Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Past the Shallows" by Favel Parrett

I read "Past the Shallows" as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2015. This is the second book I have read by Favel Parrett although it is actually her debut novel. I really enjoyed "When the night comes" when I read it last year, but I thought "Past the Shallows" was even better! Not that it is a happy book, it is in fact one of the saddest and most tragic stories I have read in a while, but so beautifully written and captures your emotions. In many ways it reminds me of Tim Winton's style and themes, particularly his book "breathe" which also had a strong fascination with the ocean. I have heard Favel Parrett's work described as "Wintonesque", but this particular book captured me even more strongly than most of Winton's books.

It is again set in Tasmania, and again the writing style is similar with lots of very short chapters, split between two different characters points of view. In this book the two main characters are Miles and Harry, two of three young brothers in a family that is falling apart. The eldest brother, Joe (19 years old), has already left home and is about to sail away on his homemade boat to escape the life he would lead if he stayed behind. The mother is dead, and we find out little fragments of what must have happened as the book unfolds. The father is a no-hope aggressive drunk, a desperate abalone fisherman who is struggling to even put basic food on the table for his kids. He is forcing Miles (13 years old) to help out on the fishing boat in ways that make you feel like the boy is being robbed of his childhood. Harry, who I think is meant to be about 7 or 8 but I'm not sure it's ever actually specified, is often left to his own devices at home while his Dad, Jeff (another unsavoury character) and Miles are out fishing all day. Harry is one of the most touching characters, your heart goes out to him, he is such a loving, sweet kid that adores his brother Miles, and always seems to be doing little things just to make others feel better. Miles is also a great kid, although being put in situations that make him more of a depressed character. I wont go into the storyline as it is quite a short book and I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. For me it was the characters of Harry and Miles, their brotherly love and protection of each other in situations neither of them should have had to endure that made this book so powerful and so tragic. You just want to reach out and save them from what unfolds from the pages as you read it.  

Started reading: 28th January 2015
Finished: 30th January 2015
My score: 9.5/10
Aussie Author Challenge stats: Female author, Fiction, Genre: ?Wintonesque ?tragedy 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Virgin Blue" by Tracy Chevalier

I bought this book second-hand at the Glenelg Book Exchange. I have read other books by this author in the past, including "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "The Lady and the Unicorn" which I really enjoyed reading sometime in the last 5-10 years. Her books tend to be historical novels inspired by famous artworks and bringing to life the people portrayed in them or involved in the making of the art.

"The Virgin Blue" is split between two main characters in two different time periods: Ella Turner, an American woman who has moved to France (around the 1990s?) and Isabelle Tournier "La Rousse", a red haired peasant girl living in southern France in the 1500s during a time of unrest between the Catholics and the Huguenots. It becomes apparent pretty quickly that Ella believes herself to be a member of the French Tournier family that Isabelle Tournier belongs to, and starts researching into her distant ancestory following some vivid nightmares involving a particular shade of blue and some words from a bible verse.

While the historic background in which Isabelle's life is set is really interesting, neither of the main characters really connected with me, and the "connections" felt between the 2 characters in their different lives was really not convincing enough for me. Ella in particular I found fairly superficial and immature in her actions, and a lot of the dialogue and thoughts running through her head were basically stereotypes  of an arrogant American trying to fit into a small French village but rubbing everyone up the wrong way, yet somehow not realising that it was her attitudes and actions that were contributing to her reception and therefore blaming the locals. She was always jumping to conclusions that everyone was judging her and misinterpreting situations. For example, if a local French person spoke to her in English when she tried to speak in limited French to them, she would react in this way: "Damn you, I thought. I hated that sneering appraisal, the assumption that I couldn't speak French, that I looked so American"...when in reality the local person probably was trying to be helpful and could speak better English than her French and thought she would appreciate them speaking English.
Another example: "In fact French women in the city were so different from me that I often felt invisible around them, a dishevelled ghost standing aside to let them pass....As I walked around I could feel them glancing at me discreetly, scruitinizing the shoulder-length hair I'd left a little too long in cutting, the absence of make-up...I was sure I saw pity flash over their faces".

