The Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood

There is something about stories that magnify and illuminate the concept of social control that spooks me. I think they yield their power by highlighting elements vaguely feared by readers and bringing them to life as to turn that fear into terror. Whether it be the anxiety you feel when a police car is next to you at traffic lights, the thought of the Nazi or Pole Pot regime or what can happen when Communism takes a turn, however you look at it social control is a scary thought.
The Handmaids Tale exists in the same realm as George Orwells 1984 and Animal Farm and Aldous Huxleys Brave New World . If you have read any of these you’ll know what I mean. In each instance, the general population is controlled, monitored and punished as higher authorities see fit. The Handmaids Tale is unique in that is is from a women’s perspective and the regime that is detailed bases its principles on obscure interpretations from passages in the bible.
Without ruining too much, Atwood had me convinced for almost 5 minutes that what she had written about was long lost, though true history. As troubling as that was, the reality is that its themes are true. Things like this are happening in the world as we speak, women are oppressed whether it be in far away countries or in our own neighbourhood. Just because it isn’t happening to us doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
The book didn’t detail it’s message or intent. It just left you to stew the principles and figure out what it means to you. For me I felt it told the story of complacency. When we get comfortable in this world and hand over our power we leave ourselves open to an array of consequences. It’s not about paranoia, it’s about being aware, maintain our independence and making sure we are active not passive thinkers.
Rating: 5 Stars

White Rose Rebel – Janet Paisley

For me, historical fiction reigns supreme. Like a true and loyal friend, I know I’m not going to be disappointed. And this book was no exception. Dedicated to my kindred spirit Jen Loker for recommending it and being just that type of friend. xo
White Rose Rebel is set in Scotland in the early 1700’s. Anne, the heroine of the novel is loosely based on a historical figure almost entirely lost to time. Scraps of her story that remain, paint the picture of a Scotswomen, who risked everything, including her marriage by defying her husband and going to war for her country’s freedom. Though the novel is fictitious, war was rife during this period and Scotland was on the verge of losing all. The last of their customs, freedoms and way of life were about to be lost to the English, much of which would not be regained for hundreds of years if ever.
Against that backdrop we meet the characters who paint the picture of Scottish society and its culture. Their way of life is beautifully portrayed – a people driven by their sense of community and deeply embedded beliefs of freedom, equality and justice. You can’t help but recognise and relate to what is good and true about their way of life.  Particularly enjoyable were the descriptions of the equality between men and women which were vital to their societies functionality.
Sex and passion are major themes through the novel, as is sexual freedom. One critic describing the book as ‘pacy, racy…a hot little kilt lifter’ which it certainly is. However, I’m a believer that there is a difference between realism,sensationalism and pornography. Many a romantic scene represents much more than a few hot pages. I wouldn’t go as far to say that every novel is pure in its intentions but I think that a characters development and motivations, sexual or otherwise make for a realistic portrayal of time and people in history.
There’s not much left wanting in this novel. I must admit though that I have a love/ hate relationship with the writing technique of ‘long build up/conflict’ for the majority of the novel and then ‘resolution’ for the last few pages, or last chapter if you are lucky. I’m completely drawn in by the emotions it causes ie. fending off the desire to skip 20 pages and find out what happens, being completely unable to eat or sleep until you finish the book etc, but honestly sometimes it’s just heart wrenching!
Paisely writes with great passion for her country. You feel her sense of lost for her countries history and with each page that history becomes introduced to you so poignantly.  She has such a deep, abiding sense of patriotism and a genuine love for her characters. It’s one of those stories you wish wouldn’t end.
Rating: 5 Stars

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts {Reviewed bu Levi Catton}

