August 30, 2010

Starter For Ten - David Nicholls

Starter For Ten was recommended to me by Jackie after I had read and really enjoyed the author's latest book, One Day, earlier this year.

Starter For Ten is again set during the 1980's - obviously a time in history that the author has a great affinity for - and focuses on Brian Jackson who has just moved out of home for the first time after finishing high school and starting university. The book covers all those coming of age moments that occur when we start to become adults and yet still cling to many of our childhood friends, habits and comforts. The difference with this book is that the writing is incredibly funny and moving - making a great combination of laugh out loud moments and reflective periods when I could really empathise with Brian and the humiliations and conflicts he was going through.

This is an author I am really glad to have discovered.

August 29, 2010

Still Alice - Lisa Genova

Still Alice was a book I had heard bits and pieces about over time and when I found a copy at the library I picked it up to see what all of the fuss was about.

Still Alice tells the story of Harvard professor, Alice Howland, a focused, ambitious, academic family and career woman who begins to notice changes in her behaviour and memory which lead her to seek medical advice at the age of 50. The news that Alice receives is a diagnosis of early on set Alzheimer's disease which of course rocks her life, and the life of her family, completely off course.

I actually finished reading this book quite a few weeks ago now so my thoughts about it have dwindled a little in my mind - but the emotional impact the book had on me has definitely lingered.

I felt that the author did a fantastic job of focusing on the experiences of the diagnosis on Alice herself but also on her children, her husband and her colleagues and students - I like the way that the book didn't sugar coat the diagnosis or the possible and actual outcomes. Alice's perspectives of experiencing this disease and the way it slowly took away everything that was so important in her life - her academic career, her ability to read and analyse and her relationships and memories with her family was heartbreaking.

The book did have some weaknesses for me. The focus on an upper middle class, educated and financial independent main character did create some limitations in terms of exploring what this disease would be like to live with without the financial and practical resources that Alice had access to. There was also a feeling of a "text book" pathway from diagnosis through to other experiences that felt as thought the author was trying to cram in as much technical and medical information about the disease as she possibly could.

However, these minor complaints didn't take away from the overall emotional impact of the book for me - it was a beautifully told, heartbreaking story that I would recommend to others.

August 25, 2010

The Betrayal - Helen Dunmore

The Betrayal is one of the books long listed for this years Man Booker Prize and is the follow up book to The Siege which I read a couple of weeks ago. It has been said that you can read the books out of order or one without the other but I don't think it is only my tendency to obsessive reading patterns that has me saying you should read The Siege first and then The Betrayal - I think they compliment each other so well and I think you would be disappointed if you read them in the other order (at least I know I would have been). Just to let you know that the following review may give away some plot details which you may prefer not to know if you haven't read the books as yet but are planning to.

The Betrayal starts a little while after the end of The Siege in 1952 - the siege of Leningrad is over and families are trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of the terrors and uncertainties of the Stalin regime.

The Betrayal again focuses on the characters of Anna and Andrei who have now married and are together taking care of Anna's 16 year old brother, Kolya. Andrei is working as a doctor in a local hospital and it is in this role that he comes across a young boy with a possibly serious medical condition - nothing really out of the ordinary except for the fact that this boy is the son of one of the highest ranking members of the secret police - a man who is known and feared.

It did take me a lot longer to become engaged with this book than I did with The Siege - I think the main reason for this is that The Siege really focused on Anna's telling of her story whereas The Betrayal begins by focusing a lot more on Andrei's story and experiences being told more from his point of view. There was nothing wrong with this - in fact this is where the focus of this particular story needed to be - I was just expecting more from Anna to begin with.

Once I became involved in the story though I was hooked - again it is a beautifully written and expressed story. My only critique would have to be about the final short chapter of the book - in my view it wasn't needed and I wish the story had ended at the end of the second last chapter instead.

But this is really only a minor complaint - this book and the stories of the characters held my interest and has me now looking for more - not sure that this will be forthcoming??

