Monthly Archives: January 2014

Book 5 – Divergent

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth (2011)

I make it a policy to always read books recommended to me by students. Think about it. When a student engages in dialogue with me about books, reveals their own preferences and considers recommendations I have offered to them, and then has enjoyed a book so much that they want me to share in their enjoyment, there would be something wrong if I didn’t read it… right?

I developed a book-loving connection with a student in year 7 last year (I’ll call him DK). I wasn’t his teacher, but we had a chat at the staff room door one day about “Matched” – a book he was reading for class at the time. I had only just added the book to our book room and I was very interested to see what students’ thought of it. DK was loving the book and very keen to chat. Not long after that initial conversation, we had a discussion about his ongoing participation in the Premier’s Reading Challenge. From then, it was a mutually enjoyable book chat whenever we both had a chance.

So, late last year I read “Ship Kings” and it occurred to me that DK might enjoy it. When I mentioned it to him, he told me that he had recently read “Divergent” and that he thoroughly recommended it. Soon after, I downloaded it to my Kindle. I lent “Ship Kings” to DK to read over the holidays. He offered to lend me “Divergent” and I wish I hadn’t already obtained it so that I could have said yes.

I can see why DK likes this book. It reminds me of “Matched” and “Uglies” in many ways – two of my favourite books. A lot of critics compare it to “Hunger Games” as well, and I can see the link, but I think it’s wrong to expect a similar book.

“Divergent” is the first book of a trilogy (aren’t they all these days). It is set within a dystopian version of Chicago in which the society is divided into personality types. Reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s “Clans of the Alphane Moon” (1964), this is a story that asks if our personalities determine our paths in life. And given that, in this story, every teenager is given the choice about which faction they will spend the rest of the lives in, it is also an exploration of destiny and loyalty. Most people choose the faction they are raised in. Our hero, Beatrice, is the daughter of a leader in Abnegation. So, when first Beatrice’s older brother, Caleb, and then Beatrice, both choose to leave their parents and join two different factions (Caleb goes to Erudite), it is the start of great disharmony across all of society. What follows is that Beatrice (who renames herself Tris upon joining her new faction, Dauntless) has to survive not just an initiation, but also the many challenges that choosing to be Dauntless represent.

This is a fast-paced and very readable book. I can see why DK liked it and I am keen to move straight on to the next book, “Insurgent”. As with most other popular YA dystopian novels, I am loath to consider it as a teaching text. There is a movie in production and I don’t think that the novel will retain its appeal in the long term. I’m more drawn to books that are a little more obscure and a little less likely to be turned into the next blockbuster. Nevertheless, it will be high on my recommended wide reading list for students across all year groups. I hope DK enjoys “Ship Kings” (a very different book) as much as I enjoyed “Divergent”.



Filed under YA fiction

Book 4 – The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

“The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” (No 1. Ladies Detective Agency, Book 14) by Alexander McCall Smith (2013)

I have enjoyed a long and charming relationship with the books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. So have a lot of members of my family. On Christmas day I spotted a copy of this latest book on my mum’s bedside table. I hadn’t realised there was a new book! That evening I downloaded it to my Kindle, which was being packed for my holiday that started the next day.

Like all of the books in the No. 1 series, there are mysteries to be solved and new things to be discovered about all of our beloved characters. If you don’t know the series, it is set in Botswana and offers a beautifully languid and serene exploration of life in a country that is otherwise entirely a mystery to me. Our heroine is Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. In each book there are at least a couple of new cases for her to solve. In this one, it is a case about the identity of a  young man set to inherit a sizeable estate.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They are gentle and entertaining, meandering and amusing. They are the ideal books for hot days when reading is as energetic as you are willing to be. Start at the beginning, with book 1, “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” and fall in love with McCall Smith’s Botswana. But a word of caution – I have read books outside of this series written by McCall Smith and I have not found them anywhere near as enjoyable.

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Book 3 – Game of Knowns

“Game of Knowns” by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (2013)

Hubby received this book for Christmas and brought it with him on our dream holiday in Fiji. We both read it while we were there and had some hilarious conversations as a result.

This is Dr Karl’s latest book of interesting facts about stuff. Mostly stuff you had no idea you wanted to know, some stuff you had no idea you needed to know, and then some stuff you immediately wish you didn’t know. All of this stuff is explained in really straightforward language so that un-science-y people, like me, can make sense of it.

Dr Karl clarifies misconceptions, reveals nonsenses and enlightens confusion. Sometimes, his topics raise issues that we should all be doing something about (in this book, the chapter on wasted food is a good example). Sometimes he explains things that I wish I could un-know (like the chapter on Dark Energy which enlightened me to the fact that in 5 billion years or so Earth will be swallowed up by the sun – how not-cool is that!?)

If you loved Science at school and you’re incredibly knowledgeable about scientific stuff you might find this book a little too simple and general, but you should read it anyway. If you’re a humanities nut who says Einstein? What did he write? then you will love the way Dr Karl actually makes complicated stuff sound simple.

Hubby is such a Dr Karl fan that a few years ago, when he came to do a talk at my school, hubby took the day off work and sat at the back of the hall, then got his book signed. I follow Dr Karl on twitter @DoctorKarl and love the pithy way he addresses the questions he is asked.

This is a great book and I recommend it, along with all of Dr Karl’s previous books.

