Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Review and a December Reading Wrap Up

It's been all quiet on the blogging front from me lately, and for the most part I haven't been writing much of anything else either.

I usually love this time of year.  I love setting goals, I love smashing those goals out of the park.  But I haven't quite learned when to cut myself some slack and I think that perhaps that's a good place to start with goals for 2016.  Right this moment, even though it's New Year's Eve, it just feels like a regular old Thursday.

One of the goals I didn't manage to complete in 2015 was to read 110 books, which was 10 more than the 100 I managed last year.  There are a few excuses I could give, one of which being that I started studying online, on top of continuing to work four days a week.  But at the beginning of December, I was pretty determined that I was going to make it.  I worked out that I needed to read about thirty books in thirty days to make it, which seemed do-able until I realised that one of those books was Jonathan Franzen's Purity which was good, but also quite long.  Anyway, I think I am sitting on a tantalisingly, horrifyingly frustrating tally of 96 and unless I can manage to read fourteen books (or even four) tonight, I am just not going to make it.  I like my sleep way too much.

But the upside of this sudden reading sprint was that I did manage to read fifteen books in December, which is incredible.  I think I was aiming for around ten every month with a bit of wiggle room for big books, and I hardly ever managed it until now.  It helped that I chose real page turners.

So here is Nigel the Santa Gnome, minding the teetering pile of what I read this month.  You can't see them, but on the top of this pile are two short books: Mark Forsyth's The Unknown Unknown and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's We Should All Be Feminists.
The World According to Anna by Jostein Gaarder

Aside from the fact that just about everyone I have mentioned this book to has said they always think Jostein Gaarder is a a woman named Justine Gardner, I have really nothing to say about this book.  I found it dull.  It was really hammering home an environmental message, it was told in a confusing manner but using overly simplistic language, and I just found it so bone crushingly dull I couldn't even bring myself to read it on public transport.

Jessica Jones vol 1

Yes, I was one of the hordes who flocked to their television sets when Netflix released its original series, Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter and David Tennat.  And it was good.  And I was very much obsessed with it.  It got to the point where I was googling information about all the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films which I hadn't seen in order to try and fill the gaps between them.  But aside from that, that show was so good that I simply had to go to the comic book store and get the first volume of the comic.  (By the way, people who think paperback novels are expensive in Australia, you should try buying comics.  Ouch!)  I read the whole thing in one sitting and I found it really interesting but it did lack some of the grit and sass of the series.  I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of grotesque oversexualisation of the female superheroes, too.  But the series was infinitely more complex.

Clancy of the Undertow by Christopher Currie

You can read my review of this book by clicking here.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

My first Franzen, unless you count excerpts read in university courses.  Franzen gets accused of being all sort of nasty things, so I didn't really want to find this book so entertaining as I did, but the man can write. This book was about the rise of organisations like Wikileaks, and one of the characters, named Andreas Wulf was an enigmatic figurehead with a questionable past who is frequently compared to Assange.  The story is told from varying points in time and from a few different voices, which was initially confusing but when all of these separate threads started pulling together, it was really quite ingenious.  All his characters are a little disturbed though...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This is one of those spooky classics that is published in the popular Penguins range, and I picked it up on National Bookshop Day.  Shirley Jackson was also the author of the short story The Lottery, which was once banned in America, about a small town which once a year holds a rather gruesome raffle.  That story was partial inspiration for The Hunger Games but you will have to read it to see why.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about Merricat (Mary Catherine) and her sister, who live in a castle on the top of a hill with their Uncle, avoiding the townspeople as much as they possibly can, as many of the townspeople believe Merricat's sister is responsible for the deaths of the rest of their family who were poisoned one night at dinner.  It's eerie and quite interesting but I wouldn't say I am an instant Shirley Jackson fan.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

This is the book that really got everyone talking about Liane Moriarty.  When Cecilia finds a note from her husband which is labelled 'To be opened in the event of my death", she begins to be haunted by the possibilities of what might be contained inside.  Her curiosity will have disastrous consequences and shed light on the answers to questions being asked by several others around her.  Just like when I read Big Little Lies, I was pleasantly entertained by Liane Moriarty's smart and witty approach to domestic fiction.  I can see why Moriarty is a million copy bestseller and would recommend her books as great holiday reads.

The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim

This is a brilliant young adult novel about a young girl whose mother (a well known astrologer) disappears without a trace.  Avicenna is not an astrologer but she understands some of her mother's ways, and so she assists the police investigation by reading some of the charts her mother left behind.  This book was so great because it introduced me to a world I had never entered before, and it was a cross of a number of different genres as well.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Bleak, beautiful, scarily close to the truth.

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore

I've read this before, but this play about the life of Alan Turing was based on Alan Turing: The Enigma, which also inspired the movie The Imitation Game.  Since doing some research of my own for my current work in progress, I've come to feel like perhaps the characterisation of Turing is a little off in the play but I would have to see it performed to know for sure.  There's a film version but it's just not the same.

