26 November, 2015

Book Review: Still Alice

From GoodreadsAlice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life--and her relationship with her family and the world--forever.
At once beautiful and terrifying, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of life with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that is as compelling as A Beautiful Mind and as unforgettable as Judith Guest's Ordinary People.

Thoughts: I can be quite a morbid person. I will run the most horrific scenarios through my head wondering how I would cope. Loss of my husband, loss of one of my kids, going blind, cancer diagnosis. Alzheimer's is one of those most terrifying scenarios. How on earth do you cope with losing yourself, losing everything you believe makes you you, everything you have created, worked for, slipping away from you.
As a neuroscientist Lisa Genova knows her stuff. This makes this even more scary as you know what she is describing is in fact very, very real. As she says at the end, this book does not describe everyone's journey with Alzhiemer's, but it does depict one possible path.
As with her book Inside the O'Briens, Genova takes you through her characters realisation there is something wrong, diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and deterioration. She explores the affect on spouses and children, especially given the hereditary nature of the disease. I was concerned momentarily about it become another O'Briens when the subject of testing for Alice's children came up and whether or not they should be tested. However, unlike the O'Briens where it became a significant sub plot, it was very quickly and easily dealt with.
I have no experience with Alzheimer's. It is not something that has appeared in my family tree and for that I am grateful. I do not know how I would react as a spouse of someone with Alzhiemer's, but I will admit some of John's (Alice's husband) reactions annoyed me. They had such limited time left and all he seemed to want to do was ignore it. Having said that, the book is told from Alice's perspective the only insight you get into John is through her.
I listened to this as an audio book, read by the author. It flowed easily and I think would be a fairly easy read, even if it is emotionally charged. There were times when tears welled, but they never spilled. Again, like the O'Briens, Genova finished the book before the ultimate demise - a good thing. As the reader you know where the story will end and it's almost like watching a family go through this, then withdrawing at the appropriate moment to allow them their privacy.
Genova has two other books I haven't read - Left Neglected and Love Anthony. Both sound interesting and I will have a look at them. Love Anthony in particular interests me as it seems to move away from the neurological disorders field. As I said, I feel one of Genova's strengths is her professional knowledge about the conditions she writes about. I hope it's a skill she can carry across to other areas.

Still Alice gets 4 stars

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

25 November, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Chord

From Goodreads:A rich and utterly absorbing novel about the life of King David, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of People of the Book and March.
With more than two million copies of her novels sold, New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Now, Brooks takes on one of literature’s richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.
The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

Thoughts: Some books you can just immerse yourself in. Float along on a river of rich language, lavish descriptions and an enthralling story. The Secret Chord is such a book. If we continue the river analogy, it starts off a slow steady place, almost ebbing in parts before the flow picks up and you find yourself bouncing over rapids and the occasional waterfall .
Told from the point of view of Natan, King David's prophet, The Secret Chord leads us into David's inner world. His early years before meeting Natan are covered as his mother, brother and first wife tell Natan of their lives with David and how he became the man he was. 
Brook's portrayal of David show a flawed man who truly believed he was anointed by God to be king. His was a brutal reign at times, but his destiny to unite the tribes of Israel and bring peace is something he had complete faith in. The constant of Natan gives the reader a voice to hold onto and believe. Natan has no vested interest in lying so you believe what he says implicitly and value his point of view. Poor Natan had no choice over his destiny either, but he followed it with humility and bravery.
Not having a great knowledge of biblical stories, I was not bothered by Brook's use of traditional Hebrew names. For some reviewers this deviation from the names they have grown up with was a struggle. At times the book is graphic in it's descriptions of battle and rape, but they were pretty brutal times.  
If you are a Geraldine Brooks fan, I'd highly recommend this to you. It will definitely be up there as one of my best reads of 2015.

