Thursday, December 23, 2010

Intentions and reality: a 2010 blog review

I had intended to write about all of the books I’ve read over the last month or so to bring this blog up to date. I made a start on this when I wrote about Mike Gayle and 84 Charing Cross Road, but after that I lost my enthusiasm and didn’t see the point. Most of the books are by authors I already mentioned earlier in the year, such as Nick Hornby, Jasper Fforde, and Anne Tyler.

Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is about a small group of people who are brought together by the only thing they have in common. They intended to kill themselves on New Years Eve. They run into each other on the roof a high rise building from where they have all independently decided to jump.

Each character tells their part of the story in their own words. Their vastly different backgrounds require Hornby to give each character their own distinct style of expression.

Other books have been with me almost from the start of this blog. They are non-fiction books I have picked up from time to time to read a chapter or two before turning back to another novel.

Chocolate and Zucchini is mostly a book of recipes – not exactly something to be read from cover to cover in a matter of days, but it is one I enjoyed a lot through my infrequent visits. Clotilde Dusoulier entertains and informs in her introductions to each recipe, revealing some of the personal history behind each dish and offering advice about various food related matters, like how to plan for a dinner party and how to create a balanced menu.

A Year of Slow Food by David and Gerda Foster is a book I had for a few years before I read it and it wasn’t one I wanted to rush when I had started reading. It’s the kind of non-fiction I enjoy, a personal account of country life and semi self-sufficiency. It describes the kind of lifestyle I’d like to follow – in fact the life I’d hoped to follow when I moved to a country town myself. His book is part diary, part recipe book – each section ends with a recipe using seasonal home produced ingredients, like vegetables, milk and honey.


The new authors I read during this period were Marele Day and Frances Eagar.

I’ve had The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender for almost 20 years. I bought it from the author when she was a guest tutor during my University course. I finally got around to reading it this month.
Several years after meeting the author I was employed briefly by her publisher and saw her in a nearby coffee shop having lunch with one of the Directors.

Harry Lavender is a crime novel involving a private detective, touching on the organised crime scene in Sydney where Harry is a major crime boss. Some of the locations were vaguely familiar and it is easy to project certain old time crime figures onto the character of Harry. The book uses a lot of computer metaphors and some of its computer references are now a little dated, but it was still an entertaining book providing a reasonably literary approach to the genre.

Frances Eagar’s book Time Tangle is another that I’ve had for more than a couple of decades. It is a children’s book that tangles a little history with the modern world as a girl of the present crosses into a different time, meeting a boy close to her own age. She finds herself caught up in the religious persecutions of the Tudor ages. It seems that time travel books of various types have been a regular part of this year’s reading.

When I started this blog my hope was to find inspiration and encouragement to return to writing my own stories. Partly I hoped to find some ideas about what made successful stories work. What was in the stories I liked that appealed to me?

That part of this blog has been a failure. I’ve written no stories and I’ve merely found how incapable I’ve been in analysing someone’s writing to assess why it appeals or not. I merely know what I like without knowing why I liked it.

In the end I have only concluded that a readable story needs an interesting plot and characters I with whom I can identify. There’s nothing profound or inspiring in that conclusion.

While maintaining this blog has helped me to persevere with my reading instead of continually putting books aside only partly read, I found towards the end that I was getting too caught up in the numbers game being more interested in reading 50 then 55 or 60 books before the end of the year. As a result I avoided books that would take longer to read. Why read one book of 500 pages when I could read two of 250 pages in the same amount of time?

Well that could be all for this year. It is Christmas Eve tomorrow. After that I’ll be away from the internet until the New Year when I can start a new reading list. Until then I have just over a week to reach 70 books for 2010 – can I do it?

Friday, December 17, 2010

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

More from my “Completed 2010” list…


47b. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff
47a. 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff


I found these two separate titles in my copy of 84 Charing Cross Road. They were originally published individually with Duchess being a sequel to the other, better known book.

My paperback is a film tie-in edition published at the time of the Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins film. It was another of those books that I’ve had for years (probably over 20!) but never got around to reading. I bought it because I enjoyed the film so much and I’m not sure why I neglected it for so long.

The first section, on which the film was based, is a collection of letters written over many years between Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co., primarily their chief buyer Frank Doel.
Having seen the film again only a few weeks earlier, I could see how faithful the majority of the film was to this collection of letters. As such, the book became more of a written reminder of the film than a unique reading experience.
I wonder how different it would have been had I read the book first.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was a surprise. Having neglected 84 Charing Cross Road for so long, I wasn’t aware that the sequel was there, and it was this part that I enjoyed most. It continued Hanff’s story as she finally realised her dream to visit London, thanks to the success of her earlier work.

I found Duchess a pleasure to read, mainly because of the genuine joy expressed by Hanff in her experience of London. How different it is to so many other travel books – where writers have a seemingly obligatory cynicism (at worst) or a (at best) a mildly mocking tone directed towards the places they see and the people they meet.

While the events in Duchess weren’t covered by the movie, the film continued to colour my reading of the book. I couldn’t help picturing Ann Bancroft as Helene Hannf, and when she finally met Frank Doel’s widow Nora, I kept seeing Judy Dench who played her.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mike Gayle and Friends

Mike Gayle has been one of my big rediscoveries this year. I found two of his books while I was sorting out my library.

It had been many years since I’d read either of them and when I re-read the first it was like reading it for the first time. I barely put it down.
I have since bought more including these on my “Completed 2010” list (see side bar).

45. Brand New Friend, Mike Gayle
55. The To-Do List, Mike Gayle
57. Life & Soul of the Party, Mike Gayle

Gayle’s dominant theme is friendship. This also comes across in his non-fiction book The To-Do List. In that book he describes a year of his life in which he compiled a list of 1277 things to do before his next birthday. These ranged from minor repairs around the house to an overseas expedition. Many things on the list related to expressions of love and friendship towards those close to him.

To aid motivation he shared the list with close friends who were given the task of assessing his achievement at the end of the year.

The thing I saw in this book was the similarity between Gayle and his friends and the characters within his fiction books. It seems clear that his fiction is about the kind of people and places he knows well.

Brand New Friend looks at the difficulties of a man trying to build new friendships in a new city.
When the strains of long distance romance make it necessary for Rob to relocate from London to Manchester, it means leaving life long friends behind. He tries a few different ways of meeting and making new friends.
Complications arise when the only suitable candidate he finds is a woman other than his girlfriend. Can men and women be and remain friends without romantic/sexual complications? And if so, how would their spouse/partner view the situation?

Life and Soul of the Party follows a group of friends during a year of tragedy and strained relationships. We see them through a series of parties which bring some of them together and tear others apart. (I assure you the melodrama of that last sentence is mine and does not reflect Mike Gayle’s story).
While Brand New Friend deals with the difficulty of starting new friendships, Life and Soul looks at the way failed relationships can linger and sometimes prevent us from moving on and how even the best and closest of relationships can be compromised by our associations with others, both in the past and in the present.

Gayle’s examination of love and friendship is done with a total absence of earnest navel-gazing or philosophical psychoanalysis. He just tells a story and entertains his readers, giving THIS reader the experience of what could have been – seeing how possible it would have been for me to be one of his characters with their experiences, if only a few things in my life had been different.





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Other Mike Gayle books read this year, which I forgot to mention in previous posts.

24. My Legendary Girlfriend, Mike Gayle
26. Mr Commitment, Mike Gayle

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wuthering Heights - CELEBRATION!!!

I finally did it!

I reached the end of Wuthering Heights more than a year after I started. This reading experience was more about endurance than enjoyment. It was a battle from the first page.

I will admit that I was beginning to enjoy it towards the end, but I think that may have been the elation of realising I was getting close to that last page.

Apart from the satisfaction of not giving up, reading the book helped me appreciate and understand Jasper Fforde’s Wuthering Heights references in his Well of Lost Plots.

