Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction

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All The Birds, Singing by Evie WyldBook Cover of All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Read by Tracy in July 2014

Tracy recommends as a compelling look at the harsh reality of life

The Blurb: Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But there is also Jake's past—hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singing reveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.

The Reality: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld took out the coveted 2014 Miles Franklin award, in addition to the Encore Award and a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize. Wyld seems to have it all, not only is she an up and coming author, she also runs a small bookshop, so the prize winnings will certainly come in handy. As everyone knows I am a big lover of prize winners, usually because they tend to be disappointing. Yet I read them with hope that something will stand out from the crowd. All the Birds, Singing is one of those books and it took me completely by surprise. It is a dark novel, almost Hitchcock-esque in some of its prose. The book highlights violence and abuse, however, instead of being defeated by it, the central character rise above it. Although in a traditional sense we would expect a desire for retribution, but this book is different. The story starts with Jake Whyte, eking out a living on a small sheep farm in a desolate coastal area of Britain. She is isolated shunning the locals. We follow her as she tries to solve the mystery of several sheep deaths. Suddenly we are transported to another sheep farm in the outback of Australia, where we find Jake working as a shearer. The stories intertwine as Jake narrates her past and how it became the present. Not a traditional style of story-telling, but I couldn't work out any other way for the story to be unveiled to us. It was a page-turner, I was captivated, wanting more. And more we get. As each chapter passes, we find that Jake never seems to have an easy ride in life, even when she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. Sums it all up really, or in Jake’s words “it always turns to shit”. Of course there are a few in discrepancies with timelines and some small privileges taken with logistics, but it is a story and a very well told story it is.

It is a book about harsh realities, where any comforts in life are hard fought and not easily accepted. Each of Jake's secrets are revealed slowly and this just builds the tension. I think deep down, Jake just wanted to live a quiet life, but increasingly the outside intrudes. This in itself brings a new side to Jake. She realises she is not alone and starts to become involved in the community, albeit with the help of, if would appear, a fellow outcast named Lloyd. He brings an optimism to her story. It is not a perfect ending, but a realistic one.

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The Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn WardBook Cover of The 
Men We Reaped:  A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Read by Tracy in July 2014

Tracy recommends as a voyeuristic look into life in America's south.

The Blurb: In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

The Reality: I was a huge fan of Salvage The Bones which won a National Book Award. Men We Reaped takes its title from Harriet Tubman (“We heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”) and Ms Ward aligns this with what it is like to be a black man living in America's South, in particular, five men from her past. It is not an easy book to read, there is an inordinate amount of violence that is driven by poverty. Yet, I felt a lack of wanting to live life, instead the characters found it easier to blame everything around them for their situation. This is not something new, it is a generational issue that is prevalent it would seem. Ms Ward's father is just one in a long, line of men unable to stay content. “Remaining faithful to my mother required a kind of moral discipline he’d never developed,” she writes, “since it was constantly undermined by his natural gifts: his charm, his sense of humour, his uncommon beauty.” Ms Ward was born prematurely when her parents were barely out of childhood themselves. It wasn't until she received the generosity of a benefactor, an employee of her mother, that she was able to escape a school system that offers no hope and attends a private school. Did she grab the opportunity? Alas, no. Instead finding it embarrassing that her mother was the cleaner for some of her classmates' houses and hated being the only "black girl" in her school. Obviously she did eventually find her path and graduated from Stanford University. When she returned home in her breaks, she found herself being absorbed back into a life that was filled with alcohol, weed, destitution, poverty and easy sex. There is no responsibility for the lack of stability that is brought to the next generation. It is a sad indictment on a social system that provides a limited future. In the South there appeared to be nothing outside of minimum-wage jobs, so the reliance on drugs provides an easy way out of a dreary existence. In a similar vein to Salvage the Bones dog fighting also offers a barbaric and ritualistic escape from the reality of life.

Ms Ward talks us through the lives of the five men she focuses on and we find how deeply embedded the lack of hope in the future is. When Tyshon Anderson is shot, a reporter was told by one of the neighbours that "was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighbourhood". How can this be acceptable? Ms Ward does give us some statistics as she progresses through her life. Apparently murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. This is meant to provide humanity to her characters, but I felt a depression settle over me, each story highlights a young life cut short. "By all the official records," she writes, "here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing." I don't think their lives have been wasted, after all, they are now the centre of a book, without them would Ms Ward have been able to write a book about her own drift and isolation.

I have read other reviews that felt the book did not provide a litany of woe, but I disagree, it is melancholic, morbid and I felt, in places, self-indulgent. But then, if I could write half as well as Ms Ward, or had a story to tell such as this, I would find it hard to avoid. It is almost voyeuristic being able to follow the story of her family from her parents’ protracted separation to her siblings differing choices in life. Although men have undoubted freedoms in their lives, they find themselves constantly under the scrutiny of the law which threatens that freedom with incarceration. The book is written in sections, each focusing on one of the men and written in a reverse chronology - something I found slightly disconcerting as it dulled each of the deaths, whereas it should have let us accumulate the grief and to even praise those that manage to emerge from the depths of the working-class.

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The Woman Upstairs by Claire MessudBook Cover of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Read by Tracy in June 2014

The Blurb: Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents--dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist--have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard. But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a "terrorist," and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries--until Sirena's own mbition leads to a shattering betrayal. Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill--and the devastating cost--of giving in to one's passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.

The Reality: I'm not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy no. And so we are introduced to Nora Eldridge, a school teacher. It was a great opening scene but alas I felt it wasn't sustained and by the end of the book I was a bit confused about what it was all about. I am obviously alone in these comments as the general consensus online is that Claire Messud is an extremely talented writer and this book is a watershed moment in her career. However, I came out of it thinking that Nora was one of the saddest characters I have encountered for a long time. She has become a shell, everything she one day dreamed of achieving she had avoided. When she finally travels overseas she is still unable to find her voice I should have stopped in a pastry shop for an éclair, but I was daunted by the Frenchness of it all, couldn't face waffling to the server in atrocious French, or lapsing, to their triumphant disdain, into my American English. I too have been to Paris, and no-one is going to turn down a customer!

Nora had left college with a desire to be an artist, but she soon resigns herself to a job teaching, it is as if the only thing she is good at is settling for a life less ordinary. Although I was surprised she was single, based on her life to date, I thought she might have settled for someone to fill the emptiness, a companion she can complain about. Into this pathetic life comes Reza Shahid, a new student in Nora's class. He is from Paris and seems at odds with the other students. After a schoolyard fracas, Nora meets his mother Serina, who seems to be the polar opposite of Nora. She is a real artist, bohemian and sexy. Unfortunately Serina's husband Skandar, turns out to be Nora's "perfect man". Soon Nora seems to be obsessed with the whole family. I did think at this point she would kill Serina, so she could step into the remaining family life. Luckily nobody else seems to notice and soon Nora and Serina have rented an artist studio. N ora focuses on creating miniature dioramas depicting the tortured souls of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Edie Sedgwick, I suppose this is how she sees herself. Whereas Serina creates an installation inspired by Lewis Carroll called "Wonderland" that propels her into the world of exhibited artists. It appears to me that Nora is one of those people that prefers to be in the shadows of greatness, afraid to take that step herself.

Outside of her new life with Serina, Nora is a solitary character with limited friends and a small family. She finds herself in a caretaker role with her widower father, who is, as you would expect, a miserable soul too. 'Do you love it?' 'Bit dark for me. Nice art, but it's all jumbled up. Seems like it needs a good spring cleaning.' 'We didn't have to come here, you know.' He shook his head 'It's good for me. I know that.' 'What, culture?' 'It was your mother who loves these things. But it's important to do them sometimes, even if you don't love them. And it's nice to be with you. This did make me think of my partner who I drag to art gallerys, museums and exhibitions around the world. I am pretty sure he wouldn't go without me. It is this portrayal of Nora as hard done by that irked me the most. She wasn't hard done by, she had a world of opportunity, but instead did not attempt to pursue it. She seems comfortable to be invisible to the world on one hand, but on the other she wants everyone to feel sorry for her and give her the life she dreams of on a plate and in the meantime she just forgo all joy. I personally do not believe that all single women have a life that lacks joy. Why does having a husband and family the only way to fulfil your dreams? The lack of euphoria about anything made it difficult to finish reading this book and it ended up taking me about a month. Each time I picked it up, I was eager to see if Nora had developed a sense of humour, something to galvanise her spirit and let her shrug off the cloak of invisibility.

