Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Steal My Sunshine, Emily Gale

Steal My Sunshine

Emily Gale

Random House Australia, 2013

[New release: May 1st, 2013]

During a Melbourne heatwave, Hannah's family life begins to distort beyond her deepest fears. It's going to take more than a cool change to fix it, but how can a girl who lives in the shadows take on the task alone? Feeling powerless and invisible, Hannah seeks refuge in the two anarchists of her life: her wild best friend, Chloe, and her eccentric grandmother, Essie, who look like they know how life really works. But Hannah's loyalty to both is tested, first by her attraction to Chloe's older brother, and then by Essie's devastating secret that sheds new light on how the family has lost its way. Even if Hannah doesn't know what to believe in, she'd better start believing in herself. 

If I can liken Steal My Sunshine to any particular holiday-related chocolate product, then it'll have to be the good old Easter egg. What appears to be one story actually turns out to be two, one nestled inside the other and revealing a whole extra layer of history, family and reconciliation. On the surface, this novel is about Hannah - a typical, if somewhat shy, teenage girl living in Melbourne. She lives at home with her mum and dad and her older brother, Sam, who is at uni but still manages to infect the house with his stinky trainers and capacious appetite, a la every brother ever. Hannah also has a bubbly, popular best friend, Chloe, who works in her dad's bar and manages to seem cooler and more grown up that Hannah can ever hope to be. Hannah's home life isn't particularly brilliant - her brother is always sniping at her, her mum is perpetually angry and quite brittle with Hannah, and her dad is just in it for the quiet life. I really felt for Hannah in the first couple of chapters as she struggles to understand why she and her mum seem to be on the opposite sides of everything, while at the same time dealing with a best friend who is a little bit disdainful and dismissive of her.

So far, so ordinary - but then the second layer of the story begins to unfold, focusing on Hannah's grandmother Essie, who is agoraphobic and increasingly needs help with day-to-day things. She's a sparky old woman, always full of gin, and Hannah is always worried that Essie thinks she's somehow too boring and too safe, not like Essie herself. Hannah discovers that her grandmother has a secret, and over the rest of the book it is Essie's story that begins to unfold. Here Gale brings in a particular issue of Australian history, that of the use of laundries (quite often known as Magdalene Laundries, at least in the UK and Ireland) run by nuns, which were used to house teenage girls who got pregnant, or "fallen women", as they were known. (There's a Sydney Morning Herald article entitled "Bad Girls Do the Best Sheets" that I found on the same subject.) Girls would give birth and have their babies taken away and adopted by "respectable" couples, and while they were pregnant (and it wasn't quite clear, but I think afterwards as well, for some of them) they were required to work for free in these laundries, overseen by the nuns.

Through Essie, Hannah discovers a part of her family history that she didn't know about, and through this she  begins to see the bigger picture and where she fits into it. Essie's story was really interesting, and I enjoyed the historical element, which prompted me to go away and look up these laundries after finishing the novel. In between all of this, Hannah struggles with more typical teenage problems - tentative dating, her parents, having to speak in the school play, whether or not she even likes her best friend anymore - and the balance was just about right between the past and the present storylines, as Hannah tries to find more confidence in herself. A solid young adult read made much more powerful by the historical details that Gale chooses to include.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: ebook ARC received via Netgalley.

This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Review: The Hidden Child, Camilla Lackberg

The Hidden Child (Fjällbacka #5)

Camilla Läckberg

Translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally

Harper, 2011 (2007)

Crime writer Erica Falck is shocked to discover a Nazi medal among her late mother's possessions. Haunted by a childhood of neglect, she resolves to dig deep into her family's past and finally uncover the reasons why.

Her enquiries lead her to the home of a retired history teacher. He was among her mother's circle of friends during the Second World War but her questions are met with bizarre and evasive answers. Two days later he meets a violent death. Detective Patrik Hedstrom, Erica's husband, is on paternity leave but soon becomes embroiled in the murder investigation. Who would kill so ruthlessly to bury secrets so old?