Now I think I should concentrate on getting this blog up to date.

So many books read – but nothing written about them!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Anniversary

This blog has now been going for a year.
Here are a few statistics related to that period between 4th November 2009 and 3 November 2010

Books completed: 55
Non fiction 24
Fiction 31

Top 10 fiction in order of reading:
Worldshaker, Richard Harland
Blackout, Connie Willis
Slam, Nick Hornby
My Legendary Girlfriend, Mike Gayle
Anita and Me, Meera Syal
The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde,
For All Time, Meredith Resce
All Clear, Connie Willis
Lost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde
Brand New Friend, Mike Gayle

Not quite making top 10 fiction list:
Mr Commitment, Mike Gayle
I Am Number Four, Pittacus Lore
Reckless, Cornelia Funke

Top 5 non-fiction:
Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill
A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin
Foxeys Hangout, Cathie Gowdie
The Alternative Kitchen Garden, Emma Cooper.

Not quite making the top 5 non fiction list:
Like Me, Chely Wright
Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, Michael Brown.

Now the first year of the blog has been completed, I am turning to the calendar year.
So far I’ve read 45 books in 2010. I would like to at least equal the anniversary total of 55 books by the end of the year and hopefully exceed that by reaching 60.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jasper Fforde

Reading Jasper Ffforde’s Thursday Next series is like jumping into a blender with an armful of books selected from almost every genre. His stories defy narrow categorisation. They combine elements of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Crime and Humour, seasoned with a few pages from literary criticism and grammar text books. If I have overlooked a genre, it’s probably there anyway, like a familiar spice that you recognise in a meal but can’t quite isolate and identify.

My first attempted Jasper Fforde book was The Well of Lost Plots, the third in his Thursday next series. I struggled with it several years ago and eventually gave up. Recently I decided to try again, but this time starting with his first book, The Eyre Affair; and I now realise it is essential that the Thursday Next series be read in order as each volume builds upon what has happened in previous books.

Today Fforde would be my favourite writer (although tomorrow may bring about change). I love his continuing flood of strange ideas and distorted realities. I think his special talent is to bring so much weirdness together into one place and somehow give it a logical credibility.

In Forde’s “Nextian” universe, movement between the “real” world and literary worlds is possible. Some of the action of The Eyre Affair takes place within Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as Thursday Next follows villain Acheron Hades into the pages of that classic text. Can she save that book from a man whose proven ruthlessness challenges the security and stability of well-loved literature?

Lost in a Good Book follows Thursday’s life after the events of the first book and adds to our knowledge of her world which has similarities to our own but has a significantly different history, technologies and priorities: the national sport seems to be croquet, literary societies are a powerful political force and the power of coincidence can be used as a lethal weapon.

After reading those first two books, I am definitely ready to return to The Well of Lost Plots. And despite my earlier experience I am looking forward to it.

Fforde’s website is worth a visit (there is a link in the side bar, see "links for writers"). I have now bought most of his books, the majority from the author himself. While this did work out a bit more expensive than buying them locally, all the books are autographed and come with a free, randomly selected postcard, some of which are limited editions.

I know this isn't the most enlightening book "review" written. I feel any detailed attempt to describe and critique these novels would be like a regression to my youth when friends and I would quote Monty Python, Goon Show and Fawlty Towers dialogue to each other. Second hand experience is just not the same. You need to go to the source for yourself and enjoy the vibrancy of the original.

From my personal viewpoint, Jasper Fforde's books have been one of the best discoveries I've made for years.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dragonholder: The life and times (so far) of Anne McCaffrey

Dragonholder was written by Anne McCaffrey’s son, Todd. It is an attractive illustrated book of mainly family anecdotes providing a basic though uncritical biography of a very successful science fiction writer. Any fan of McCaffrey’s work will enjoy the insight into her life and work, and this book is clearly intended for the fans. It also gives a few anecdotes involving other well known SF authors, particularly McCaffrey’s friendship with Isaac Asimov, (after whom the McCaffrey family named a cat).

I have a few Anne McCaffrey books. I’ve had them for many years, but the only one I’ve read is Dragonflight, the first of her Pern novels. My first reading of the book must have been some time in the 1980s, and then I read it again in the early 90s as part of a university course. Now, 20 years later I don’t recall much of the story, but I do remember I enjoyed it. About the only detail I recall is the unexpected twist upon which the whole book turns, so maybe any future reading wouldn’t have the same impact as previous readings.
Several years ago my wife gave me a special limited, autographed and numbered edition copy of Dragonflight, which is one of my most prized literary possessions

I wanted to read more of the Pern series, but I wanted to read them in order and I never found the second book. Clearly, these days it wouldn’t be so hard to track a copy via the internet, but to some extent, over time, my motivation has diminished. Maybe if I ever find it in a second hand book store my interest will be renewed.

Todd McCaffrey has since joined Anne as co-author of additional books in the Pern series, and more recently has taken over sole authorship of some titles.

An audio interview with Anne and Todd McCaffrey can be found here:

http://www.bookotron.com/agony/audio/mccaffrey_2006.mp3



.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear at last!

In writing this “review” I need to exercise great restraint. It would be easy to turn it into a bombardment of superlatives as I try to say how much I enjoyed Connie Willis’s All Clear. But I can’t help indulging myself with at least one word that keeps jumping into my mind. Maybe using that single word will give enough satisfaction to allow me to move on. It’s not a word that I recall using often but at the moment it seems the most appropriate to use.

All Clear is a MAGNIFICENT book.

It is complex without being complicated, weaving separate threads of time and multiple characters into a tight and cohesive story that I didn’t want to leave. It had twists, turns, surprises and puzzles as well as creating some vivid images of wartime London.

Willis’s characters are the core of the book. Time travelling historians, delinquent children, a venerable actor, shop girls, ambulance drivers, intelligence officers and clergymen give a human face to the horrors of a war where civilians were regularly the victims.

The central characters are historians from mid 21st century Oxford, part of a project utilising time travel to study the past. They were introduced in Blackout, the first volume of the story. Britain is at war and each of them is studying a different aspect of wartime England.

At the end of Blackout, they are trapped in London during the Blitz. They were afraid they had somehow interfered with events and changed the direction history had taken – maybe even altering the outcome of the war. This fear seemed to be confirmed when the casualties at the bombing of a department store exceeded the number recorded in historical accounts.

All Clear brings the story to its conclusion. Written as one long novel, the publishers decided to release the story in two volumes, thinking the modern reader could not cope with book of over 1100 pages.
In my review of Blackout I said it ended with a whimper. So hopefully the few months wait between volumes hasn’t discouraged any readers from completing the journey: but unfortunately that may be the case.

Those who don’t return will miss out on the experience that Willis intended to share, with the whole story presented as a united whole. The biggest obstacle to reading All Clear was trying to pick up a story that had been put aside months ago. It took a while to become reacquainted with the interwoven plots spread across different wartime periods. But it was worth the effort. After a chapter or two I was caught up again in the character’s lives. One day I hope to get the chance to read the whole story as it was intended by the author – from beginning to end without a disruptive break in the middle.

Why did I like the book so much? It has an all round richness and depth. There’s nothing shallow or simplistic about it. It gives the mind a workout without becoming convoluted and confusing, dealing with one of science fiction’s most iconic conundrums – the potential effects of changing the past and how it would affect the future. The characters are given time to develop and grow, drawing the reader in to experience their emotional journey through very difficult and unknown territory. It deals with the heroic as well as the horrific with occasional humour to balance the growing tension. Willis is able to do all of this without resorting to anything cheap, gratuitous or potentially offensive.

Yes, with its use of time travel the book is built upon a science fiction foundation, which will probably be a stumbling block for some potential readers. That is unfortunate because they will miss out on a very rewarding journey that has very little to do with scientific speculation. This book is about people, relationships and how the worst of experiences can bring out the best of human character.