The Secret Chord gets 5 stars

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


24 November, 2015

Book Review: The Serial Killers Club

From GoodreadsWhen our hero finds himself in the path of a serial killer, he somehow manages to defend himself, and give the blood-thirsty madman a taste of his own medicine. But when he goes through the dead man's wallet, he finds a mysterious personal ad inviting him to join a party hosted by Errol Flynn. What begins with passing curiosity soon becomes uncontrollable obsession, as our hero becomes acquainted with 18 killers. Their game: to share the thrill of the hunt and to make sure no two members choose the same two victims. To protect their identities, they have all chosen names of old Hollywood stars, and before long, our hero becomes Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But he has no intention of following the rules. With a government special agent on his trail who will soon become his partner in crim, "Dougie" plans to knock off the killers one by one, from Carole Lombard to Chuck Norris, to Laurence Olivier and Cher. But what happens when the "stars" notice their numbers dropping?

Thoughts: At the library where I work, our customers can use an app called Overdrive to download ebooks and audio books. Occasionally I have to help someone access the items they want so I figured I better work out how to use it myself! So I downloaded a couple of talking books - this being one of them. It sounded good, sounded light and funny. It even had promise to start with, but by the end I just wanted it to be over! I think part of the problem is Dougie is just an incredibly stupid man. Painfully stupid. He is completely oblivious to anything going on around him that doesn't pertain to him. Every slight by a person, every comment made is reaction to him and if it's negative, he will spin it around to some explanation that strokes his belief in himself as this perfect human specimen. Of course what this means is he is extremely easy to manipulate and completely clueless to it. While it had comic value to start with, by the end it just became plain annoying and repetitive. 
It most probably didn't help that I wasn't enthralled by the narrator either. His voice lacked expression and possibly made a dull book even duller. If you were going to give this one a go, I'd suggest reading it, not listening. It is this that convinces me to give it 2 stars instead of 1.

The Serial Killers Club gets 2 stars

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

22 November, 2015

Book Review: The Jungle Dark

From Goodreads: On 21 July 1969, 3 Platoon, A Company, 6 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment forced their way through the damp Vietnamese jungle on a patrol as part of Operation Mundingburra. With the insects biting and the humidity sapping their strength, the platoon established a safe harbour and listened as the news came across the radio: Neil Armstrong had become the first man on the moon. Moments later, their skipper, Platoon Commander Lieutenant Peter Hines, stepped on a mine and exploded in a maelstrom of dirt, smoke and blood.
Memories of that fateful day stayed with the members of 3 Platoon for more than a decade before singer-songwriter John Schumann transformed the story into a ballad that would capture the spirit of a generation and become the anthem for the veterans of the Vietnam war.
This is the true story of Frank 'Frankie' Hunt and the other soldiers of 3 Platoon who were the inspiration for Redgum's 1983 hit song I Was Only Nineteen. Using first-hand accounts, The Jungle Dark is both a fascinating Australian yarn and enthralling military history. Vividly told, informative and poignant, it also traverses the deep unhealed wounds left in the minds and hearts of Vietnam soldiers long after they had left the battlefield.

Then someone yelled out "Contact"', and the bloke behind me swore. 

We hooked in there for hours, then a God almighty roar; 
Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon: - 
God help me, he was going home in June.

Sometimes a book comes to you out of the blue and insists on being read. The Jungle Dark happened to come through the return chutes at work when I was in check in. For some reason, I flipped it over to read the back and the words Platoon Commander Lieutenant Peter Hines jumped out at me. I'd grown up hearing about Peter Hines because apparently I looked a bit like him - he was my mum's cousin.  I'd been told he was the person in the song I Was Only 19, but I kind of assumed mum meant it was something that happened to Peter on that day, not that he was the actually "Frankie". Turns out he was.
Steve Strevens recount of 3 Platoon is heart wrenching in so many ways. It focuses on Frank Hunt and the impact Vietnam had on him, not only during the conflict but afterwards.  The other members of 3 Platoon also have their story told, including Peter. These are men we should be proud of. These are men who handled themselves with dignity, loyalty and courage in the most god awful circumstances. These are men whose suffering did not end when they left the battlefield and came home.
Strevens treats the whole situation with remarkable sensitivity. He outlines the declining support for the war among the general populace, but does not lay blame. He places you in the middle of the fear and uncertainty of the jungle dark. The importance of being able to rely on your mates, the focus on not letting them down, working as a team, becoming family. They became important because they understood, they knew what you had been through and the trauma you continued to suffer. He deals with the reality of these men's lives after Vietnam and the effect it has on their lives to this very day.
I truly believe Australia's attitude towards our service men and women serving overseas was changed by our acknowledgement of how badly many of the Vietnam vets had been treated at the very late welcome home parade in 1987. The parade and the memorial was the country's way of saying while we don't necessarily agree with you being in a foreign war zone, we respect the job you did and the sacrifices you made. I think it has gone a long way towards people being able to separate their disagreement about our service personnel being in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq from the men and women who serve there. 
For me The Jungle Dark has an obvious personal connection, a link to my personal history. The moment I finished I got on line and bought a copy for myself, my mum and my sister. It's also a interesting, moving read. If you want an insight into Vietnam this is well worth reading.

