image-2725600-readingchallenge.jpg
In 2018 we are taking the challenge to expand our reading and you are welcome to join us.


Romance Reading Challenge

Lyn is getting into all aspects of Romance with Romance Challenge which includes 2 differnt styles of romance books per month. 
Download your copy of the Romance Reading Challenege below. 
Classic Reading Challenge

Sasha is diving into the classics - ancient, modern, children's as well as biographies and non-fiction. This 50 book challenge is for the big readers or those who want to push their boundries. Sasha's list is made up of recommendations from friends and fellow book enthusisasts and was limited to books she had not read before. If you are joining her on the challenge but have read a book on the list feel free to substitute in a different book that fits the category. 
Junior Reading Challenge
We have also created a junior reading challenge for those children that would like to challenge their reading this year with some new books and genres. 

Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave ($12.99)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #10
Book 10 of 50 in my 2018 reading challenge and this is the second one I have done with book club. It certainly made for an interesting discussion as some readers found the graphic sex a bit of a challenge (not necessarily the guy on guy action but the very physical descriptions) I have to admit there was way more than I was expecting - but then the person who recommended it to me called it "a lovely romance". Having read it this is not the description I'd use. Romance? Kinda... Romantic? No. It's too graphic for that. Conigrave's work is almost brutalist in it's plainness but I found I respected him for it. And Lovely isn't really a word I'd apply at all - More like a Shakespearean tragedy!

This book was a landmark in publishing in 1995 and it is still very relevant today. Conigrave's story of growing up gay in 1970's-80's Melbourne and Sydney, social change, HIV/AIDS still has so many relevant points - sexual education, gay rights, social acceptance and awareness of STDs and HIV in particular. It is a book I feel everyone should read - particularly teens - for all of the above reasons but also because HIV has slipped from the public consciousness over the last few years as people forget what a devastating disease it is. Conigrave does not pull any punches with the many medical interventions both he and John go through. The other reason I feel it should be read is Tim's honesty about awkward teen sex and sexuality. Whether gay or straight everyone can relate to that. 

Tim himself doesn't always come across as a great person - he cheats on John a lot - and seems to be a bit of a jerk. I sometimes had to remind myself that he wrote it, as he is so harsh. But then again he wrote this between John's death and his own - maybe it was in some ways an act of confession. Or maybe, knowing he had nothing left to lose he didn't feel obligated to 'make nice'. Apparently the manuscript was completed 10 days before he died.

Some of the (very 80's Aussie) slang used might confuse non-Australian readers (or younger readers). Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go perve on some spunks down by the tuck shop. 

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben ($29.99-Paperback / $49.99 - Audio)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE BOOK #9

If you can read this book (or listen to is as I did) you will change the way you look at trees, forests and the whole ecosystem. Peter Wohlleben is a forest manager in Germany and over his decades of work his view of how forests should be managed and what is healthy for them has changed dramatically. 
He has discovered that trees are not the isolated, competitive pants we think of them as, always fighting off others for food and light; rather they are remarkably social - sharing resources and predator warnings with their neighbours through a system of airborne chemicals and underground through their symbiotic fungal partners. A tree in isolation is a lonely one indeed. 

This brings up many questions of how trees receive and remember this information - if an airborne scent is released that other trees react to does this mean trees have a sense of smell? How does it know to feed a neighbour sugar through its roots to help that neighbour fight off a pest attack? How do trees know when it is spring? We are told that it is about temperature but it is actually about day length - this implies that trees have some sort of memory and sense of time - where are their brains??
This book poses as many questions as it answers and reveals that while plants are a resource we have used since Homo Sapiens developed tools there is so much about them of which we are completely unaware.
Trees play a much larger role in the ecosystem than we are aware of - for example acid from fallen leaves leaches into waterways and eventually the ocean and kick starts food for plankton: the most vital block in the global food chain. Large stands of forest can alter weather patterns and increase rainfall. The health of the forest impacts the health of the fauna in it and changes can skew populations for better or worse.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in gardening, environment or agriculture.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret ($29.99 - hardcover)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #8
Young Hugo is an orphan taken in by his uncle, a drunk and a clock repairer at a big train station in central Paris. When his uncle disappears Hugo continues to take care of the clocks and hopes that no-one realises that his uncle is gone. Missing his father, and terribly lonely, Hugo discovers and repairs and old automaton - a clockwork man - that his father had been working on when he was killed. Hugo steals the parts he needs from a toy shop in the station, until the day the toy-maker catches him and takes his father's note book. Suddenly life gets a lot more complicated for Hugo as he makes new friends, solves an old mystery and finally gets the Automaton working.
Hugo is a chunky book with more than 500 pages and weighing in at over a kilogram. It would be a brilliant one to get young readers (9+) over a reluctance to read large books, because in spite of it's size, it is extremely easy to read. Some chapters are almost entirely illustrated while others are almost entirely print. It is also great to read an illustrated Young Adult book that isn't in the comic book / graphic novel style format.
This year I'm really enjoying discovering books that are 'told' differently - in this case part of the narrative is told entirely through the illustrations and that is what makes this book magic. It is an indication of the quality of the imagery that the book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, the first novel to do so, as the Caldecott Medal is for picture story books. The gray-scale illustrations give the story a sense of time and place that the narrative alone does not. The imagery lifted from early films add a touch of eeriness without being creepy.
I learned a lot about early film making and the life of the book's primary inspiration; turn-of-the-century French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès reading Hugo cabret. At the end of his life, Méliès was destitute, and he sold toys from a booth in a Paris railway station, which provides the setting of the story. While Hugo and the events in the story are fictional, the films mentioned are all real, as are their creators.
The mysteries that surround Hugo pull you into the story until you cannot wait to see where it goes and I can only recommend this book for both kids and adults alike. I am very happy it ended up on my reading challenge for 2018.
-Sasha-


REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier $19.99

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #7
The 7th book on my personal reading challenge for 2018 and the first I've done at book club. I am so glad this was one I could discuss with people because there is certainly much to unpack: Characters, motivations, themes, social commentary and gender politics to name a few.
The narrator is a young woman, of no particular family or influence, who is working in Monte Carlo for an overbearing woman as a paid companion - low self-esteem is written all over her. She meets the well-to-do Maxim de Winter, a widower and owner of an estate called Manderlay.
After a whirlwind romance the narrator becomes Mrs de Winter and after a honeymoon in Italy they return home to England and Manderlay.
At home, the past closes in on the new Mrs de Winter as she finds herself slipping into the enormous shadow of Rebecca, the previous Mrs de Winter. Rebecca was by all accounts, beautiful, vivacious, elegant and social. She decorated, gardened, threw parties, rode, sailed and was the complete opposite of the unworldly and awkward new Mrs de Winter. The new Mrs de Winter finds herself embarrassed and undermined by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, who is clearly obsessed with Rebecca, on every occasion. Just as things are looking pretty bleak for the new Mrs de Winter, a shipwreck in the harbour brings an unexpected confession from her husband and changes everything for both of them.

Rebecca is an attack on social norms, the two Mrs de Winter are complete opposites: Rebecca is a strong, wilful character who couldn't care less for societal expectations - she wants to live and die on her own terms and damn the consequences for anyone else. The narrator on the other hand is everything society expected for a woman in her position - bashful, chaste, ruled by her husband to the point where she has no identity without him (we never even learn her first name). The mirroring of their personalities is one of the most powerful themes of the book. 
Mrs Danvers is also a complex character - her devotion to Rebecca is clear but the motivations for it are murky: Did she idolise Rebecca? Lust after her? Consider her a daughter? All we truly know is that her obsession is more than a little unhinged.

I loved the female dynamic in the story - this is not a tale a man could have written in my opinion - it is certainly unlike anything else I've read from the period. The three female leads, the narrator, Rebecca, and Mrs Danvers, create a tangle of emotions between them that builds the suspense and the dark undercurrent of the story - all without any overt violence.
There is no clear-cut villain here; every character has faults and you can imagine them as real people, living real lives whether you like them or not.

If you have never considered reading Rebecca please go out and get yourself a copy - you won't regret it!


A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle ($14.99)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #6
Things are about to get controversial people! Do you love this book? Can you tell me why you love it? I know there are people out there who do and they're about to hate me. Here goes:
Did people in the 60's have lower expectations? Why has this lasted as long as it has? It's this weird combination of fantasy, pseudo-science, Americana, preachiness (I may have just made up that word but you know what I mean), and love-is-what-you-all-need-to-fix-everything (I mean; WTF?)
My current theory is Americans love it because it makes them feel all smug and superior about FREEDOMMMMMMMM! (Imagine a GIF of a bald Eagle and an american flag right here).
Why anyone else might like it I do not know... Although it does get points for representing a mum who is also a scientist and a girl who is good at maths but those are pretty much the only redeeming qualities I can find.