I loved it.



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Thanks to Allen & Unwin,the publishers of this book in Australia for sending me a review copy.

See here for their All Clear webpage:
http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781741758429

NOTE: Allen & Unwin were not responsible for the decision to divide this story into two parts.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Something is Out There

Something is Out There by Julie Miller and Grant Osborn is a very accessible introduction to some of the best known cases of Australian mysteries.

Miller and Osborn take the reader through a variety of haunted locations and UFO “hotspots”, introducing some of the people whose lives have been affected by strange personal encounters with the unexplained.

These phenomena can be annoyingly elusive, rarely (if ever) leaving convincing, tangible evidence. Mostly the only evidence available is the testimony of witnesses both past and present.

This book is divided into three main sections in which Miller and Osborn look at Ghosts (Supernatural), UFOs (Ufology) and Strange Creatures (Cryptozoology) with a mix of anecdotes, folklore and personal experience.

The book combines material gleaned from other sources with some of the authors’ own investigations. Their personal investigations include interviews with witnesses and researchers, and their experiences on some of the increasingly popular commercial ghost tours in various parts of the country, from Port Arthur in Tasmania to Picton NSW.

I’ve had my own experiences with strange phenomena. Those experiences don’t fit a rational, scientific worldview but I know they happened. But even from this “insiders” perspective I still maintain a distinct desire for accountability when it comes to extraordinary claims. Too often in these matters subjective experience and personal opinion are presented as fact, with little or no justification.

In parts I felt Miller and Osborn were a bit too accepting of some of the testimonies they presented. I am particularly sceptical of the testimony they give of “psychics” in researching haunted sites. Their subjective impressions help to pad out the lack of real experience or evidence, overshadowing and replacing genuine, though rare, ghostly activity at a particular location.

The only exceptions I can recall to this open acceptance are mild allusions of suspicion directed towards the number of Rex Gilroy’s* claimed sightings of anomalous creatures, and a couple of doubts expressed about the validity of “orbs” in photos. Although, regarding the latter, their doubts didn’t prevent them from illustrating the book with their own photos of “orbs”.

“…while we are sceptical about orbs as a manifestation of spiritual entities, we can’t help but ponder the size, brightness and intensity of these particular anomalies. Did we capture the little boy ghosts at play?”


A lot of what is covered in Something is Out There has been dealt with more extensively by others, but newcomers to these mysteries are given plenty to increase their appetite. Extensive bibliography and end notes provide more than enough leads to seek out more for themselves.



NOTE:
* Rex Gilroy is one of major characters in Australian cryptozoology. Credited with being the first to bring attention to the Yowie, the Australian cousin of Bigfoot, Yeti and Sasquatch. His early work inspired many of todays investigators.

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I thank the publishers Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy of this book.
For further details see:

Something is Out There



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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park

While watching neighbourhood children playing a game they call “Beatie Bow”, Abigail Kirk sees another spectator, a young girl who remains unnoticed by the other children. Abigail’s curiosity leads her to follow the girl who runs to escape Abigail’s attention.

During their chase through the streets and alleys of The Rocks, there is a change in the surroundings and Abigail finds herself in 1870s Sydney. An accident results in Abigail being cared for by the young girl’s family who see Abigail as “the stranger” a mysterious visitor who always appears at significant times in their family history.

The stranger’s significance relates to the passing on of “the gift” of second sight from one generation of the family to the next. Granny, the current holder of the gift is growing weaker and the identity of its next custodian is uncertain. Abigail is not able to return to her own time until her role as the stranger has been fulfilled.

The consequences of its fulfilment affect not only the 1870s family, but also Abigail and her family in the present day. Through her journey Abigail learns to appreciate life and relationships in her own time and eventually finds hope for the future.

One of the appealing things about this story is its setting. I became quite familiar with The Rocks area when I lived in Sydney. It was perhaps my favourite part of the city. Right next to the harbour it maintains a lot of its historical character with many original buildings remaining intact. Gloria and I went there a lot, either to a favourite Irish pub for a Guinness or to the markets on the weekend, and sometimes to walk along the harbour, round circular quay to the Opera House. For a few years it was our favourite place to be on Australia Day, braving the media helicopter invasion to see the end of the annual ferry race.

I can’t remember where or when I bought Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, but it was many years ago and I bought it because I enjoyed the film adaptation.
While watching the film I could recognise some of the locations used. Now after many years of neglect I’ve read the book, and my familiarity with its setting helped me better imagine the places being described.

Time travel has been recurring thing in my reading and viewing this year. The next book on my list is Connie Willis’s All Clear, the continuation of the story started in Blackout and I recently finished For All Time by Meredith Resce.

Each of the books relies on a different means of moving through time. With Willis’s books a new technology makes it possible. Ruth Parks relies on “the gift”, a more paranormal approach: a step beyond clairvoyance in which a physical link to the past creates a kind of bridge between two times.

The idea of visiting the past brings up interesting questions about how much our knowledge of the present would prepare us for life in the past. Would it help us avoid potential dangers or could that knowledge even help us change the past to avert tragedy or prevent injustice? And if we change the past, what affect would that have on our own time? Would our own present even exist if the past was changed?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reckless by Cornelia Funke

As a boy, Jacob Reckless found a way into a world of magic through a mirror in his father’s study. It was a world he tried to keep to himself, but that desire was frustrated when his younger brother Will discovered the secret and followed him.

We enter Cornelia Funke’s Reckless when the boys have reached adulthood, with Will suffering from wounds inflicted in a recent encounter with a Goyle, a stone-like race at war with the mirrorworld’s human population.
From the injuries a spreading petrification is taking over Will’s flesh. Jacob knows he has very little time to find a way of saving his brother. His search for help takes them through a place where many familiar fairytales have a foundation in reality.

While I found the first few chapters a bit unclear, it didn’t take long to get caught up in the brother’s situation. Joined by Will’s girlfriend Cara, and a shapeshifting fox, Jacob’s attempt to save Will takes us through fantastic landscapes and into contact with a variety of “fairytale” characters.

A story with references to ginger bread houses, child-eating witches, fairies, unicorns, dwarves and elves may sound excessively clichéd, but the story of Reckless is told with convincing grit without the slightest hint of cutesy Disney, or the grand epic feel of Tolkien. Well known fairy tale and fantasy references (like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel) give a surprisingly convincing familiarity to the world of Reckless, but are mainly used as background colour rather than primary plot features.

This was a book I didn’t look forward to finishing; a book I hope will lead to a sequel or even a series, revealing more of the characters and their world. It has definitely made me keen to look for more of Cornelia Funke’s work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I Am Number Four

Before I start on the content of this book, I need to address some things that affected my expectations prior to reading it.

I bought I Am Number Four without noticing the author’s name. When I got home and saw it was attributed to a fictional character I felt a bit concerned. It seemed like an overly contrived marketing ploy, or that the author had something to hide. Was he/she reluctant to be associated with the book?

A quick piece of research revealed the following about the author Pittacus Lore:


“Pittacus Lore is Lorien's ruling Elder. He has been on Earth for the last twelve years, preparing for the war that will decide Earth's fate. His whereabouts are unknown.”

Other searches reveal that Pittacus Lore is in fact TWO people, James Frey and Jobie Hughes. Frey was earlier the author of a memoir A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah book club best-seller that apparently caused some controversy when parts of the memoir were found to be not as true as many were led to believe.

So, was the pseudonym used to hide the involvement of an author with a controversial writing history? Or was it also the “marketing ploy” I mentioned above?

I suspect marketing played a significant part in the creation of this book. It seems like it is the first in a planned ongoing series, (perhaps hoping to follow the success of the Twilight Series). Also, a film is already in production. How long before the characters are sold as action figures?

