24 January, 2015

Book Review: Surviving Year Zero

From Goodreads: Surviving Year Zero is the story of one young man, yet it is the story of millions of people. It tells of how Sovannora Ieng lived through the genocide that tore at the heart of Cambodia in the 1970s.
Sovannora survived in an environment where survival was barely possible. He and his family experienced starvation, backbreaking labour and constant surveillance. They learnt to be silent in a world where a casual remark could be turned into a sentence of death.
Sovannora’s experiences under the Khmer Rouge remind us of the terrible things that we humans have done to each other, and his eventual escape to Australia is a testament to his resilience and ingenuity in the face of constant danger.
Sovannora Ieng escaped from Cambodia to Thailand as a refugee before migrating to Australia.


Thoughts: I admire people who have survived such atrocities as the Khmer Rouge and are able to do something like write a book to make sure the rest of us know what happened. Admire is not quite the right word, but the best I can come up with at the moment. 
Sovannora tells us of life in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. His story is not easy to read at times, heartbreaking and appalling at what happened and what it takes to survive. Even when Year Zero ended you realise that sometimes the liberators can make life just as difficult.
If there is a place where Surviving Year Zero falls down, it's  where many books like this do - the author, either because they are an amateur writer or have English as a second language, is unable to fully use the language to convey they true nature of the events that take place. It's almost looking like a slightly out of focus picture, you get the general idea, but the details are lost.
In these times of much debate and argument over refugees in Australia, this is a book to remind us of what some people in the world are being forced to endure and the lengths they will go to survive. It should also serve to remind us of our obligations as people of privilege, who do not live in fear of our government and of speaking out, to those who are not afforded those rights.

Surviving Year Zero gets 3 stars.


*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing




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Book Review: Leaving Time

From Goodreads: For over a decade, Jenna Metcalf obsesses on her vanished mom Alice. Jenna searches online, rereads journals of the scientist who studied grief among elephants. Two unlikely allies are Serenity Jones, psychic for missing people who doubts her gift, and Virgil Stanhope, jaded PI who originally investigated cases of Alice and her colleague. Hard questions and answers.

Thoughts: With this book, Picoult continues to win back my trust. I think it's hard for prolific authors to not become formulaic. For a long time Picoult managed it, but it had started t creep in. Her last book The Storyteller let me know she was able to break away from it.
Leaving Time is a good read. People who don't like the book are drawing comparisons between it and a well known movie (which I won't name as it will give away too much about the book) and I can see where those comparisons come from. However I see it more as a variation on a theme and if she has drawn inspiration from the movie, she has made the story her own.
I am pleased that Picoult seems to be moving away from what I call her mother issues, for which I am eternally grateful, as this was becoming my biggest sticking point with her writing. 
For me though, Picoult has a solid writing style and a great storytelling ability. I love that her books make me think without taxing my brain too much. As before, I will continue to watch out for new books from her and read them safe in the knowledge that I will most probably enjoy it.

Leaving time gets 3 stars.

*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing




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18 January, 2015

Book Review: The Wife Drought

From Goodreads: ‘I need a wife’
It's a common joke among women juggling work and family. But it’s not actually a joke. Having a spouse who takes care of things at home is a Godsend on the domestic front. It’s a potent economic asset on the work front. And it’s an advantage enjoyed – even in our modern society – by vastly more men than women.
Working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain.
But why is the work-and-family debate always about women? Why don’t men get the same flexibility that women do? In our fixation on the barriers that face women on the way into the workplace, do we forget about the barriers that – for men – still block the exits?
The Wife Drought is about women, men, family and work. Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author's work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia.
Crabb's call is for a ceasefire in the gender wars. Rather than a shout of rage, The Wife Drought is the thoughtful, engaging catalyst for a conversation that's long overdue.


