Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness has an unusual and moving genesis. Ness wrote the novel based on an idea left behind by novelist Siobhan Dowd before she died prematurely from cancer.

Both the story itself, and the beautifully illustrated book are exceptional.  The reader accompanies thirteen year old Conor as he tries to come to terms with his mother's terminal illness and imminent death.

I loved so many things about this illustrated novel, presumably for a young adult audience, but really I can't imagine there would be too many readers of any age that would not be swept up by this story.

Ness gets the thirteen year old voice just right.  I was totally engaged with Conor; his fear, isolation and anger, are all believably rendered.

The story is perfectly paced and edited.  In a minimum of words, the reader is immersed into Conor's unravelling home and school life.  The scenes with his absent father were heart-breaking as were his battles with bullies at school.  Ness has a light touch which is very effective. 

The monster is both real and metaphorical, a tree creature that Conor has conjured up unwillingly to try and make sense of the unfathomable loss of his mother and his world as he knows it.  Ness captures the loneliness of adolescence and the confusion and terror at the loss of a parent.  The book is alive with genuine feeling.

Illustrator, Jim Kay, enhances the emotional impact of the novel with  his dark and subtle drawings.  This book is a standout from beginning to end and a work of art in itself.  I highly recommended it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

This book is nothing short of inspiring and life affirming - I loved it.

I am quickly becoming hooked on De Botton's lucid and intelligent writing.  In The Art of Travel, he explores all aspects of the travelling experience, cleverly combining thoughts on travel from artists, poets, and other luminary thinkers with his own personal accounts and points of view.

His books are so beautifully conceived and executed.  The Art of Travel opens with a section "On Anticipation"  where he argues strongly, and using some hilarious historical examples, how so much of the enjoyment of any travel adventure, is in planning.  He also digs deep into the human psyche and captures why travel is addictive for so many of us.  Throughout the whole book I found myself marvelling at his singularly brilliant way of expressing human truths:

"Journeys are the midwives of thought.  Few places are so conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train."  p.57

The final chapter "On Habit" invites the reader, after many happy pages of adventure through the beautiful and the sublime, accompanied by words of wisdom on travel from the likes of Flaubert, Wordsworth and Van Gogh, to reconsider our own familiar home environments through fresh eyes.  And that, as exhilarating and refreshing as travelling so often is, there is much to see in our own backyards if we only adjust our mindset to one of curiosity.

This book is just as good as The Consolations of Philosophy which I read last year.  I am besotted with De Botton.  On more than one occasion now, his books have lured me away from my usual diet of fiction to walk with him through his extraordinary take on what it is to be human.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We have winners

Many thanks to those who entered the New Year Giveaway.  The two lucky winners are:

Joanne P  BookloverBookReview (Bereft by Chris Womersley)

Sean Adventures of a Bookonaut (The Scar by China Mieville)


Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Kafka

I think it is safe to assume that my brief foray into the world of Kafka has come to an end. As much as I enjoyed reading The Metamorphosis, I should have just left it there.  The two other Kafka short stories I have read today have not been nearly so enjoyable, or understandable, to me.

In the Penal Colony (1919)

This is a very barbaric story that opens with a "traveller" to a strange land being instructed on the workings of a complex torture device.  Out of courtesy to the readers of this blog I won't go into any more of the very gory details. The story is very compelling; you know something awful is about to happen and like the traveller, who is there as a witness, the reader is utterly powerless to do anything about it. Part of the tension comes from wondering if the traveller will step in to alter events. 

The story is immensely clever, exploring ideas of justice, being morally conflicted and not sure what to do, and some really unpleasant ideas about torture and suffering, but it is just too weird and unpleasant for me.

The Country Doctor (1919)

This is a brief short story that I really did not like. The subject is unpleasant and it is so surreal that I couldn't really grasp what Kafka is trying to say.  The story opens with an old country doctor making a late night flight to the bedside of a sick boy.  He can't find a horse and so it appears his maid is exchanged for the use of two very fast horses.  On arriving at the sick bed, the doctor is unable to treat the boy who has a very macabre wound, and the family of the boy try to prevent the doctor from leaving, he escapes through a window into the freezing night and presumably spends the rest of his life (the symbolism is dense, I couldn't really understand what was happening) riding helplessly around naked on the horses, disillusioned and dejected.