But aside from the cynicism arising from the books background, how did I like the story?

Mostly I enjoyed it. I’ve had an interest in aliens, conspiracies and the unknown since childhood and the book covers that ground. I found the characters and situations were portrayed quite plausibly despite the fantastic elements. This perception may have been helped my longstanding interest in such things.

John Smith is “number four”, one of nine children rescued from Lorien, a planet being destroyed by a hostile alien race, the Mogadorians. The children and their guardians have made their way to earth where they each go their own way and try to hide their identity, in case the Mogadorians follow to destroy them.

The children have been partly protected by a “charm”. They can only be killed in a particular order. Attempts to harm or kill one of them out of that order will backfire on the assailant killing or harming him instead of the intended victim. The story starts when John (fourth in the order) receives confirmation that the first three have been killed and he is next in line.

The story has several elements. The most crucial is John’s evasion of the Mogadorians and his need to stay alive. Then he has to fit in with a normal school community life, dealing with teenage friendships, romances and bullying while trying to remain out of the spotlight which could draw unwanted attention. He also has to contend with developing special Loric talents (legacies) as he comes of age.

The book is paced quite well, continually developing new situations to keep the reader’s interest. This also helps to keep the reader from thinking too much about the implausibilities and weaknesses within the story. The “charm” intended to protect the nine is one of the weaker and least credible aspects of the story. The only reason for its existence seems to be to increase the stakes faced by John. He KNOWS he is the next one the Mogadorians will be coming for, making his situation more urgent and threatening.

The story moves on towards a showdown with the Mogadorians and we find out how John’s developing talents can help his struggle to survive. When the inevitable confrontation comes, the scale of it seems overwhelming and melodramatic in comparison to the tone of the rest of the book, and I found it difficult to see these events as part of the “real” world in which the story is supposed to be set.

As the first part of a continuing series, this book introduces some interesting characters and possibilities for the direction the story will take. What started as one teenager’s fight for survival will clearly expand into more widespread struggle for earth’s salvation, not only from the Mogadorians but from ourselves.

If earth survives the Mogadorians, will we take the right actions to ensure our planet’s survival? Will we follow the example of the Loriens, and reverse our exploitative and destructive practices before it’s too late? Or will we end up like the Mogadorians who, on depleting the resources of their own world seek out other worlds to despoil?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hélène Berr's Journal

Hélène Berr lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation and worked with an organisation devoted to saving Jewish children from “deportation” by the Nazis. About 500 children were sent to safety by this group.

As a Jew herself, Hélène was also in continual danger, but denied herself the opportunity to escape so her work with children could continue. She, along with her parents, was eventually arrested, “deported” and murdered in a concentration camp.

Journal is her diary, kept through the war years until her arrest. It was brought to publication by her niece who provides an afterward to conclude the story, informing the reader of Hélène’s fate after her last diary entry.

This book was not easy reading. As a diary it is a collection of experiences that are often unrelated and cryptic. There are gaps in the “narrative” when days and even weeks go by without an entry. But its structure and nature as a diary is not the hardest aspect for the reader. The recorded experiences and thoughts of real life horrors are the most difficult thing to take in and comprehend. Could these things have happened in “civilised” Europe so recently, within the lifetime of my parents?

The diary starts in April 1942, in a time of relative calm when there is a degree of freedom and it initially focuses upon Hélène’s relationships with family, friends and love interests with little attention given to the political situation.

As the diary progresses, hints of unrest begin to appear as political events start to have an impact on her life, such as being forced to wear a star to identify her as a Jew in public and the arrest and temporary imprisonment of her father.
More and more the realities of Hitler’s anti-Semitic agenda become evident, especially when fellow Jews start to be “deported” – a euphemism for being transported to concentration camps.
Hélène struggles to understand what is going on around her and this becomes the dominant topic of her writing.

“Is it not dire that I, reacting and rebelling against this, am an exception, whereas it ought to be the people who are capable of doing such things who are abnormal?”(Hélène Berr, 9 Nov 1943)


Journal was translated form French into English by David Bellos who provided an essay at the end of the book. The following paragraph from that essay is an astute summary of Hélène's diary and society portrayed within it.

The Journal is a precious unique record of denial - of Hélène's initial unwillingness to see what was staring her in the face - and of the blindness of her family, her immediate milieu among the elite of Paris students and then, more broadly of her neighbours, her colleagues, her whole community, its policemen and officials. For that reason, it is also an historic document showing just how the Final Solution was imposed: by incremental stealth, by secrecy, in an atmosphere of utter confusion. It explains and demonstrates how so many people really did not know what was going on before their eyes.


For more information about Hélène Berr:
Hélène Berr

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Christian Fiction

For a while I’ve wanted to read some Christian fiction to see what the quality was like. It had been a long time since I’d read any Christian novels. The last I recall were three by Ray Blackstone starting with Flabbergasted that followed the developing relationships of a group of young Americans, one of whom served as a missionary in South America. I quite enjoyed those books.
Apart from the lack of swearing and sexual content, they would almost fit in the (maligned but popular) genres of ladlit/chicklit.

It wasn’t easy to find books that I thought I could enjoy. The fiction shelves of my “local” Christian bookshop seemed filled with Little House on the Prairie clones, The Left Behind series, or other styles I didn’t find appealing. In the end I found a couple of books in the bargain bin that seemed promising, and to these I added two other titles I’d seen advertised. My brief impressions of the books are given below – without identifying the “bargains”.

1) Yellow Zone by Janelle G Dwyer
An end time story set in Australia. After devastating terrorist attacks around the world, The Government sets up strict controls over citizens. Essential utilities have been severely disrupted so most people are gathered into camps in an alleged attempt to restore order and security.

Good points. Overall the story idea had credibility and presented a world in which Christians face increasing restrictions, imprisonment and ultimately execution for their beliefs. I find this to be more or less consistent with bible prophecy.

Bad points. Dialogue was stilted and unconvincing making it a struggle to enjoy the telling of the story. Because of this I found the characters unrealistic. The story also presents a “pre-trib” rapture scenario, which isn’t overly emphasised but, added to the other shortcomings, spoiled my reading experience

2) Ulterior Motives by Mark Andrew Olsen.

A potentially catastrophic terrorist plot is discovered. Osama Bin Laden’s successor is captured and interrogation is started to try to find enough information to prevent it from being carried out. A disgraced serviceman and now Christian minister is brought in to conduct an unorthodox plan to obtain the required details

Good points. Easy reading and kept my interest.

Bad Points. One of the most ridiculously implausible stories I’ve ever come across. Very “preachy” in a heavy handed way.

3) Tomorrow We Die, Shawn Grady

A mystery novel about a paramedic who is becomes embroiled in a conspiracy after a dying patient passes him a strange note.

Good points. Maintained my interest throughout. Included references to Christian faith without turning the book into a clumsy tract.

Bad points. Used too many obscure medical references. My wife was a nurse so I was familiar with some of the jargon but a lot meant absolutely nothing to me. Plausibility seemed to suffer a little towards the climax and conclusion of the novel – but perhaps no more than in many other “thrillers”. A bit gruesome at times which may disturb some readers.

4) For All Time, Meredith Resce

A 21st century Australian doctor visiting England becomes trapped when part of a castle collapses. Her situation is shared with a male member of the cast of a medieval show being performed at the castle. After finding a way to freedom from the rubble, they emerge in the time of Henry VIII and have to survive in a world where an educated woman is viewed with suspicion, especially when the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins is in town.

Good points. A lot of naturally expressed Christian elements that don’t seem forced. A very proficient and plausible story created out of a very implausible (but intriguing) situation. Touches a little on the religious beliefs and superstitions of a time when knowing scripture in English was enough for someone to be considered a heretic.