I have to say though, that this was one of the most eye catching book covers I have come across for quite a while - and I must admit was the reason why I bought it initially.

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One Step Too Far by Tina SeskisBook Cover of One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

Read by Tracy in June 2014

Tracy recommends for lovers of twists, turns and maybe a happy ending.

The Blurb: An apparently happy marriage. A beautiful son. A lovely home. So what makes Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life to start all over again? Has she had a breakdown? Was it to escape her dysfunctional family - especially her flawed twin sister Caroline who always seemed to hate her? And what is the date that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past? No-one has ever guessed her secret. Will you?

The Reality: I am a huge fan of A Serpentine Affair, it was quirky and interesting and made a perfect addition to my summer reading catalogue. One Step Too Far too is quirky and had me hooked from the beginning. We first meet Emily Coleman escaping on a train (or "Cat Brown" as she is soon known as) she seems to have so much going for her, but what made her give up her life and in such a drastic way. I couldn't put the book down - I kept thinking I knew what was going on, but each page seemed to lead me down another path. As Cat settles into her new life with her flatmate Angel, she is unable to escape the past no matter how many barricades she puts up. So as the story progressed I was just fascinated to work out what was the thing that catapulted Cat into this new life. As the story unfolds, we find out that Cat has a twin sister, Caroline, who has lived a totally different life and she seems to be the catalyst for all things bad happening to Cat. Not that Caroline has had an ideal life, although it was a privileged one, she seemed unable to grasp happiness, instead fighting it. Their parents, Frances and Andrew, have done their best as parents, although not ideal as they are both incredibly unhappy and this mars the girls childhood. Eventually things come to a head and Cat's secret life is exposed when she is embroiled in a scandal with a footballer (or for those in Australia a "soccer player"). Unbelievable, probably, but it is after all a story and stories should take you to unbelievable places, however, there were enough snippets within the book that had me nodding and agreeing.

When did the world become sanitised, homogenised, boring? I could be in London or Manchester or Prague, bars like these are all the same. How true is that comment these days. I have moved to London and am seeing the gradual destruction of the local pubs as they become gastro pubs which removes them from their local environment and turns them into something that could be anywhere. Sad to see, but obviously what a lot of people want - personally I love the local.

Anyway, back to the book, the writing style has up moving between first and third person narratives and I must say I enjoyed the extra dimension that was brought to the story as we moved from past to present. I am sure at some point in our lives we all want to escape and become someone else and this book demonstrates that you can do that on the surface, but underneath the past is always present. More exciting for me, is that it seems ages since I have read a book for grown-ups - there seems to be so many Young Adult books out there that just roll out the same "should I/shouldn't I" storylines it has become stale.

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Eleven Days by Lea CarpenterBook Cover of Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends as a different, but slow, look at combat from a family perspective.

The Blurb: Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara's son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin Laden raid. Smart, young, and bohemian, Sara had dreams of an Ivy League university for Jason that were not out of reach, followed by a job on the Hill where there were connections through his father. The events of 9/11 changed Jason's mind and Sara accepted that, steeping herself in all things military to better understand her son's days, while she works as a freelance editor for Washington policy makers and wonks. Now she knows nothing more about Jason's fate than the crowds of well-wishers and media camped out in the driveway in front of her small farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, waiting to hear news. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason's dashing absentee father, a man who said he was a writer but whose career seemed to involve being in faraway places. And through letters Jason writes home from his training and early missions, we get a picture of a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities. Those exceptional abilities will give Jason the chance to participate in a wholly different level of assignment, the most important and dangerous of his career. At the end Sara will find herself on an unexpected journey full of surprise. This is a haunting narrative about a mother's bond with her son; about life choices; about the military, war, and service to one's country. Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story.

The Reality: Although I am not a huge lover of books about war, I seem to have read a few lately that look at different sides of life. Eleven Days had the uncanny ability to make me question if it was fact or fiction, almost the way that Lionel Shriver writes. We are drawn into the life of middle-class Sara, single mother to Jason, who has gone against all her advice and become a commando operating in the most secret of areas of combat. That is until he goes missing in Afghanistan. Luckily for Sara, she has contacts within the military and is undoubtedly given access to areas; very few would be given in a like situation. This was the bit I couldn't align. I could only imagine if it happened to someone else, they would be living in almost a bubble, where they may never know the truth. Anyway, you may wonder how Sara can sidestep the usual layers of bureaucracy. She was married to a one-time government worker, who subsequently died. As she looks back at how Jason has been part of her life, she holds him up to the status of god - he is perfect, I presume most parents think that, but I can't believe that he never did anything wrong and in my mind I can just imagine someone who is just perfect in every way from looks, temperament, intelligence …

"Art and writing: these were his early passions. And that pleased her; it somehow reinforced her sense of herself. It reinforced that she had not ever been owned by anyone--not a government, not a military, not a man. It also reinforced her dreams for what she wanted her son to be. She wanted him to be free from the demons that had come with what his father did, or at least what she knew of what he did. She didn't want a son who grew up to be familiar with words like Kalashnikov, katusha, or jezail--unless he learned them from a Kipling poem."

The other side of the story is told by Jason himself and why he changed from Harvard to becoming a Navy SEAL. He doesn't think of himself in the same god-like way. This book does not go into the actual combat side of war; it instead focuses on why somebody would choose that career, given other options. Instead it focuses on is sacrifice. I haven't done any research on Ms Carpenter but I can only presume she knows something that we don't, as she constantly comments on how wonderful the SEALs are, how they only act for the betterment of mankind - hmm not exactly as I would put it considering the press we are drip-fed. The ending was strange, it left me at a loss. I couldn't align personal loss with national mourning - I can't say any more as that would give away the ending. Several things irked me about the book. The switching between Jason and Sara, I felt it wasn't smooth it was disjointed and I found it difficult in spots to follow where the author wanted to lead up. The other was the lack of life Sara had built up for herself, she has given herself to raising her child, but now she is alone, seemingly without friends and without making much of an impact in the neighborhood. Even when Jason was captured, it was only because of him, that she found herself the centre of attention.

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Before We Met by Lucie WhitehouseBook Cover of Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends as a psychological thriller leaving you asking the question - do you really know anybody?

The Blurb: Hannah, independent, headstrong, and determined not to follow in the footsteps of her bitterly divorced mother, has always avoided commitment. But one hot New York summer she meets Mark Reilly, a fellow Brit, and is swept up in a love affair that changes all her ideas about what marriage might mean. Now, living in their elegant, expensive London townhouse and adored by her fantastically successful husband, she knows she was right to let down her guard. But when Mark does not return from a business trip to the U.S. and when the hours of waiting for him stretch into days, the foundations of Hannah's certainty begin to crack. Why do Mark's colleagues believe he has gone to Paris not America? Why is there no record of him at his hotel? And who is the mysterious woman who has been telephoning him over the last few weeks? Hannah begins to dig into her husband's life, uncovering revelations that throw into doubt everything she has ever believed about him. As her investigation leads her away from their fairytale romance into a place of violence and fear she must decide whether the secrets Mark has been keeping are designed to protect him

The Reality: Hannah finds it difficult to commit, after watching her parent's marriage dissolve due to her mother's desperation. However, when she is working in New York, fellow Brit, Mark, sweeps her off her feet. Fast-forward a year and Hannah and Mark are married and living back in London. Hannah is unemployed, but Mark has become extremely successful, with the rise of his company - DataPro, so there is no pressure on her to find work. However as she waits at Heathrow to collect Mark from his regular trip back to the States, he doesn't arrive. She is unable to contact him and suddenly realises she how little she knows about his life. As she tries to locate him, he calls her her explaining his missed his flight and is having phone troubles. However, when she tries to call him back, she can't trace him to anywhere that she would expect him to be. Even more strange is that everyone expects her to be in Rome, having been whisked there on a romantic break! The book does take a while to set the scene, we are taken through a series of flashbacks and also given a history of DataPro and there is a lot of emphasis on Mark as an incredible business man and absolutely gorgeous to go with it. However, at the back of your mind, you know there is something happening under the surface, something just on the outside of your vision.

Hannah starts to uncover that their marriage is built on lies and deceit, seeing her life unravel as she realises that the man she married isn't whom she thought. At this stage you would normally be a fan of Hannah hoping that she would be wrong, but I felt she was too likeable, she keeps thinking how lost and lonely she is besides she is so gullible. Her whole life now revolves around Mark. I just wanted her to grow a bit of a backbone and achieve something. She is privileged, they have a wealthy lifestyle, and she could achieve anything. I think as a character, I was more invested in Mark. He had built himself a life, and yes, it was to the detriment of so much, and he at least was living the so-called dream. Of course it was all part of the greater lie and instead the truth is collapsing under the weight of huge debts. Hannah finds herself now broke and with a missing husband. The twist in the book was unexpected, although as it was revealed you did keep slightly ahead of the surprises. Suddenly we are introduced to new characters that provide a whole new light on Mark and it isn't a good light. It certainly makes you wonder if you truly know somebody.

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The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne BerneBook Cover of The Dogs of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends as a fascinating delve into small town life

The Blurb: Littlefield, Massachusetts, named one of the Ten Best Places to Live in America, full of psychologists and college professors, is proud of its fine schools, its girls' soccer teams, its leafy streets and quaint village centre. Yet no sooner has sociologist Dr Clarice Watkins arrived in Littlefield to study the elements of 'good quality of life' than someone begins poisoning the town's dogs. Are the poisonings in protest to an off-leash proposal for Baldwin Park - the subject of much town debate - or the sign of a far deeper disorder? The Dogs of Littlefield is a wry exploration of the discontent concealed behind the manicured lawns and picket fences of darkest suburbia.

The Reality: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, not sure if it was because of the research aspect, or because I am fundamentally nosey. The novel revolves around research Being carried out by Dr Watkins, who has arrived in Littlefield just as a murder spree has started? Her research causes her to listen, look and attempt to understand the impact that fear has on a small community. Although she is not involved in the murders, it provides a fascinating look into how the main individual characters in the story deal with loss and grief from an animal's death compared to what is expected of them when dealing with human emotions associated with divorce, death and community pressure.

We join the lives of the town folk as Feldman, a bullmastiff, who has been poisoned is found by Margaret Downing. Feldman's owner, George Wechsler believes it is a fear campaign to stop the local park becoming a dog park. Margaret seems to be a woman who is unable to accept happiness, instead focusing on how tragic life is, what is puzzling is that it doesn't have to be, she has a daughter who she idolizes, a husband who may have grown distant, but it isn't an irretrievable relationship. Margaret becomes one of the central characters, as she lives next door to Dr Watkins who inadvertently overhears some of Margaret's marital problems. Alas as the dog deaths continue to escalate, they seem to be no closer to the culprit or even a real cause for their actions. As usually happens people soon divide into the different camps all speculating as to the reasons. At each death the town continues to spiral into misery, but with a dark undertone. It is strange how things appear on the surface to what is really happening underneath. On the surface Littlefield is held up as a successful and idyllic town, but underneath there is constant bickering and social climbing of those that don't want change and those that do. All of it surrounded by gossip, innuendo and jealousy. As Dr Watkins documents her research, we see the characters under a harsher light; instead they turn into people you pity. They focus so much on small issues, they are unable to see the bigger problems their town faces. However, all is not as it appears with Dr Watkins herself that adds an additional little twist. As the story wends its way, we follow the movement of the inhabitants, the reduction in dog deaths and instead move more into the story of Julia, Margaret's daughter. Julia has some very strange mental issues, which are totally overlooked by all and sundry. It is a case of her being surrounded by people but at the same time incredibly lonely. I suppose the moral of the story is that no matter how idealistic somewhere seems, it still suffers from first world issues of housing affordability, crime and petty politics.

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When Mr Dog Bites by Brian ConaghanBook Cover of When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

Read by Tracy in February 2014

Tracy recommends as a heartwarming look at disability and what is behind our perception

The Blurb: Dylan Mint has Tourette’s. For Dylan, life is a constant battle to keep the bad stuff in – the swearing, the tics, the howling dog that escapes whenever he gets stressed. And, as a sixteen-year-old virgin and pupil at Drumhill Special School, getting stressed is something of an occupational hazard. But then a routine visit to the hospital changes everything. Overhearing a hushed conversation between the doctor and his mother, Dylan discovers that he's going to die next March. So he grants himself three parting wishes: three ‘Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It’. It isn’t a long list, but it is ambitious, and he doesn't have much time. But as Dylan sets out to make his wishes come true, he discovers that nothing – and no-one – is quite as he had previously supposed. A story about life, death, love, sex and swearing, When Mr Dog Bites will take you on one *#@! of a journey .

The Reality: Dylan Mint is 16 years old and suffers from Tourette syndrome. He is being brought up by his mother as his father is overseas in the military. Dylan attends a school for difficult children with his best friend Amir, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. On a visit to a doctor, Dylan receives, what he believes, to be a death sentence, so he starts a journey to accomplish several every day dreams for a teenage boy, aptly named Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It:-

- Have real sexual intercourse - with a girl. The girl targeted with Michelle Malloy who attends the same school and is afflicted with one leg shorter than the other.

- Get Dad back from the war

His journey is funny, sad and excruciatingly awkward. "Would-you-like-to-come-to-the-Halloween-disco-with-me? FUCKING BITCH," . However, the story isn't all about Tourette’s, in fact it takes a back seat to the more pressing issue of his demise. Dylan knows he is different, but it doesn't hold him back and he is fiercely protective of those he loves especially Amir who is constantly bullied for being Pakistani. Even though he tries to understand that his mother no longer loves his dad, he is hesitant to let her new "boyfriend" enter the scheme and thinks of him as the taxi driver. It is a difficult topic and nobody can fully understand the emotional turmoil of caring for a child with a syndrome as unpredictable as Tourette’s. At the end of the book, you realise that underneath his manic appearing front, he has a good heart and maybe this is something we could take away and realise. However, due to the language, I don't think the book is suited to a young audience. That said, I don't think the book should be changed either - it is what it is and it tries to be realistic so shouldn't be watered down to suit different groups.

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Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine BishopBook Cover of Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends as a vibrant look at cancer survivorship

The Blurb: With the wit of Marina Lewycka, the piercing observation of Jane Gardam, and the bittersweet charm of Mary Wesley, this will appeal to all who love Penelope Fitzgerald or the Potato Peel Pie Society. Cecilia Banks has a great deal on her plate. But when her son Ian turns up on her doorstep with the unexpected consequence of a brief fling, she feels she has no choice but to take the baby into her life. Cephas's arrival is the latest of many challenges Cecilia has to face. There is the matter of her cancer, for a start, an illness shared with her novelist friend Helen. Then there is Helen herself, whose observations of Cecilia's family life reveal a somewhat ambivalent attitude to motherhood. Meanwhile Tim, Cecilia's husband, is taking self-effacement to extremes, and Ian, unless he gets on with it, will throw away his best chance at happiness. Cecilia, however, does not have to manage alone. In a convent in Hastings sits Sister Diana Clegg who holds the ties that bind everyone not only to each other, but to strangers as yet unmet. As events unfold and as the truth about Cepha's is revealed, we are invited to look closely at madness, guilt, mortal dread and the gift of resilience. No one will remain unchanged.

