Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Reading from the non-fiction side of my brain

Today is Anzac Day in Australia, and in order to take a break from reading and playing around on the internet, I went to a dawn service. Yes. I got up at 6am and went to remember all of the Australians who've died in wars.

Now, let's not get into whether war (ones that Australia has been involved in, at least) is justified or not. It's my opinion that only WWII was justified, and even then war is messy, nasty and complicated. DON'T ATTACK ME INTERNET.

At the dawn service, one of the speeches was given by a general who'd done a couple of tours of Afghanistan. And he used the podium (both literal and metaphoric, a double whammy!) to canvas support for Afghanistan. He said that the troops over there are fighting for the freedom of Australia (because if the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, we're NEXT. We'll fight them on the beaches, on the other beaches, and then some more beaches). And that if we disagree with Afghanistan, the move to withdraw the troops, etc. all the deaths related to the war will have been in vain. Well ... I felt something like this. 

Okay. Maybe I was a little bit more, to quote Clueless ... 'As IF'. 

What was I to do after such a shocking moment? I had to go buy myself some BOOKS. 

And I am super dooper excited about my purchases. 

I'm on a bit of a non-fiction bender at the moment. I guess after reading so many depressing WWII books up against so many happy-go-(very)-lucky romance books, I needed to give the fiction side of my brain a bit of a break. 

From Geraldine Brooks's The Idea of Home: Boyer Lectures 2011, to Anna Krien's Quarterly Essay on The Importance of Animals, I have been having some awesomely delightful non-fiction moments. 

The Idea of Home addresses a range of issues around ... the idea of home (what a surprise!). From environmental issues to Australian surburbia, she addresses home is a truly moving way. The perfect sort of book to inspire you to take action to preserve your home, or to read while snuggling under your bed covers, happy in the knowledge that you are home. 

As for Anna Krien's book, it's a bit more depressing (not to say that Brooks's doesn't bring the sadness to her writing, 'cause the lady knows how to make the eyes drip with le watery stuff). 

But covering topics like animal testing and the meat industry are hardly going to make you feel cheerful. A note of friendly warning: make sure you aren't eating meat while reading this. 

So I hope that my rage-inspired purchases are going to be just as amazing. I avoided buying any war books, as we don't want a reprisal of my Kelis-esque rage moment. Instead I asked the lovely bookseller for recommendations of non-fiction books in the style of Hare with Amber Eyes, Stasiland, The Tall Man.

She, in her infinite bookseller wisdom, suggested Teach Us To Sit Still, all max caps for editing nerd reference. It's about a funny guy who gets some body ailment and goes on a journey into alternative medicine. And from the cover, there seems to be some yoga involved? Namaste, friend. 

The other hopefully winning title is The Snow Leopard by Matthiessen. Not to be confused with The Leopard, that Italian book (awesome description. Snaps!). Look, the blurb says it's about an inner journey, so I'll need to have a cynical book ready and waiting to read at the end of it, just to balance things out. 

Speaking of balance brings us nicely back to my Anzac Day moment. There was no balance in the speech on Afghanistan, no other side. And there SHOULD be. I know a national holiday isn't normally time for deep thought, more like double speak (anyone? Anyone?), but still. I leave you (hey, Laura, my one reader!), this awesome speech from TED. 

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A long time ago, on a continent far far away ...

There lived a land called Regency England. This England was a land full of plucky, yet virginal heroines, and tortured rakes, presided over by a jolly fat man everyone called Prinny.

In this land, the women were beautiful (even when plain), the men were handsome, and hardly anyone did any work, unless it was for a minor plot device.

There were poor in this land, but you hardly ever saw them. Sometimes poor people would be used as messengers; occasionally they were found to be secret rich people; and a lot of times they were prostitutes. 

But mostly the poor didn't exist.

For this land was a genteel land, full of gentlemen and ladies and lords and duchesses and American heiresses. These people danced a lot and drank a lot of tea. This tea seemingly had magical properties, for while drinking tea one became wittier, the repartee sharper, and the humour seemed to skip forward a century or two.

Darcy's tea-riffic Favors Five via Jane Austen's library

And maybe there was a war going on overseas. But that was not to be thought of unless it interrupted a Grand Tour, or meant a dashing hero needed to be comforted after a battle. Or unless it involved a spy with a flowery name.

Regency England was both entertaining and at times (depending on the fantasy) as dull as dishwater. Not that any of the people living in Regency England would know what dishwater was.