The Collector by John Fowles

I got inspired to read this when it was used as clues in an episode of Criminal Minds, and now that I have read it I understand why.  Frederick kidnaps the beautiful art student he has been watching from afar and keeps her prisoner in the basement of the mansion he has bought with his lottery winnings.  They form a strange relationship, each based on their need for the other, though Miranda tries time and time again to escape.  The story is told first through his point of view and then through her own diary, and then from his view again.  I don't fully understand why this repetition was necessary, because Miranda's view point only revealed that she was often fooling him, something I already suspected.  But I didn't find the book particularly creepy, and maybe that just means I've watched one too many Criminal Minds episodes.

Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls by Danielle Wood

Short stories for the modern woman taking elements from classic fairy tales.  Danielle Wood talked about this collection at the Perth Writer's Festival earlier this year and I just knew I had to buy it.  I am so glad I did.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

This book was originally published as The Price of Salt, and was put out under a pseudonym.  It was Highsmith's second book, right after her hit novel Strangers on a Train, and her publisher didn't want it so she had to take it elsewhere.  To write about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s was risky, but every week, Patricia would receive letters from readers who told her that the book had changed their lives.  And I can understand why-- this book would have been unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.  Not only were the two characters allowed to fall in love with each other, but they were allowed to make a go of it.  Highsmith writes this complex and charming relationship every bit as well as the situation deserves and I don't even know if I want to go and see the film now that I have read this... The book was good enough.

Step Aside Pops by Kate Beaton

I don't know how to review this comic book properly, so instead I will link to Kate's blog.  

The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth

Written in support of independent bookseller's week in the UK, this essay is all about the joy of browsing, and finding a great book you never even knew you were looking for.

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Based on her famous TED talk, this essay is rational and makes a lot of sense-- feminists do not all have to be unfashionable, unhygienic, angry, man-hating monsters.  Just look at Chimamanda!  The woman is stylish but she does it for herself.  I think I read somewhere that this essay has been made required reading in some Scandinavian country.

So that's the lot of it.  Phew!  That took forever to write.  It's hard to believe that after all of that reading, I didn't even make it to 100 books this year.  I got so close!

This has been a year of almosts.  I almost read 100 books.  I almost won the John Marsden Award.  I almost won Young Bookseller of the Year.  I almost did a handstand in yoga.  Just some things to think about later tonight when I am setting some new goals, I suppose.

To all of you who are still reading this, Happy New Year.  I hope 2015 has been kind to you, and even if it has not, I hope that good things are coming to you in 2016.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Spotlight on Oz YA: Clancy of the Undertow

I'm often reminded how lucky I am to have grown up a reader in a country like Australia, where there are so many writers publishing complex and diverse books particularly for young people.  Some would argue that on the diversity front, we aren't quite there yet, but through important discussions I see happening every day on social media and at conferences in the non-virtual world, I believe that the YA genre will probably be the first to get there.  Far from being navel-gazing stories which would only interest teenagers, novels in the YA genre deal with issues which affect people of all ages, but look at them through the eyes of teen protagonists, who are often observers to difficult situations but don't always get a chance to make their voices heard.

Clancy of the Undertow by Brisbane writer and bookseller Christopher Currie is a shining example of the power of Young Adult literature.  Whilst reading it, I was reminded of many other great YA novels; those of John Marsden, Vikki Wakefield, and even of my favourite book of all time, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.  The protagonist, Clancy,  finds her life turned inside out after an accident kills two of Barwen's elite and popular students and it seems like her father may have had some fault in the incident.  Clancy already feels like an outcast in Barwen  (rural Queensland), and doesn't have many friends.  Her father has been struggling since an accident at work left him with a back injury and her mother had to work extra hours as a substitute teacher to keep the family afloat.  Clancy is the middle child, and her older brother Angus has just moved home again after an unsuccessful stint at a University.  He now seems content to drift, searching for mythological animals in his spare time, and basically just embarrassing Clancy.

Clancy's voice is sassy and genuine, and the use of a first person, present tense voice worked really nicely for this story.  As Clancy's situation grew worse and worse, I found myself identifying with her strongly, reaching a point around 70 or so pages in where I felt so strongly for her that I wanted to cry.  There are also some beautiful moments of joy and hope in the book, and Currie does a fantastic job of developing the supporting characters in a way that makes Clancy's Barwen feel like a real place.  While the story does feel Australian, there's nothing cheesy or overdone about it.  I also have to applaud the lack of insincerity to the teenage aspects of the novel; in so many novels with contemporary settings and teen characters, it's easy to feel like you're bearing witness to a parade of first world problems.  But Clancy's problems are real, and what's more, Clancy is real and you care about her.  What is particularly well done (and I don't think that this counts as a spoiler, because it's on the back cover) is the question of Clancy's sexuality.  While from the get go, the reader is aware that the protagonist is gay, the character herself doesn't feel like she needs to come out and do a monologue about it.  It becomes clear in her actions and her thoughts because it's part of who she is.  I think this is something a lot of writers could learn from.  When it comes to diversity in books, perhaps in particular when the person writing the book is from a heterosexual or cisgendered background, there's this sort of impulse to explain the difference about the character's sexual orientation that never feels quite right.  I don't imagine that LGBTQ+ people in real life go around thinking "I am gay, and therefore I am attracted to this person" so why should the characters?  The development of Clancy's character, and this aspect of it, follows a beautiful arc which is in harmony with the rising tension of the story line and I really enjoyed spending time with her.  I think I have learned a lot from reading this book.