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Book 2 – The Year My Life Broke

“The Year My Life Broke” by John Marsden (2013)

It has only just occurred to me that I have a real attraction to male, Australian authors. Some of my favourite authors of all time are Tim Winton, Marcus Zusak, William McInnes, Peter Fitzsimons and John Marsden. They are all male and all Australian. The first three write my favourite kinds of books – whimsical but ordinary – and the last two write about heroes and the strength of humanity. I have always thought I had a broad and non-specific reading taste, but I think it’s only just dawned on me that I was quite wrong. My reading is… gasp… predictable! I need to really address that this year. Maybe someone can recommend some left-field reading for me to try…

The week before Christmas I was on a mission to help my daughter (who doesn’t drive) get her Christmas shopping finished. We were on the phone, me in the shops, she in her house with her two under-three-year-olds. I suggested a challenge to her: “How about I try to get you finished, not just today, but actually right here, in this book shop?” She laughed and wished me well…

Now, there’s something you need to know about my daughter, Emily. During her teenage years she was completed devoted to the Tomorrow When the War Began series, by John Marsden. She read the books through from book one to book seven and then went straight back to book one and read them all again… many, many times. Ellie was her best friend. A strong and determined young woman who spoke to Emily on levels I might never fully understand. Then, as the three new books in the Ellie Chronicles series were published, they were added to the reading regime. I think it’s fair to say, as I did to John Marsden when I was lucky enough to meet him one day, I honestly believe Ellie probably saved Emily’s life. It’s a big call, but I think it’s true. He signed a book for Emily that day. He wrote a message in it:

“May you build a ladder to the stars, and climb on every rung. Here’s to resilience, one of the most under-estimated human qualities – it’s wonderful that you have it.”

It meant a lot to Emily and I that he wrote this. It told us that he understood. So… there I was, in the book shop and right in front of me was Marsden’s latest book, “The Year My Life Broke”. I told Emily and she was as excited as I was. “Buy it for me, Mum,” she said. “Why don’t you buy it for your cousin, Kai,” I said, “and I’ll buy a copy of it for us to read.”

The audience of this book is much younger than Marsden’s previous books. It is a story about Josh, a boy in year 6 who has to move to a new town because his parents’ business has gone bust. It is a typical tale of a new home, a new school, and the struggle to fit in. Although there is a giant cricket ball on the front cover, it took me by surprise that this book was largely focused on Josh’s passion for the game. Based on the blurb and title, I was expecting a different balance. This is an adventure story, but it is largely a story for cricket lovers. I’m not entirely sure Kai will enjoy it, as a tennis and soccer loving boy, but Marsden is certainly a good story-teller, so I hope he does.

I thought I might want to add this book to the book room at school, but it is very much a primary school book, so I won’t be buying a set. If you’re looking for a good book for a child in the 7 – 11 age range, then this is a harmless and fun read. I hesitate to pigeonhole books into gender, but this is a book that will be far more likely to appeal to boys than girls.

I did get Emily’s Christmas shopping finished in that book shop… and I will now pass on this book for her to read.

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Filed under YA fiction

Book 1 – Eyrie

“Eyrie” by Tim Winton (2013)

Welcome to samreads for 2014. As usual, I have started the year with a reading bang, already finishing off 3 books and well into my fourth. Looking back, this is what every January looks like. The luxury of holidays, I suppose. For this year I have decided to return to the reading regime of 2012. I will be reading an adult fiction, a YA fiction and then a non-fiction book in order for the year. Last year I lost my way in terms of reading. There were several weeks where I wasn’t reading anything, or I tried to read something and failed. I don’t usually blog about the failures. I have always had a rule – walk away after 100 pages – but on reflection I realise that this means my blog posts offer a false perspective. I don’t actually love every book I read, so this year I will persevere no matter what – and blog accordingly.

And so to Book 1 – Winton’s latest offering – one that I have waited five long years for. His last book, “Breath”, was my least favourite of all his books. I found it to be a very self-indulgent book that didn’t appeal to my sensibilities and offered me fairly unlikable characters. There is no writer ever born, in my opinion, as talented at landscape writing as Winton, but in “Breath” I found the endless and relentless surfing descriptions boring and repetitive.

Now, having said that, I had no hesitation in leaping headlong into this new book. I am a completely and utterly unreserved worshipper at the feet of this great and talented writer. “Breath” wasn’t badly written, it just didn’t tell a story I cared to read about. And “Eyrie” (Winton prefers to pronounce it ‘airy’ but doesn’t insist) is a magnificently written book that had me engrossed and reading frantically, even though I suspected it was going to be a story from which I would not receive joy.

One of the things I love about Winton’s characters is how very ordinary they are. In reading back over my posts, it is the ordinary, the mundane, the suburban character that really attracts me. I think this is one of the reasons I love Winton. He gives me what I love and he adds a little magic, a little something beyond reality, that works for me.

“Eyrie” is about a man, Tom Keely, who has lost his way in the world. A crisis in his personal life coupled with a crisis in his career, have combined to steer him into a small apartment on the tenth floor in Fremantle, WA. The story opens with the most vividly described hangover that leaves you in no doubt as to the character of Keely. Soon enough, you are introduced to his neighbour, someone from his past, Gemma, who is a life-hardened grandma looking after her grandson, Kai. The book then rollercoasters through a few weeks in these people’s lives, at times, leaving you breathless, and frequently making you laugh out loud.

It was well before half way through reading the book when I accepted that there would be no happy ending. It is, I guess, a bit like another Winton book, “Cloudstreet”, in that way. But, for me, like “Cloudstreet”, “Eyrie” tells a truth about life. And the truth is that bad things happen, often to good people. I think, at their best, Keely and Gemma were good people. In “Eyrie” their stories are told in an unreliable way, from Keely’s perspective, and it is with some sadness that the reader has to accept that there are parts of the story that are being left out. However, it is precisely Keely’s unreliability that makes him vulnerable and appealing.

When the end arrives, it is sad to close the book, not just because the ending was inevitable, but because it means there are no more beautifully constructed sentences of Winton magic left to consume. I thoroughly recommend this book. But I know my uncle Dion won’t read it.


Filed under Adult fiction