Yet water seemed to be in abundant supply. All of the people living in Regency England smelled like daisies. In this land, daisies had an allure not unlike Marc Jacob's Daisy perfume.

The people were always washed.

And the men, after years of whoring around the country and taking advantage of lustful widows, all had manhoods as erect and good-looking as the Tower of London.

Syphilis was unheard of. Certainly no one's nose fell off like Johnny Depp's did in that movie of another land, called Restoration England.

In Regency England, the men all loved going 'Down Under' on their wives. Of course, no one would call it Down Under then. This prosaic reference to the colony of Australia would not have occurred to the inhabitants of the land of Regency England. As far as these chaps were concerned, the only colony that existed was America, which was full of rich and sassy women.

This was a white land. Even its sun was pale. The only dark things in the land were the villains' tempers and the smoke from a hearty fire.

In Regency England, there were no newspapers. There were no coffee houses of people agitating against injustice. And good old Prinny certainly didn't divorce his wife.

No, there were only gossip sheets, clubs (for the men! The women had matchmaking at Almacks to entertain them!), and good times.

Encore Une Minute via Jane Austen's Library
Yes, Regency England was a swell place to live.

Disclaimer: While historical romance books generally ignore pretty much all of history, the Southern Hemisphere and Asia, and anyone who wasn't wealthy, there are still some capital books in this genre. More on that later ...

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

You'll weep, you'll cry, you'll bawl - and then you'll thank me (or, why historical novels are awesome)

general3 via alexbracken

Sex, drama, tension, humour, joy, sorrow, disgust - no, I'm not talking about the Oscars ceremony, but rather the many, MANY things that historical novels manage to fit in a couple of hundred pages.

Now, I'm a bit of a historical novel groupie. Throw in a bit of ...

With a bit of ... 
And what you get is pure awesome (disclaimer: I understand that these films aren't accurate portrayals. Queen E was way more of a bad-ass than Cate). 

Unfortunately, I haven't read any of these bodice-ripping extravaganzas recently. 

It kind of turns out that all the historical novels I have read in the past couple of weeks have been about WWII: the yet-to-be released FitzOsbornes at War, All That I Am and I've just started Code Name Verity.

And it must be said, these are not happy books. If you want to turn that frown upside down, put a smile on your dial, put on a happy face, *insert more international cliches here* then probs best to avoid (you hear what I'm laying down?). 

The FitzOsbornes you can probably handle without withdrawing from the world too much, but after reading All That I Am be ready for some heavy-duty fetal-position hiding-under-the-table crying. 

All That I Am starts off in Bondi circa now. This bird-chirpingly sunny suburb of Sydney is basically as far as you can get, in location and tone, from Berlin in the 1930s. 

Our main character is Ruth, an old lady when we first meet her. Ruth is pretty awesome, laidback, witty. 

She also happens to be the main character in the 1930s, when she hangs out with a group of German intellectuals, activists, playwrights, and other assorted cool people, including her activist cousin Dora. These people vigorously protest against the Nazis, and well, after that, it's pretty much what you expect. Most of this group are Jewish, and are doubly persecuted for their heritage and their leftist views. 

The story itself is captivating, grabbing your attention and shaking you right down to your booties. But the writing ... be still my reading heart. Oh. My. Dahl. It's writing that's so easy to read, but occasionally will have a turn-of-phrase so simply ace that you will need to stop reading the book so that you can hug it.

I'm not going to tell you anymore now (and don't read any more reviews, just GET THE DAMN BOOK). But read the author's note at the end. It. Will. Make. You. Cry. But seriously people. It's Anna Funder. You weren't expecting sunshine and lollipops? 

Anyhow, if you will excuse me. I have another WWII book that is waiting in line to make me cry. Expect a report soon on Code Name Verity

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Coconut cakes, Godstones and Lord Hector, oh my (a review of Girl of Fire and Thorns)

My Mind Stops Here via A Looking Glass Girl
I started trapeze classes a couple of weeks ago, and something that has become clear to me is that upper-arm strength is kind-of-a-must for flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Apparently, a girl can't just go from doing nothing but typing, reading books and lifting coffee cups to hanging in mid-air by a rope and her arms, ya know?

And to be honest, I think it's all Mulan's fault. She makes it look so easy to go from being a totally clumsy book nerd to running marathons, doing karate kicks in the sky and then climbing a huge wooden pole to fetch an arrow.