The Jungle Dark gets 4 stars

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

11 November, 2015

Book Review: The Puzzle Ring

From GoodreadsHannah Rose was not quite 13 years old when she discovered her family was cursed. . . .
The arrival of a mysterious letter changes Hannah’s life forever. One day she is an ordinary teenage girl. The next day she discovers she is heir to a castle in the Scottish highlands—a castle that was cursed more than four hundred and forty years ago.
The curse has haunted her family for generations, culminating in the disappearance of Hannah’s father the day after she was born. A prophecy tells of a Red Rose who will save a Black Rose, solve the puzzle ring, and break the curse. Red-haired Hannah is determined to be the one.
Yet, to break the curse, she must go back in time to the last tumultuous days of Mary, Queen of Scots . . . a time when witches were burnt and queens were betrayed and the dark forces of wild magic still stalked the land. . . .

Thoughts: My love affair with Kate Forsyth began with The Wild Girl. It is still the first book I mention when people ask for a suggestion.  I am slightly embarrassed to admit I did not realise she was such a prolific children's writer. I am not surprised that the beautifully crafted writing I discovered in The Wild Girl is also present in The Puzzle Ring.
The Puzzle Ring is the type of book I would have devoured as a child. It is magical and mysterious, with real danger and evil for our characters to face and defeat. Forsyth takes one child's ordinary life and weaves in faeries, magic and time travel in such a way any young child reading it would instantly believe this could happen to them. I loved the how Hannah and her friends went back in time and were shown the reality of living during the days of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was cold and dirty and the food was not particularly nice. If you travelled you did so on foot and slept rough. You needed to keep your wits about you at all times, especially if you could be accused of being a witch!
If you have a child with a love of Narnia or Spiderwick get them onto Kate Forsyth, I don't think they will be disappointed.

The Puzzle Ring gets 4 stars.

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

06 November, 2015

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

From GoodreadsLiving in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over. 

Thoughts: This should have been good, it should have been brilliant, especially in the hands of Margaret Atwood. The idea was solid, a world in economic ruin and people desperate enough to do whatever they needed to feel safe and secure. But it wasn't good, it fell short, very short. 
I loved The Handmaid's Tale and The Year of the Flood and Atwood has long been on my list of authors to read everything of so I am really disappointed in this.
Charmaine and Stan annoyed the hell out of me. They were both so stupid! There were situations, especially with Charmaine where her inability to see where certain events were leading was astounding. Her tendency to take everything literally and in isolation without taking in what was happening around her made her character hard to believe. 
The story was originally written as a serial story, chapters released bit by bit for readers to pick up on. I didn't read it in that form and maybe it worked better as a serial, but as a whole novel it's flawed.
The problem is you're not sure if this is meant to be a black comedy or a serious commentary of the direction of our society and where we are heading. It's almost like it's trying to be both and falling seriously short. There are parts that are farcical (possibilibots and an over abundance of Elvis and Marilyn impersonators to name just two), but they seem to be there as plot devices and nothing more. The story line lurches from the strange to the absurd leaving you feeling confused and let down. However it does hold enough potential to keep you going, I kept holding one waiting for that one moment when it all came together and I got to share in Atwood's grand design. Unfortunately I think the design should never have made it off the drawing board.

The Heart Goes Last gets 2 stars.

