01 August 2008

A Golden Age, Tahmima Anam

I found this book fascinating. Set in Bangladesh during the war of independence in 1971 the book focusses on a mother's struggle to both let go and to embrace her children.

Firstly, I had no idea that Bangladesh had been part of Pakistan. Obviously wasn't considered important enough history to be included in my schooling. Secondly, I have little knowledge of that area of the subcontinent at all. I do have some experience with Indian culture from living in Malaysia, and this meant that cultural references (particularly to food) were easily understood.

The book opens by explaining how Rehana loses her two children in a court battle to her brother. Her husband dies unexpectedly and leaves her unable to cope - financially or emotionally. She fights back; however, and after a time (bit less than 2 years I think) manages to get her children back. The story then flips forward 10 years. The children are now in university and involved in moves for independence. Rehana has to cope with the turmoil their independence brings to her, as well as the turmoil of her country's independence.

I have read very few novels that are about people's experiences in these ideological wars. Plenty about the wars of the developed world - WWI, WWII etc. but very little about the multitude of wars of independence around the world. This was a fascinating insight into the upheaval, the fear, the extraordinary courage of ordinary people.

I will most likely keep an eye out for more books by this author. I give this book at 7.

Mark of the Lion: A Jade Del Cameron Mystery; Arruda Suzanne

Mark of the Lion is started on the battlefields of France in WWI. It then moves to Africa after the war. There were some bits that didn't sit comfortably with me - historically. It felt much more like a post WWII book than WWI. The main character, Jade, drives battlefield ambulances in France during the war. Her boyfriend, a pilot dies, and she is lead to understand (by his last words) that he has a brother that he wants her to find. The hunt for the brother leads her to Africa, where she runs afoul of a local witch doctor.

One of the things I did appreciate about this book is that the inevitable romance was written quite differently to normal fictional romance. Bit hard to explain without giving away key parts of the story but suffice to say there was internal conflict and the resolution was a little different to what I've come to expect.

On the whole; however, the central character, Jade, seems almost too good to be true. She shoots, rides, drives. The only thing that gets to her is the hyena's laugh (a reminder of her battlefield experiences with mentally unstable wounded GIs). Other than the laugh, she's pretty much bullet proof.

I'm not sure I would go out of my way to read anything else by this author, so I give it a 4.

31 July 2008

Palagia and the White Bulldog, Boris Akunin

I found this book a little difficult to enjoy for two main reasons. Firstly, all the Russian names. They're just so 'foreign' to my eyes, and there's so many of them. People seems to go by at least three different names, and it was hard for me to keep track of who was who. Secondly, the style of writing is very different to anything else I've read. There was a lot of sidetracking off and meandering about before getting to the point.

I also want to say that, like Sherlock Holmes, a lot of the clues were kept secret until the last minute, BUT I don't think I can. I think the clues were actually given to the reader at the same time they were given to the sleuth. It's just that I was so tangled up in the names that I missed them. I would love to read this book with people's name substituted for standard Western European names, "Mr Mark Spense", "Miss Jane Moore" :-)

Having said that, there is an English character, and every time her name, Janet, is mentioned it felt funny. Like an intrusion.

Basic plot outline. The bishop's great aunt writes to him in a state of agitation because someone is killing off her prize dogs. The bishop sends Palagia, a sleuthing nun, to find out the truth. On her way to the aunt's estate, Palagia passes a gruesome find by officials - two headless bodies. Of course, by the end of the book she has worked who is killing the dogs and who beheaded the bodies.

Intertwined in that is a lot of interesting information about Russian culture and thinking at the turn of the century. Fascinating, if only I could work out who it was all about.

The whole time I reading the book the name "Palagia" kept bothering me. I knew I had come across it before. I wondered if maybe I had seen a TV or movie adaptation of the books (apparently there's more than one). Eventually, with the help of Google, I worked it out. Palagia is also the main character of Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

I will quite possibly seek out more of Akunin's books, if only because the cultural revelations are so fascinating. I give this book a 5. After all, my ability to keep track of the characters really isn't the author's issue.

Father Lands, Emily Ballou

This is a bizarre book. Bizarre. The beginning of each chapter has a single page (or less) description of a man's thoughts or actions. The chapters themselves are essentially about two children. One a white girl, one a black boy both about 8 or 9 years old. Towards the end of the book you work out how the opening sections fit with the main story.

The main story doesn't seem to have any real plot; it nevers really reaches any solid conclusion or resolution. The sub-story; those opening pages of each chapter; have a much more solid plot and conclusion.

Cherry, the white girl, and her younger sister are sent to a new school by their parents. Its the era of intergration and the girls start attending a mainly black school. Cherry meets Hugo, the black boy, and they gradually form a friendship. Hugo comes from a single parent family, his father having walked out years ago. Cherry's parents split up during the course of the book.

There's really not a lot else to say. Its hard to give away the ending of the book, because there isn't one. Its one of those books that every now and then make you think "did I finish it?" I did finish it, and I can't say I'll be trying this author again. Only a 2 for this one.

A Proper Pursuit, Lynn Austin

We went to different library branch last week, so I started back at the first shelf. I picked up Austin's book because I recalled reading that the one I had read wasn't considered one of her better novels.

This book was quite different. It followed just one lady's story and was set in a completely different era. Late 1800s and Violet has recently graduated from finishing school when her father drops a bombshell on her. He's getting married, but even more startling is the news that her long missing mother isn't dead but divorced.

Violet races off to the city (Chicago) to stay with her grandmother and great aunts with the main goal in mind of finding her mother. She's also attempting to escape a rather boring home town suitor. Along the way she picks up several other suitors. The dubious Silas McCure who seems to be involved in unsavory business; rich Nelson Kent; and devout Louis Decker.

I found the opening of the story quite amusing. Violet takes her finishing school manners **so** seriously. As the story progressed it becomes less amusing as you realise that women of her era had so little else to focus on. I enjoyed watching Violet realise the for herself the lack of substance in her 'education'.