Bad points. Nothing of significance. While no great literary masterpiece, and while some liberties may have been taken with history, I’ve found this book to be the most enjoyable of the four – but I haven’t finished it yet, so the whole thing COULD come crashing down in the last few chapters.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Alternative Kitchen Garden and A-Z





Earlier I said I would provide a link to my review of Emma Cooper's The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z.
I have now written the review and have posted it here.

http://onefile2.blogspot.com/2010/10/alternative-kitchen-garden-a-z.html


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Friday, September 24, 2010

So Many Books...

I have been overwhelmed with potential reading material after going overboard buying books. I addition to my excess purchases I have received a copy of The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z to review. As the title indicates this is a gardening book, and it was written by Emma Cooper, presenter of the internet podcast The Alternative Kitchen Garden. This is a wonderful book that I’ll write about in more detail on my gardening blog when I’ve read more of it (my article will be linked here after it has been written).
It’s not the kind of book I want to rush through. I prefer to read and enjoy an article at a time and there must be around 150 separate entries of around two pages each.

To get a good idea of what the book is like, I recommend listening to the podcast which can be found here: http://coopette.com/akg . There are currently 109 episodes.

A recent discovery I've made has been Jasper Fforde and I am now enjoying the first of his novels The Eyre Affair. I’ve had another of his books for a few years but never took the time to read it, but my interest in his work was stirred after hearing some interviews he’s done. I then had a look at his website (see side bar) and decided to buy the first of his books so I could read his work in order. While I could have bought it locally for a few dollars less, I decided to buy through the author’s website and get an autographed copy.

Not only do I have an abundance of new books, I was finally able to rescue my existing library from packing boxes where it has been stored for many years due to lack of space for book shelving. The boxes made access very difficult and I even forgot that I had some of the books in my collection. While the bookcase situation hasn’t improved, I now have a compromise solution. I bought two cupboards that are like bookcases with doors. All of my books have now been relocated to these cupboards in the garage and it is much easier to access them, so I have no excuse for not reading them – apart from lack of time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Author Interviews on mp3

Do you like hearing authors talking about their books and their work practices?

I have added links in the sidebar to sites having recorded interviews with a variety of authors, some recent and some going back 20 years. Most of those I've heard so far have been very good.

I'll be adding more links as I find them.

Perhaps those I haven't liked so much have been from the ABC - but that is a matter of personal taste regarding the authors featured and a tendency for them to over-analyse books.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tell Me a Story...

My “literary” tastes are extremely changeable – which is perhaps why I started so many books I didn’t finish. My attention was easily drawn to something I’d rather be reading than what I’d begun.

The one consistent thing about the books I enjoy is the telling of a “good story”. I have little patience with books that are primarily a vehicle to show off the writer’s skill with language. A writer may have the most beautiful way with words – but if I’m continually being drawn back to a beautiful sentence at the expense of the flow of the story, my interest won’t be maintained.

Those kinds of writers are also a discouragement to the ambition to write. They make that ambition seem unattainable. I much prefer those deceptive books that make writing SEEM easy and natural while telling an enjoyable story. At least they give me encouragement to try, and by the time I realise the extent of the deceit, I’ve had a productive and enjoyable time giving it a go.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Top 3 Choices

Best of the books so far (up to 11 August 2010)

Of the books I’ve read since starting this blog, the following are my top three fiction and top three non-fiction titles.

Fiction (in order of preference):
Worldshaker, Richard Harland
Slam, Nick Hornby
Blackout, Connie Willis.

Non Fiction (no particular order)
Foxeys Hangout, Cathie Gowdie
Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, Michael Brown

Honourable mentions.
A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin
Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rediscovering Nick

I have rediscovered Nick Hornby.

On the weekend I bought An Education on DVD. Hornby wrote the screenplay for which he received an Oscar nomination. I haven’t had time to watch the film yet, but I did start reading his “first teenage novel” Slam last night and have now almost finished it.

My introduction to Hornby was Fever Pitch. I can’t remember now whether I read his book or saw the film first. I think it may have been the book. Fever Pitch was a memoir centred on Hornby’s relationship with English football team Arsenal. It helped revive some of my own childhood memories of going to the football with my Dad but I didn’t have the chance of attaining the same kind of obsession as Hornby. I left England when I was 13 and the last football game I attended was on my birthday in 1971. It was never the same again. My team, Stoke City didn’t have the profile of an Arsenal or a Man United, so it was hard to keep in touch from the other side of the world. However, they did beat Chelsea to win the League Cup, and not long after toured Australia. I was lucky enough to see them play in Sydney but remember nothing of the match.

And hidden in that last paragraph is a key to why I enjoy Hornby’s writing. He manages to add a degree of familiarity to his stories. As if I’ve ALMOST experienced what his characters are going through. It’s not in the details. Their stories are not like my own – but I can imagine that they COULD have been.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading Israel

Although I’ve added a few more titles to the list of books I’ve read this year, I haven’t written about them on this blog.

My recent reading has all been related to Israel and the Jewish people and “reviewing” those books here would not be in line with my intentions for this blog. Instead I have addressed issues relating to these books on my “theological” blog ONESIMUS FILES .

I am currently reading Mission Survival, edited by Ruth Bondy, Chad Zmora & Raphael Bashan. It is a continuation of my interest in Israel, examining 1967’s Six Day War. Compiled from letters and articles written at the time, the book gives a very personal insight into the Israeli people facing a massive Arab attack on their land, with the Arabs threatening to annihilate the 20 year old nation. A very real threat that has not gone away more than 40 years later – but a threat that the majority of the media ignores with their clear anti-Israel bias.
I haven’t added this book to my reading list in the side bar because I’m not confident of finishing it. It is a library book and I’m content to read as much as I can during the loan period without feeling pressured to get to the end.

The common link with all of these recent books is the amazing story of people who were dispersed from their land almost 2000 years ago; were scattered through almost every nation on earth, were continually persecuted like no other race throughout history – and STILL managed to survive to return to their ancestral land.

Not only did they return, but they survived and thrived through several attempts by their neighbours to drive them out, and in surviving these attacks, they increased their land as their attackers fled from the much smaller Israeli forces.


All of this should be seen as “miraculous”, but most people ignore, or have forgotten, how unlikely the survival of Israel has been. Everything in history has been against them and yet they survived to become and remain the centre of world attention for over six decades. Has a day gone by without something about Israel being mentioned in the media?

Maybe a significant reason that people ignore the incredible odds that were against the survival of Israel – is the fact that their whole history of rejection, loss, persecution and restoration had been foretold thousands of years before. To recognise the miracle of Israel it would be necessary to recognise the God who revealed their history in so much such detail from their very earliest days.
These predictions are not hidden. They are found in one of the world’s most successful books, The Bible, which is found in most homes in Western nations but rarely read.




Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Messianic Quintet

Christianity had its origins with a Jewish teacher (Jesus) who some considered to be the long prophesied Jewish Messiah. His first followers were all Jews and for many years their thousands of converts were all Jewish.

Even when the first non-Jews (or gentiles) began to believe in Jesus, they heard about Him from Jewish preachers and they were instructed by Jewish teachers.

Then after time, the balance shifted. Gentiles began to outnumber Jews and the church moved away from its Jewish roots. More detailed thoughts about all of this can be found on my other blog through the links at the end of this article

I’ve called this review/article “A Messianic Quintet” because I recently read five books addressing various aspects of the relationship between the church and Jews. Three of them are autobiographical, dealing with the experiences of Jews turning to faith in their Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). Another is written by a Jewish believer about how “Greek thinking” has replaced the original Hebraic understanding of the Bible and how it has affected what the church believes and how it behaves. The last is an overview, written by a non-Jew, of how Jews have been returning to faith in their Messiah since the late 1960s, and where this renewed interest is leading.

