24 July, 2014

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

From Goodreads: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

Thoughts: I listened to this as an audio book. It was narrated by Kate Rudd, who is not someone I had every heard of before. I mention this because I have come to realise how important a narrator is to an audio book. Kate Rudd is a good narrator. I didn't find myself distracted by her voice, it didn't sound "put on", she made the book enjoyable.
It's easy to see why this book has done so well. I found it to be a strong story that dealt with the tough topic of teenage cancer sufferers without becoming condescending or clich├ęd. It became apparent to me what was going to happen fairly quickly, but I think anyone with half a brain would have seen it. I don't think John Green set out to put in a big twist that no one would see coming, instead I think he wanted a book with emotion and thoughtfulness and I think he achieved it.
The book made me cry, but I don't think I cried where most YA readers would have. The parts that had me almost sobbing as I sat in the car park at Woolworths (handy hint - emotion laden books while driving, not such a good idea!) was the conversation Hazel had with her parents towards the end of the book. Hazel is living on borrowed time - you know it the whole way through. As a parent, I cannot and do not want to imagine what that feels like. Hazel's fears for her parents took my breath away and had me wanting to reach out and grab her, hold her close and promise her they would be ok and then I wanted to tell her parents that when it came, I would support them too.
One of the thing Green is a master of is producing quotes you just know teens are scrawling down all over the place because those words touched them. Google A Fault in our Stars quotes and you'll see what I mean. Here's a taste:

The thing is, I remember just about every scene where those words were spoken. I could put them in chronological order for you. John Green writes words that have power. The problem may be believing those words come from teens.
After a short FB discussion with a friend about AFioS I started to think about the portrayal of teens in young adult books. I know I have often thought that the characters are unbelievable, wise beyond their years - and this holds true for AFioS. The insights and reactions of Hazel, Gus and even Issac is way beyond what I think most teenagers would display. But here's the thing, I don't remember ever thinking that when I was a young adult reading such books - and I don't think the characters in the books have changed that much. What has changed, obviously, is me. I'm older, I have more experience and I am now (far) distant from being a young adult and therefore the direct target audience for these books. So here's my conclusion on teens wise beyond their years in YA books - they have to be. If the characters in YA books were your typical teens, you wouldn't get the stories you do. I think it's also a way of showing YA readers what they can become, presents a model of maybe who they'd like to be. This slightly unrealistic presentation of their age group doesn't worry them because they can imagine that's what they could be like. If adults truly want to get the best out of YA books, they need to stop expecting them to be books for adults and accept they are books for young adults - teens.

Book Review: The Arrival

From Goodreads: In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He's embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he's leaving home to build a better future for his family.
Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant's experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can't communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character's isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy.

Thoughts: Shaun Tan is fabulous. His ability to tell a full and emotive story suing pictures is bought to the fore in this book. The Arrival is a graphic novel without words, but at no stage are you left wondering what the story is about, what emotions the characters are feeling and why they are making the decisions they do.

The Suitcase - Shaun Tan

The Old Country - Shaun Tan

Telling the story of a man who leaves his family and journeys to a new country in search of a better life, Tan illustrates the strangeness of a new place, where nothing looks familiar and there are so many things you don't understand.

Freshman Monroe Scholars

The Market - Shaun Tan
Yet people are met, stories shared and you realise you are not the only one to have struggled in this new environment.

Columbus State University Unfamiliar Genre Wiki - Graphic Novels
Friends are made,
Dinner - Shaun Tan
families reunited,

Josephine Zupan's English 4561 E-Folio
and all without the reader having read a single word.

This book is so rich. You could easily spend a couple of hours pouring over the illustrations, looking at the detail and delighting at the story.

Shaun Tan explains some of the inspiration and processes behind The Arrival on this page. You will need to scroll down past the pictures to read the article. 

This book also fits into my 100 Best Book List Challenge, covering the Young Adult category.