In this novel the author has drawn extensively on his own actual experiences as a criminal in exile. After being divorced, Roberts’ life collapsed into drug abuse and he was convicted of a series of armed robberies. After being tortured in prison, he escaped over the wall and fled through New Zealand to India on a false passport. After spending eight years as a renegade in Western Asia and Europe, he was re-captured in Germany and eventually served out the remainder of his sentence in Australia. This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of time he spent in India.
 In writing about this book it is impossible to separate the story from the author. Although the story is evidently well-crafted, it’s impossible to guess how much is fact, how much embellished, and how much complete fiction; I constantly wondered about this. His language is conversational and natural, and carries the conviction of having lived the events: I found it required me to allow a generous dose of poetic license and go along with the story as it is told.
 I love stories and appreciated the well-woven and layered tale that emerges. The narrative is entertaining, surprising and gripping, and maintains a quick pace while developing lush textures. Alongside the narrative is the journaler’s moral observation and introspection. In this novel, Roberts has a strongly philosophical intent and sets forth his own and other’s motives and meanings for a range of challenging ideas and behaviors. At times the themes are heavy and difficult, but rewarding. Roberts looks for – and finds – humanity in the individual irrespective of who or what they may be. He reveals and considers the good and bad in people with depth, compassion and humour, and identifies great triumphs in both trivial and terrible choices. Roberts doesn’t try to justify his frequently nefarious and criminal activities, but presents an honest exposition of the effects of people’s choices in their own and other’s lives. In addressing the battle of morality with intelligence and practicality, this book is a daring victory.
Roberts’ greatest achievement is his power to draw the reader into the scene – and there are many rich scenes in this book. His declarations of love for Bombay are supported and made authentic by a compelling descriptive talent. The devotion he pays in portraying his city makes clear that Roberts really does love Bombay. With the non-judgmental eye of the lover, Roberts portrays the vibrancy, friendliness, corruption, honor, crime, racial tension, kindness, greed and poverty of Bombay with openness and affection. His descriptions of the people and their environment focus on the evocation of feelings, and just as the feeling of a place remains with the traveler long after they have returned home, these feelings of Bombay are what have stayed with me from this book.
 Among the very best Australian novels I have read; for the experience and education it is easily worth the shelf price.
Rating: 5 Stars

Can any mother help me? – Jenna Bailey

This is an absolute treasure. If by divine intervention, a collection of papers from a society of women known as the Cooperative Correspondence Club (CCC) were discovered by author Jenna Bailey while doing research at the University of Sussex. Spanning much of the 20th Century, these papers tell the story of women living all across the United Kingdom who wrote of their lives, beliefs, hopes and struggles in a magazine, compiled and circulated monthly amongst its members.
Membership was restricted to mothers only, despite motherhood not being the predominant subject matter of the magazine, and no new member was admitted who could not bring something ‘new’ to the content. The magazine was strictly confidential and members wrote under a pseudonym, so as to ensure privacy if a non-member was to ever get their hands on the magazine.
Initially as a response to the loneliness many women felt as wives and mothers living in isolated areas it eventually became a deep friendship network where they could express themselves and receive advice and support like nowhere else. They saw each other through the loss of children, divorce, the war, the depression and an array of other situations. The women were varied in social status, wealth, age and character which gave the women a taste of ‘how the other side lives’  and bought perspective and experience to many of their challenges. The magazine gave hope, comfort and stimulus to extremely smart and educated women who often struggled with their role in the home. They wrote about anything and everything. Some of my favourites include, the theory of how your enjoyment of sex while you are conceiving effects whether you have a boy or girl, the comments on current trends in raising children and the witty and hilarious account of a near murder by one of the members.
Jenna Bailey knew she struck gold when she found the papers of the CCC. Though many had been destroyed by time, the papers she did find formed the foundation of this book. From there she researched the members and their families who filled in the gaps. A few of the members of the CCC were still living and recounted their motivations for writing and what the magazine meant to them while their families spoke of this secret book their mothers treasured and their desire to sneak a peek. From Jenna’s research the history of the members were gathered and offers a great insight into the women.
Women and history is the perfect combination for me. I love reading anything that highlights the lives of women, particularly in times and places I haven’t lived. This book takes you right back in time. Through the often general and common musings of their lives, these women bring to us what it was to live in a time we will never know. However the most magical element for me was just how much we have in common. It seems that joy, heartache, struggle and love are universal concepts, it’s just the backdrop that changes. I feel that each of us could sweep across the generations and find ourselves quite at home discussing life with the CCC, corset and all.
Rating; 5 Stars

