Sunday, April 28, 2013

"A short history of tractors in Ukrainian" by Marina Lewycka

I'm not quite sure how to describe what I thought of this book. I haven't read a book quite like it before. It reads kind of like a soap opera in which none of the characters are 100% likeable...but you feel sympathy, frustration, disbelief about them all in turn, and you do want to keep turning the pages (I finished the book in 2 days). While the cover says 'extremely funny' I think it's more in the way of black humour rather than laugh-out-loud funny most of the time.

The story is interesting though, and I did enjoy it in some ways, but it kind of felt like I was spying on an extremely dysfunctional family a lot of the time. Basically the story is of a family in the UK who were orginally immigrants from Ukraine after the second world war. The 2 grown-up daughters barely talk to each other, but are brought together as co-conspirators when they discover their elderly father (in his mid 80s) is about to marry a 'gold-digging' hussy in her 30s, who basically seems to be marrying him to get a permanent visa into the UK from Ukraine, despite already being married, having a teenage son and multiple affairs going on. So the two daughters Nadia and Vera unite forces to try to prevent this occurring, and the dramas that ensue are sort of funny and sort of sad, mixed up with history of the war and politics and tractors....

Started reading on my kindle: 26th April 2013
Finished: 28th April 2013.
My score 6/10

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

This is the second book I have read in my part of contributing to the Australian Literature Month promoted on the "Reading Matters" blog. M.L. Stedman is a female Australian writer, and this is her first novel. I had not heard of this author before, but a friend recommended this book to me a couple of weeks ago and I thought I would give it a go immediately so I could hopefully finish it during April.

The book "The Light Between Oceans" is set in Western Australia, starting in the 1920s. The main character introduced is Tom - a decorated (and emotionally somewhat scarred) returned soldier from the First World War, who starts a new peacetime life as a Lighthouse Keeper. He is posted to a remote island situated between the Southern and Indian Oceans. Just before he is posted to the island, he meets and later marries a young woman, Izzy, who seems to represent the complete opposite in nature to Tom - vibrant, carefree, vs quiet and measured. I don't want to give away any more of the story line, except to say that the book is the story of their life together on this island, isolated for the most part from mainland civilisation, and how their relationship and life develops and then is completely ripped apart by a single shared secret.

The novel is well written, extremely sad, in fact has elements of a classical tragedy - reminding me at times of how I felt when I first read Shakespeare's "King Lear" or "Othello" - although the storyline and characters are completely unique.It deals with issues of trust, ethics/morality, right/wrong and the strength of the bond between mother and child.

I read this book on my Kindle from 9th April - 24th April 2013.
My score is 8/10

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"Sisters of Mercy" by Caroline Overington

This is the first book I have read by this Australian author (Caroline Overington), as my part in contributing to the Australian Literature Month on the Reading Matters blog. I didn't really know what to expect of the plot, characters or writing style, but I had read a couple of reviews which warned that the book didn't tie up all loose ends so I was prepared for that. Of the reviews I read on the Goodreads website, the book seemed to polarise opinion (people either seemed to really like it, or find the ending wasn't satisfying and therefore hated it). 

It is a contemporary crime/mystery set in Sydney and Melbourne, and is told in a way that makes you believe it is a real unsolved mystery based on real events (although it isn't), with many little accurate details of locations and events scattered throughout. It is thought-provoking, well-written and a real page turner. It is disturbing in parts (but more in the way of a Kathy Reichs book rather than Michael Faber's 'under my skin'). It does bring up issues of foster care and welfare of severely handicapped children in Australia over the last 40 years, some of which is pretty horrific and you just have to hope that at least the worst of it is all fiction... The story is told by two main characters: Snow Delaney (a nurse caring for handicapped children; currently in jail) and Jack Fawcett (a journalist following the case of Snow's missing sister).

I don't want to give away too much of the plot or of the character of Snow, as the slow unfolding of her story and her unbalanced mind is one of the most compelling aspects of this book. And the book is not all dark, there are touches of humour, for how can you not love a book which includes a budgie named Tony Abbot?! I am really thrilled to have stumbled upon a new Australian author whose writing I really enjoy (and excited to discover she has already written several others for me to look out for). Thanks to the Australian Literature Month challenge which inspired me to go looking for a book by an Australian author that I had not previously read before.

The synopsis of the story from the publisher's website:
 "Sisters of Mercy" by Caroline Overington is the haunting crime novel of two sisters - one has vanished, the other is behind bars...
Snow Delaney was born a generation and a world away from her sister, Agnes. Until recently, neither even knew of the other's existence. They came together only for the reading of their father's will - when Snow discovered, to her horror, that she was not the sole beneficiary of his large estate. Now Snow is in prison and Agnes is missing, disappeared in the eerie red dust that blanketed Sydney from dawn on September 23, 2009.
With no other family left, Snow turns to crime journalist Jack Fawcett, protesting her innocence in a series of defiant letters from prison. Has she been unfairly judged? Or will Jack's own research reveal a story even more shocking than the one Snow wants to tell?