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

05 November, 2015

Book Review: The Silver Donkey

From Goodreads: One bright spring morning in the woods of France, a soldier, blinded by the war, is found by a little girl named Coco, and her older sister Marcelle. In return for their kindness, the soldier tells the sisters marvelous tales, each story connected to the keepsake he carries in his pocket: a perfect, tiny silver donkey.
As the days pass and they struggle in secret to help the soldier reach home, Coco and Marcelle learn the truth behind the silver donkey, and what the precious object means: honesty, loyalty, and courage.

Thoughts:  Sonya Hartnett is quite simply a beautiful writer.  The Silver Donkey was her the first foray out of YA and Adult and into younger reader territory. In my mind that is always a dangerous time for an author, especially one who has so firmly cemented themselves as an outstanding YA author. In reality I think there are very few who do the cross over successfully - Hartnett is without doubt one of them.
The subtly of her writing is still strong - just because her audience is younger she doesn't feel the need to pander to them and explain every single event. A book such as this is ripe for discussion either in a class room or between parent and child. At the same time, Hartnett does not shy away from portraying war as a horrible and nasty business - no glorification here! 
Adults take a back seat in this story, the children are driving it, but adult help is sought when it's needed. By doing this Hartnett doesn't stray into the territory of the children accomplishing something they quite simply wouldn't be able to. Themes are plentiful and it could be used to fit many a theme - war, trust, secret keeping, how the world has changed, story telling, loyalty. In the lead up to Remembrance Day  it would be a good book to share with a child who appreciate a war story which did not focus so much on the fighting, but on the possible emotional issues faced by those caught up in such terrible times.

The Silver Donkey gets 4 stars 

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

03 November, 2015

October in Review

October?? Already gone??? Oh help!!!

On the reading front, not a bad month.

Stats first.

Kindle - 4                                Library - 3
Book - 3                                      Own - 4
Audio - 0                                     Borrowed (non library) - 0
Fiction - 5                       
Non-fiction - 2

Female Author - 2                        New to Me Authors - 5
Male Author - 6
Australian Author - 5

7 reads this month. Not bad and a great selection. Pick of the month is hard, but I think The Martian has to be it. If you have seen the movie and thought it was good, read the book - it's excellent. Brother of the More Famous Jack was our October book group read and Flesh Wounds is our November read. Both were really enjoyable and well worth discussing. Brother of the More Famous Jack surprised me - I enjoyed it but didn't think there was much to it until we started talking about it and I discovered there was quite a lot! Flesh Wounds should produce a great amount of discussion plus a game or two of "Who has the weirdest parents?"

No audio this month, although I am more than half way through Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last. Like last month I'm listening to a lot of podcasts, having added The Moth and The Guardian Books podcast to my subscriptions. I often find myself in the car laughing or crying as I listen to some amazing stories.

Looking forward

No hard copy book purchases this month - no book launches! Although given I have yet to open any of the purchases I mentioned last month, most probably not a bad thing!

Not many library borrowings either, but have added a couple to the list.

I'm continuing my love affair with Kate Forsyth, picking up her children's novel, The Puzzle Ring and Cracking the Code by Stephen and Sally Damini and Leah Kaminsky I picked up after hearing an interview with them on Richard Fidler's Conversation Hour. I'm going to concentrate on library books in November because while I do have a huge amount out, I can't just keep renew the ones I do!

As for the Kindle, I have purchased The Secret Chord by Geraldine BrooksFlesh Wounds by Richard Glover, and Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien. At least I know I have a choice in what I want to read!

Well that's October, looking into November. What was your month like?

01 November, 2015

Book Review: Flesh Wounds

From GoodreadsA mother who invented her past, a father who was often absent, a son who wondered if this could really be his family.
Richard Glover's favourite dinner party game is called 'Who's Got the Weirdest Parents?'. It's a game he always thinks he'll win. There was his mother, a deluded snob, who made up large swathes of her past and who ran away with Richard's English teacher, a Tolkien devotee, nudist and stuffed-toy collector. There was his father, a distant alcoholic, who ran through a gamut of wives, yachts and failed dreams. And there was Richard himself, a confused teenager, vulnerable to strange men, trying to find a family he could belong to. As he eventually accepted, the only way to make sense of the present was to go back to the past - but beware of what you might find there. Truth can leave wounds - even if they are only flesh wounds.
Part poignant family memoir, part rollicking venture into a 1970s Australia, this is a book for anyone who's wondered if their family is the oddest one on the planet. The answer: 'No'. There is always something stranger out there.

