book reviews

Wished I’d read this as a kid: Ish

Getting the balance right between reading and writing is always a bit of a challenge. There’s always so much waiting to be read, and every now and then I find that I need to put down my pen and just read like crazy.

The last couple of weeks have been like that, and although I’ve been enjoying lots of great books, I’ve not paused to share them with you – yet. But this week I’ll put that right. Each day this week, I’ll post a new book review. I hope it’ll give you a bit of an idea of what my last couple of weeks have contained, it’s been a lovely mix of kids books and novels. A real mixed bag, just the way I like it.

To start with, I wanted to share with you a fabulous picture book that I’ve recently discovered, a book that I very much wish I had read as a kid. It’s Peter H. Reynolds’ Ish.

Peter’s book has been around for a few years now (it was published in 2005), but I’d not heard of it until my friend Yolande mentioned it in passing on Facebook, when I described my house as clean-ish. I was quietly admonishing myself for not being quite tidy enough, as I’m sure we’re all want to do in one way or another from time to time.

And there in lies the main message of Ish:

Ramon loves to draw, especially when he learns that he doesn’t have to worry about getting it “just right”

Ramon, after being teased by his big brother, almost hangs up his brushes for good. That is, until his little sister shows him much she appreciates his pictures – even if they aren’t quite perfect.

I love this idea. I wonder how many of us can remember feeling discouraged as we tried to get that picture perfect… I know I certainly struggled with that as a child, and I’ve seen my kids in turn get frustrated when their person, or house, or car didn’t come out on the page quite the way that they’d hoped. Encouraging them to let go of expectation and be freely creative can be pretty tricky but is so important to ensure that they learn to express themselves as they get older.

Peter’s book expresses beautifully the wonder in being ish-ish:

“Ramon felt light and energised. Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely. He began to draw what he felt – loose lines. quickly springing out. Without worry.”

And it makes me think about the amount of times that I’ve known myself and others to be paralysed by the need to produce something perfectly. It really is only once we let go of that tension and anxiety that we can move forward, be it with art or work or the everyday. That’s something that I hope to teach my kids, and I’m thankful that books like Ish will help me to do that.

To make the book all the more enticing, Reynolds is an incredible illustrator. His scenes are simple and colourful, carefree and inviting, and Ramon is the cutest little character around.

I’m looking forward to checking out some other titles by Peter, and if you’re interested in seeing what else he’s done, maybe pop over to his website and take a look.

I’d highly recommend this lovely little book, for kids and grown-ups alike.

***

Tomorrow, I’ll review Jennifer Paynter’s Mary Bennet (Penguin). If you love Pride and Prejudice, you’ll love Jennifer’s revisit.

***

Buy your own copy of Ish at the TBYL Store for only $16.95


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A vampire for all ages: The Immortal Rules

I love the fact that there seems to be a vampire story for all age groups.

As I write this, my four-year old is watching a bizarre little show called Mona the Vampire on the ABC, yesterday I ogled over that (decidedly adult) True Blood magazine cover, and today I finished a fantastic young adult novel, an enticing, blood-sucking adventure The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa (Harlequin Teen).

Aimed squarely at plucky teenage girls, Julie’s novel is a wonderfully entertaining tale of vampires, rabids, ferals and ‘bloodbags’ all battling darkly, hopelessly against extinction, striving towards an increasingly unlikely survival.

Allison Sekemoto survives in the Fringe, the outermost circle of a vampire city. By day, she and her crew scavenge for food. By night, any one of them could be eaten. Some days, all that drives Allie is her hatred of them. The vampires who keep humans as blood cattle. Until the night Allie herself is attacked – and given the ultimate choice. Die… or become one of the monsters.

It’s been said before, but there is undoubtedly a lack of strong female protagonists in literature, but Julie has kindly helped to redress the balance. Allie is tough and resourceful. Both before and after her turning, she shows true grit and determination, and the delightful ability to skilfully wield a katana. She paints herself as detached, but through her relationships with Stick, Zeke and even Kanin, she shows herself to be ultimately caring and subtly gallant.

