Online dating and book reviews

CoverWe all have at least one story in us. But very few of us will ever write a book. Even a blog may be a stretch too far. Which leaves us with the option of the book review.

The nay-sayers will be quick to question the value of book reviews, but let it be known: on any catalogue, a book displayed with a picture of its cover, a brief description of its contents and followed by a couple of short book reviews is far more likely to be read.

I’m not going to tell you how to do this – you’ve probably all read a gazillion reviews anyway, but here’s a few hints on maybe what not to do:

  • Saying: “I loved/hated this book/film” with a big fat full stop at the end of the sentence just isn’t enough. Not unless you’re Stephen Fry, and even then.
  • If you’re still talking after 3 minutes, you have gone on for too long. About 50 written words should do it. Just piqué our interest. That is all.
  • Don’t mislead – for example, if you didn’t actually read the whole book, say so and say why. That in itself is valuable for a reader to know.

If you’ve got a real block about reviewing anything, try reviewing yourself. There may come a time in your life when you want to meet more people. You want to date, or pursue a relationship and so far no-one’s come knocking on your door. It’s online dating time for you. In other words: You will have to book review yourself. Follow the same rules for writing book reviews (as above). But to get fully into the zone with it, I recommend reading the personal ads in the The Times Literary Supplement.

CoverI once shared a subscription to this behemoth of literary reviews with a friend. We tried, we really did. But the bulk of the reviews were on books we sheepishly admitted we would never read. But we both loved the Personal Ads column designed especially to cater for: “middle-class, well educated, intellectuals”. That’s us. You get just 30 words to convince someone to take a punt on you. They are succinct wee gems of the self. Have a look at these two compilations to get you started: They Call me Naughty Lola and Sexually I’m More of  a Switzerland. Here’s a couple of examples:

I celebrated my fortieth birthday by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year I am hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake. Join my mailing list at box no. 6831. Man.

Or the brutally brief

I am not an Accountant. Box no. 7452

 

CoverThen just do it. I bash out my short book reviews fairly quickly, on desk, at work. After they’re done, mind not to stand between me and the Catalogue Computer. I like to elbow my way across the library to see the cover of the book I have just reviewed on that Recently Reviewed moving banner thingy. My pleasures are simple.

Writing reviews of books, or films or ourselves comes down to one’s own opinion. So let those babies out into an unsuspecting world. May they thrive.

Because best of all, here at last is something you cannot possibly do wrong.

Yet another fantasy school that I wish I could enrol in: Magnalia House

Magnalia House was the sort of establishment where only wealthy, talented girls mastered their passion. It wasn’t designed for girls who were lacking, for girls who were illegitimate daughters, and certainly not for girls who defied kings. I, of course, happen to be all three of those things.

It is quite often with a bit of apprehension that I pick up a first book by a new author. There’s no reputation, no recommendations, and no familiar writing style. However, I knew from the first three sentences that this book was for me, and was unable to put it down until the end. At three in the morning.

What it’s about:

Brienna has spent her adolescent years in a special boarding school, trying to attain mastery in one of the arts, and showing little promise. But why is she even allowed to be there? As her time in Magnalia House draws to a close, her true adventure is only beginning, with memories of a long-lost relative starting to surface, leading her into a world of intrigue, plots and deception.

My personal thoughts:

A beautiful read! I found the main character extremely loveable, as a fellow book lover and history buff. If you like Tamora Pierce or Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, you will definitely come to love the beautiful world crafting and lyrical language that Rebecca Ross provides. There are sweet elements of sisterhood, complex courtly conspiracies and a delightful slow-burning romance.

Another plus is while there is a second book on the horizon (bring on 2019!), it can comfortably sit as a stand-alone. No agonizing cliffhangers here!

Tl/dr: 9/10. Lovely fantasy read. Pretty words. Would read again.

The Queen’s Rising
by Rebecca Ross
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN:9780062471345

Tasty, bite-sized economics: Fifty things that made the modern economy

A History of the World in 100 Objects was my first foray into books that use something small to describe something big, and I’ve been reading them ever since.

Luckily this has proved to be a popular concept, with topics ranging from Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History, Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee, to Banana: A Global History. Each book is like a museum exhibition with each chapter a different exhibit, perfect for dipping into and reading aloud interesting facts to your long-suffering friends.

My most recent read was a little out of my comfort zone — Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford.

Cover of Fifty things that made the modern economy by Tim Harford

Hearing the words “modern” and economy” generally gives me an expression similar to my cat after he’s eaten a moth, but luckily the content delivers. Harford writes in an incredibly engaging, conversational style. Often I slog through non-fiction books as the information density can be overwhelming even if fascinating, but Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is as readable as a novel. Each section is so short that I found it difficult to stop at the end of one chapter and not just continue on to the next.

Even more mundane-seeming inventions like the plough had far reaching effects on almost every aspect of society, a symptom of a changing life from nomadic to settled, and influencing gender relations as well as our diet (not necessarily for the better). In fact a lot of our steps forward as a species have unintentionally brought us a step back in other ways. We spend a lot less time preparing food due to ready-meals and supermarkets, but our nutrition has suffered as a result. I suppose one good thing is that by constantly creating new problems for ourselves, we’ll never run out of things to do.

Due to the nature of a long list each entry is by necessity relatively brief, but each builds on the previous chapters — Harford points out all the ways in which an invention is reliant on those that came before, or the perfect timing for an invention to take off. Some were invented several times before they caught on, and others it was only a matter of time before it was invented by someone. History is a mess of happy accidents, lucky timing and reinventing the wheel.
If you’re interested in economics, history or want to know why anyone could get excited about double-entry bookkeeping, I’d recommend dipping into Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy.

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy
by Tim Harford
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408709115

The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

In The Wife’s tale, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam recounts the life of her grandmother Yetemegnu, an indomitable woman who lived through the most extraordinary century in Ethiopia’s history.

Edemariam first introduces readers to Yetemegnu on the day of her wedding, when she is just eight years old. Barely aware of the vows she is making, Yetemegnu is being married to Tsega, an ambitious priest more than two decades her senior. Over the next thirty years, Tsega is varyingly tender and brutal to his wife – a tyrant who beats her when she returns home from merely buying food, and a father who..

‘…when I was a child braided my hair.
Trimming the rough edges, teaching me manners.
My husband who raised me’

Edemariam heartbreakingly evokes Yetemegnu’s secluded marriage, (as a child bride and a clergyman’s wife), and her difficult motherhood which consisted of ten births, infant deaths, and difficult partings to give her children a better future. Edemariam brings her grandmother’s voice to life with vivid descriptions of her daily routine, observations of the world around her, and her prayers offered to the Virgin Mary. Edemariam’s narrative is  filled with rich prose that perfectly evokes her grandmother’s life, such as:

“The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.”

Edemariam also gives a fascinating and unique perspective into the events of the time. Born over a century ago, Yetemegnu lived well into her nineties and bore witness to the 1930s Italian occupation as well as famines, revolutions, and political coups. She vividly recounts events such as Yetemegnu fleeing her city during allied bombardment, her audiences with Emperor Haile Selassie to defend and avenge her husband; and her battles in a male dominated court to protect her property rights. With a housewife’s unique perspective, Yetemegnu also bore witness to economic and educational changes, as well as the huge changes in culture and attitude Yetemegnu herself had to struggle to understand.

Edemariam’s distinctive narrative manages to delve not only into the mind of her grandmother, but also into the rich history and culture which surrounded her. Elegant, and superbly researched, ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is both a rich panoroma of 19th century Ethiopia, and an inspiring tribute to the courage and importance of seemingly ordinary wives like Yetemegnu.

The Wife’s Tale
by Aida Edemariam
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780007459605

Love, loss, and Las Vegas glitter: All the beautiful girls

Fresh out of the box this week is All the Beautiful Girls. This great story is the second novel from Elizabeth J. Church, author of The Atomic Weight of Love.

Lily Dekker has had a difficult start to life. Wrenched from idyllic surroundings by a cataclysmic car crash, her family “dissolve(d) like sugar in iced tea”.

She is forced, at eight years old, to start life again with her aunt and uncle; one of whom is less than affectionate, the other overly so.

Dance, and an unexpected ally provide her means of escape to Las Vegas, where she reinvents herself; becoming gorgeous Ruby Wilde, a Las Vegas showgirl.

All the Beautiful Girls addresses difficult themes of loss, abuse, self-harm, love and friendship. Around these ideas, Church creates a contemplation of life, sprinkled with deep understanding and philosophy:

A soft rain began to fall, dotting the windshield with drops that ran until they randomly joined each other. Is that what people did too? Lily wondered. Fall and drift until they collided with one another, the way the Aviator had collided with her ten years ago? p.56.

Set in the 1960s, the story exists in a whimsical time when everyone smoked, colour TV was a novelty (in-room phones!), and we had TV dinners before we had microwaves.

A  star-studded sixties cast from Sammy Davis Jnr, Dylan to Dinah Shore, parade through the pages of Ruby’s colourful and often disastrous life. Filled with thrills, spills and glitter, Church uses the setting of Las Vegas to dig deeper into the politics of the time – racial equality, women’s rights, wealth and Vietnam to name a few.

Las Vegas is a fantasy world; a plastic bubble protected from world issues, trapped in time:

“For the first time, she realised that Vietnam cast no shadows beneath the lights of Vegas; there were no flag-shrouded caskets, no hollowed, haunted eyes of returning soldiers anywhere near the casinos. How efficiently Las Vegas seemed to be able to keep hippies away from the Strip, where they might hurt business. … She’d been living in la-la land for too long.”  p.174.

Will Ruby find her way back to the real world? Would it bore her if she did?

I loved Lily/Ruby’s wee tips on makeup and fashion, and really warmed to her as a character. Elizabeth J. Church writes beautifully (I also found myself dancing in the stacks).

If you have never been to Las Vegas, let this book will take you there. Or maybe these ones…

All the Beautiful Girls
by Elizabeth J. Church
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008267940

Celebrate International Women’s Day with Stephen King’s Sleeping Beauties

Stephen and Owen King have gender issues.

Dooling is a place where people live on a knife edge; work hard, drink hard. Women around the world bear the brunt of this in their daily lives. Some have gone to prison for fighting back.

Tiffany lives in a trailer at the edge of a forest. She’s regularly beaten by the man who has enslaved her to drugs.

Superhumanly beautiful, a naked woman comes down from the forest and changes everything.

All over the world women succumb to an enchantment. (Or sickness depending on which books you read.) Falling asleep, they form moth-like cocoons around themselves. The women are not dead, merely sleeping.

Where has their consciousness gone? Wake them and you’ll find out – in a terrible bloody way. They turn into very angry zombies.

Lila is the local Police Chief. She loves her husband. Or does she? Suspicious of his love, resentful over the pool he made her agree to (first world problems, LOL), Lila has a choice to make.

Fighting the curse valiantly, (and not without the aid of some confiscated contraband), Lila eventually closes her eyes and crosses over… to the world beyond the huge tree in the forest; a world without men. The idea appeals to many – inmates like Jeannette, wives like Elaine.

Without their women, the men left behind get depressed, go nuts, drink and burn things. Some prepare for battle.

If Evie, the woman who began this series of events, is killed in the inevitable battle between good and evil, the women stay in the place beyond the Tree forever.

If she lives, they get to choose if they want to stay in what they have come to call “Our Place”, or come back to the world of men. It’s a difficult choice for some. (The honeymoon period only lasts about eight weeks according to S.K.)

There is a suggestion here that the characters are at war with Nature and God. Has Evie come from the Garden of Eden?

“Once I’m dead, the portal between this world and the land of sleep will close. Every woman will eventually nighty-night, every man will eventually die, and this tortured world will breathe an enormous sigh of lasting relief.” Evie, p.362

The tree motif is a great link to the world of faerie. Trees have been doors to other worlds (than this) in many stories. The Kings enchant the normal world with ‘fairy handkerchiefs’ (spider webs in the grass), clouds of moths, a snake, and a tiger…

Always an advocate for women (see Big Driver) this latest offering is well written, topical (the senior King jokes about Trump), and thrilling without being too brutal.

Stephen and Owen have crafted a riveting read with the characterisation that fans love him for. He even throws in a book group or two.

Suggested reading

Sleeping beauties
by Stephen and Owen King
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473665200

Strange weather: Four great reads in one

Previously, short stories have always been studiously avoided by me and I admit now, I might be guilty of misjudging them. Given that I always feel quite time poor you would think that short stories would rate quite highly with me, but this has never been the case. Until now. Joe Hill’s Strange Weather is an excellent collection of four short stories.

This is what you can look forward to:

Rain – America descends into chaos with sharp glass icicles raining from the sky with lethal results to those unfortunate enough to be caught outside. Of course it doesn’t take long for the vagaries of human nature to emerge and for polar changes to happen in people that used to coexist quietly together.

Strange Weather

Loaded –   Extra marital affairs, mental health issues and guns are never a good combination. America has a rather large gun problem and Loaded quite neatly flips between the pros and cons of easy access to guns while dealing with these issues. Like me; you may find yourself wishing that the good guy had a gun to hand by the end.

Snapshot – The story of a teenager that finds himself being threatened by the owner of a futuristic device that can steal aspects of a person’s memory with the click of a button. He has seen the loss and heartache that it causes to his old housekeeper and finds a way to prevent this from happening to other people.

Aloft – Imagine going skydiving for the first time. In addition to the terrifying thought of throwing yourself out of a perfectly good plane; you crash into a solid ‘cloud’ that can anticipate your needs and wants to keep you. And your only way off is to jump.

I had to stop myself wanting to know too much about why and how these things happened. That’s not what these stories are about. They are about ordinary people being thrust into extraordinary circumstances that change their lives forever. And they are really well written.

The best part about discovering an author that you really like is finding out that they have written plenty of other books for you to get your teeth into. Joe Hill is the author and co-author of several novels, graphic novels and short stories so why not try some of these other titles by him?

image_proxy[8]Cover of Road RageCover of The FiremanCover of Locke & Key: Heaven and EarthCover of NOS-4R2

And what about some short stories by other authors…

Cover of Everything's eventualCover of Match upCover f Legoland

Strange Weather
by Joe Hill
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473221178

Perfect or flawed? Cecelia Ahern’s dystopian sequel

Ever since she was tiny, Miss Missy has loved books and reading. She never had a security blanket—instead she had to have Peepo by Janet and Alan Ahlberg in her cot to go to sleep. Our best “look what my baby can do” party trick was getting her to bring us alphabet letters from the fridge. She could find the “S for Sausage” or the “G for Genevieve” or the “H for Helena” (her BFF) long before she could say any of those words. When she got bigger, she went through chapter books so fast that on trips to the library, she’d have finished a book before we even pulled up the drive.

9780008125097I shared all my best-loved books with Miss Missy—the Chronicles of Narnia , Milly Molly Mandy stories, the Little House books, and (of course!) Harry Potter. As she got older, she started sharing her favourites with me, like Michael Morpurgo and Lauren Child two authors that I thoroughly enjoy reading. Now that she’s reading teen fiction, Dystopian novels feature heavily. A while back she brought home Flawed by Cecelia Ahern. I was intrigued by this world where perfection is everything, where the smallest mistake can see you branded, literally, as a flawed member of society, and by Celestine, the girl who decides to make a stand for the shunned.

It was a fast paced and exiting story, which ended with Celestine on the run, so Miss Missy and I were both eagerly awaiting Perfect, the next book in the series!

Cover of Perfect by Cecelia Ahern

Much as I wanted to enjoy it, I couldn’t help thinking that Perfect was, well, less than perfect. I expected it to pick up just were Flawed left off, with Celestine on the run, and determined to take down the evil Guild that controls the world she lives in. But Perfect doesn’t take off at a run. Instead of running, Celestine decides to hang out on her Granddad’s farm for a couple of weeks, going no-where, doing nothing. And of course, she almost gets caught. Once she finally starts running, I expected her to go get the vital evidence she needed to bring down the evil Judge and his Guild, but it took her an absolute age to figure out what I already twigged onto–that she’d been given the evidence secreted in an unexpected gift. She’d had it since the first book, and it took her half the second one to figure it out! I got a bit annoyed with her naivety (stupidity?). She was just too trusting, and it kept getting her into trouble.

But maybe I’m being to harsh! Miss Missy loved it, and once it got off the ground, I did enjoy reading it.  I think Perfect just suffers a little from Sequel Syndrome (I thought I was being clever coming up with that, but a quick Google search will show you its not a new thing!) Is it cynical of me to think that Ms Ahern’s publisher just wanted her to spin the story out into two books instead of one? All in all it was a pretty good book, and if you enjoyed Flawed, it’s definitely worth reading this to find out what happens, so don’t let me put you off!

And maybe you’d like to tell me about a sequel that you thought fell a short?

Perfect
by Cecelia Ahern
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN:  9780008125141

Mona Anderson’s tale of High Country life

A River Rules My Life has been re-released!

Originally published in 1963, Mona Anderson’s unique perspective of a woman’s experience on a South Island farm brings to life the High Country of days gone by.

Deep in the Rolleston Ranges, in the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, Mount Algidus Station is isolated between the mighty and dangerous Wilberforce and Rakaia rivers.

Mona crosses the Wilberforce as a new bride in the 1930s to start her life in this harsh environment. To get to her new home she must ride a dray cart for hours in a freezing wind – perched on top of all her worldly possessions – including a piano!

Mona’s observations of everything from errant cooks to brave horses are quite matter of fact and entertaining, while sad events are accepted as a part of life.

When World War II takes away many farmhands never to return, Mona and her husband Ron are stretched to do many jobs, and Mona has to muck in – feeding the men, and working alongside them – often on horseback.

Poetry and “back country” ditties pepper the tale, including one written by the author. Most notable are these lines written by a young hand leaving to join the Army:

Oh land of river, rock and spur / Of sunkissed hills and sky so blue / I, a humble musterer, Will ever leave my heart with you. / Tho I dwell beneath some distant sky / My memory will ever turn / To mates I knew in days gone by / And evenings when the camp fires burn. / For I am leaving you this day / To return again. But who can tell, / For good or bad. I cannot say.  Mount Algidus, I wish you well.

The charm of this book includes quaint “station names” for many local features; such as Bustmegall (Bust my gall) Creek, More-rain Hut and Boulderstone Creek (the Rolleston). Mistake ‘Hill’, at 7000 feet illustrates the Southern capacity for understatement.

Filled with thrills and spills (no-one is spared a dip in the Wilberforce), this book is a cornerstone of New Zealand back country life and a must for your holiday reading list.

More information

A River Rules My Life
by Mona Anderson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775541141

Take a trip down Twelve Mile Straight: Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve Mile Straight is as Southern as fried chicken.

Two babies are born at Cross Roads Farm – one mulatto, one white.

People come from miles around to view the babies – a miracle of nature. Born to a white woman, Elma, the children are said to have two fathers – one white; her fiancée, Freddie Wilson, – one black, believed to have been forced on her by Genus Jackson.

Genus Jackson is lynched without trial at the beginning of the book. Will those responsible get away with it?

Juke Jessup is hiding a still. His intentions towards Nan, the house girl, are less than fatherly. His own daughter Elma, is “fixin” to be wed to Freddie Wilson, the local cotton mill owner’s son. But when the twins are born, all hell breaks loose.

Cover of To kill a mockingbirdLike Light in August and To Kill a Mockingbird, this is a story of injustice for all. Racial segregation was still prevalent in 1930s Georgia, where African-American people were barely removed from slavery.

To say that women in this story get a raw deal is an understatement. Even the man pulling the strings in town, George Wilson, is not spared from the sufferings he hands down the pecking order.

Each character has a tale to tell in this riveting book. And they all have secrets. Dreams too – sometimes their dreams are all they have.

Nan has grown up on Crossroads Farm after the death of her mother, the housekeeper Ketty. She dreams of the return of her father, Sterling, but never loses sight of stark reality even while she fantasizes about the future:

She had long had a picture in her mind of his homecoming: he would come up the driveway in an automobile, a Pontiac or Chevrolet, with a licence plate that said MARYLAND. The dogs would go out to greet him first and she’d step out onto the porch. He’d be wearing a Sunday suit and a wide-brimmed hat, which he’d tip up to get a better look at her, and then he’d take off the hat and hold it over his heart, and his eyes would see and see her. And then she would know. She would recognize him. She would recognize her own face in his.

But she knew nothing happened the way you imagined it. That was how she knew it was real.

It’s not a question of whether the truth will out, it’s when – it slowly but surely leaks through the holes in the characters’ stories, gathering together to a flow as large as the local creek.

Eleanor Henderson writes with feeling, strong historical influence and an eye for a poetic phrase. Despite most reviewers’ perception of this as a tragic story, I was pleased with its conclusion.

I got lost on The Twelve Mile Straight. You will too.

Twelve Mile Straight
by Eleanor Henderson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008158699

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