The Song From Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold

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Title: The Song from Somewhere Else
Author: A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Genre: Children’s Fiction/Fantasy/Magical Realism
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 1/12/2016
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Price: $24.99
Synopsis: Frank doesn’t know how to feel when Nick Underbridge rescues her from bullies one afternoon. No one likes Nick. He’s big, he’s weird and he smells – or so everyone in Frank’s class thinks.

And yet, there’s something nice about Nick’s house. There’s strange music playing there, and it feels light and good and makes Frank feel happy for the first time in forever.

But there’s more to Nick, and to his house, than meets the eye, and soon Frank realises she isn’t the only one keeping secrets. Or the only one who needs help.

~*~

The Song from Somewhere Else tells the story of Francesca “Frank” Patel, bullied by a group of older boys in her school, led Neil Noble and his friends, Rob and Roy. The day she is out searching for her cat, Quintilius Minimus, they accost her, and tease her about the stutter that only appears when they bully her. She is rescued by Nick Underbridge, a boy in her year that is a bit of a loner, but whose act of kindness brings them together for the summer holidays whilst Frank’s friend Jess, is away with her family overseas. This unlikely friendship blossoms as they bond over a love of painting, feeling alone and Swingball. While she is at Nick’s house, Frank hears music that makes her feel good about herself, and she longs to have it at all times. When Nick reveals a secret to her that nobody else knows, their trust in each other grows from there. But what does Frank do with the secret, and how do the events that occur in the novel change her?

Told over the course of five days, with each section a separate day or night, Harrold’s prose sets a scene of mystery and magic, which invites the reader into the world. Aimed at children between nine and twelve years of age, The Song from Somewhere Else can be read by anyone. It is an ageless and timeless story that tells us that there is always someone there for us, and that sometimes, it is the person we least expect it to be.

The mood of the story isn’t overly dark, nor is it overly light. It has complexities about the characters and what is really happening that are conveyed through the black, white and grey illustrations of Levi Pinfold. Each illustration reflects a scene within each chapter, and shows the development of the story in a visual way, allowing the readers to imagine the characters as they read but also in a way that doesn’t feel overly prescriptive. They add to the charm and mood of the story, enhancing the reading experience.

I enjoyed this gem of a book, and enjoyed the way it dealt with issues of secrets, families, friends and bullying in an accessible yet poignant way.

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society

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Title: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
Author: Joy Callaway
Genre: Fiction/Popular Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 23rd November 2016
Format: Paperback
Pages: 358
Price: $29.99
Synopsis: Devastated after being jilted by the boy next door, Ginny Loftin turns to writing in an attempt to rewrite their story with a better ending. But it is among the painters, musicians, actors and other writers she meets at a Fifth Avenue salon that she finds new purpose and a second chance at love. A richly told historical novel of family loyalties, loss and artistic desires.
‘The creative sisterhood of Little Women, the social scandal of Edith Wharton and the courtship mishaps of Jane Austen . . . The Fifth Avenue Artists Society is a delightful, and at times touching, tale of Gilded Age society and creative ambition with an inspiring heroine.’ New York Daily News

The Bronx, 1891. Virginia Loftin, the boldest of four artistic sisters in a family living in genteel poverty, knows what she wants most: to become a celebrated novelist despite her gender, and to marry Charlie, the boy next door and her first love.

When Charlie instead proposes to a woman from a wealthy family, Ginny is devastated; shutting out her family, she holes up in her room and turns their story into fiction, obsessively rewriting a better ending. Though she works with newfound intensity, literary success eludes her-until she attends an elite salon hosted at her brother’s friend John Hopper’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Among painters, musicians, actors, and writers, Ginny returns to herself, even blooming under the handsome, enigmatic John’s increasingly romantic attentions.

But just as she and her siblings have become swept up in the society, Charlie throws himself back into her path, and Ginny learns that the salon’s bright lights may be obscuring some dark shadows. Torn between two worlds that aren’t quite as she’d imagined them, Ginny will realise how high the stakes are for her family, her writing, and her chance at love.

