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Holiday Reading – an Assortment of Memoirs

It’s no coincidence that my absence from blogging occurred at around the same time I joined the library. I’ve been reading a lot over the last 6 months. Most recently, I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs.

First was Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness which focused on her battle with anorexia and bulimia. This was a surprisingly well written, raw and honest account that provided a fascinating window into the mind of someone struggling with anorexia. Her unhealthy relationship with food had me reflecting on my own habits I don’t have any sort of eating disorder, but I found I could relate to her quite easily. The book provided an even more fascinating and slightly disturbing insight into the workings of Hollywood. It’s well worth a read if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Next was Hipstermattic by Matt Granfield, in which he self deprecatingly documents his attempts to become the ultimate hipster. It was fairly light and amusing, and for a moment I was pleased to discover that I might be hipper than I originally thought because I like to drink cider and knit. But then it occurred to me that since I know those things are hip, they’ve no doubt become mainstream and therefore incredibly unhip.

Following this was  Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends. Well, clearly that’s not true, because he’s written them all down in a book that anyone can read. I found his memoir entertaining and intriguing. It was interesting to read about his childhood experiences and his efforts to break into the acting world. Much of his life since his early fame has been well documented, but it was great to read it from his perspective. There were echoes of some of the disturbing insights in to Hollywood that I encountered in Portia de Rossi’s book as well. There is so much money to be made and the drive to make profits seem to out weigh other important consideration such as the health and welfare of employees. Lowe did gloss over a number of things, most notably that incident with the underage girl. I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think it was as honest as Portia’s. I always had the sense he was trying to present himself in the best possible light.

Finally was The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. De Waal inherits a collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines. They have been handed down through his family for five generations. De Waal traces their history and movement through his family and in doing so manages to write a family chronicle that takes us from Paris to Vienna, England and Japan all at pivotal points in those countries’ histories. The netsuke were rescued from his great grandparents’ home by their maid, after their house and assets were seized in the Nazi occupation of Vienna. As well as a family chronicle, the memoir is a history of art, of war and antisemitism. While de Waal’s family were almost destroyed by the Nazi’s, they could also be considered some of the lucky ones because they survived. It’s a challenging read, and not to everyone’s taste, but I recommend it highly.

Oh, by the way, I’ve updated my About page. If you’re curious about this blog, click on the link.

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A Cosy Mystery for a Winter Afternoon – Aunt Dimity Digs In

Aunt Dimity Digs In by Nancy Atherton turned out to be a surprisingly good read. It was, as the jacket promised, a cosy mystery that was perfect for reading on a wintery Sunday afternoon.

The story is set in Finch, a village in the English Cotswalds, peopled with a cast of good natured, but slightly eccentric characters including the usual village gossip, publican and vicar. Lori, the main protagonist, has been called upon to help find out who burgled a rare pamphlet from the vicarage, while at the same time, helping to save the Harvest Festival. The entire event is threatened due to an archaeological dig that requires the use of the one of the main venues. She is helped by the mysterious and supernatural Aunt Dimity, of whom I won’t reveal any more – I’d hate to spoil the story for anyone who might wish to read it.

There was a nice parallel between the archaeology team’s efforts to dig up the Roman past of Finch, and Lori’s need to dig up the past of each character. One by one each character’s past was gradually revealed, and warring parties found they had much more in common than they originally thought.

This was a light, entertaining read with a positive message about forgiveness and understanding. For a moment there, I even felt challenged to get a little more involved with my local community – a key theme of the book being about the folly of disconnecting from the people and the world around you.

Reminding me of Enid Blyton, food was featured throughout the book and a recipe for the oft-mentioned lemon bars was even included at the end. You can  find it here.

Since my first visit to the library was a success, I decided to try my luck again yesterday morning. This time, I decided to explore the ‘B’ section.

I walked on and on, past authors with names like Binchy, Brown, Brooks, Bova and Bradford, feeling slightly discouraged.  But finally, something jumped out.

A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book called to me from the shelves. Years ago, I read ‘Possession’ by the same author, and loved it, so I’m optimistic about this one. It’s unlikely to be a light read, however. The paperback version I have is the size of a house brick, and judging by her last book it will be full of fairly dense, literary language.

The school holidays officially began today – a good time to begin something a little more challenging.

Choosing a Good Book

Walking into a library for the first time in at least 5 years was a somewhat overwhelming experience.

I wanted to borrow a book – but there were so many to choose from. Where to start?