'I'll make a man (mer-man! meerrrr-man! There's so a Mulan/Zoolander mash-up just waiting to happen) out of you' should be sued for deceiving a generation of impressionable youngsters.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

What I'm trying to say is, when Eliza, the heroine of Rae Carson's super-fantastic (that's the technical term) Girl of Fire and Thorns is forced to march through a really big desert having previously done nothing but read and eat coconut cakes? I felt her pain (yes, I am comparing a bit of arm pain with being made to walk through a big stinking desert, what of it?).

I was totally feeling her throughout the rest of the book, too. Girl has some tough breaks. Eliza is bearer of the Godstone, which means that she is going to perform some big service for her people. It sort of feels a bit like ... 

The bit about Harry being the Chosen One, not the bit about Ron ... moving on ...

But Eliza's also a princess, younger sister to a ridiculously over-achieving heir to the throne, secretly married ... and morbidly obese. Combined with all that she's just been forced to leave her country to settle in her new husband's kingdom.

Let's be honest here. I was fan-girling over Eliza. I loved her from the beginning, when she took charge of a situation (you'll know it when you get to it) that her husband (metaphorically) ran squealing from. And she continues to take charge throughout the book.

And while I had a minor quibble with the book in that some of the characters felt flat, too obviously convenient plot devices, Eliza felt real from the first page. I even wanted to call in sick so I could finish the book. I didn't (#goodgirlsyndrome), but damn, I wanted to. She's stubborn, and thoughtful, and strong, and you just know she'd be up for a late-night sleepover.

She'd be a total catch as a friend, you know what I'm saying?

So sure, a couple of the characters felt a bit flat. But by the end of the book, I was having major-swoon syndrome for a character (SPOILERS: Hector) who only appeared for a small section of the book (HE RECOGNISED HER FROM BEHIND. You'll know when you get to this point). To make me care so much for a character with not that many words to his name? That's quality writing.

If I was going to say anything else to convince you to read this book, I would tell you that for me, Rae Carson now falls in the pantheon of awesome-female-centric-fantasy writers, like Kristen Cashore, Sherwood Smith, Robin McKinley, Ellen Kushner, Juliet Marillier, etc. etc. with awesome female characters. There's only one more thing that needs to be said.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Friends, lovers, chums. I just finished reading the spectacularly fabulous Fire and Thorns (known as the Girl of Fire and Thorns in places that aren't Australia). And I will talk about it and talk about it and talk about. But later.

First, I have a public-service announcement to make. In the interests of public safety, it is important that you all know how bodice-heavingly awesome romance books are.

I have shouted of my love for this genre from the rooftops of the internet. But seeing as Valentine's Day (or more appealingly, Galentine's Day. Seriously, who was this 'Valentine' anyway? Sounds like a total Casanova to me and if spotted on the streets he should be TREATED WITH EXTREME CAUTION) was a couple of days ago, I think it's the right time to talk a little romance.

Oh yes. I'm talking bodice-heaving, skirt-lifting, independence-fostering ROMANCE, bitches.

When you are after some really entertaining reads, it's hard (no pun intended) to look past romance books.

And it's my duty, as an altruistic romance reader, to share some romance books that any virgin (like most of the heroines in these books, let's face facts) romance reader could get in to.

In The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Eloise, a Harvard grad student, is researching flowery English spies from the Napoleonic Wars. In her research, she stumbles upon Amy's letters. Amy was a feisty, hilarious, totally historically implausible girl dreaming of becoming a spy and thwarting Napoleon.

Of course, both Eloise and Amy have men who want to thwart them, the snotty Colin and and for Amy, the supercilious Richard. It's a super-fun romp. Spies, sex and sarcasm. My kind of book.

On the opposite side of the romance genre is Jenny Crusie. Oh Jenny, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways (and books). Most people are all like, hot bodies, they're so sexy.

But I'm like, give me a witty mouth over a hot body any day. And Ms Crusie is the queen of wit. Also of screwball romances. Like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Barbara S and Henry Fonda. Like me and this blog ... no?

And if those don't do it for you, may I suggest you go back to the beginning?

The first romance book I ever read was Matilda. Right, right, I know what you're thinking. But Matilda was about the beautiful, bewwwwtiful love between a girl and her books.

And that's a love that lasts forever (awwwwwww).

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The incredible crying girl or, I just finished reading 'The Fault in Our Stars'.

Whenever I hear that someone has written a fictional book about cancer, I tend to think that the story is going to go something like this:

But when I heard that John Green's latest book, 'The Fault in Our Stars' was about teens with cancer, I knew it was going to be something different. For one thing, he didn't call it 'A smalk to semember', which is always a good start.

