April 29, 2010

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

I feel like I am one of the few book bloggers left not to have read this one. I have to be shallow and say that one reason I was reluctant to pick this book up was the cover - I think it looks so bland and uninviting! Now that I have read the book the cover - and its significance - resonates with me more.

The Help is broadly a story of the social and political times in Mississippi in the 1960's - but more specifically it is a story of the relationships of and between women and races in that time and place. Three women in particular are the narrators in The Help; Aibileen, an African American woman who has worked as a maid and nanny for white families since her adolescence, Skeeter, a young white society woman who has just returned home from college and Minny (my favourite character in many ways and for many reasons), a middle aged African American woman with a gift for cooking and sassy remarks and comebacks.

Skeeter is in a way the catalyst for the main storyline that takes place in the book. Skeeter wants to be a writer but in her home town of Jackson there aren't a whole lot of opportunities for her to practice her craft so she ends up taking a job writing a domestic and home help advice column for the local paper. As a privileged white woman of the time Skeeter does not have a lot of experience in this area which is why she connects with Aibileen - the maid of one her old school friends. It is Aibileen who gives Skeeter the input for her columns - and a tentative relationship begins between the two women which leads to another writing project - one that is much more important and more dangerous for all of the women involved.

I am blown away by how much this book - both the story and the issues it raised - have impacted on me - it was a powerful reading experience. The story was built beautifully - each character had the time and space devoted to them for them to be able to tell the reader their own story - it felt like a collaborative effort. The book had tension, humour, warmth and connection. The section at the end of the book where the author speaks about her own experiences of growing up in Mississippi, and how she reconciled writing in the voice of an African American woman, was a great way to end the story and added a level of authenticity. I don't know how this author will be able to follow up this effort but I am definitely looking forward to her trying!

April 28, 2010

Reading In Paradise...

My partner and I have a holiday booked to the island of Koh Samui in Thailand in just 7 weeks time (but who's counting??!!). I am feeling a little jealous that my partner is getting to taste some island life (and weather) before me as he has had to travel to Noumea this week for work. I know he is working but he has still had time to go for walks and send me these photos...

I am trying to get in holiday countdown mood by thinking about the books I will take with me on our own island holiday and I thought I would send out a request to all of you to send me in your best suggestions for beach side reading - any ideas would be greatly received.
In the meantime I will just continue to dream about being here...

April 27, 2010


I recently watched the film version of Chéri starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend. This was another movie that I meant to go and see at the cinema but I just missed it so I have had to wait for it to be released on DVD.
Visually this movie is stunning - the costumes and the sets and locations especially so. But I have to say the visuals were the best thing about the movie for me. I thought Pfeiffer and Friend were great in their roles as the courtesan Léa and young Chéri but something about the whole thing together just didn't gel for me.
I did love the story though and I am now very keen to read Colette's novel which the movie was based on. Luckily I have a gorgeous Vintage Classics Edition of the book waiting on my shelves.
Has anyone read this, or any other Colette books that they would recommend?

April 26, 2010

The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag is the second book (and another great title!) in the Flavia de Luce mystery series that started with The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie.

The Sweetness was one of my favourite reads from 2009 so I was expecting big things from the sequel - and I have to say that it didn't quite deliver for me. Don't get me wrong - I am still totally in love with Flavia and her "Flavia-isms" which are still dotted through the novel in regular spaces;

I have never much cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them, and in particular, I don't give a frog's fundament for them when they come from an adult.

Flavia is still very much Flavia - bright, intelligent, curious and certainly obnoxious when the occasion calls for it. I felt that Bradley has continued to set up Flavia's family history and back story well (particularly in relation to her mother Harriet and her untimely death - an event I am sure we will learn more of in coming books) but I felt that other aspects of the book were lacking a little spark that the first book had. I don't read a lot of mystery novels so it would be interesting to hear from more experienced mystery readers than myself about what they thought of that aspect of the novel - there were certainly mystery elements but I felt the author was concentrating on other issues much of the time which confused the reading for me a little.

Maybe I was just expecting a little too much - other reviews of this one seem to be mainly favourable - some even claiming it was better than the first book in the series - so maybe I have just missed the magic with this one. I will still be following Flavia's adventures - she's too engaging not to!

April 25, 2010

The World Beneath - Cate Kennedy

The World Beneath is a perfect example of how award lists can lead to amazing reads. The book is on the short list for the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards 2010 which I wrote about here.

I am ashamed to say that I had not really heard of Cate Kennedy before seeing her name on the list but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for all of her work from now on.

The World Beneath is a character novel focusing on a fractured family consisting of Sandy, Rich and their 15 year old daughter, Sophie. Sandy and Rich first met when they were young and idealistic and fighting for a cause - in this case the protest against the Franklin River dam in Tasmania in the early 1980's. They stayed together after this cataclysmic event in both their lives but when Sophie was born Rich decided he wasn't quite up for the suburban family life and he left Sandy and Sophie to explore his own life. The World Beneath starts 15 years later when Rich plans a week long bush walk for himself and Sophie as an attempt to reconnect with the daughter he has hardly seen since.

This is an amazing novel that kept me up reading late at night in an attempt to finish it. Kennedy's ability to construct each character separately and also make a character out of their less than functional family unit is incredible - I am in awe of her skill! Each character is clear and raw and flawed - they feel real and because of that I connected with them throughout the story even when there were times when I couldn't stand them!

If you enjoy reading novels where character development and reflection is the main focus than this is book for you - it will have you thinking long after you have finished it.

April 24, 2010

So Much For That - Lionel Shriver

So Much For That is an extremely timely and topical novel to be reading at the moment with so much discussion and change occurring within the health systems both within the USA and Australia. As both a consumer and an employee of the health system in Australia I am keen to dissect these debates further so whilst So Much For That is set within the American system I find it offered some interesting and relevant points for our own current, and possible future, health care system.

Shriver has produced a very blunt and "in your face" narrative with this book. One of the main male characters, Shep Knacker, has reached middle age and his dreams of leaving his middle class existence in New York and moving to a Developing African Island to live out his days are about to come true. He has talked and dreamt and planned of this "After Life" and it is now about to finally come true. Except for one thing, Shep's wife Glynis has just announced she has been diagnosed with a very aggressive type of cancer. Shep and Glynis aren't going anywhere and the course of the novel follows as Glynis's treatment increases and the family bank balance decreases. Sounds like a fun ride doesn't it?? It is a gloomy book in many respects but I thought Shriver did well to balance the real human emotion of facing a terminal illness with the concrete practicalities of searching out treatments that might work and subsequently fighting medical insurance companies to have these treatments paid for. What I thought didn't work so well was the inclusion of Shep's best friend, Jackson whose family is struggling with their own medical issues in the form of their 16 year old daughter who has a very rare degenerative disease. The stories did compliment each other in many ways but for the most part I just felt overloaded as a reader trying to take in two such serious story lines in one gulp.

I am a huge fan of Shriver's writing and her outspoken personality (I am hoping to be able to hear her speak in person at the upcoming Sydney Writer's Festival) and she hasn't let me down with this book. The ending gave me a couple of problems but overall So Much For That is tough, thought provoking, extremely well researched and provocative - just what I want from a Shriver book!

April 23, 2010

An Education - Movie

After reading, and loving, Lynn Barber's memoir An Education a little while ago so many of you recommended watching the movie that was born from the book.
I finally got myself into gear last weekend and purchased a copy of the DVD - and I am so glad that I did because this is a movie that I will be wanting to watch over and over again.
There are so many things to love and enjoy about this movie. From reading the book first I felt that the movie stayed so close to the spirit of the author and her move from naivety and childhood into an aspect of adulthood. Carey Mulligan was divine as the young author (whose name has been changed to Jenny in the film). I thought she had an amazing ability to portray youth and innocence as well as maturity - often within the space of a single scene.
All of the supporting actors fit into their roles as well but it is clear that this is Carey's film - she is stunning in every scene she appears in.

A gorgeous film - one that takes you back to that time of adolescence when all you want to do is fly the nest!

April 18, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America - Peter Carey

I must admit I wasn't really all that interested in reading Parrot and Olivier in America until I saw that it had been long listed for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award. That's not to say that my reading choices are necessarily dictated by awards lists but I have found some gems by reading this way. I have only read two Peter Carey books before - both of them for university English courses. The first was The Fat Man in History - possibly the most different and bizarre book I had read at that time in my young life - and I loved it. The second was Oscar and Lucinda which I found a real struggle to read (let alone write about for exams!).

Parrot and Olivier in America is based on the true life story of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and politician who travels to America in 1831 to study the prison system there but ends up writing a book titled Democracy in America. I have to admit that I had never heard of Tocqueville before learning that he was the inspiration for Carey's book and I wish I had read more about him before reading this novel as it possibly would have meant more to me in that context.

The Parrot and Olivier mentioned in the title are the two men whose lives are followed in the book. Parrot is the son of an English printer whose life path eventually crosses with Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont - a French nobleman who is forced to leave his beloved home country for America in fear for his life during the revolution. Parrot is sent as his servant but their relationship, and their individual characters, changes over the course of the novel and their travels.

Of course this is only a very simplistic summary of the plot and content of this novel and the reading of it, for me, was like reading a great big adventure story - plenty of twists and turns and action to keep things moving along. I can't help feeling at the end though that I haven't really captured the essence of what the book was about - but hey - I enjoyed the ride anyway!

April 15, 2010

The Second-Last Woman In England - Maggie Joel

The Second-Last Woman In England was a book that caught my eye when I was browsing last weekend. I certainly didn't need to purchase another book - but when has 'need' ever really been a factor in my purchasing of books??!

I loved the cover, dark and intriguing - tempting me to delve inside. I then followed my pre-book purchasing ritual and read the description of the book on the back cover:

London, 1953. Mrs Harriet Wallis is found guilty of the murder of her husband, Cecil. It is the year of the Coronation and, as a new Queen ascends the throne, Mrs Wallis will become the second-last woman in England to be hanged.

I was definitely on the way to the counter to make a purchase after noticing the book included a few of my favourite things - London, the period after World War 2 and a strong leading female character. I read the first paragraph of the book just to be sure:

Towards the end of May 1953, Mr Cecil Condor Wallis made the decision to watch the Coronation on a newly purchased television set rather than give in to his children's wishes to join the hundreds of thousands lining the streets less than a mile from his South Kensington home. It was an odd decision for a man who had, on a number of occasions, expressed his loathing for the new medium - and one that probably cost him his life. There were, of course, other factors, aside from the decision to purchase the television set, that contributed to Mr Wallis's death.

I was hooked well and truly by this stage - I had to buy the book and discover for myself what those "other factors" were.

The novel focuses on the upper class Wallis family and their private and business lives in the years following World War 2. There are numerous other associated and related characters introduced throughout the story - one of the most important being their newly employed nanny, Jean Corbett. I have always found books that start with the punchline interesting. We know right from the beginning that Harriet Wallace kills her husband, we know when she does it, where she does it and we know how - the vital part missing in the story is the why. I felt that the author did a great job of teasing out the why and showing us the 'behind the scenes' lives of the Wallis family. At times I felt there were probably a few too many side stories and characters - they were all important or significant in a way but they occasionally made you feel as though you were losing touch with the real , or main, story. Overall though I found this book compelling and addictive - I kept reading until I had it finished and time away from it was torture. Joel has created an authentic world in many respects - so much so that I kept wondering throughout my reading if the book was based on a true story (it isn't but it is interesting to hear Joel speak about her inspiration for the novel).

April 12, 2010

The Legacy - Winner!

Thank you to all of you who recently sent greetings and wishes on the 2nd Birthday of Book Bath - and thank you to all of you who entered the competition to win a copy of The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter. I appreciate you sharing your favourite reads of the year so far - I've added yet more books to my TBR pile!

The winner of The Legacy is........ Claire from The Captive Reader. Congratulations Claire! Please email your postal details to me at karen_barrett@aapt.net.au and I will send you out your book very soon.

April 11, 2010

The Easter Bunny Was Kind!

It has been a busy week - travelling home from visiting relatives at easter and then starting a new job and all the associated busyness that comes with that transition. I haven't got through a lot of reading - just some snippets before collapsing into bed at the end of the day. I did however add some new books to the TBR pile courtesy of my dad.

My father is a journalist and receives a lot of review copies of books - he does read most of them but he had huge numbers he wasn't really all that interested in waiting for my partner and I when we arrived to visit my parents over the easter weekend. I gratefully pulled out some selections for myself and these are what I ended up coming home with:

Thank you easter bunny! Has anyone read any of these?

April 08, 2010

Award Time in Australia

It seems like everywhere you turn in the media these days there is a new literary award long list or short list being announced. I do like browsing these lists - they don't necessarily dictate my future reading selections but they often give me more choices to add to the TBR pile.
The short lists for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards 2010 have just been announced and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction short list is given here.
On the short list is (with the ones I have read in bold):

Summertime - J. M. Coetzee
Wanting - Richard Flanagan
The World Beneath - Cate Kennedy
88 Lines About 44 Women - Steven Lang
Ransom - David Malouf
Jasper Jones - Craig Silvey

The winner will be announced on May 17th and seeing as though there are only 4 books I will need to read to have read all of the short list I am thinking about doing it. Have any of you read any from this list and if so, would you recommend them?

April 06, 2010

An Education - Lynn Barber

I have wanted to see the movie version of An Education ever since I read about it and saw a preview - the glamorous life of a teenage London girl in the 1960's seeking to escape her working/middle class upbringing through an affair with a much older and more experienced man - sounds just like the dreams I had as a teenager growing up in rural Australia in the 1990's!

But before seeing the movie (which is now out on DVD in Australia) I did want to read the autobiography/memoir it is based on by English journalist, Lynn Barber.

My assumption is that the movie version focuses only on chapter two of the book where Barber re-tells the story of her affair/relationship/dalliance with a much older man when she is a 16 year old school girl in London. The book describes Barber's parents reactions to the relationship - surprisingly accepting - and her own doubts about the man who turns out to have one or two significant secrets. While I was initially disappointed to find that the book didn't focus on this period in Barber's life for longer - my reflective teenage self would have liked to hear more descriptions and tales from the weekend jaunts to Paris and Bruges - my disappointment was only short lived as I realised that this section of her life was only one interesting instance - many more followed in her life as an Oxford student and journalist.

I especially like the sections where Barber reflects on her work as a newspaper journalist where she discovered her passion for interviewing - a skill she clearly mastered if her several British Press Awards are anything to go by. My father is a journalist and I have always loved being a part of that world of newspaper production so this part of the book did bring back many fond memories for me.

This was an interesting and moving read for me - Barber is extremely open and honest in her writing and her reflections of her life - I really felt as though I was being let into her personal diaries - I only wished she had kept on writing.

April 01, 2010

Easter Reading

My partner and I are travelling over easter to visit our families and I am trying to restrict my book haul for the trip. I think I have narrowed it down to these three:

Murder At Mansfield Park - Lynn Shepherd - I have no idea what this will be like but it caught my eye when I was at the shops tonight and decided it might be a nice, fun read for the long weekend.

Parrot and Olivier in America - Peter Carey - I picked this up at my library last week and when I started reading a few pages to see what it would be like it captured my attention and I have been struggling to put it down since then. This book has also been named in the long list for the Miles Franklin Award in Australia this year.

Home Love - Megan Morton - I have been waiting and waiting for this book to be released - it looks gorgeous!

Happy easter reading everybody!