I read this book on my Kindle in April 2013.
My score: 9/10

"Under the Skin" by Michael Faber

I recently read a 5-Star review on the blog "Reading Matters", which prompted me to read this book. Now that i have finished reading it myself, I can say although I agree almost wholeheartedly with her review, my (non)appreciation of the horror element to this book lead me to give it quite a different score. The book is set in Scotland (near Inverness), and the central character, Isserley, is unlike any character I have met before ("half Baywatch babe, half little old lady" as described in the book), but really that doesnt even begin to explain how strange this character is. I'm not sure if the correct term to describe the world portrayed in this book is "Distopic" but I found it creepy, depressing and more than a bit twisted. However it did cause me to stop and think a bit more about some issues associated with meat consumption and treatment of animals destined for the meat market. I'm sure if I appreciated the macabre horror genre more I would give this book a higher score, but I found it too twisted to really enjoy reading it, and often kept turning the pages just to have closure rather than because I was enjoying the book.

I read this book on my Kindle in March 2013.
My score: 6.5/10

"The Girl with the Cat Tattoo" by Theresa Weir

Not the sort of book I usually read but a bit of a break from the more complex worlds and characters in the books I have read lately. This was an easy, quick read, a story about a match-making cat. Nothing stand out really, but the cat, Max, was a cute character. The book was a freebie I downloaded from Pixel of Ink when I felt like a bit of light reading entertainment instead of watching TV...but probably watching TV would have given my brain more of a workout than this book.

Read on my Kindle in March 2013
My score: 4/10

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon

Until recently I had not heard of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time", but last month 3 different people recommended it to me while having lunchtime chats about good books to read, so as soon as I finished the 2nd Game of Thrones book I took a break from high fantasy and read this book.
I found this book really interesting as it is a detective story told from the perspective of a boy with autism. It is humerous, sad, touching, different. Definitely worth reading. It isn't a long book but one you will most likely remember long after you read it. It's not so much the story-line itself that is so fantastic, but the outlook of the main character and the way they describe the world that is quite different to any other book I have read so far. It gave me a bit more insight into what I imagine it might be like to be autistic or to relate with someone who is autistic. 

I read this book on my Kindle in March 2013.
My score: 8.5/10

"Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin

I don't intend to write much here about "Game of Thrones" since it has received a lot of attention lately due to being made into a TV series, and I'm sure most people already know quite a bit about it. Basically it is high fantasy, an epic story with many complex characters and plots woven through it. If you love Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time, chances are you will love Game of Thrones also. I have read the first two books in the series so far ('Game of Thrones' and "A Clash of Kings"), and thought they were both awesome. Initially it was a little hard to get to grips with who all the characters are and who they are related to etc, but if you get hold of a family tree it makes it a lot easier, and pretty soon you are so drawn into the story you have no trouble following. The chapters alternate between about 8 of the main characters (more are added in the 2nd book), which works really well. My favourite characters so far are Arya (the adventurous tom boy daughter of Ned Stark), Jon Snow (Ned Stark's bastard), Daenerys Targaryen (another strong female character) and Tyrion Lannister (the dwarf). I watched the DVDs of the TV version (series 1 and 2) after I read the books. The TV version is also excellently done and the first 2 series follow the first 2 books very closely, however, like most books turned into tv/film, the books are by far better and more complex and I'd recommend reading them first.

I read the first book in February, and the second in March 2013, both on my Kindle.

My scores:
Game of Thrones: 10/10 for Fantasy
A Clash of Kings: 9/10

Friday, April 5, 2013

Snapshot from 2012

To get this blog up and running, I thought I would start with a snapshot of the books I read in 2012 (since March anyway, when I made my resolution to start reading for fun again). This will also give a bit of an idea of the kinds of books I read and the ones I like and dislike, so you can get a feel for whether you have a similar taste in books as me (and whether it's worth following this blog) or not. Feel free to leave comments if you have read or are interested in reading any of these books, I'm always happy to hear other people's opinions and recommendations of books.

1. "Armageddon's Children" by Terry Brooks. 8/10
Terry Brooks is one of my all time favourite fantasy authors, I always enjoy his books.

2.  "The Zookeeper's War" by Steven Conte. 7/10
Interesting historical novel, but fairly depressing, especially the ending.

3. "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave. 10/10
This is an awesome book. Definitely one of the standouts for me in 2012. It was a book I had not heard of before, and chose it randomly at an airport bookstore without expectations, and was totally gripped by it.