21 July, 2014

Book Review: The Shelf

From Goodreads: Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES
Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.
The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.
In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. “Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels,” she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.

Thoughts: The idea of this book appealed to me as I have often looked at a library full of books and wondered if you could systematically read the whole thing. Logic tells me no, but it could be rather fun to try! Phyllis Rose didn't attempt to read a whole library, but she did aim to read a whole shelf. The choosing of the shelf was not completely random, she did come up with a few guidelines to help her choose which of the  1249 fiction shelves in the New York Society Library she would read. The guidelines included the shelf having to include a classic, having no more than 5 books by one author (of which she would only have to read 3) and a mix of contemporary and older works.
Rose's exploration of her shelf turned up some wonderful works for her. She fully explores not only the book, but the author, at times contacting the author to discover more of their story. You could look at each of the eleven chapters as separate essays, tied together by the shelf. Her analysis of the effects of different translations of one book was fascinating, as was her look at  women in fiction and the amazingly complex world of weeding or deaccessioning in a library.
The Shelf won't be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. I fought hard to limit the number of books Rose mentioned making it onto my TBR list, although a few have found their way to it. I will also admit to being awfully tempted to undertake a similar challenge....

17 July, 2014

Book Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day

From Goodreads: David Sedaris' move to Paris from New York inspired these hilarious pieces, including the title essay, about his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher who declares that every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section. His family is another inspiration. You Can't Kill the Rooster is a portrait of his brother, who talks incessant hip-hop slang to his bewildered father. And no one hones a finer fury in response to such modern annoyances as restaurant meals presented in ludicrous towers of food and cashiers with six-inch fingernails.

Thoughts: I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but it stuck with me enough to include it as one of my back up books for my Five from Forever challenge. Just as well I had a back up because I cannot track down a copy of my 5th book - Egg-Larva-Pupa-Woman. Me Talk Pretty One Day also has the added bonus of being a book in my 100 Best Books List Challenge - one book, two challenges! Excellent!
Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of short essays, columns written by David Sedaris about his life. The first half is in America and includes stories on his family, his life in college and his foray into experimental art and drugs. The second part of the book concentrates on his adventures in France after he moved there with his boyfriend.
The book provided some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and several wry chuckles. Many of the reviews on Goodreads are either scathing or full of love - I can see both points of view. One review relates a story about the mother of the reviewer pretty much being snubbed by Sedaris at a book reading/ signing. Any one who had read the book should not have been surprised by his reaction to the mother's behaviour.
I'm don't think I'd like David Sedaris. I think I would find him self centred and obnoxious. I'm equally certain he wouldn't care what I thought. I think it's this aspect of him that makes the book what it is. Not sure I'd recommend it to anyone, but if I did I would suggest they proceed with caution.

Challenges:  Five from Forever, 100 Best Books List

Book Review: A is for Alibi

From Goodreads: Laurence Fife was a slick divorce lawyer and slippery ladies' man. Until someone killed him. The jury believed that it was his pretty young wife, Nikki, so they sent her to prison for eight years. Now Nikki's out on parole and Kinsey Millhone's in for trouble. Nikki hires Kinsey to discover who really killed her husband. But the trail is eight years cold, and at the end is a chilling twist even Kinsey doesn't suspect--a second eight-year-old murder and a brand-new corpse.

Thoughts: I've been looking for a new mystery series to read. I really enjoy them, but have been struggling to find something new and engaging. I picked this up in the hope it would be it, especially given it would give me at least 26 books to read (23 have been published, x, y and z are to come). The concept of the alphabet thing also appealed to me. I like a nice, ordered series. However, the reality is it didn't really grab me. I'm not rushing out to get B is for Burglar. I may come back to the series at a later date, but I'm really in no rush. The search continues...