The Snow Queen – Mardi McConnochie

I read this book in completely the wrong conditions. I’d never thought too much about how my life’s conditions really effected the quality of my reading but after giving it some thought during this read, I thought back and realised that so often it does. How many good books have we cast aside because of our own mental state? Or how many books that are generally marred as terrible are glorified because at the time we relate?
I read this book on the train (my usual reading venue, not ideal, but not overtly bad) but it happened to be during my last week of work, which turned out to be the busiest and most stressful of my entire time there. I had exactly the same amount of time I usually would but my head buzzed with the stresses and strains and thus my experience was diminished. Being a light read anyway I wasn’t overly concerned but I liked the idea it raised, that we as avid readers really do have such a deep connection with literature, so much so that how we feel directly impacts the story and its effect on us. I like that.
So the book. It really is a summer read. The type of book you should throw in your bag as you head out to the beach. It’s light, it’s pretty, it deals with fantastic human follies and its about ballet which of course makes you dream of your own childhood dance classes and the dormant thought that you should sign up for some adult ones.
The story follows Galina, a Russian Ballerina from her life in the Imperial Ballet School in pre revolutionary Russia, through her career with Ballet Ruses in France and how she came to be in Adelaide, South Australia. Galina begins writing her life story, as a way to set things straight, when a former colleague appears back in Adelaide and old wounds are reopened. Being a lover of all things ballet, the depiction of the ballet world is beautiful to read but it was the depiction of human characteristics that I liked most about this book. I love how Galina complains of the lack of discipline and commitment the little girls have to their ballet classes! It made me laugh out loud when she says ‘don’t they realise ballet is serious’. It was such a typical Australian folly seen through the eyes of a Russian. I also haven’t experienced ‘spite’ so well described on the page before. Galina has held onto her grudge towards her old colleague for over 20 years and she does it with so much Russian passion and vigor. Without ruining too much of the ending I also love how simple acts can wash away years of anger and rage in just a few seconds – so real, so true.
Although it isn’t the most amazing book in terms of style and language this really is a nice read. It’s an interesting story, takes you through interesting places and deals with real feelings and issues. So next time you are heading on a beach holiday or lazing at a picnic give it a go.
Rating: 4 Stars

Fall on your knees – Ann-Marie Macdonald

Happy Australia Day everyone! I hope you all had as good a day as we did. We enjoyed a fantastic BBQ, good friends and a swim in the pool. Although I didn’t once sing the national anthem, I felt our day spent enjoying Australian past times was sufficiently patriotic! What did you all get up to?
This weeks book is a good old-fashioned, skeletons in the closet, family secrets kind of story. Written in a very ‘Bronte Sisters’ style, it takes a few pages to adjust to the tone but once you’ve got it the language is rather beautiful, possessing a quality often only found in the ‘classics’. 
The story begins in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia Canada where James Piper, a determined entrepreneur, meets 13-year-old Materia, the eldest daughter of a rags to riches Lebanese family. In their home to tune the family piano, James instead finds himself in love. He secretly courts Materia in the following weeks and soon enough they have eloped. Upon discovery they are disowned by Materia’s family and find themselves friendless and alone in an out-of-the-way town. The story spells out the recipe for disaster at every turn. It’s not unexpected when Materia doesn’t warm to the role of wife, housekeeper and mother nor when James wonders how this little girl ensnared him with her seduction. Materia is like a ghost, lost with no identity or family, and no longer the object of James affections. It is her children who eventually give her life joy, and it is them, the four Piper sister who’s lives we trace through this epic. 
Against the backdrop of early twentieth century Canada and New York the girls lives weave through religion, rebellion, mystery, memories, music, death, love and hope. Each sister is so unique and so defined by her experience, memories and history. They are interesting characters and the heart of this novel is in their relationships and the way they shape each others lives.
I actually really enjoyed this book, which surprised me because I often have difficulty with books that are too tragic. I think the reason is because the characters, though vivid, multifaceted and deeply constructed, were at the end of the day just characters. I didn’t find myself deeply involved with them, trying to warn them off decisions or rejoicing in their triumphs. And although I have considered this to be of my own doing, on further reflection I actually think it has been a tactical move by the author. By keeping the reader at arm’s length she almost has permission to take her story anywhere she wants it to go. There is after all no fear of offending the sensibilities of her readers. Thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think of this idea. Do you totally disagree? Did you get wrapped up in the characters?
It’s easy for me to recommend this book. If you are a Bronte lover, the language alone makes it an enjoyable experience. For everyone else the story, with its twists and turns, mystery and intrigue makes for great reading. It’s not a happy book but I’m gradually learning that that is okay. Something doesn’t have to be lovely to be beautiful or perfect to be memorable.
A warning for the cautious reader, this book contains themes of incest.
Rating: 4 Stars