4. "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd. 9/10
I bought this book second hand in New York from the Housing Works Used Book Cafe in Soho.
Read on flights from Los Angeles to Australia. Several people had recommended it to me before I read it, and it was a great read with characters you could really feel for.

5. "Ant Egg Soup" - Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont De Bie. 7/10
Another second-hand shop purchase. Interesting reading (especially as I read it in preparation for an upcoming trip to Laos!). The descriptions of the food and locations and people make it come to life. I wasn't sure whether to be excited or scared by some of the menu items described in the book though!!!

6.  "Fishing for Stars" by Bryce Courtenay. 7-8/10
(Australian author)
I actually listened to this in audio book format while doing craft stuff, rather than actually reading it.
I found it very interesting. I like all Bryce Courtenay books I've read. This one covers a wide range of topics/themes, from World War II in the Pacific, politics and Greenie movements in Tasmania, big business in the Pacific Islands, and the relationships of the main character with 2 very different but strong female characters.

7.  "Songs of the Humpback Whale" By Jodi Picoult. 1/10
I was very disappointed with this book. So many people had recommended Jodi Picoult books to me over the years, and this was the first one I tried to read. I couldnt even finish this book (and I almost never give up on a book once I start it), and could not empathise with the main characters...

However, a couple of people who are Picoult fans have since told me this was the one book by her that they disliked.

8. "Flash and Bones" By Kathy Reichs. 6.5/10
This was the first book I downloaded onto my kindle that I received for my birthday.
I do like Kathy Reichs books - the science is pretty accurate and the stories are usually pretty good. This one was set in the NASCAR heartland of USA. I found it interesting to compare to the things I've seen while volunteering at the Bathurst V8 supercar races. The actual story line wasn't as strong/good as previous Kathy Reichs books though.
9. "Brother Fish" by Bryce Courtenay. 8/10
(Australian author)
Despite it taking me about 2 months to read this book, I did really enjoy reading it. It's set partially in a small island fishing community off the Tasmanian coast, partially in the Korean war (which I had not previously known anything about), and in mainland China and Hong Kong. As with all Bryce Courtenay books the characters are so real you feel like you know them, and the locations and experiences are very well described.
10.  "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James. 5/10
Not the sort of book I normally choose to read, but after all the hype and so many people talking about it I had to read it. I downloaded it on my kindle. It's definitely not the most well-written book, but it sure is a bit of a sexy page-turner! :-P Not sure if it was exciting enough to read the other 2 books in the trilogy though...

11. "Gold" By Chris Cleave. 7.5/10
This book was pretty good but not as good as his previous book "Little Bee" (that i gave 10/10). It is about 3 Olympic cyclists and all the emotional turmoil they go through to compete at that elite level. However the star of the book really is the daughter Sophie who has Leukaemia.
12.  "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. 8.5/10
This book is set deep in southern America during the 1950s. The characters are so well described with different writing styles to match, and the storyline is also very good, dealing with the fight for equal rights for black American maids with their white employers. The movie based on this book is also very good (I saw the movie before I read the book, which is unusual for me, I normally like to read a book before I see the movie version).
13. "Bones are forever" by Kathy Reichs. 7/10
A pretty depressing storyline with infant/baby deaths. However it was interesting from the setting point of view, dealing with Alaska and native Americans and wilderness protection vs mining in the Arctic.

14. "Flaunting, Extravagant Queen" by Jean Plaidy. 6.5/10
An historical novel about the life of Marie Antoinette, from when she left her family in Austria as a child bride to the young Dauphin of France (to be Louis the 16th) up until she was executed during the French Revolution. 