Okay, to summarise: Girl named Meg who doesn't fit in at school is all mad because her dad has disappeared. Not unreasonable. Her little brother, Charles, is freakishly smart and seems to know things that he really shouldn't. No-one ever explains why this is. AT ALL. They meet a boy named Calvin. They become instant best mates. They meet these three weird ladies named Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who & Mrs Which. These ladies take Meg, Calvin and Charles without so much as an explanation (though Charles seems to know) on a journey to find their dad. 
Turns out dear old dad has been mucking around with things he doesn't understand and got trapped on a world run by "IT" (every time the name came up I had a clip from 'The I.T. crowd' in my head "Have you turned it off and on again?"). IT is both a giant brain that wants to make everyone identical and a dark cloud of bad stuff that is perpetually trying to engulf everything(?????). Anyhoo, these ladies know where he is but can't get him so of course they recruit small children. As you do. Leaving the children with zero instructions and some cryptic remarks the kids are abandoned on a new world where everything is the same and deviation is 'corrected' (giant unsubtle go at totalitarianism / marxism / communism - it was written in the 60's after all).
Things happen, Meg manages to find her dad but loses Charles along the way. We are now 3/4 of the way through the book. Finally there are some explanations (turns out it is all possible because of "particle physics" - please imagine jazz hands and wobbly music as you read that). Meg realises the only person who can free her little bro is herself. She goes back to the scary planet and uses "love" to get him free. YAY! They all go home. Everyone is happy. Except me, because I'm still sitting here wondering WHAT THE FREAK JUST HAPPENED!?!

I know I am an adult and this is a children's book but seriously can we get a plot that makes sense? Please! I read heaps of kids books and this was just crap. Seriously kids, stand up and demand better! I was kinda looking forward to this book. I was going to read it and then see the new movie, now I'm not sure I want to spend the dosh on what, given the source material, is likely to be quasi-scientific American drivel. First book on my list to truly disappoint me.

ART AS THERAPY by Alain de Botton & John Armstrong ($24.95)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #5
This is the first non-fiction book I've finished from my challenge list and one that has been on my radar for years so I'm really glad I finnaly got around to it.
The basic premise of this book is that in art we seek what is missing from our lives. Not just in what we might traditionally think of as "art" - paintings, sculpture, etc - but the wider range of aesthetics - architecture, design, furniture, music, clothing. We use art to fill voids of which we might not even be aware. "The notion that art has a role in rebalancing us emotionally promises to answer the vexed question of why people differ so much in their aesthetic tastes"(p30). For example someone who spends all day in a bland grey office might be drawn to colourful pictures of wilderness as an antidote to the rigid uniformity of their working life. 
Not only can art help us find what we are missing but it can also show us other ways of acting, and the role of the artist should be to help everyone build better lives. It can bring to light needs that we find hard to express; "In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly."(p39)
But can we trust artists to lead us to what we need without guidance - in the past most artists created their best works under the guidance of a paying patron, now most artists are self directed and we, the patron, are told what is good or great by tastemakers who are often not part of our world (the super rich and / or the specially educated). How then should we respond to art? Is it time to take back the direction of art? The authors argue that it is: "We should become as demanding about what we consume in terms of food, media, architecture or leisure as we are about the cars we drive. We should accept the legitimacy of the project or raising taste across the board. To this end we should make ourselves at home with the role of the figure present at key junctures in the history of art: the critic."(p159).
A well spoken and researched critic can change the way art is viewed by not only in the art world but also by the general public. They also demand from the artist their best possible work.
If you have any interest in art then this book is a must read: it is fascinating, controversial, occasionally contradictory and always insightful. The authors consider art as a practical object with a purpose (when we are often taught that art is simply for art's sake), and by treating art as an ordinary object with a purpose, they bring it into everyday life, within reach of every person.

