Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 - My Year of Reading

In a year when many have been 'coloring' books, I've been reading them. (Not that there's anything wrong with a little art-therapy. I'm all for it!)

At the closing of 2015, I decided to set myself a reading challenge for 2016. I read around fifty books each year anyway, so I challenged myself on Goodreads to read seventy books. Initially, I thought I would struggle; after all, there are still only 365 days in a year and 24 hours in a day, where was I to find the time to read an extra twenty books? Turns out I should always back myself. I surpassed my challenge by reading over eighty books. I'm going to recommend some of my favourites below. Perhaps you could put them on your to-read list for 2017.

As usual, my reading was varied. I have tasted almost everything on the menu this year. Poetry. Essay. Memoir. YA. Anthology. Self-help. Art. Home decorating. Organisation. Fiction. Sewing. Psychology. Short Story. Reference.

Jandy Nelson is a new favourite of mine. Get your hands on her award-winning books, The Sky is Everywhere and I'll Give you the Sun. Yes, that's right, only two books. This is the only problem with falling in love with the work of a new author - waiting for the next book. Her books are classified as YA fiction but don't let that turn you away. As The Daily Beast said - "Those who think young-adult books can't be as literary, rich, and mature as their adult counterparts will be disabused of that notion after reading The Sky is Everywhere".

I read two more books by Claire Zorn, already a favourite from the time I read and reviewed her debut, The Sky So Heavy here. I can't rate The Protected as highly as her debut, but here's what I wrote on goodreads - "Claire Zorn knows how to write. She is especially good at portraying teenagers on the page. Teenagers in peril or in pain...I had to add it to my 'made me cry' list..." The other title, One Would Think the Deep, was amazing and heartbreaking, with many twists and turns.

Another favourite author I kept up with this year. A.S. King. Her novels I Crawl Through It and Reality Boy were a wonderful addition to my year of reading. Reality Boy joined Zorn's The Protected on my 'made me cry' list. King is a favourite of mine because she writes like a magician and explores serious themes in a no-holds-barred way.

The poetry books I gave five stars to were, Eating My Grandmother by Krissy Kneen and Night Writing by Kathryn Lomer. In all I read twenty-three books of poetry. I love contemporary poetry, especially by Australian poets. If you haven't read poetry since school I suggest you give some of the new poets a try.

I'm a big fan of short fiction. Like poetry, I suggest you give it a try if you haven't read any for a while. The collections I gave five stars to are, The Best Australian Stories 2014, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King and Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. Short stories fit nicely into those small spaces we all have in our lives. If you feel you don't have the time or energy or focus to commit to a novel, try the short form. Short doesn't mean dull or superficial. Good short fiction packs a punch.

Nothing worse than an overly-long blog post, right? Well, even so, I can't leave without mentioning my five star non-fiction reads this year. Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls by Tara Moss and Use Your Words: A Myth-Busting, No-Fear Approach to Writing by Catherine Deveny.

Well, it's been a strange and challenging year for many different reasons and I'm happy to say goodbye to it. Let's hope 2017 is a great new beginning for everyone. Keep reading!!


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review - Den of Wolves: A Blackthorn & Grim novel

I was fortunate to receive an advance reader copy of Juliet Marillier’s Den of Wolves, the third novel in her Blackthorn and Grim series. I decided I would not do justice to the book or myself without reading the first and second books, Dreamer’s Pool and Tower of Thorns respectively, so I quickly borrowed these titles from the library. I was glad I went back to the beginning with these characters.

Blackthorn and Grim were unknown to each other until both were incarcerated in the lock-up of a particularly corrupt chieftain named Mathuin. Blackthorn’s life, and as a result Grim’s, was saved by a mysterious fellow named Conmael, a member of the Fey, who added several conditions to the favour of saving Blackthorn’s life. Blackthorn was to go where he told her to go, stay there, help all who asked and not seek vengeance against Mathuin for a period of seven years. Having only one other choice, a quick furtive execution before she was set to give evidence against Mathuin to a high council, she accepted the terms. Blackthorn escaped into the woods, with Grim trailing behind her.

