23 January, 2016

Book Review: The Little Red Chairs

From GoodreadsThe much-anticipated new novel from the literary world's master of storytelling, Edna O'Brien.
A woman discovers that the foreigner she thinks will redeem her life is a notorious war criminal.
Vlad, a stranger from Eastern Europe masquerading as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall under his spell. One woman, Fidelma McBride, becomes so enamored that she begs him for a child. All that world is shattered when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed.
Fidelma, disgraced, flees to England and seeks work among the other migrants displaced by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts him-her nemesis-at the tribunal in The Hague, that her physical and emotional journey reaches its breathtaking climax.
The Little Red Chairs is a book about love, and the endless search for it. It is also a book about mankind's fascination with evil, and how long, how crooked, is the road towards Home.

Thoughts: This is our next book group read and I'm really glad because I seriously don't know what to think! I'm hoping a bit of discussion with the other members will help me clarify my thoughts about this book.
Usually when I'm unsure about a book I will read a few reviews and find one which makes sense to me. With this book I agree with those who thought it was brilliant and with those who thought it was rubbish! The story is engaging, but I found it hard to get a grasp on any of the characters. They all seemed to be secondary in the way they weren't fully formed and not "there" enough.  No one's motives seemed to be clear for anything. I don't understand why Fidelma was so disgraced. I didn't get the feeling that Vlad was so ingrained in the community that his arrest was so startling. Worthy of some gossip, yes, but not the seismic shift that was suggested.
The plot also jumps around a lot. It's almost like O'Brien started on a thread of a story, but when it ended up not going the way she wanted, she just abandoned it, moving onto another idea.
But on some level I did enjoy it. I found myself wanting to pick it straight back up after I put it down. I wanted to know what happened when they got to The Hague, I wanted a resolution.
For now I've given it three stars, total fence sitting. Maybe I'll be clearer about how I feel after our book club meeting! 

17 January, 2016

Book Review: The Mysterious Howling

From Goodreads: Found running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia, perhaps four or five, has a bark that is (usually) worse than her bite; and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels.
Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies.
But mysteries abound at Ashton Place: Who are these three wild creatures, and how did they come to live in the vast forests of the estate? Why does Old Timothy, the coachman, lurk around every corner? Will Penelope be able to teach the Incorrigibles table manners and socially useful phrases in time for Lady Constance's holiday ball? And what on earth is a schottische?

Thoughts: One of the things I love about working in a library is coming across children who love reading. They remind me of myself at their age and my daughter now. One young lady came in to the library last week looking for the most recent book in a series called The Incorrigible  Children of Ashton Place. It immediately piqued my interest for my daughter and because I am such a good mum, I had to read it first to make sure it was appropriate. What I found reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but slightly less absurd. Don't get me wrong, I love the absurdity of ASOUE, but Incorrigible Children is just slightly more reserved. Once again it's a children's book that doesn't condescend to it's audience. Wood uses unfamiliar words and expects the reader to either know or work out what it means. She presents most adults in a not too nice light, with those who are half way decent often the servants and misfits. 
Incorrigibles is a book that insists on it's reader being intelligent. It insists on a reader that is entertained by more than a lot of the pulp fiction available to children today. Wood assumes children are not stupid and are interested in good story lines with unique characters. So much of what I see aimed at children today insults their intelligence and while I do believe any reading is good reading it is nice to know that once they have finished with the mass produced pulp, there are people like Maryrose Wood who are still writing quality children's fiction.

Book Review: Coraline

From GoodreadsThere is something strange about Coraline's new home. It's not the mist, or the cat that always seems to be watching her, nor the signs of danger that Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, her new neighbours, read in the tea leaves. It's the other house - the one behind the old door in the drawing room. Another mother and father with black-button eyes and papery skin are waiting for Coraline to join them there. And they want her to stay with them. For ever. She knows that if she ventures through that door, she may never come back.

Thoughts: Yet another stellar author! I love having authors I can count on to give me a good read. This is Gaiman at his creepiest best. While theoretically written for children, Coraline would be more than capable of inducing nightmares in some children. If your kids like creepy stories and aren't given to wild imaginations that run away in the dark - go for it. To tell the truth I would most probably be ok with both my 10 and 13 year old reading this.
Coraline enters another world through what should be a false door - all it opens onto is a brick wall. But some how, on this day, it opens onto another world, one that has been carefully crafted by the Coraline's "other mother." This creature has recreated Coraline's world, but why? And why buttons for eyes? When  Coraline refuses to stay, the other mother steals Coraline's real parents and she must enter the strange world again to save them.
What I really love about Coraline? She saves herself. She is scared, she is uncertain, but she is brave. She is a girl capable of being her own hero.
“Because,' she said, 'when you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave.”
And I don't think we have enough brave girls in literature. I also love that the evil doer in the book is female. It is the other mother that controls the other world and all that is in it. Strong female characters in kids books - love it!
Gaiman's stories are simple but not condescending. The children in them are intelligent and resourceful.  They are able to see through the smoke screen that so many adults seem to put up. In short, Gaiman believes in his child characters and infuses them with a confidence all kids should have. Once again Gaiman is a winner in my book.

Book Review: The Beast's Garden

From GoodreadsA retelling of The Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany
The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark' in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,' the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.
Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.
The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.
The Beast's Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.

Thoughts: Kate Forsyth is definitely becoming one of my favourite authors. I suspect that much like Tim Winton she will not write anywhere near quick enough to sate my appetite, but obviously good books take time to write! In August I was lucky enough the meet Kate Forsyth when she visited the library I work at. Not only was she incredibly interesting to listen to, she was lovely, spending significant time talking to adults and children alike and signing books. She signed my copy of The Beast's Garden which is now so precious to me it will not be lent to anyone!

While this book is being publicised as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it is actually based on a variation known as The Singing Springing Lark. Regardless, it is a beautifully written with meticulous research into both the fairytale world and the real world. Forsyth weaves her characters into the real life horror of Berlin during World War II. Her characters interact with those who, in real life, actively opposed Hitler and his regime - putting themselves in great danger in an attempt to let Berliners and the international community know what was happening. Ava's involvement with this group while married to a man who is part of the Abwehr - the arm of the Nazi party responsible for providing spies - gives the reader access to the going ons of both the party and the resistance. 
Just like the fairytale, the beast turns out to not be so beastly and it's at that point of the story that Ava and Leo's love story truly begins to blossom.
Forsyth's writing brings to the fore the fear and tension of the time. In a place where one misstep easily lead to death, I found myself on tenterhooks for the characters constantly. In an area of fiction that has been mined for stories since the reality of Nazi Germany became clear, Forsyth manages to come at it with something new and original. I have read reviews where people have an issue with portraying Nazi officers as something other than evil, but the reality is there were Nazi officers who actively worked against Hitler and his regime - who did not believe the party line and risked their lives to save lives and bring about Hilter's downfall. Aren't those tales just as important to tell?
I loved The Beast's Garden. It is beautifully written, engrossing and enchanting. 

Book Review: Fates & Furies

From Goodreads: Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.
At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.

Thoughts: This was our first book group read for the year and it was an excellent one!  If you belong to a book group I highly recommend this as a book. It provided the best discussion I think we have ever had.
I have seen a few reviews that have compared it to Gone Girl and I can see where the comparison comes from, but it is similar in only the most basic sense. Like Gone Girl, Fates and Furies is told in two parts, from two points of view with the second challenging some of the assumptions you had made in the first part. Unlike Gone Girl which is plot driven, this is very much driven by it's characters and their reactions to the environment. They make things happen, things don't just happen to them.
And the characters are amazing. They are flawed and fragile. They are unpredictable and challenging. They are likeable and detestable. They are human. Groff's characters stare you in the eye and dismiss you easily, truly not caring what you think. 
Particularly in the second half of the book, the plot twists and turns in ways you never imagined. Suddenly the actions of some become clear and, as in Gone Girl, what you thought you knew turns out to be a beautifully crafted facade.
At it's heart, Fates and Furies is a love story. A story of an imperfect marriage, of doing what must be done, of giving your life to another. It's gritty and real, not a fairytale romance at all. But in the end it shows how love makes us do things we never thought were possible.

