February 28, 2009

Wanting - Richard Flanagan

Wanting is another book from my Best Australian Reads of 2008 list.

I had seen this book around quite a bit last year and despite enjoying the last Richard Flanagan book I read (The Unknown Terrorist) I did not pick it up - I think my fear was that the subject matter would be too much at a time when I was looking for some light reading. That's one reason I am grateful for reading lists and challenges - I have rarely come across a book I have regretted reading from these lists and Wanting is no exception.

Wanting is a haunting book - there is really no other way for me to describe my reading of it. I felt mesmerised by the story being played out in front of me and the characters that were playing it out.

The book is set in 2 main time periods and locations, Tasmania, Australia in 1839 and London in 1857. In the Tasmanian setting of the book we see Sir John Franklin, Governor of the state and his wife Lady Jane "adopt" a local Aboriginal girl, Mathinna and attempt to educate her in the ways of a white European. For Lady Jane the young girl is a sort of replacement for the children she was never able to have - although she pulls herself back from displaying any sort of affection or motherly love for the child fearing that it will spoil the experiment that is her education and transformation. For his part, Sir John leaves his decision making very much to his wife - both in personal and business matters - leaving Mathinna stuck in a limbo between two worlds. This story is based on a true story and although the author does not make claims of his novel being a history of the period or events he does list extensive sources he utilised in the writing of the book on his website.

The second storyline takes place 18 years after the above (although the two narratives are not written concurrently in the book - the focus swaps from one to the other throughout the story) and focuses on Charles Dickens and his links with the Sir John and Lady Jane story. After being forced out of being the Governor of Tasmania Sir John returns to England for a while before embarking on a exploration of the Arctic - a journey from which he will never return. After his failure to return from the voyage Lady Jane seeks the support and assistance of Dickens in disputing a theory that the men on the exploration resorted to cannibalism. Dickens does offer support to Lady Jane as well as basing a new play on the arctic storyline. It is through Dickens's writing and performing of this play that we see his yearnings - for his life and his writing - played out.

Both of these story lines and their coming together through the theme of yearning and wanting captured me from the beginning. Even though I have read some of Dickens' novels I must admit I have known little about his life - something I am now going to rectify. The story of Australian history and the injustices that were brought to the Aboriginal people by white Europeans is something that is more familiar to me but I think it is an area of our history that we can never know too much about. I think Richard Flanagan handles both story lines wonderfully - the writing is engaging and deliberate and in a way, poetic. A wonderful book.

Butterfly - Sonya Hartnett

Butterfly is the first Sonya Hartnett novel I have read even though she is quite a well known and well published Australian author. For some reason I was under the impression that Hartnett was primarily a young adult fiction writer (not that this would have stopped me from picking up her work) but Butterfly is most definitely, I feel, a book for the grown ups.

The main character in Butterfly is the almost 14 year old Ariella Coyle - better known as Plum to her friends and family. Plum is struggling with all of the trappings that are afflicted upon us in early adolescence:

Carefully she scans her face, her shoulders, her waist, grimaces at the sight of a meaty bottom and thighs. Her hands gather her hair in a dense ponytail, and her face, unshielded, looks round and inflames, her eyes the tarred tips of poison darts. Her arms are strong, her neck utilitarian, not vulnerable at all: indeed, Plum's entire body is somehow too much - too tall, too thriving, too there. Her stomach is the colour of uncooked dough, and feels, when poked, like dough. Ariella Coyle, aged nearly fourteen, waylaid monstrously on the path to being grown. "There is no God," she tells her reflection: as quickly as that, she knows it is true. "And even if there was a God, " she adds vindictively, "He wouldn't love you. Look at you. Nobody could love you".

Ahh, the early teenage years - the pain, angst and self-loathing that seems to accompany it all. Plum's thoughts and painful processing certainly made me think back to my early adolescence and there were definitely some connections made with Plum's sufferings. A strength of the novel is the way in which Hartnett captures these feelings and thoughts - quite accurately for me.

Plum is a member of quite a catty, all too real, friendship group of girls - all battling for the same level of acceptance and status within the group. Plum in particular wants to belong and been seen as worthy of the friendships - and goes to quite painful lengths to find this.