The Reality: Both Cecilia Banks and Helen Gatehouse first meet when they sit in the doctor’s surgery. They are survivors of bowel cancer and must now bear the misfortune of having to live with colostomy bags. As they build their friendship on a shared past of sickness, it grows into something much more. For once they are both able to share their innermost thoughts as well as their daily grumbles but foremost in their discussions is how and when their sex lives might ever start again. I mean I don't presume there are too many people you can discuss the benefits of opaque or clear colostomy bags and their impact on your partner. I think it is the fact that their relationship just seems so normal, they don't spend their time sitting around believing they will die, they are instead almost reliving a youth. They are almost polar opposites - Cecilia is quiet, unassuming and married with a son, Ian. Whereas Helen is unmarried and more social. Helen does not have a family, so a lot of the story revolves around Cecilia's son and the appearance of a grandchild that has been abandoned by the mother, Leda, after a short affair. Leda is having some sort of psychotic breakdown and leaves a trail of destruction behind her. Of course this could have split the families apart, but instead makes them stronger. Interestingly they have a tied past through a nun, it is this link that makes the story flow between the different groups of characters. I do have to admit a desire to wanting to give Ian a smack at his total self-absorption. I love the present that Helen received, what a lovely gift from Lewis - a Kindle. I liked how the new technology brought her closer to her want to be beau and how it changed her perception of him. Her musings about whether it will make books obsolete is certainly at the forefront of a lot of people in the book industry and like her, I believe it would be a shame as I too use a Kindle, but there is nothing like a physical book. As the story tends to focus on Cecilia, I felt though that the real story was of Helen and her youth. It shows that people can make the most life changing decisions and although don't spend their lives regretting it, it is something that is always on the edge of their everyday lives. One thing I can't quite combine is the book and the book title. I am sure something else would have been better!

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Where the Stars still Shine by Trish DollerBook Cover of Where the Stars still Shine by Trish Doller

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends a gritty YA novel

The Blurb: Stolen as a child from her large and loving family, and on the run with her mom for more than ten years, Callie has only the barest idea of what normal life might be like. She's never had a home, never gone to school, and has gotten most of her meals from Laundromat vending machines. Her dreams are haunted by memories she'd like to forget completely. But when Callie's mom is finally arrested for kidnapping her, and Callie's real dad whisks her back to what would have been her life, in a small town in Florida, Callie must find a way to leave the past behind. She must learn to be part of a family. And she must believe that love--even with someone who seems an improbable choice--is more than just a possibility. Trish Doller writes incredibly real teens, and this searing story of love, betrayal, and how not to lose your mind will resonate with readers who want their stories gritty and utterly true.

The Reality: Callie grew up believing that her life was a lie. From her earliest memories, her mother, Veronica, had kept them on the run to escape her husband and Callie's father, Greg who she divorced when Callie was only small. Callie has spent her life without having any stability, no schools, no friends, eating from Laundromat vending machines. However, in a small twist of fate, Callie's world comes tumbling down and she is left to face the truth - her mother lied. So now Callie must pick up the pieces and try to join her past to her present. She is now given the choice to live a normal life, something she has always wanted, just the sheer ordinariness of going to school. So why is she unable to accept the changes. This book had all the hallmarks of being a bit of a fairytale, however, Trish Dollar managed to keep things under check and instead we are led through Callie's emotions. Everyone knows about her, but she knows nothing about them. She must face a huge extended family and somehow try to fit in with their ideals of what she should be feeling. Not least of all is the almost grief she feels at the loss of her mother. We also step into the world of mental illness and how easily it is for people to slip through the cracks, no matter how much those around try to help. The stand out character for me as Callie's father. He has desperately tried to find her for such a long time. He has moved on with his life and has remarried and now has a small family. However, they do their best to accommodate Callie - a teenager. What they find hard to align with their values is the lack of rules Callie has had to face, she has always been free to do what she wants as long as she keeps out of the way of her mother and her friends. So suddenly she is faced with curfews and more scarily she must fit in with social norms. She soon starts to socialise and finds herself the object of affection which is encouraged by her friend.

"He seems nice." "He totally is." Kat nods. "He's super shy, but he really likes you." I glance up and he's staring at me again. It's not predatory, the way he looks at me. Kat is wrong. Connor doesn't know me so he can't really like me. He likes looking at my face. He likes the shape of my body."

We soon find out that Callie has many secrets and her dreams are haunted by the memories of the past. She is also unable to assuage the guilt she still feels over her mother, Callie felt responsible for her and now, left to her own devices, she is adrift. Then there is the underlying thread of whether or not Callie suffers the same mental illness as her mother, which puts a strain on her stepmother. Callie starts to buckle under the pressure until she starts to get close to local wild boy Alex. Alex doesn't know her past and struggles at Callie's inability to trust, which isn't just related to him, she is the same with everyone. However, it is a case of small steps and eventually Callie starts to take advantage of the opportunities opening in front of her. I have to say I loved the concept of the small bookstore - sounded like bliss to me.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

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Zac & Mia by AJ BettsBook Cover of Zac & Mia by AJ Betts

Read by Natalie March 2014

Natalie recommends as quirky, funny, romantic and inspiring

A lot of people have compared Zac & Mia to The Fault In Our Stars, even going so far as to say it's a blatant rip-off. This is technically impossible, as both books were written at virtually the same time and released within months of each other. Plus, aside from the two main characters both having/recovering from cancer, that is pretty much the only similarity. Zac & Mia is not a rip-off, it is it's own story and it is beautiful.

The book is broken up into three parts, the first told from Zac's POV, the second from both Zac & Mia's POVs and the last from Mia's POV. In part one, we watch these two 18 year olds as they are facing their toughest challenge ever. Zac, back in for his second round of treatment for leukaemia, Mia in for her first round of treatment for bone cancer. While Zac is a "seasoned pro" who not only knows exactly what Mia is going through, but also what to expect, Mia is an angry rookie, unwilling to face the fact that this is real. Initially communicating through knocks on the walls of their adjoining treatment rooms, they eventually branch out to Facebook messages, a phone call and eventually face to face communication. But then Zac gets to go home and Mia somehow disappears and neither knows if they will ever see the other again.

Part two sees Zac trying to embrace life again, longing to just be normal but constantly reminded of his cancer, which is now in remission, by everyone around him. Mia on the other hand, now has a constant reminder of hers, and she is angry at everyone because of it. Deciding to run away in the hopes that she can outrun her cancer and associated problems, Mia ends up on Zac's family's farm. Although initially surprised to see her, especially as she's been ignoring all of his attempts at communication for weeks, Zac knows that Mia needs help, not just medically, but emotionally. After journeying back to Perth together to say goodbye to a friend, Mia eventually accepts that she needs help and treatment and Zac returns home to the farm, promising to keep in touch.

Part three is now all about Mia trying to find Zac. Finally accepting what has happened to her and embracing the changes she's forced to make, Mia knows she has Zac to thank for so much of what's happened to her. The only problem being, she can't find Zac. After weeks of trying to reach him, she eventually gets word that he is in the US on a make-a-wish trip. Excited to hear from him and learn all about his adventures, Mia continues to find her strength. And she will need it more than ever when she learns where Zac really is. Although it is somewhat predictable, I don't want to give too much away about what happens in the end. Even though I guessed what was going on, it was the journey to this point, and through it, that was the most beautiful part of this story. I loved how the roles were reversed. In the beginning Mia needed Zac and in the end it's Zac who needs Mia. Their friendship is supportive and beautiful. And again, it's different to the other cancer books out there, including The Fault In Our Stars, so don't go into this read expecting the same outcome. What this book is though, is a beautiful, well written, funny, heartbreaking, and heartwarming story about two people facing their fears as they battle a disease that no one should ever have to face. Their growth throughout this journey, both alone and together is inspiring and this book will leave you with a smile on your face and a reminder to make the most of every day and every opportunity. Winner of the Text Prize for Best Young Adult manuscript in 2012, Zac & Mia is well worth picking up.

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The Goldfinch by Donna TarttBook Cover of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Read by Tracy in February 2014

Tracy recommends as a story that strips away to many layers of humanity

The Blurb: A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets. He becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother, a small, mysteriously captivating painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld.

The Reality: What surely has been one of the most hyped and talked about book releases for some time is The Goldfinch. I have previous read both of Donna Tartt's books The Little Friend not being a huge hit with me, as I much preferred The Secret History. However, it was certainly a long time between drinks. Nobody could complain that Donna Tartt rushes her novels. There was ten years between The Secret History and The Little Friend and 11 years between The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. As you read The Goldfinch you realise why, there is no formulae being followed, and this is a book that is original and fascinating. Yes, some people may compare Jonathan Saffran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but there is no similarity. This was another nominee on the 2014 Longlist for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, I am as usual keen to try and predict what might be the winner - alas never having managed to even come close. Anyway, I digress. The Goldfinch took two goes for me to get into, but once I had, it rates up there as one of the best books I have ever read. There was something about the narration that just absorbed you. You were taken along on the story of Theo Decker, feeling his heartbreak and devastation as his life unravelled.

"I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater.”

The Goldfinch starts with our narrator, Theo Decker, hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel, searching frantically for newspaper articles that might feature his name. So we know at one point what will happen, but there is certainly a long way to go before we can even grasp how this opening aligns with the story. I couldn't help but chuckle at "Night seemed to fall in the middle of the afternoon" and "Bloedend. Moord. The sun didn't seem to rise until about nine in the morning and even then it was hazed and gloomy, casting a low, weak, purgatorial light like a stage effect in some German opera." - welcome to Europe in winter. It seems to be permanently dark. The story really starts 14 years before this opening when a teenage Theo is pushing the boundaries of rebellion after the separation of his mother and father. This rebellion has led to a conference being requested between the school and his mother. Before they go to the meeting, Theo's mother takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view a Dutch Masters exhibit. When they enter the gallery with where The Goldfinch sits on the wall, a masterpiece in miniature by Fabritius, Rembrandt’s student, Vermeer’s teacher. Fabritius died at the age of 32 when a gunpowder factory near his studio exploded. Almost all his work was destroyed; The Goldfinch is widely considered the finest of the paintings that survived. It shows a small goldfinch, shackled foot chained to a wooden wall mount. Theo is engrossed, but soon becomes more interested in a girl (Pippa) with red hair and her grandfather standing behind him, listening to his mother describe the mastery of Fabritius and The Goldfinch. Theo follows the girl and her grandfather around the gallery while his mother wants to have one last look at The Anatomy Lesson. Then Theo’s entire life instantly changes - a bomb goes off. When he comes to, the room is destroyed. He comes across the grandfather, but unable to find Pippa. He gives Theo his signet ring and says Hobart and Blackwell, ring the green bell. Theo holds him as he dies. Theo comes across The Goldfinch, putting it in his backpack before staggering for the building. He manages to make it home where he awaits his mother. The painting takes on its own life and Theo protects it to the detriment of all else.

We follow his story as he is moved from home to home, never fitting in and unable to accept that his mother isn't there to protect him from the reality. He is initially rehoused with a school friend and his extremely wealthy family whilst child services try to get his grandfather to accept responsibility. Then out of nowhere comes Theo's missing father who wants him back in his life along with his new wife. All I can say is that Theo's father missed out on the fathering gene and Theo is basically left to survive, scavenging food while his father disappears for days on end into the heartlands of Las Vegas. Eventually Theo heads back to New York, he starts to live with Hobie, who was the partner of Pippa's grandfather. Pippa has gradually been recovering from her horrific injuries. Sadly a lot of what happen to Theo is caused by his own paranoia about getting caught, but ultimately being unable to hand the painting back. As the years go by, the painting is still described as one of the greatest losses in the history of art. Theo carries the secret of the stolen artwork with him, like a giant weight. He is unable to let it go, because it was the one thing that he and his mother agreed on. A novel of this size can't be all action packed, and although it does have its fair share of action, some of the best parts are in the descriptive prose on Theo's first experiences. In addition, the book isn't all about loss. The introduction of Boris into the story. He too has been dragged pillar to post as his father moves from one job to the next across the globe. Boris knows all the scams and they are soon spiralling into a life of drugs and alcohol, but there is nobody to help. There grows a deep and ultimately unbreakable bond which doesn't end with their move from teenager to adulthood.

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The Undertaking by Audrey MageeBook Cover of The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Read by Tracy in March 2014

Tracy recommends as a look at how neither side of war is immune to hardship

The Blurb: Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises 'honeymoon' leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days' leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.

The Reality:

This is Audrey Magee's debut novel, although she is not new to the literary world as she is a journalist by trade and covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for six years as a correspondent of The Times. The Undertaking was also announced in the 2014 Longlist for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

This book shows how easy it is to get caught up in a movement, particularly when things are going well, even if you do not completely agree, sometimes it is easier to just go with the flow. During the time of the Nazi's rise to power during WWII, it seems to have been almost impossible to ignore what was happening and for those that disagreed it wasn't a pleasant experience. Luckily for the Spinell family they are given the protection of the successful but mysterious Dr Weinart who has access to Hitler and we see how easy it is to accept corruption.

The story is a simple one - a man (Peter) who is desperate for a break for the front, marries a woman (Katharina) who wants the security of a pension when he dies. They have never met and she picked him from a catalogue of photographs. Luckily when they first meet there is an undeniable attraction which sees them fall in love and it is the power of this love that probably keeps them going by giving meaning to their lives and certainly helps Peter endure unimaginable hardships. Most of the novel is a story of two tales. Katharina and her parents find themselves in luxury and Peter faces atrocities on the Russian battle front. And when I say atrocities, I could never imagine what happened there and I doubt anybody could fully articulate the horrors of fighting during two Russian winters when your country has affectively abandoned you. I have never been a fan of books that try to glorify the war and the part the the German people played. It would appear that the majority of the country believed in the Nazi cause, until the tide of war changed and then suddenly those same people did a complete about face. However, The Undertaking showed that there was no glory for those on the front. They believed as strongly as the opposing side in their rights, but as the war progressed and the hardships increased, it was sad to see how the rose coloured glasses came off and a very stark reality emerges. I don't think the story is exaggerated, it tells a tale simply but powerfully. We know that the Spinell family are increasingly affluent, and we also know how that comes about, but nobody challenges their change of circumstances and they are not alone. A lot of people who stand on their high morals, would probably take similar opportunities when faced with the rationing and the degradation of war.

"They are allowed only one suitcase. What remains is for us." It is this complete lack of empathy that sees Mrs Spinell berate the apartment's former residents for not leaving behind their jewellery: "Bloody thieves, the lot of them. They swallow it, you know. To hide it from us."

After gaining an extension to his honeymoon leave, Peter, soon returns to the German 6th Army and the front line near Stalingrad. As the German army find themselves encircled and abandoned by Hitler, the soldiers gradually surrender which brings disgrace on their families. However, back in Berlin, Katharina finds herself caught up in a social life dictated by Nazi officials and their wives. Once it is acknowledged that Peter has surrendered, they believe she should treat him as dead and try to marry her off to someone higher up the Nazi chain. Luckily she does have some backbone and decided to stick by Peter. Alas the same can't be said for her parents who are so absorbed in the Nazi party that they are unable to accept or even acknowledge anything bad about the party. When their son is returned suffering horrific post-traumatic stress disorder which just highlights how deep the psychological wounds of war are they patch him up and send him back to the front. Not taking any responsibility or fighting for his future. As Berlin falls, Katharina and her family finally receive their comeuppance and I felt no pity. I have always believed in Karma and as such the ending to the book was the ideal outcome. Neither side is immune from the violence of soldiers against enemy civilians. The book does not dissolve into slush, it is plainly a narrative of Peter and Katharina and this gives it a grittiness that eludes some of books in this genre.

"We're not as bad as they are," asserts Peter of "the Russians" as the tide of history turns. Katharina is prepared to admit "we did it first", but will not turn the stone covered by the word "it".

They do not hide from the war, they take it in both hands and want to survive.

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Barracuda by Christos TsiolkasBook Cover of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Read by Tracy in February 2014

Tracy recommends as an insightful look at the class system, success and identity define us.

The Blurb: "He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every stroke declare his hate. And the water obeyed; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, no one came close." His whole life Danny Kelly's only wanted one thing: to win Olympic gold. Everything he's ever done - every thought, every dream, every action - takes him closer to that moment of glory, of vindication, when the world will see him for what he is: the fastest, the strongest and the best. His life has been a preparation for that moment. His parents struggle to send him to the most prestigious private school with the finest swimming program; Danny loathes it there and is bullied and shunned as an outsider, but his coach is the best and knows Danny is, too, better than all those rich boys, those pretenders. Danny's win-at-all-cost ferocity gradually wins favour with the coolest boys - he's Barracuda, he's the psycho, he's everything they want to be but don't have the guts to get there. He's going to show them all. "He would be first, everything would be alright when he came first, all would be put back in place. When he thought of being the best, only then did he feel calm." A searing and provocative novel by the acclaimed author of the international bestseller The Slap, Barracuda is an unflinching look at modern Australia, at our hopes and dreams, our friendships, and our families. Should we teach our children to win, or should we teach them to live? How do we make and remake our lives? Can we atone for our past? Can we overcome shame? And what does it mean to be a good person? Barracuda is about living in Australia right now, about class and sport and politics and migration and education. It contains everything a person is: family and friendship and love and work, the identities we inhabit and discard, the means by which we fill the holes at our centre. It's brutal and tender and blazingly brilliant; everything we have come to expect from this fearless vivisector of our lives and world.

