greater success? The girl who didn’t really try and succeeded only to prove to others she could, or the one who worked every day of her life towards a goal, only to give it up?

This is a story fractured by inequality, book-ended by the too-rich and the too-poor and the push and pull of money given and money taken away. It’s a beautiful, nuanced novel with layers that still come to mind in unexpected moments weeks later.

Amanda x