Grim is the first person Blackthorn helps under her agreement with Conmael. Grim doesn't ask outright for Blackthorn's help, but the request is implied. From the beginning Blackthorn is a prickly, touchy, rather cross woman who desires nothing more than to keep her own company far from any other living person. It is clear that the pain she carries is great. Grim, though similarly troubled is more affable, a helper, a doer, who is quickly accepted into the community at Winterfalls, and valued for his skills as a builder.

I came to think of Blackthorn and Grim as medieval sleuths. Each book, though bathed in myth and magic, is also a mystery to be solved. Someone to be saved. Many underestimate Grim's intelligence, his ability to pull apart the facts of a puzzling situation and rearrange them into a solution. Between them, Blackthorn and Grim right many wrongs, but the wrongs they have personally endured still weigh heavy on them.

Blackthorn's past has resulted in her only expecting the worst from men, particularly men of power and influence. In the first book, she finds that Prince Orin is a different sort of man entirely. Though very near tempted to break the rules and leave Winterfalls, she stays and the mystery of Dreamer's Pool is discovered.

These characters are an odd couple. There is much gruffness between them and an arms distance that comes from each holding tight to their secrets, the ones that broke them. In this book the writer shares with us the tragic backstory of Blackthorn, but Grim's past remains a mystery. The first book is a perfect introduction to the characters and this time and place.

The second book, Tower of Thorns, revolves around a 200 year old curse and a request from Lady Gelies, the woman at the heart of it, that Blackthorn find a way to break it. Lady Gelies knows exactly how to break the curse but needs Blackthorn to do it. Nearby is a monastery that Grim seems determined to avoid.  When Blackthorn asks him to go there we find out more about his past. His backstory is tragic too, but eventually he finds a way to work through some of his past trauma, while helping the monks to repair their scriptorium.

The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim grows deeper throughout this book, but Blackthorn is still focused on revenge and almost falls prey to Mathuin when her need for vengeance is used to tempt her to leave with an old friend promising her that very opportunity. She avoids one disaster only to fall prey to another and is almost lost as a result of her breaking the curse. Luckily, Grim saves her. This book was a combination of secrets and lies versus love and commitment.

So finally we come to book three, Den of Wolves. Again, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a mystery. This time, however, they have little opportunity to put their heads together and solve it in the way they have solved such mysteries before. Each learns parts of the story and must investigate on their own. Grim goes to work for the man at the centre of this story. A mean, secretive man, who insists Grim not speak with anyone about what he is doing at Wolf Glen. Meanwhile, this man's daughter, Cara, is sent to Winterfalls against her will, to live in the castle of Prince Orin. This is where she first meets and befriends Blackthorn, and relates what she knows of the story of the heartwood house. As usual, things are not as they seem and a great wrong must be undone.

Marillier does a fine job of gently easing these characters together. They start out so broken and pitiful in the first book yet, thrown together by circumstance, they come to rely on, and care for each other. Her writing is emotional, but not sentimental. The themes mirror many of the issues we face today. Abuse of power, and corruption of that power. Violence against woman and exploitation of those who have no voice, no power of their own, no champion to stand for them. Marillier realistically depicts the symptoms of PTSD in the flashbacks and physical and emotional responses of her characters, Grim in particular. There is much heart in her writing, and the healing journey Blackthorn and Grim go on is a pleasure to read.

I really enjoyed the series. Thanks Juliet!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tidying up with Marie Kondo

Okay, so as a preface to this post I just want to let you know that I am an extreme bibliophile. I LOVE books, I LOVE reading, and I have a little hoarding problem when it comes to those fabulous pages covered in a combination of the same 26 letters. Though, according to someone - I'm not sure who, I saw it on Facebook- "It's not hoarding if it's books."

A few months ago a work colleague mentioned a book on tidying. She told me some silly anecdotes about socks, but also that she had tidied her home and managed to throw out a bunch of previously unthrowoutable stuff. We'd had many previous discussions on clutter and organisation, as I had been somewhat obsessed by the topic and willing to talk the ear off anyone nearby. My colleague was a self-confessed hoarder, or hangeroner of miscellany over her lifetime. I was impressed when she shared her victory over her possessions and she seemed suitably proud of herself.