Its not that I’ve neglected reading over the past 5 years – its just I’ve been buying all my books. In particular, I’ve been downloading plenty of e-books. I realise, however, that this has narrowed my choices. At first I would download all the books in a series, or by a favourite author. Once I’d exhausted those options I found myself relying on the recommendations Amazon generates for me based on my previous choices. I wouldn’t rely on them alone, I’d look at reviews to help my selection – and so far haven’t been disappointed, but even so, most of the books I read come from a computer generated list.

There is more to the world of books than the titles available in the Amazon bookstore, so I looked forward to my trip to the library, but once there the choice was paralysing. Without a list of recommendations, either from friends or Amazon, I had no idea how to go about selecting a book. I seemed to have forgotten that fairly basic skill.

I was tempted to fall back on the other sources I sometimes use: Book club lists can easily be found online and offer a good selection of fairly worthy titles. Lists of prize winners and nominees are also a good source of recommendations. But for me, the idea of going to the library with a list would somehow detract from the experience. Again, my choice would be limited – this time to worthy, quality literature, which isn’t a bad thing, but there are a lot of great books that never make those lists.

In the end, I decided to simply start at the letter A and see what jumped out at me.

This is when I discovered the importance of a book’s spine and title. They are the very first things you notice when wandering the shelves of a library. I discovered I was attracted to certain font types, and would pass by others. Once a font attracted me, I would read the title, and only then, if it sparked my curiosity, would I pull it from the shelves.

What jumped out at me today was the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton. The titles amused me. I was tempted to borrow Aunt Dimity, Vampire Hunter but settled on the earliest novel of the series the library had on its shelves: Aunt Dimity Digs In.

I have no idea what these books will be like, but I suspect they won’t have been nominated for any prizes. A quick search on the net saw them described as “Cozy Mysteries”. I’m not sure if I even enjoy “cozy mysteries”. I did, however, enjoy the first couple of pages that I read – so I’m optimistic about the series.

The other book I borrowed was “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman. I follow @neilhimself on Twitter, but have never read any of his books. This was the only title the library had on the shelves, and is apparently his first novel. It seemed like a good place to start.

Its been such a long time since I’ve read a book without any prior research. And that’s the wonderful thing about libraries. They are full of hidden treasures – and trash. It doesn’t matter if I accidently found myself with a book I don’t like – I may waste  time finding that out, but at least I haven’t wasted any money.

It’s a mid-winter’s afternoon here in Sydney, and the temperature is dropping. Snuggling down by the heater with a cozy mystery seems the perfect way to spend the afternoon.

Sunday Books: Uncharted Territory and Dead in The Family

I was sick this weekend and confined to bed for much of the time. On the bright side, since I had no energy for anything else, it provided a good opportunity to catch up with some reading.

I began by finishing Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis. I did enjoy this little foray into Science Fiction.  Taking place on a remote planet, 2 Earth scientists had the task of mapping and exploring the land, guided by one of the indigenous life forms. They were soon accompanied by a specialist in alien mating behaviour. Not much actually happened in this story, however as it progressed, relationships were explored and mysteries were revealed. It was always humourous and moved along at a satisfying pace. I found it diverting, but also quite forgettable. I’d recommend it if you are after a quick, humourous distraction, but it is certainly not great literature. That said, the characters were entertaining and well developed, which is an achievement in such a brief novella. I am led to believe that Connie Willis is an excellent author, so perhaps this is not representative of her best work.

After I finished Uncharted Territory, I set about selecting a new book to read. Bed-bound, I decided the best choice was something I could download to my Kindle App from the Amazon Store.

I spent quite a while searching through the selection there. Amazon recommends books to me based on what I’ve bought in the past. I toyed with the idea of reading “Room” by Emma Donaghue, which had excellent reviews. It is told from the perspective of 5 year old Jack who, with his mother, is imprisoned in a single room. Its the only life he has ever known. Then I decided I really didn’t want to deal with anything that might be vageuly harrowing, so decided to read “Death in The Family” by Charlaine Harris instead.

“Dead in The Family” is the tenth in the Sookie Stackhouse series that the TV series True Blood is based on.

I started reading the series a few years ago, and they have always been a guilty pleasure. They are very trashy literature and remind me of Harlequin romances, with vampires thrown in.

Like Harlequin romances, they follow a formula. The men are all unbelievably attractive, the heroine, Sookie, is also unbelievably attractive, but of course is also modest and doesn’t understand the effect she has on all these men.

Somehow, Sookie is always  in some sort of danger and the vampires or other supernatural creatures need to protect her. In doing that, they endanger themselves and Sookie heroically rises above her human limitations to defeat the enemies and protect her men.

This novel continued nicely from the previous in the series. It tied up a few loose ends that I had been wondering about as well. The story was silly as usual, but pleasantly diverting and an undemanding way to pass the time while sick in bed.