Book Review: Spinifex Baby

From Finch Publishing: I thought I knew how hard it would be. What I didn’t know was that it would test me to the inner core. This desert with its rolling dune fields is an unforgiving land that relentlessly destroys even its own ancient beauty. It is a place where, compared to the age of the landscape, a single life means less than a grain of sand. I could not have known that the biggest challenge I would face would not be from the piercing sun, not from the unforgiving dust, not even from the aching loneliness of isolation, but from the treachery of my own self.
When Karen and her partner Al set forth from the cold mountains of Tasmania to the 45-plus degree heat of central Australia to transform a cattle station into a conservation reserve, they were ready to embrace the beauty of the land and throw themselves into the task of protecting native plants and animals. They thought they had all the skills necessary to beat the heat, the dust and their isolation from society. However, when Karen became unexpectedly pregnant, their lives were turned upside down. Suddenly their biggest danger was not their exposure to the harsh elements but to the deepest fears that resided within themselves…

Thoughts: I'm so excited to read this book, if for no other reason than it signifies the return of book group in my little corner of the world!! Yay!! Spinifex Baby was recommended by one of book group members who happens to be Karen Harrland's sister-in-law.
As an Australian, you can hardly imagine two landscapes more different than the Tasmanian mountains and the Queensland outback. One cool, green, wet with lush bushland. The other hot, red, dry (unless it's wet season and then it's really wet) and sparse vegetation. Add to this the remoteness of the desert and Karen and Al are way more adventurous than I would ever be!
Karen truly brings the beauty of the outback to the fore. Her writing has made me want to visit the landscape. She does however, also bring the harshness out. A place where when you hang washing, the first piece is dry before you put the last piece on the line. A place where a walk across the yard can leave you exhausted and sunburnt. A place where the nearest medical help is four hours by plane.
Given how ill she was during her pregnancy, I'm in awe of the fact she stayed out there. I wasn't even remotely as ill as Karen and I found it hard to go to the shops, let alone help keep a remote station running. As for returning after she'd had the baby, I don't think wild horses could have dragged me back!
Spinifex Baby is a wonderful book. It showcases the Australian outback without romanticising it. You are left with no doubt that it's not easy out there, but if you are willing to put the effort in, the rewards are incredible. It's a great read and I'm really looking forward to the discussion I know it will spark on Saturday.

09 July, 2014

Book Review: Ugly

From Goodreads: Robert Hoge was born with a giant tumour on his forehead, severely distorted facial features and legs that were twisted and useless. His mother refused to look at her son, let alone bring him home. But home he went, to a life that, against the odds, was filled with joy, optimism and boyhood naughtiness.
Home for the Hoges was a bayside suburb of Brisbane. Robert's parents, Mary and Vince, knew that his life would be difficult, but they were determined to give him a typical Australian childhood. So along with the regular, gruelling and often dangerous operations that made medical history and gradually improved Robert's life, there were bad haircuts, visits to the local pool, school camps and dreams of summer sports.
Ugly is Robert's account of his life, from the time of his birth to the arrival of his own daughter. It is a story of how the love and support of his family helped him to overcome incredible hardships. It is also the story of an extraordinary person living an ordinary life, which is perhaps his greatest achievement of all.

Thoughts: Another book I came across one day while shelving and decided to grab. I'd heard of Robert Hoge, seen a few of the publicity interviews when this book came out and knew that I wanted to read it.
First up this is a very well written memoir - unsurprising given Hoge's background as a journalist. However, I often find a journalist style doesn't transfer well to story telling. Hoge's however has spent a life time writing stories which was obviously a good grounding for this book. His style is easy to read, conversational. Along with looking a serious issues such as his medical care, Hoge's lightens the tone with stories of any normal Australian childhood. In fact for me, the strength of this book is the highlighting of the normality of his life. His struggles are ones many can identify with (fitting in, feeling/ looking different, making friends etc) even if the reasons for those differences are not the same.
Ugly is well worth the read if you are after a book to inspire you. It's a book that supports the theory that often the only limitations we have are the ones we place on ourselves.