The Reality: I was not a fan of The Slap, but I was obviously alone as it was a huge international hit as well as a TV series. Since then there has been a lot of talk and buzz about his next novel and five years later here it is. Barracuda still draws on his ethnic roots (Greek-Australian) and delves into issues of social class, identity and how we, as individuals, understand the difference between right and wrong. At the heart of the story is Daniel Kelly (known as Daniel, Dan, Danny, arracuda), a swimmer from a working-class Greek background (mother's side only, as his father came from Scottish heritage). He is such a good swimmer, that he is given a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne. He struggles to fit with the other affluent students, but he is solely focused on representing Australia in the 2000 Olympics. This isn't a book about swimming; I think that swimming is just an easy way of exploring how much your family need to sacrifice as well as your ruthless desire for nothing but success. Your lives revolve around the swim training timetable. As such Daniel doesn't have a lot of time for anything, least of all socialising and instead we follow the story from inside his head. He is certainly a walking shoulder chip with his prejudices a major stumbling block. If anything goes wrong he is quick to blame everyone but himself. You know from the synopsis that things do not turn out as expected, but the opening of the book sets the scene. We find Dan in Scotland, stripping off on the banks of Loch Lomond:

Muscles that have not moved in years, muscles that have been in abeyance, they are singing now.

This is not a feel-good book. I did not like Daniel from beginning to end, he was flawed and had some major issues, all of which are forgivable but he sabotaged everything and I desperately wanted him to get out of his head and into the now. Everyone has times in their lives when they are the outsider or things do not go as planned and your whole life feels like it is falling away, but Daniel took it to a whole new level. I was also astounded by his realisation that a class system exists. Alas the class system is alive and well in Australia. Anybody who thinks it isn't must live in a darkened bubble, it has always been there and I doubt whether it will change, if anything it is getting worse. The other issue is how Australians perceive sports people and how much we forgive them. I think it is disgusting that these people are worshipped for doing things that if we mere mortals did we would be in prison. Of course as soon as they start losing things rapidly change in the majority of instances, but not all.

There is not a lot I know, but I know this, that the body can be trained, that the body can be changed, that the body is in motion, is never static. And I know that sometimes the body will roar out its limits, will tell you there is no further to go, that some possibilities will never be realised, despite desire and hope and will. I know this better than I know anything else. The body also fails.

Daniel puts so much pressure on himself. Believing his success in the pool will see him accepted at school. But alas, that is not to be the case and whilst it is not a surprise to us, it is to Daniel. His ultimate disgrace sees him serving a prison sentence. This provides mystery in the book as you don't know why which slowly unfolds and I think this will be one of the main talking points - was Daniel wrong or right? Is the use of violence to gain acceptance of your peers justified? As Daniel becomes even more focused on swimming, his relationship with his father reaches breaking point. Daniel believes his father is unable to accept his success and has lost faith in his ability, whereas his father is trying to protect Daniel from the possibility of failure. Of course, this is what normal relationships are like and it is only because Daniel is unable to deal with his emotions that it becomes an impasse and affects the whole family. Eventually when Daniel does fail, he has no emotional resilience to pick himself up, instead he crumbles. His mother was an interesting character; she understood the issues that Daniel faced in the new school. Desperate to try and help him at least blend in, she buys ensures he is in new clothes so that he isn't embarrassed and won't think he doesn't belong there. Even when he was cheered on or applauded by his school, he constantly judged his performance and if they were just insulting him with their cheers. I certainly started to think that when a student is given a scholarship it should come with some counselling.

As with The Slap I found the language confronting, I am not prudish (well I don't think so), but this is another level and not warranted in all occasions. The chronological order of the book can be difficult to follow, but it strangely works well as it tries to show some of the characters vulnerabilities - the story is basically split into Danny as a child and as a man. However, I am sure, as with The Slap, this book will divide readers.

I did laugh at his description of watching the Scots swimming - they put their heads under, they splash and they play. But they don't swim. None of these people swims. No one ventures further than a few metres from the shore. But there is nothing to fear here, no sharks, no stingers, no rips, no dumping waves that can strike you down like a titan's fist. There is nothing to fear in this water at all. Except the cold. There's always the cold. Alas even in the peak of summer, this seems to be the case.

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Meeting the English by Kate ClancyBook Cover of Meeting the English by Kate Clancy

Read by Tracy in February 2014

Tracy recommends as a great debut novel

The Blurb: It is the searing hot summer of 1989 and revolution is in the air; though not just for the Prys family . . . Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair. Own room in Hampstead, all found, exciting cultural milieu. Modest wage. Ideal 'gap year' opportunity. Apply Prys Box 4224XXC. 'It's only England,' said Mr Fox, 'just a few hours on the train. You can always come home.' 'Ah've never been though,' said Struan, 'never been South.' 'Then you should,' said Mr Fox, 'you really should.' So it is that Struan Robertson, orphan, genius, and just seventeen, leaves his dour native town of Cuik, and arrives in London in the freakish fine summer of 1989. His job, he finds, is to care for Phillip, dumbfounded and paralysed by a massive stroke, because, though two teenage children, two wives, and a literary agent all rattle round Phillip's large house, they are each too busy with their peculiar obsessions to do it themselves. As the city bakes, Struan finds himself tangled in a midsummer's dream of mistaken identity, giddying property prices, wild swimming, and overwhelming passions. For everyone, it is to be a life-changing summer. This is a bright book about dark subjects: a tale about kindness and its limits, told with love. Spiked with witty dialogue, and jostling with gleeful, zesty characters, it is a glorious debut novel from an acclaimed writer of poetry, non-fiction, and short stories.

The Reality: Struan Robertson has led a sheltered life, never leaving his home town of Cuik, but plans on heading to the big smoke - Aberdeen to study dentistry at university. He is also incredibly smart and I think, very astute. He eventually seizes the opportunity (after some gentle coaxing by Mr Fox his English teacher) to become the carer to famous playwright (Phillip Prys), a gap year if you like, mainly to earn some money. Earning money is incredibly difficult in his home town due to the high rate of unemployment since the pits (mines) closed down. He has been working part-time in a retirement home, so caring for Prys, who has had a catastrophic stroke is well within his capabilities, in addition he is very au fait with his writing. Unfortunately Prys has a family (1 wife, 1 ex-wife, 1 ex-girlfriend, 1 daughter and 1 son) who don't seem to care for him on any deep level. His new wife (Shirin) is an Iranian refugee who paints miniatures, seemingly having a limited grasp on the world around her, but underneath is a survivor and now focuses on her exhibitions. His first wife, Myfanwy, loves the house that she helped create. His children, Julie and Jake love nothing but themselves.

Cuik folk are hard to meet. And anyway, it's hard to meet folk who are different, even if you are staying with them, because you bring your own mind with you. Like me. Like I bring my mind with me. I thought English people were different until I came down here.

What is funny is that Prys himself came from harsh beginnings, being thrown into the limelight with his work The Pit and its Men which is now studied in schools, including a requirement for the Scottish Highers. Struan soon realises that Prys is aware of his surroundings and they gradually start a basic means of communication through blinks and eventually finger raising. The only other person that does care about Prys is Giles, his literary agent, who in his own very reserved way tries to help but finds it terrifying that Londoners have the ability to not care about or notice those around them. Luckily all is not lost and as the story unfolds, as an almost dark comedy, we do see the characters at their weakest and understand their flaws and their desires.

This is a debut novel for Kate Clanchy, but she is not unknown to the literary world with a history in poetry and the short story. I think this is relevant as Meeting the English felt like lots of short punchy stories, interwoven by the story of Struan. This is definitely worthy of the 2013 Costa First Novel Award shortlist nomination.