In its early years, before the term “Christianity” was coined, belief in Jesus was known as “the Way”. Steve Maltz plays with this phrase in the title of his book How the Church Lost the Way. Maltz shows how Greek Philosophy started to take over from Hebraic thinking as the number of gentile believers overtook the number of Jewish believers. This growing disparity eventually found the Jews being pushed out all together and a new, more Greek way of understanding changed “The Way” significantly. Maltz looks at how and when this all happened, and makes suggestions about reversing the situation.

Stan Telchin’s book Betrayed gives us an example of the effects of the church’s historical changes. Telchin, a Jew, is horrified when his daughter reveals she has turned to faith in Jesus after being convinced that He is the Jewish messiah. Fighting his strong disappointment, he decides to handle the situation calmly and logically. To help convince his daughter of her error, he and his wife undertake their own study of both Jewish and Christian scriptures to find enough evidence to change her mind. Their discoveries lead them in a direction they didn’t expect.

Yohanna Cheronoff writes about her family’s experience as pioneers in Messianic Judaism in Born a Jew...Die a Jew. Her husband Marty grew up in a Jewish family, came to faith in Jesus and set out to share the gospel with other Jews. Through a series of visions over many years, Marty saw that an increasing number of Jews would discover that Jesus is their Messiah. The Chernoffs were concerned that Jews coming to faith in Jesus were usually encouraged to turn away from their cultural heritage, basically losing their distinctive Jewishness. After some time trying to work with traditional Christian groups, it was seen necessary to start something new in which Jews could worship their messiah while still remaining true to their Jewish heritage. This new thing became known as Messianic Judaism, through which more Jews than at any other time in history have come to faith in Yeshua.

The success of this movement began in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Some people see this timing was not coincidental. It started around the same time that the nation of Israel won Jerusalem back during the Six Day war in 1967. This was a victory against impossible odds with most of the Arab world against them. This return of Jerusalem to Jewish control ended almost 2000 years of exile from the city and by some was seen to be the end of the time of the gentiles, a period mentioned in the Bible. In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul revealed that Israel’s hardening against the gospel of Jesus would last until the “full number of the gentiles has come in” and then “All Israel will be saved.”

The increase in Jews turning to Jesus coinciding with Israel regaining Jerusalem is therefore seen by some as the beginning of prophecy being fulfilled. Don Finto takes this view in God’s Promise and the Future of Israel. This book is a compelling overview of the history of conflict between Jews and the church. While Steve Maltz addresses the effects of changing philosophy upon the church, Finto looks from a more prophetic and political viewpoint.

The last book in my quintet is Ben Israel, Art Katz’s account of his search for meaning, which he finally found through Jesus. At one time a Marxist and an atheist, Katz starts his story at the Dachau death camp. He visited this site of incredible atrocity while serving in the US army after World War II. The book, based on his diaries, moves between different times and places as he tries to find direction and purpose. He comes to understand that his journey has been orchestrated and he is being pointed towards the God of his people and specifically towards Jesus, the Messiah most Jews still failed to recognise.

Katz is by far the most “literary” and intellectual of the quintet authors and his was the only book that didn’t keep me interested all the way through. I persevered with it because of my familiarity with Katz’s later Christian ministry which focused strongly on the continuing role of Israel in God’s purposes.

I could not hope to give each of the books adequate coverage in this one article, but it was not my intention to make any individual book the focus of what I have written. I am more interested in the overall interaction between Jewish experience and the biblical theology of Israel’s relationship to God and the Jewish Messiah. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have written more about this topic on one of my other blogs. (links below)


Hijacking Messiah.html

Reclaiming Messiah.html


For more on How the Church Lost the Way see here:
How the Church Lost the Way, Steve Maltz/

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Like Me, Chely Wright


Celebrity autobiographies are often a sanitised exercise in self-promotion. If that is what I was expecting from Chely Wright’s Like Me, it’s not surprising its first pages left me in shock.

I’ve been a Chely Wright fan for around ten years, since I discovered her album Single White Female. At the time my wife liked Faith Hill and pop influenced Country music and I was on the lookout for similar artists who might interest her. I found SWF at an HMV store in Sydney, listened to it, and bought it for myself. After that I tracked down all of her earlier albums, even the almost impossible to find first album Woman in the Moon.

It had been a few years since Chely’s last album but I remained in touch with her career through regular email newsletters. I pre-ordered both her new album and her book as soon as they were announced earlier this year and wondered what insights the book would give into her life and her career. I definitely was not prepared for what I read in the first sentence and later on the first page:

“Dear God, please don’t let me be gay.”

And

“I’m a proud Kansan, a loving daughter, sister, friend, a child of God and a lesbian.”

Those statements contain most of the elements of the book that have had me wrestling emotionally, intellectually and spiritually since I started reading her story.

The revelation that she is gay was completely unexpected. I was not exaggerating when I said earlier that I was left in shock. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been throughout her life, working in an industry she loved, knowing that she could lose everything she had worked for if the news of her homosexuality got out. And she went to great lengths to keep it secret, at times straining friendships and business relationships. The fear of being exposed could not be ignored. She particularly notes how the conservative nature of the members of her industry, and their idea of God’s view of homosexuality contributed to her fear.

On the other hand Chely developed an understanding of God that allowed her to accept who she is, even when she was not ready to share that fact with those around her. Adapting God to suit our own particular situation is perhaps a common survival move, allowing us to come to terms with who we are and what we are and at the same time maintain a sense of acceptance from the Divinity we choose to follow. Such a practice can be a strong comfort as we try to come to terms with those parts of our lives that may cause others offence.

The weakness with that strategy is that we ourselves can create and trust a Divinity based on our own subjective needs instead of trusting a real God with a firm and objective foundation. Needs-based faith is a growing reality within a society where each person determines what is truth for themselves, not requiring a standard outside of their own experience and desires to give their “truth” a secure foundation. The irony of this is that the initial idea of God has usually come from an outside source – whether it is from a church, from the bible, or from a cultural viewpoint; but that initial idea is merely used as a starting point for something that suits us personally: a God that can be shaped and moulded to suit our own requirements. The source of that initial awareness of God can be abandoned for something more suitable to our human need, taking us away from a God who has his own demands and expectations.

But can such a God give any genuine security beyond providing a temporary sense of self-justification? What lasting value is a God who can be changed according to our own whim? More than once Chely states that God made her the way she is. Is God so contrary? Or is it more likely to be our human nature that is fickle, wanting to cling to both God and those things He (according to the Bible) is said to abhor.

Chely refers to several occasions where discussions in her presence were focused on God’s condemnation of homosexuality. Homosexuality seems to be a favoured target when the sins of society are being addressed by professed, bible believing Christians, and while the bible does condemn it, surprisingly it gets far fewer mentions than more common, accepted and even popular behaviours. Maybe there is more than a little hypocrisy at play when a person’s sexuality is condemned by someone who has a serious problem with greed. There are for more condemnatory references to covetousness and the love of money than there are to homosexuality. It is all too easy for the “straight” but greedy Christian to point at a gay individual and “thank God that I am not like that person”. (seeLuke 18:11).

I accept that Chely has every right to reveal whatever she chooses of her own life, opening herself up to scrutiny, but I felt she overstepped the mark in making revelations about others. While expressing contrition over the way she treated fellow country singer Brad Paisley with whom she had a relationship for a time; exposing the fact that the relationship included a sexual element perhaps showed a continued lack of respect for Paisley’s feelings and privacy. Kiss and tell confessions where participants are named may give some gratification to the reader and writer, but they demonstrate little concern for the other party involved. Wasn’t it bad enough to involve Paisley in such a relationship when it was known that his strong feelings could never be reciprocated, without later publicly spilling those intimate details?

While a lot of the book deals with the struggle she faced over her sexuality, to me some of the more interesting parts of the book were those that describe her trips to entertain troops in places like Iraq. She experienced situations that brought the reality and tragedy of war to life. From meeting and finding common ground with a soldier merely days before he is killed, to being transported on an HR (human remains) flight with the coffin of another casualty at her feet, her trips were far from the glamour usually associated with show business.