Aside from Violet and her beaus the other main characters are the grandmother and great aunts. Each has a distinctive character. Grandmother is involved in mission work to the slums of the city; Aunt Matt is a early days suffragette; Aunt Agnes is a rich society lady; and Aunt Birdie is the consummate romantic. As Violet becomes involved in each of their pursuits and lives she learns different, important lessons.

I enjoyed this book and Austin has been added to be list of "can be counted on" authors. An 8.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom

I watched the movie of this book some time ago. I really enjoyed the movie. Having my own fairly defined views of the afterlife, watching someone else's interpretation can be problematic. But Albom manages to avoid any theological thorns while presenting a very moving story. Recently a friend lent me the book and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't diminish the movie in any way. I was not surprised to find out that Albom wrote the screenplay.

The story is about Eddie. Eddie is a maintenance manager for a small theme park, the like of which we don't actually have here in Australia. He's pretty much a grumpy old man, unhappy with how his life turned out. Obviously, he dies - otherwise he wouldn't be meeting people in heaven.

The five people you meet in heaven are there to help you work through issues of life. I really loved this concept. Who we are is so tangled up in what we've experienced that I do believe there is sorting out that needs to take place on the other side. Maybe that's why heaven is eternal - maybe that's how long it takes ;-) Still Albom thinks it'll only take five people. Eddie's give have an extraordinary range - people he doesn't know at all, people he was intimate with - but each having had a profound effect on his life.

I think the major thing of this book for me is that there are no insignificant people. Everyone has an impact on other people's lives. We should never undervalue ourselves or others. Life is not about how much money you make or how "successful" you are; it's about how much you impact others for the better.

Great book. I would be happy to find a place on my bookshelves for it. I give a 10 without hesitation. Actually, I'd be happy to find a place for the movie too.

24 July 2008

The Heavens Before, Kacy Barnett Gramckow

The Heavens Before. Kacy Barnett Gramckow. The story of how Noah's sons found their wives. I enjoyed this book, and I'll probably look for follow up stories. Like so many novels; however, the goodies are all good, and the baddies are all bad. Still, it was an interesting tale, with interesting characters and story lines.

An interesting book. The book centres around the bride to be (Annah) of Noah's middle son, Shem. She lives in a settlement not far from where Noah is building his ark. When she was younger she witnessed her older brother kill her father. He attempted to kill her and since then she acted dumb (both without speech and without wits). She believes it is the only thing that has kept her alive.

One day she's sitting by the river and 'meets' Shem who is on the other side of the river. They communicate without words. Shem because of the distance; Annah because that's how she communicates. A relationship develops between and Shem takes her as his bride.

While still focusing on Annah, the story then moves to how brides for the other two sons are found, and then the flood and briefly the post flood period.

My difficult with this book was that the baddies are all bad. The people of the village just have no saving graces. And the goodies (Noah and his family) are all good. BUT, the reason for the flood and the saving of Noah's family is that God could find no one else in the world deserving of saving. So, perhaps in this case the bad baddies and good goodies is justified.

I am interested in finding the other two books in this trilogy, so I give this book about a 7.

The Untouchable, John Banville

The Untouchable. John Banville. Interesting, very interesting. The protagonist is a spy; an old spy who has been found out. I didn't enjoy the lifestyles. Maybe there are people who do live so hedonistic ally and survive. But I don't know any.
It took me a while to adjust to the writing style of this book. It might be the influence of goopy romances that clouded my mind. It might just be the style of the book. My first difficulty with the book was placing it in a time period. It was written in the 90s, but I eventually worked out, by adding up dates and ages, it was set in the 70s. That meant reframing my thinking to the 70s social and political scene.
The basic premise is an old guy looking back over his life. His current situation is alluded to rather than described. His assumption is that everyone knows what has happened, so its only mentioned in passing. You gradually pick up though that he was a double agent spying for England and Russia, and he has recently been denounced.
The book is then a description of how he became a spy for England and for Russia and the story of his life. I didn't enjoy it. I think what I struggled with the most is that the man is a stereotypical, sleazy, sex-in-public-toilets, homosexual. Why do people write caricatures instead of characters? Why can't they show a little imagination in developing their characters, instead of relying on trite old stereotypes?
I didn't enjoy this book very much. I give it a 3.

Take These Broken Wings, Lyn Andrews

Take These Broken Wings. Lyn Andrews. Poor girl makes good. Its a lovely concept, but it all seems to happen way too easily to be very believable. And I simply DO NOT buy into people catching a glimpse of someone and falling in love and staying insanely! in love for YEARS on end. Nope.

Anyone reading these reviews will think that I'm anti-romance. I don't mind a good romance. I just don't buy the eternal love at first sight type goop. And I don't buy the 'I hate you today but love you tomorrow' deal either.

Basic plot of this book. Hannah grows up in a poor area of town. Her mum dies when she's young; her dad is called up to fight in WWI. He leaves her with relatives in Wales. When he's killed in action, the relatives (charming bunch) dump her in a work house (another charming bunch). YEARS (I guess more than 10) later the chaplain of her dad's unit tracks her down and arranges for her to be servant in a fancy house - back in the town she grew up in. How convenient. She catches a glimpse of the youngest son and falls in love. Pining, withering love. Spare me please. He gets married, she's, well heartbroken is probably an understatement.

While I enjoyed the writing style the central idea of unfailing love based on a single glimpse of someone - I just don't buy it. Still, I'm tempted to find other books by the author, particularly if they avoid romance, so I give it a 4.

The Dallancy Bequest, Tessa Barclay

The Dallancy Bequest. Tessa Barclay. PURLEASE! This book was labelled as a mystery. It was a more a soppy romance with a bit of historical detective work thrown in. Did not really impress me at all.

I pick up these books and I read them, and then I wonder why I wasted my time. Romance novels. My goodness, could the world get any more cliched than a romance novel.

The basic plot. Laura and her father run a geneological firm - they research your family history for you. Very convenient. They live and work at home. Laura somehow has time to run a business and cook meals four or five times a day. Lots of references to home cooked biscuits and scones and so forth.

A Canadian chap (surrounded by mystery, of course) turns up with a piece of lace and some documents and wants to find his relatives - a number of generations removed. In between whipping up biscuits and stews, Laura finds said relatives. They were (of course) land owners.