Still Alice – Lisa Genova


Brilliant. Read it, read it, read it.
Still Alice is beautiful, heartfelt and perfectly sincere. It follows the journey of Alice, a 50-year-old Harvard Psychology Professor, wife and mother of three through her symptoms, diagnoses and life with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s told  in such a powerful way that you are not only educated with each turn of the page but deeply effected by the realities of this life changing condition. It’s an innately truthful tale. People with the disease have commented that Lisa Genova perfectly captured the emotions and realities of it and that is what is so touching. It feels so real.
“She wished she had cancer instead. She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat. She felt ashamed for wishing this, and it was certainly a pointless bargaining, but she permitted the fantasy anyway. With cancer she’d have something she could fight. There was the chance that she could win. Her family and the community at Harvard would rally behind her battle and consider it noble. And even if defeated in the end, she’d be able to look them knowingly in the eye and say goodbye before she left.
Alzheimer’s disease was an entirely different kind of beast. There were no weapons that could slay it…And while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity… She didn’t want to become someone people avoided and feared.” Page 94
 Before Alice is diagnosed, her symptoms start to show themselves in really common-place ways. She forgets what a name on her to-do list means, she forgets words she knows well and lecture material she was once familiar with becomes vague. This was the stuff that scared me. Suddenly I was very aware of things I couldn’t remember and truly if Alzheimer’s was contagious, and you could catch it from a book – I got it. For a week after reading it, I’ve been second guessing myself. For example, I discovered two mangoes in my handbag. I know that I bought mango/mangoes from a street vendor and know that they were $2.50 each. I look in my wallet and I have $7.50, I know that I had a $10 note so reason suggests that I have only bought one. So where did the other mango come from? Did I get it from home? Did I take someone elses from the work fridge? – I literally have no idea! In this way the author managed to achieve one of her major goals; educating people so that they are aware of the symptoms and can get early diagnoses. I’m confident I’m nothing more than paranoid, but I’m grateful that the author wrote in such a way that makes you really question yourself.
It’s not an overly sad book despite its sad subject matter. The love of her children and the relationship she develops with her youngest daughter highlights the bond that holds fast within families, particularly when tragedy hits.  As Alice progresses to the later stages of the disease the book really conveys a sense of peace. Behind the veil of lost memory, everything that makes her up, her essence, her spirit is still there. For me it makes me grateful for my faith that the ailments we face in this life, mental and physical, will be taken away in the next. It suggests to me that everything we face in this life is there to teach and strengthen us.
This book is a triumph in so many ways. It has been endorsed by the National Alzheimer’s Association for its powerful and accurate portrayal of the disease. The language is beautiful, natural and enjoyable and considering if was originally self published this is all the more impressive. Overall I consider it an absolute treasure, a book I will never forget.
Rating: 5 Stars

