Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Published: 1st May 2007 (print)/3 December 2015 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Algonquin Books/Lamplight Audio
Pages: 335/11 hrs and 26 mins
Narrator: David LeDoux, John Randolph Jones
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her. 

After years of having this book on my shelf and after even more years of wanting to read it. I have finally read Water for Elephants! I actually chose the audiobook and it was a good listen. There are two narrators, one for young Jacob and one for elderly Jacob and both gentleman did a great job.

The story jumps through time from the present day to Jacob’s early life in the 1930s when he runs away and joins the circus. While the present day begins the story, most of it is told by Jacob’s younger self but there is a constant back and forward, especially in the early chapters. I loved present day Jacob, his thoughts are sardonic and admittedly a bit depressing but there is hope and it is so easy to fall in love with him. He worries about his mind, his memory and while a lot frustrates him, he is a darling.

It was definitely a curious contrast because I loved present day Jacob but twenty three year old Jacob annoyed me a few times. He is a fool but I guess that what comes from being young and naïve, especially in a world he knows nothing about.

The story is heartbreaking at times and tough in terms of content. With an audiobook I definitely had to turn the volume down while I was driving on occasion with some of the animal abuse but thankfully you could tell it was coming and Gruen is restrained in her descriptions so they don’t last long. A lot of it reinforces character development and while it is tough, it was also a reality of the time and the treatment of animals in the circus.

There is diversity of the characters and Gruen sets up the class system well for the train layout and the circus employees. And while it was not essentially part of Jacob’s story, I enjoyed that Gruen manages to casually slip in the prejudices against the African-Americans and other folk as they travelled the various American towns.

There’s hope and triumph through the story but there’s a bittersweet reality to it as well. The stories have always been around about the reality of circuses in those days and while the circumstances were rough, it is also fascinating when you see how many were in operation and makes you realise how amazing it is for those that survived.

This isn’t a history of circuses, but it is a good story about the life of being on a circus, and especially one that isn’t real. The ending was the crowning glory. After hearing Jacob’s life story and seeing his present day circumstances Gruen concludes this story in the best way possible. I barely remember the movie but I know it was a bit different to the book. There is a lot of padding and I was surprised when it was revealed a lot takes place over a few months because it felt like a lot longer as the story was happening. I’m glad I finally read it and while it was enjoyable, I will admit a small part of me found it a tad underwhelming.

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The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin

Published: 29 January 2019 (print)/29 January 2019 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Harlequin Australia/Harlequin Audio
Pages: 440/10 hrs and 52 mins
Narrator: Jesse Vilinsky
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★  ★  ★ – 5 Stars

What do a future ambassador, an overly ambitious Francophile, a hospital-volunteering Girl Scout, the new girl from Cleveland, the junior cheer captain, and the vice president of the debate club have in common? It sounds like the ridiculously long lead-up to an astoundingly absurd punchline, right? Except it’s not. Well, unless my life is the joke, which is kind of starting to look like a possibility given how beyond soap opera it’s been since I moved to Lancaster. But anyway, here’s your answer: we’ve all had the questionable privilege of going out with Lancaster High School’s de facto king. Otherwise known as my best friend. Otherwise known as the reason I’ve already helped steal a car, a jet ski, and one hundred spray-painted water bottles when it’s not even Christmas break yet. Otherwise known as Henry. Jersey number 8.

Meet Cleves. Girlfriend number four and the narrator of The Dead Queens Club, a young adult retelling of Henry VIII and his six wives. Cleves is the only girlfriend to come out of her relationship with Henry unscathed—but most breakups are messy, right? And sometimes tragic accidents happen…twice…

This is a fantastic story if you know the history of Henry VIII and his wives and even if you don’t it is an amazing, complicated drama about high school politics which can only be told in the setting of an American school. Even if you don’t understand the entirety of the Tudor history Capin still tells an engrossing story and provides enough clues without ever breaking from the present day reality.

Not only is the premise brilliant, but Capin is a master with her metaphors. She doesn’t throw them in your face right from that start but when they come out they are the ideal representations of who these character were and the roles they played in history. The comparisons are not exact for obvious reasons, but Capin is incredibly close with her high school student equivalents and the more I thought about the historical events and the events and characters in the narrative I was even more in awe.

Our narrator Cleeves is a budding journalist and the use of journalistic chapters is a clever touch and while it does put everyone in their high school boxes, it works as an additional storytelling tool from Cleeves’ perspective. I love Cleeves because she has a journalistic mind but she is also passionate about what she wants and while she is a “good” character, she isn’t afraid to step outside the lines for a bit of fun either. She is a feminist and a fighter and the amount of girl power in this book is so fulfilling. Capin via Cleeves isn’t afraid to point this out and I loved how Cleeves isn’t afraid to speak out.

I loved everything about Cleeves, she isn’t pure but she is malicious either. Her friendship to Henry is solid and seeing her react to the things around her and the events that unfold is marvellous. Capin draws you in and once you are in deep to this stunning tale of drama she starts to plant her seeds and despite knowing the history you still aren’t entirely sure about what will happen. It’s an incredible journey to go on.

There is a strong chance I love this book more because of the ties to history. I got quite excited when I realised who characters were representing and what roles they were playing as the story unfolded. I can see how this might be too dramatic and convoluted for some people and overly dramatic, but if you read it as a modern Henry VIII then it becomes just as dramatic as history has always made it out his life and relationships to be, perhaps compressed into a few months rather than over years.

What makes this a strong story I found was that it wasn’t even much of a stretch. When I thought about Henry VII and his relationships, it easily translated into high school drama. While some of the historical events have been excluded, there is still enough to see the events of Henry and his court unfold in the modern day. Capin includes key aspects of Henry’s life and the lives of his wives, and while not everything is translatable, the references that are there are creative and true to her characters.

As I say, so much comes back to metaphors and Capin’s ingenious weaving of history into a modern setting which works so ridiculously well. I never even thought I needed a retelling of Tudor history but now that I have it I’ve realised what magic I have been missing out on.

You can purchase The Dead Queens Club via the following

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The Good Girl Stripped Bare by Tracey Spicer

Published: 24th April 2017 (print)/24th May 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 ABC Books AU/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 352/10 hrs and 20 mins
Narrator: Tracey Spicer
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Memoir
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

From bogan to boned and beyond – a full-frontal ‘femoir’ by one of Australia’s best-loved journalists

Tracey Spicer was always the good girl. Inspired by Jana Wendt, this bogan from the Brisbane backwaters waded through the ‘cruel and shallow money trench’ of television to land a dream role: national news anchor for a commercial network. But the journalist found that, for women, TV was less about news and more about helmet hair, masses of makeup and fatuous fashion, in an era when bosses told you to ‘stick your tits out’, ‘lose two inches off your arse’, and ‘quit before you’re too long in the tooth’. Still, Tracey plastered on a smile and did what she was told. But when she was sacked by email after having a baby, this good girl turned ‘bad’, taking legal action against the network for pregnancy discrimination. In this frank and funny ‘femoir’ – part memoir, part manifesto – Tracey ‘sheconstructs’ the structural barriers facing women in the workplace and encourages us all to shake off the shackles of the good girl. 

I am a couple years behind the hype with this book but I am glad I finally got to read it. I picked this up because I was intrigued by the controversy Spicer apparently caused and I wanted to see what happens when the good girl said no more. It wasn’t quite the burn down the establishment that I had hoped, but it was an interesting read all the same.

The beginning has a lot of clunky jokes which probably flow better when read to yourself instead of read aloud, but you get through them and it settles into more of a story. Having Spicer read it herself means she gets to include her own inflections and express her humour as she intended which is good because as slightly jarring as it was to hear, I fear it would have been worse having someone else try and do it.

From Spicer’s early life growing up you see the sexism and the abuse that many girls experienced at that age and how overt it was at the time. Spicer’s “bogan” beginnings was a surprise to me and it certainly explains a few things and how she’s written this memoir.

