Thursday, 24 March 2016

Aussie Book Review: Running Against the Tide by Amanda Ortlepp

“Erin Travers is running away from her life and taking her two sons with her to a small town on the ruggedly beautiful Eyre Peninsula. The close-knit township is full of happy childhood memories for Erin, but she’s bringing a whole lot of baggage with her.

When the peaceful community is disrupted by theft and arson, rumours fly about who is responsible. In a small town where lives are tangled too closely together, old grudges flare, fingers are pointed and secrets are unmasked.

From the bestselling author of Claiming Noah, Running Against the Tide is brimming with malice and threat and cements Amanda Ortlepp as one of Australia’s most compelling storytellers.”

Erin Travers is trying to start a new life with her two teenage sons in the tiny fictional town of Mallee Bay, situated in a rugged and isolated coastal region of the Eyre Peninsula, Australia’s “seafood frontier” - but things don’t seem to get off to a good start.

To begin with, the house she’s rented (sight unseen) turns out to be a dilapidated weatherboard cottage that needs more than a bit of TLC and Ryan, her fifteen year old son, is not saying much.

When Erin enters a painting competition and wins first prize, she feels as though things are beginning to look up for the three of them and hopes that Ryan will begin to settle just as his brother, Mike, has done and begin communicating more meaningfully with her.

Their friendly neighbours, Jono and Helen are lovely, if somewhat curious about the newcomers, which doesn’t do much to put Erin at ease but it’s when strange things begin to happen such as her competition prize cheque being stolen; the roses that someone planted in her garden suddenly being uprooted and left in her bedroom; threatening notes are pushed under her door; and her lovingly restored shed is set alight, that her discomfort levels really begin to rise.

And then there’s the fact that Jono is having trouble with thefts from his oyster farming lease, Ryan isn’t exactly being a model child and the whole town has become unsettled.

With my hectic work/life/reviewing schedule these days, it’s been a while since I finished a book so quickly. It took me only two days of snatched time here and there to read this but that’s also due, in part, to Amanda Ortlepp’s relaxed writing style and the manner in which she keeps the pace going by frequently shifting perspectives between her characters.

Told from the perspectives of Erin, Jono and Ryan, Amanda swiftly gets us to the core of all the issues they are faced with, using her secondary characters to add depth and tension to these narratives.

Admittedly, I thought I knew exactly the path that this book was going to take but Amanda really surprised me and, while I’m not going to go into too much detail about the characters for fear of giving anything away, believe me when I say that they are complex, unpredictable and interesting and should definitely not be taken at face value.

As in real life, appearances can be deceiving so, whilst reading this novel, be careful where your loyalties lie because Amanda blurs the focus so well that by the time the story climaxes and goes into denouement, every belief you once held about every character will be shattered. Whether, on one level or another, you connect with them sympathetically or unsympathetically, the big question that will remain right to the end is, who is behind it all?

Touching on the differences between the younger and older generations, gambling addiction and the destruction it can wreak on a family unit, domestic violence and bullying, Amanda leads the reader down many false trails, bringing us a provocative tale laced with deception, displacement, obsession and resentment in a tone that consistently leaves the reader with an intense sense of dread and underlying malevolence which, for some, might just mean there will be no happy ending!

Thrilling and engrossing, Amanda has done an impressive job in writing this novel. Weaving the strands together in such a manner that we feel the same sense of urgency, disbelief and hurt as her characters, her second novel is well-paced and gripping with a profound almost claustrophobic sense of place, a deep sense of character and enough red herrings to keep you guessing.

In my view Amanda has reinforced herself as an author to watch and I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

I wish to thank the publisher, Simon and Schuster Australia, for providing me with a hard copy ARC for review.

About the Author

Amanda Ortlepp is a Sydney-based writer, born in Adelaide in 1981.

As a child she was a voracious reader with ambitions of one day becoming an author. Instead she completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree after high school, followed by a Masters of Applied Finance, and spent a decade working in marketing and communication roles. It was only after she turned thirty that she revisited her love of fiction and started writing at nights and on weekends while working full-time.

In 2015 her debut novel, Claiming Noah, was published in Australia and New Zealand and became a bestseller. Its ethical dilemmas and emotionally-charged themes struck a chord with mothers and book clubs in particular and will be available in the US and Canada from July 2016.