There’s plenty of action, blood and gore:

“Something hit me from behind, hard, and warmth spread over my neck and back, though there was no pain. The blow knocked me forward, and I stumbled, falling to my knees. A weight landed on me, screeching, tearing at me, and bright strips of fire began to spread across my shoulders. I screamed and flipped over, using my legs to shove it away, but another pale creature filled my vision, and all I could see was its face and teeth and blank, dead eyes, lunging forward .”

And plenty of the usual vampire mythology, imagery and romance:

“I lunged, sinking my fangs into his neck, driving them deep. Stifling a cry, Zeke stiffened and gripped my arms, arching his back. His blood coursed hot and sweet into my mouth, spreading through me, a slow-moving fire. It tasted of earth and smoke, of heat and passion and strength, of all things Zeke. He breathed my name, a sigh of benediction and longing, and I couldn’t get close enough, never close enough.”

It’s little wonder really that the vampiric tale is so often revisited…

The novel itself brought to mind many favourites; True Blood, Underworld, even I am Legend, but the author’s creation of darkly decrepit vampire cities, vampiric hierachy and the threat of ‘rabids’ on the doorstep has kept her novel fresh and original. The search for Eden, and for an illusive, perhaps impossible cure drives the story ever forward.

I’m no YA expert but I’d say that if you liked Hunger Games and Twilight you’ll no doubt enjoy The Immortal Rules equally. This is the first in a promised triology ‘Blood of Eden’ and I for one am already looking forward to the next installment.

***

I’m pleased to be able to offer one reader a copy of Julie’s The Immortal Rules this month.

All you need to do is:

1. Leave a comment on this post, or

2. Visit our Facebook page and leave a comment,

…and tell us where about your favourite vampire tale.

I’ll draw one winner at random on Monday 28 May 2012. As usual, you’ll have 4 days to claim your prize or I’ll redraw.

If you’d like to find out more about Julie’s book, you should visit her website.

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Who’s right? Lone Wolf, by Jodi Picoult

Ok, I’ll admit, Lone Wolf is my first Jodi Picoult read.

I’ve a copy of Perfect Match on my bookshelf, but I’ve not read it. I’ve of course heard a lot about My Sister’s Keeper, but have never been brave enough to put myself through it. I’ve been told that Nineteen Minutes is quite a bit like Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I enjoyed.

In short, it was high time that I had a look at Picoult and her skilful storytelling.

Lone Wolf is a fascinating story, an examination of family, loyalty and instinct:

“Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for five years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call:  his dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.

With her father’s chances for recovery dwindling, Cara wants to wait for a miracle. But Edward wants to terminate life support and donate his father’s organs. Is he motivated by altruism, or revenge? And to what
lengths will his sister to go to stop him from making an irrevocable decision?”

It’s a tale of conundrums and contradictions, of challenges facing a family group, all of whom, despite their differences are very likeable. I felt sympathy for all of them, Luke, Georgie, Cara, Edward and Joe, as they struggled to come to terms with the horrific situation facing them:

“There are stages of shock. The first one comes when you walk into the hospital room and you see your father, still as a corpse, hooked up to a bunch of machines and monitors. There’s the total disconnect when you try and reconcile that picture with the one in your head: the same man playing tag with a bunch of wolf pups; the same man who stood eye to eye with you and dared you to challenge him.”

Of course, they not only have the present to struggle with, but also the past. Secrets, guilt, conflicts and unresolvable differences have long come between this family, all of which now would do well to be exposed and dealt with – it’s clear that only then will Cara and Edward be able to heal, both physically and emotionally.

The novel itself is presented from the perspectives of all the main characters, moving from chapter to chapter it reveals the internal workings of each family member. Chapters are headed as Cara, Edward, Luke, Georgie and Joe. I was a little unsure about this device when I first flicked through the book, this kind of structure can be a little convenient. Not so in this case though, as the structure is both effective and appropriate – so much of this novel is about how people feel, about their internal dialogue, and also about how misunderstandings in feeling and thought can lead to very dire outcomes. Being privy to the situation and its emotions from the perspective of all players was not only interesting but also important. Further, it made the resolution to this story far more satisficatory.

Interestingly, Luke’s voice is also included in Lone Wolf, challenging given his vegetative state. In my opinion though, it is clear why he is given a voice – his reminiscing about his time in the wild with his wolf family is quite vital to the complexities of this family situation. While his children ponder on the state of their human family, both past and present, Luke, in what might be his final days, focuses entirely on his wolf pack:

“Later that day I was sitting with my knees drawn up when the beta loped closer and suddenly lunged, grabbing my throat on the underside. I could feel his teeth sinking into my skin, and instinctively I rolled to my back, a position of utter subordination. He wanted to make sure I’d learned what he’d been trying to teach me… The highest-ranking wolf in the pack isn’t the one that uses brute force. It’s the one who can, and chooses not to.”

Initially, it’s hard to understand Luke’s obsession and subsequent neglect of his family, but as the novel goes on, it becomes clearer and more tolerable – and this is part of the journey that his family are also required to make.

Lone Wolf is a really interesting novel and very readable. It’s not overly harrowing, although it will tug at the heart strings to the right degree, and take you on an emotional, intellectual and moral journey.


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Perfect fit: The Book Thief

Every now and then you find a book that’s a perfect fit, a book that’s just right, a book that you want to re-read almost as soon as you’ve finished the last page.

For me, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief was just such a book – it is easily now in my top five.

I had my suspicions from the beginning, from the cover design, the weight of the book, the font – that this was going to be a book that fit me well. This suspicion was confirmed early:

“HERE IS A SMALL FACT…You are going to die”

“I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.”

I was hooked. With this we meet the narrator of this perfect, horrifying tale; Death.

You might think that the choice of Death as storyteller would make for a terribly dark affair, but, as he says himself, he is in fact quite amiable. For this story, his omnisciences is required and his practical approach to departure is reassuring, in a pragmatic, yet moving way:

“I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”

Gently…

I was of course immediately endeared to Liesel and her love affair with books and words. Her resilience and resourcefulness whilst in great peril was inspiring, and her humanity and compassion was stunning. For a girl so young, Liesel showed many enviable characteristics not the least of which was her wish to not only survive, but to live – she stole books in the same way that she stole food – and for similar reasons. It was not enough for Liesel to simply feed her body, even in an environment of violence and oppression, the need to feed her appetite for words and ideas was ever present.

I should say though, that my attraction to this book was about more than just the plot. Liesel’s story is very moving, but it’s not all that makes this book so special. In my opinion, The Book Thief is as much about how the story is told, as it is about the story itself. It is poetically told, it ebbs and flows like music. It is skillful prose, and it’s quiet intensity makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Markus’ story made me shiver, cry, smile.

It was amazing to read a book that was so carefully put together, one that was so conscious of its pace and rhythm. I’ve read a lot of good stories over the last few years, but few that have been written so beautifully.

“Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails sliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded liked an instrument, or the notes of running feet.”

It goes without saying, that I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.

Have you read The Book Thief? What did you think?


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Iraq, time travel and Vikings. Need more?

It’s lovely isn’t it, having an extra long, long weekend, complete with family feasts, chocolates galore and plenty of reading time?

My little family rarely goes away over the break, preferring rather to bunker down and enjoy some well earned down-time around the house. While the boys enjoy a few extra pyjama days, and some lengthy Playstation sessions, I  tend to make the most of the time and catch up on some reading and writing. This Easter break, I’ve got lots of books to read and quite a few reviews I’ve been looking forward to posting. Today’s review has been a long time coming.

Last weekend, I finally had the chance to pick up Keith Mcardle’s, The Forgotten Land. It has been on the reading pile for some time, but for one reason or another I kept getting distracted away from it. Now I’ve read it, I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to get to – it was a lot of fun.

Sergeant Steve Golburn, an Australian Special Air Service veteran, is tasked with a dangerous mission in Iraq, deep behind enemy lines. When Steve’s 5 man SAS patrol inadvertently spark a time portal, they are thrown into a place far more dangerous and lawless then modern Iraq. Join the SAS patrol on this action adventure into the depths of not only a hostile land, far away from the support of the Allied front line, but into another world…another time.

It’s probably true that you couldn’t get much further away than this, from the last book that I read (Putting Alice Back Together) and in jumping straight from chick lit to sci-fi action, I had to give myself a little bit of time to get used to the subject matter and the pacing. Once I got into the flow of this novel, it was quite a ride.

Mcardles’ novel is precise, technical and action packed. At first I thought it an unusual combination – military adventure meets time travel – but then I thought again. It’s not actually that unusual a mix, and as I read on, sci-fi staples such as Stargate and Battlestar Galactica come to mind. It also reminded me a bit of John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy, albeit a little less tongue in cheek.

The Forgotten Land features all the usual suspects, the fearless leader, the sharp shooter, the loose cannon:

“What they didn’t know was that he was a fearsome fighter with a short temper and could become very agressive, very quickly. One unfortunate soldier found this out the hard way and spent the best part of a week in hospital as a result. Will McDonald loved deception, particularly when it came to fighting and was a fan of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He had never lost a fight. Will was respected by those who knew him.”

The story itself starts out military; secret deployments, harsh Middle-Eastern conflicts, and weapon specs and equipment inventories. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take long before the plot takes a turn to the strange:

“The crystal in Steve’s palm emitted a powerful glow. On closer inspection the light thrown from the crystal was pulsating slightly, almost like a heartbeat.”

In short, this crystal causes no end of trouble, and Steve and his boys find themselves in ancient Denmark with a whole new battle to wage.

Mcardles story is intriguing and action packed. There are definitely a few guys I know who’ll probably nag me to borrow this book, and I think they’ll really enjoy it. What’s not to enjoy when it comes to hand to hand combat and Viking battles to the death.

If you’d like to find out more about The Forgotten Land, you should visit Keith’s website here.

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Little shocks: Mateship with Birds

Last year,  I was a bit horrified when I realised how little Australian literature I had read. Of all the many, many books I’d read since I could, only a handful of them had been by Australian authors. As such, part of my mission to ‘read differently’ came to encompass the deliberate selection of Australian work. As a result, I’ve discovered some incredible pieces by Sonya Hartnett, Gillian Mears and Tim Winton, to name just a few.

My most recent discovery has been Carrie Tiffany, and her new novel Mateship with Birds (Pan Macmillan):

“On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.

Mateship with Birds is a novel about young lust and mature love. It is a hymn to the rhythm of country life – to vicious birds, virginal cows, adored dogs and ill-used sheep. On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.”

Part field notes, part journal and part narrative, this fascinating novel is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had so far this year.

Carrie’s writing style is unique, and incredibly readable. It is clipped, to the point and interestingly, written in the present tense. These characteristics give the story an immediacy and an intimacy. On more than one occasion I was reminded of field observations, of animal husbandry or fittingly, of bird-watching notes such as those put on paper by Harry himself.

There is the most intense sense of watching, of both being watched and of observing others. At all times, I felt that I was privy to the inner lives of these fascinating characters. It took no time at all until I had started to move with the very distinct rhythm of this narrative, and to smile, wonder and cringe along with it’s protagonists:

“Shopping after work, Betty falls in the rain. Her heels slide out from under her on the wet timbers of the verandah in front of Oestler’s Fruit and Veg. She goes down heavy, face first; puts her tooth through her lip, bleeds a lot of orange sticky blood over her uniform…”

The story is primarily about Betty, her children Michael and Little Hazel, and their quiet neighbour Harry. These are the characters you want to know, they are endearing and each have compelling stories to tell. Then there are the secondary characters, such as Harry’s ex-wife and the despicable Mue. We’re given little information about these associate figures, but they undoubtably have a dark and severe effect on the protagonists of the story. It is through Mue that most of the deepest shocks of this story are delivered.

It is beautifully Australian, rural and reminiscent. The importance of the everyday, and of our immersion in and connection with nature are key themes.

Although there is a definite quietness about this story, it is at the same time quite shocking. This novel is filled with lust, little shocks of sex that jump out at you and then pass as quickly as they arrived. Often, they’re recollections of experiences of sexual function, curiosity, deviation, rather than the act itself. The sex-scenes that are included (there are a couple) are gritty, and real, and breath-taking.