One of the things that really REALLY irked me about this book was the constant references to Laura's diet. Maybe being on diet that works is all part and parcel of the fantasy? But it bugged me - just eat already!

I've heard Tessa Barclay described as one of Britain's best-loved storytellers, but she's not made it anywhere near that high on my list. I give the book about a 3 only because at least the romance took place over weeks, instead of hours.

Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven. Jane Bailey

Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven. Jane Bailey. Really enjoyed this book. Little girl is sent out of London to the country during WWII, and proceeds to turn the town upside down. Wonderful twists; wonderful understanding of human nature and secrets and loves and hates and guilt. Really enjoyed this.

I really, really enjoyed this book. The basic plot is Kitty Green is sent to live in a little village to avoid the bombing of London in WWII. She doesn't want to be there (what 8 year wants to be away from family and live with strangers?) and its pretty obvious that the couple she's staying with don't really want her there either. Kitty manages to upset a lot of people - her language, her manners, her poking into things that don't concern her. Along the way she becomes friends with Tommy Glover, a boy from the local orphanage; and again she manages to uncover things that have been hidden a long time.

Just a note: the first page of this book reads a little strangely; by the second page you've forgotten all about it; and by the end of the book it makes perfect sense.

What I enjoyed about Kitty (and the book is written from her point of view) is that she is basically unaware of her impact on the individuals and the town. She's just a rather extroverted kid trying to cope with being in a strange situation.

When I was six I lived with my grandparents for a year. One of the things this book captured for me was the issues that distance and time cause. People change and grow and so do those they love and have left behind. And that often causes awkwardness and broken bonds. In too many books, people don't see each other for years and when they do catch up their relationship is exactly the same as always. Now, I know that can and does happen; but more often it doesn't. Particularly, I think, with children who change at such a rapid rate.

I will definitely be looking out for more books by Jane Bailey. Such a fine brush with characters. I give this book probably a 9. If I see this book in a second hand book store I would definitely add it to my collection.

Dearest Dorothy, If Not Now, When? Charlene Ann Baumich

Dearest Dorothy, If Not Now, When? Charlene Ann Baumich. Rose coloured glasses living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere USA. Everyone seems to be super nice; except the ones that aren't. Some good bits of reality; but too 'cozy' for my taste.

I have some time on my hands, so maybe this is as good a time as any to catch up on some reviews - before I start the next lot of books borrowed yesterday. I'll start with Dorothy because her lovely author posted a comment on my blog :-)

When I was typing up the brief notes yesterday this book caused me some difficulties. Just how to describe it. Or more accurately describe how I interpreted the characters (always my primary concern in reading) and the plot.

Let's start with the plot. This is (I think) book six in a series about Dorothy. Dorothy is an older lady living in a small town somewhere in the USA. (My USA geography's not too hot.) In this book Katie, a young professional, who has obviously moved back to the town in previous books, is working to open up a mini-mall. Her vision is to provide economic stimulus for the town. Like many small towns, the world over, Partonville is losing residents and income and becoming an unviable place to live and work.

Mixed up with this mini-mall is the upcoming mayoral election. The tie-in is that one candidate is vehemently opposed to the mall and that seems to be his main platform - getting the mall stopped.

In between this main story the book flits between other town characters - Katie's teenage son, an older couple who are dating, Dorothy's son, who is also moving back to town, and a few others.

And the characters. This is actually where some of my difficulties in describing the book begin. My overall impression of the characters is that they are all Super Sally Saints (except for the 'baddies' who are right proper baddies). And yet, when I stop to think about individual characters they all have their issues and problems. The teenage son who is obsessed with sex (thinking about it at any rate); the elderly spinster coming to terms with childhood abuse; the owners of the motel who face financial issues.

I think maybe the problem is two fold. If I had read the previous books I would probably have a better handle on each of the characters. I would have more understanding of their development (as people). Secondly, the book focuses on a lot of different stories, all part of the main story, all tied in; but still a lot of different stories. This means that issues are raised but not really explored in any great detail. I think that's what leads me to feel a sense of superficialness (is that a word?)

In some ways this is very similar to Rebecca Shaw's village series. It even has that "English" feel to it. The difference I think is that Shaw picks a central story, and writes almost exclusively to that story. You really only meet the other residents of the village when they intersect with the main story line. Baumich's approach is more of the TV series style - with several stories happening at once with some level of interconnection between them.

So, here I am at the end of a lengthy review and I still can't pinpoint why it is this book didn't really push my buttons. Still, I'm tempted to find the earlier books in the series. I give the book a 5 - I wouldn't mind finding other books by this author.

23 July 2008

Book Reviews to Do

Hmmm, got a few books piled up that are due back at the library. This post is really just to remind myself to get around to writing the review.

Dearest Dorothy, If Not Now, When? Charlene Ann Baumich. Rose coloured glasses living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere USA. Everyone seems to be super nice; except the ones that aren't. Some good bits of reality; but too 'cozy' for my taste.

Tommy Glover's Sketch of Heaven. Jane Bailey. Really enjoyed this book. Little girl is sent out of London to the country during WWII, and proceeds to turn the town upside down. Wonderful twists; wonderful understanding of human nature and secrets and loves and hates and guilt. Really enjoyed this.

The Dallancy Bequest. Tessa Barclay. PURLEASE! This book was labelled as a mystery. It was a more a soppy romance with a bit of historical detective work thrown in. Did not really impress me at all.

Take These Broken Wings. Lyn Andrews. Poor girl makes good. Its a lovely concept, but it all seems to happen way too easily to be very believable. And I simply DO NOT buy into people catching a glimpse of someone and falling in love and staying insanely! in love for YEARS on end. Nope.

The Untouchable. John Banville. Interesting, very interesting. The protagonist is a spy; an old spy who has been found out. I didn't enjoy the lifestyles. Maybe there are people who do live so hedonistically and survive. But I don't know any.

The Heavens Before. Kacy Barnett Gramckow. The story of how Noah's sons found their wives. I enjoyed this book, and I'll probably look for follow up stories. Like so many novels; however, the goodies are all good, and the badies are all bad. Still, it was an interesting tale, with interesting characters and storylines.

03 July 2008

A Woman's Place - Lynn Austin

This book I really enjoyed. It follows the lives of four American ladies during WWII. The story is told alternatively from each of the four's point of view. The ladies are all in Michigan, and start working in a boat factory after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Virginia is married with two boys and feels she's being taken for granted. Helen is an older, single, rich lady who's parents have recently died. Rosa is a rough nut from NY who has married impulsively and now living with her strict in-laws. Finally Jean is a country girl who has come to the city to make money during the war until her life can get back on track.

The only false note I found was that disaster and grief happens all at once towards the end of the book. I felt it would have been easier to draw the reader into the grief if there was more space for it to develop.

One of the issues tackled by this book is women's role in society, and what is Biblical and what is actually society's interpretation.

I will probably read other books by Austin, as I've read reviews that say this isn't one of her better books. I give this book a 5.

Some Day I'll Find You - Donna Baker

I'm almost embarrassed to admit I read this book. The cover sounded interesting, but it turned out to be little better than a Mills & Boon in hard cover. Shocking stuff. Meet someone today, hate them tomorrow, propose to them the next day. Stupid, stupid, stupid stuff. My only excuse for finishing it was that I was in bed, I wasn't tired enough to sleep, but too tired to get up and find something else.

If you like the old M&B you'd probably enjoy it, but I don't like syrupy goop.

Giving this a 2 is generous.

Candle Life - Venero Armanno

This was an enticing read, but I found the lifestyle of the actors quite disturbing.

The main character, who is written in first person, is never named. He and his artist partner are Australian. She is killed in an accident before the book begins. He has 'escaped' to Paris, where they had planned to live for a year in an artistic commune. He's an author but struggling to get past his grief and find a new story.

I found the characters very self centred and not at all the sort of people I would easily relate to in real life. There was a ring a truth about each of them though that made (sadly) very believable. I did find the story line a little lame in places; but again strangly believable. Although my first reaction was "not possible", there's a niggle that maybe it is possible and I've just led a sheltered life.

Even so, I'm very unlikely to search out further books by this author. The value system portrayed through the story and each of the characters is so much at variance to my own that reading wasn't really the pleasure that it should be.

I can see that it would appeal to others with a different value system to me and it was quite well written, so I'd have to give it about a 3.

On Our Own - Anne Atkins

I've read one of Anne Atkins' books before and was completely caught out by the twist at the end. I think this book works well if you have read another of her books because you wonder what are red herrings and what are real bits.

Basic premise, the voice of the story is a fairly successful author. She's turned down a holiday in Italy with her partner to concentrate on her next book. The book is supposed to be about Mozart, but she's having trouble finding a unique angle. She receives a letter from a young boy and strikes up a letter conversation with him. She eventually visits him and he wants her to write about his dad's murder.

His dad was the choir master at Cambridge (I don't quite understand the whole English school system deal, but it was too important for understanding the story). He was murdered but the murderer was never caught.

It is a very cleverly written book, with apparent parralells to Mozart's story. Was he killed by a less talented rival? Was he killed by the college chaplain? Was it his wife? His son? Or was it actually the guy the police think did it.

The only thing that niggled me about this story was the timeframe. Replies to letters seemed to arrive within hours of the original being posted. Maybe in England the postal system is more competent.

All in all I would give this book at least a 5. This is the second of Atkins' books that I've read and I've enjoyed both.

20 June 2008

Little Fugue, Robert Anderson

There is a bunch of rave reviews filling the first couple of pages of the book. And they're about the only thing that made any sense to me. I struggled through the first chapter of this and then gave it away as a bad joke. I couldn't quite work out what was reality, what was imagination, what was metaphor.

The book is apparently about Sylvia Plath, but I didn't get far enough into it to find out anything about her.

I rate this book as a 1, despite the great reviews.

The House in Amalfi, Elizabeth Adler

While I enjoyed this book, it had a lot of false moments for me.

Basic story is two years after her husband's death Lamour is still in mourning. Her best friend decides its time to tell her that hubby darling was having an affair and planning to leave her when he died. This triggers a reaction in Lamour to find out how her father died in Italy some 20 years previously. This was the first false note for me - I didn't get the connection. She heads off to Italy to the house her father lived in, which has been completely untouched since his death. This was the 2nd false note - 20 years later and his papers and diary and the even the house itself are actually still in tact? The story then follows her attempts to find out the truth.

It was an afternoon lost in Italy, but it wasn't a great story, in my opinion. I think author's often understate the impact of time. Twenty years is a LONG time. Yet Lamour can find her way all over the country side without any trouble, which she appears to only have visited for a couple of months as a 7 year old; people she knew over 20 years ago are still handily about; her memories are crystal clear. Maybe its just me, but I'm pushing to remember anything from 20 years ago; let alone people's names that I met only once or twice.

I'd give this book about a four.

The Only Best Place, Carolyne Aarsen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Right from the get go. What I didn't realise when I picked it up off the library shelf is that it is Christian novel. The faith issue is wound through the story, and it never feels 'tacked on'.

Leslie, married a Dutch heritage farm boy, Dan. She's always lived in the city. Two kids and a couple of years later they run into money issues, and there's an opportunity for them to move back to Dan's family farm for a year. Obviously, a huge move for Leslie, who only agrees to the move because its only for a year.

The story follows Leslie struggle to adapt to the country (including some amusing panic attacks at all the open space); to not working (she's an emergency nurse); to having family living in her pocket all the time (she's from a broken and disfunctional family). It's amusing, it's touching, it's very real.

What I really loved about this novel is that people are people. The Christians have real flaws (and real strengths). Too often Christians are portrayed as wonderful, patient, smiling angels - that certainly ain't the reality of MY life! The 'baddies', particularly Dr John who tries to woo her away from husband and family, are actually really nice people. And I think that's what makes this book work - its full of real, believable people, in real, believable situations.

Aarsen has at least one other book - about Leslie's sister. And I will be looking for that on the library shelves!

I'd probably give this book a 10. If I owned it I could lend it to people going through similar struggles to Leslie.

City of the Beasts, Isabel Allende

Well, I've got a bit behind in my reviews; but here we go.

City of the Beasts is actually a teenage/tween book, obviously misfiled by the library staff. I have read one other of Allende's books. I enjoyed it, but it had strong overtones of "Amercia the saviour of the universe", which I don't enjoy.

This book, City of the Beasts, is set mainly in South Amercia. A 15 yr boy is sent to live with his grandmother, while his mother undergoes chemotherapy. Nana (Kate) is a bit of an odd ball and bundles him off to the Amazon with her. She's a reporter/writer and has been assigned the job of tracking down the South Amercian "Big Foot".

The book has some really heavy environmental protection messages; some really heavy human rights protection messages; and some sterotypical baddies. The messages are probably long overdue. South Amercian environment and native cultures could probably do with some heavy handed protection.

It was an interesting read, but it felt like it didn't really know which genre to aim for. It's not quite fantasy, not quite adventure, not quite eco-story.

I'd give it a about a 3.

13 June 2008

A Poisoned Season, Tasha Alexander

This is Alexander's second book about Lady Emily. I haven't read the first (And Only to Deceive) and they really should be read in order. It takes a while to catch up with who's who in the zoo.

The basic plot is Lady Emily, recently widowed, lives in Victorian England. She gets caught up in a revival of the French royal family (the revolution having happened four or five generations previously). There's a cat burglar who leaves her romantic missives, a murder, scandal, romance, affairs. Lady Emily is a thoroughly modern woman - she's not keen on the trappings of society, has little regard (on the surface at least) for formality and Victorian manners, is studying Greek (why Greek I believe is probably explained in the first novel), and causes scandals without too much effort. In that regard, I found the book at bit disappointing. It reads like a modern novel with costumes.

I was drawn to the characters though. Lady Emily's relationship with her husband is intriguing. There's not a lot of details given in this book, and it left me wondering what happened in the first book. I will probably ferret out the first book, if only to fulfil my curiosity about how all the characters came to know one another.

Rating: 5 - I wouldn't mind finding other books by this author

Book Reviews

One of the things I intend doing, now that uni is finished, is read. Read, read, read. I love reading. I love books. I love disappearing into another world for hours on end; and for the last six years I haven't done nearly enough reading. Well, I've done heaps of reading, but few novels. Although we own maybe a thousand or so books already I try not to buy too many books. Firstly, they're just way too expensive, particularly the way I chew through them; secondly, I don't have any more walls for bookcases; and thirdly, we have a great library system.

When I go to the library I tend to just randomly select books off the shelf. If I stumble across an author I really like I'll go out of my way to find more of their writings. I am limiting myself to borrowing 4 books at time for the moment. Each rack at the library has four shelves, so I'm picking one book off each shelf. If I keep up the reviews, when I've got all the way to "Z" I can go back and find the authors I really like.

My rating system is pretty simple:
10 - I want to own this book
7.5 - I will probably re-read this book at some point in life
5 - I wouldn't mind finding other books by this author
2.5 - I hope the author finds something better to do
0 - I found something better to do

23 May 2008


Well, it's that time of semester again. BUT, the good thing is - this is the final semester. At last. It's only taken 6 1/2 years to get here, but I finally finish uni on 11 June, at 11:30am. That's less than 19 days time. YAY. Needless to say I've been pretty slack about keeping my blog updated, 'cause I've been focussed elsewhere. BUT, still, here's a tip or two.

If you don't like your job - change it. If you think you can't change it - you're wrong. The reality is any one of us can do anything we choose to do. It's also a reality that we have different priorities. If you can pinpoint some of your priorities, you might just be able to change your life.

For example: you hate your job and you think "I can't do anything about it" - what's really guiding that? Is it that you don't want to go without the money while you study? You're scared you'll be no good at what you really want to do ie you just don't want to step out of your comfort zone? Whatever it is, you have to a) identify it and then b) ask yourself is this really a bigger priority for me than what I really want to do (eg change my job).

Now - if changing your job is a bigger priority - get out there and do it. IF on the other hand maintaining your current comfort zone is a bigger priority - then stop whinging about your current job.

When I went back to uni I was the breadwinner for the family. (I couldn't cut it as a stay-at-home mum, so The Man took over.) I had to juggle being a mum, working 40 hours a week (plus the rest) and studying. That meant I had to give things up - reading, movies, sewing, sleeping long hours. But I just didn't want to do what I was doing until I retired.

It's taken 6 1/2 L-O-O-O-N-G years, but I've finally made it. I really enjoy my job, and I'm just starting at the bottom! And now I get back my free time and comfort zone. There were times when I HATED studying. There were even a few times I threw my books across the room (stats!) But in the long run - it's worth it.

Thing is though - only YOU can decide if its worth it. Doesn't matter what it is. Some people want to climb mountains (why?), some people want to make lots of money (ho hum), some people want to put a computer in every household -they all made sacrifices to see their vision come to fruition. If you have a dream; a goal; a desire - call it what you will - decide if you want to make the sacrifices and then go for it.

22 April 2008

Tips - Zip Lock bags

I love zip lock bags. My house has boxes of them spread all over the place. I save all the ones that things come packaged in - wee little ones and great big ones. They're great for keeping cotton wool balls and buds dry in the toiletries bag when you're travelling; storing buttons or bits you want to take shopping to match against things. I have two favourite uses for them though, and generally use the biggest ones I can buy.

Use #1 in the sewing room - I store all the bits and pieces of a work in progress in a zip lock bag. If I buy fabric for a particular project I store it with the pattern in a bag so I don't accidently use the fabric for something else. Once I start cutting up zip locks come into their own. So handy.

Use #2 (so different!) in the kitchen - zip lock bags are brilliant for marinading and coating food.

To marinade: make the marinade in the bag (no washing up!), squish it around, add the meat (or whatever), squish around, fold, put in the fridge. Every so often, squish it around again. If you're wary of the seal of the bag - put it on a tray.

To coat: add all the ingredients to your bag, add meat, squish around. I usually blow a little air into the bag, seal, and then toss it about. A lovely coating for chicken - garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and equal quantities of breadcrumbs (or cornmeal or crushed cornflakes) and flour.

18 April 2008

Tips - Storage

My study area is surrounded by windows. There's not a lot of space for storage. I solved some of the problem by using bathroom accessories, designed to suction onto tiles or glass. The top photo is a soap rack, that nicely holds my PDA and phone while they're recharging. The stick-on hook helps keep my cords where I need them, instead of all over the floor. The bottom picture is a basket, I guess it's really designed for toothbrushes or razors or so forth. But it makes a jim dandy pen holder.

You do have to be careful, particularly with things with cords, that you can still easily open and shut the window. Make sure to stick your bits and pieces on the sliding half of the window!

And an extra tip - if the suction caps don't work very well (you have no idea how often my phone and PDA ended up on the floor!) put a little bit of vaseline around the outside edge of cap (leave the centre clear). Works a charm.

17 April 2008

Tips - Chooks

Oh my goodness - I've lost two days. How does that happen? It can't just be to me that it happens. Other people must lose days, weeks or even months. They do, don't they?

This tip is very simple - own a couple of chooks (chickens to those who might be from parts other than Australia). Couple of good reasons for chooks:
  • Our chooks lay one egg each every day. We have four chooks, we have three people. I never buy eggs. Good quality (ie free range) eggs are over $5 a dozen. We do buy laying mash for our chooks, but I get a dozen eggs every three days, and my laying mash costs about $20 every month. You do the maths.
  • Chooks eat ANYTHING. The down side of that is you have to protect some areas of your garden. The up side is that, other than chicken and egg scraps, all food scraps go to the chooks.
  • Food scraps that go through chickens turn into lovely rich growing material. I'm guessing it's not strictly "soil", but its great in the garden.
  • Chooks do not take up a lot of room. We have a 'hutch' with an enclosure around it. The whole area would be three metres square. The chooks are often let out to roam our (fully fenced) yard. We let them out in the afternoon as they tend to lay in the morning, and while Easter egg hunts are fun I don't want to do it every day.
The only real down side is that I haven't worked out what to do with chooks that no longer laying but refuse to conveniently die. Hubby keeps suggesting the cook pot, but I'm too much of a city girl to pluck and gut a chook. Ewwww.

14 April 2008

Tips - Caffeine

If you're trying to give up or reduce your caffeine intake try drinking green tea.

Black tea has about 1/2 the caffeine of coffee; and green tea has about 1/3. You can further reduce the caffeine in green tea very easily. Make your tea in a pot or cup, let it sit for about 30 seconds, then pour the water off. Refill and this time drink it.

The only difference between green tea and black tea is that black is fermented and green isn't. Apparently (and I can't remember where I read this) this means that green tea releases its caffeine very quickly, so you end up pouring most of it down the sink. (Or pour it into a container, let it cool, and water your pot plants.)

I add sugar to my green tea (gasp, shock, horror) and depending on the brand of tea I can't tell the difference to black tea.

13 April 2008

Tips - Unique Clothes

I love to sew. I actually love to quilt, but I do also do some clothes making. I actually prefer to "embellish" than make however.

Embellishing takes in a range of skills - embroidery, applique, painting, beading. If you've got some sewing skills you can turn a $4 t-shirt into a one-off masterpiece.

Some ideas I've used:

  • a spray of beads down from one shoulder on a dark shirt (beads are time consuming);
  • beads in blue and silver on a very plain black dress, with matching beads on a blue over jacket
  • flowers around the collar, cuffs and pocket top of a man's dress shirt;
  • a wave of flowers down the front of a bottle green, button up vest - the vine was plain green stem stitch, the flowers were variegated pastel thread
  • if you have an embroidery machine you could do all sorts of marvelous things
  • These days everything seems to come with shell buttons; add some colour - contrasting or complimentary or silver/gold buttons or even fun buttons.
Applique: I've used:
  • a spray of green and brown gum leaves on one shoulder of a pink shirt
  • a swirl of boxes all in (different) blue fabrics on a blue shirt, and various other abstract ideas
  • a lovely mask from a piece of fabric
  • The options for applique are really endless. You can choose complimentary colours or contrasting colours, or an array of colours. Decide how you want to wear the item first. If its a black shirt you want to wear with anything you probably don't want a bright red pattern on it.
  • I've also used applique to coordinate an outfit. I had a pair of pants that were too short. I added a hem to them, and used the same fabric to applique an abstract image on a shirt. When I wear them together they look like a 'suit'.
If you're going to buy cheap t-shirts it sometimes pay to run a line of ribbon around the inside of the hem and along the shoulders. This helps prevent the shirt from stretching out of shape so quickly. One shirt I actually used bias binding in a darker shade than the shirt, ran it around the hem, the neckline and the sleeve ends as a contrast.

12 April 2008

Tips - organising chargers

I haven't used this tip, but I think I might! I think I saw it in a copy of Handyman somewhere, but I couldn't find it on their website.

You will need
  • A fishing tackle box - one with a large space in the bottom and a removable tray at the top
  • A power board - the bigger the better, 'cause (as I'm sure you've noticed) a lot of rechargers take up two slots :-((
  • A label maker of some sort - you can buy little tags from Officeworks (?) for tagging cords (very handy around the 'puter)
  • A drill and a small, fine saw
The idea is:
  • The power board goes in the bottom of the tackle box
  • The cord goes through a slot along one edge (which is why you need a drill and saw)
  • The power cords for the appliances come up through the tray (another drill job)
  • The appliances (phones, PDAs and who knows what else) sit on the tray
  • All the extra cords sit inside the bottom of the tackle box.
  • The labels a) help you know what plugs in where and b) stop the cords falling back through the holes into the bottom of the box
The main reason I haven't used this yet is that hubby's PDA sits at the main 'puter; his phone is in the bedroom ('cause he used to work shift work and get calls at all hours); my phone and PDA sit in the study near my laptop. I love the nice, neat, tidy concept though.

11 April 2008

Tips - Kids' Art Work

If you've got kids you'll know that they bring home a heap of art work - particularly when they first start school. It's precious, it's special, it's blinking nuisance. We have a clean out of art work every so often.