Despite this, the book was fairly quick and easy to read, the little bits about life in the 1500s was interesting. I would have preferred more details of this time period and Isabelle's life and less of the romantic and conclusion-jumping adventures of Ella. I seem to remember enjoying other books by this author a lot more, but it was a while ago that i read them now, so I don't know whether they were more complex and well-written than "The Virgin Blue" or whether they were a similar style and just appealed to me more when I read them in my 20s.

Started reading: 25th January 2015
Finished: 27th January 2015
My score: 5/10

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Mindfulness for life" by Stephen Mckenzie & Craig Hassed

I was inspired to read this book after watching the doco "The Connection" at the Transitions Film Festival in Adelaide last October, and the follow on Q&A session after the film screening included Dr Hassed on the panel. I have been looking up a few scientific research papers on related topics lately and am very interested in the possibilities of an integrated medical approach combining modern western medicine and mind/body/mindfulness practice for combating stress and chronic diseases like cancer among other things. For someone who didnt previously know a lot about mindfulness, I found this book very informative, easy to read and really interesting. Not only does it describe what mindfulness is, it also gives details of how the practice of mindfulness can help in managing day-to-day stress, as well as how it can help people suffering from a range of chronic problems, including cancer, pain, depression, addiction, and attention deficit disorders. It is not a mumbo-jumbo book claiming that meditation will cure these illnesses without appropriate medication or doctors advice, but instead shows how meditation and mindfulness techniques can help both your body and your mind to cope with these problems better, and allows your body to heal easier than if it is in a constant state of stress for example. I really recommend this book to anyone with any type of chronic illness especially, but also just for general knowledge. I have now started attempting mindfulness meditation myself and find it very helpful even with dealing with day-to-day minor stresses.  

Started reading on my kindle: 11th November 2014.
Finished: 21/01/2015. My Score: 8.5/10 Very interesting book, a little bit repetitive in places but I really enjoyed it and learned new things from it. This book also counts towards my Aussie Author Challenge tally in the non-fiction, personal development genre, male author, new to me.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"The Lost Dog" by Michelle de Kretser

This is the first novel I have read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2015. It was the winner of the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, Winner of the NSW Premier's Literary Awards Book of the Year, and longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. My Mum lent me this book to read.

While the title of the book suggests the story is about a lost dog, it is much more complex than that. The book is set around the 10 day search for the main character's dog, but the story jumps around a lot, both temporally and in terms of focus. While I found this frustrating and distracting in parts, the book is in fact beautifully written with lots of layers and secrets hidden within the characters and their pasts, some of which slowly unfold. Not only does the story involve the current issue of the fate of the missing dog, but also a previous darker mystery of a missing husband, who also disappeared into the bush. The book is set mainly in Melbourne, but also in an outback location where the dog goes missing, and from time to time we are also taken back to an earlier period in India.

This book is written beautifully, the language used sometimes poetic or literary in style, other times deliberately not so. The book is full of elusive but interesting characters that you never quite find out a clear picture of, mixed in with minute or intimate details of what sometimes seem to be irrelevant conversations or moments in time. Little glimpses into people's past histories, strange memories that were remembered from childhood, different ways of looking at everyday objects. Throughout the book there seems to be a fascination with objects that have become outdated, cast away without thought, but treasured, hoarded or turned into artwork by others: "...discarded and ephemeral yet caught in the tatters of memory"....."that period between nostalgia and novelty which contained objects once the height of fashion and now out of date".

