Review: The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan - If there's a book you have to read this year, it's this one.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Released: 30th May 2017
Published by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Genre: Adult contemporary/coming of age
Source: Library
Pages: 285
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
'He found an egg at the park so he incubated it and this tortoise hatched out.' 

Skye's sixteen, and her mum's got yet another new boyfriend. Trouble is, Jason's bad news. Really bad. Now mum's quit her job and they're all moving north to Port Flinders, population nobody.

'That's a Southern Right Whale. They have the largest balls of any animal in the world.' 

She'd do anything to keep her ten-year-old brother safe. Things she can't even say out loud. And when Jason gets violent, Skye knows she has to take control. She's got to get Ben out and their mum's useless as. The train home to Adelaide leaves first thing each morning and they both need to be on it. Everything else can wait.

'Ladybirds bleed from their knees when they're stressed.' 

The Gulf is an acute, moving and uplifting story from the inimitable, alchemical imagination of Anna Spargo-Ryan.
I haven't been this moved by a book in a long time. Anna Spargo-Ryan's depiction of the children inadvertently swept up in a dangerously dysfunctional family is achingly real, her writing flawless. I always find it interesting where adult fiction features teen protagonists, and here reading Skye's story as she does anything to protect her ten year-old brother Ben from their harsh reality was no exception. Though this novel deals with some heavy themes, the depth to the characters within it brought a tenderness which left me thinking about them days after I turned the last page.

I went to the door. She was there, folded, on the ground. Knees drawn up to her chest. Her body moved rigidly, statically, and her shoulders slumped as though the air had been pulled right out of them. 

The rule of 'show, don't tell' which exemplifies 'good writing' is a difficult one to master. For a reader, it can be the difference between whether you make an emotional connection with the plot, or simply view the words on a page as a detached bystander. After finishing The Gulf, I can see why Spargo-Ryan has risen to critical acclaim on this point. Every scene she writes, each moment of conflict or reflection which her characters experience is captured through a lens which focuses on how they feel - so you are right there with them. Watching as Skye and Ben were affected by their mother's toxic relationship was at times confronting, however the unflinching portrayal of family violence and spiralling impact of Jason's shady business never veered into territory which was insensitive or contemptuous.

Sometimes all it takes is a few lines to convey the essence of a story, and it's these words which made the biggest impact on me:

I took a deep breath. Watched the hallway slide away from me, pulled myself up as tall as I could. Sucked in all the courage I had, all the bravery I'd ever collected from watching Ben going around in the world exactly the way he wanted. 

What I loved about this book is that alongside the insidious cruelty of Skye and Ben's situation was a glimpse of some goodness left in the world. Jason may have dragged the whole family to a tiny coastal town where they had to start over, but it's there that through the most troubling times came the most heartwarming moments. As their mum grew more distant, Skye displayed a maturity well beyond that of a sixteen-year-old through practically looking after her brother, remaining determined to plan for a brighter future ahead. It was also good to see her defined beyond the challenges she faced at home, through the 'normal' experiences of being a student, and someone on the cusp of a friendship which could be something more.

Then there's Ben: one of the most charismatic, quirky and knowledgeable ten-year-olds I've ever come across in a novel. Getting to see their life through his eyes with an innocence that only a child can possess, brought this book to a whole other level. It was never overly sentimental or lost touch with reality, but gave this story all that it needed to be truly memorable - heart. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Anna Spargo-Ryan has produced my favourite book of the year so far. The Gulf is impeccably written, but its real triumph is revealing the courage needed to make a better life, and the sacrifices we make to find it. 

Books about Books Part 1 - Living, Breathing, Reading

Sunday, 15 October 2017



I've talked about why reading is so special in itself, and there's no denying that taking the time to sit down with a brilliant story can be the highlight of your day. But what about the stories of the places we get these books from? In this first part of my discussion on 'books about books', I'm taking a look at the booksellers, librarians and writers who have created works which can resonate with bookworms everywhere.

The Simple Act of Reading edited by Debra Adelaide

For it is in the simple act of reading where the living and the dead, the real and the imagined, meet. It is in the simple act of reading where we exercise those two most sacred of human vocations: compassion and creativity. For as we know, without either of these primes there is no possibility for a humanity present or past worth talking about. - Junot Diaz

A collection of essays and memoir pieces on the topic of reading, in particular what it means for writers to be readers and how that has shaped their life.

The Simple Act of Reading will support Sydney Story Factory by emphasising the importance of reading in shaping an individual’s future. Contributors include; Debra Adelaide, Joan London, Delia Falconer, Sunil Badami, Gabrielle Carey, Luke Davies, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Kate Forsyth, Giulia Giuffre, Andy Griffiths, Anita Heiss, Gail Jones, Jill Jones, Catherine Keenan, Malcolm Knox, Wayne Macauley, Fiona McFarlane, David Malouf, Rosie Scott, Carrie Tiffany and Geordie Williamson.

