contemporary

Review: The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

The Way Back by Kylie Ladd, Paperback, Allen & Unwin, July 2017, 316p. RRP: A$29.99.

4 stars

The Way Back by Kylie Ladd is a quintessentially Australian novel, and an interesting break from the genres of book that I usually find myself reading and reviewing. I wouldn’t have picked up this book ordinarily, but I am excited to have the opportunity to read a novel that can really provoke that Australian feeling that I find so rare in a novel.

Charlie Johnson is thirteen and obsessed with horses. She goes out for a ride on her leased pony, Tic Tac, and when only the horse returns, the police, SES and townspeople all kick off a search of the massive area where she and her friend had last been seen. When Charlie returns, things are obviously different for her, and her family also needs to adjust to life once she has been returned. All of this is covered on the blurb, and one of my main complaints with this novel was that I knew she was going to return home, a spoiler that lessened the stakes. If I hadn’t known she makes it home, I would have been more concerned and invested in seeing what happens to her as her life was in danger.

I’ve already called this novel  a ‘quintessentially Australian novel’, so it should be no surprise that the setting is primarily Australia – a rural area of Victoria, it seems. There is something relaxing reading about familiar settings, and it makes the clash between the idealistic location and the horrible events of the novel even more jarring. I found the same when I watched the movie Snowtown a couple of years ago: familiar settings make for bone chilling thrills.

Charlie Johnson, the protagonist of this novel, is well drawn and relatable. She had interests, school, and conflicts with friends that really went a long way to build up her character. As the novel progresses, you see her growing and having to adapt to the way her world has been tilted. Ladd does this subtly but slowly, and builds up those changes in character well.

The other characters in this novel are somewhat weaker, you get a feel for Charlie’s mum and dad, although the most interesting character, for me, was Dan, and I felt like his character development was a missed opportunity. As far as characterisation goes, his character travelled the furthest from his starting point, but we are just told that happens and are not really let into the how. If this novel was another 50 pages longer with more information on how Dan was dealing with his sister’s disappearance (and then the aftermath), I think this could be a stronger novel. However, other readers may have had different opinions on that, and maybe Dan’s struggle wouldn’t be as interesting to others.

The Way Back is quite different to the novels that I usually read, crime thrillers and classics, and I have presumed it is a contemporary novel with some crime and thrilling themes. Don’t open this book expecting a police procedural, and don’t expect there to be any suspense. As I stated earlier, the blurb has already killed any possible suspense. The interesting aspect of this novel is really the emotional fallout for both Charlie and her family. It was good to see how the family might react to an abduction, while the emergency services search for a missing girl. There is an event half way through the novel that made no sense – the main detective who had spent countless hours searching for Charlie disregards a tip that comes in. He doesn’t pass it on to the people still searching or follow it up in anyway, and that really did jarr me. Considering the time and effort that had been put in, it seemed out of character. So, if you are wanting a tight novel about the search for a missing girl, this book isn’t for you.

If you want to go on an emotional rollercoaster with Charlie and her family, Kylie Ladd certainly delivers in No Way Back. I’d recommend this novel for people who enjoy easy-to-read writing with heavy , dark themes. This book does explore some messed up things, but does so in an interesting and engaging manner. The Australian setting really is the icing on the cake. I look forward to seeing what Ladd writes next.

Thank you, Allen & Unwin, for the review copy of No Way Back.

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Book Review: Free Bird by Kevin Cooley

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Free Bird by Kevin Cooley, Netgalley edition, published 26 April 2014, 245p

Sean Murphy is a U.S. Marine in a K-9 bomb-sniffing unit in Iraq and is the handler and best friend to a German shepherd named Free Bird. In a Baghdad firefight inside a hallway raining gunfire, Sean makes the ultimate sacrifice when he falls on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Free Bird, also mortally wounded, climbs over Sean to protect him, unaware of the transformation about to take place.
On his final journey, Sean encounters two paths. He can either follow a light or go with Free Bird. Sean chooses his canine companion with complete trust.
When Sean awakes he finds himself in a kennel inside Free Bird’s body. As Free Bird, Sean returns home and sees how his family is devastated by his death and the aftermath of war. His parents are flirting with alcoholism and an affair, one brother is an outcast in school for flunking kindergarten, while his other brother conceals a secret.
Feeling guilty for the choices he made, Sean/Free Bird guides his family through the mourning process so they can move forward. In two forms, Sean discovers one truth.
He was meant to come home.
– Book Description from Amazon.com

Overall Enjoyment Rating: 8 golden stars

Favourite Quote: “They would always hurt for Sean till their own final moments, but now they realized having him in their lives was worth the pain.”

Free Bird is a wonderful contemporary novel, and I really enjoyed reading it. I picked it to read because it had war themes in it, and I am a sucker for a good war novel. I would recommend this novel for people who aren’t fans of war stories as well as because it explores the dynamics of a family in mourning.

Cooley writes the Murphy family well, and each character is strong and well-drawn. More importantly they were believable. The struggle that the family go through when they receive a dog from the Marine core and not their son, is incredible. Free Bird’s attempts to bring the family together are heartwarming and feel honest. There is a point at which you need to suspend your disbelief and accept the premise of the story, but once I did I was rewarded with an emotional journey.

The author uses a colloquial voice for Sean and Free Bird, which is fitting and appropriate for the characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is when characters speak in ways that are above their level – for example street kids speaking like scholars, but Sean speaks (and thinks) like a young man and soldier, if a little cleaned up.

My biggest gripe concerning Free Bird was that the settings didn’t pop in my head – the characters were so strong but the descriptions of the city were somewhat lacking. They normally constituted of the name of the street/place and then a story of something that happened to Sean in that location. I would have liked some more description (mainly adjectives) of setting and place, but that is my personal preference.

The ending of Free Bird was perfect, and left me with that feeling of satisfaction. I recommend anyone who is interested in family drama or war fiction to read this book!