I had seen some of the events she describes in a DVD of "home movies" that came with one of her CDs. The book helped to give a clearer perspective of some of the footage of a performance for thousands of troops in Baghdad where she and Kid Rock shared vocal duties.

This book is a very personal opening of the heart from a person who through fear hid the truth for most of her life. Most of us could never understand what it is like to live such a life where secrecy and half truths seem mandatory. How can a person have dreams and the ability to achieve them when such a central aspect of their life is condemned or made the subject of jokes by the majority of those around them?

I was saddened by the struggle she experienced. I think I’ve been made a little more aware of the difficulties faced by people like Chely who not only have to cope with the way society perceives them, but also with the desire for normality. To be accepted for who they are. Not wanting to stand out and be perceived as different in a negative way.
This story is one of an individual person struggling to be accepted, and to accept herself, as she is. But to me the real sadness relates to the way ideas about God are manipulated to support a human agenda. How He is used to justify both bigotry and human desire. In all of this HIS desires and HIS demands get pushed aside and He is made a tool to suit OUR needs.

Whatever happened to the Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth who was once feared and respected as well as loved?
We didn’t like that kind of God so we replaced Him with another who is cuddlier and more likely to bend His ways to suit us.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Road, Cormac McCarthy.

This is an aptly named book concentrating on journey rather than destination, a kind of aimless travelling with no logical place to go. It portrays the confusion and pointlessness resulting from an "apocalyptic" catastrophe. Few have survived, and those who have, desperately resort to whatever it takes to cling to what life is left.
McCarthy’s world in The Road is a world with no hope and no future. It is a world of violence and cannibalism, a world where memory and dreams of the past merely add to the torment experienced by the survivors: Reminders of a world and security that cannot be reclaimed.

It is the story of a father taking his son towards the coast. The only reason for this seems to be to escape the approaching winter and to take care of their immediate survival from the elements. Beyond that there seems to be no purpose. The father motivates his son through combination of fear and hope. Fear of the bad guys and the hope of meeting up with the good guys – however when driven by fear and suspicion how can someone take the chance to distinguish between the two?

The most telling observation comes at the end of the book where the son is advised to stay away from the road – as if the whole journey along “the road” has been misguided. And for me that pointlessness of the journey seemed to apply to my reading experience. It wasn’t the kind of book that kept me wanting to read. When I put it down I wasn’t desperate to pick it up again. Its main saving grace, and the reason I was able to persevere, was the fact that it is divided into short segments which made it easier to tackle. When I picked it up I felt I didn’t need to commit to a lengthy spell of reading at each sitting. This made it seem there was less of a chore ahead of me than would have been the case had I needed to tackle long chapters.

Once again I found myself at odds with the literary critics who seem to be unified in their praise of the book. While I felt parts of it expressed keen insights, on the whole I wondered why I bothered to continue reading.
The term “post-apocalyptic” was used to describe the book’s setting. In using that term critics wrongly applied a term that has biblical origins. They fell for the common usage of “apocalypse”, describing the ultimate destruction of the world and human society. That usage is a misapplication of the biblical reference to the last book of the bible, The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, more commonly known today as The Book of Revelation.

The word apocalypse does not refer to destruction; it refers to revealing or unveiling, and in its biblical context it specifically refers to the ultimate revealing of Jesus Christ as humanity’s Saviour and Judge at the climax of current human history.
This climax does include massive widespread destruction throughout the earth as God finally deals with evil in the world, but that destruction is not the focal point. The emphasis is on Jesus Christ taking His rightful place in His creation as King of kings and Lord of lords and then ruling over all of it with perfect Justice.

I guess it’s not surprising that the term “apocalypse” has been redefined in such a negative way. To the majority, those who continue to wilfully resist their creator, the genuine apocalypse would not be a thing to eagerly desire. To them it will be a time of destruction and despair instead of the intended joyful, face to face meeting between man and God. To them the apocalypse (or revelation) holds no ultimate hope.

McCarthy’s metaphorical use of the “road” is possibly more appropriate than he realised. We all follow a road and most do so aimlessly, not knowing where their road is heading. The choice of road is ours, but is our choice made solely with the journey itself in mind or should we also take into account the destination?

“… wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.”
(Matthew 7:13-14)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

What more desirable tool could historians dream of than the ability to travel through time to observe people and events for themselves instead of relying on texts and artefacts? Connie Willis has created a world in which this tool is a reality and is being used by Oxford based historians.
She introduced this concept in her Hugo and Nebula award winning novel Doomsday Book, a merging of science fiction with the historical novel. She has now returned to the ideas of that earlier book with a two volume story that starts with the recently released Blackout and will conclude with All Clear, due later in the year.

In Blackout historians are studying various aspects of life in the Second World War. One is studying evacuees, children sent away from areas of danger in the cities to the relative safety of the country. Another is focusing on the life of the “shop girl” in London during the Blitz and a third has been sent to cover the heroes of Dunkirk who set out in small boats to rescue British troops trapped on the beaches of France.
All of these projects should run reasonably smoothly. It is assumed that the laws of Time Travel prevent them from having significant impact on the events they observe, but it’s not long before that assumption is challenged.

One of the difficult things in writing about a book like this, is avoiding giving away any key plot details that will spoil the experience for anyone who has not read the book so I'll avoid specific references to events in the story. It was the desire to find out what happens next that made this book such an addictive read as I got more involved with the characters and the challenges they face.

At first I struggled with the story but as I gained more familiarity with the characters and their situations, the book became one that I was desperate to return to whenever my reading was interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of real life. Willis uses a common technique of cutting from one set of characters to another at each chapter break, often leaving each section with a “cliff-hanger” making the reader more eager to read on to find out how it is resolved.

As mentioned Blackout is only the first part of the story, I knew this before I started the book, but I was still disappointed when I came to the end without the satisfaction of a conclusion. Against expectation the book didn’t end dramatically, it ended with a whimper. I feel it would have been much stronger had it ended a chapter or two earlier.

Early in the book I found myself being pulled out of the story a few times by little irregularities. I’m sure a lot of this comes down to personal idiosyncrasies and probably other readers wouldn’t think twice about them and this may be why I struggled with it a little at first.
One thing that irritated was the occasional lapse into inappropriate Americanisms – for example, cars were often referred to as “automobiles”, a term that I’m sure was not used by the British in war time. Having lived in England until the age of 13, and having parents who lived through the period detailed in the book, little things like this became minor irritations.
Admittedly Willis is an American author and her main readership would be American – but to a non-American, former English reader, such lapses broke the illusion of the reality being portrayed.

Another grievance I had with the early part of the book relates to something I’ve seen described as “build up and pay off”. This is a technique in which significant plot points are built upon foundations that have been set up in advance. For example, if a character saves himself by shooting an enemy, it is necessary to establish the fact that a gun is available for him to use before it comes into play.
In the case of Blackout, a significant part of the plot involves “time lag”, tiredness similar to jetlag which can cause intense sleepiness. The first time I recall this happening in the book was when the experience completely changed a character’s situation. It was mentioned again a little later in relation to a second character where the experience had very little impact.
Structurally I think the story would have been significantly strengthened if these two experiences had been reversed, allowing the minor situation to prepare the reader for the case when time lag played an important part in the first character’s experience.

By making these critical observations I don’t want to diminish the fact that Blackout is a very enjoyable book. The characters are well portrayed and their wartime experiences are believably vivid. I am very keenly waiting for the release of All Clear so that I can re-enter their world and share their experiences again.
In the mean time I’ve been inspired to find out more about war time Britain and I am realising how little my generation (and those following) can conceive of the horrific realities of a war only 15 years before I was born.
Today I checked the casualty figures of American troops in Iraq. In seven years almost four and a half thousand of them have been killed. While these figures are certainly tragic, such casualty figures AND HIGHER were common on a DAILY basis during WWII – many of them being civilians.