Reluctantly Erica must read her mother's wartime diaries. But within the pages is a painful revelation about Erica's past. Could what little knowledge she has be enough to endanger her husband and newborn baby? The dark past is coming to light, and no one will escape the truth of how they came to be...

There's a lot going on in The Hidden Child. On the one hand, it's a standard enough police procedural, following the investigation into the death of prominent local historian, Erik Frankel. Yet at the same time, there is a significant domestic element, focusing on crime writer Erica Falck and her husband Patrik Hedström, who is a policeman on the force investigating the Frankel case. Erica has been on maternity leave for a year with their daughter Maja, and now it's Patrik's turn to take his four months of paternity leave while Erica goes back to writing her new book. Patrik, however, is having more trouble that he thought adjusting to life as primary carer, and is desperate to get back to the police station to help out with the case. All of this causes friction between the couple, even as Erica finds herself being drawn into the case. Because that's another significant aspect of this book - Erica's discovery of her mother's wartime diaries, and the way in which that story ties in to the murder investigation in the present day.

All these strands are dealt with really well, alternating between short chapters that focus on Erica's mother and her friends, and the main thrust of the story, which is finding out who killed Erik Frankel, and what it might have to do with a well-known neo-Nazi organisation in Sweden. The domestic storylines are also interesting, and add an additional angle to the whole thing. Erica and Patrik seem realistic as a married couple - neither doe-eyed nor disillusioned, but trying to navigate their way through parenthood and life in general. Erica's sister, Anna, has a small subplot involving a new stepfamily and the difficulties that brings, and although it wasn't really integral to the plot, it fed into an overarching theme of family, responsibility, and the dangers of parents who don't do right by their children. The crime in The Hidden Child is interesting enough, but it is the exploration of these motivations - and the reverberations right up to the present day - that made this really stand out for me. Parental responsibility, and the consequences of parents who don't stand by their children, or fail to provide for them adequately - particularly emotionally - featured heavily here, and in the end the message is clear: the past matters, and makes us who we are.

Läckberg has written a rich and interesting crime novel that makes the effort to delve into the characters' lives, which makes the whole thing a very enjoyable and compelling read. Alongside the more grisly details, a little bit of warmth was injected through various minor characters - Mellberg's burgeoning relationship with the dog, Ernst, for example - and in fleshing out her characters beyond the usual socially inept cop and faceless station buddies, the author made this one of the best crime novels I've read for a while.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Showcase Sunday #24

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Books, Biscuits and Tea.

First of all - I went to my first ever blogger meet up last weekend! I met up with EllieVickyCeline and Faye in London  and had a lovely time! Fears that they wouldn't recognise me without my tiger hat proved to be unfounded. :)

A couple of books to share this week - one written by a Dane and set in Tanzania, and one written by an Australian and set in Germany!

Jakob Ejersbo - Exile
This was given to me by Vicky when we met in London - thanks Vicky! The first part of the African Trilogy, written by Danish author Ejersbo, who died in 2008 at the age of 40. This is about privileged kids at an International School in Tanzania, "trapped in a land without hope", according to the blurb. Not sure what to expect, but it looks very interesting!

Anna Funder - All That I Am
I absolutely loved Stasiland when I read it a few years ago, and I was really pleased to find Funder's more recent novel in my local library this week. This one is based in Germany, and focuses on Hitler's rise to power and the resistance, focusing on one particular couple who flee to London.

Both of these books will, incidentally, count towards my two challenges this year: the 2013 Translation Challenge (Exile) and the Australian Women Writers Challenge (All That I Am).

I have also managed to do a lot of reading in the last couple of weeks, which has been excellent. Expect lots of reviews in the next few weeks! These are the ones that went up recently:

Melissa Keil - Life in Outer Space (10/10)
Agatha Christie - The Moving Finger (6.5/10)

Last thing - you can now follow Bibliotekit on Bloglovin! Click here or use the button in the sidebar. :)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Review: Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing, Louise Rennison

Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing (Georgia Nicolson #8)

Louise Rennison

Harper Collins Children's, 2007


Sound the Cosmic Horn! Georgia Nicolson’s 8th book of confessions is here!