August 23, 2010

Me Through My Reads

I just saw this meme over at Iliana's blog and had to join in, the key is to fill in the rest of the sentence with the title of a book you have read this year;

In School I was: The Help

People Might be surprised I'm: The Debutante

I will never be: Inside The Whale

My Fantasy job is: Campaign Ruby

At the end of a long day I need: Reading by Moonlight

I Hate It When: The Winter Ghosts

Wish I Had: The Hours

My Family Reunions Are: An Education

At A Party You'd Find Me With: Vanessa and Virginia

I've Never Been To: The Painter From Shanghai

A Happy Day Includes: Love and Summer

Motto I Live By: One Day

On My Bucket List: A Week At The Airport

In My Next Life, I Want To Be: The Time Traveler's Wife

August 18, 2010

Campaign Ruby - Jessica Rudd

As an Australian citizen currently in the midst of a painful, drawn out national election campaign I could not go past reading Campaign Ruby when it was released (in a timely manner!) last week.

Campaign Ruby is the fiction debut of the former Australian Prime Minister's daughter, Jessica Rudd. As it's title suggests, it follows a (fictional) national election campaign and the role of Ruby Stanhope, an English investment banker who has just been unceremoniously sacked from her high flying job and finds herself in Australia looking for a new life direction - only to find herself with a new job as an advisor to the leader of the opposition (LOO).

The novel takes advantage of quite a few coincidences to keep the plot flowing, for example, Ruby finding herself at a party on her first night in Australia where the opposition leader and his chief of staff are attending and they just happen to "bump into" Ruby and hire her on the spot without knowing a thing about her apart from the fact that she has worked in banking - in the UK!! But I found myself overlooking these moments because apart from them the novel worked really well for me. It is clear that Rudd has a clear understanding and an insiders knowledge of the election and political process and this adds a strong authenticity to the story and the characters. Rudd writes well and uses humour well - although I did find some of the antics that Ruby got into a little childish and unneeded. The opening chapter is one of the funniest I have read in a while and really set the character of Ruby up for readers.

I'm not sure how this book would translate for non-Australian readers as it does involve quite a lot of the Australian political context - but I am wondering if this is why Rudd made her main character English as Ruby herself needs to have a few things explained to her as she goes along which would help non-Australian readers I think.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Rudd produces next - I hope she is able to take her skills into another topic area and do just as well - or maybe there will be a sequel in the future??

August 15, 2010

Melbourne Ideas

My partner and I are spending a long weekend in Melbourne next weekend and we can't wait! I would love to hear from any of you about ideas for great bookshops we could visit while we are there? Or any other great Melbourne highlights we shouldn't miss. We both love Melbourne but it has been a while since we have visited now so we want to make sure we don't miss anything exciting!

August 10, 2010

The Siege - Helen Dunmore

I was led to reading The Siege after the Longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize was announced and the follow up book to The Siege, The Betrayal, was nominated.

I am certainly not intending to read all of the books on the Longlist although I do find prize lists really handy in helping to discover new reads that otherwise would have remained unread. The Betrayal caught my eye as a book I would be interested in as World War 2 and the period just before and after it has always been a time in history I have been strongly interested in. I'm not sure why really, I did study that period at school and my dad has always been interested in it too so maybe that is enough to continue to spark my interest. Anyway, me being the obsessive person that I am - I couldn't read The Betrayal knowing that there was a prequel out there - it had to be read first.

Which leads to The Siege - one of the most amazing and incredibly well written novels I have ever read - let alone one that focuses on this time in history.

The Siege covers the period in Leningrad just before and during the German siege of the city when so many people died from starvation and disease. The book takes a broad focus on the city at times but the main way in which the story is told is through the eyes of one family who are struggling to survive physically and psychologically through this period.

Anna is a young woman caring for her younger brother, father and her father's lover as well as starting a new and tentative relationship with a doctor, Andrei, and we follow her as she attempts to find items of food on the ever decreasing rations available as well as heating their apartment and fighting of sickness during the cruel Leningrad winter - it is quite literally a story of survival.

The book is stark and brutal - the descriptions of the hunger and struggles feel so real and frightening and yet they are told simply with little drama or showiness;

The streets are almost empty. She passes the hump of a body frozen into a doorway, covered with drifted snow. It looks like a bag of rubbish, but Anna knows it's a body because she saw it before the snow hid it. It's an old woman. Maybe she stopped to rest on the way back from fetching her ration. Anna doesn't like going past the park anymore. There are people sitting on benches, swathed in snow, planted like bulbs to wait for spring. They stay there day after day. No one comes to take them away.