So I got my hands on this book (an unsigned copy, booooooo australia! Just because some of my relatives were convicts doesn't mean I don't deserve a signed copy, damnit! If you don't know what I'm talking about, go and find out). The text-of-hand reviews had already been good. In fact, a friend of mine had already elevated the couple at the centre of this book, Hazel and Augustus, to her top couples of all time. So I knew it was gonna be good/great/stupendous.

But the thing you need to know about me is that I am a pathetic literary cry-er. I cry when dogs die, I cry when good couples get together, I cry when favourite shirts get ruined. The polite term would be 'sensitive'. Result: before I started reading the book, I needed to get myself in a stoic frame of mind. A survivalist if you will. I was determined to read this book, tears be damned (insert combination of the Rocky montage, etc. etc. here).

Then I started reading, and boy was it good. I was all, this is amazeballs. 

Hazel was so witty, and funny, and she actually made me forget that a man was writing this character (I have an irrational prejudice against men writing women. Sorry G-man. Can I ... call you G-man?).

The girl could take on any characters in the original words battle, 'The Thin Man' (you thought I was going to say shakespeare, didn't you? Why pick shakespeare when you can pick THE THIN MAN?).

But I knew it was too good to be true. I was three quarters of the way through the book, and everything was going so well. It seemed obvious that something was about to go wrong.

I mean, I haven't loved John Green's books in the past, because nothing much happens. It's all talking, talking, talking, boy has an epiphany, talking (alert: massive, wild over-generalisation). But I was LOVING this with the fire of a thousand suns. I was wanted to be BFFs with Hazel, I was supporting her and Gus, I was laughing over antics. And then. Then it happened. And I was like:

Using that clip was a mistake. Excuse me while I go and cry over Gandalf for a little while. In conclusion. This book was awesome. But don't expect to be anything other than devastated, a la the fellowship of the ring after the fall of gandalf at the end. I could be saying that because you don't want the book to end, or for another reason. SPOILER. People. This is a book about teenagers with cancer. Although not really. Although yes. Although ... Oh just bloody go and buy it already. I have crying to do.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A not-so-happy book for my happy list

ALL OF THE BOOKS I want to read. Ricardo Bougle via A Lovely Being.

I normally grunt and gesticulate with anger when I read yet another article in the paper about the short attention span (among other terrible problems) of Generation Y. As you've might have guessed, it pisses me off.

You should see me talk about books. I can mouth off for hours about the awesomeness of Jenny Crusie, about how genre books are the backbone of literature, the mysterious reason why fairytale retellings always seem to have a secret magic ingredient that makes them great (Daughter of the Forest, Cinder, Entwined, Ember, just to name a few).

Talking or reading fiction books can hold my attention for days at a time.

But when it comes to non-fiction books, it hurts my soul that I can't really deny these scurrilous accusations. I recently started reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and I won't hesitate to tell you that it was awesome. Unfortunately, I stopped around a third in, because it had taken me a week to get that far. Seeing as it normally takes me a couple of days to finish a book (HUMBLEBRAG), you know that's a problem.

So when I bash through my mental block about non-fiction and FINISH a non-fiction book, you just know it's going to be added to my happy pile.

Andrew Mueller's I Wouldn't Start From Here is a book I turn to when I want to be entertained. It also makes me want to be a better/funnier person (can I be both, or do I have to decide on one?). This guy has been a roving journalist since the early 90s, and has covered wars from Iraq to Eritrea, and U2 concerts in what seems to be every country of the world.

You see, Mr Mueller hasn't really decided whether he wants to be a music journo or a political hack – and so he does both. The book is sort of a short history of the 21st century so far, and it's not pretty. Mueller doesn't hesitate to make fun of people he thinks are acting like morons (read: everyone), and he will always go for the cheap gag.

He probably has what people would call an Australian sense of humour, which means he's an equal opportunity humorist – he'll even make fun of himself, given half a second.

Written as a sort of loosely connected set of essays, with the overriding theme of everyone is behaving stupidly in the 21st century, the only problem I have with Mueller's book (apart from his musings on girlfriends) is the almost twee links between the chapters. Seriously, read this book and see if you can guess what country/war/dilemma is coming next based on Mueller's links *fun game alert*!

But whatever, every book has problems. What this book doesn't have is 99 of them (see what I did there?). All it does it have is the man-balls to be entertaining, thoughtful, incisive, insightful and bloody funny.

That's why I Wouldn't Start From Here is on my happy list. Although it might be a little bit wrong to have a book about so many horrible things on this list ... a discussion for another time!