Having said all of the above I have to admit it took me some time to get through this book - I found the authors occasionally belaboured a point enough to make my brain switch off. Not that it wasn't an interesting idea, they just went on far too long about some topics for my taste. I found that more than about 20 pages at a time would result in me realising I had skim read the last few pages and not actually absorbed anything. I noticed this when I read Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness too so maybe it's just his style. As I've said before there are many great ideas here and I will definitely be thinking about them for a long time to come. I honestly think this should be a mandatory book for anyone in the art world.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman ($19.99)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK#4
Book 4 of my 2018 reading challenge was suggested to me by a regular customer at the store. It turns out I wrongly placed it on my list (not that it really matters) as contemporary fiction, it should have been listed as Young Adult: I'd suggest an age range of 9+ for kids that like Goosebumps / Five Nights at Freddy's or similar. Several times while reading it reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Johnny Maxwell series, particularly Johnny and the dead, which I loved as a kid (I admit it has been at least 20 years since I've read them though so I might just be jumping to that conclusion from the graveyard setting). Typical of Gaiman this is just the right blend of horror, intriguing characters, action and humour.
An entire family is murdered, well almost... A little boy toddles away and ends up at a graveyard, disturbing the ghosts there. Now usually ghosts don't interfere with matters of the living but when the ghosts of the boy's parents beg the other ghosts to keep him safe from the man who murdered them, a man who was, even now, climbing the fence, well, what could they do? 
So the little boy became Nobody Owens (he looks like nobody but himself), adopted by Mister and Mistress Owens who had always wanted a child, and granted the Freedom of the Graveyard. Between the numerous ghosts and his more corporeal guardian Silas, who was not dead but not alive either, Bod grows and is educated in all the things that matter; letters, history, fading, ghoul gates, the hounds of God, you know, the usual. But little boys grow up and if Bod is ever to live beyond the wall of the graveyard the men who killed his family have to be stopped: Every man Jack of them.
In spite of the murderous beginnings this book is never gory or overly horrifying - its one I will happily recommend to young readers - if they have read Harry Potter or Ranger's Apprentice they would be well able to handle it. Ultimately this is a coming -of-age story. Bod learns and grows in the safety of the graveyard but there comes a time when he has to fight for his life and freedom. As any child does he has miss-steps along the way but he has a whole graveyard full of unique people who want to help, all he has to do is ask. There are lots of layers to the themes of this book which I don't intend to get into here (I'm sure others can do it better) but the overall message is that life is short and precious and you should live it to the fullest while you can.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Graveyard Book and I'll happily tell both adults and kids to do themselves a favour and read it.


FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel ($24.99)

SASHA'S READING CHALLENGE - BOOK #3
Theis is the third book I have finished and the second memoir. It was brought to my attention a couple of years ago when a customer special ordered it and was telling me all about it. 
I was intrigued by the format of this unusual biography - it is not often that a personal memoir aimed at an adult audience is made as a graphic novel (not just made into one but conceived and written as a graphic novel from the outset). Bechdel's drawings are stark black and white, but filled with so much detail colour becomes unnecessary.
Bechdel's father died when she was in college, just a few months after Bechdel had come out to her parents as lesbian, and shortly after her mother had revealed that her father had multiple affairs with men throughout their marriage. 
Looking back on her childhood Bechdel seeks answers to her father's life, death and their strained relationship.
This is a fast book to read but I feel more was packed in than I was expecting: childhood memories move seamlessly into adult life as Bechdel describes the good and bad of her life. Helping with the restoration of the family home or helping out in the family's funeral home (the Fun Home of the title) was all overshadowed by her father's occasionally explosive personality. 
Looking back, Beshdel can see the parallels between her father's repressed sexuality and her own - he strove for the feminine while she wanted to be masculine. He was obsessive about furnishings and architecture while Bechdel herself developed OCD. Their shared love of literature, music and theatre gave them moments of closeness. Reconciling the man she knew and the person she discovered him to have been made her analyse her own life and personality.

I wasn't expecting to have to pull out the dictionary for this book (come on, it's a comic book!) but I did, several times in fact, starting on page 5 (Legerdemain: skilful use of one's hands when performing conjuring tricks /deception; trickery.).There are also a massive number of literary allusions (more than a few of which I had to look up as I clearly don't read enough ancient Greek / Roman mythology) - Bechdel's father was an English literature teacher so I imagine it was drilled into her and her brothers. There were a few books mentioned that now have to go onto my "I should read that" list. 
Sometimes comic, and ocasionally tradgic, Fun Home is a fascinating read and very different sort of memoir.
-Sasha-

SASHA'S READING CHALLANGE - BOOK#2

KIM by Rudyard Kipling ($18.99 - Macmillan Collector's Library edition)


Kim is an orphan, his mother died when he was a baby and his father was a drunk, so he pretty much raised himself on the streets. Curious, brave and impudent, Kim runs errands, begs or cons his way through life with wit and humour.
Kim's life is changed forever when he meets a travelling Tibetan Lama - The old man is seeking out a fabled river which will free him from sin and the wheel of death and re-birth - the promise of new horizons appeals to Kim and he becomes the monk's "Chela" - a helper and apprentice. At the same time Kim falls into a bit of intrigue when an old friend, horse trader Mahbub Ali, asks Kim to deliver a mysterious letter to a soldier. Letter delivered, Kim continues on his way and we are treated to descriptions of the landscapes and peoples of India, the many castes and tribes, religions and superstitions that make India such a melting pot. When Kim's parentage is realised after an encounter with his father's old battalion, Kim is sent to school - though it is through the actions of the Lama that this is private school not a military one.
Due to Kim's quick thinking he is also trained as a spy to take his place in "the great game" between Russia and England for the control of India. After 3 years of school Kim and his trainers feel he is more than ready to enter the game but Kim's first duty is always to the Lama and his search for the sacred river.