I was extremely lucky to be able to have a chat with Carrie Tiffany just after I’d read her book, and from our chat, I gained a sense for how she approached the writing of this novel…

***

Can you tell me a little about the book, in your own words?
That’s actually a pretty tricky question…I don’t really want to do a summary of the plot, because I don’t think the plot is really that important for me as a writer. To me, it’s more that the book is really about the nature of families, about the bonds that link people together and in this case, that family extends to a kind of odd group of people in the little township of Cohuna on the Murray River. It also extends to include families of birds, families of cows, or evan the relationship that a farmer might have with his dog – all of these kinds of relationships are interesting to me.

I noticed a real link between humans and nature, Harry observes his birds the same way as Betty observes her children. Is this deliberate? 
Yes. I work an agricultural, environmental science kind of area, and I do a lot of work in land care, but working on bureaucratic reports where I come up against this language that we use to describe our environment, it’s very scientific, and it really worries me because I think it fails the environment in some ways. I think there’s something ultimately very subjective about human beings in the landscape and our response to the landscape, and I don’t think there is any other way to come at it apart from from your feeling. To try and deny them and stand behind scientific method, really concerns me because I think that the emotional, instinctual response is really important – I don’t want to see that go. I think increasingly it does seem to be that we don’t use the terms that we used to and that’s one of the reasons that I set the book in the Fiftys. I’d been reading a lot of these nature writers, like Alex Chisholm who wrote the first Mateship with Birds and was really interested in the type of language they used in that time. They’d unashamedly talk about a bird as having gender; “She’s a pretty little Honey-eater” and they’d talk about it in a very subjective way, a very romantic way. It seemed to me that that was something that added to the relationship between people and nature, rather than diminished it.

One of the things that I absolutely loved about the book was the bird-watching theme. You mention ‘What Bird is That’ by Neville Cayley as part of the story – a book which I used to read for hours with my Pop. Is bird-watching something that you’ve always been interested in, or is it something that you researched particularly for this book?
Well I do have a family of Kookaburras that live out the back of my house and I do listen to them, and observe them with binoculars and I take down notes about what was happening in the family, but I also did a lot of research. I read these old editions of this wonderful publication that Birds Australia put out. It was called ‘The Emu’ and in fact Alex Chisholm was one of its the editors. People used to just write in with some of their observations and stories, so a lot of the observations and stories of what’s happening to the Kookaburras in Mateship with Birds are taken from these old editions of the ‘The Emu’. They’re not magical or fantastical, they’re grounded in reality, and I this is really important to me, I like that it’s got a factual basis.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge, I’m a bit of a bird-watcher but more in a “Wow, isn’t that magnificent” sort of way rather than a really technical kind of way.

You have an interesting history, you’re pretty locationally and vocationally diverse… how has this informed the story, if at all?
Well, I wasn’t actually born in Australia, I was born in the UK and I moved to Perth with my parents when I was about six. I do think that there is something very important about coming to a new country and gosh, you couldn’t come to somewhere more different than from the UK to Perth. As a child, you’re quite young and impressionable and I think was always trying to pair what I was seeing with somewhere else, and to try and make sense of it, to try and describe it. When I was younger, I remember when we first got here, being astounded by how much space there was compared to in England. We lived on this little housing estate and we had this little sand block and there was a nature strip out the front. I was really astounded by this straggly nature strip, that this new country had so much space in it that everyone had a nature strip.

As a child, I would stand on this nature strip and look up and down the street, and I developed this fanciful notion that these strips probably led somewhere. That if you followed them, they’d take you to the bush. I always had this interest in going to the bush and in fact in my early twenties I worked as a park ranger. I still maintain that interest in the bush through what I do now.