Thoughts:  The tag line of this book - Why women need wives, and men need lives - may be off putting, particularly to the male portion of the population. Don't let it fool you. It means men need lives outside of work and our social paradigm makes that incredibly different.
Crabb defines a wife as "...male or female. Whether they're men or women, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset. They enable the busy full-time worker to experience the joy and fulfilment of children, without the considerable inconvenience of having to pick them up from school at 3pm...Having a wife means that if you get caught up at work, or want to stay later...it can be done. Many wives work, but they do jobs that are either part-time or offer sufficient flexibility for the accommodation of late-breaking debacles."
So a wife can be either male or female, but the reality is that it's usually the woman.
The thing I found quite refreshing about this book is it actually had a look at the effect of how our societal norms affect men as well as women. While it has worked to keep women out of the workforce, made it harder for them to move up the corporate ladder and achieve equal pay, it has worked equally hard to keep men in the workforce and out of the home. Men who do take time out to be "the wives" not only suffer in the workforce, but also in the world of the stay at home parent. Crabb points out that we have spent too long looking at what is happening in the workplace without considering what is happening in the home. The reality is most families need someone who is willing to be the wife. I know in my own house, my role as wife is essential and allows our house to operate smoothly, but it has come at the cost of my career. In houses where both parents work full time, women still tend to pick up the slack of running the rest of the house. While chores may be shared, women still do the lions share. They are the ones to organise the extra curricula activity and take time off when the kids are sick.
In this book, Crabb suggests until we address the inequality in the home - not only towards women, but men as well. We need to make it ok for men to take time off to be the wife. We need to value the wife's role and realise that without them many of our full time workers could not do what they do. 

The Wife Drought gets 3 stars.


*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing



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14 January, 2015

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

From Goodreads: Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.
Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.
And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.


Thoughts: This is our book group read for January. Apart from the fact that I could never remember the title when people asked me what I was reading, I quite enjoyed it. It's going to be one of those hard books to review, because you don't want to give anything away.
One of the first things I noticed was how crystal clear Rosemary's voice was in my head. I could see her, hear her. I know how she stands, what gestures she makes, her facial expressions - I'm in real trouble if they make a movie!
I'm incredibly grateful I read this on my Kindle as Fowler often uses words that I needed to look up. I'm still unsure if this is a good or bad thing. When I read hard copy books, if I came across an unknown word I'd just keep going and hope I'd get at least the general idea from the text around it. As any teacher will tell you, this is not only a valid but an important reading strategy. Being able to understand an unknown word from the words around it is a vital skill. Hopefully it's not one that disappears completely with the advent of technology in classrooms and society.
I made judgements about the author early on in the book that I then had to change. Early on you are aware that Rosemary's sister Fern has disappeared. You're not sure what has happened, but Rosemary goes to her grandparents for a couple of days and when she comes back Fern is gone. At first Rosemary believes she is the one who has been given away, that Fern has been chosen over her. When she discovers that Fern is the one who is gone she of course is instantly relieved and guilty at the same time. She makes the statement that "In most families there is a favourite child. Parents deny it...but it's obvious to the children." It's a statement that annoys the hell out of me. As one of three children I never truly felt one of us was favoured over the other. Talk to my sisters and they will tell you the same. I have two kids, I love them equally. I love my sons adventurous nature and his cheekiness. I love my daughters infectious giggle and natural curiosity.  I love both their affectionate natures. I see different strengths in each of them, but I love them the same. Further on in the book though you can start to see why Rosemary felt this way.
In a way this is a book that trades on it's secret. It uses it to draw you in. However, I think even if you know the secret before the start of the book it's worth reading. It's an important part of the story, but not the whole story. If you belong to a book group, I highly recommend it. I know I'm looking forward to discussing it on Sunday. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves gets 4 stars.


*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing


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10 January, 2015

Book Review: Second Chances

From Allen & Unwin: In the quiet of a winter's night, the rescue helicopter is sent to airlift a five-year-old boy with severe internal injuries. He's fallen from the upstairs verandah of an isolated farmhouse, and may not last the next few hours.
At first, Finn's fall looks like a horrible accident; after all, he's prone to sleepwalking. Only his frantic mother, Martha McNamara, knows how it really happened. And she isn't telling. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Martha only wants the best for her family. That's why she moved heaven and earth to move them to the other side of the world, to start their lives afresh. And now she's faced with decisions she never dreamed she'd have to make, decisions with potentially devastating consequences. She's torn between her loyalty to her family and her need to protect them.
What do you do when your dream escape turns into a nightmare - and is there ever a way back?


Thoughts: Martha is trying to do what is best for her family - the problem is, like most families, there is no one answer that suits all. A move to New Zealand appears to be a lifesaver for her husband Kit and the twin boys are thriving. For teen daughter Sacha however it's a lot harder.
This book raises a lot of questions. What do you do when something is so good for the majority, but possibly destructive for one? How far do you go to protect those you love? At which point does the job of making sure the whole family happy fall to one person?
I won't say this is brilliantly written - it's clunky in parts, but in others the emotion is raw and breathtaking. Norman does a great job of portraying the vastness of space in New Zealand after the more cramped atmosphere of London. The story keeps moving and while I thought I'd guess what had happened within the first page, I was very quickly humbled into admitting I was wrong and trying to untangle the knot surrounding the McNamara family. The ending was a bit twee for me, but that is the way of books in this vein - a happy ending must be. Good solid chick lit.

Second Chances gets 3 stars.


*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing

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04 January, 2015

Book Review: Middlesex



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From Goodreads: In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry-blonde classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them - along with Callie's failure to develop physically - leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.
The explanation for this shocking state of affairs is a rare genetic mutation - and a guilty secret - that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.
Spanning eight decades - and one unusually awkward adolescence - Jeffrey Eugenides' long-awaited second novel is a grand, original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire.


Thoughts: I really wanted to have this finished by the end of 2014 as it was part of my 100 Best Book List Challenge 2014. I missed by a day so I'm including it anyway - it's my challenge and I can cheat if I want to! 
To tell you the truth I had no idea what the book was about. Like a few other reviewers before me, the title suggested to me English, 1920's or 30's. To say I was incredibly wrong is an understatement!
Middlesex did however, draw me in. From the beginning where Callie tells you
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974
to the end I was enthralled, first by Lefty and Desdemona's story and then by Callie's. The depth and breadth of the novel was captivating. I found Eugenides writing lovely. For me his phrasing and pace had me completely believing I was reading the story of someone who just needed to get their story on paper. When life was going well for Callie, it was smooth and calming. More troubled times and the writing was rougher and anxious.

This year I'm going to rate all  my books. I'm going to use the same scale as Goodreads, as I rate all my books there as well. They use the following five star system:

*        Did not like it
**       It was OK
***      Liked it
****    Really liked it
*****   It was amazing

For this, my first review, I'm giving it a 4. Not a bad start to the year!



03 January, 2015

100 Best Book Challenge 2015

This is a continuation of a challenge I started in 2014. Basically I found a Best Books list that I liked and decided to see if I could read 10 books from it that I hadn't read before. I chose this list - 100 Books to Read Before You Die, but you could use any list you want. Once again I'm aiming for 10 books, one from each category. The full list is below. 

In red are the books I have read prior to starting the challenge in 2014. At this stage I had read 39 of the 100 books listed.

In blue are the books read in 2014. I added 9 books to my have read list in 2014, taking my total to 48 of the 100 books.

In 2015 I will be highlighting the books read in
orange.


COMPLETE LIST

Australian
Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Steuel
Foal's Bread – Gillian Mears
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Carpentaria – Alexis Wright
Riders In The Chariot – Patrick White
The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay
For the Term of his Natural Life – Marcus Clarke
General Fiction
The Handmaid's Tale – Magaret Atwood
Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Middlesex – Jeffery Eugenides
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
Life of Pi – Yann Matel
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
My Sister's Keeper – Jodi Picoult
Crime

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
From Russia with Love – Ian Fleming
The Woman in While – Wilkie Collins
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Collected Stories of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carre
Classic
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Love
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
The Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Outlander (Cross Stitch) – Diana Gabaldon
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
Twilight – Stephenie Meyer
Fifty Shades of Grey – EL James
The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough
War
For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Desert Boys – Peter Rees
The Debacle – Emile Zola
The Iliad – Homer
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
From Here to Eternity – James Jones
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes
The Quiet American – Graham Greene
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
Young Adult
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Charlotte's Web – EB White
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
The Arrival – Shaun Tan
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exapery
Harry Potter and The Philospher's Stone – JK Rowling
Humorous
Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S Thompson
Travels with my Aunt – Graham Greene
Catch 22 – Joseph Hieler
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Adams
The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens
The Wode of the Woosters – PG Wodehouse
Sci-Fi
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
1984 – George Orwell
Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep – Phillip K Dick
I, Robot – Issac Asimov
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr
War of the Worlds – HG Wells
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L'Engle
Fantasy
The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
Fairytales from the Brothers Grimm – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
The Wizard of Oz – L Frank Baum
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
The Stand – Stephen King
A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
Mort – Terry Pratchett
The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan
The Dying Earth – Jack Vance