The original Sex God has re-landed, Masimo the Italian Stallion wants to be her boyfriend, and Dave the Laugh is still a regular snoggee. How will Georgia cope juggling all three boys? Have her days on the rack of love really gone for good? Surely not!
Georgia never fails to disappoint, whether she's falling into bushes running away from boys, or forced to go on a camping trip in a sensible anorak with her shorts-wearing German teacher. In LiaMTT, Georgia's main issue is that she's suddenly got Too Many Boys Sex Gods to deal with, in the shape of Italian Luuurve God Masimo and the Original Sex God, Robbie, who's back from Kiwi-a-go-go-land (New Zealand) and sending Georgia some very mixed signals.

There's also Dave the Laugh, perennial background character to Georgia's mad antics and boy troubles, but Georgia doesn't care, because Dave the Laugh is Just A Mate. Even if she does find herself thinking about him in the bath.

This is the most recent Georgia book I've read so far, and it wasn't quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the other ones - it focused more on Georgia wondering which of the boys she liked better (and trying to find out which of them, if any, liked her the most), and a bit less on the Ace Gang than in some of the earlier books. But Georgia's family were still there doing daft things and making her life slightly more unpredictable (and, for Georgia, unbearable), which is one of the elements of these books I enjoy the most.

As ever, there were lots of funny lines and Georgia's way of describing things always makes me laugh - "Jas got into her Huffmobile" might have been my favourite from this one. I'm glad Georgia finally seemed to come to her senses at the end of this book, although there's time for everything to get messed up again, I'm sure...

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Review: Everything Beautiful, Simmone Howell

Everything Beautiful

Simmone Howell

Bloomsbury, 2009 (2008)

Riley is sixteen and lives with her dad and stepmum. Her mum died a while ago, and Riley has been on the verge of going off the rails for a while - mostly drinking and having sex and causing a bit of mayhem with her best friend Chloe. She doesn't talk much about it, but she seems to be having some issues coming to terms with her mum's death. Her dad and stepmum decide that she needs a change of scene and a bit of discipline, so they ship her off to a Christian youth camp for a week.

While at the camp, Riley is initially hostile towards the counsellors, the other two girls in her cabin, and most of the other kids there. During the course of the week her relationships with all these people - and with the people on the outside - change and fluctuate. Although there are a lot of not-so-nice kids there, Riley does meet Olive and Bird, a misfit brother and sister duo, and Dylan. Dylan has been going to the camp for years, and he's always been one of the cool, sporty guys - except after an accident, he's now in a wheelchair, and feels just as out of place as Riley does. The two of them kind of band together on the outside, and end with a little mini-adventure of their own. Their friendship was sweet, and I thought Riley's friendship with her roommate Sarita was nice to see evolve, too. The whole clique-y camp atmosphere was captured really well: there are some people willing to accept Riley, and a lot of others who are snide or mean or downright cruel. (A lot of this has to do with Riley's weight, and one of the other girls in particular seems threatened by Riley's self-confidence, to the point where she plays a pretty horrible prank on her.)

The choice of the Christian camp seemed a little bit strange - the explanation was that Riley's stepmum had some link there, but given that Riley is an atheist it was slightly odd, and I was a bit worried that somehow Riley's atheism was going to get sucked into a general air of rebellion, and that rather than it being a valid choice it was going to come across as something that needed fixing, but in the end there was a good balance and I don't think anybody came across badly based on their religious beliefs. There was a nice contrast between two of the camp leaders, Neville and Roslyn - both are over-enthusiastic and keen for Riley to get involved, including with the more religious aspects of the camp, but while Neville comes across as quite understanding, Roslyn was genuinely unlikable for me.

Reading this sometimes felt like I was reading through a fog. Riley is an interesting protagonist - she bucks the trend of the meek, unconfident heroine, at least outwardly, and she's not afraid to speak her mind or to go after what she wants. Underneath, it's a different story, and it's here that she and Dylan seem to recognise something in each other, but it felt like a lot of these things were unspoken, or left hanging, or slightly obscured. It's difficult to explain in a way, but as a reader I sometimes felt one step removed from what was happening - this is very much Riley's week in the wilderness, and it feels like looking at a few snapshots rather than being right in the middle of it with her. I think in many ways it suits the story, but I found myself feeling a little bit disengaged at a couple of points along the way.