The story itself if very interestingly constructed. It’s pacing, rhythm is strong and seemingly deliberate. It uses short, clipped sentences and the use of present tense (and occassionally future tense) is very effective. Was this deliberate, or did the novel just kind of evolve this way?
That’s a really difficult question – some of those kinds of decisions are quite subconscious, although I’m sure there are some stylistic similarities between the sentences in this book and the sentences in my first book, and perhaps also in some short stories and things that I’ve had published.  I really like a ‘clean’ sentence and in some ways I’m not a big fan of adjectives and adverbs, I like strong, plan language. I suppose I’m influenced very much by the sorts of things that I read as well, so I’m aiming for a kind of purity, in a sentence that feels kind of true yet is simple. I am a very slow writer, and I do spend an enormous amount of time on a sentence. They might read like I wrote them very fast, like I kind of threw them off, I don’t know…but that’s really not the case. A lot of time, work and efforts goes into making them so simple.

One of the aims of my writing is really to kind of parsimony with language, so that you tell the story as simply as possible whilst leaving a lot of room in there for the reader. That’s what I like to read – I like reading when there’s a lot of space for me to make up my own mind about what is happening. I like the work to hint at something, but not tell me everything – so I think that’s what I am trying to do. I like there to be a lot of space for people to interpret the book in many different sorts of ways because I think that that is one of the amazing things about reading. It’s such a creative thing to do.

I was fascinated by the little ‘shocks’ of lust, passing comments on urges and sex, but then it’s gone almost as soon as it’s there. Many writers might be tempted to give more detail around the narrative to this, rather than this disciplined, punchy approach. Was this deliberate?
I’m not really sure, it’s not really something I’ve thought about, although I do think that there is something very strange about us, about people’s sexuality in that it’s this thing that we do with our bodies and our minds that’s quite confronting and confounding really, particularly when you think about the rest of our lives which are really quite rational. But this sexual desire, it seems almost in some ways to be a bit aside from language, and it’s very difficult to talk about. I didn’t want overly romanticised sex, whether it’s happening in the animal world or the human world. I wanted to show the similarities between sex in those two worlds and show the animal that’s in human sexuality. I also think the sexualisation in the world is kind of startling at the moment and to me that’s not really about sex, it’s about being sold something. It’s about being sold perfect bodies and people feeling like they should have a lot of sex, a kind of sexual aggression. That sort of stuff is really confounding to me, so I wanted to show something that to me felt truer – something of the sexual lives that these people in this very small community were leading in the 1950s.

How do you find people react to this kind of more explicit imagery?
I remember with the first book The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living, there was this terrible newspaper headline in The Australian ‘Lust in the Malley Dust’ I was very surprised, I really didn’t think there was that much sex in that book, and it wasn’t at all gratuitous. Although I don’t think about it as I’m writing, desire is clearly is a big narrative driver in this new book and to me that just seems right. I think in real life, desire is a big narrative drive for all of us, so it’s natural that it’s something that’d I’d write about.

I don’t want people to be offended or upset, but I’m also not going to be coy for the sake of being coy. I actually hate reading those books, when they’re fantastic books and then you get to the point where two characters kiss and then the curtains close and the next chapter starts the next day. I feel really ripped off reading that kind of story,  so I’m not going to do those things myself.

Lastly, you had a lot of success with your last novel “The Everyman’s Rules to Scientific Living”, what do you hope for with this new novel?
Really, the thing for me is the writing, the reason I do it is at the level where I’m actually sitting down and working on my sentences. That’s why I do it. The novel comes out into the world, and people read it and it can be quite lovely to engage on a one-on-one basis with readers and to hear what they think about the book. Quite often they have quite different interpretations or ideas, ideas that I hadn’t even thought of before… and that’s pretty fabulous, when you hear that it has this imaginary life of its own. All the other stuff is really a bit of a circus, it’s a bit of a lottery.

I just very simply hope that people will read it and will find something in it that touches them or makes them think.

***

Mateship with Birds certainly made me think, about new things, about these intriguing characters and about my own family. I’m hoping that some of you will join in and read the book as this month’s TBYL Book Club book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.


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Eliminatory in Edinburgh: Young Sherlock Holmes

By the end of last month, I was doing my own head in a bit. I had read a series of very bleak novels in quick succession, namely Of a Boy, Room and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Without exception, these are stunning stories, well worth the telling, but by the end of my reading of them I was well and truly ready for something a bit lighter. It was high time for some Young Adult fiction, so I picked up Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes  – Fire Store (Pan MacMillan).