~*~

A story that has romance within its pages, yet it is the kind that doesn’t take over everything else in the story that the characters experience and go through, and nor does it turn Ginny, the main character, into less than she is at the beginning of the novel. Virginia Loftin comes from a family of artistic ambition. Sister Bessie is a milliner, her twin brother Franklin is a painter, her younger sister Alevia is a musician, and Virginia is a writer. Only her oldest sister Mae isn’t an artist, taking to teaching orphans instead, yet supportive of the pursuits of her siblings. The years since her father’s death have been hard on Virginia’s family, all doing whatever they can with their creativity to bring in the money. Virginia’s best friend Charlie is an artist too, and together, they have grown up, sharing their love of art, painting and the written word. And an undying loyalty to each other that rarely wavers, and Virginia is sure that they will marry – until Charlie proposes to another woman.

As an aspiring writer, Virginia has faced sexism from other artists and writing groups because of her gender – because of how the society she was a part of at the time viewed the genders and what they were supposedly capable of. Virginia and her family, and Charlie, know that she is capable of anything. But Virginia still must find a way to prove herself, and it is The Fifth Avenue Artists Society that she attends where she uncovers a way to unlock her talent and to meet like-minded men and women. It all seems too good to be true, and perhaps it is: because nothing ever happens so easily.

Escaping as most writers do into her words, Virginia joins a society of artists – The Fifth Avenue Artists Society in New York, where she meets several characters who will change her life and the course of the lives of her family over the course of the novel. A courtship with fellow society member, John Hopper, encourages Virginia to share her writing, and to aim for publication of her work that is inspired by her feelings and the people around her. As she works on her novel, a shadow of mystery about Franklin’s new job begins to emerge, and it is not long before a series of tragic events unravel and reveal secrets that threaten to bring shame upon the family and alienate them from the upper class society that they are a part of.

A story that is based on the family history of the author, which gives the characters a depth and authenticity that makes one feel as though they are in late nineteenth century New York less than thirty years after the end of the American Civil War, where the war is briefly mentioned a few times to set the scene and the background to the families, The Fifth Avenue Artists Society celebrates the value of art to the individual, and society. It explores what society expected of men and women at the time, and what was accepted, but also shows a woman who, though she sees the value in the conventional, does not always ascribe to the roles society deems right. She is an intriguing character who ends up following her heart for love and for her goals of publication. An intriguing read that brings society life to light and shows how attitudes have changed in many ways.

Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

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Title: Music and Freedom

Author: Zoe Morrison

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Vintage Australia/Random House Australia

Published: June 27, 2016

Format: paperback

Pages: 345

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: I have no use for forgiveness, not yet. But other ideas like that,
kindness, for example, I think that is fundamental. Resurrection;
I like that too. And love, of course, love, love, love.

Alice Murray learns to play the piano aged three on an orange orchard in rural Australia. Recognising her daughter’s gift, her mother sends Alice to boarding school in the bleak north of England, and there Alice stays for the rest of her childhood. Then she’s offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, and on a summer school in Oxford she meets Edward, an economics professor who sweeps her off her feet.

Alice soon finds that Edwards is damaged, and she’s trapped. She clings to her playing and to her dream of becoming a concert pianist, until disaster strikes. Increasingly isolated as the years unravel, eventually Alice can’t find it in herself to carry on. Then she hears the most beautiful music from the walls of her house …

This novel’s love story is that of a woman who must embrace life again if she is to survive. Inspiring and compelling, it explores the dark terrain of violence and the transformative powers of music and love.

~*~

Music and Freedom is Zoe Morrison’s first novel, and it is a thought-provoking and eloquently told story for a debut novel. Throughout Alice’s life, she has been educated in England, in boarding schools and music programs, where music has given her a sense of self and freedom, though she longs to return home and be free there with her family. Unable to return home, she weds an Oxford economics professor – a man who is troubled and with very traditional ideas of how a woman should act and how a husband should be allowed to treat his wife. As a result of his demands and the abuse she suffers at his hands, something she cannot speak of with the women’s circle she is part of for fear of being blamed for his temper by others, Alice internalises the abuse and her fears. She tries to escape through her music, but is forced to play elsewhere when Edward is home, and soon, even her music becomes a prison when Edward demands she attends a concert and perform a complicated Rachmaninoff piece she is not given ample time to prepare.