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I acknowledge and thank Allen & Unwin, the Australian publishers of this book, for providing me with a review copy.

Rich Mixture by Stuart Haywood


Stuart Haywood’s book has a nostalgic appeal. I spent my childhood in the area he describes and I lived less than a kilometre from his childhood home a couple of decades later.
I was familiar with most of the places he describes, either though my own experience or through stories my parents have shared over the years.

I left South Derbyshire when my family moved to Australia and have never lost my interest in that area, although I am the only one of my family not to return for a holiday. From what I have heard, the place I remember has changed significantly and I probably wouldn’t recognise much of it.

Rich Mixture describes parts of the region as I remember it, helping me to recall details I had forgotten. Those moments of familiarity and being able to picture the places being described were the source of most of the pleasure I found in this book. And it made me think about the possibility of recording my own memories of childhood.

Stuart Haywood has an article about his wartime childhood here:
http://www.bygonederbyshire.co.uk/stories/Stuart-s-wartime-childhood-Newhall/article-1796888-detail/article.html

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chocolate and Zucchini

I’ve been reading Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier, a Parisian food blogger. The success of her blog led to the publishing of her book with the same name.

While the book is mostly a collection of recipes, I have been enjoying the introductions she has written in which she gives the story behind each dish, they have a wonderful personal quality that makes one feel like a friend instead of a distanced reader.
For an idea of her writing style, rather give a selection of quotes, I recommend a visit to the Chocolate and Zucchini blog. http://chocolateandzucchini.com/

While there are many recipes in the book that don’t appeal to me – anything containing fish for example – there are a few that I would love to try. Maybe they will be the stimulus I need to take charge of the kitchen myself, giving Gloria a break from food preparation.

One of my favourites has been waiting for suitably cold weather before I even think of attempting it. Clotilde’s Beef Bourguignon lists chocolate as one of its ingredients, and any recipe with chocolate sounds all right to me (as long as it doesn’t include fish).

For some reason when I ordered the book from my local book shop they obtained the American edition instead of the one intended for Australian readers (the British edition). Therefore the names of some ingredients and the quantities used are the American terms instead of those that are more familiar to me. I also understand that there are a few differences in the recipes included in the different editions. Fortunately, being a part of the greater American Empire ruled from Hollywood, I have enough familiarity with the American terminology for this not to be a great problem.

(And did I mention I don’t like fish?)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Foxeys Hangout

It’s hard to believe but I’ve now read two books in a row that have maintained my interest and have kept me wanting to read. Two books in a row that had me returning to them at every available opportunity, and the difference in content could hardly have been greater.
One was an SF/Fantasy title written for “young adults” (see previous post), the other almost defies genre, being part memoir, part history, part cook book.

Foxeys Hangout is Cathy Gowdie’s account of her family moving from Melbourne to establish a winery on the Mornington Peninsula. Wine making wasn’t a completely new venture. They had already established a small vineyard in the region and wine from their grapes had been produced for them by other winemakers. It was marketed under the label “Foxeys Hangout” named after a landmark near their vineyard.

The whole idea of this book appealed to me from the time I read a review in a food and wine magazine. Gowdie’s family brought to reality a lifestyle I can only dream about. Growing grapes and making wine has a very romantic appeal to those who want to overlook the realities of hard work and the uncertainties of growing any kind of crop. It’s easy to envy a lifestyle of sitting on the veranda, sipping wine made from your own grapes as you watch the sun setting beyond rows and rows of healthy vines.
But I’ve now done enough vineyard work to understand that reality is far different from the idyllic scenario I described above.

Foxeys Hangout shows both sides of the picture: the joys of rural life, and also the realities of a WORKING rural life.
The family faced several problems after buying their property, intending to develop part of it into a winery and restaurant. Their plans were delayed when objections made to the local council effectively put an end to their idea of building and running the restaurant. Ironically, many of the objections didn’t come from fulltime local residents who made a living from the land; they came from the part-timers, those who had purchased properties as weekend escapes from the busyness of city life. Those who saw the farming countryside as a quiet retreat instead of work places providing their food and drink.

As well as detailing the family’s experiences, Gowdie also investigates the background of her new home. From the history of the landmark after which the wine label was named, to a local, historical murder mystery, she weaves diverse strands together into an original cohesive collection of stories. The uniting factor is Foxeys Hangout, a tree from which fox hunters hung the corpses of their victims, a practice which continued until the 1980s, creating a gruesome memorial for the introduced pest that was the bane of local farmers.

Gowie divided her book into monthly sections and ends each section with a seasonal recipe. These dishes are among those that the family serve to customers who visit their cellar door. While plans for the restaurant may have fallen through, this setback didn’t prevent the desire to serve quality food to complement the wines being produced. Gowie’s husband is a qualified chef as well as grape grower and wine maker. Such focused drive and commitment is clearly the decisive factor that divides dreamers like me from achievers like them.


The wine lable's website is here:
http://www.foxeys-hangout.com.au/

Richard Harland’s Worldshaker.

Before I write anything else I have to confess to two areas of apparent “vested interest”. Firstly Richard Harland was one of my lecturers/tutors at University in the early 1990s and he wrote me a very generous reference when I was looking for work afterwards. Secondly, in the mid 90s I worked for Allen & Unwin, the publisher of Worldshaker, for about a year and a half.
(Richard’s website also had a part in inspiring me to create this blog which is why I have a link to it in the sidebar.)

While this may appear to give me reasons for bias, I will also add that for one essay, Richard gave me the lowest mark I ever received for any assignment during my whole time at University (and I still remember after 19 years!!!), and A & U relocated my job to another city so I had to leave them and find work elsewhere in a less stimulating environment. So we can pretend that the positives have been cancelled out and a balance of neutrality has been restored.

Worldshaker was a book I didn’t want to leave. I read it at every opportunity and was disappointed when I reached the end. It’s the kind of book that demonstrates why continuing series of novels can be so successful. It is a book that creates a world and characters so interesting that you want to explore and experience them some more.

Harland has created an alternative history, a world where the industrial innovation and creativity of the Victorian era has taken a huge leap beyond the bridge and shipbuilding wonders of I K Brunel. In this world political necessity has driven steam age technology to achieve far grand goals than was the case in the “real” Victorian age.

Worldshaker is a massive “juggernaut”, part ship, part tank, part earthmoving excavator, which houses and employs citizens of various fixed classes. Perhaps a comparison could be made to futuristic stories of massive star-ships transporting nation sized communities through space – except juggernaut communities are earthbound and restricted to Victorian age technology.

Colbert Porpentine, heir in waiting to Worldshaker’s Supreme Commander, is thrown into contact with a girl who has entered his room to hide from the authorities. She is a member of the lowest of the low, a “filthy. A reflex decision not to expose the girl’s forbidden presence puts Col’s privileged position at risk and leads him to discover the price that others continually pay to maintain the lifestyle of the Juggernaut’s elite classes.

Worldshaker has what I consider to be a novel’s most essential qualities: strongly believable characters that I care about; an exciting storyline with interesting and original ideas and on a more practical level - short chapters.
I have found long chapters can be a stumbling block to successful reading. It is a major reason I’ve always struggled with Lord of the Rings. By the time I finish one long chapter, the task of reading another of similar length can seem too daunting, especially when other things are competing for my time. With shorter chapters it is easy to read “just one more chapter” several times in succession until a significant portion of the book has been read.

Worldshaker would be classed as a Young Adult title and it was a pleasure to read a book untarnished by the presence of graphic sex and foul language. From recent experience, books that don’t resort to such devices are becoming increasingly hard to find.