I won't go into too much more detail, but I will say read this book.  No matter what age you are, read it, it's wonderful and engaging and I could hardly bear to put it down to go to work.  I gave it five stars.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

What Elimy Read: November

The days are getting longer and the nights are warm and perfect for reading.  In November, I read a lot of different books, a few of which I probably never would have selected for myself if I were left to my own devices.  There were fewer reviews than normal, but I am slowly getting my mojo back in that area of my life.  Writers block may or may not be an actual condition, or it may just be a convenient excuse to not do any work because I'm scared to fail in my current project, but regardless, November was an abysmal month for writing.  Coincidentally it was #Nanowrimo for many writers and to those of you who participated, congratulations to you for giving it a go.  The book I am working on at the moment began its life as a Nanowrimo project in 2009 and it's getting a restructure now.

But enough about books written.  Onto books read.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

This is the novel on which the Australian film of the same name is based.  It is the story of a small, remote town in the Australian outback, and the way all their nasty prejudices come back to bite them in the arse when Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage returns to town after being sent away as a child for her part in a tragic accident.  This book was all over the place.  There was no clear sense of who the main character was, although we assume it's Tilly because the book is titled after her, and the macabre yet simple plotting and writing style distance the reader so that the events of the novel never really hit home.  One of the book's more upsetting events left me annoyed rather than upset; the death of a fairly major character appeared to come out of nowhere and did not service the plotting or the character's journey in any real way.  Perhaps this book reflected the strangeness of real life, but I've come to respect a degree of clever deliberateness in my novels, no matter the genre.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I had to declare myself an Elizabeth Gilbert fan after reading this treatise on living creatively.  Liz Gilbert's practical, no nonsense approach to leading the best possible life for nurturing your creativity made a lot of sense and it was incredibly satisfying.  Now if only I could follow her advice and get to work...  This book appeared in my Top 10 for 2015.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

This was my first Geraldine Brooks novel, although I do own a few of her other books, I just haven't got to them yet.  The fictionalised account of King David was told from the point of view of Natan, the prophet, as he collects the stories surrounding King David and his rise and fall.  The book was slow to start and I found the biblical nature of the book a little boring, but at its apex, the book became a riveting work of literary historical fiction and at the end of the book I was glad I had read it.

The Sleepers Almanac Vol. X

The final Sleepers Almanac was published this year, which is quite sad.  I've discovered a number of talented Australian short fiction writers through this publication, which is put out by Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner of Sleepers Publishing.  Some of my favourite short fiction writers are included in this final edition, including Laurie Steed, Sophie Overett and Ryan O'Neill.  The most memorable story had to be 'The Fat Girl in History', by Julie Koh.

The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

The second instalment in the epic fantasy series by Samantha Shannon, a British writer who is my own age and has been compared to JK Rowling by reviewers.  I inhaled this book on a flight from Brisbane to Perth and it was just the kind of engrossing fantasy read I needed.  I could barely remember the plot of The Bone Season (book one) but that didn't affect my enjoyment at all.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I reviewed this book earlier in the month and you can read my review here

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Book 2 in the Thursday Next series.  I found this really strange, and while people think the books are comparable to Douglas Adams, I wouldn't go that far.  I almost gave up on this book, because I found his use of ridiculous coincidences just really bad plotting, but in the end, the sheer awesomeness of literary references (I mean, come on, hanging out with Miss Havisham!) saved the day.

The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny

This is the story of one of the most notorious people smugglers ever caught by the Australian authorities, in close to his own words as told to filmmaker Robin de Crespigny.  It is such a readable and relatable account and it really forced me to alter my perspectives.  I think it's a very important book and I am ashamed that before now I'd written it off as something I was never going to read.  Not that I am anti-asylum seeker, but it had never been an issue I wanted to know more about before.  de Crespigny's account changed that.  This was a book club book and we interrogated all aspects of the book at our last meeting, which made for a really successful session.  I saw Robin speak at Margaret River Writers Festival in 2014.

 The lovely poinsettia in the background of this photograph were a gift from the Aussie Orientation Services book club who visit the shop where I work once a month.  So nice!

That's it for now.  Still hoping to reach 110 books completed by the end of the year but being nearly 30 books behind target according to Goodreads, I fear that time is against me.