Fourth in the series, Fire Storm has been on my reading pile for a month or so. Evan enjoyed reading it over the summer holidays, and has since become completely obsessed with everything Sherlock.

Firstly, it was really special to be able to share a reading experience with Evan. Every time he caught me reading, he’d quiz me on where I was up to, what was happening, what I thought.

And it was a fun book to share. Action-packed, true to the Sherlock franchise, and full to the brim of puzzles to crack and mysteries to solve:

“Sherlock Holmes is at a loss. His friend and her father have disappeared. Their house is empty, as if nobody has ever lived there. His attempts to solve the case take Sherlock to Scotland, and into an even darker mystery – one that involves kidnapping, bodysnatchers and a man who says that he can control the dead.”

Sherlock is believably ‘young’, learning his craft and struggling with an ominous family legacy. His entourage are fascinating and likeable, Matthew ‘Matty’ Arnatt’s street-smarts compliment Sherlock’s sixth sense well, and Rufus Stone provides a reassuring adult presence, and makes the whole adventure that bit more believable. There’s even the obligitory special guest appearance of Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft.

I was drawn into the story early:

“Uncle Sherrinford’s library smelled of old, dry books, mildew, leather binding and pipe tobacco. Sherlock felt the quietness as something almost physical as the door closed behind him…”

I was impressed by the uniqueness of Holme’s investigations and subsequent discoveries:

“On a whim, he crossed over to the narrow window that looked out over the gardens to the back of the house. He couldn’t see anybody, so he was safe from observation. The window was open a crack. He pushed it further open and leaned out. Something was hanging from a piece of twine that had been wrapped around a nail stuck in the wood of the window frame – a package that dangled a couple of feet below the level of the windowsill. It was small enough that it would have been almost invisible from the garden below, unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for.”

Although written for readers 11-years and older, Lane hasn’t dumbed the story down at all. It’s written accessibly but it’s also packed with suspense, thrills and an age-appropriate level of action. Some kids might find some of it a little bit scary, but I suspect that most eleven-year-old boys wont think twice about the more frightening parts of the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed Young Sherlock Holmes  – Fire Store and am looking forward to going back and reading the first three books in the series. Good thing is, Evan was equally impressed so I’ll be able to pass the purchase of the books off as for him, I’ll sneak a read and then add them to his collection. Clever aren’t I?

Which is your favourite manifestation of Sherlock Holmes character?

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Unsettled…

I started this week with other people’s book reviews, so I thought it only fitting that I finish off the week with one of my own.

Today’s review is one I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of weeks now. It was our last face-to-face book club read, and given that my next book club catch up is next week, I thought I’d better get last month’s book off the list.

The novel is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Even typing the title sends a bit of a shiver down my spine…

Some of you might remember me mentioning this book on Facebook over the summer. It took me a long time to get through and I found it very unsettling. I had a lot of trouble putting it down, and many nights I couldn’t sleep for wondering what would happen next. On more than one occasion, I gave up trying to sleep and turned the light back on and read some more. It was an incredible novel and I’m very glad I persevered through it’s unpleasantness to the end.

“Two years ago Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker and a popular English teacher. Now, in a series of letters to her absent husband, Eva recounts the story of how Kevin came to be Kevin.

Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault? When did it all start to go wrong?

Or was it, in fact, ever ‘right’ at all?”

I think it’s fair to say, that this description sums up the crux of this story – who is at fault when such a horrific crime occurs? Was Kevin’s behaviour a result of bad parenting, or was he just ‘born bad’? Is it possible for a person to be ‘inherently evil’ or are we ultimately a product of our environment.

Interestingly, We Need to Talk About Kevin does not answer any of these questions. What it does do though, is provide a very thorough, albeit fictional, insight into the mind of a mother – a mind racked with questions, doubts, self-flagilation and heartbreak. In some ways it also provides a window into the mind of killer, a hypothetical study in depravity. In my opinion, it does this very carefully and convincingly.

There is nothing cheerful about this book, it offers little hope or resolution. It paints a bleak portrait of parenthood, of human nature, and of the overall culture of the USA. But…

I think it is an important book. It is well constructed (albeit a little wordy at times) and it asks some very pertinent questions about how we treat each other, how we assess ourselves, and perhaps most interestingly, the assumptions we make about the people around us.

“I know you doubt me on this, but I did try very hard to form a passionate attachment to my son. But I had never experienced my feeling for you, for example, as an exercise that I was obliged to rehearse like scales on the piano. The harder I tried, the more aware I became that my effort was an abomination. Surely all this tenderness that in the end I simply aped should have come knocking at the door uninvited. Hence it was not just Kevin who depressed me, or the fact that your own affections were increasingly diverted; I depressed me. I was guilty of emotional malfeasance.”

I’m sure this novel is classified in many different ways. It’s a book club favourite, it’s ‘arguably’ women’s fiction, it’s a psychological thriller. To me, it had a little of a horror novel about it, and it is most definitely frightening. In many ways I am very glad that I did not read this book before having children.

While I was reading the book, the film was in cinemas, and it has received acclaim. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it in the future. I’ve heard it said that the casting is beyond perfect, and Kevin’s portrayal is chilling.

So to conclude, this is not an easy book to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is skilful, frightening and will leave you asking plenty of serious questions. It’s great to talk to others about, and will leave most readers haunted and reflective.

Buy your own copy of We Need to Talk About Kevin at the TBYL Store!

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Riddle me this…

Last night, I was extremely fortunate to have the chance to join a small group of people in an intimate setting, to hear a few choice words from the very clever (and apparently jet-lagged) Alain de Botton.

The event run by Penguin Books Australia, was the most incredible opportunity to meet and greet with the author, complimented nicely by lovely wine and great company.

It was an evening of some quite intriguing ideas.

To me, philosophy always seems a little like a riddle; riddling around the why, when and how of our complicated lives. Philosophers, in turn, seem to both pose the riddle, and help us to answer it.

Alain de Botton seems in his new book, Religion for Atheists to be placing firmly on the table, the giant riddle of meaning – our need for it – and the gaps it leaves if we don’t feel that we have an adequate sense of meaning in our lives. It is his premise that although our belief in religion has diminished, the drivers that led us to create the various religious infrastructures are still very present in society – our craving for community, the need for guidance as to how to live well, and our appreciation of the importance of beauty, art and education. These needs are not always, in a secular context, being met. Alain does not purport that religion has the answers to this, but rather than secular society might do well to borrow some elements from religions – some rehearsals, some structures, some aesthetics and traditions, so help us learn, understand and connect with the world and each other.

Alain kindly shared some of his thinking on the premise of this book, some of the key arguments and a little on the research that he had done in order to put this work together. As always, it was a delight to hear such well structured, well researched propositions – it is what takes this kind of discussion away from being simple opinion, and makes it so very useful.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t completely agree with de Botton’s position in regards to religion for atheists. I think there are very good reasons for why people have moved away from organised religion, that go beyond the simple changes in understanding of mythology and the supernatural. I think this is why, as Alain mentions, religiosity is unpopular with many people. For this reason, I don’t think it is always going to be practical or appropriate to re-approriate religious mechanisms to enhance secular life. But, I do see great value in his position regarding the importance of reminders to ourselves to stop, reflect and enjoy, traditionally a feature of religious calendars around the world. His points regarding the role of art, architecture and talented oration also help to lend weight to their importance in a society that has become very focused on the practical, the vocational, the immediate. As someone who has had to answer the question; “What will that degree/subject/hobby ever get you?” I appreciate all the advice that I can get on this front.

In short, it was an incredible evening and I’m very much looking forward to reading Religion for Atheists. Likewise, I’m looking forward to attending Alain de Botton’s presentation for the Wheeler Centre tomorrow evening. I’ll be all philosophy-ed out by the end of the week, but hopefully I’ll also be a little bit smarter.

Religion for Atheists will be added to the TBYL Bookshelf in the near future. If you’d like me to let you know when copies have arrived, please email info@thatbookyoulike.com.au and I’ll be in touch.

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