Everything Beautiful is refreshingly different in both setting and protagonists. I really liked the ending - again, it wasn't a spoon-fed happy ending, but one that fit the story well, a mixture of optimistic and realistic that kind of sums up the mood of the whole book. I felt a bit lost at times, but overall a good read.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Review: The Moving Finger, Agatha Christie

The Moving Finger

Agatha Christie

Harper, 2002 (1943)

Narrator Jerry Burton, wounded pilot stumbling on two sticks, hopes to recuperate in quiet Lymstock with loyal fashionable London-loving sister Joanna -- until vicious letters spread suspicion, then death. Mrs Symmington is not the type to panic, but drinks cyanide, leaves a crumpled accusation of infidelity in the fireplace, and a torn scrap with "I can't go on". Her two boys are cared for by buxom blonde governess Elsie more than her lawyer husband. 

His childish step-daughter Megan intrigues Jerry, while shy awkward Dr Griffith asks Joanna to help deliver a newborn. Eccentric vicar's wife Mrs Calthrop invites sweet white-haired knitter Miss Jane Marple to assemble the clues that Jerry recognizes when he dozes.

The Moving Finger is billed as a Miss Marple story, but in actual fact the diminutive, unassuming crime solver only pops up in the last quarter of the book, and even then her appearance is brief. Instead the book is narrated by Jerry, a former pilot who has been badly injured and moves to the country to convalesce, alongside his sister Joanna. As you might expect, their planned retreat is anything but relaxing, as they find themselves living in a village full of scandal, its residents plagued by a swathe of poison pen letters.

When a woman dies - as a direct result of the anonymous letters - Jerry becomes keen to unravel the mystery, getting involved with the police investigation and attempting to fathom the clues on his own, talking to his new neighbours and analysing all the evidence. There are a fair amount of red herrings, but what always keeps me coming back to Christie is that they are so well done - just subtle enough that you think you might have got it this time, and outsmarted the author, only to find that she's already anticipated you and moved on to another clue and another piece of misdirection. I was convinced for most of The Moving Finger that I knew who the letter writer was, only to be surprised by the result.

The Moving Finger didn't feel like classic Christie to me - it was a solid mystery, and very enjoyable, but the mystery was less clever than others I have read, and the ending less satisfying. I haven't read a lot of Miss Marple, and tend to prefer Poirot, but when I picked this up I did so with a conscious effort to try Marple again, so it was disappointing to find she hardly featured.

The Moving Finger is well-plotted, well-paced and an enjoyable mystery with plenty of clues for the amateur detective to try and unravel - not one of her best, but a solid read all the same.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Review: Life in Outer Space, Melissa Keil

Life in Outer Space

Melissa Keil

Hardy Grant Egmont, 2013

Sam Kinnison is a geek, and he’s totally fine with that. He has his horror movies, his nerdy friends, World of Warcraft – and until Princess Leia turns up in his bedroom, he doesn’t have to worry about girls. 

Then Sam meets Camilla. She’s beautiful, friendly and completely irrelevant to his life. Sam is determined to ignore her, except that Camilla has a life of her own – and she’s decided that he’s going to be part of it.

Sam believes that everything he needs to know he can learn from the movies ... but now it looks like he’s been watching the wrong ones.

You know how happy Yoshi looks in Super Mario, like you can't help but be a little bit happy too because IT'S A HAPPY LITTLE DINOSAUR?

Just me, then.

But feel free to insert your happy moment up there instead, because that's exactly the feeling that Life in Outer Space generated for me the whole time I was reading it. That's not to say it's a relentlessly happy book - there's a lot of light and shade - but just that there is an infectious quality about it that makes me think Melissa Keil had just as much fun writing it, and creating these characters, as I did reading it.

Sam is a film-obsessed high school guy who has never been part of the cool crowd. Instead, he spends his time with his two best friends, Mike and Adrian, and their friend Allison. Sam, Mike and Adrian came to life immediately, and I felt like they were written with tons of affection from Keil - I think in the wrong hands Adrian could have come across as creepy or cartoon-losery, but instead he was totally understandable even in his more baffling or embarrassing moments. There's a point about 3/4 of the way through when Sam and Adrian have an argument, and Adrian's reaction nearly made me cry, something I can only attribute to the fact that by this point I really felt like I knew all the characters.

The construction of the friendship between the three guys reminded me a bit of the film The Girl Next Door: "You know what we are? We're a tripod. Knock out one of our legs and we all fall!" I can't stress enough how much I liked all three of them - they were quite different in some ways, but it made complete sense that they were all friends and there was a good blend of genuine affection for each other, and believable boy-stuff.

Their lives - especially Sam's - are turned upside down and inside out by the arrival of Camilla, daughter of Cool Rock Journalist who is immediately accepted by the cool kids but who forges a friendship with Sam and his friends too. She kind of bridges the gap between them, and in refusing to be pigeonholed (in a lot of ways) Sam and his friends start to figure out that maybe they can enjoy their final year of secondary school after all. There was a lot of personal discovery for Sam and Mike in particular, and I think it captured really well that transition period at the end of school when everyone starts thinking more seriously about their lives and what they're going to end up doing.

I think the point at which Sam wonders if his dad is actually Batman, a few pages in, was the point at which I knew this was going to be One of Those Books, and I was right. There is so much affection for the characters, and it was refreshing to see male protagonists who were both 'normal' and believable. There are lots of funny moments, and a lot of film references, which I enjoyed, and if you don't finish this doing a stupid goofy grin then I will eat a whole plate of mushrooms (and I really don't like mushrooms).

Overall rating: 10/10

Book source: Read as part of Mandee's ARC book tour.

This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Showcase Sunday - Return to the Library!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky and Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Hi everyone! I have been a little bit absent in the last few weeks, but yesterday I finally handed in my thesis (!!!) and now I have some time to actually devote to relaxing... which involves a lot of reading! It might also involve some Nintendo... and eating this cake, which I made yesterday:

Unpretty (but very tasty!)
I got out all the ingredients and then realised I hadn't got any eggs, so the sponge cake itself is made to a  vegan recipe (no butter, just oil), but there is butter icing in the middle, so it's not actually a vegan cake. It is, however, the spongiest cake I have ever made. Normally when I make chocolate cake it turns out kind of dry, but this one is super tasty and I will probably stick to this recipe in the future.

Anyway... moving on from cake, and on to books.

From the library:

Agatha Christie - The Moving Finger
Poison pen letters in a sleepy village - and a late appearance from Miss Marple.

Camilla Läckberg - The Hidden Child
Swedish crime thriller - I read The Ice Princess a few years ago, and am hoping for another good mystery! This will also count towards my Translation Challenge.

Simone Elkeles - How to Ruin a Summer Vacation
Impulse pick up, based on the fact that I have never read a YA novel set in Israel before.

Louise Rennison - Luuurve is a Many Trousered Thing
I read ...And Then It Fell Off In My Hand recently, and this is one of the latest volumes of Georgia's adventures.

Jo Brand - It's Different for Girls
I am a big fan of Jo Brand's comedy, and this is a story about growing up as teenagers in the 1970s, in Hastings.

Terry Pratchett - A Hat Full of Sky
Another Discworld story involving Tiffany Aching, who was the protagonist of The Wee Free Men, which I read last year.

Via Netgalley:

Nicole Hayes - The Whole of My World
Love this cover! Thanks to Random House Australia for my copy.

Mark Goldblatt - Twerp
A kids' novel that I wasn't sure whether or not I would read, but Celine from Nyx Book Reviews did a great review on Goodreads so I'm going to give it a go!

Ally Carter - Double Crossed
A crossover between the Gallagher Girls and Heist Society worlds.

Free Kindle download:

L. Frank Baum - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Recent reviews:

Katie McGarry - Pushing the Limits - 3/10 (So. Many. Issues.)

I have a review of Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil coming up this week (preview: GO READ IT), and a weekend of uninterrupted reading to look forward to - have a good one!