Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn


Ella Minnow Pea
'Nevin Nollop left the islanders of Nollop with the treasured legacy of his pangram the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. But as the letters begin to crumble on the monumental inscription, the island's council forbids the use of the lost letters and silence threatens Ella and her family.'

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a clever little book. While it is a short and easy read it does require a bit of effort on the part of the  reader.

It is written as a series of letters between the various characters as their isolated community crumbles. The characters are forbidden from using certain letters of the alphabet and as each letter is removed in turn from the language, it also disappears from the pages of the book. I found myself scanning the pages looking for forbidden text on many occasions - I am in awe of the author for putting this tale together and sticking to the self-imposed rules.

While it seems to be a fairly outlandish and far-fetched tale, I found it to be an interesting depiction of how a thriving, democratic society can loose their freedom seemingly overnight. The rapid demise of Nollop actually occurs after a long period in which social apathy, neglect, greed and corruption have eroded social infrastructure, the rights of the individual and the strength of the community and a position of absolute, uncontested power has been achieved by the elected Council. Throw in an unhealthy dose of Nollopian fundamentalism and the stage has been set for simple event to tip the society into totalitarian tyranny.

There are plenty of places in the world today where people face torture, exile or execution for transgressions that seem just as trivial to us as the accidental use of a forbidden letter of the alphabet. These are the people that are seeking refuge on our shores and across the globe. Unfortunately the only place where a 32-letter phrase will bring peace is Nollop - in the pages of this book.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading in 2014 - The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans
'This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same ...

1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world.

One April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant - and the path of the couple's lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.

Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day - as the baby's real story unfolds ...'


My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Disappointed. I was so looking forward to reading this. This promised to be the style of book I really enjoy. But.

The author spends much of the first part of the book explaining Tom, presumably as background for the events we know are coming. He is a man emotionally damaged by war, bewildered by the break-up of his parents relationship and deeply wounded by the absence of his mother, raised by a father who didn’t talk and was unable or unwilling to show affection, yet a man who is still apparently ‘good’ and ‘moral’ and able to put other people first. He seeks the isolation of the Lights to give him the time and space to deal with his mental anguish and finds solace in a regimented life, governed by strict regulations and unchanging routine. It is clear from the description of his first day alone on Janus Island that he is a man struggling with severe mental disturbance. Despite all this build up I feel that the true implications of his emotional and mental problems are never examined. Throughout the book I feel that he is being characterised as a man with integrity and dignity, a likable, agreeable soul who puts the whims of his wife first and compromises himself to keep her happy and to eventually protect her from the nasty policemen. Seriously? Why put so much work into defining Tom to then back off and let him be the ‘nice’ guy?

In contrast there is very little of substance to explain Isabel and her part in the events of the story. We met her briefly. A young, pretty, vivacious girl who has led a sheltered life in a very small community. She is playful and talkative, enjoys company and is bored by her quiet, isolated existence. She has never been anywhere or seen anything of the world. She longs for adventure and romance. In her ‘Swiss cheese’ town the population of eligible young men has been decimated due to the war and Isabel throws herself headlong into a relationship with the first interesting stranger who crosses her path. There is mention of the loss of her brothers in the war and the way her parents reacted – withdrawing into themselves, leaving Isabel even more isolated and longing for affection and to be able to ‘get her parents to smile again’ - but the impact of this on Isabel’s psyche is never explored. Her parents allow their only remaining child to marry this stranger and let her disappear to her island. She and her new husband find joy with each other until she has a miscarriage. Tom makes her happy again by getting the piano fixed and then we suddenly fast forward five years to find a couple still apparently in love, dealing with the loss of a third child when suddenly a living baby appears on their island and they end up keeping her and passing her off as their own. And from there on everything proceeds in a rather civilised manner, the only conflict being between Tom and his conscience as he acquiesces to his wife’s wishes. And this is where it lost me.

Those five unexplained, unmentioned years are the meat in the sandwich, the whole bones of the story. We have a vibrant young girl with stars in her eyes who will wake up one day and find herself on a rock in the middle of the ocean, alone except for a man who doesn’t talk. To be married to a man who doesn’t talk is hard enough for a women with neighbours on every side, with friends and family only a phone-call away, with a job that takes her out of her environment and children that fill the silence. To be alone with only three-monthly visits from two men on a supply ship to break the isolation and provide information, conversation, diversion – the toll on the spirit of a young woman would be immense. Once the glow of early love, lust and infatuation had worn off it wouldn’t take long before the rationed words and immeasurable silences would begin to breed resentment, loathing, anger. Surely the internal voices would begin to clamour to fill the silence?

The horrific first miscarriage is discussed from Tom’s point of view but never from Isabel’s. Screaming in the dark for a husband who is too full of his own woes to notice. We know that the aftermath is bad – why else the visit of the piano repairer? The three-monthly boat may bring letters and gifts from distant parents, but although a piano man could make the voyage those same parents never once visit their only child, and the loving husband never thinks to call on them, to alert them to the distress and depression of his beautiful young wife. Or is he too much of a coward to risk her temper by calling for the help she so clearly needs? We have only one paragraph to know that she has a temper. Is it from grief alone or is it a much bigger part of her that will actually shape the outcome of the story?

And then we have another miscarriage and then a still-birth.

At this point, at the beginning of Part II, I believe Isabel would be dancing along the edge of insanity. Surely a girl who writes quirky letters to a barely-met lighthouse keeper would also be the sort of girl who would keep a journal, would find solace in conversations with herself, the conversations she can never have with her husband? Where are they, these conversations? Where is the record of her life in these dark days? How does she feel about the man to whom she gave her youth? Does she punish him by withdrawing physical affection? Does she fly into rages, vocalising her anger and discontent? Does she sink into silence, changing her habits to spend as little time in his company as possible?
Surely at this point in the story Tom should be consumed with fear for the safety of his wife, worried that the naming of ‘Izzy’s Cliff’ may have been an omen for what he fears may become her self-inflicted fate? He should be racked with guilt for taking his bright star away from her home and family, for being unable to give her the healthy child she so desperately wants, for his inability to find the words that would soothe her pain and bring her comfort. He should be a man worn out, beginning to let things slip in his duties as he tries to care for Isabel and manage the tasks she neglects in her depression – cooking, cleaning, gardening – living in fear that one day he will be unable to keep the light burning.

And now, with this understanding of Tom and Isabel, we may be able to comprehend why they make the choices they make over the next four or so years. We may be able to see why Tom is so easily manipulated into maintaining the lie. We see their lives return to the something akin to that promised by the early days of their marriage and observe them begin to find happiness and contentment as a family, yet we recognise the lie that poisons their paradise. We believe Isabel’s fear of being discovered, of losing not just her child but her whole identity and reason for living. We believe Tom’s fear of pushing Isabel back to the brink and his relief at having her bright, sunny self returned to him. We recognise Tom’s confession not as a selfless act of love and protection but as atonement for the guilt that has racked his soul for nearly a decade. We can identify the agony of the parents who should have been their for their daughter, who maybe could have prevented the disaster by being more present in her life, who struggle to deal with the aftermath as they nurse their daughter while her husband languishes in gaol.

But we don’t. Because none of that is there. Instead we have a story that skirts around the edges and never gets it’s hands dirty with the ins and outs of the relationship between the two main characters. And then we get an ending that ties it all up in a neat bow of forgiveness and promise for the future. And people turning up too late for reconciliation more than once in the same story. And a man that still gets to be the good guy.

Disappointed.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading in 2014 - Breath

Breath by Tim Winton

20629592'On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrillseeking and barely adolescent boys fall into the enigmatic thrall of veteran big-wave surfer Sando. Together they form an odd but elite trio. The grown man initiates the boys into a kind of Spartan ethos, a regimen of risk and challenge, where they test themselves in storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing each other to the edges of endurance, courage, and sanity. But where is all this heading? Why is their mentor’s past such forbidden territory? And what can explain his American wife’s peculiar behavior? Venturing beyond all limits—in relationships, in physical challenge, and in sexual behavior—there is a point where oblivion is the only outcome. Full of Winton’s lyrical genius for conveying physical sensation, Breath is a rich and atmospheric coming-of-age tale from one of world literature’s finest storytellers'.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars



'Breath' reads like a memoir and it sucked me in so much I read till 3am just to get to the end. Once I clicked into the writing style (no quotation marks) I found myself really enjoying it, particularly the way Tim Winton can set a scene without wasting words. I had such clear images in my head as I read. It felt like home, even though I grew up in country NSW and the story is set in coastal WA. Those endless weeks of summer holidays, the freedom of setting off on your bike, the way the rest of the world was just on the periphery of your vision and you were the centre of the universe during those early teenage years. Tim Winton captures it perfectly.

There is a dark side here with risky behaviour and exploitation - but that is the whole premise of the story. It isn't really a book about surfing, rather it is about surviving into adulthood despite yourself, despite all those stupid things you did and despite the misplaced trust and admiration of people who should have known (and acted) better. It is about how becoming an adult really has little to do with age and lots to do with recognising your limits.

This is the first Tim Winton book I've read and I can confidently say I'll be visiting the 'WIN' shelf in the library again next time I'm there.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reading Aloud in 2014 - The 13-Storey Treehouse

 The 13-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths

The 13-Storey Treehouse Who wouldn't want to live in a treehouse? Especially a 13-storey treehouse that has a bowling alley, a see-through swimming pool, a tank full of sharks, a library full of comics, a secret underground laboratory, a games room, self-making beds, vines you can swing on, a vegetable vaporiser and a marshmallow machine that follows you around and automatically shoots your favourite flavoured marshmallows into your mouth whenever it discerns you're hungry.
Two new characters – Andy and Terry – live here, make books together, and have a series of completely nutty adventures. Because: ANYTHING can happen in a 13-storey treehouse.
This is a major new series from Andy and Terry- and it's the logical evolution of all their previous books. There are echoes of the Just stories in the Andy and Terry friendship, the breakaway stories in the Bad Book (the Adventures of Super Finger), there's the easy readability of the Cat on the Mat and the Big Fat Cow, and like all these books, the illustrations are as much a part of the story as the story itself.



  My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review by Jack, age 6.5

It was excellent, it was very, very, very good.

It was awesome because it had man-eating sharks and a shark nearly ate Terry. Terry accidently threw Andy's head in the bowling alley. After they ate too many marshmallows they drank too much lemonade from the lemonade fountain.
Their treehouse is awesome because it looked small from the outside but is big on the inside. There was a gorilla and a yellow canary cat with a whole army of yellow canary cats who saved Andy and Terry. They took away the gorilla to a dinosaur island. Terry painted a cat yellow like a yellow canary.
The pictures are really, really, really cool.
Boys and girls should read this book because it is very interesting and very, very cool and awesome.
That's all folks!

Review by Mum, age none-of-your-business

Anything combining the joint talents of Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton is going to be superb. Andy's writing is a pleasure to read aloud with a deceptively simple style that is never condescending, extremely visual and uses a vocabulary that doesn't require stopping frequently to explain words or phrases. Terry's illustrations complement and enhance the text perfectly, and are chock full of unexpected details.

My favourite part of the book was the illustrations of the pages - pages within pages - especially the one that has a page within a page within a page.... (pg 228). We had made a movie like this several days before reading this book, so it was of particular interest to both of us.

To get the most out of this book find a kid aged between 5 and 10, share it aloud and be prepared to giggle. We are off to find the next book in the series.

Reading Aloud in 2014

I've been reading aloud to my son since the day he was born. I've always loved sharing precious books from my own childhood but the beauty of having a child who loves reading and being read to is that we can discover new authors together and it gives me a wonderful excuse to indulge myself with some fabulous children's fiction.

I loved it when my parents or teachers would read 'chapter books' aloud. There is a perverse, exquisite pleasure in having to wait for the next reading session to find out what happens next. I've always loved our bedtime story routine but now we are sharing chapter books I find that often I am looking forward to the story just as much as he is. It isn't hard to twist my arm for 'just one more chapter pleeaasseee...'

It can be difficult to select quality reading material for kids once they move on from picture books as they are harder to vet without reading the whole book yourself. There are plenty of books that appeal to kids of a certain age (often game, movie or tv spin-offs) but they are just not very well written and are very difficult to read aloud. I've been looking at book reviews on Goodreads but find that often reviews of kids books are written by adults who seem to miss the point that children's books are actually written specifically for kids.

I thought it might be fun for us to review some books together, as we read our way through our ever-expanding library. I have promised to faithfully type his reviews exactly in his own words without any fussy-mummy editing.

I'd love to see reviews of other books for shared reading so join in, link to your blog in the comments on this post and share some of your favourites for reading aloud.

Reading in 2014 - Second Chances

Second Chances by Charity Norman

Second Chances
'In the quiet of a New Zealand winter's night, a rescue helicopter is sent to airlift a five-year-old boy with severe internal injuries. He's fallen from the upstairs veranda of an isolated farmhouse, and his condition is critical. 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 happened. And she isn't telling. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Tragedy isn't what the McNamara family expected when they moved to New Zealand. For Martha, it was an escape. For her artist husband Kit, it was a dream. For their small twin boys, it was an adventure. For sixteen-year-old Sacha, it was the start of a nightmare.
They end up on the isolated east coast of the North Island, seemingly in the middle of a New Zealand tourism campaign. But their peaceful idyll is soon shattered as the choices Sacha makes lead the family down a path which threatens to destroy them all.

Martha finds herself facing a series of impossible decisions, each with devastating consequences for her family.'


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only reason I couldn't give this one 5 stars is simply because it is a very traumatic read.
Upon finishing it I had to sneak into my child's room and sit there stroking his hair while he slept. How on earth do you keep your child safe? If everything does fall apart then how on earth do you manage your own reactions?

The writing is superb. I read the whole thing in one day but was up to 2.30am to do it. You will immediately want to visit New Zealand to see if it lives up to the promises of the book (it does). There are layers upon layers and the characters are so very real. There are so many families living this exact story every day. I pray that I am never one of them.

Comparisons to Jodie Picoult are inevitable and the themes are very similar to Picoult's The Tenth Circle but Charity Norman does not have the religious tones of Picoult's work and based on this one novel I believe Norman is a stronger writer.I am interested to read more of her work but will wait for this one to fade first.

Read it with tissues handy and only if you are in a positive state of mind as it will linger long after closing the cover on the last page.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Reading in 2014 - The Shadow Year

The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell

The Shadow Year'On a sultry summer’s day in 1980, five friends stumble upon an abandoned lakeside cottage hidden deep in the English countryside. For Kat and her friends, it offers an escape; a chance to drop out for a while, with lazy summer days by the lake and intimate winter evenings around the fire. But as the seasons change, tensions begin to rise and when an unexpected visitor appears at their door, nothing will be the same again.
Three decades later, Lila arrives at the same remote cottage. With her marriage in crisis, she finds solace in renovating the tumbledown house. Little by little she wonders about the previous inhabitants. How did they manage in such isolation? Why did they leave in such a hurry, with their belongings still strewn about? Most disturbing of all, why can't she shake the feeling that someone might be watching her?
The Shadow Year is a story of secrets, tragedy, lies and betrayal. It’s a tale that explores the light and dark of human relationships and the potential the past has to not only touch our present, but also to alter our future.'

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fabulous!

I read this in three sittings - but would have read the whole thing cover-to-cover if I had the time.
The beginning was a bit confusing, but you quickly adjust to the chapters jumping between the two characters and their respective 'presents' - one in past and one now.

This is the sort of story I seem to have a clear preference for - a study of relationships and interactions between people, how their personalities or flaws influence their actions and how their choices and actions have consequences that echo long after the event.

You sometimes see comments about 'a carefully woven tale' and that is an extremely apt description of this book. Hannah Richell has taken great care in sequencing this story, revealing the characters and plot in a well crafted manner. She teases you right up to the very last page and leaves you somewhat exhausted but satisfied. If you respect the work of Gillian Flynn then you should enjoy this.

This is her second book and I will seek out her first and keep an eye out for any new works.