15. "Puberty Blues" By Gabrielle Carey & Kathy Lette. 6/10
This was currently on TV in Australia as a series at the time I read the book. A few people recommended the book to me, however in my opinion it's one of the rare cases where the TV series appears better than the book (slightly - neither were wonderful).
This book is set in Sydney (Cronulla) in the 1970s, following a group of teenagers in their quest to be cool. The book was fairly easy and short/quick to read but depressing with how young the girls were and the drugs etc they were involved in. And the final chapter of the book revealed pretty much all the kids in the group either died of drug overdoses before the age of 20 or ended up in jail/rehab except for the authors who skipped school to write the book. Despite all this, it was still fun to read and see all the colloquealisms (if that's a word) and the lifestyle of the 70s on the Sydney beaches. Not hugely removed from some people's lives at my high school in the 90s I would think.
16. "The Riders" by Tim Winton. 7/10
(Australian author) I found this book quite gripping/haunting, but was left a bit disappointed at the ending...not sure if I just confused myself and didn't understand the significance of the ending or not. But I keep thinking back through it and get the feeling parts of the story and the characters will stick in my mind for some time.
17. "What looks like crazy on an ordinary day" by Pearl Cleage. 6.5-7/10
This was a very quick read, easy to keep turning the pages. I liked the main characters and their positive vibe throughout the story despite some pretty depressing issues being dealt with (and one pretty traumatic scene to read).
The book is about a woman who finds herself HIV-positive and how she takes this pretty devastating news and gets on with her life. While this might not sound like a fun topic to read a novel about, it also involves a really good love story, very positive family and friendship themes and a bit of an insight into how we all can make bad decisions in life but sometimes we learn from them in a positive way (and sometimes we don't). I read this review of the book which is what prompted me to read the book in the first place:
18. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" By Rebecca Skloot. 8/10
I would guess that most of my sciency friends will have heard of HeLa cells (and many will have grown them in the lab at some stage). This book is about Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cancer cells (taken without ethics consent in the 1950s) became the first immortal human cells grown in culture, and all the amazing discoveries, drug/therapy development and knowledge that have resulted from growing and experimenting with "HeLa" cells in laboratories around the world.
I found this book to be very interesting, although the life of Henrietta and her family is pretty tragic. Very interesting and sometimes disturbing all the things HeLa cells have been used for over the years. 

19. "The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making" 
By Catherynne M. Valente. 8.5/10
Great fantasy fairytale adventure - it's a kids book but full of imagination and I loved it. Some aspects were kind of like Alice in Wonderland meets Harry Potter.
20. "Let's Pretend this Never Happened" By Jenny Lawson. 6/10
Really hilarious in parts making me laugh out loud at inappropriately funny moments....but other parts were just cringingly bad drama queen scenes. A lot of the language and stories come across as if they were mainly written for shock value. However I did really get a good laugh out of a few of the early chapters :-)

21. "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Picoult. 8/10
After my first disappointing attempt at a Picoult book (Songs of a Humpback Whale), I decided I should give the author another shot, since so many of my friends kept raving about her books. This time I chose one she is famous for, and this time I did enjoy the book. It is about a family who have a daughter with an aggressive form of Leukaemia, and decide to have another baby that will be able to become a bone marrow/blood/organ donor in order to save the first child's life. It brings up lots of issues involving ethics and 'designer' babies. I also found it interesting from the medical point of view.
22. "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed. 3/10
I bought this book with my last Thai bahts while waiting at Bangkok airport, and it had a sticker on it saying that was recommended on the Oprah's bookclub list.
What I liked about this book: reading about the scenery of the Pacific Crest Trail, the camaraderie of the various hikers met along the way, and the theme that you can do anything you set you're mind to achieve.
What I didn't like: I found the author/main character extremely immature/short-sighted and was unprepared for almost every situation she encountered on her hike, even those that anyone who knows nothing about backpacking might forsee. E.g. not packing her hiking pack until the night before she set out on her hike and then discovering she couldn't even lift it off the ground, wearing hiking boots too small for her feet and she hadn't bothered to break them in or even wear them once before she set out on her 1000+mile hike...but despite countless examples of this sort of behaviour throughout the book she did manage to hike the trail and achieve her goal.

A new book blog!

I love reading a good book....and have loved books and reading since as far back as I can remember really. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents reading to me and my brother - books like Roald Dahl's 'The Twits" and "The Witches", classics like JRR Tolkein's "The Hobbit", RL Stevenson's "Treasure Island", AA Milne's various books about Winnie the Pooh, Eric Linklater's "Pirates in the Deep Green Sea", just to mention a few favourites.
As we grew up on board a yacht sailing around the world for 5 years as kids without a TV, books naturally became a big part of our lives - I read a lot of books, whatever I could get my hands on, ranging from kids books like Enid Blyton adventures up to adult historical fiction, and fantasy. An average night on the boat would see my parents and my brother and I each read out a chapter of a book aloud to each other, on top of whatever books we happened to be reading to ourselves.One night could include an 'episode' of "Duncton Wood" (Mum), "King Solomon's Mines" (Dad) plus whatever my brother or I were reading. Growing up without a TV was certainly not a deprivation in any way.

My love of books continued, until during my mid 20s I embarked on a PhD, and rapidly my spare time vanished, and even when I had spare time I didn't feel like reading, or ridiculously would feel guilty to be reading a novel instead of a scientific paper!

Needless to say this hiatus didn't last too long, and last year in March (2012) I made a resolution to make time to read for pleasure once again. I also decided to keep a log of which books I read, and a few thoughts about them including a score out of 10. I also discovered that while there are a lot of book blogs in cyber-space, many of them are genre-specific, or have different taste in books to me. I thought it might be fun to transfer my reading log into a blog online, in case anyone else out there has a similar (eclectic/random) taste in books and is looking to get ideas or recommendations about what book to read next, or what book might not be worth it.