Running Against the Tide was published in March.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Aussie Book Review: Under the Spanish Stars by Alli Sinclair

“A family mystery, a passionate encounter, a life-changing journey into the past …

Charlotte Kavanagh’s beloved grandma Katarina Sanchez is gravely ill, so when she begs Charlotte to travel to her homeland in Andalucía to uncover the truth behind a mysterious painting, Charlotte agrees.

Taking leave from her soul-destroying job and stalled life in Australia, Charlotte embarks on a quest through Granada’s ancient cobblestoned streets and vibrant neighbourhoods. There she meets Mateo Vives, a flamenco guitarist with a dark past, and quickly becomes entangled in the world of flamenco and gypsies, igniting a passion she had thought lost.

But the mystery surrounding the painting deepens, reaching back in time to the war-torn Spain of the 1940s and Charlotte discovers her grandmother’s connection to the Spanish underground. Who is her grandmother, really? What is Mateo’s connection to her family history? And why is finding answers to a family mystery turning into a journey of self-discovery for Charlotte?

Weighed down by secrets, betrayals and shattered relationships, Charlotte finds herself questioning the true meaning of heritage, family and love.”

In 2015, Alli Sinclair was voted Favourite New Romance Author by members of the Australian Romance Readers Association following her debut release, Luna Tango – and it’s not hard to see why.

In this, her second book, Alli once again brings us a dual timeline, introducing us to Charlotte Kavanagh in the present and her grandmother, Katarina Sanchez (Abuela) inhabiting both narratives as the novel revolves around flamenco and the origin of a painting that Abuela was given by her father.

While Katarina’s story takes place against the backdrop of the turbulent Spanish Civil War and the rule of Franco as she tries to eke out a living from dancing flamenco, it is in the contemporary narrative that the mystery surrounding the painting begins to unravel as Charlotte finds herself walking the cobbled streets of Granada and coming into contact with the enigmatic Mateo and the Giménez clan, an aloof and secretive gypsy community, 

As Charlotte begins to feel the captivating pull of the world of flamenco and the mysterious power of duende, what started out as a journey of discovery on her grandmother’s behalf soon becomes one of self-discovery with Mateo making her want to lose herself in the Spanish culture.

I was captivated by Alli’s first novel, Luna Tango, not just by the quality of her writing, but the way in which she evoked time and place and, once again, I felt as though I had been transported – this time, directly to Granada - enjoying the sounds of flamenco, tasting the strong gitano wine around the fireplace and watching these talented women dance with passion and verve.

I also enjoyed Alli’s use of phonetic dialogue, which is not an easy thing to do because sometimes conveying authentic dialects and natural-sounding foreign accents can prove to be quite challenging on paper. In Mateo and Katarina though, it’s quite obvious that Alli knows the rules of the Spanish language and her use of diction, syntax and idiom has conveyed the exoticness of the accent in both characters very well, adding flavour and colour to the story.

The flamenco dance as well as the flamenco guitarists are both at the heart of Alli’s story which is well researched. This is evident from the manner in which she demonstrates a thorough knowledge of her subject and shares details of not only the exotic locale of Spain but also its customs, language and traditions. Seeing it through the eyes of someone who has travelled there is what enables Alli to weave a solid sense of place into both the past and contemporary narratives, bringing us a story filled with the pulse and passion of flamenco in all its fiery and complicated beauty.

With vivid descriptions of the cobbled streets of Granada that echo with music and secrets, details relating to the mystical Andalusian customs and culture and vibrant flamenco imagery, Alli has given her readers a well-balanced story blending mystery, history, geography, the rhythms and passion of Flamenco and some light romance.

I wish to thank Harlequin Books Australia for providing me with a hard copy for review.

About the Author

Alli Sinclair is a multi award-winning author who spent her early adult years travelling the globe, intent on becoming an Indiana Jones in heels. She scaled mountains in Nepal, Argentina, and Peru, rafted the Ganges, and rode a camel in the Sahara. Argentina and Peru became her home for a few years and when she wasn’t working as a mountain or tour guide, Alli could be found in the dance halls dancing the tango, salsa, merengue, and samba.

All of these adventures made for fun storytelling and this is when she discovered her love of writing. Alli’s stories combine her passion for exotic destinations, the quirks of human nature, and the belief that everyone has an adventure waiting to unfold.