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The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea NesbitBook Cover of The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as this part of history is one that has not been documented fully.

The Blurb: Their average age was twenty-five. They came from Berkeley, Cambridge, Paris, London, Chicago, arriving in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret, including what their husbands were doing at the lab. They lived in barely finished houses with a P.O. box for an address in a town wreathed with barbed wire, all for the benefit of a project that didn't exist as far as the public knew. Though they were strangers, they joined together - adapting to a landscape as fierce as it was absorbing, full of the banalities of everyday life and the drama of scientific discovery. And while the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed from an abandoned school on a hill into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn't say out loud, the letters they couldn't send home, the freedom they didn't have. But the end of the war would bring even bigger challenges to the people of Los Alamos, as the scientists and their families struggled with the burden of their contribution to the most destructive force in the history of mankind. The Wives of Los Alamos is a novel that sheds light onto one of the strangest and most monumental research projects in modern history, and a testament to a remarkable group of women who carved out a life for themselves, in spite of the chaos of the war and the shroud of intense secrecy.

The Reality: You will other love or hate this book. It is a tale of a group of women who are thrust into roles they could never prepare for. Either they or their husbands are renowned scientists or physicists and they are moved in secret to the desert of New Mexico in World War II. Everything they do is in secrecy. This book is all written in the first person and I found it very difficult to follow and felt the story became impersonal. Of course the reason for all the secrecy surrounding the move is the requirement of the US government to build a bomb - one that changed the world forever. The women suffer a lot. They are moved into houses that are not finished, face censorship, have limited contact with the outside world, are unable to know what their husbands are doing and must adapt to a shortage of everything, from water to food. Coupled with the requirement of the military to maintain discipline, their lives were heavily dictated to.

The women had lead privileged lives before, usually within academia and therefore sheltered from hardship. A large proportion of the wives are from Europe so they must also adapt to language differences. I would have loved the book to spend more time on a few characters, really delve into what they gave up for, ultimately, something no-one wants. One part that was interesting was the look at the changes in society. Not sure if mothers today advise that the secret to a good marriage was a clean house and a warm meal or keeping quiet - well I hope not anyway as marriage is about equality. I became increasingly annoyed with the lack of personal connection with the characters and how everything was "we" or "some of us". It is a shame as I think the concept of the story was one worthwhile drawing to our attention.

I received this book for review purposes via NetGalley.

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The Silent Wife by A.S.A. HarrisonBook Cover of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as an intriguing look at the disintegration of a marriage

The Blurb: A chilling psychological thriller about a marriage, a way of life, and how far one woman will go to keep what is rightfully hers. Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that are unable to be made, and promises that will not be kept. Expertly plotted and reminiscent of Gone Girl and These Things Hidden, The Silent Wife ensnares the reader from page one and does not let go.

The Reality:

The Silent Wife opens with a snippet of the future: deeply unaware that her life is now peaking... that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer of her". Because her partner of 20 years, Todd Gilbert, never a faithful man, has fallen for someone else and is leaving her. Instantly we know what will happen but it does not detract from the story, instead we are led on a path through the disintegration of a marriage.

Jodi Brett is rich and beautiful. She is a successful psychotherapist who picks her clients to suit her interests. Jodi and her husband of 20 years, Todd, have the perfect marriage. She ignores his infidelities and keeps a home that most of us would die for, whilst he pays for her lifestyle. In reality she is insecure, finding herself in her mid-forties and seemingly stuck in a major rut. Todd is unable to see what is in front of him and plunges into a mid-life crisis embarking on an affair with his best friends daughter. You know that this affair is different and Todd is suddenly unable to think with his head instead thinking with another part of his anatomy. The crux of their problems is their desire to avoid confrontation at all cost. This is something Todd soon starts to desire, looking back on his relationship with Jodi with fondness.

Jodi's great gift is her silence, and he has always loved this about her, that she knows how to mind her own business, keep her own counsel, but silence is also her weapon. The woman who refuses to object, who doesn't yell and scream--there's strength in that, and power.

The path they both find themselves on is unable to be changed. They have become complacent now finding their marriage disintegrating. In the end Jodi finds herself with everything to lose and makes a decision that will push her to the edge. However, it was not something she planned; it was more something she fell into as she fights to keep her lifestyle intact. In the end they become vindictive which is heart-breaking. From my own perspective, I would have given Todd the flick years ago, he is so self-centred, he does not care of who hurts along the way. On the flip side, Jodi is frustrating in her regimented approach to her daily routine. I loved the ending, I had no idea.

Sadly A.S.A. Harrison passed away in April 2013 at the age of 65. This was her first non-fiction novel.

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Intervention by W.R.R. MunroBook Cover of Intervention by W.R.R. Munro

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as an interesting look at climate change and how we could have done something instead of procrastinating

The Blurb: It is April 2033. Drought and water wars ravage Africa, and heat-waves kill tens of thousands in Europe. Famine sweeps across Asia after the monsoon fails, and the U.S. faces massive social upheaval after decades of economic malaise. Ayden Walker is a young field researcher. It is his job to limit the damage to the environment from climate change, greed or plain incompetence. He is also part of the virtual BioWatch community where he works to hold those responsible to account. As such, he has little patience for people who rush to commercialise genetically modified organisms before the risks are properly understood. So he is appalled when he meets William Hanford and learns that, decades ago, their parents were involved in illegal genetic experimentation. But what he learns next shakes the very foundations of his existence. He is not given time to deal with it though. Ayden stumbles across something that could change the course of humanity if he is unable to stop it but he is not so sure he should. People are consuming without thought, placing an unbearable load on resources which plays havoc with climate. Perhaps truly radical action could be justified. I have got a vial of this perfect stuff in my pocket. Do we campaign for a worldwide vote we know will never happen or do I just open it? But he is not the only one contemplating the question. Someone has him under surveillance and it becomes clear they have no intention of allowing him to interfere. Ayden is forced to seek an uneasy alliance with US military intelligence as he hunts for the truth. Then Ayden discovers that his adversary will kill to keep his secrets.

The Reality: We swap periods between 2033 and 2011 when the world was a very different place, although in 2011 there were already indications of what was coming if consumption did not change radically and we see the outcome in 2033 of our inability to act.

The truth is: What we are doing is functionally insane. If we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children and all future generations to struggle with ecological curses for several millennia to come. Continuing on our current course would be suicidal for global civilisations - Al Gore, "Climate or Denial", rollingstone.com

The book falls into two genres - science-fiction and thriller with a good dollop of climate change preaching thrown in. The main theme is the "end is nigh" because we did not act early enough and when short cuts were taken, it has led to chronic food and water shortages. In some ways this book made me think of the Cane Toad in Australia which was imported to solve a problem without enough trials and a lack of understanding of what could happen. It is now causing catastrophic declines in native species. I have to say I did struggle a bit with the science in relation to genetics and climate change (I did my Masters in Carbon Emissions Trading so at least have an understanding of the issues surrounding climate change) but the information was constant and very dry in some areas. It was very much one sided and although it tried to address some of the social issues surrounding any solution, it was a bit melodramatic. I would think this may be an issue with a lot of readers who are ambivalent to any action.

Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. Moderate U.N. scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one. Global Footprint Network, footprint network.org

On one side we have Ayden who spends his time worrying about the ethics of solutions. On the other we have William who doesn't. One of their main differences relates to population growth. This is a similar concept that was discussed by Lionel Shriver in Game Control which I felt was more realistic. However, if you take the other areas of concern, then Intervention attempted to provide a more holistic viewpoint and not become too detailed with every possible solution or combination of solutions. Although Ayden and William agree that earth is on a catastrophic trajectory, they are unable to come to any agreement of how to address the solution effectively. Why are these two scientists at the centre of the story? We need to go back to 2011 when their parents and leaders of the scientific community decided to do research and trials into genetic modification. As the story unfolds, so does their biological make-up which adds an interesting twist.

Although I found the topic interesting and thought provoking, I am not sure the wider reading audience will have the same attention span. After all there is no sign of a slowdown in consumption and it seems climate change has taken a back seat during the global financial crisis. Interestingly the author could have produced a book that was filled with hard science, but he has taken a more fictional approach which may gap the divide. What definitely did not work in this book were the relationships, they were not believable and did not provide any sparks for me.

Many thanks to NetGalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Keep up to date with W.R.R Munro at his website.

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Avery (The Chronicles of Kaya #1) by Charlotte McConaghyBook Cover of Avery (The Chronicles of Kaya #1) by Charlotte McConaghy

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as a love story steeped in prejudice

The Blurb: The people of Kaya die in pairs. When one lover dies, the other does too. So it has been for thousands of years until Ava. For although her bondmate, Avery, has been murdered and Ava finds her soul has been torn in two, she is the only one who has ever been strong enough to cling to life. Vowing revenge upon the barbarian queen of Pirenti, Ava has a plan to interrupt when the deadly prince of her enemies instead captures her. Prince Ambrose has been brought up to kill and hate. But when he takes charge of a strangely captivating Kayan prisoner and is forced to survive with her on a dangerous island, he must reconsider all he holds true . . . In a violent country like Pirenti, where emotion is scorned as a weakness, can he find the strength to fight for the person he loves . . . even when she is his vengeful enemy? Avery is a sweeping, romantic fantasy novel about loss and identity, and finding the courage to love against all odds.

The Reality: I was not sure how to categorise this book - romance (bodice ripper), literature, science fiction etc, so I have kept it in literature until I read the sequel which may push the book in a set direction. This is not my usual type of read, but my New Year resolution is to expand my reading horizons, so this made it to the top of my to be read pile and I did not shuffle it further down. I am glad I did. There was plenty of action to keep you skimming through the pages as you tried to second guess what was happening and I was pleased to say that what I thought and what actually happened were different - surprising! The story is set in a mythical land, which is divided, by Pirenti and Kayan. Pirenti is made up of barbarians, whilst Kayan is the polar opposite. On the Kayan side is Ava who has lost her made Avery at the hands of the Pirenti Queen and her sons. In Kayan if one mate dies the other usually dies too, that is until Ava who finds herself as a walking ghost who dedicates her life to avenging the death of Avery. The book flows between several points of view. This may annoy some, but I felt it worked really well. We follow four characters. Thorne (heir to the Pirenti throne) and his wife Roselyn. Thorne sees Roselyn as delicate and not understood by anyone. She is treated badly by everyone and never stands up for herself, constantly wandering off. Thorne finds it hard to align with his cruel nature and he treats her harshly. On the flip side is the relationship between Ava and her archenemy Ambrose (the second son of the Pirenti Queen). Their relationship is like watching sparks fly - scintillating. Ava disguises herself as Avery but finds herself captured and sentenced to life in prison. As Ambrose escorts her there, their relationship starts to change and they both finds themselves surprised by each other.

Do not choose a memory over a flesh-and-blood man who loves you to oblivion and back

The two races have been brought up with prejudiced hatred based on centuries of war and there is no easy way to build up trust. Gradually though they start to understand that how they had been brought up to think of the other was wrong and even worse there are lots of other secrets that see the main characters start to re-evaluate their lives.

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Someday, Someday Maybe by Lauren GrahamBook Cover of Someday, Someday Maybe by Lauren Graham

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as a light read - however, you could just hang out for the TV series.

The Blurb: A charming and laugh-out-loud novel by Lauren Graham, beloved star of Parenthood and Gilmore Girls, about an aspiring actress trying to make it in mid-nineties New York City. Franny Banks is a struggling actress in New York City, with just six months left of the three-year deadline she gave herself to succeed. But so far, all she has to show for her efforts is a single line in an ad for ugly Christmas sweaters and a degrading waitressing job. She lives in Brooklyn with two roommates-Jane, her best friend from college, and Dan, a sci-fi writer, who is very definitely not boyfriend material-and is struggling with her feelings for a suspiciously charming guy in her acting class, all while trying to find a hair-product cocktail that actually works. Meanwhile, she dreams of doing "important" work, but only ever seems to get auditions for dishwashing liquid and peanut butter commercials. It's hard to tell if she'll run out of time or money first, but either way, failure would mean facing the fact that she has absolutely no skills to make it in the real world. Her father wants her to come home and teach, her agent won't call her back, and her classmate Penelope, who seems supportive, might just turn out to be her toughest competition yet. Someday, Someday, Maybe is a funny and charming debut about finding yourself, finding love, and, most difficult of all, finding an acting job.

The Reality: Supposedly this book is based loosely on Lauren Graham's early acting career (she is the start of Gilmore Girls (Lorelai Gilmore) and Parenthood). The book follows the path of Franny Banks as she struggles to kick-start her acting career. Franny has given herself a timetable and if she has not managed to become an actress in three years, she will accept the inevitable and settle into a more ordinary lifestyle. As the clock ticks, it is suddenly six months before her deadline and so far she has only managed one relatively successful commercial. As her acting class holds a showcase, Franny takes a tumble but this seems to provide her with a difference and she is offered contracts with two agents. This is where the story becomes interesting - does Franny go for the prestigious glitzy agency or the homely agency. Her decision sets her on a comedic path. Do not think you are going to get any inside tips on how to make it in the big time; this is after all a light hearted novel that provides you with some comic relief to escape the daily grind. It sort of had a Bridget Jones feel in some ways with Franny frantically filling in her Filofax and bumbling her way through technology.

One thing that annoyed me is that I did read the book on a Kindle and the writing and drawings in the Filofax were difficult to read. Franny herself seemed unable to focus on what is important and lacks confidence in herself. Which is strange for someone who wants a life on the stage or in front of the camera. There are no surprises in the book with a strangely predictable love triangle and her inability to support herself without assistance from her family. Apparently the book has been optioned for a TV series (executive producers will be Ellen DeGeneres and Jeff Kleeman), which is probably a good outcome for Graham who did major in English. Graham is set to do the screenplay and also take on the executive producer for the Warner Bros drama.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Vengeance by Megan MirandaBook Cover of Vengeance by Megan Miranda

Read by Tracy in January 2014

Tracy recommends as great sequel which grows the characters.

The Blurb: Falcon Lake wants vengeance. And so, it seems, does someone else . . . An intense, heart-rending psychological thriller to accompany the chilling and seductive Fracture. When Decker drags his best friend Delaney's lifeless body out of the frozen lake, he makes a deal: Anyone but her. Everyone but her. The lake releases her. It takes another . . . All their friends blame Delaney for the death of Carson. But Decker knows the truth: Delaney is drawn to those who are dying, and she would have tried to help Carson. Or so Decker believes until a body lies in front of him in a pool of water on his kitchen floor. Until he sees in Delaney's eyes that she knew this would happen too and she said nothing. Until he realizes it isn't the lake that is looking for revenge: Delaney is part of another plan. This powerful and emotionally charged psychological thriller.

The Reality: I thoroughly enjoyed Fracture as it seemed to be a higher level than other YA novels around at the moment. However, I was worried that it would just be the same old same with nothing new to be uncovered. Vengeance is written from the point of view of Decker, which seems to be the norm these days and sometimes just doesn't work. It seems to me to be a way to drag out a story that should have been one book, but now becomes two to sell more without actually adding much to the overall story. One note: you must read Fracture before Vengeance to fully understand the storyline. We catch up with Decker and Delaney six months after he has pulled her dead body from Falcon Lake. Decker has a lot going on and as with a lot of males, he finds it difficult to verbalize his thoughts and feelings. Luckily the book allowed him to grow in character and as the story unfolded and he became a young man, trying to figure out life and most importantly how to deal with grief and trauma. I think this story provided much more clarity about events and I understood why Decker started to believe that Falcon Lake really was a source of evil. Destroying those that were involved in the fatal day on the ice. It certainly exudes creepiness. It was interesting as each character started to believe the same as Decker and you can understand the power of panic or the desire to blame something other than yourself. We also gain an insight into the downside of the ability that Delaney has to perceive imminent death. You think it would be good to know and help, but in reality you cannot change what is meant to be. The characters from Fracture are now growing up and there is the addition of some new characters (Maya and her family) and this all adds to the psychological thriller style that I think the book is moving towards.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing us with this title to review. Keep up to date with Megan Miranda via her website.

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