Her fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

This is the first book in ages that I have had the time to read through in only a few sittings. I don’t usually have the opportunity with work and life demanding attention, but with the Christmas holidays I found myself with the opportunity. I was interested to see what Niffenegger had come up with after The Time Travellers Wife (let me know if you’d like to know more about this one) which was a really enjoyable book.
The story is a little complicated but basically Elspeth, one half of a set of identical twins is dying of Leukaemia. Upon her death her will is executed leaving her apartment, money and possessions almost completely to her estranged twin sister’s twin daughters who she has never met. The will is full of conditions that don’t allow the twins parents to ever enter the apartment etc etc, which opens up the major mystery of the novel. Living in America at the time they discover their luck, the twins travel to London to live in their new apartment. They meet their neighbours, one the former partner of Elspeth who works in the famous Highgate Cemetery, the other an OCD sufferer whose condition keeps him from leaving the apartment to pursue his wife who has left him. They also meet Elspeths ghost who is trapped in the apartment.
Mystery, ghoulish encounters, human behavioural insights and a dash of romance give the novel a really unique, enjoyable quality and you can’t help but turn the pages a little faster to find out what happens next.
The major flaw however of this book was exactly the same as it was in The Time Travellers Wife. The author seems unable to give the reader what they want for an ending. And there is nothing more validating than to see Hollywood agree when they change the story for film to exactly what feels right. Now some of you might disagree but who can argue that seeing Kate die while Anna lives in the movie version of My Sisters Keeper (book by Jodi Picoult) felt better than the ending of the book? Or seeing Henry at the end of the movie (The Time Travellers Wife) time travel back to his wife after a reasonable amount of time? I just can’t get over the need to have the books I read resolve themselves. I find myself recreating the ending when the reality just won’t do.
Rating: 4 Stars

Truth and Beauty – Ann Patchett

I’m not entirely sure what to write about this book, I can understand how people just love it and I really, really wanted to love it…but didn’t. I love the idea of the book but I can’t help but admit I was disappointed.
Truth and Beauty is about the friendship between Lucy Grealy (Author of Autobiography of a face) and Ann Patchett (Author of this book among others). It details the intricacies of their friendship from aspiring writers to successful authors and everything in between.
Lucy had cancer when she was young leaving her with a disfigured face as well as breathing and eating issues and throughout her life she underwent over 30 corrective surgeries. Despite this, and likely because of it, Lucy was a celebrity everywhere she went, people were drawn to her and Ann was one of those people. They go through graduate school together, endlessly apply for writing residencies which they each in turn win but never at the same time and find their way through relationships and breakups, drug addiction and writers block.
I wouldn’t want to steer anyone away from reading this book, I think for many people its honesty as well as it’s insights into both the world of aspiring authors and the realities of friendships would be appreciated. However much of the content of the book to me was troubling. It’s such an honest account, but the honestly is almost brutal. Lucy is painted as an extremely needy, dependent wreck for most of the book, and although Ann herself seems to find this enduring you can’t help but read the subtext as slander. We all have our faults but to have them immortalised in a book, for no specific reason to me seems unnecessary and cruel. However it goes without saying that as an idealist, who loves the drama, but craves the happy ending, I am not the most impartial critic. If you like a well written book, biographies and true stories, not doubt you will find this a good read.
Rating: 3 Stars