One thing I noticed early on is that Spicer doesn’t seem to know who her audience is. She makes jokes about using encyclopaedias before the internet and explains obvious references in a slightly condescending manner like she is addressing children or teenagers, ignorant teenagers at that, whom I doubt are her main readership. I don’t doubt most of her readership are people over 30 who have enough sense to know that people used encyclopaedias before the internet without needing the patronising explanation. This happens a fair bit as she explains things that while even at my age I might not have been alive to experience, I still understand.

There are themes much like Fight Like A Girl as Spicer takes us on a journey through the decades as a women, a teenager and a girl, exposed to sexism, abuse, and disrespect in her life and workplace. Her own sarcasm and opinions adding some nice flare as she mocks the industry and those in it with humour and disdain.

I waited through the first half of the book, which was not uninteresting, but not entirely engaging either waiting for The Moment. There is a chance this was overhyped in my own head, but I thought that suing for discrimination was going to be a more defining moment, the “good girl turns bad” moment. In the end it comes and goes a little lacklustre and after I was expecting it to be the climax that shifted this story into a fight for equality and the moment Tracey said “no more!”, it kind of wasn’t.

Seeing women take down the patriarchy is my thing and I enjoyed Spicer’s stories, amazed but not shocked at her early life experiences. I waited the whole book though while she kept her temper, held her tongue, but the Event I wanted for is glossed over, wrapped up into barely nothing. I think we got more about her moving house then we did about her confrontation with her network. I understand non-disclosure agreements and terms of settlements, but I still think this could have been explored a little more, considering it was such a huge event, something I had been expecting to be a climax of this book based on the blurb.

After that it becomes a list of events about what happens after the settlement and what Spicer is doing now. This is after all an autobiography of Tracey Spicer, not a call to arms. But Spicer herself seems to build up your expectations as you read, constantly referencing the Good Girl and when she finally changes sides, it falls flat on the page, no matter how monumental it was in reality.

However, if you set aside that my expectations were skewed or I read too much into it, the book is still interesting and not unimportant. There is feminism and anger at the patriarchy but no real solutions. Unlike Clementine Ford who tells us how to burn down the establishment, Spicer keeps pointing out the inequality but doesn’t help us find a solution.

As a look at her life and her career it is interesting and shows you the behind the scenes and bones of her career. She strips away the flare and the lights of the television industry and she shows off her amazing achievements. I think this should be what is taken from the book, a great career from a great woman.

You can purchase The Good Girl Stripped Bare via the following

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Force of Nature (#2) by Jane Harper

Published: 26 September 2017 (print)/26 September 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Macmillan Australia/Wavesound Audio
Pages: 377/8 hrs and 57 mins
Narrator: Steven Shanahan
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track. Only four come out on 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 encourage teamwork and resilience. At least, that’s what the corporate retreat website advertises.

Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker, Alice Russell. Because Alice knew secrets, about the company she worked for and the people she worked with.

The four returning women tell Falk a tale of fear, violence and fractured trust during their days in the remote Australian bushland. And as Falk delves into the disappearance of Alice, he begins to suspect some dangers ran far deeper than anyone knew. 

This is the second book from Harper and the second in the Aaron Falk series. I enjoyed The Dry and I was looking forward to continuing the story but found this one slightly lacking. I felt it was a really slow start, I started and then took a break because I couldn’t get into it, after three goes I stuck with it and while it took a few chapters to really cement itself it was an enjoyable read in the end.

The problem coming to the second book from an author after you’ve really liked the first one is that when the beginning fails to grab you, you notice it immediately. In part you see it as a slow start but you also have that voice in the back of your mind that keeps telling you that it’s not as good as that other book they wrote. The difference here is that this was a sequel, the further adventures of Aaron Falk and that helped a little. Being a detective means that every case is different and while The Dry might have been a bit more exciting, this case has moments of intrigue and mystery as well.

You don’t have to have read The Dry to understand what happens in this one, there is only a brief mention of the events in the past book but nothing that needs greater expansion and no connection to the events in this one. Falk remains is a good detective who is wary of stories and alibis and trying to do the proper thing for those involved.

The structure was a combination of flashbacks and present time, and the different characters each get their own perspective on what happens. This was a good approach and style because as each new piece of information was revealed by Falk’s inquiry Harper takes us back to see the events play out. The characters have some depth and personality but I remained a bit uninvested in them as people even though I was curious about the mystery itself.

It’s psychological and each character has their own secrets and hidden agendas. The corporate retreat brings out grudges and personal vendettas and the reader is provided with snippets of information, clues, and can create their own theories on what might have happened. The actual answer I was actually surprised by because it was not entirely straight forward but still stayed within the realm of expectation.

The main issue I found with this book is I wasn’t as drawn in to the mystery. I couldn’t connect with the characters and therefore didn’t care about them; those missing or otherwise. As I say, it took me three goes to push through the first part but there was reward by the end with a satisfactory conclusion.

Comparing them later I was surprised I only gave The Dry 3 stars as well because as I was reading this book I remember liking the other one much more. Obviously there are varying levels of my three star enjoyment.

You can purchase Force of Nature via the following

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The Dry (#1) by Jane Harper

Published: 26 September 2017 (print)/26 September 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Macmillan Australia/Wavesound Audio
Pages: 377/8 hrs and 57 mins
Narrator: Steven Shanahan
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

In the grip of the worst drought in a century, the farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily when three members of a local family are found brutally slain.

Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, loath to face the townsfolk who turned their backs on him twenty years earlier. 

But as questions mount, Falk is forced to probe deeper into the deaths of the Hadler family. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret. A secret Falk thought was long buried. A secret Luke’s death now threatens to bring to the surface in this small Australian town, as old wounds bleed into new ones.

With the backdrop of a rural Australian town in Victoria, Harper’s narrative shows the complexities of small town relationships and the pressures that the landscape and the weather can have on the people who suffer it. It also explores the dangers of secrets and the consequences when these secrets become known.

I listened to this as an audio and Shanahan does a great job as narrator. His pace is ideal, his tone suits the character well and creates an image of Falk in your mind that Harper has tried to express through her words. I was drawn into this story and with all of Harper’s surprises it never feels like a constant chop and change, but instead like a natural progression of the investigation, the drought, the built up tension of a small rural town.

One thing I have found in many small town stories is how easily and comfortably they vilify anyone who they feel have wronged them, justified or otherwise. The town of Kiewarra having no shame in hiding their displeasure at Falk’s return. Harper conveys the animosities the town feel towards Falk remarkably well. You feel that small town suffocation, the hatred of outsiders, and having the past dredge up feelings and complications.

Harper uses flashbacks and conflicting opinions to show all sides of the characters which in turn affects your own opinion on the events. I really enjoyed the mystery in this story and I loved how you genuinely are never entirely sure what has happened as all the possibilities sound each as likely as the others. For a debut this is a captivating read and Harper shows some impressive skills in teasing information, providing red herrings and casting doubt in the reader’s mind despite all the evidence to the contrary.

I was intrigued by the narrative and while the pace is slow, the story itself keeps you engaged. This isn’t a fast paced thriller to keep you on the edge of your seat but it plays with your expectations and provides twists and surprises tactfully throughout.

Falk was a solid character and one that you could easily see was genuine. He had his own issues with the town but he was there doing a job and no matter what the town said or did to him he was going to stick it out. He could see their own small mindedness and while he had his own opinions about what they did to his family, he wasn’t going to let that stop him from finding justice and doing the right thing.

Friendship and a deep down sense of guilt makes him try to help and I liked that Harper made his occupation close enough that it his enquiries weren’t entirely out of the blue, but it was far enough that he was very much there unofficially.

For that, this different style of police procedural novel was interesting and by the end I felt Harper respected the story and the reader in the conclusion she gave us. Falk is also a character I am interested in reading more of because while he isn’t perfect, he isn’t the stereotype that is known to be thrown around which in itself makes this a refreshing read.

You can purchase The Dry via the following

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