The book was honest and tough - it is telling a story of what must have been an unbelievably hard time to live through and survive and I appreciated that the author did not try to sugar coat the story in anyway - I felt so connected to Anna and I was hanging in there with her until the very end. I have now started The Betrayal - despite the tragedy and darkness these are such compelling books to read.

August 09, 2010

A Weekend With Books, Chocolate and Neil Gaiman

It was my partner's Birthday over the past weekend and I had arranged a few things to spoil him on the day - which luckily for me meant I got to tag along and join in all the fun!
We spent the weekend in Sydney which of course meant a trip to some of our favourite book shops and all of the inevitable purchases that go along with that (more about those in another post). But the highlight of the weekend was a night at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall to hear Neil Gaiman read aloud his latest short story, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains , which has just been released in a book Gaiman has co-edited simply titled, Stories.

Gaiman was appearing at the Opera House as part of the Graphic Festival. Gaiman's performance was accompanied by illustrations by Eddie Campbell (which appeared on a huge screen behind where Gaiman was standing to read) and original, live music performed by the FourPlay string quartet who played alongside Gaiman and certainly helped to set the scene.
The story itself was simple and yet haunting and memorable - and Gaiman's reading of it was prefectly timed and pitched. A wonderful night which was followed with views like this when we came out of the theatre:

We topped the weekend off with a visit to the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place - so delicious!

August 08, 2010

The Group - Mary McCarthy

I know The Group is a book that is well reviewed, and for the most part, really well liked in the blogging arena. I had read and heard so much about it and it sounded like the perfect read for me - a book focusing on the lives of a group of women who had graduated from college together in 1930's New York - great era, great focus, great city - all the right ingredients were there but unfortunately this book fell flat for me.

I really struggled to warm to or connect with any of the characters - I tried to put myself in the shoes of the characters and think about the social and political time they were living in - especially for women - but for some reason it just did not capture my interest. I certainly appreciated the strong writing but a lot of the time I thought the writing was there to demonstrate the strength and talent of the writer as opposed to telling the story. I found the endless internal and external monologues of the characters tedious and at times I felt like I was being preached too in relation to the time in which the book was set and then published.

At first I felt disappointed in myself as a reader - such an important social feminist novel and I can't get into it!! But then I relaxed and let myself off - this just wasn't the book for me - there will always be plenty more that are!

August 06, 2010

High Tea With Friends

I know that many of you in the blogging world are in the midst of enjoying beautiful summers - but here in Australia we are in the middle of winter - and I'm over it! Winter is not one of my most enjoyable seasons at all so a couple of weekends ago I had some friends over to celebrate High Tea - pretty teacups, yummy food and good friends - one way to beat the winter blues!

August 04, 2010

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris - Paul Gallico

I did actually complete this book last week in time for our Paris In July experience but I am a little late in my posting...

Mrs Harris Goes To Paris would have to be described as a "delightful little book" - and I don't mean that to sound patronising - it's just the term that I feel best encapsulates this book for me.

Mrs Harris is a widowed woman living in London and working as a cleaning woman for wealthy families in the 1950's. One day while cleaning the bedroom of one of her client's she discovers in her wardrobe a piece of heaven - a Dior dress - and she falls in love;

There was no rhyme or reason for it, she would never wear such a creation, there was no place in her life for one. Her reaction was purely feminine. She saw it and she wanted it dreadfully. Something inside her yearned and reached for it as instinctively as an infant in the crib reaches at a bright object.

I've been there!! The pure materialistic joy of seeing and falling in love with a gorgeous item of clothing (or, as is often the case for me, a pair of shoes). I can't say that I have the means to purchase designer clothing but I do know the happy feeling I get from wearing my favourite pieces of clothing - they do bring me joy no matter how shallow and silly that might seem.

Mrs Harris is determined to have her own piece of Dior so she saves and saves and saves and sacrifices in order to be able to afford the dress that she dreams of and then jumps on a plane to Paris to find and buy her dress at the house of Dior.

It is wonderful to read about Mrs Harris' experiences in Paris, of course everything does not go smoothly - even when the dress is finally purchased - so the book is as much fun and adventure as it is a story about a woman buying a dress. As I was reading it I found it held a lot of similarities to Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day in the sense of a woman stepping outside her normal reality to have other experiences in her life.

A gorgeous little book to put a smile on any fashion lovers face!