Alli was voted as Favourite New Romance Author 2014 by the Australian Romance Readers Association and Luna Tango was voted  2014 Book of the Year by Ausrom Today Readers Choice Awards.

Alli also volunteers with Books in Homes.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Aussie Book Review: The Crushing Season by Peta-Jo

"In the smoky haze of a small town’s cane harvesting season, May grew up as the silent bearer of her father’s vicious beatings. But four schoolmates save her with the simple act of their friendship. 

Now in their thirties and busy with their own lives, the four friends are unaware how important they still are to May: Tate, a ballsy newspaper subeditor is struggling with her new role as mother; Alex, a bohemian soul has let his anxiety get in the way of his future happiness; Leah, the “boy mad” gal is one French backpacker away from her next heartbreak; and Benny, a die-hard romantic is about to give up his dreams and surrender the fantasy of being with the one girl he’s ever loved… Leah.

But it's May that holds their friendship together and she is up to something that will change their lives forever. 

A harrowing, heart-wrenching read for anyone whose high-school friends became their family."

If, like me, you’ve ever lived near a sugarcane farm then I have no doubt that the crushing season conjures up vivid memories of chewing on a piece of cane while the sky filled with the glow of afternoon fires and the sweet pungent smell wafted through the hot, humid air, reminding you of your home town and memorable childhood summers.

While it may invoke a sense of nostalgia in a lot of us, for Peta’s characters this crushing season will signal a turning point for all of them bringing memories to the brim and fanning the flames of reality and all that is wrong with their lives.

As the blurb alludes to, each of her characters struggles with their own demons throughout the novel but for May, the glue who holds them all together, things are rapidly falling apart. After a troubled childhood with a violent, alcoholic father, she remains unable to control the anger and resentment she feels towards him for the life he subjected her to after her mother died when she was just a little girl. As his health continues to deteriorate she is desperate to confront him and have him take ownership but lacks the courage to do so. When he finally passes away, she should feel relief but instead, is left floundering.

Building slowly and meandering along at a gentle pace, like the summer days the friends spent together, The Crushing Season allows the reader to take their time getting to know the five friends and gain an understanding of the personal issues affecting them all.

Brisbane-based author and journalist Peta-Jo’s latest novel revolving around five lifelong friends in their thirties is a story about life – past regrets and pain, unrequited love, sadness, second chances and the friendship that holds them to one another. It’s a book that I was really looking forward to reading, not only because I love stories about the dynamics in friendship groups and what it is that makes those friendships work but also because I felt drawn to the character of May, with whom I share common ground in terms of growing up in an alcoholic home.

Although the writing itself is not without fault and I never quite engaged with it the way I had hoped, there's a lot of heart which carries a touching story of friendship, love, loss, second chances and what it means to come to terms with the cards that life has dealt us. It's also about healing and the unconditional love that can bind friendships together for life, even without sharing our innermost secrets and it is the relationships between the characters that are the driving force behind the story and had me turning the pages so I could see what the outcome was going to be.

Peta’s sense of place, too, is amazing and, being a Queenslander myself, I was drawn into her familiar setting of Brisbane as well as the sugar city of Bundaberg.

On the whole, this is a good book which will have appeal to many readers out there, especially those who are fans of contemporary fiction that touches on tough subjects such as depression, alcoholism and suicide.

If you’re looking for a quick, satisfying read with characters who pack their own brands of baggage that will have you emotionally involved, The Crushing Season is a great choice.

I wish to thank Peta-Jo for providing me with a hard copy for review.

About the Author

Peta Jo is a seasoned journalist and subeditor who shamelessly embraces the side of her that writes fiction.

Her book, Feral Bells, was released in 2011 under the original title of Wedding Etiquette For Ferals at the Queensland Brides’ Wedding and Honeymoon Expo before being picked up for distribution by Bermingham Books in 2012.

Her second book, The Crushing Season, was  launched in Bundaberg, Queensland.

She currently works from home as a subeditor for regional Queensland newspapers whilst simultaneously feeding, entertaining, educating and, above all, loving her three children (and husband, though he requires far less educating).

She is in the throes of writing her third book.

She can be bribed to be a guest speaker or guest blogger for writing groups on journalism, Romance writing and self-publishing and has conducted writing workshops in the past.