The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery – Volume 1

I bought this book 4 years ago while visiting the birth place of L.M. Montgomery, beloved author of ‘Anne of Green Gables’, on Prince Edward Island, Canada. That trip was the fulfillment of a life long dream to visit the place that inspired the books that have had such an influence on my life and character. I not only love the Anne of Green Gables books and films (1st and 2nd only, I despised the 3rd for it’s blatant digression from the books) but have at times considered myself to BE Anne – a confession, you will understand serves to convey the depth of my love for ‘all things Anne’.
So alas, I have no answer for why these journals have remained untouched on my bookshelf for so long. Fancy sways me to believe they waited until this time in my life where they would have the most effect – and that they have.
For anyone who has a love for the Anne of Green Gables books these journals will expand that love, for those who don’t, it will inspire it. Each entry is a treasure, capturing the beauty of a time long lost, in surrounds so exactly and poetically described you feel as though you are there. But the value of these journals lies well beyond these descriptions. What ‘Maud’ captures, unknowingly through her honest dialogue with her journal, her trusted friend, is the passage from girlhood to womanhood. Seamlessly Maud’s entries glide from those of a young, energetic, passionate youth, to those of a strong though lonely, talented authoress. However the beauty of the works revelations lie in the more subtle details. Heartache, death, duty, necessity, travel and love are exposed as the experiences that force the passage. Once a carefree girl, eager for fun and full of joy she becomes lonely, depressed and unhappy. She isn’t completely defined by these traits, there is much about her that remains less depressing ie. her writing, her activities, her garden and her love of beauty but a transition has taken place. As women we all go through it but I admit in my life I ask myself ‘Why have I changed so much?’. I notice and can’t help but feel sad at the absence of elements of my former self. I felt great comfort from Maud’s journey, I learnt that while you lose some treasures of youth, you gain so much as you journey towards womanhood. Knowledge, inner strength, confidence and wisdom. Although at times she covets the joy of her youth, she herself says she would not return to it.
Many of the entries are quite heartbreaking. From the death of parents and childhood friends to the sadness of living with grandparents so different from herself with little desire to understand her. Her love life has your head spinning at times. In her youth she was much sort after and had many young suitors confess their love. As she grows she questions her ability to feel love and in course consents to marry a man, who she believes she can come to love, though quickly realises he repulses her completely. The depth of her turmoil over this situation is quite consuming. The modern reader can’t help but hope for a hint of passion in a book and through Maud’s brief relationship with the son of a family she boards with you get your fill! Being on the receiving end of such confidences makes you feel quite privileged. Remembering this isn’t fiction but a young women’s actually experiences.
I have truly enjoyed reading the journal of an author who has given me so much. And with many more volumes I hope to get to some of the others next year.
Rated: 5 Stars

The Ordinary Princess - By M.M. Kaye


My first review is for 'The Ordinary Princess' By M.M. Kaye. I noticed the title of this book on another blog and without reading the review borrowed it from the local library only to find, much to my delight it was a children's book. An absolutely gorgeous one at that.

Amy the 7th daughter of the King and Queen was all that a little princess should be until at her christening her fairy godmother gifts her with being ordinary. She grows to prove she is exactly that, with straight brown hair, freckles and a turned up nose! Despite the rare thought that she would like to be as beautiful as her sisters, early on she discovers the benefits of being ordinary. As the book progresses her ordinariness becomes key to her happiness.

I just loved this book, it took me back to all of my childhood insecurities and washed them away with one clean sweep. Written for her grandaughter you could see that M.M. Kaye was trying to convey a powerful principle within a beautiful fairytale - that being happy with who you are is the surest way to find happiness in life.

Rating: 5 Stars

Goldilocks

I have loved reading for as long as I can remember. As a little girl my books were most treasured possessions and bed time, with its accompanying stories was always highly anticipated. 
Since the moment the knowledge was mine that it was likely I would have to work some day (what an unfortunate realisation!), I have wanted nothing more than to work someway, somehow with my first love…books. I remember suggesting to my family that I could be the person who writes the blurbs on the back (too hard to figure out how you get that job!). I progressed to thinking perhaps I would be the lady who reads children stories in the library, eat cookies all day and have an array of fairytale hats (no doubt I’d become too soft and round!). Later came the idea that book publishing would be juuust right. And so, for the past 10 years of my life I have been certain that one day all my dreams would come true and I would land ‘The’ job.
Well lots of my dreams have come true. I graduated university with a degree in Journalism and another in English Literature. I served a mission for the church. I married my best friend in the temple, my very own Gilbert Blythe. But my little dream of working in publishing has thus far eluded me (bears in the form of HR personnel blocking the way!)
So I find myself starting to try the beds out all over again. Still searching for that job and thinking of teaching. Life is at the crossroads and beginning this little blog is a lovely way to remind myself why I love book so much  and what it’s all about.