The novel is told in short chapters that mirror a diary, and go back and forth between a young, vibrant Alice in the 1940s and 1950s to a disoriented, confused old woman, trying to claw towards a freedom that she has been denied for so long – whether physically by her husband, or emotionally by the thoughts of doubt that imprison her.

This structure shows how Alice became the way she is at the opening of the novel, and slowly, she finds a way to be free with the help of her neighbour in Oxford, Emily, and her son, Richard.

Zoe Morrison deals with the issue of domestic abuse and the silence it can cause, even when attempts are being made to combat it. Alice’s fight for freedom is life long, and only when she is an elderly woman, can she finally find the freedom she desires, and find a way back to music, and a way into a new form of freedom: writing.

An eye-opening and emotional story, it is told with care and sensitivity for Alice, and has incorporated necessary research. This is just one story, one experience in a time when there were different expectations for men and women in some areas, and a time when the lines between what people expected men and women to do began to blur. The setting of Oxford illustrates this in the traditions that Edward holds so dear, and in the desires that Alice has throughout the novel about her music and freedom.

Fearless by Fiona Higgins

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Title: Fearless

Author: Fiona Higgins

Genre: Popular Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: November 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 302

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: What happens when six pampered Westerners on a spiritual retreat in Bali end up fighting for their lives? A gripping novel from the bestselling author of The Mothers’ Group.

A breathtaking new novel from the bestselling author of The Mothers’ Group and Wife on the Run.

 

Six strangers from across the world meet on the tropical island of Bali to attend a course designed to help them face their fears. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their fears – which range from flying, public speaking and heights, through to intimacy, failure and death.

 

Friendships and even romance blossom as the participants are put through a series of challenges, which are unusual, confronting and sometimes hilarious. A week of fun in the sun suddenly turns into something far more serious, however, when the unthinkable happens – a tragic disaster that puts the group in deadly danger, testing the individual courage of every member.

 

Shocking, powerful and utterly gripping, Fearless takes you to the edge and makes you look down.

 

~*~

 

Fearless begins with an introduction to each character as they arrive at the retreat in Ubud, aptly named Fearless, to combat the fears that they hold within themselves. Janelle, Cara, the Australians, Annie, an American, Remy from France, Lorenzo from Italy and Henry from London- they each have fears, some that they know of, some that they cannot vocalise and some that are so deep down, that they cannot be spoken, or cannot permeate the conscious mind from the subconscious. Under the instruction of a Dutchman named Pak Tony, and escorted around by a Balinese, Pak Ketut, the six begin to explore their fears in a variety of ways. Throughout the book, Indonesian is used – it acted as a refresher course in Indonesian.

The story was not as simple as confronting known fears or discovering the subconscious fears. It incorporated the tensions between the Balinese and Javanese that work there together, culture shock at seeing things one isn’t accustomed to seeing, or expects to see out in the open, and the idea of simplicity making one happy, an idea that comes through Pak Ketut. He is charming and respectful, and caring.

As the story develops, relationships blossom between the characters, and some are very jarring and confrontational, such as Annie. The idea of stereotypes of nationalities is floated – and in a way, these characters break them, and sometimes show that these stereotypes do exist, but that it is not everyone of that nationality.

The climatic disaster at a local bird sanctuary brings the group together. They forget what they came here for; their true fears are revealed. They are put in a position where silly conflicts must be forgotten in order to overcome a life or death ordeal.

An intriguing read, that explores a variety of relationships and characters. It is about life and the challenges it presents and the bravery that can be shown in the face of dire adversity.

Goodwood by Holly Throsby

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Title: Goodwood

Author: Holly Throsby

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 28th September/October 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 384

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: It wasn’t just one person who went missing, it was two people. Two very different people. They were there, and then they were gone, as if through a crack in the sky. After that, in a small town like Goodwood, where we had what Nan called ‘a high density of acquaintanceship’, everything stopped. Or at least it felt that way. The normal feeling of things stopped.