Sunday Books – Uncharted Territory by Connie Willis

A friend of mine  recommended Connie Willis books  a while ago.Willis is an American Science Fiction writer with a number of Hugo awards.  

The book I’m reading is called Uncharted Territory. I’ve only just begun, at this stage  I’m not really sure what it is about, but so far I’ve found it very entertaining.

The events appear to be taking place in the future. A team from Earth are surveying a planet, helped along by the intelligent indigenous life forms, who seem to spend more time fining them than actually helping them.

The Earth government doesn’t want to be seen as imperialistic or taking advantage of the indigenous lifeforms, so they have implemented a number of laws, including some that allow the indigenous people to fine the surveyors for offences such as: ‘disturbing the ground’ or ‘speaking in an inappropriate tone and manner’. The indigenous people have realised they can make a lot of money out of fines, and give them out with great and  amusing frequency.

The dialogue between the characters is funny – which is a big statement from me, because, as I mentioned in a previous review, I’m not really a laugh-out-loud kind of reader. This book, however, has had me chuckling away under my breath.

The English language seems to have evolved in the future – at one point luggage was seen grazing on the land. I’m not sure what they were referring to, but at this stage I am assuming it is some sort of animal that may one day be turned into luggage.

So far, I’m finding the book refreshingly unpredictable – its keeping me entertained and I have absolutely no clue as to where the story is heading.

I’ll report back in once I’ve finished reading it.

Sunday Books: Kate Atkinson – Started Early, Took My Dog

After four weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing this book. It’s the fourth in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie crime series.

Brodie is hired by a client to discover the identity of her biological parents. As he investigates, he discovers the story of a grisly 1975 murder and its subsequent cover up by police. His life once again spins out of control as people try to prevent him from finding the truth.

Once again, a great strength of the book is the well developed supporting cast of characters. I loved the story line about ex-police superintendent Tracy Waterhouse. She is as tough as nails, a butch senior cop who is ‘built like a brick s*** house’. Part of her tragedy is that as a young woman she had more feminine aspirations which were buried deep inside to enable her to survive and succeed in the man’s world of 1970s policing. While she held the respect of her male colleagues, who regarded her as ‘one of the boy’s, she was unable to succeed in those other areas of life that she wanted, like becoming a mother, or finding a husband. Even her attempts at home decorating were failures. She begins the book as a lonely character with little to look forward to – just going through the motions of life; however, after an encounter with an abused child, her life changes course. She embarks upon a life of crime and manages to find a purpose and some fulfillment.

I also enjoyed the character Tilly, an aging actress who was in the early stages of dementia. We get to see the world through her eyes. At times she sees great clarity, at others she is confused and frightened. Her character plays a minor role in the major story – on a couple of occasions she stumbles into some key events and manages to alter their course. That Atkinson bothered to create this complex minor character and develop her story for us is one of the reasons I enjoy her books.

As with her other books, Atkinson resolves the main mysteries but leaves others open. This frustrated me a little more than with the other novels. I’m hoping there will be another Jackson Brodie book on it’s way that will tie up some of those loose ends.

Sunday Books: Night of The Living Trekkies

Today’s book is a bit of a departure from my usual offerings:

The name says it all really.

Night of the Living Trekkies is written by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall.

The narrative takes place at a Star Trek convention. Nearby, a secret military experiment has gone wrong, triggering a zombie apocalypse. A group of trekkies are forced to band together to fight waves of zombies as they invade the convention.

This book was a lot of fun to read. It delivered everything you would expect from title and cover. The zombie-pocalypse follows the usual pattern – a secret experiment goes wrong, people start to act strangely and before too long, the zombies are breaking down the doors of the only safe shelter left in town. 

The trekkie characters were amusing. There were plenty of in-jokes for Star Trek fans, such as the guaranteed mortality of any minor character wearing a red shirt. 

Cliches about zombies, star trek and trekkers abound; however, while the plot was predictable, this didn’t detract from the book. In fact, the cliches are why people would read this book, and accounted for much of the humour. When a group of characters decide to split up in the middle of a zombie-pocalypse, you expect them to be killed off one by one – any other result would be disappointing.

To be honest, I would actually have preferred to see this book made into a fim, like Fan Boys rather than reading it. I found it amusing, but somehow this is the type of humour I prefer to watch rather than read. Still, it was a fun, light diversion from my usual fare.

If you follow Star Trek and enjoy zombie movies, you’ll probably enjoy the book. Those who don’t follow Star Trek, might find some of the jokes and references a little hard to understand. And of course, if you don’t like zombies then this book really isn’t for you at all.

Here is the book’s trailer: