Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Book Review: Adulting

Adulting: How to become a Grown Up In 468(ish) Easy Steps
Kelly Williams Brown
Harper Collins

If there was one thing I learned while I was house-sitting this month, it was that I really wasn't all that prepared to live on my own.  For instance, did you know that if you don't rinse dishes properly, there's a high likelihood that you will end up drinking dish soap?  Or that you can't put sausages in the fridge for a few days, then freeze them, then defrost and eat them, even if they're gourmet?  Enter Adulting, the new bible to my maturity.

Based on the hit blog, Kelly Williams Brown's book is at once a meditation on lessons learned whilst growing up, and a survival guide for the newly graduated, the job seeking, the freshly moved out and the just plain grown up.  It is the kind of book that makes the perfect gift.

At once practical and hilarious, the book contains such highlights as: how to have indoor plants and not kill them, the Seven Dwarves of Toxic Friendships, and the sage advice to pair housework and Hip Hop music. I did not once feel as if the book were talking down to me.  The author writes in a voice that is like that of a tough but fair friend.  While not all of the advice is strictly gospel- for example, some things definitely have more to do with the American way of life- it is all worth thinking about, and I have found myself applying Kelly's guide to talking to new people at parties more than once already since reading it.

I also immensely enjoyed the original illustrations and diagrams peppered throughout.

Really, this is a book that sells itself, so please check it out if you get the chance.

Five stars.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

You Can Quote Me On It, May 19

This quote brought to you by 40 years of Elizabeth's Second-hand Bookstores.  Thanks to the Fremantle branch for being open late on Friday night when I was waiting for my friends.  Nowhere felt safe than amongst your shelves.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Book Review: The Mimosa Tree

The Mimosa Tree
Antonella Preto
Fremantle Press

From the Blurb

It’s the summer of 1987 and Mira is beginning her first year at uni. She’s got a radical new haircut, and an all-black wardrobe — she should be having the time of her life. 

But it’s hard to get excited about anything when you’re being smothered by your crazy Italian family, enrolled in a course you’re not interested in, and expecting nuclear warfare at any moment. 

Even a new best friend and the magnetic boy from art class can’t wipe away the image of a looming mushroom cloud. And Mira’s right. Her world is about to explode, but it’s not the skies she should be checking.

My Review

Do you remember the first time you read Looking for Alibrandi?  I do.  My friend Emily M. had gotten the only copy out of the school's library and was really enjoying it, so I went and got a copy out of the Bull Creek Library.  I remember that when I opened it, a sewing needle fell out of the spine.  It was one of those books that made me ache with truth.  Yes, I thought, this is most likely the real world.  I was only about ten or eleven and had NO IDEA what was ahead (trust me, if I had I probably would have built a tunnel under my house, gone there, and not come out until about now), but when I read that book I learned two things: one, that being a teenager sucked no matter who you were, and two, that things got better.  I now own a copy of that book and the only regret I have is that I cannot read it for the first time ever again.

But I did recently read The Mimosa Tree and it was similar in all the right ways.  Like Josephine Alibrandi, Mira is an Italian Australian who resents the way that her family's staunch Italianess keeps her separate from her peers.  She has a messed up relationship with her dad, who when I picture him, looks a little bit like the guy from the old WA Salvos adds.  Oh yeah, and her Mum has recently gotten over a nasty bout of cancer.  Or so they all think.  Mira is starting uni and not so sure she likes it when the family discovers that Sofia's cancer is back, and it's spread to her bones.  Like it or not, they have to pull together to get through it.

This is a book that is so vividly evoked, that at one point I found myself craving a jam donut just because Mira's aunt Siena was eating one.  It's hard to express how eagerly I devoured this story.

My one criticism has to do with the odd way in which the story is situated in time.  Ostensibly, the book takes place in the eighties, and Mira spends a large part of her time waiting for the Cold War to explode into her life and wreck everything.  Yes, this is supposed to be a metaphor for the way she hides herself away from the world because she is scared of what might happen, but it seems to me that the same thing could have been achieved by haiving her afraid of the war on terror.  Aside from the odd mentions of band names, the book does not feel so much different to now for me, and it seems a little alienating to some potential readers for the setting to be 'historical'.  However, I have to wonder how much the writer is drawing on her own adolescence- and truth be told, the setting did not bother me all too much.  I would have perhaps liked the Western Australian setting to be a little more recognisable as well.

To Sum Up

This is an amazing book and I have been recommending it to everyone I know.  It has a powerful message about overcoming grief, and the obstacles that we place in our own path to happiness.  It is a book that will make you sob until you are empty, but leave you with the hope of a heart full of love.

I give it five stars.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner
Herman Koch
Text Publishing

As I often say to customers in the bookshop where I work, there are a lot of really great novels being translated into English at the moment.  Diego Marani, whose novel New Finnish Grammar went so global that when the Guardian reviewed it, they put it down to genius.  Jonas Jonasson's The 100 Year old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared- a best seller pretty much everywhere you go in Perth.

And then there's Herman Koch's The Dinner.

From the Blurb:

"On a summer evening in Amsterdam, two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner.  At first, the conversation is a gentle hum of polite small talk- the banality of work, the latest movies they've seen.  But beyond the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen year old son.  The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act- an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated world of their families.  When the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children.  As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

My Review

The knives are being sharpened? Really?

I wonder which knives those would be, Mr Blurb Writer Man- would they perhaps be the knives of describing people in extremely unflattering although perhaps warranted terms?  Because not a single character in this book is likeable.  There's Serge, the smarmy politician whose life is ruled by Maslo's Hierarchy of Needs; his fat and designer-label snobbish wife Babette (In my mind she looks like Miss Piggy in Dior); Paul, the judgemental prick with anger issues who is unable to respect his son's privacy; Michel, the sadistic, trend-enslaved like shit who doesn't deserve to have his privacy respected; Rick, his cousin who is so 2D he's not even worth remembering; Beau, an adopted African blackmailer; and Claire, who seems nice and normal at first but then OH YEAH, savages her brother in law with a wine glass to keep him from outing her son as a murderer.

You read all that right.

I hated every single character in this book.  They were either so boring I forgot their names a lot, or a shining example of everything that is wrong with the general public.  And not even in an amusing holding a mirror up to life kind of way.  And the whole book was about their boring lives.

Sure it was well written- Koch has a talent for turning a phrase, or capturing, say, the way you feel about that cafe that you go to.  You don't own it, but it's yours.  I honestly could not put the book down, and while I was reading it at first, I was loving it.  It was only when I closed the cover that last time that I realised how angry the book had made me.

But when you take a whole bunch of basically loathsome characters, let them do terrible things and then let them get away with most of it, you're going to see some reader backlash, let me tell you.  The legal system may not be perfect in most places, but you still can't get away with cutting someone's face up in public without going to jail.

And what about the pacing of the book?  Ostensibly, the whole story takes place between the courses of a single meal, but in actual fact, the story is pepper with long flashback scenes that get more and more disturbing as time goes on.  A lot of key information is related through these scenes, but some of it perhaps too late.  You don't learn until the second part of the story that Paul taught history, or that he has a major psychological anger problem, and you don't learn what Michel and Rick (and Beau) did until quite late, and then you hang around waiting for the consequences to rain down on them all and... nothing.

It's like when you need to sneeze and you know you'll feel good after, but in the end nothing happens.

To Sum Up

This is a case of 5 for writing but 2 for enjoyability. While meticulously plotted, I cannot see myself wanting to reread a book where even the most sympathetic and maternal character, Claire, turns out to be morally reprehensible. Perhaps this is a clever exposition on the greyness of morality when it comes to family, but I refuse to believe that so many bad deeds can go unpunished.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Bookmarks Tag

I wasn't actually tagged to do this, but when I saw Sanne at Booksandquills do it, I knew I had to do one too.  Sometimes tags are fun!

This tag was created by IncrediblyDeadlyViper on Youtube.

Section One:  Bookmarks

1.  What are you currently using as a bookmark?

A free bookmark that came with a Book Depository order... it has a graph showing the rise of cupcake book sales.

2.  What is the best thing you've ever used as a bookmark?

I would have to say the new book jig bookmark that clips to the front of the book and drops a ribbon down the page.  Turns a modern book Victorian.

3.  What is the weirdest thing you've ever used as a bookmark?

A twisted up tissue.  Not used!  In my defence, I'd seen my friend do it first.  She also used to bring lunch money wrapped in tissues, and once she threw it out by accident.

Section Two: Marks in Books

4.  Do you ever highlight or annotate your books?  Why or why not?

No!  I hate doing that, it feels like vandalism.  I wrote in my copy of Hard Times during first year English Lit at uni, and I've always regretted it.  Now, if I need to write down a great quote, I stop and grab my journal.

5. Share something that you've found in a library book or a used book.

I wish I could remember what I found written in the second hand copy of My Brilliant Career but I can't, and I gave that copy to a friend when I got the one for my University syllabus.

We leant a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley to my grandfather earlier this year, and when it came back he'd underlined the word "matches" and the word "Police" because neither of those things were invented in Jane Austen's time.

Section Three: Books by Mark 

6. Do you own any books by authors named Mark?

I'm not at my own house this month, so I'm going by memory here:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time- Mark Haddon
100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Mark-ez)
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzack
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Section Four: Marks by Books

7. Which book has made the biggest mark on your life figuratively?

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, because I spent a year of my life writing a thesis on it.

8. Which book has made the biggest mark on your life literally?  //  Do you have any literary tattoos?  If not, what would you get?

I don't have any literary tattoos, but I did drop the seventh Harry Potter book on my face while I was reading it.  That left a mark at the time.

If I was going to get a literary tattoo... tattoos really aren't my thing so this is difficult...

9.  Which book do you think has had the biggest impact on your generation?

Have to say Harry Potter.  Whenever my high school friends and I try to talk about books, it's always this one.

If you do this tag, link me in the comments!  This is really fun.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

You Can Quote Me On It, Sunday May 5

A very appropriate one given my 30 Days to Vogel Challenge.  I wish Ian McEwan were my Uncle or something so I could hug him and take tea with him and just talk about books.  He reminds my of my Grandfather.  Oh gosh, if only my Grandfather wrote books, I think they'd be the best books ever written.  But instead, there is Ian McEwan.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

30 Days to Vogel

One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever been given about writing is don't become a writer- be one.

That means:  Have a day job to support your writing.  Prioritize time to write.  Keep a journal.  Have a project on the go.  Eavesdrop on conversations for research.  Stick to deadlines or break them if you have to.  And most importantly, never give up.

On a spur of the moment whim yesterday, after reading this article on why there was no Vogel Award for the 2013 round, I decided that I was going to send in something for the 2014 award.  Yes, I am aware that the award closes on the 31st of May, and yes I am aware that my shot of winning is something like one in a bazillion.  I'm also aware that the manuscript I put aside two years ago and thought was awesome is pretty rough and naive.  So I'm going to try and finally live by that advice that I was given, rather than just taking it up when I feel like it.  And I'm really really scared, mostly of that voice inside my head that keeps telling me that I'm not good enough, but a little bit of doing it largely on my own, because oh yeah, I moved out of home for a month.

I'm going to keep you all updated, and I hope that you will wish me luck.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Oh Dear, Dawn: How to review a book you weren't all that taken with.

I never like to review things negatively.

For a start, just because one particular book and one particular reader have been unable to connect on a meaningful level, it doesn't make the book bad per se. Remembering that reading is always subjective, I have usually taken the approach of reviewing something lukewarmly if I did not take to it. I have, on occasion, suggested that I need to maybe give the book a second chance.

Booklover Book Reviews, whose blog I have been reading a lot this last month uses a great system in reviewing, in which every book is given a rating in terms of writing quality and story.  This is fantastic because it recognises both the potential of the idea and the skill with which it was realised, indicating that perhaps when a book goes wrong it could have been saved by a better plot or a different author.

Today, I want to write about Oh Dear, Silvia by Dawn French but I also want to reflect on the process of reviewing a book you didn't like.  Believing in treating others as I would like to be treated, I have broken down my approach into a few steps.

1. Be Honest

I read Oh Dear, Silvia because it was recommended to me by a family member.  Dawn French has always been one of my favourite comediennes, and her novels contain the same wonderful, ridiculous, cynical observations as her television work.  However, as a novelist, I fear that Dawn has disappointed me somewhat.

2. Give a potted plot synopsis (no spoilers, but opinions okay)

Oh Dear, Silvia is a series of monologues based around the visiting family and friends of Silvia Shute, who is in a coma.  There is her ex-husband (a man so droll his name escapes me), her 'best friend'/ lover, Crazy Bitch a.k.a. Cat, her slightly racist stereotype of a Indonesia maid, Tia (who nonetheless is good for comic relief on an otherwise depressing subject), her whack-job sister Jo, her nurse Winnie (who seems largely irrelevant until medical things are needed to push the plot forward) and her estranged daughter Cassie.  All of these people have had a complicated relationship with Silvia, but have only known part of her, excepting Winnie of course who did not know her at all.  By taking bits and bobs of Silvia's life from these people, the reader begins to work out just what happened to Silvia, as well as who she is.

3. Balance positive thoughts with negative ones

There were moments in this book that made me laugh out loud.  I could imagine some of the scenes working as the kind of sketch comedy that French has become known for- serious scenes in life made awkwardly hilarious by incompetence or misunderstanding, or general human craziness.  For example, when Jo brings animals into Silvia's hospital room in order to heal her with animal spirits, I thought I would pee my pants- not least because the hamster was named Justin Bieber.

French has a talent for making the ordinary seem marvellous, and she sees to the hearts of real people, but I feel that she struggled with the subtle clue-leaving needed for her plot's giant twist.  At times, the novel truly felt as if she had decided on the real story halfway through; at others, it felt as if she were trying to bash you over the head with the bleedingly obvious in an attempt to make it seem deliberate.  The writing itself got clumsy as the plot got more emotional.

4. And don't flog the horse when it's already dead.

All in all, Oh Dear, Silvia was the kind of book that I tried to keep reading in the hope that it would get better.  I could see the kind of clever plotting that French had attempted, but the story felt like it needed a few more drafts to truly reach mastery of them.  As it was, the 'mystery' of the story was about as subtle as French's Vicar of Dibley, and the story became less enjoyable the closer that it got to the end.

I was sad to have to do it, but I have given the book only one star out of five.