 

Goodwood is a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone. It’s a place where it’s impossible to keep a secret.

 

In 1992, when Jean Brown is seventeen, a terrible thing happens. Two terrible things. Rosie White, the coolest girl in town, vanishes overnight. One week later, Goodwood’s most popular resident, Bart McDonald, sets off on a fishing trip and never comes home.

 

People die in Goodwood, of course, but never like this. They don’t just disappear.

 

As the intensity of speculation about the fates of Rosie and Bart heightens, Jean, who is keeping secrets of her own, and the rest of Goodwood are left reeling.

 

Rich in character and complexity, its humour both droll and tender, Goodwood is a compelling ride into a small community, torn apart by dark rumours and mystery.

 

~*~

 

Goodwood is told in a first person point of view from the perspective of Jean Brown. It is her story of a period of time during her surge towards adulthood, where she is hiding her own secrets from those closest to her, but also tells the story of two missing people and the response of the town she lives in.

When Rosie White goes missing, the town is sent into turmoil. Whispers about what may have happened – mostly surrounding the idea that she ran away, circulate. Set in 1992, the Belanglo State Forest backpacker murders are woven into the plot – and the town begins to buzz about Rosie’s possible fate if she had walked out of town and tried to get a ride somewhere. When Bart MacDonald goes missing a week later, secrets begin to unravel: Rosie’s family begins to come apart at the seams, and drastic measures are taken to ensure their safety, other residents whisper and do their best to cope, and others hide away and keep the truth to themselves, even from the local police officer, keen to aid everyone as best he can and keep things running smoothly.

As Jean witnesses this, her teenage mind keeps her preoccupied with her own secrets and fascination with the new girl in town, Evie, who arrived in the days before Rosie disappeared. Caught between her own secrets and life, and the desire to know what has happened, and the fascination and worry that such disappearances in a town where people die, but don’t disappear as Rosie and Bart have, Jean’s story is fraught with teenage desire to remain innocent yet at the same time, grow up ad find out who they are. Jean’s secrets are slowly revealed throughout the book and hinted at, but they don’t dominate the story – the storyline involving one of her biggest secrets is handled with care and just happens to be a part of who she is, without making it the large focal point. The novel reaches a climax when the secrets about what really happened to Rosie and Bart start to fall apart, and those who know something begin to come forward, their fear dissolving across the course of the novel. A well-written debut that tells a mystery and a coming of age story that engages the reader, and allows them to try to solve the mystery with the clues that are dropped every now and then.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra

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Title: The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Book One of the Baby Ganesh Agency Series)

Author: Vaseem Khan

Genre: Crime Fiction

Publisher: Mullholland Books/Hodder

Published: 11th August, 2015 (first edition), 23rd February 2016 (B-Format)

Format: paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Mumbai, murder and a baby elephant combine in a charming, joyful mystery for fans of Alexander McCall Smith and Harold Fry.

 

On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra inherits two unexpected mysteries.

 

The first is the case of a drowned boy, whose suspicious death no one seems to want solved.

 

And the second is a baby elephant.

 

As his search for clues takes him across the teeming city of Mumbai, from its grand high rises to its sprawling slums and deep into its murky underworld, Chopra begins to suspect that there may be a great deal more to both his last case and his new ward than he thought.

 

And he soon learns that when the going gets tough, a determined elephant may be exactly what an honest man needs…

 

~*~

Inspector Ashwin Chopra has spent his whole life as a police officer on the streets of Mumbai. He is forced into early retirement, on the same day a case that nobody wants to solve tumbles onto his desk. When he arrives home, he is greeted with a baby elephant, willed to him by his Uncle Bansi. Chopra at first is at a loss, as he studies elephants and starts to care for the elephant, whilst solving the murder nobody wanted to touch. As Chopra and his baby elephant, christened Ganesha, investigate the murder, they are pulled into a dark underworld of Mumbai that heralds danger and secrets that many have worked to keep hidden from Chopra, one of the most respectable Inspectors on the local police force. Ganesha soon proves what he can do, and lives up to the letter from Uncle Bansi about him, and the fact that he is no ordinary elephant.