I have a big scrap book - the sort you get for a dollar at the el-cheapo shop - not the sort you pay big money for at some fancy scrap booking shop. Anything that is super precious goes in the scrap book.

Anything that doesn't warrant a place in the scrap book is photographed. Particularly costumes. My girl has several fancy dress opportunities every year. I love designing the costumes, but the reality is - by the time she needs another "survivor of a cyclone" costume she's probably going to be 10 sizes bigger. So, I photograph them. I do allow her to keep one small article to represent the costume. Her room is decorated with Charlotte's web (the "some pig" one); a couple of magic chair wings and other bits and pieces.

I figure the photos will last a longer than the original piece, and take far less room (stored electronically) than boxes of drawings and egg carton dragons.

10 April 2008

Tips - Ice

I like my drinking water at room temperature but I like all my soft drinks (soda, pop, etc) icy cold. We have a separate freezer and have room to store a bag of ice from the supermarket. BF (before freezer) we were limited to the little space above our fridge.
I found that the door shelves of the freezer were pretty darn useless for just about anything. I bought a long, narrow plastic container that squeezed into one shelf. We would empty the ice cube trays into the container, and then refill them. As we used the cubes from the container the water in the trays had a chance to freeze.
We also invested in some Tupperware icecube trays. These trays have lids. The Tupperware sales person went on about putting fruit in them and so forth; but really the biggest advantage is that they stack easily. Now that we have a full freezer the ice cube container sits on top of the trays.

09 April 2008

Tips - Family Favourites

Buy a nice note book with a solid, hard cover. Mine is a bit smaller than A4. Write down all your family favourite recipes. (If you're not married - write in it all the favourites from your childhood.)

It saves hunting through recipes books for that recipe each time, enables others to find the recipes easily (makes getting someone else to cook a little easier), and makes a great leaving home present. Well, I'm guessing at that last one. The Girl hasn't quite left home yet ;-)

A recipe journal also makes a lovely gift - engagement, housewarming, etc. I gave one to my sister-in-law for Christmas one year, and explained how I used mine. She loves it.

08 April 2008

Tips - Budgetting (2)

When you're making up a budget always round outgoing amounts UP to the nearest $10 and incoming amounts DOWN. Unless you have a lot of self discipline (and are in a really bad spot) budgetting to the exact cent will be impossible to maintain. As soon as a bill is 5cents more than expected your whole budget falls over. Rounding outgoings up and incomings down gives you a little bit of lee way.

07 April 2008

Tips - Budgetting

Budgetting is not one of my strong points. Lots of good intentions. Bit of a "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" situation. But, this tip has worked for us in the past.

Add up all your regular bills for 12 months - registration, rates, phone, electricity, school fees. Leave out the day to day stuff - groceries, petrol etc. Divide the amount you come up with by the number of your pay periods (if you get paid weekly divide by 52; monthly divide by 12; etc).

Transfer that amount (automatically is best) to a separate account every pay period. Don't touch the account unless it is to pay one of the bills you included in your calculations. An ING account, or other on-line bank, is probably good 'cause they have high interest and you can't just take money out at an ATM.

06 April 2008

Tips - Bills

A quick tip. For bills that come around less frequently than say monthly (registration, rates, etc) - add them to your PDA or computer calendar with a repeat function. Make sure you set them to start reminding you a week or two before the due date. Although the amount might change from bill to bill you won't be caught out by them being quite so unexpected.

05 April 2008

Tips - Menu Planning

One of the things I gained from Flylady (http://www.flylady.net/) was an introduction to Leanne Ely. Leanne runs a website called Saving Dinner (http://www.savingdinner.com/).

Leanne writes and sells menus. Not restraurant menus, but every day cooking menus for busy families. The basic deal is: you sign up for a particular menu; every week you receive an email with 6 recipes and a shopping list. The recipes are all very easy, very quick, and mostly wonderful. In 12 months we had maybe 2 or 3 we won't be eating again. Probably about half a dozen dishes are repeated in a 12 month period. Although Leanne is Amercia based she has available menus for the southern hemisphere so produce is fresh and the dishes are suited to the weather (no hot soups in summer).

I saved all my menus, and we're about start our third year using them. Because there are so few repeats we never get bored; and as we've gone through them again I've removed dishes and vegetables we haven't enjoyed and substituted some old favourites.

It is possible to do this at home and not pay someone else to do it. I tried, but being who I am it would take me a whole day every week to plan a menu and shopping list. I even tried using various bits of software. In the end I decided it just wasn't for me, and paid Leanne for her menus. One thing that worked for longer than the others was to write all our favourite dishes on index cards. At the beginning of each week I'd close my eyes and pull out 6 cards - and that's what I'd shop for and cook during the week.

Here's the advantages of having a menu for the week:
  • No more looking in the fridge and thinking "what's for dinner"?
  • No more going to cook something only find you're missing the vital ingredient
  • No more spending too much at the grocery store 'cause you're buying stuff "just in case"
  • If the main cook is running late everyone knows what's for dinner and they can start on it
Basically, having a menu planned eliminates the stress of dinner - particularly if all the cooks are also busy people (and who isn't)!

04 April 2008

Tips - More on Routines

I intensely dislike housework. You do it, turn around, and it needs doing again. I'm not sure which happens faster - dishes piling up on the counter or nuclear fission. The sad reality of life is, however, that housework has to be done by someone; and really it's not fair to expect hubby to do it after he's worked 15 hours and I've sat around blogging and watching movies for 15 hours. Here's a few things I've learnt:
  1. Time those hated activities. Most of them don't take anywhere near as much time as we think they do. Do you know that it takes less than 15 minutes to wash up more dishes than my drying rack and the counter next to it will hold?
  2. Drop the perfection mentality. When I wash floors I don't move furniture out of my way unless its furniture that often gets moved. If it normally doesn't get moved who's going to know if I mopped under it or not? I won't ;-)
  3. Remember - housework blesses others. If you live by yourself the 'other' might actually be yourself; but if you share a house you will bless those you share with.
  4. Routines :-) That's right. Having a routine makes it so much easier to talk yourself into things. Friday mornings is my day for Home Blessing (a Flylady term). Friday I don't shower in the morning; I clean my house and then I shower - 'cause I try to go as fast as possible and I get really hot and sweaty. Here's my routine; takes about an hour (tops).
  • Pick up everything that's not where it belongs. I dump it in a big basket and everyone is responsible for retrieving their own stuff.
  • Strip and remake the beds every 2nd week; the towels every week; put a load of washing on.
  • Spray the shower (see previous post about spray)
  • Race (literally) around with the vaccy. See above about moving furniture - it don't happen.
  • Then race (literally) around with the mop (see post about vinegar and floors). We have all hardwood floors through the house, so I vaccy and mop the entire house.
Routines - that's just what I do on Friday mornings. I decided not to complain or whinge about it; I just suck it up and do it 'cause its got to be done. And, yes, it does bless my family.

03 April 2008

Tips - Routines

Just about everything I've learnt about routines I learnt from Marla Cilley, better known to the internet community as "The Flylady" (http://www.flylady.net/). I haven't followed the Flylady system completely, but I am grateful to Marla for some really important life lessons. Lesson number one - routines are not a strait jacket. In fact, routines create freedom. Actually, no, lesson number one is that most of us have routines - they're just not very effective.

I've always had a morning routine. In my last job it was a well known fact that I didn't start until 8:15, even though the official starting time was 8:00am. Every single day I ran 15 minutes late. And even then I often ate breakfast at my desk. Now why is that? Because my routine was ineffective and inefficient.

My morning routine has been "tweaked" to be effective and efficient. It took some work. Habits aren't formed overnight, but they are formed day by day. Given that I can step into the shower, and 30 seconds later wonder if I've washed my hair or my face or both (when in fact I've done neither) and stepping out of the shower with conditioner still in my hair is a common occurence - these changes definitely didn't happen overnight.

But in that routine there is freedom. The old morning routine (which I never admitted was a routine) used to cause anxiety and grumpiness (for me and family, and probably my boss). My new routine (which I happy to admit IS a routine) gives me freedom. I no longer rush around like a headless chook in the morning; the Girl goes to school with lunch in her bag and breakfast in her tummy; I arrive at work exactly when I say I will (showered, dressed decently, teeth brushed, hair brushed, and breakfasted).

To those that insist that routines create bondage - I'll take that bondage, 'cause strangely enough I'm freer with it than without it.

And my morning routine, if you're interested:
  • get up (kinda obvious)
  • make the bed (I'm not a hospital corners person; just straighten the sheets and quilt - when you make 'em you want 'em on display)
  • loo (of course)
  • take my iron, brush my teeth (these go together 'cause liquid iron tastes revolting)
  • have a shower
  • do my hair, get dressed (always nice for others you're going to meet during the day)
  • organise lunches
  • have breakfast while reading my emails (see - time for me, even in the mornings)

02 April 2008

Tips - Vinegar and the Wash (Laundry)

Another tip for vinegar (told you I liked the stuff). I think I picked this one up from Shannon Lush. Shannon does a segment on ABC Local Radio helping people with their cleaning problems. She's got a couple of books published. I don't own any, although I did buy one for my defacto dad as a joke (he's a perfectionist cleaner - something I'm not).
Anyway, the tip. Towels should never be washed with fabric softener 'cause it stops them being effective water soaker-up-ers. But, most of us hate scratchy, hard towels. The answer is to use vinegar instead of softener. I just pour it in the softener holder in the machine.
As mentioned before vinegar helps kill mould, so it helps clean the insides of your machine at the same time.
A word of caution, however, I read somewhere that some machines don't like vinegar. It apparently attacks some of the soft fittings. I haven't noticed any problems with our machine though.

01 April 2008

Tips - Vinegar and Floors

Tip #2 (don't worry I'll stop numbering them soon ;-) This one is also from a Mary Hunt newsletter. I guess I should have mentioned in the first post - obviously a lot of my tips haven't come from me direct; I've picked them up all over the place. Where I can remember the origins I'll give the credit. Even though they may not be "originals" they will all be tips I've used myself.

Vinegar (my favourite cleaning product) - for hard floors use a bucket of HOT water (I use one kettle of boiling water and about the same amount of hot tap water); add one to two cups of vinegar (good ol' plain white vinegar). Apply mop to water and then to floor.

This does take a while to dry. Not sure why that is the case; but detergent does seem to dry faster. I am always amazed, however, at how dirty the water is by the time I'm finished. Amazed might not be the right word. Horrified might be better ;-)

Its also true that the house smells like a salad factory for an hour or so afterwards, but the smell does disapate.

31 March 2008

Tips - Vinegar and Dish Detergent for Showers

Here we are almost April and I haven't posted anything since late November. That's because I couldn't think of anything to post. Yesterday I was wondering who I could share something with - a tip that has saved me time and money - and that's when I realised that's what I could make the focus of my blog. All those bits of information that I've picked up through life. Time savers, money savers, energy savers, life hints, study tips. Just random bits and pieces. I'm going to try and limit myself to one tip a day, every day. Bwahahaha. Like that's gunna happen - but I will try.

So, my first tip. Got this one from Mary Hunt's daily email "Everyday Cheapskate" (you can sign up for it at http://ads.everydaycheapskate.com/).

To wash showers: mix together in a spray bottle, one part dishwashing liquid and three parts white vinegar. Spray on the tiles and glass etc. Leave for one hour. Scrub (I use scrubber pad supposedly designed for bathrooms) and rinse well. Mary's original email said "be prepared to be amazed". I wasn't - until I noticed a section I'd missed. The soap scum was about as thick as my pinky finger nail. Every where else was glistening clean. Only then did I realise just what a difference it made.

My guess is that the detergent simply makes the vinegar "sticky" keeping it on the surface long enough to penetrate the scum. My toxicology lecture (Dr Peter Dingle - from "Is your house killing you on SBS"; if you Google him a heap of pages come up) - he said that vinegar kills mould. So, you get rid of two issues at once.

I use it once a week. I use whatever dish detergent we happen to have (if it's a concentrate use only 1/2 a part); and el-cheapo vinegar. I use vinegar for so many things I go through about 2 litres a week! But more vinegar tips later.