At home Plum is the youngest child and only daughter - in some ways living in the shadows of her older, more gifted and attractive older brothers, Justin and Cydar.

As Plum is fighting her way through the rituals of adolescence she makes friends with an older neighbour, the married mother of one, Maureen. What begins as a mentoring relationship for Plum quickly shows itself as something more sinister as the real reason for Maureen befriending Plum becomes clear.

In some ways this book is two or three stories within one - but you never feel as though too much has been taken on by the author. Hartnett balances the characters and the story lines beautifully. This book was not at all what I expected when I started reading it but once I accepted this I enjoyed the rather uneasy storyline. The ending is also an interesting one - I'm still thinking on that one...

February 27, 2009

The World According to Bertie - Alexander McCall Smith

I am continuing my reading of the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith with The World According to Bertie, the 4th book in the series.

It actually pains me to say that I did not enjoy this book as much as the first 3 - I don't think this really has anything to do with the quality of the book - I think it is just an indication that I probably need to move on and read something a little different before I lose my infatuation with all things McCall Smith!

The characters are all still doing their thing in and around Scotland Street and Edinburgh but I just felt that things were a little stuck in this book - not a lot of movement either backwards or forwards really. Poor Bertie still seems caught in the over-bearing, ridiculous world of his mother (I'm really starting to yell at Bertie's dad to get a move on and leave this woman and take Bertie with him!!). I also thought the storyline involving Cyril the dog was a little far fetched and didn't really seem to serve a purpose.

But, as I said, I think it is more the case of me needing to take a Scotland Street break and come back to it well refreshed and ready to go again!

February 25, 2009


I made a decision this week to withdraw from my PhD study - in the end it wasn't even a hard or a big decision - it just came to me - I didn't want to do this anymore. Ahh, clarity - how wonderful it can be!
I have been struggling for a while now with how to combine full time work, family and friends, reading and enjoying life in general with my studies - it just wasn't working and I couldn't see how it ever really could. I have completed other post graduate study in the past but that was nothing compared to what was being expected of me for this research. It really hit me over the weekend when I thought that my PhD just wasn't a priority in my life at all - there are so many other things I want to be doing and experiencing in my life right now.
I do love to learn and to study - and I think I will go back to some type of formalised study in the future - but for now I want to enjoy all the randomness and variety that life can bring me. Can't wait!

February 24, 2009

All Things M

Mari from MariReads has given me the letter "M" for the 10 things I love meme (thanks Mari!). So, 10 things I love starting with the letter M:

1. Melbourne - one of my all time favourite cities. Beautiful walks and city streets and lane ways, wonderful shopping and food and fantastic bookshops - what more could you want?

2. Margaret Atwood- one of the first "serious" authors I started reading for pleasure rather than study. Her stories have continued to impress and entertain and I always look forward to her new work.

3. Mykonos - I visited this island for the first time a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. I don't think I have ever seen water so blue and beautiful.

4. Manolos - Ok, so I don't actually own a pair - but that doesn't mean I can't love from afar!

5. Marshmallows - light, fluffy, pink and supposedly fat free - what's not to love?!

6. Missy Higgins - fantastic Australian singer and song writer - beautiful lyrics and an original voice - does a great live show too.

7. Monica (character from Friends) - Ahh Monica - her obsessive cleanliness, competitive nature and attention to detail endeared her to me from the start! Some would say I resemble her just a little - but I don't know what they're talking about!

8. Mango - a fruit I wasn't always a big fan off but a couple of years ago my taste buds must have changed because I absolutely love them now.

9. Magazines - I guess you could say I love magazines (addicted to might be another way of putting it!). I love to browse them all, fashion, design, home, travel, current events. My current favourite would have to be the English mag Red - I like to read it and pretend I actually am living in the UK.

10. Margarita's - especially in the summer!

If you would like to play along leave me a comment with your contact details and I will send you a letter.

February 21, 2009

Affinity - Sarah Waters

See - I promised I was reading books by authors other than Alexander McCall Smith! And Affinity by Sarah Waters is probably as far as I could have got from McCall Smith in many ways!

I first read about this book over at A Work In Progress - Danielle's review made the book sound very enticing so I collected it soon after reading her review from my local library. I have read The Night Watch by the same author when it was first released some time ago and I absolutely loved it so I had no hesitation in going back to her work - even though Affinity sounded like a very different novel.

Affinity is set during the 1870's in London - the book alternates between scenes in upper class houses of the time and the Millbank prison for women.

Margaret Prior, an upper middle class unmarried lady begins to visit the female inmates of the prison after a suicide attempt following the death of her beloved father. Margaret struggles with the confronting nature of the visits at first but soon begins to see some similarities between herself and the prisoners - even though they would first appear to come from worlds away from one another. Margaret begins to develop a close relationship with one of the prisoners, Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist who has been imprisoned for assault and fraud after a seance sitting she was facilitating ended in the death of one woman and the "deep disturbance" of another.

The book alternates between the voices of Margaret and Selina where they give accounts of the events currently taking place as well as the events leading up to Selina being arrested, tried and sent to prison.
While the book focuses on Margaret and Selina I also felt it was saying a lot about the lives of women in general in the time in which it was set. At one stage Margaret makes the comment; "Why do gentlemen's voices carry so clearly, when women's are so easily stifled?".

The writing is evocative and enticing - I felt like I was walking through Victorian London, particularly the scenes set in the prison which felt disturbingly real at times. The story was teased out with just the right pacing I felt - I didn't want to put the book down but at the same time I didn't want it to end.

The ending of the book was fantastic - I did not see it coming at all!

I am looking out for other books by Sarah Waters now and am keen to pick up another book like Affinity so if anyone has any suggestions please let me know.

The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

After reading and loving 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith A Devoted Reader recommended another series by the same author, starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club. So, in keeping with my current McCall Smith marathon I picked The Sunday Philosophy Club up the other day and finished it in less than 24 hours.

I am not usually into reading murder mysteries - not really sure why - just not a genre I have ever really branched into, I might have to change that now I think.

The Sunday Philosophy Club centres around the character of Isabel Dalhousie, a single woman in her mid 40's living quite comfortably in Edinburgh. The story starts with Isabel witnessing the tragic, and presumably accidental, death of a young man at the Edinburgh Concert Hall. Of course, Isabel being who she is she finds she needs to explore the story further to get to the truth of the matter.

I found the writing and characterisation in this book very similar to the style of the 44 Scotland Street series so that made me feel quite at home. I thought there were quite a few convenient coincidences that helped the plot along but I was prepared to ignore these because I was enjoying the ride along with the characters so much. I'll definitely be reading the rest of this series to see what happens to Isabel and the rest of the crew.

I am also really keen to pick up some other mystery novels in a similar style so if anyone has any other suggestions I would love to hear about them.

February 20, 2009

Love Over Scotland - Alexander McCall Smith

I realise this blog is fast becoming a homage to all things Alexander McCall Smith - I promise I am reading books by other authors! I am just loving this author so much right now that I am sticking to a good thing.

Love Over Scotland is the third book in the 44 Scotland Street series - a continuation of the lives and loves of the characters introduced and discovered in the first two books.

I can see that the author is starting to dig deeper in some areas - I'm not sure if he ever envisaged writing this many books in the series but it still feels like he has plenty of emotional baggage to work with in terms of the characters and their relationships.

I have to say that my favourite character by far is 6 year old Bertie - I am so hanging out for him to do something ghastly to his bloody awful mother, Irene (something that she will duly deserve if you ask me!). The chapters which take place in Bertie's school with his classmates involvement are hilarious - especially when they start to discuss a school production of "The Sound of Music". As much as I love Bertie there are characters I am not especially fond of - particularly annoying and whiny Pat - I know she's only 20 and I should give her a break but I just want to yell at her most of the time!

But I guess this is what is keeping me reading - whether I love them or can't stand them - I want to know what will end up happening to them all!

February 19, 2009

Five Questions

Kim over at Sophisticated Dorkiness has emailed me five questions so that I can play along...

1. What is your favorite setting from a book (fiction or nonfiction)? Why?

It would have to be any setting in an English village in a Jane Austen novel. It is quite strange actually as I grew up in a regional country area in Australia and I hated it but I just love all of the descriptions of these settings in Jane Austen's work.

2. When you're not reading or blogging, what is a favorite hobby?

This is a hard one as I don't see myself as a "hobby" person except for my reading. Is it bad to say shopping?? I did enjoy photography once but I haven't really got into that in a long time.

3. On a long plane/train/car ride, what kinds of books do you like to read?

Definitely something light and character driven - the Alexander McCall Smith books that I am reading now would be perfect. I also really like to take audio books with me for longer trips.

4. What book has influenced your perspective on an important political or social issue?

The book Fast Food Nation definitely made me think about the food choices I was making. I have also just picked up the new Peter Singer book - The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty which I expect will have a big impact when I read it.

5. If you could only read one genre of books for the rest of your life, what genre would you pick and why?

I know this is being a bit broad and non-specific but I will have to say literary fiction - I don't want to cut off my options!

Do you want to play along? Leave me a comment to this post that says “Interview Me” with contact information, and I’ll send you a list of five questions to answer on your blog.

February 18, 2009

What to Read When You are Having a Crappy Week...

I am officially having a crappy week! Not an awful, tragic week as many people have been experiencing in our country lately but still a tough time for me.
I have been travelling up north this week for work and I got stuck in the floods that are currently happening in the north of NSW - nothing too major until I had a minor car accident and did some damage to the work car I was driving. I wasn't hurt in any major way and neither were the people in the other car so really I should be thankful for that - the thought of being involved in an accident that had hurt other people would just be devastating for me. But, the accident has left me with a very sore left arm which I will be having x-rays and ultrasounds for this week (sounds more dramatic than it actually is I think) and I was also stuck in a town far away from all my loved ones for a night which made me very miserable. But, I am home now and enjoying that feeling very much.
As I said at the beginning, I realise that my experience is absolutely nothing compared to what other have been through in these past weeks and I know I should be very grateful that things were not worse (and I am!) but I think the whole experience has just reinforced for me how vulnerable we are.
Ok, so enough of my whinging! The whole point of this post was to think about, and ask for suggestions, on what makes good reading material when you are having a rough week/time? I've continued to enjoy my Alexander McCall Smith reading during this time but I must admit I am also thinking about reading the books that got me through tough times in my childhood (Enid Blyton was always a favourite!). What about you?? What do you pick up when you need picking up?

February 14, 2009

Espresso Tales - Alexander McCall Smith

I think I am in love - Alexander McCall Smith has helped me find my reading groove again - I was starting to worry I might have lost it!

I have just finished Espresso Tales the second book in the 44 Scotland Street series and I have started the third book in the tale immediately - just can't get enough.

Espresso Tales continues the story started in 44 Scotland Street - a lot more of a focus on my favourite character, the gorgeous 6 year old star, Bertie (and unfortunately his overbearing mother, Irene!).

If you haven't read this series at all I would highly recommend it - it is a great reading escape without being frivolous or silly - just funny, honest writing and characterisation. My only fear is that after I read the 5 books in the series I will be grief stricken if there are no more!

February 10, 2009

Tales From Outer Suburbia - Shaun Tan

In my quest to read The Best Australian Reads of 2008 I have finished Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.

I have been a big fan of Tan's work for a while now, The Red Tree being a particular favourite, so picking up another one of his books was not a chore for me at all.

Tales From Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories and tales accompanied by gorgeous illustrations which only add to the magic and imagination of the world Tan creates.

I think it is hard to give much detail or explanation of the stories contained in the book - I think each person would interpret them differently and take from them what they wanted. I would recommend visiting Shaun Tan's excellent website to hear him speak about his writing and illustrating - very inspirational!

I found this book beautiful and thought-provoking - just what I expected really.

February 09, 2009

44 Scotland Street - Alexander McCall Smith

I was searching for a particular book when I visited my library last week - I wasn't exactly sure what the book was which made the search a little difficult! I needed a book that wasn't too intense - something I could read before going to sleep that wouldn't keep me thinking too much and yet not "fluff" either.

Then I saw 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith - I read the first page and was hooked - the search was over. I had read a couple of the books in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by the same author quite some time ago now and I remember really enjoying them (not sure why I didn't keep reading the rest of the series really?) so I thought this new series was worth a try.

McCall Smith first wrote 44 Scotland Street as a serialised novel in the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman - it was extremely successful so the novel of the serial was born (and 4 sequels as well). The novel is set in Edinburgh and follows the rather ordinary, but at times extraordinary, lives of a set of characters and their numerous associates, friends and foes, living in the apartments of 44 Scotland Street.

I have to say from the beginning that I adore books set in the UK - absolutely love reading about the lives of people living here (even if they are fictional!) so this book did grab me from the start simply because of this. Even without the setting though, the author's writing style is so engaging you just want to keep digging deeper and deeper into the plot and the character's personalities and actions. It's as though McCall Smith is telling the story just to you - he knows what you want to hear about next and he never rests too long on one setting or one character.

I loved this book completely - totally gorgeous is how I would describe it! I'm already on to the sequel - Expresso Tales.

February 08, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon was a book I had chosen to read as part of the New Classics Challenge - a challenge I am grateful for as I have been able to read many books I have heard of before and have thought about picking up but this challenge has helped me go that extra step and actually read some of them. On another note I didn't actually end up finishing the challenge unfortunately - Adventures was my third last book for the challenge and I finished it slightly past the deadline of the 31st January. Never the less - I am pretty happy with my efforts in the challenge - 4 books read and all of these books I had been meaning to read for quite a while. I will claim a small personal level of success for the challenge!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is indeed an amazing book telling some amazing stories. The central character of the novel is Josef Kavalier, a young Jewish man from Prague who is able to escape his home country at the beginning of World War 2 and travel to the USA where he meets up with his cousin, Sam Clay. The two young men create a comic book superhero - The Escapist - who becomes an extremely popular character symbolically fighting the nazi powers in Europe. The Escapist - largely a product of Joe's imagination and wishful dreaming - is also a way for Joe to fight the evil that has captured his family back in Prague - a place where he has escaped but his heart and mind still truly live in the form of his parents and treasured younger brother, Thomas.

There are very strong motives throughout the book - the notion of escape being uppermost - escape from danger, escape from power, escape from responsibility, escape from love, escape from yourself. I must admit I am usually quite dense at picking out themes in novels (my grades from university english studies will support this!) but I think I was really able to read between the lines in Kavalier and Clay. That's not to say that I am sure I have missed so, so much that the author was trying to portray.

The book is quite long and intense, the writing intricate and the plot weaving. There is quite a bit of in depth description of the American comic book industry of the 1930's onwards - I almost got bogged down in all of this as this is not a world I am familiar with at all - but I was able to move past these parts to the more character driven segments which were the true golden moments for me. Some of the character's reflections were especially beautiful;

Later, after the world had been torn in half, and the Amazing Cavalieri and his blue tuxedo were to be found only in the gilt-edged pages of deluxe photo albums on the coffee tables of the Upper West Side, Joe would sometimes find himself thinking about the pale-blue envelope from Prague. He would try to imagine its contents, wondering what news or sentiments or instructions it might have contained. It was at these times that he began to understand, after all those years of study and performance, of feats and wonders and surprises, the nature of magic. The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

I have to admit, even though I can clearly see the brilliance and the beauty of this book, I struggled with it at times, but, having said that - I am very, very glad I made it to the end. A book that definitely stays with you.

February 07, 2009

Weekend Catch Up

My poor blog has been a little neglected lately - evidence of too much other stuff going on in my life I think! I have been trying to keep up with my blog reading though.

My reading has also been a little neglected this year - I have been trying to find a place and time for my reading in amongst all of my other commitments and that has taken me some time but I think I am finally working it out as I have finished two books this weekend (which actually feels like a great accomplishment to me right now!). So, reviews will be coming up on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith.

I have also been to Sydney this week for work and that always inspires my reading as I get to visit all of my favourite bookshops in the city and surrounds. I did pick up a couple of goodies - Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. As usual I could have come away with many more but I managed to restrain myself!

Hopefully more regular blogging to come!