Fast forward several months to a sudden desire to use the free eaudiobooks available through the library I work in and the decision to take a look - listen - to Marie Kondo's little book on the life-changing magic of tidying up. Yes, I was to discover that she did have a rather strange relationship with her socks, but underlying that was the message, repeated often with the phrase - does it spark joy, that her technique was about focussing on what you want to keep rather than what you want to let go. And that kind of made sense to me. It also seemed important to do this 'tidying' in a certain order and to touch every item as you evaluated it.

I've never been a clothes horse or even a particularly girly girl, so the clothing category was already fairly light on, but having gained a few kilos of late, I managed to find two big bags of clothes that didn't 'spark joy' so to speak.

Books was the second category, and anyone who knows me well would have bet money on me not being able to let go of more than a handful of books, if that, but it turns out they would've done their money. I took my books, one category or genre at a time, from the bookshelves and piled them on the floor. I have near enough to seven floor to ceiling bookshelves and at last count over 1000 books.

The moment of truth. 

460 books!
I didn't think too hard or too long, just held each one and decided if it 'sparked joy'. For me, this boiled down to, is it signed - my VIP books, is it by a favourite author, is it part of a set and if I hadn't read it yet, was I likely to? It was surprisingly easy. The more books I moved to the 'out you go' pile, the more space I had on the shelves to arrange my special books. The more I threw out, the more excited I became. I have never, in my life been physically, mentally, or emotionally able to part with my books. Though not biblical, this was a minor miracle.

I have high hopes now for 'tidying' the rest of my possessions with the same success. This is 'extreme' tidying, a ruthlessness I've never managed in the past, and yet it doesn't feel that way. I feel no loss. No guilt. No scarcity.

I simply feel lighter.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review - Silence is Goldfish

Silence is Goldfish by award-winning novelist - Annabel Pitcher, author of - My Sister lives on the Mantelpiece & Ketchup Clouds.

Fifteen year old Tess accidently discovers that her Dad Jack is not, in fact, her Dad. She was conceived with donor sperm and Jack’s honest account of his feelings at the moment of her birth leave a lot to be desired.

Tess is a fat girl, bullied by the most popular girl at school, Anna. Tess’s best friend is Isabel is a quirky Tolkien fan who is rarely serious about anything. Tess is quite immature I think, but that can be common for teens with low self-esteem. Rather than confront her ’dad’ about her discovery or speak to her mother about it, Tess takes a stand in a selfish way that affects all of her relationships. In some ways I think she is rather self-indulgent and melodramatic, but then I try to put myself in her shoes. She is shocked. She is hurt. She is confused. She has only one friend, who seems unable to be serious for long enough for Tess to confide in her, so she has to deal with this all on her own, whilst being bullied and ostracised. Those teen years can be rough.

She shuts down, shuts off. Selective mutism. An extreme effect of the shock of finding out the secret. A plastic torch in the shape of a goldfish becomes a ’security blanket’ item for her.

Many fifteen year olds have probably felt the urge to run away and find a different family, a new - better - nicer - mum or dad. Tess is looking at every blonde-haired male of the large-boned variety to see if their eyes are brown, meaning they could possibly be her father, after discovering the six-hundred and seventeen secret words Jack has typed into a file called DCNETWORK on his computer.

The age-old “who am I” question features large. Who am I, and where do I fit in, is a question many teenagers face in the search for their identity, within and outside of their families. The journey from child to adult is not measured in years alone. There is no magic time span to calculate it. Adulthood is not achieved like a level-up in a computer game, a pre-destined, pre-determined path to reach a certain point and win a prize. Let’s face it, if adulthood is the prize, many of us would feel pretty ripped-off. The maturity and self-awareness that marks us as adults, takes longer for some than it does for others. This transition is painful. For Tess, the pain factor shoots through the roof and her mind becomes obsessed with the fact that Jack isn’t her father, and that a substitute teacher might be.

Tess is a girl striving for authenticity, but it’s hard to be your authentic self when you’re not sure who you are. She’s lost her sense of belonging, and in her search for it she becomes obsessed with the relief Math teacher Mr Richardson, but he has secrets of his own. The only person left in her word that she trusts is her Gran, and she worries that her parents are going to put her into care.

This story proves the idea that people never say what they mean. This is true of the adults in Tess’s life, especially Jack and the neighbour Andrew. They exchange what might seem like morning pleasantries between neighbours, but are more about what isn’t said, and are rather passive-aggressive. Tess’s parents have been trying to push her to fit in. But is ’this’ what fitting in looks like?

Jack tries too hard. He signs her up for things ’he’ did in high school, like theatre and dance. He is trying to make her be like him because she is clearly ’not’ like him, which only reminds him that she is not his trueborn daughter.

Tess’s voice carries the story even though she is mute for the better part of the book. Her interior dialogue and ’conversations’ with Mr Goldfish carry the story forward towards its climax. My favourite Tess-ism is “...and that’s a hard fact sitting in my brain, giving me acid indigestion of the mind...”

I found Silence is Goldfish to be compulsively readable, due more to the writing style than the story itself, which did drag at times and seem somewhat repetitive.

It’s a quick read. The writing style is chatty from the first person POV. Being mute, being silent, changes Tess. She becomes stronger, braver, if a little crazy with her back and forth discussions with Mr Goldfish, the kids torch she bought on the night she meant to run away. Tess is a likable character, introverted and a little nutty but kind-hearted. She learns a lot about listening while she is mute. Adults become a little too free around her. She is either forgotten or taken advantage of. Either way she learns a lot about adult relationships and secrets. She finds an unexpected ally along the way. Tess’s safe, insulated, world is turned on it’s head by a secret that is not run of the mill for a story like this; but like most teenagers going through the angst of family drama, and school, and friends, her world rights itself in a way that is realistic and ultimately a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review - The Sky So Heavy

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn. UQP. 2013

‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.’

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Fin and his twelve-year-old brother Max, a nuclear ‘accident’ and the events that follow. Written by an Australian author, set in an Australian landscape – The Blue Mountains – this is a dystopian survival story that piqued my interest from the start.

Zorn is quick to establish her characters ‘normal’ world – school, friends, crushes, and home life – before dropping them into a survival situation. Nuclear winter. These boys must quickly learn to fend for themselves without the aid of adults. Their parents are absent and it is soon apparent that the adults remaining cannot be relied on to behave in the usual way. Even the police can’t be trusted.

Tragedy and disaster have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in people. There are two ways people commonly react, they can become selfish, fearing only for themselves and their own situation, or they can become selfless, banding together to help those in need.

‘The true measure of a man is how he behaves when no one is watching.’

Take Starvos, the local shop owner, for instance. At first he is only concerned with how much money he can make. He makes a show of caring about everyone in the community by limiting the number of items people can buy at any time, yet he immediately doubles his prices. Later, with no idea how long the current situation will continue and concerned only for himself, he closes his shop, hides the food out of sight and is prepared to kill to protect it.

The tension builds steadily as the food runs out and people become desperate, but after reading more than 100 pages I began to wish something new would happen. There wasn’t enough action and the same goals and obstacles were repeating themselves. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the story shifted. Along with Lucy, Fin’s crush, and a boy from their school, Fin and Max finally leave the mountains and head for Sydney in search of their mother, who incidentally works for the government.

Survival of the fittest.
Dog eat dog.
Every man for himself.
Us and them.

These are the clichés and themes that filled my mind while reading The Sky So Heavy. The idea that some people are more deserving of life than others, more worthy of being saved and protected, is the refugee situation at its core. I’d be blind not to see the parallels between this fictional story and the plight of those seeking Asylum on our own shores. Zorn shines a light on Australia’s Asylum Seeker situation and the way fear and greed and misinformation can be used to support the ‘us and them’ mentality. Inhumanity.

This is our Country.
These are our resources.
You don’t deserve them.
You are not one of us.

