The Song of Us by JD Barrett

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Title: The Song of Us

Author: J.D. Barrett

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 11th April 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 330

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Zoe Wylde is a woman at a crossroad. Five years ago, she fled her successful career as a concert harpist in London to return to her Bondi home. She still plays, but now her audience is on the way out … literally. It’s complicated and complication is something Zoe understands well. Her best friend is chasing a new love, her brother’s chasing too much love and her father has been married far too many times. Compared to them she thought she was doing okay. She’s met the guy she is sure is the ONE. He wooed her and has been sleeping with her for almost five years. It would all be perfect … if he wasn’t married.

Zoe is learning that hearts, like harps, are capable of beautiful music if treated the right way and can be tricky to manoeuvre. She’s over the old tune. But does Zoe have the courage to rewrite the song of her own life?

~*~

aww2017-badgeIn The Song of Us, we are introduced to Zoe Wylde, the child of a broken home, and many failed relationships, including the current one she is in, and despite being with the same man for five years, he is married, and stringing Zoe along, promising her the world, but disappointing her, and in a way, himself and his family, though they are unaware of his relationship with Zoe. Her father, who has been married several times since the death of Zoe’s mother, has been living with his current wife and stepchildren, abandoning Zoe and her brother as teenagers. And Zoe’s brother Tom is keen for love, but perhaps a little fearful of the commitment that comes with it. Lexie, her best friend has fallen for a woman who is married, but is determined that this is the one.

Zoe is a musician, a harpist who once played in concerts in London, but fled to her Bondi home five years ago, and has been a bedside musician since, helping people in a local hospice with their final journey. Her patients make quite the impression, with one, Clara, giving her a quest: to wear Clara’s clothes and take them to all the places she didn’t get to see, places like New York and London. Zoe undertakes this quest, setting aside her failed relationship with Ross until he turns up on the plane, and decides to accompany her on the journey, part of which includes her audition for the concert group she left five years ago. When things go just as Zoe expects them to go, and Ross leaves, Zoe continues her journey, armed with Clara’s clothes and wine recommendations for each location from the father of one of Zoe’s youngest audience members, Sam. She auditions for Jules and Gigi, members of the symphony, and then heads to Bali, where she meets up with her brother, Tom, and Lexie, and Lexie’s new love, Vivianne. From here, Zoe finds out that when it matters, the ones who really love you aren’t necessarily the one you think you’ll spend the rest of your life with. It’s family, and the friends you make along the way whose love is unconditional.

imagesZoe Wylde is definitely not the typical perfect female protagonist of many love stories out there. She is awkward, she has flaws – she spends five years on and off with a married man, and her family isn’t so perfect – unless you count her brother Tom, who is the best male character in the book. The flaws in Zoe, Lexie and Tom make them relatable, and easy to connect with. It is definitely not a conventional love story, but one of family love and friendship – which made it more appealing to me. It allowed for the characters to fail, and allowed imperfections to be shown. And it showed same sex love as well – in the way that love should be – with the same ups and downs that characters like Bridget Jones and Nina Proudman have in their love lives. Lexie was definitely a favourite character – she was amusing and cheeky, and someone who was a good friend to Zoe. She was caring and sympathetic, but also, could give the hit of reality when it was needed. She was impulsive in contrast to the cautiousness Zoe showed at times. I think Zoe, Tom and Lexie made the perfect trio of main characters, and the supporting characters were just as flawed, just as realistic as well.

The Song of Us is an enjoyable, light hearted novel about love of all kinds, love lost and love found, of family love, the love of friends and love that takes years to come back to us. It shows all of this in a way that readers can relate to, and is funny and witty. Just like Bridget and Nina, Zoe is awkward – which is why I liked her. She seemed to embrace her flaws and face her fears as the book progressed, showing that we don’t need to be absolutely perfect to fit it: We can just be ourselves. We need more characters like Zoe who show that it is okay not to be absolutely perfect. I look forward to reading this again.

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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.