My favourite character in the book is Nelly Zhang, an artist, a complex and perhaps unbalanced individual, with whom the main character has a long standing infatuation with, somewhat disguised in friendship. While I was really captivated and intrigued by the character of Nelly, you never really feel like you will understand her, and not quite sure if what you are seeing is the 'real' Nelly or just a shifting portrait of what she wants you to see of her. The following paraphrases a section where one character in the book tries to describe her to another: "There are so many aspects to Nelly.....there's a painting by Cezanne: Les Grandes Baigneuses. It's always reminded me of Nelly. Something about the way the figures melt into and out of each other, so that your perception of them keeps shifting....it's brilliant, utterly brilliant. Also unsettling. And sad."   

Started reading: 3rd January 2015
Finished: 25th January 2015
My score: 7/10

Aussie Author Challenge stats: female author, new to me, fiction.

Signing up for the Aussie Author Challenge 2015

I have really enjoyed taking part in the Aussie Author Challenge during 2013 and 2014, and completed the highest level in both years. I am keen to take part in the Aussie Author Challenge for 2015, as it's a good excuse to discover and read many great Australian books that I otherwise might not read, and also this year as an added incentive there are going to be book giveaways to Challenge participants! :-) 

I will definitely aim to at least complete the Wallaroo level which involves:
– Read and review 6 titles written by Australian authors, of which at least 2 of those authors are female, at least 2 of those authors are male, and at least 2 of those authors are new to you;
– Fiction or non-fiction, at least 2 genres.

Once I complete the Wallaroo level, I might decide to upgrade to the Kangaroo level:
 – Read and review 12 titles written by Australian Authors of which at least 4 of those authors are female, at least 4 of those authors are male, and at least 4 of those authors are new to you;
– At least 6 fiction and at least 2 non-fiction, and at least 2 titles first published in 2014 or 2015.

The only reason I'm not signing up straight away at the Kangaroo level is I am also interested in trying to read more widely this year, including books set in other countries and cultures, so depending how quickly I manage to complete the Wallaroo level of the Aussie Author Challenge and how many other non-Aussie books I also manage to read by mid-2015 will determine if I want to upgrade to the Kangaroo level for the 3rd year in a row. Hopefully this will be a year of reading lots of awesome books :-)

Friday, January 2, 2015

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, I picked up a second-hand copy at the Pop Up Bookshop in Adelaide in the last year or so. I haven't read any books by this author before, but he's written quite a few, and it seems like several of them have been shortlisted for the Booker prize over the years. After reading "The Sense of an Ending" I am definitely keen to read some of his other novels.

The book starts out with a group of 4 teenage boys, obsessed with philosophising and pretending they are cool in a geeky way. They are just starting to experience girls and sex and determined to stay friends for ever despite heading their separate ways for college once school finishes. The book soon skips forward to one of the boys, Tony Webster, as a 60-year old man, peacefully and uneventfully going through life as a divorced man, but living a life that doesn't seem to have amounted to anything much. Suddenly he receives an unexpected letter from a lawyer saying that the mother of an ex-girlfriend from his college days has died and left him 500 pounds and the diary of one of his three old friends who had committed suicide almost 40 years before. This strange bequest leads to the uncovering of the past and the unraveling of Tony's memories of that time.

While the topic of this book might seem a little under-whelming, it was very skilfully written, and really hooked me in. To me this book beautifully illustrates the plasticity of the mind, what we remember, what we forget, how we can manipulate our own memories subconsciously or consciously to build our own life history. We go through our individual lives, creating memories, writing the story of our life as we see it, repeating scenes over and over in our heads, but over time we remember things differently, selectively, sometimes  blocking out scenes, other times convincing yourself you experienced something you only heard of or saw in a photo, and also that just as surprisingly, random snatches of memories can come flooding back that you have not thought of since the time the event took place, unbidden or sometimes triggered by something. As the story unfolds, so too does Tony Webster's memories, leaving you constantly guessing the truth of what really happened to his friend right up until the final pages.

This book has lots of complex thought-provoking deep ideas hidden in it, but it reads like a page-turning mystery. It's a fairly short book (150 pages), but very powerful and I recommend reading it!  
Started Reading: 2nd January 2015
Finished: 3rd January 2015
My score: 9/10