11 January, 2016

Book Review: Atticus Claw Breaks the Law

From GoodreadsMeet Atticus Grammatticus Cattypus Claw, the world's greatest cat burglar. He's a tabby who spells trouble. And he's been hired by the fiendish Jimmy Magpie to steal all the jewels in Littleton-on-Sea.
Atticus needs a temporary home - preferably one with lots of sardines provided. But when he adopts Inspector Cheddar and his family, Atticus starts to wonder, is a life of crime really for him?

Thoughts: One of the aspects of my job that I love is running kids literary events. Once a month we run a kids book club, aimed at primary aged children in an attempt to engage with and widen their reading experiences. In January my colleague and I ran the book club based on the Atticus Claw series. I hadn't read any, so thought I should have a go at least one!
Atticus is a pretty cool cat. He goes from a life of crime and loneliness to being a crime fighter with a family. The villains, in the form of some dastardly magpies are brilliant. I love the fact Gray has created a world where it is perfectly acceptable to arrest animals for crimes. 
There is a lot of pulp out for kids at the moment. Mass produced mega series (think Rainbow Fairies or Zac Powers) which do have their place. I do truly believe that any reading is good reading for kids, but it is really nice to come across something that I think will have mass appeal to kids and is well written. I'm not sure I'll read any more of Attius Grammatticus Cattypus Claw's adventures - I'm not really a cat person - but they have definitely been added to my list of suggestions for when library patrons ask what's a good thing for my child to read! 

05 January, 2016

December in review

So we have reached the end of the year. 2015 was one of many ups and downs - a few more downs. Can't say I am sorry to see the end of it. I did fall short of my target 100 reads, but I will talk more about that in my end of year round up. In the meantime, lets look at December.
Stats first.

Kindle - 0                               Library -0
Book - 3                                 Own - 4
Audio - 1                              Borrowed (non library) - 0
Fiction - 2                      
Non-fiction - 2
Female Author - 3                  New to Me Authors - 2
Male Author - 4
Australian Author - 4

I feel like I read more in December. Maybe I'm missing something between Bitter Greens and Island Home, but for the life of me I can't remember what it is - if it even exists! It was obviously a big month for Australian authors and a nice even split between memoir and fiction. The only one not in the running for best book of the month is Relativity. Very strange month indeed!

Questionable Deeds was our book club read - but I had read that earlier in the year. It provoked some interesting discussion, if not a little reserved as at least a few of us are personal friends with the author.

So there you have it, 2015 finally finished. I've already finished 1 (almost 2) book(s) this year, but don't want to review them until I do a final 2015 review. I'm currently on my son's computer as mine is out of commission for the moment. Hopefully the component needed to see it back in action will be here this week! 

I hope you all had a fabulous Christmas and your new year is off to a good start. Here's hoping 2016 is a good one for us all!

04 January, 2016

Book Review: Reckoning

From GoodreadsHeartbreaking, joyous, traumatic, intimate and revelatory, Reckoning is the book where Magda Szubanski, one of Australia’s most beloved performers, tells her story.
In this extraordinary memoir, Magda describes her journey of self-discovery from a suburban childhood, haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland and by her secret awareness of her sexuality, to the complex dramas of adulthood and her need to find out the truth about herself and her family. With courage and compassion she addresses her own frailties and fears, and asks the big questions about life, about the shadows we inherit and the gifts we pass on.
Honest, poignant, utterly captivating, Reckoning announces the arrival of a fearless writer and natural storyteller. It will touch the lives of its readers.

Thoughts: Once again a Richard Fidler Conversation sparked my interest. I mean apart from the fact it's Magda Szubanski, one of Australia's funniest people, it's first line is this:
If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin. 
Seriously!! Is that not the best first line you have ever read!! Thankfully I have excellent friends who totally get me and my reading style so one of them bought it for me for Christmas - thanks Jodie! Nailed it!!

This is not your typical celebrity memoir. Szubanski takes you into her childhood, viewed from the eyes of a new immigrant to country. She explores complex and life changing feelings, events, experiences and thoughts, relating them back to her growth as a person, a comedian, an immigrant, a daughter. She is brutally honest about her struggle to accept her sexuality and her fear of it's affect on her relationships not only with her family but the public.
You cannot read this book and not admire Magda Szubanski. I don't think it would be easy for those who are valued for being funny to write so seriously. It wouldn't be easy to expose so much of yourself. 
Reckoning was definitely an excellent way to end the year.