It's one thing to read an amazing novel, it's another to read a book which captures exactly how that feels. This book takes a whole group of different writers who share the stories which influenced them and the different perspectives on reading they've gained over the years.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown - Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover's paradise? Well, almost...

In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.


I've adored Jen Campbell's two books about Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, so anything along those lines is something I'm eager to try out. The bookshop featured in Bythell's work sounds like it has so much character - I'm sure it'll make for an interesting read.

Reading Allowed by Chris Paling

Chris works as a librarian in a small-town library in the south of England. This is the story of the library, its staff, and the fascinating group of people who use the library on a regular basis. We'll meet characters like the street-sleepers Brewer, Wolf and Spencer, who are always the first through the doors. The Mad Hatter, an elderly man who scurries around manically, searching for books. Sons of Anarchy Alan, a young Down's Syndrome man addicted to the American TV drama series. Startled Stewart, a gay man with a spray-on tan who pops in most days for a nice chat, sharking for good-looking foreign language students. And Trish, who is relentlessly cheerful and always dressed in pink - she has never married, but the marital status of everybody she meets is of huge interest to her.

Some of the characters' stories are tragic, some are amusing, some are genuinely surreal, but together they will paint a bigger picture of the world we live in today, and of a library's hugely important place within it. Yes, of course, people come in to borrow books, but the library is also the equivalent of the village pump. It's one of the few places left where anyone, regardless of age or income or background, can wander in and find somebody to listen to their concerns, to share the time of day.

Reading Allowed will provide us with a fascinating portrait of a place that we all value and cherish, but which few of us truly know very much about...

What would we do without librarians? I'm really interested in this one for its quirky charm and getting to know all the characters who make the library more than just a space filled with books.

I'd Rather be Reading by Guinevere de la Mare

For anyone who'd rather be reading than doing just about anything else, this book is the ultimate must-have. In this visual ode to all things bookish, readers will get lost in page after page of beautiful contemporary art, photography, and illustrations depicting the pleasures of books. Artwork from the likes of Jane Mount, Lisa Congdon, Julia Rothman, and Sophie Blackall is interwoven with text from essayist Maura Kelly, bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, and award-winning author and independent bookstore owner Ann Patchett.

Rounded out with poems, quotations, and aphorisms celebrating the joys of reading, this lovingly curated compendium is a love letter to all things literary, and the perfect gift for bookworms everywhere. 

If scrolling through #bookstagram pics on instagram isn't satisfying enough, this book could be just what you need. It's just been released this year, and needless to say - onto my Christmas wishlist it goes.

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

Every bookshop has a story. We’re not talking about rooms that are just full of books. We’re talking about bookshops in barns, disused factories, converted churches and underground car parks. Bookshops on boats, on buses, and in old run-down train stations. Fold-out bookshops, undercover bookshops, this-is-the-best-place-I’ve-ever-been-to-bookshops. Meet Sarah and her Book Barge sailing across the sea to France; meet Sebastien, in Mongolia, who sells books to herders of the Altai mountains; meet the bookshop in Canada that’s invented the world’s first antiquarian book vending machine. And that’s just the beginning.

 From the oldest bookshop in the world, to the smallest you could imagine, The Bookshop Book examines the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at over three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents (sadly, we’ve yet to build a bookshop down in the South Pole). The Bookshop Book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world.

One day I'd love to travel the world and make a list of all the bookshops to visit in each country I encounter. In the meantime, The Bookshop Book is the place to start - I'm sure there are lots of hidden gems out there to discover!

What are some of your favourite books about reading?

#LoveOzYABloggers - Favourite Covers

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


Favourite Covers

A cover might not be the make-or-break in deciding whether you pick up a book or not, but a good first impression when you catch that first glimpse on the shelf definitely helps. As always, it's hard to narrow this selection down to just a few - but these are stories which for me made an impact both inside and out. 

In The Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker


There's something undeniably striking about this cover, and the inside definitely matches it. The bleached colours and feathers add a hint of the surreal, and once you begin reading, the story unravels like no other I've come across before. I agree with what Melina Marchetta's quote says on the front, this is definitely one of the most original reads I've come across in years.

You can see my review for In The Skin of a Monster here

Remind Me How This Ends by Gabrielle Tozer


In case my blog look didn't already give it away, I'm a huge fan of floral designs in general, and book covers are no exception! I could get all analytical and say that the petals separating on the cover represent branching out after high school and finding freedom in the world beyond...but even aside from that, there's a fresh, clean vibe to all of Gabrielle Tozer's covers so far which reflect her as a relevant, honest and relatable voice in Australian YA.

You can see my review for Remind Me How This Ends here

Begin, End, Begin


The botanical theme continues with this next pick, but I definitely couldn't go past this stunning anthology! (not to mention, the edition with the foil touches on the cover makes for a case of even more #coverlove). This book looks stunning on any shelf, but it probably won't be there for long - you'll be going back and re-reading it for sure. 




#LoveOzYABloggers is hosted by #LoveOzYA, a community led organisation dedicated to promoting Australian young adult literature. Keep up to date with all new Aussie YA releases with their monthly newsletter, or find out what’s happening with News and Events, or submit your own!

Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper - Australian crime fiction at its finest

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Released: 26th September 2017
Published by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Genre: Crime/Mystery
Source: Publisher
Pages: 384
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side.

The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker.

Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case - in just a matter of days she was to provide the documents that will bring down the company she works for.

Falk discovers that far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. But does it include murder?
The Dry was hailed as the book of the year at the 2017 Australian Book Industry Awards, so any follow-up was bound to come under scrutiny to see how it compares. I'm happy to say that Force of Nature is addictive and atmospheric; suspenseful in a way that you simply have to experience for yourself.

In this book we get to know more about Agent Aaron Falk, a member of the financial crime division of the federal police. Like its predecessor, Force of Nature is at its core a 'police procedural' novel. But far from the constraints of the suburbs where a murder or missing person case can be solved with the aid of CCTV footage, or even the gossip from those in a rural town, out here in the fictional Giralang Ranges it becomes clear that the mystery behind Alice's disappearance will be more difficult to uncover. It's this added complexity of the rugged setting where the group of women begrudgingly set out on a company team-building expedition that brings the drama to the fore.

Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russel. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.

Once again Jane Harper has excelled in conveying the essence of a sense of place. In the Australian bush she brings out the ghostly whispers of the trees and unsettling sounds of the wildlife with vivid clarity. Just as the women struggle to orient themselves in an unfamiliar environment which all begins to look the same, us readers are also led on a twisted path to the truth. Harper skilfully leaves crumbs along the way which ramp up the suspense and enormity of the situation where survival becomes paramount - from the discovery of a meagre pool of water to what could be the abandoned cabin of an infamous killer. What is only a few days of the doomed expedition stretches the entire length of the story thanks to the alternating perspective on the current investigation at hand. Each chapter ends on a 'mini-cliffhanger', a device which achieves exactly what it set out to do - make this a book you Can't. Put. Down.

There was a movement outside her sleeping bag and Beth stiffened. She couldn't tell what had made it - woman or wildlife. She lay still and by the time it disappeared, the word she'd been searching for had formed on the tip of her tongue, so real she could almost taste its residue. Feral. 

The characters are equally well-developed, where human nature is examined as people are pushed to the brink. The boiling pot of personalities, from Alice the self-assured narcissist to Bree and Beth who are sisters that could not be more different, morphs into a powder keg ready to explode. These tensions make the plot all the more compelling, brought together with taut prose that is matter-of-fact yet descriptive. When there's no telling if help is ever going to arrive, ethics are questioned as company politics transcend the office, becoming a different beast altogether. It would be easy for a story like this to turn into a merely pragmatic play-by-play of the events as they unfolded, but I liked how there was more heart to the investigation. Falk's connection to his father who also used to hike the trails in the ranges was an interesting touch, bringing some humanity back to a plot which  otherwise highlights its vices through characters that are teetering over the edge.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you've enjoyed The Dry, you will LOVE Force of Nature. Nonetheless, this book should be recognised for its own well-deserved merits. Jane Harper isn't just an author to watch, she's one whose work has to be read - do that and you won't look back. 

#LoveOzYABloggers - Historical

Monday, 25 September 2017


Historical

Historical fiction is an all-time favourite genre of mine, and when it comes to Australian YA there are a few standouts which come to mind. The three that I've chosen to feature for this week's prompt are all from very different time periods, but they each capture the societies of their settings in a way which vividly takes you back to eras gone by.

The Raven's Wing by Frances Watts

Set in ancient Rome, our protagonist Claudia is bound by the duty to the family she hardly knows when she is summoned by her father. Plots and scheming ensue, and she must make some difficult decisions on what's more important - love or duty? It's a question which has featured many times over in fiction, but even here the conflict between the two is given a fresh twist which keeps it interesting for teen readers.

You can see my review for The Raven's Wing here

The Diary of William Shakespeare, Gentleman by Jackie French

To be honest, I could have filled this whole post with ten or more Jackie French novels. I've gone on about the Matilda saga on here more times than I can count though, so it's time to change things up and give some of her other books time in the spotlight. This unique take on Shakespeare's life before he was the most famous playwright in history was a really interesting read. For her other Shakespeare-inspired works, I'd definitely recommend I Am Juliet and Ophelia: Queen of Denmark.

You can see my review for The Diary of William Shakespeare, Gentleman here

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

And finally we come to a book set in Australia - 1930's Sydney to be exact. It has an underbelly vibe with the mob-warfare and gritty crime elements, but keeps it unpredictable with the ghostly undertones. The old-school slang places you right at the heart of this time, and I loved the inclusion of the map at the beginning. 

You can see my review for Razorhurst here



#LoveOzYABloggers is hosted by #LoveOzYA, a community led organisation dedicated to promoting Australian young adult literature. Keep up to date with all new Aussie YA releases with their monthly newsletter, or find out what’s happening with News and Events, or submit your own!