This is a coming of age story mixed with spy adventure and travelogue of India. While Kim's adventures drive the plot forward, the many descriptions of the land and peoples are what made this book most interesting for me. India comes to life in all it's chaotic, impoverished, beautiful glory. It is clear that this is a land that Kipling loved.
It is a book that is a reflection of the time - it was written at the height of English imperialism. (First published 1901 but set in the late 19th century). I was expecting it to be a bit racist (as most English written stories of the time are) but if anything the white characters Kim encounters tend to be rude, ignorant and boorish compared to the Indian. The 'native' characters tend to be easy-going, accepting and friendly. While the Europeans for the most part are portrayed as helpless, unbending and arrogant. 

This is a complex book. There are layers to this book that I KNOW went over my head - the time and culture are just too far removed from my own to grasp it all. But it is one that I think I will read again at some later point because I know that every time I read this book I will find something new in it.

HOW TO BE A MEDIEVAL WOMAN by Margery Kempe ($4.99 - Little Black Classics edition)

SASHA'S READING CHALLANGE - BOOK #1
This is the first book I have completed as part of my personal book challenge. I put it on my list because I was intrigued by the synopsis:
"Advice on marriage, foreign travel and much more from the irrepressible Margery Kempe: medieval pilgrim, visionary and creator of the first autobiography."
Margery was born in Norfolk, England, in 1373 and died in 1438. As she was illiterate her story was written by two different men over several years. Her book was lost for centuries until it was discovered in a family library in 1934. This little black classics edition is an abbreviated version of the full story. 

It all sounds fascinating, right? A first hand female account of life in the late 1300's and early 1400's? Awesome!
But it wasn't quite what I was expecting...
A more accurate title would be "How to be a medieval religious fanatic" because Margery is definitely a little unhinged in the religion department and possibly schizophrenic or at least delusional.
Referring to herself throughout the book as "this creature" Margery tells of her many religious experiences, visions and conversations with God, Jesus, Mary and various other Catholic figures, as she journeys to various pilgrim sites including Jerusalem, Rome, and many more.
She is by turns consumed in raptures and in anguish as Margery believes, doubts, and punishes herself for 'lustful' feelings. 
Her raptures often lead loud weeping: "And she had such great compassion and such great pain to see our Lord's pain, that she could not keep herself from crying and roaring though she should have died for it"...."And this kind of crying lasted for many years after this time, despite anything that anyone might do, and she suffered much contempt and much reproof for it." She no doubt left quite an impression on her contemporaries.
During her travels her companions seemed to frequently want to abandon her (can't say I really blame them - Margery sounds pretty taxing on the nerves) "Another time this creature's companions wanted to go to the River Jordan and would not let her go with them. Then this creature prayed to our Lord that she might go with them, and he bade that she should go with them whether they wanted her or not. And then she set forth by the grace of God and didn't ask their permission." I imagine that the modern equivalent of travelling with Margery would be being seated next to an overly excited hipster vegan determined to tell you all about the lifestyle on a 36 hour plane flight.
Her travels were interesting but are focused only on her religious experiences not on the everyday (which to my modern mind would be far more fascinating). Margery recounts full conversations with Jesus, God, and Mary at various Holy sites and her encounters with priests and other "holy" individuals. Descriptions of places only occur when they relate to her religious experiences.
Margery's advice on marriage mostly consists of how she decided to be chaste (because liking sex is sinful, and she did like sex) but her husband didn't want to be so she tolerated sex until she guilts him into also taking a vow of chastity. And how God told her to give up eating meat and wine so she guilted her husband into doing that as well. And as for being a visionary? That is quite literal: Margery experienced many "visions" throughout her life: She describes witnessing the entirety of Jesus's crucifixion in all it's gory detail among other things.
It makes sense that Margery's "autobiography" would be focused only on religion. After all there were few literate people and most were priests or religious scholars. They would never have written the biography of anyone, let alone a mere woman, without it. 
If Margery were alive today I imagine she'd thrive in this self-aggrandising, social media world. She confronts everything head on and managed to carve a space for herself in a man's world. But at the same time I'm pretty sure she'd do my head in if I had to spend any amount of time with her.