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: 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

Book Review: Goodwood by Holly Throsby

This book has been popping up everywhere lately. I’ve seen it on social media, in emails, in bookshop front windows. It’s another of those Australian slow-build crime books written by Australian women that have been showing up recently – I’m thinking particularly of The Dry by Karen Harper and An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire.

I think it’s great that female writers are really embracing this genre, as they seem to be more focussed on the impact of the crime on the community surrounding it than on solving the incident itself. This is a refreshing take on crime writing and lends itself to more nuanced storylines.

Goodwood is Holly Throsby’s first novel, but she’s no stranger to writing. As a singer/songwriter she’s recorded four solo albums, a collection of original children’s songs, and was part of a group called Seeker, Lover, Keeper with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann. There is a lyrical quality to Holly’s writing, it seems to flow gently on the page like the incoming tide, as the drama gradually reaches its height. It is a gentle book and it takes its time to reach a conclusion.

I was ridiculously excited it was set in the 1990s. That’s just fantastic! I feel like that’s a fairly unusual choice. I was just a youngster back then and it brought back rich memories of troll dolls and Walkmans, tie-dye and home phones, so fresh in my mind it was like I’d been catapulted back there. Goodwood, the little town where the book was set could have been my old home town, so immediately the story felt familiar. I’m sure it would for many of you as well.

The narrative is driven by 17-year-old Jean Brown as she tries to come to terms with the disappearance of two key community members. Rosie White, the cool girl all the younger teens looked up to, and Bart McDonald, a popular middle-aged man who ran the town butcher. They disappear separately within a week and the town is sent into turmoil trying to work out what happened. Are their disappearances connected somehow, or was it just two random incidents in a sleepy little town where nothing ever seemed to happen?

I enjoyed the premise of the story, although I didn’t put too much stock in the end result. It was the cast of quirky minor characters that really brought the story to life for me. There was a lot of complexity in their lives, a lot of small-town-centric drama that just isn’t found in the isolation of a city. It made me think of all my friends who live in the city and how they talk sometimes of the loneliness they feel. Sure, they have friends, but that sense of community found in small towns isn’t always there. You really can get lost among all those people, but in Goodwood, as in many small towns, no one escapes notice.

Oddly enough, the character I struggled to relate to the most was Jean. I found her voice really changed throughout the book. Sometimes she seemed too young for her 17 years, sometimes quite old. I guess that’s a part of the ebb and flow of teenage emotion though.

This is a great read for those who like small-town sagas, quirky characters, and slow-build mysteries where the impact on the community is central to the plot.

Amanda

PS. You’ll be pleased to know I actually witnessed Jody picking up a book yesterday! Fingers crossed she’s on her way out of her slump.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent is a name most Aussie readers would be more than familiar with. In fact, many readers around the world have read the incredible success story that was Hannah’s first novel, Burial Rites, published in 2013. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up her second novel, The Good People. Could she do it again? Could she weave another story with the same delicacy and skill of her previous novel? Surely it was such a pressure, such a weight on her shoulders.

From what I’ve read and heard, the idea for The Good People was sparked while Hannah was researching Burial Rites. She came across a little snippet of a news story about an Irish healing woman who had been charged with a terrible crime and acquitted because she believed the victim to be a changeling. In Irish folklore, a changeling is type of fairy.

The novel is set in 1825, in a small village on the Flesk River. It’s an interesting period in Ireland’s history, as Catholicism is becoming more and more dominant, and the old ways – those pagan rituals and laws – are being questioned by the church.

The story is woven around three main protagonists, Nance Roche, the village healing woman, Nora Leahy, a middle-aged villager, and Mary Clifford, a servant hired to help with Nora’s sickly grandchild. The child came into Nora’s care after her daughter’s death and while once a bonny lad, now, at the age of four he can’t speak or walk and generally shows the symptoms of a child with a severe disability.

So this is the fascinating premise of the book. Hannah Kent somehow makes it completely understandable that someone like Nora, faced with a disabled child, and without knowledge of modern medical practices,  would conclude her once happy and contented grandchild has been stolen by The Good People and replaced by a fairy changeling. She decides that banishing this changeling is the only way to get her true grandchild back. Why not? What else could possibly explain such a transformation? And isn’t there some degree of comfort in knowing it is in fact not your child, and that by conducting various rituals there is the possibility yours will be returned to you?