Thoughts: I reckon everyone has a story they could tell during a game of "Who's Got the Weirdest Parents?", I know I've got a couple that could be contenders for the top prize. Richard Glover's life is full of them. 
Flesh Wounds is our book group book for November. It was my choice, made after I heard him interviewed by Richard Fidler on the Conversation Hour. It's a great interview - funny and cringe worthy at the same time. You can find it here and I highly recommend a listen. 
The book was the same, you'd be laughing out loud one moment and then cringing the next, feeling slightly ashamed that what you were laughing at was someone's life and delusions. But Glover wants you to laugh, he wants you to acknowledge the absurd and the crazy.
As a book group read it's fantastic. Lots of discussion to be had and pasts to be delved in. I'm sure there will be a round or two of Who's Got the Weirdest Parents and some pondering over what stories our own children might tell when they are older. 
I think it must have taken incredible courage for Richard Glover to write this book. His parents are not portrayed in a good light in any way. In fact as you read, you find yourself wondering how Glover turned out to be a functioning adult at all. He is a shining example of resilience and thriving despite not because of your circumstances. This book could have so easily been a depressing, dark and horrible journey through a not terribly nice childhood. Instead Glover presents his life as it is what it is and you can't change that so you might as well make the best of it. He acknowledges there are aspects of his life he keeps at arms length, developing a kind of detachment from the more bizarre and hurtful parts. His continued devotion to his parents, continuing to visit and include them in his life is not something I think a lot of people would have done. If nothing else this book goes to show a dysfunctional family does not mean the end of a functional life. As Glover himself says: " ...So many people had inadequate childhoods but we're not all insane or self-harming or miserable. We just found the love we needed elsewhere... This is the amazing resilience of humans. We are hungry for love and - mostly - we somehow find it."

Flesh Wounds gets 4 stars

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

Closet His, Closet Hers

From Burge Words:  A COLLECTION of ten stories, all variations on the same theme: hiding from the truth.
The matron who interprets her sexual desire as physical pain, obsessed with one of her nurses to the point of stalking.

The father who has liaisons with men at public toilets, and the kid who works out he knows the bloke.
The painter who is out but not too proud, not until she’s achieved something with her life, and the Auschwitz survivor she must care for in her day job.
The mother who tries to find ‘the right girl’ for her son, only to come face-to-face with his male partner.
The daughter who finds her gay uncle on Facebook and confronts her christian father about his homophobia in one insightful email …
Captured at the crossroads of their lives, these people face choices between extraordinary heroism and cowardice.

Thoughts: Michael is a writer who likes to tell it like it is, even if his characters are hiding some pretty big secrets. His characters are all struggling with their sexuality and how they fit (or don't fit) into the roles society has chosen for them.
If you have read Michael's book Questionable Deeds you will recognise some of the situations he presents in Closet His, Closet Hers. There are a couple of stories which were almost like dry runs of what is delved into more deeply in the non fiction Questionable Deeds. For me it felt almost like a testing of the waters - can I write about this or is it still too raw?
All of the stories are about same sex attraction. At times it is very confronting, forcing you to not only face how parts of society react to same sex relationships or sex, but possibly your own thoughts and feelings.
Closet His, Closet Hers highlights the shame and trauma placed upon people when they are forced to hide what they truly feel. All of it's characters are damaged in some way because they feel they have to hide how they truly feel. And the damage extends to their friends and their family. No one can be happy if they are living a lie.
I would like to think that many of scenarios presented in Closet His, Closet Hers no longer exists. That a man no longer feels he has to marry, have children, live the suburban life if that is not what he wants. That a woman doesn't have to deny what she really wants and feels able to follow her desires and dreams. Sadly however I know these scenes are still played out in the daily lives of some. Hopefully books like this can highlight how damaging that is and everyone can learn to accept that love is love, regardless of a persons gender.

If you would like to know more about Michael Burge, his current publications and his upcoming releases, check out his website, Burge Words.

Closet His, Closet Hers gets 4 stars

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