27 May 2010

The Seven Days of Peter Crumb - Jonny Glynn

I originally picked this one up because of the simple but effective portrait on the cover. The premise sounded promising: our hero has seven days left to live and he was told to write everything down about this last week and it begins with something like: "I am not a good man, I am not a bad man, in seven days I will be dead.." I was intrigued.

And the writing is quite good, it is very easy to read and the book itself is not that long so a nice filler novel to prepare for the next lengthy tome. My problem with it was that as you read further into the week of Peter Crumb, you discover just how messed up this character is and what an utterly evil pyschopath he really is and this character I wasn't really prepared for.

Still, I read the book and it remained a quick and easy read but it left me wondering about the author and how on earth anyone could imagine somebody this twisted. I know I could never write a character this wicked and overall, I'm still not sure if I liked it or not. It's a few hours of my life that I'll never get back but it's not necessarily a bad book, just a subject matter I wasn't really in the mood for and the paragraph on the back cover simply doesn't prepare you for Peter Crumb.

22 May 2010

The Complete Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

I think that this graphic novel should be compulsory reading for anyone truly interested in our world.  It is an autobiographical depiction of growing up in war-torn Iran, through countless wars and revolutions.  It follows Marjane's life from about 10 years old until her early twenties and is a fascinating insight into a previously untold slice of human history and the story of a country with its history usually so well guarded.

The drawings themselves are so wonderfully basic that you admire the simplicity and understand that this allows you to really focus on the story at hand.  Whether this is just the author's preferred drawing style or whether it was done intentionally, whatever the case it helps make the impact of the novel even more real.

You learn a lot about the coming of age of our author and what a long and at times very desolate journey that was.  She is not afraid to bear all unto scrutiny by her peers and this honest approach is one of the things I enjoyed most.

I'm not so great at summarising the recent history of Iran as she does so I've borrowed someone else's words to give you an insight into some of the things you learn while reading Marjane's tale:

"Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising,.. we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout its history, whether as Persia or Iran, the country was constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two, the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hoped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American-sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war, nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians, ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities."

13 May 2010

Posession - A. S. Byatt

I loved the premise of this novel, two scholars stumbling across a long forgotten secret: an illicit affair between two well known victorian poets, one of them very married.  I once read a brilliant book about a lost Shakespeare play and all the mystery and intrigue that followed the discovery and so my hopes were very high for this offering, especially with that Booker Prize tucked firmly underneath its belt, but I'm not sure it really delivered and it was definitely not as good as 'The Book of Air and Shadows' by Michael Gruber which is the book I just mentioned.

But for all that, this one is very well written and does keep you intrigued as you follow the story and slowly learn more clues as to where the secret takes you.  My big gripe and it's not so much a gripe as a disappointment in myself and my headspace, is that the author has written a lot of victorian poetry to back up the story and the hunt for clues and these pieces are stunningly written and very detailed.  The gripe is also that they are stunningly written, very detailed, and some pieces are pages long.

Unfortunately I was not prepared to undertake the poetry, which really deserves and demands the correct attention, and while I could skim the longer passages for key words crucial to the story, I just could not find the headspace to focus solely on the poetry itself.  This is a real shame.  Some verses are written in a style similar to Spencer's Fairie Queen verses, and so are very heavy in mythology, allegory, and fantasy as well as the normal metaphorical style of the victorian poets.  It can get heavy.  Thankfully, the shorter verses were easy to absorb and thoroughly enjoyable, this author is very versatile and talented.

So, to summarise, a well-written novel of giddy intellectual heights supported by original victorian verses by the author.  A story of suspense and intrigue with a couple of tragic romances entangled along the way.  A novel that should satisfy and one that I will return to when I feel in the mood for some excellent poetry.

28 April 2010

Son of a Witch and Lost by Gregory Maguire

Okay, I read these two books to kind of make up for the fact that I couldn't get my hands on a copy of his 'Wicked!' novel without buying it - this being a book for my book club this month.  And I am so pleased I didn't fork over any money.

This guy has a great imagination but his style of writing I found so utterly frustrating.  I started with 'Son of a Witch' which is a loose sequel to 'Wicked!' and for probably the first 150 pages I was simultaneously flipping back to his map of Oz to find out what and where he was talking about, and tearing my hair out at yet another new character/race/religion/leader/family member that the author drops in with no warning or explanation.

I got the distinct feeling that we the reader should already know what goes on in the author's head so bugger the buildup of descriptive explanations normal books utilise.  Who do we think we are?

I actually found a copy of 'Wicked!' in the bookshop and sat down to read the first few pages of that offering and even though I knew his version of the land of Oz and a few characters by then, I was still as lost as ever and immediately frustrated because of it.

To be fair though, there is something in the story and I enjoyed the second half of the book, but that was only after I finally had all the setting sorted out and I had yelled for long enough at the book.