Hannah’s meticulous research has built a world full of vivid detail, crafting a story that opens a window into the past. You read slowly to savour each well-developed sentence, the immersive dialogue, the rich descriptions. You read to learn about life in that period, the hardships, the rituals, the community. The story doesn’t have the same building tension as Burial Rites, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Hannah is brimming with talent. Her writing style makes me think of Geraldine Brooks so if you’ve read one and not the other, you should definitely explore them further.

I can only think what a bright, brilliant star Hannah Kent is and how lucky we are that she calls Australia home. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Amanda x

My TBR pile and hitting a reading slump

Well, it’s about time I contributed some content to our blog. I’m sure Amanda is starting to think she’s all alone with no one to help. My problem is I haven’t read anything in a few weeks. I’m really struggling to get excited by a new book and it’s starting to bother me – a lot.

I have books on my shelf I’ve been waiting to read. Some of them I even bought as soon as they were released, but now for some reason they’re just not grabbing me. So, to help me get reading again I decided to share with everyone a selection of books on my TBR pile. There are some great new releases and some old favourites just waiting to be read, and I have no idea why I don’t want to right now. Is anyone else suffering reader’s block?

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

I loved the cover of this book so much I had to have it. And when I saw it’s set in Tudor England I was ecstatic because that is one of my favourite time periods. It tells the story of Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Queen of Scots and presumed successor to Elizabeth I. She’s been in isolation for most of her life but as we all know, those close to the crown are never safe! I always find it interesting when someone whose life is so strictly controlled suddenly goes against the grain. I am hoping that’s what happens anyway!

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

I have been watching this book pop up again and again on social media and the premise is fascinating. It’s set in the late 1920s in Paris and it’s about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. From what I understand, this is a fiction based on the few details known about Lucia’s life, who almost disappeared from history. Despite her talent and ambition she leads a tumultuous life, one that sounds entirely gripping.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Obviously I was going through a bit of an historical fiction phase with these ones! This novel is set in America during the 18th Century, in particular the period when Thomas Jefferson is the American Minister to France. The protagonists are his 15 year old daughter, Patsy, and Sally Hemings, a slave girl of the same age. It’s been compared to Gone with the Wind, which is a big call but in my mind that makes it a must read.

Thunderlord by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross

The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of my all time favourite series. Seriously. I’m always trying to get Amanda to pick these up. I own and have read every book in the series and I’ve enjoyed every one. What makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books stand out from others is the depth and nuance of the characters and the way she makes the world of Darkover and the people come to life. Thunderlord is a brand-new novel in the Darkover universe, written by collaborator Deborah J. Ross. Read it! Please! Then you can tell me how good it is and I will be inspired to pick it up!

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I’ve read A Suitable Boy twice in the space of 15 years and thought it was about time to read it again. For a while there I was sure it was going to be the one to get me out of my slump. Some people might find this book a challenge at over 1300 pages but I promise you it really doesn’t seem that long when you are reading it. It’s truly an epic family saga at it’s best – a love story – a story of newly independent India and how Lata’s destiny is intertwined with that of her country.

Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington

What do you know…another history book! Australian this time. I’m really going around the world here. Caroline Overington is one of my favourite Australian authors and I’ve read every book she’s written. I was also lucky enough to meet her at an author talk we held at the library. The Last Woman Hanged was a book Caroline spoke passionately about writing and one I know I will enjoy. It’s the story of Louisa Collins, who went through four trials in the 1880’s before being found guilty of killing both her husbands with arsenic. I will never tire of Australian history!

Elianne by Judy Nunn

I’ve read The Ghan and Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn and I enjoyed both. They’re light reads often with a bit of a serious undertone and this one is set on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland.

I have to admit this is only a small selection of the books at the top of my TBR pile. Surely I should be able to find one here to get me back reading again. If anyone has any suggestions to help me pick up a book again, I’m keen to hear them!

Jody