 

It was the baby elephant image and the intriguing title that drew me to this book, and reading the blurb on the back, I knew I had to read it. Vaseem Khan has created an India that is beautiful and dangerous, that acknowledges the good and the bad, and where each character has layers. Chopra is a straight-laced officer, abiding by the law, and quite shocked when he receives Ganesha. His growth across the novel sets up nicely for the second novel. While Chopra is preoccupied with his private investigations with the aid of Inspector Rangwalla, and of course, Ganesha, his wife, Poppy, is trying to help family, and formulating a plan to help them, fighting Mrs Subramanium about Ganesha and other issues that impact their complex. Through these characters, their lives and the events that occur and intersect throughout the novel, Vaseem Khan explores views on class and the individual, and certain expectations, and the divide between modern India and a more traditional India – he is creating a world where the two intersect magnificently and where each tries to find a compromise with the other to make it work. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra has a lovely balance of light heartedness, humour and shadows that threaten the characters, and Vaseem Khan carries off the balance in a similar way to Alexander McCall-Smith and Precious Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Like Precious and Mma Makutsi, Chopra is tasked to investigate missing husbands or children, or financial affairs, or to look at a case from an angle the police may not have thought of. Reading this book was a joy, Ganesha’s love of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate was adorable – as Bansi’s letter said: he is no ordinary elephant. A great read for fans of Alexander McCall-Smith, cosy crime or just a good book.

 

 

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa

*I received a copy of this from the publisher for review*

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Title: Ruins

Author: Rajith Savanadasa

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 28th June 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $27.99

Synopsis: A country picking up the pieces, a family among the ruins.

 

In the restless streets, crowded waiting rooms and glittering nightclubs of Colombo, five family members find their bonds stretched to breaking point in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Latha wants a home. Anoushka wants an iPod.

Mano hopes to win his wife back.

Lakshmi dreams of rescuing a lost boy.

And Niranjan needs big money so he can leave them all behind.

~*~

Ruins is a book unlike others I have read. Set in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war, shadows of war and threats to daily life still exist. Amidst these shadows, a family is slowly crumbling like the ruins around them. Latha, the servant, desires nothing more than a home, a place she can feel safe. Daughter Anoushka wants an iPod, and to be a modern girl, who doesn’t want to be too traditional. Her brother, Niranjan just wants to escape this world and make his life somewhere else, whilst their parents, Mano and Lakshmi, are preoccupied with the distance forming between them: Mano wants his wife back, and Lakshmi is worried about a lost boy, whose fate is unknown. Each point of view is told in first person, with each character being given a chapter where the reader can explore the world from their point of view throughout the novel. In doing so, the reader is able to understand how each member of the family is affected by the world and the decisions they make: nobody is perfect, they are all flawed – they are human.

The ancient and modern worlds collide: the traditions of class and race, and expectations of men and women of the old world that Mano, Lakshmi and Latha have been a part of collide with the rapidly changing world Anoushka and Niranjan are growing up in. The characters and their worlds are set on a course of collision as secrets are revealed, and a journey to an ancient city reveals prejudices and the family, rooted in the old and the new, begins to unravel.

 

Savanadasa has drawn on an historical event that may not be as well known as some in recent years. It opens up this world to the reader, and allows them to explore it without prejudice, in a way that they can start to explore this Sri Lankan world of Tamils and Sinhalas, of class, race and gender stereotypes and assumptions in a setting that is both confrontational, unapologetic but also, that shows that all humans are flawed, that all humans can have prejudice and that all humans can work together to combat this. Savandasa’s words have an authentic voice behind them – born in Sri Lanka, he knows this world, and can relate to it, and can relate to the modern world he now knows in Australia. Ruins arose from the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2014, and are Savandasa’s debut novel. He is a refreshingly diverse voice in Australian literature, and I look forward to his further works.