Reckoning gets 4 stars.

*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing

Book Review: Island Home

From Goodreads'I grew up on the world’s largest island.' 
This apparently simple fact is the starting point for Tim Winton’s beautiful, evocative and sometimes provocative memoir of how Australia's unique landscape has shaped him and his writing. 
Wise, rhapsodic, exalted – Island Home is not just a brilliant, moving insight into the life and art of one of our finest writers, but a compelling investigation into the way our country shapes us.

Thoughts: Winton. Seriously, you can't go wrong with the man. His ability to place you smack bang in the middle of Australia and view it through his eyes is second to none. Everything from the cover to the explorations of place will make you long for this place we are lucky enough to go home. His description of what it feels like to be an Aussie overseas may be one of the big reasons I am not so eager to travel overseas. The love he has for the country only fuels my desire to see more of it - especially Western Australia and it's beautiful coastline. As one other review I read of Island Home said, all of Winton's books are about place, but this is about The Place.
Without beating the reader over the head, Winton gently reminds us how ancient this land is and how it captures people's hearts. He acknowledges the love non indigenous Australian's feel for their home, but points out we lack the ancient connection our indigenous population feel and revere. We have much to learn from the aboriginal culture and if we would only open ourselves up to it, they would be happy to teach us and maybe we could heal some of the hurt caused by our ancestors. 
Australia is big enough for all of us and I only hope that we all find the love and joy in this land that Tim Winton wants us to.

Island Home gets 5 stars

*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing

Book Review - Relativity

From Goodreads: Ethan is a bright young boy obsessed with physics and astronomy who lives with his mother, Claire. Claire has been a wonderful parent to Ethan, but he's becoming increasingly curious about his father's absence in his life, wanting to fill in the gaps. 
Claire's life is centred on Ethan; she is fiercely protective of her talented, vulnerable son, and of her own feelings. When Ethan falls ill, tied to a tragic event from when he was a baby, Claire's tightly held world is split open. 
On the other side of the country, Mark is trying to forget about the events that tore his family apart. Then a sudden and unexpected call home forces him to confront his past, and the hole in his life that was once filled with his wife Claire and his son Ethan.
When Ethan secretly intercepts a letter from Mark to Claire, he unleashes long-suppressed forces that – like gravity – pull the three together again, testing the limits of love and forgiveness.
Heart-wrenching, absorbing and magical, Relativity is an irresistible novel about science, love, unbreakable bonds and irreversible acts.

Thoughts: Antonia Hayes did not give a lot of interviews about this book. Understandable when you realise how closely she cuts to the bone with the premise of the book. One interview she did give was on Richard Fidler's Conversations. (seriously, I should track how many books I get from that show!) It was interesting and heart-wrenching enough for me to add to my list. In the end, I listened to it as a audio, read by the author herself.
I quite enjoyed the book, although I found Claire to be fairly annoying. However, there was one moment in the book where it completely lost me and it took a lot to get me back. During a meeting at school with Claire, Ethan, staff at the school, the parents of one of Ethan's friends and Ethan's friend, the mother of the friend reveals some very private and privileged information. The principal and other staff that were present just let it happen. There was time and space for them to intervene and they didn't. I do not know of, nor can imagine such a situation ever occurring. Schools are big on privacy and protecting children. There is no way what was revealed would be allowed. It was necessary for Ethan to find out the information disclosed, but it was done in such a clunky, plot device way it completely jarred me out of the story. For quite awhile I was so angry about the whole thing  I struggled to slip back into the story. However, in the end I managed to move past it and follow the story to the end.
The book is one of those that presents several questions to the reader. How would you react in Claire's position? What would you tell your child about what happened and the effect it has had? What are the dangers of hiding such information from a child - especially when they form answers for themselves that may be very far of the mark. And at what point do you start to believe your own lies in order to cover the pain?
Part of me wants to give Relativity 4 stars, but the reality is the school scene plus a few other little niggling issues means it will stay at a 3.

Relativity gets 3 stars

*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing