Audiobook Nook: The Dalai Lama’s Cat

I’ve developed a tendency to choose audiobooks that have silly titles, like my most recent pick The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie. It’s precisely because it has a silly title that I singled this out one. I’d never heard of David Michie, although he seems quite famous, and I’d never heard of the book either.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat serves as a gentle introduction into Buddhism, as delivered by ‘Snow Lion’, the Dalai Lama’s Cat. If you like the idea of being talked to by a cat about the philosophical underpinnings of happiness, then this book is definitely for you.  If you think this sounds either pompous or ludicrous (or both), you’re right, it is.  But don’t completely write it off.

Her name is Elizabeth Strout: Anything Is Possible

You know that thing where you go your whole life not hearing a name, and then suddenly, you hear it everywhere. ‘Elizabeth Strout‘ did that to me.  I don’t know where I was in 2009 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, or a couple of years ago when HBO made it into a miniseries.  I think her name may have seeped into my consciousness with last year’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, but not properly.  Now, she is everywhere for me; being interviewed in the Saturday paper, in bookshop window displays and most recently, on my e-reader with Anything Is Possible.

Anything Is Possible is a remarkable book – it’s collection of nine stories but I wouldn’t say it’s a short story collection.

We’re going on a book hunt: Clunes Book Festival in pictures

One weekend a year, Clunes – a small, old gold mining town in regional Victoria, Australia – is host to a book festival. The main street of this international book town is closed off and there are literally thousands of (mostly) second hand books for sale, spread across makeshift marques, stacked in unused shop fronts, shelved in established book shops and crammed into mobile book vans. Some of the book tents smell like moth balls, some are a bit dank, but all of them have that wonderful smell of pre-loved books.

It’s a lovely event, full of old hippies, middle-aged book worms, twenty-something book nerds and even younger booksters. It’s unpretentious, relaxed, rustic bordering on eccentric, and usually a bit cold.

Can you imagine the delight of being surrounded by books, authors, bookworms and cafes for two whole days? In case you can’t, here are my photos to help.  Enjoy – vicariously!

Choose Your Own Adventure: The Girl With All The Gifts

I have a quandary.  I want to tell everybody about the book I just finished, The Girl With All the Gifts. One of the best things about this book was that I had no idea it was a [insert genre] book.  If I’d known it was a [insert genre] book, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I want to review this book, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t heard of it.

Girl sitting on box trying to keep it shut
Pandora by Frederick Stuart Church

On the other hand I’m thinking: lots of people must know about this book because it’s also been made into a film, released only last year. Maybe these folk would like to read a more extensive review to decide if it’s worthwhile reading.

So to meet these competing reader requirements, this is a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’, where YOU get to decide which review you read.

If you’ve never heard of this book or the film and you think you might read it, for a no-spoilers review… GO TO OPTION A.

If you’ve heard of The Girl With All the Gifts but haven’t read it yet, and don’t know if you should… GO TO OPTION B.

Six reasons to read Come in Spinner

I feel slightly embarrassed that I’ve only read Come in Spinner now and only because of the virtual bookclub hosted by Simon @ Stuck in a book and Karen @ Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (where for one wonderful week bookish-types review books printed in 1951). Honestly, I should have read Come in Spinner, by Dymphna Cusack & Florence James, years ago – this is an amazing book for a number of reasons.

The first reason: It’s enormous.  When I went to collect it from the library I wasn’t expecting a tome.  Think Half-Blood Prince and you’re nearly there. I actually didn’t think I’d get past the first couple of hundred pages, but not even one of these pages is superfluous because…

Bound and gagged in a boot? That’s not cricket!

I defy anyone to read the first chapter of The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong and not be completely sucked in:

I’m wedged towards the rear corner, driver’s side, so close I can smell the hot plastics of the tail light… The cable ties are drawn tight around both wrists, cutting into the flesh… The feet, from whom I’ve heard nothing lately, must be in a similar predicament; more cable ties drawn around the ankles… My breath is hissing in and out of my nose, my mouth tightly taped.’

 

And there we find Darren, in the boot of a car, on the Geelong to Melbourne road, with a bullet in his right knee, and without any real sense of why he’s there. We traverse through his childhood, growing up in the working-class western suburbs of Melbourne with his brother and his mum, through his rise and fall as a career cricketer, then  back to where we started: a middle-aged man trapped in the boot of a car, with time running out.

I’m going to get straight to the point.  I LOVED THIS BOOK.

‘It’s important to retain the humanity’: The Song of the Stork

Those who are fans of Charlie Brooker, and the Black Mirror series in particular, will know immediately which episode I’m referring to when I say the one about the ‘roaches’ (‘Men Against Fire‘).   I found this episode deeply troubling, not because it canvasses the potential brutality of the future, but because it evokes the present (the war on ‘terror’) and the immediate past – the holocaust.

Ary soldier holding machine gun
On the hunt in Black Mirror‘s ‘Men Against Fire’

This Black Mirror episode reverberated in my head as I read Stephan Collishaw‘s The Song of the Stork. There seemed many parallels between the book and Men Against Fire, sharing similar imagery (forests, ruined houses) and themes (brutality, empathy, survival).

Collishaw’s novel is set in the Suwalke Forest at the Polish/ Lithuanian border in the 1940s, just as Nazi Germany is rolling back the Russian Army.  As the German soldiers advance into this territory, they bring with them their genocidal assignment. Yael is at the centre of this story – a 15 year old Jewish girl who flukishly escapes the slaughter of her village by seeking sanctuary in the surrounding forest.  The novel traces her survival in the forest, her refuge with the village eccentric, Aleksei, and her collaboration with the Jewish partisans resisting the German advance.

The Song of the Stork is not a light read, but given it’s subject matter, it’s not bleak – and this is an important point of distinction between it and Black Mirror. The war and its atrocities are an evident backdrop but aren’t despairingly overwhelming.  There are splinters of hope, as well as moments of redemption. I spoke with Stephan about how he managed to steer this course, maintaining this balance between grim history and hope.

Violence and Murder (and Feminism): An Isolated Incident

Part of me is so weary of crime novels and TV dramas revolving around the discovery of (another) mutilated body of a woman.  What bugs me is not depicting the reality that women get murdered.  Of course they do, every day, of every week, of every year.  My issue is that I feel uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, watching the investigators, journalists and the rest of cast paw over the details of her life and her death.  Of course, her murder is never condoned and the murderer receives our strongest condemnation.  But beyond the surface-level motive, there is never any exploration of why this happened.  What is it about our culture that creates the space for these events; that makes it unsurprising when another women is violently murdered?

I picked up Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident expecting a run-of-the-mill crime thriller (although a very good one given its accolades), and found instead an astonishing novel that expertly delivers a poignant yet gripping read, while exploring the drivers of violence against women. I can’t think of another novel like it.

‘Tea like my nanna used to drink’

I’ve been drinking Tramtracker tea, by McIver’s Tea and Coffee Merchants, every morning for about 5 months now. I just love it; it’s strong and gutsy and gives me the push out of the door I need.

One morning as I stood staring at the wall waiting for my tea to brew, I thought to myself, ‘just how is this tea so good?’.  I resolved at that moment to find out.

The Perfect Excuse for a Cuddle: At the Zoo I See

Master Five just started school in February and without being too melancholy, I realise that the time will come when he’ll stop following me around the house with a pile of picture books asking to sit on my knee and to read together. So I’m consciously trying to take these moments when I can.

In a hygge-inspired snuggle, we recently spent a lovely twenty minutes together reading At the Zoo I See, a beautiful picture book by Joshua Button, a young author descended from the Walmajarri people of the East Kimberley.

Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie instantly became one of my literary heroes after I read Americanah. I would even go so far as to rank that book as one of my top reads ever.

Somehow though, I don’t think my accolades will make much of an impression on Adichie’s trophy cabinet. Her TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists has been watched over 6 million times; Beyonce sampled her talk in the song Flawless; the book We Should All Be Feminists is being distributed to every 16 year old in Sweden, and this month Adichie made it into Fortune Magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. We Should All Be Feminists has been followed up by Dear Ijeawale, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, released just this month. Both books are a fantastic read, and provide a vital contribution to the feminist canon.

When the cover is the best bit: The House at Bishopsgate

I requested a review copy of The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman because it has a beautiful cover and it holds itself out to be a richly-textured, historical novel.  I was promised that it would be ‘completely absorbing and delightful’ and that I would be taken ‘to a magical land’.  Unfortunately for me, and this review, it didn’t deliver any of these things.

Top Ten Things For Every Romance Novel

Let’s admit it.  Even if some of us (er, like me) are a bit ‘bah humbug’ about Valentine’s Day, we all love a good romance. Imagine life without Gilbert and Ann, or Rochester and Jane, or Heathcliffe and Catherine.

To honour St Valentine, Melbourne author Heidi Catherine unveils the key ingredients to the perfect romance novel.

Ten books that need a bit less….

I can imagine how hard it is to write a book, and to write one that people not only choose to read, but might actually even like.

Notwithstanding this, I can be a harsh critic. I’ve read a few books recently that would have been so much better if they’d just had a bit less … y’know … [*sigh*] … or perhaps fewer … [*hmmm*]….

Let me explain it better: here are my top ten books that need less stuff.

Accent anarchy: listening to The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Although relatively new to them,  I’ve quickly come to love the accessibility of audio books – that I can be walking or driving or hoovering and still be consuming books. I can drown out irritating chat on public transport and still be buried in a novel.  I’ve only listened to a couple, and whilst I’m largely won over, I now realise that listening to a book is very different to reading it, and not necessarily always in a positive way.

There’s been a fair bit of chat about whether listening to a book is ‘cheating’.  The simple answer to that question appears to be no – for typical adults, listening comprehension and reading comprehension is mostly the same thing, says Daniel Willingham, a Professor in Psychology.

The far more interesting question though, I think, is whether by listening to a book I’m experiencing it in the way the author intended.

Fingersmith: Book and movie combo deal!

It was only by accident that I came to hear Sarah Waters discussing her newest book The Night Watch at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2006.  It was a beautiful Scottish summer’s day; perfect for a day trip from Glasgow. I had planned to just wander around the festival at Charlotte Square Gardens; tickets were £8 per session and I knew my meager Oxfam salary couldn’t support too many purchases.  But then on a whim, I decided to get a ticket to Sarah Waters, an author I’d never heard of.  It changed my literary landscape.

Fighting, feminism and Ford

I’m a feminist.  Every day I notice how women’s lives have been shaped to sustain male privilege.  I get angry when I think about the gender pay gap.  I’m furious about the prevalence of family violence.  The way that women in particular (but men too) are poked and prodded into hating their appearance by global beauty companies makes me livid.  But I am nowhere near as angry as Clementine Ford.

Sharp Objects: it’s no Gone Girl (but maybe that’s a good thing?)

I loved the book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; it was one of my top reads for 2014.  I feel a bit embarrassed to say that out loud these days, what with lots of other ‘girl’ books floating about. In my defence, I read it before the hype and before the film and before I realised that some people had good reason to really dislike it (I’m thinking of you, Jan @ What I Think about When I Think About Reading). Although I still stand by it as a book – I found it utterly compelling.

So it was with great relish that I picked up Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects. It was, however, a disappointment.  In a nutshell, it’s no Gone Girl.

2016’s Top Ten New-To-Me Authors

It’s Top Ten Tuesday and this week it’s Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time in 2016.

I thought this list would echo my ‘best book of 2016’ but actually it doesn’t completely (I wonder which book Hag-Seed might dislodge?). Plus, the year isn’t totally over yet is it?  I’ve still got at least three weeks of reading time, completely uninterrupted except by Christmas concerts, Christmas shopping, Christmas decorating, Christmas chat, Christmas office parties, Christmas cooking, Christmas travel, Christmas manic excitement (kids), Christmas meltdowns (me).

Anyway without further ado, this year’s top ten new-to-me authors are:

Back in the arms of Atwood with Hag-Seed

Twenty years ago, I considered Margaret Atwood to be a demigod; I reverentially devoured all her books.  If there had been an Atwood holy site, I’d have made the pilgrimage (as I’ve done with Prince Edward Island and Haworth).  Alias Grace, Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride, The Handmaid’s Tale are still up there as some of my all time favourite books.  Then came Oryx and Crake, which Atwood assured us was not science fiction, but rather ‘speculative fiction’.  All the same, I was left unmoved by it.  In fact, I felt decidedly let down by it. So I consciously (and somewhat painfully) turned away from any Atwood books that followed.

For me, Hag-Seed was like coming home. From the opening paragraph I knew I was back in the literary arms of the Atwood I had once known and loved: ‘Felix brushes his teeth.  Then he brushes his other teeth, the false ones, and slides them into his mouth. Despite the layer of pink adhesive he’s applied they don’t fit very well’.  I loved this book because of the wonderful writing and clever storytelling, but also because it showed me that Atwood and I do have a future together after all.

Mullumbimby: another must-read Australian novel

I love it when I pick up a book, for which I hold no expectations and know very little about, and am totally captivated by it. This was how it went with Mullumbimby.  I reckon Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko will feature in my top five books of 2016;  it’s funny, tender, instructive and a page-turner all at once.

Salt Creek: The Movie?

Salt Creek, by Lucy Treloar is a really great book.  It’s set in South Australia in the 1860s and centres on the misfortunes of the Finches, an English family trying to make their living from the inhospitable land around Salt Creek. 97817435331921-198x300At its core Salt Creek is a story about colonial Australia’s place in the Empire, of white people’s uneasy foothold in Australia and the displacement of native Australians through farming, disease and misdirected religious fervour.

The writing is beautiful, evoking the period and the landscape.  The plot begins slowly and we’re gradually drawn into each of the characters’ individual sense of alienation. The story increasingly gathers pace as Papa Finch’s fortunes fall further into decline and the family disintegrates.

Salt Creek is about love, racism, colonial pioneering, ego, familial tension and bitter disappointment. These big themes are teased out beautifully over the course of the novel. For this reason, I think Salt Creek is destined to be a film.  I’ve pondered over who could play the central characters thoughtfully enough to do proper justice to this book, and I’ve come up with the following list:

Fourteen preschoolers, two Indigenous books and a LOT of excitement

Magabala Books recently sent me two children’s books to review – Return of the Dinosaurs and Cheeky Animals. I find it hard to review kids’ books because in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether I like the book!

Then I thought, who better to review these books than Master Five and his pals from kindergarten. So last week I headed into his early learning centre to do a group reading with him and his classmates.

I was actually a bit nervous as I walked through the doors.  What if other kids aren’t as into books as mine? Would they find me dull? Do five-year olds heckle?

Walking the Lights: Quite a lot of walking, and not a lot else

I had high hopes for Walking the Lights by Deborah Andrews. It’s been shortlisted for this year’s The Not the Booker Prize; it’s published by an independent Scottish publishing house that gave us last year’s The Not the Booker Prize winner (Fishnet by Kirsten Innes); it’s set in Glasgow, and its blurb promises that it ‘perfectly evokes 90s Britain and those living on the margins, while others prosper’.  A winning combination, I thought.

George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for making tea

I recently stumbled across George Orwell’s 1946 gem of an essay, A Nice Cup of Tea.  It’s not surprising that as ‘the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture’*, Orwell had some strong opinions about this quintessentially English institution.

In his short, humorous essay, George Orwell lists 11 inviolable rules one must follow to create the perfect cup of tea.  For the most part, his dogma stands the test of time.  But, there are a couple of points that are less ‘golden’ and, in my view, quite simply wrong.

George and I go head to head on what does, or does not, create the perfect cuppa.

Australia’s asylum shame

A year ago, I moved back to Australia after 10 years in Scotland.  Over these last 12 months, I’ve been relearning what it is to be Australian – not in the cliched sense, but in terms of the nuances of daily life that I’d just clean forgotten about (such aggressive driving, for example) or never even known about (the oddities of school drop offs).

But more than anything, I’ve had to confront and compute my country’s attitudes to its indigenous people and its asylum seekers. I feel like I’m seeing these issues with fresh eyes, and I really don’t like what I see.

The Dry: A scorching Aussie thriller

I’ve just finished reading what I reckon will be one of my top books of the year, The Dry by Jane Harper.  Within minutes of starting this book I knew I was in safe hands, and right to the very end I couldn’t put this book down.  It’s the kind of book that makes you miss your train stop; it’s an engrossing and very satisfying read.

This is why we need women only book prizes…

Hands up those who get sick of explaining why we still need feminism? 664392

It doesn’t seem to matter what statistics say about the gender pay gap, occupational segregation, family violence, women in leadership, poverty, misogyny in mainstream and social media etcetera – some remain unconvinced.

Hands up those who get sick of explaining why we still need women only book prizes?  

The Man Booker and the Not the Booker Prize 2016

Today the Man Booker Prize announced its longlist of 13 books, which you can find here.

website

I’ve not read any of the books on this year’s longlist, so can’t offer any comment on their relative merit.  But I did immediately notice the absence of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which made me sad.

However, I have a means to remedy this! The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2016 gives us all a chance to champion our own favourite book of the year.

When the Personal is Political (in Korea): Meeting With My Brother

Interestingly, Australia was threatened by North Korea this week. By toeing the line with US foreign policy, the North Korean foreign ministry is reported to have warned that Australia is ‘coming within the range of the nuclear strike of the strategic force of the DPRK’. In its own right that’s pretty interesting, if not downright alarming, but it’s especially interesting for me as I just finished reading Meeting With My Brother by Yi Mun-yol – a literal and allegorical novella about North and South Korea.

The Vegetarian, which I read last year, was my first Korean novel ever. I don’t know how I made it this far in life with so little exposure to Korean literature, especially since I have a degree in Asian Studies! But after a short period of chastisement I set about changing this, requesting a review copy of Meeting With My Brother. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Meeting With My Brother breathes life into the stories we’ve read and the images we’ve seen of North and South Korean families being reunited after decades of separation, as well as shedding light on the deep ideological rifts still obviously at play in this divided nation.