Segregation is not a new concept in society, but the divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been more obvious. The outsider, the old, the sick, the young, the disabled, the injured – who is useful, and therefore worth saving, worth spending money (resources) on, and who is not, is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Zorn undertakes an unflinching dissection of human behavior under extreme conditions. People either keep their humanity in the face of incredible challenges, or they lose it, and in doing so lose themselves. It’s these near-future potentially possible scenarios that frighten us most I believe, simply because they are believable. The likelihood of them happening within our lifetimes is real. And that is terrifying.

In a world, fictional or otherwise, where money no longer has power, it is those who control the giving or withholding of our basic human needs, such as food, water, shelter and safety, who hold the balance of power. How willingly they reject those in need reveals all.

It’s a harsh world, cruel at times.

It’s been said that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but it’s also been said that ‘fiction shines a light on the truth’. Zorn has positioned her spotlight well.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Finding my Focus or Being Creative is Hard!

Hi, my name’s Lisa and I am a art/craft/aholic. My entire life I have been drawn to all things artistic. Singing, acting, drawing, painting, crafting, playing music, writing, creating, designing... Lots and lots of things ending in ing. I can’t help it. It’s who I am. As my childhood came to a sudden and dramatic end at the age of sixteen and I had to enter the grown-up world of working to pay for grown-up things like food and rent, I had to give up on that creative side of me. There wasn’t time for artsy-fartsy stuff. I didn’t have the room or the funds. I had to make money and be responsible. Looking back, I’m not sure how I coped without art in my life, except to say I took up a well-used adult coping mechanism, drinking. Hmmm.

Anyway, here I am hundreds of years later (okay, thirty-ish), with the kiddies all grown up and not needing Mum so much, and I have time to do all the things again! It doesn’t hurt being able to afford to buy all the wonderful supplies for doing the things either, I tell you, but I have come up against a bit of a problem of late. Too many strings! I have more strings to my bow than the entire string section of the orchestra. Okay, slight exaggeration, but not by much. 

I have time, but I don’t have endless, unlimited time. I have money, but again, not endless or unlimited. I am lucky. I know how lucky I am. I have a room in my house (thanks for leaving home kiddies) dedicated solely to me for whatever purposes I wish to use it for. It is sometimes referred to as the art room, sometimes the craft room. This room is, a)well organised, b)well stocked, c)has natural light, d)is comfortable all year round. 

So what’s the problem? you may cry, especially those arty-crafty people out there, wishing this was their room. TOO MANY STRINGS! I apologise for yelling, but to give you an idea of what’s going on in this mythical place of creativity, this creation hub, I’ll make a list.

- art journalling
- painting
- drawing 
- collage
- stencilling
- stamping
- stamp carving
- monoprinting
- scrapbooking
- card making
- mixed media
- fashion design
- refashioning
- sewing
- jewelry design
- jewelry making
- sculpting
- writing

Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because my brain is buzzing with ideas for the next thing I’m going to create. I have idea after idea and I beging to think I can do everything, and maybe I can - except I can’t - because time is not infinite. Sometimes I avoid my wonderful room because chosing what to do stresses me out, which defeats the purpose of having this space in the first place. I wonder if other creative people struggle as much as I do to pick just one or two outlets for their creative ideas. To work on one or two projects at a time and ignore all the other things they could be doing. Or is it just me?

Anyway, in keeping with this blog being mostly about books, here are some of the most inspiring art books I’ve read over the last year or so.

Drawing & Painting Beautiful Faces - Jane Davenport
The Art of Whimsical Lettering - Joanne Sharpe
Brave Intuitive Painting - Flora S. Bowley
Adventures in Mixed Media Art - Amy O. Jones
Mixed Media Revolution - Darlene Olivia McElroy
The Complete Guide to Altered Imagery - Karen Michel
The Cloth Paper Scissors Book - Barbara Delaney
Taking Flight - Kelly Rae Roberts

As with all subject-specific books, the more you read, the more they begin to blend into one another. Take your fill, but when you begin to feel like you've heard it all before, know that it's time to stop. And if you find the secret for staying focussed on one project at a time, please let me know.