Overall I find Kafka's writing intriguing, but too dark for me.  When his work began to circulate in the first half of the twentieth century I am sure it must have created an enormous stir amongst the progressive literary types.  If you want to experience the brilliance without suffering nightmares or significant confusion, The Metamorphosis is well worth reading.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I have always wanted to read this, I think partially because so many modern authors cite Kafka as an influence.  I guess I always thought that Kafka was one of those writers that is often quoted and cited as much by reputation as anything else.  And I think I might have assumed that I wouldn't find his writing accessible.  I was wrong, I really enjoyed this novella, or longish short story; it's a weird and wonderful tale.

The Metamorphosis, originally written in German, is a novella in three parts that charts the changing relationship of a young man, Gregor, with his family.  The story opens with him waking up one morning to find he has been transformed into a large, bug-like insect.  Gregor has spent the previous five years working to support his parents and younger sister, in a job he doesn't like.  His transformation forces his family to change.  I think this is the underlying thrust of the story.

The story is told in a very understated, matter of fact, third person narrative, from the perspective of Gregor.  The writing is deceptively simple and this certainly adds to the horror of Gregor's plight.  Gregor does not seem all that alarmed by becoming an insect, certainly not at the beginning.  He is more worried about what his boss will think because he has missed his train.  His passivity is frustrating, but I am sure that is the point.

I loved how Kafka simply, but surely, creates this bug transformation.  It is so real!  Kafka thinks of everything, and absolutely convinces the reader of what it would be like to find oneself trying to survive in your bedroom, at the mercy of your family, as a giant bug.  All the little details, like the mobility challenges, the eating challenges, are recreated in this rather engrossing and disturbing tale.  China Mieville has similar weirdly transformed human-animal, human-machine characters in some of his novels.

In short, I found myself enjoying The Metamorphosis on a couple of levels.  It is both simple and complicated.  The story is plainly and dispassionately told, which increases the impact of what has happened to Gregor one hundred fold.  The themes are complex, and I am sure I have not figured it all out.  I certainly think it is some sort of cautionary tale, that also must relate to the era it was published in (1915), about making oneself a slave to others at the expense of one's own needs.

If you are like I was, and thought that Kafka, might be a bit much, I would encourage you to read this, it doesn't take long, and it is absorbing and entirely original. Reading The Metamorphosis makes me curious about Kafka, he must have been quite an individual, way ahead, or at the very least, outside, of his time and his surrounds. I look forward to learning more about him.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Guidance on Book Clubs Required

For the first time I can remember, I feel like I have a reasonable number of people around me, in my everyday world, including colleagues at work, who love reading as much as I do.

I began to daydream about starting a social book club.  This idea was only in its infancy when I mentioned it to a couple of people.  Very much to my surprise, those people mentioned it to a couple of others, and now, group shy me, is facing the beginnings of this coffee-shop-book-chat-get-together next weekend.

Note to self, introverts like me, should be very careful about mentioning random musings to more action oriented extroverts, unless they themselves are ready for action.  So my plea to you is this: have you been part of a book club yourself?  What are some good basic ideas for getting a very informal book club off the ground?  I am not a terribly structured person (that is why reading works so well for me, it demands so little) but I do wonder that if we don't have some sort of loose structure or guidelines, the group will quickly become more about sampling the various coffee shops in my little city and less about any sort of book chat.

I would love to hear of your experiences with social books clubs.  What do you find works well?  And are there any pitfalls to generally avoid?  Have you started one up yourself?  Or wanted to? 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Aussie Author Challenge 2012

I am well and truly up for the the Aussie Author Challenge hosted by Joanne P over at Booklover Book Reviews. I read heaps of Australian fiction anyway, but I am always keen to discover new-to-me authors and read more from my favourites. The challenge also has an incredibly cute logo:

I will participate at the Dinky-Di level reading twelve Australian books by six different authors. Immediately I know I want to read Jasper Jones by WA based author Craig Silvey and I want to try another of Kate Morton's, The House at Riverton. That should get me started. You can learn more about this challenge at Booklover Book Reviews.

The Victorian Challenge 2012

I normally shy away from reading challenges because I don't like to feel hemmed in.  Too many conditions can make it all feel a bit like hard work for this discipline adverse reader.   But I have found two that I think will add to the reading fun for me this year, as they represent areas that I read anyway, and would like to read more.

So, I have signed up for The Victorian Challenge 2012 over at Laura's Reviews.  Of course if you are interested you can check out all of the details at Laura's beautiful blog.  But basically all you have to do is read, watch or listen to between 2 and 6 novels or films based on novels etc from the Victorian era.  I am kicking off the year reading a Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, and I would like to re-read Jayne Eyre this year too, as I read it as a teenager and don't think I really appreciated it back then.