Now, 'Lost' is also based on an existing story, this one being 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens, and the premise is that the main characters ancestor was really the inspiration for the Ebenezer Scrooge character, having met the young Dickens and told him of his ghostly encounters when he was young.

The problem here, apart from the similar frustrating style of 'I'll just jump into my narrative and let the reader catch up later' is the fact that the main girl, Winifred Rudge, is a complete and total loser.  I hated her character.  She suffered a loss in her past and she hasn't let it go, she hasn't moved on with her life, and she walks around being miserable and making others miserable but all the while she thinks she is normal and it is others who are acting oddly.

Now, I've come across this before where the author writes a totally self-indulgent whiny lead character and it makes me hate them and therefore the whole book every time.  Why do they do it?

This one also has a better second half but Winnie is still her own bitter twisted self and nothing can really help the story, although I must say the ghost in the story pulls off self-centredness with aplomb.

To summarise, Gregory Maguire has taken well-known stories and twisted them into his own vision and expanded on them or used them as a base for his own tales but he hasn't necessarily pulled this off to the standard I require in a good book.

I am still intrigued to read 'Wicked!' one day, I already know the setting and the characters so it should make it easier, but I'll be buggered if I will spend $28 on it.  If I want to pay money to be frustrated, I'd rather buy an early Gus van Sant movie.

13 April 2010


Very quick review here.  Saw this again on TV the other night and if you've never heard of it then make it known, this film is bloody good.  Poignant, sweet, raw, heart-breaking - all the best adjectives for this one.  make a point to see it if you can.  It is well worth the effort.

28 March 2010

Rena's Promise - Rena Kornreich Gelissen

This is one of those rare books that should have the line 'everyone must read this' after the title.  Truly it is an incredible read, more so because it is a true story, and you will feel despair and horror, hope and fear, as well as many more emotions before the book is over but the underlying feeling of all is amazement at the incredible strength of this amazing woman.

Rena Kornreich was in the first transport of jews to Auschwitz in 1942 and survived the war with some amazing tales of courage and survival.  Her number was 1716, so low that many didn't believe it at first when they were finally liberated in 1945, and just another testiment to her incredible bravery.

Within a few months of arriving at Auschwitz, Rena had reunited with her younger sister, Danka, and I believe she found the strength to endure some horrific conditions because of a promise she had made her mother years before to always watch over the 'baby' - Danka.  The promise also refers to a promise she made her sister in those early months when it looked like despair would overwhelm Danka and claim her life.

Rena's incredible memory supplies us with some of the most vivid recollections of the work camps that have ever been recorded.  Just by reading this memoir, you learn so much about the conditions the camps were run in and you'll read about some very brave people.  There was one polish prisoner working in the kitchens at one point who was sweet on Rena and offered her a plan of escape.  She turned it down as it couldn't include her sister but another girl took up the plan with her boyfriend and their escape was successful, at least for a short while.  Mala Zimetbaum did escape Auschwitz with her lover before being recaptured, tortured and murdered.

Rena and Danka were also selected by Mengele for what they thought was a special work detail.  Rena became suspicious after a work leader snuck a friend out of the group and so Rena made a daring exit from the group and blended back into the work details.  That group went on to endure horrors in the medical experiments that Mengele became infamous for and no-one from the group survived.

There are many other references to things we now take for granted as tales from history, but these women actually lived through these events.  This book will open your eyes to a very black time in human history but you will not regret taking a look.

To learn more about these people, the ones who survived and the ones who didn't make it, is quite an honour.  This book is written in such a way that although you are learning about an episode that is full of dread and horrors, you also get a real sense of the hope that Rena felt and gave to others.  Of course she had her low points but even then, you will be amazed at her strength to rise up again.

A brilliant memoir, this book should be compulsory reading for all high schools, and if you can find a copy you won't be disappointed.

21 March 2010

18 Books..

.. at 11 weeks down for the year.  I am so on target for one book a week.  Finally! only 3 years in the making.  Looking around for my next read at the moment and am leaning towards my favourite Austen book, again.  I read Persuasion at least once a year, I just adore it.  The tale of 'loving longest, even when all hope has gone' just gets to me for some reason.

Treezy asked me how do I manage to read so quickly.  Very simple.  I read multiple books at a time, I'll spend a few hours of the day reading every evening (I prefer reading to TV or DVD's at the moment), and I don't have any kind of a life.

Not that I miss it mind you, I'm quite happy to live vicariously through my characters.  Bring on Anne Elliot.

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

I've read quite a bit from this author, his Mars trilogy was especially good, and so when I spied this one based on a real enigmatic and brilliant figure from history I was sold instantly.

We follow Galileo's life beginning when he was a professor living in Padua.  We are offered an alternative explanation for how he came across his brilliant telescope idea and the consequences that follow, in particular his growing fascination with star-gazing and his studies of the moon, Venus and Jupiter and finally to the discovery of the four closest Jovian moons.

From here Galileo makes the logical observation that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe as previously believed, but rather it appears that the Sun is at the centre and the other heavenly bodies turn around it, and the church begins to take an eager interest in his work, especially these new shocking heretical announcements.

Basically, the book follows what really happened in Galileo's life (I read up on his life during reading this one) and follows it rather closely for the most part.  You will actually learn a lot about the man himself just by reading this novel as it is heavily steeped in fact, but that is not all of what this book is about.

There is a parallel story happening, of a human settlement from the future who live on the moons of Jupiter and who have the ability to travel back in time.  They are highly advanced as you would expect, but being human they still have the same struggles and difference of opinion that is timeless in our race.

They are the ones who guided Galileo towards his telescope discovery, his star-gazing, and helped him during his investigation by the inquisition.  They revere Galileo as the Father of All Science and believe he may have some part to play in assisting them with their own volatile issues.  They are almost god-like in appearance and knowledge and Galileo is both in awe and intrigued by their world.

The author keeps us moving quickly through the many times in Galileo's life with ease and I found that the peripheral characters were almost as interesting to read about as Galileo himself.  His eldest daughter for example, possibly as intelligent as her father but doomed by circumstance, also his mistress and his workshop worker.  They all were real people and all are fascinating.

I did get lost slightly during the many mathematical explanations of the time travel and the future world on the Galilean moons.  The drug-enhanced trips into the history and future of mathematics that Galileo goes on were beautifully described but passages that needed a dictionary close to hand if you were really to be able to say you understood the chapter properly.

That doesn't mean they weren't enjoyable though.  I did spend a few hours reading with a dictionary and a laptop by my side, reinforcing my knowledge of the harder concepts and words, but it isn't the kind of easy reading that you can enjoy last thing before sleep which unfortunately is my usual reading hour.

The ending is something I don't think I could give away even if I tried.  The nature of the problems near Jupiter aren't fully resolved by the end of the book and the life of Galileo is already one we know the ending of.  I think this book is more a melding of scientific and mathematical concepts into novel form, using a great figure from history as the vehicle to deliver the images and story, more than just a straight novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

That said, I enjoyed the book, loved learning more about Galileo, and will keep reading Mr Robinson in the future.  I might just add that if you are intrigued by his writing, his very impeccably researched writing, then start with The Mars trilogy books or the stand-alone novel Antartica.  They are very good.

16 March 2010

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant - Alexandra Fuller

This book made me do something I have never done in my whole 35 years and which I'm still reeling from.  I cried my eyes out in the last few pages of this book.

Not just a few tears but they were literally streaming down my cheeks and this just doesn't happen with me and words.  I love words, perhaps even obsessively at times, but they just don't get to me like images do (I am a movie cryer) and it's always been that way.

Anyway, jumping ahead, part of the reason I was so moved I think is Alexandra Fullers amazing way of writing and making you fall in love with Colton.  I wish I had a Colton for a brother and a best friend, he just seems such an amazing human being, full of so much compassion and uncluttered by materialistic worries.  A rare genuine soul you could say.

The chapters are really short as well, 4-8 pages mostly, so it's as though you get a glimpse into a lot of different episodes of Coltons life and not a running commentary from childhood to fatherhood, which would've taken too long and taken away from getting to know Colton from how he was with his family and friends.  I really liked this style and it suited the subject matter perfectly.

Colton H. Bryant.  A gorgeous kid with a loving family and startling blue eyes.  Teased as a kid, possibly for his ADHD tendacies and his struggles to concentrate on his learning.  He was called a retard so often that he made up a mantra which he repeats often through the book - "Mind over Matter: I don't mind so it don't matter."

His family blew me away, they are so close, so real, so tough, so true.  Colton had a very good childhood and it was largely due to these wonderful people.  His friendship with his best mate Jake also blew me away.  These guys are so close, so in tune with each other, it kinda made me jealous that I've never experienced a friendship quite like theirs; but I doubt many people have.

Apart from learning about Colton and wishing he would have a long and happy life, you knew that something was going to happen, something bad.  I tried to believe I was mistaken though, almost put myself in denial, as I couldn't believe that tragedy was around the corner for this amazing guy but something does go wrong.

Bravo for the author that she leaves this bit until right in the last few pages.  I really appreciated reading about all the good times of Coltons life for as long as possible, you just can't help but really love the guy by this stage.  Also good on her for leaving the other message of the book until right at the very end so it doesn't detract from Colton's life story at all.

Colton works on the rigs in Wyoming and in particular, for a rig contracted by Ultra Petroleum.  They make a huge turnover drilling for coal-bed methane gas but despite the large profits, the company isn't so great on safety training or safety devices on their rigs.  Colton fell and hit his head, falling from a narrow platform which had no safety rails and wearing no safety harness as the area he was working in was too tight and the harness would've restricted his movements.  Rails, which would've saved his life, would have cost $2000.

The family never received any decent compensation from the company and the contractor was ordered to pay just under $8000 to the local occupational health safety.

This amazing man becomes another statistic in Wyomings very high workplace death numbers and it would appear that nothing much has changed, despite the worst happening over and over again.  There are some great articles to read on this topic, please have a look:

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is a touching tale of one man and his quest to make all those around him happy and to live his life to the absolute fullest.  He is a character you wish you'd had a chance to meet.  He is Colton H. Bryant, gone at 25 but never forgotten.

There is another thing that keeps repeating through the book, a saying that Colton says regularly, 'If I should die before I wake, feed Jake.'

It's from a favourite song of his I believe, by the Pirates of the Mississippi, and it obviously sticks to him because of his best mate Jake but it will stick with you as well, long after you read the book.  I know I find myself saying it.  It makes you think you're homouring his memory by saying it.  Corny but true.

12 March 2010

Galileo, Waterloo, Austalian Convict Ships, Odysseus..

Yes, I've been reading some rather unusual things recently.  Gawd knows why, but I've quite enjoyed them all.  The female novelists then - a brief summary.

The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood

I chose the Margaret Atwood novel for two reasons.  Firstly, I have enjoyed a few of her other novels and  knew her to be an intelligent and engaging author, and secondly, I love the greek mythologies and the story of what happens when Odysseus finally returns and finds so many manipulative suitors vying to to take over his life, his wife, his land, title and wealth, has always fascinated me.

This tale is told from his wife Penelope's point of view, and how she coped during those long years of his absence.  It is also interspersed with prose and lamentations from the 12 maids that were killed after his return and their reasons for blaming both Penelope and Odysseus for their deaths.  Some of the pieces are very much in the style of Aristophanes with his repititive verses and choruses and which oddly give the style a lighter air despite the topic.  In fact, the book itself is short and a fairly quick, easy read, almost written as something specifially aimed at teenagers although I don't know if this is actually the case.

I think I enjoyed it overall but it is quite divorced from more common styles of storytelling, constantly flipping back and forth between Penelope's narrative and the maids accusatory songs and speeches. Also the distance between that ancient time and our present time is rather odd.  What I did enjoy quite alot though is Penelope's reflections of the character of Helen of Troy, quite amusing.  An interesting point of view.

The Floating Brothel - Sian Rees

I picked this one up after a brief glance at the first few pages and realised just how harsh and excessive the English judicial system was back in the late 18th century.  This book covers the women who were transported to Australia on the ship the Lady Juliana, considered sometimes part of both the first and second fleets.  The truth is that she sailed about a year before the second fleet but arrived only a week or two before them, the convicts and crew enjoying a rather pleasant journey, all things considered, especially compared to some of the appalling conditions that convicts were transported under in later journeys.

While the women on board did defintiely use their more relaxed state of imprisonment to their advantage, and also made many alliances and valuable trades in every port they stopped in along the way; I felt the real information in the book was focusing on the ridiculously petty crimes that landed these women with such weighty sentences, mostly to '7 years transportation across the seas'.   These crimes included stealing a metre of cloth, pickpocketing a teaspoon, taking an apron, and it goes on.  The harsh treatment of women who often had all other options of making a living taken away from them by the very system that then punishes them so horribly for trying to survive just made my blood boil at times.

One interesting fact was that during the American war for Independence and the war with the French, women were encouraged to take up many shop positions as the men were rather scarce.  When the men returned in abundance, these women were forced from their positons, even in haberdasheries and other stores more suited to a female pysche, and the only real form of honest employment was maid work.  When Pitt the younger imposed his income taxes on the people to try to alleviate the growing national debt the wars had incurred, many simply couldn't afford to live and stole to get by.  A vicious circle for some it would seem.

Still, I also read about Mary Wade, the youngest female convict to travel to Australia (she left Britain when she was only 11), and her descendants today number over tens of thousands.  By all accounts, she embraced her new life and is considered one of the founding mothers of Australia.

At times this book was too factual but I learnt alot and it is an absolutely fascinating time in history.  So much tragedy but also glimmers of real hope.

23 February 2010

Two Months Down...

...and about thirteen books read so far.  I've tried for three years now to average one book a week for a whole year and despite getting very close, I've never made the goal of 52.

But, 2010 feels like the right year to break bad habits and it's started well.  Roll on more reading.

Actually, let's up the ante and make the goal an even 60.

As you can see, we live dangerously in this corner of the world.