The Break by Marian Keyes

Never having read a Marian Keyes book before I was uncertain what to expect. However, a glowing review about The Break from a friend (who’s also a huge fan of Keye’s work) made me keen to start. Well, what a glorious, heart-wrenching, warm, funny and fundamentally human novel this is. I found it so hard to tear myself away from and then felt bereft when I’d finished.

Ostensibly the story of the happily married Amy and Hugh who experience a relationship crisis when Hugh decides that though he loves Amy, he wants a “break”, it’s also a great deal more than that. Striding into middle age and all its cosy familiarity, for some people, this stage of life can also breed contempt – mostly for the self. Wondering if we’ve reached our potential or if this is indeed “it” for whatever more time we’re granted, it’s easy to understand why middle age can sometimes be the autumn of so many people’s discontent.

Thus it is with Hugh. A decent, good man (and Amy’s second husband), he nonetheless feels the need to take a hiatus from what he’s become and may yet be becoming. Shocked, horrified and in disbelief by what Hugh intends and unable to prevent him (even if she really wanted to), Amy struggles with the cliché her marriage is turning into. Trying to understand Hugh while feeling a mixture of grief, anger, loathing and every other emotion there is, as well as trying to balance her professional life with the wreck of her personal and the unwelcome return of her narcissistic her ex-husband and his claims, Amy undergoes her own sort of crisis. Juggling her wonderfully messy family and their demands, catastrophes and triumphs, and the chaos that ensues in Hugh’s departure’s wake, Amy’s enforced break almost becomes a breakdown.

The characters are so real, their emotions raw, complex and simple. You ache for them all – Hugh, Amy, the children they share, the mad grandmother and curmudgeonly father and the rainbow of brothers and sisters Amy possesses as well as her business partners. Slowly, Amy realises that if Hugh is on a break, then it means she is as well – with all the liberties and restrictions, difficulties and pleasures, painful memories and daring hopes that entails.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, cry, think deeply and look afresh at your own life and choices, that features witty, authentic and flawed people and mad Irish humour, then don’t go past this sensitively explored, thoroughly entertaining and downright marvellous book.

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty

26247008I couldn’t wait to read Liane Moriarty’s latest novel, Truly, Madly, Guilty as I’m a huge fan of her work and have been really happy to see her finally getting the media attention she deserves here in Australia (even though readers of her books have known for years what a huge talent she is). The moment it downloaded on my Kindle, I put the other book I was reading on hiatus and commenced.

Did I regret doing that? To be frank, yes, and more than a little. Truly, Madly Guilty, though good, was not the smack you in the face with recognition and wonder that her other novels have been. While in many ways it starts (as Moriarty’s books often do) with a close-knit cast of characters bound by either familial ties, personal history, neighbourhoods or professional bonds and, like Big Little Lies, has these people share a crisis, that’s where the comparison ends.

The crisis that unites these people isn’t made evident until halfway through the book. Until then, the reader is treated to both prolepses (flash forwards) and flashbacks to the day of the BBQ when IT all happened. We’re privy to both the innocence and naivety of people coming together with all their oh-so-important anxieties and foibles and then the impact the crisis has upon them personally, as couples, families and friends and the differing perspectives it gives them: on life, themselves and each other.

In some ways, this novel is Big Little Lies Lite. There’s no doubt Moriarty has a huge gift for pluming the depths of personal neuroses and what makes people and families tick or implode, but for some reason, for at least two-thirds of the novel, I didn’t actually connect with or care much about the characters. Such an alien feeling with one of her novels, where I’m usually heavily invested in at least the characters and entwined in the plot as well. The book dragged in parts and I almost gave up on it, but this was a Moriarty and you don’t put her aside for anything!

So, I didn’t. I persevered. But, I wanted the book to hurry up and finish so I could get back the one I’d abandoned. However, the last third of the book goes a long way for compensating for the plodding and rather bland pace of the first part. Suddenly, the tempo quickens, characters’ motivations are both exposed and explored and actions make sense. Most importantly, I felt empathy for the characters, even those I didn’t much like. Finally, I understood them.

In some ways, this was just the right conclusion, if a little too late, to make up for what was a slow starting novel. But I did end up feeling really satisfied and not nearly as disappointed as I feared I would be.

The writing is still lovely and there are some real laugh out loud and poignant moments, but overall, I have to say, this was an OK read, not like her other books, a sensational one.

 

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The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson

25925079Still on my Nordic Noir bend, a friend recommended this author, Kristina Ohlsson, to me and, after searching through her titles (and being impressed by the sterling reviews her work is receiving), I chose The Chosen. Just a few pages in, I was caught up in both the story and the quality of the writing. As the tale progressed, I found it more and more difficult to tear myself away, and I quickly understood that Ohlsson more than deserves those great reviews.

The Chosen opens on a freezing winter’s day, just a snowstorm wraps itself around the city of Stockholm. It’s early afternoon and children are preparing to head home when a pre-school teacher is shot and killed in front of parents and students at Jewish school. Before the police can even begin to understand the tragedy and cope with the fallout, two boys from the school go missing.

As the body count begins to mount and the clues don’t, there are nonetheless commonalities between the kidnappings and the deaths: the mysterious Paper Boy, who is both an urban myth told to frighten wayward Jewish children as well as the alter ego of a sadistic killer, and then there’s Israel.

Involving other agencies, harkening back to the past as well as to other countries and times, the lead investigators, Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht and their team have to use all available resources to uncover the truth and expose the killer before one of their own gets hurt.

Drawing on mythology and superstition and using flashbacks and prolepsis (that involve a violin – a potent signifier), the book keeps you guessing as to the outcome until the end. The interesting thing is, the reader is privy to the identity of the killer before the police, but it’s who the final victims are that keep you on the edge of your seat and feeling torn as you know catastrophe is about to unfold and there is no such thing as the lesser of two evils…

A clever, gripping book that explores families – personal and professional, communities, faith, loyalty, revenge, patriotism, choices, loss and consequences.

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What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

WhatAliceI’ve been on a bit of a Liane Moriarty binge at the moment, starting with Big Little Lies, then The Last Anniversary, followed by What Alice Forgot. The whole premise of this book is amazing and the subsequent story that unfolds very, very easy to plunge into and difficult to put down.

Alice Love wakes up from a nasty fall in her gym, one that leaves her badly concussed and with a substantial memory loss. In fact, Alice cannot recall the last ten years of her life – as far as she’s concerned, when she wakes up with worried folk bending over her, she’s twenty-nine years old, pregnant with her first child, and besotted with her husband.

Upon awakening, not only does he learn she has three children (whom are complete strangers to her), but she is divorcing her husband and even has a boyfriend. Practically estranged from the sister she was once close to, as Alice’s friends gather to console and help her, aghast and bemused by what’s happened, she starts to realise she doesn’t like some of these people who seem to know her so well, very much.

As the days unfold, Alice begins to learn it’s not only her immediate family and some friends who are foreign to her – the more she learns about the woman she’s become, processes the physical and psychological transformation she appears to have undergone, the more Alice understands the biggest stranger in her life is herself.

The book follows Alice’s journey as she stumbles through what she’s become, tries to reconcile the past ten years with the present and desperately tries to remember how and why she ended up in her present state – divorcing, apparently angry and quite brittle, and someone so different to the person she once was.

Brilliantly conceived and written, I was riveted to the page, wanting to desperately to see how the narrative would resolve itself, what choices Alice, who you both want to remember her past and pray she keep forgetting, makes. You can’t help but ask how you’d feel if the same thing happened? Disappointed in yourself, proud, discontent, regretful, ecstatic? What would you do differently if you could?

As much an exploration of maturation, choices, marriage and family and the various forces that seek to mould and, if we allow them, change us, this is also a romance novel of the best kind – one that plumbs the positives and negatives in all kinds of relationships – from that we have with the opposite and same sex, to that we struggle with as we try to love ourselves.

Witty, heart-wrenching, nail-biting and very clever, I dare you to be able to leave the page.

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