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. 
Sasha's 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. 

JACKSON'S TRACK by Daryl Tonkin & Carolyn Landon ($14.99)

It's a bit embarrasing that this book has taken me so long to get around to reading - not only is it extremely local but over the years working in the store many people have recommended it to me. That was the reason it ended up on my reading challenge list for 2018 and I am glad that it was there.
It surprised me how easy Jackson's Track was to read - It really reminded me of "A Fortunate Life" by AB Facey; with Daryl Tonkin's easy going attitude and way of telling a yarn.
I have grown up in West Gippsland and (obviously) still live there, I am familiar with every town mentioned in this book and some of the family names. This book is unfortunately a great synopsis of how Indigenous Australians have been treated by people and governments over the decades. Darryl really has a very different attitude to most of the white people of his generation and gives a very different perspective to the lives and living arrangements of his wife's family.
Darryl really was a unique character - his straighforward outlook on life, attitude to work, family, and love of the bush, shines through this book - his regrets for his family and friends and what we have done to the land are also clear from his perspective looking back at 80 years of life.
This is a book that we always have on the shelves but I am going to start recommending a heck of a lot more!

INKHEART by Cornelia Funke ($19.99)


Meggie's father, Mo, is a book binder and he has passed on his love of books and reading on to Meggie, but one thing he has never done is read aloud to her and when a strange man named Dustfinger appears at their home Meggie discovers why. Mo can read a character out of a book but he can also accidentally read a real person into a book - that's what happened to Meggie's mother many years ago when Mo accidentally released the villain, Capricorn, from the story "Inkheart" into the real world. Now Capricorn has decided he likes this world better but wants a few more friends from "Inkheart" brought out to help him - and for that he needs Mo. And he is not goning to take "No" for an answer. 

What struck me most about this YA series is that compared to more recent series aimed at the same market of 10-16 year olds (think "Hunger Games" or "Divergent" or "The Selection") was that this series is quite innocent - the villains do a lot of threatening but not much actual violence (it has a bit of a Disney feel to it). I will happily be recommending this series to advanced younger readers. Inkheart can be read as a stand alone book but there are still a few ends to tie up and I will be reading the next book "Inkspell" and 'Inkdeath" when I get time next year. 
This first book in the Inkheart series is definitely a requirement for any young reader who loves books - suitable for independent readers 9 + age level (though there are some scary scenes for younger / more impressionable readers). It would also make a great read-aloud story for younger book lovers. 

THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE by James Rebanks ($24.95 - paperback OR $39.95 - Audio)

I listened to the audio of this and while not bad overall I have to admit it wasn't the most riveting listening at the beginning - it did get better though.
This is an honest love letter to farming life and I can see why it has been so popular (particularly in regional areas like ours) around the world.
James Rebanks comes from a long line of Fell farmers in the Lake district in England - idolising his grandfather he wanted nothing more than to be a shepherd just like him. 
The sheep, the land, the seasons and the weather dictate the rhythms of life on a farm and James takes us through the highs and lows of his year and his life.
On paper farming life makes little sense - there are hours of hard work, going out in rain, sleet, snow and heat. The weather or a disease can wipe away a year's profits in days. But it is clear James wouldn't swap his life for anything.
James has a unique perspective on his life and the Fell farms: not only has he been born into a family of multigeneration farmers but he has also seen life outside of the lake district with his time at Oxford and his job which takes him all over taking to people in other countries facing the same issues farmers face in the Lake district. 

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Novic ($19.99)

I have to thank Jess for recommending this one! 
Ana is a happy 10-year old living in Zagreb. The only dark spot in her life is the illness of her baby sister, Rahela. 
Soccer games and lessons are interrupted when civil war breaks out and a trip to get Rahela medical care ends in disaster. 
Ten years later Ana is a college student in America. The terrorism of September 11, 2001 opens old wounds, and Ana knows she has to go back to Croatia and face the past. 

It was such a wonderful and totally tear-jerking read. I cried through most of it, but I also finished wanting to know more about the conflict and that corner of the world. Novic has created an utterly believable character in Ana. The Bosnian-Croat war is one that we saw on the nightly news in the early 1990's. I remember watching reports about the conflict in the Balkans.

 But at the same time it is a war I know very little about. I was too young to understand it at the time (in 1991 I too was 10 years old, the same age as our fictional protagonist) and it wasn't something I ever covered in history class. Other wars overshadowed it. 

This story will grip you from the start and it will make you cry. I'm going to be reccomending it to everyone!
Age range 12+ (there is violence but not overly graphic / some sexual references)
Highly recommend for anyone who loves books with great characters that will make them stop and think.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by edith Wharton ($7.99 - pictured edition)

The third and last reading challenge book I have done with the Need2Read book club - I was expecting (and so were others) that this was going to be an easy, wind-down book for the end of the year - I was wrong! This book was much denser than any of us were expecting. Packed full of social commentary and 1860's pop culture I found myself struggling to focus on the story for all the name dropping going on! The pages were thick with mentions of artists, writers, composers and other celebrities of the 19th century. It was overwhelming at times. 
The story itself was Austen-like. And by that I mean not an awful lot actually happened - this was as much a story of a society as it was the story of an illicit (but pretty innocent) affair between the protagonist Newland Archer and his wife's scandal-plagued cousin Ellen Olenska. It turns out that Newland isn't quite the social convention breaker he imagines himself to be and his wife, May, isn't quite as thick as he thinks. 
This started promisingly with cutting observations of New York's high society but quickly became too immured in the afore said name dropping and societal descriptions for me to enjoy - some of it was interesting but there needed to be more plot to keep me interested. I feel Wharton was aiming for Austen but missed the quick-witted humour Austen does  so well. When I got to the end of the story my overwhelming question was "How / why did this win the Pulitzer?" and for the first time by a woman no less! A little reseach brought me an answer - it was considered "wholesome" and "moral" I assume because the protagonist never got up the nerve to leave his wife. This was not the intent of the author by the way, she really was aiming for a societal commentary, and was disgusted to learn she had won for "uplifting American morals".

AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF A PRIVATE LIFE by Bill Bryson ($24.99 - paperback or $39.95 - audio)


When a friend saw this on my 2018 reading challenge they said that this was "interesting, but not my favourite Bryson book" and after finishing it I fully understand what they meant.
This book is interesting in a randomly scattered, Qi-facty, sort of way. There isn't really an overall plot - Bryson rambles from topic to topic as he wanders through his house; covering varied subjects from windows, to books, to plague, to wigs, to cremation, to surgery, to country pastors and their contributions to science, and so many more it is impossible to list them all.
Using his own house as a starting point, Bryson looks into the history of european / western domesticity with his usual thoroughness. There are many strange happenings and inventions that have gone into making our homes what they are today. In the rooms we take for granted, and the basic services of power and water, there is a wealth of innovation, suffering, and disasters - Bryson goes into them all in (occasionally very) gory detail (I had to skip through one description of a mastectomy performed in the pre-anethestic era!).
Overall this was interesting but too rambling to really settle into for a good read - If you want to read Bill Bryson I recommend "A Walk in the Woods" or "A Short History of Nearly Everything" over "At Home".

SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh ($12.99 - Popular Penguin edition)

"'No, I tell you who I want; Boot.'
'Yes, Boot. He's a young man whose work I'm very much interested in.'"
No-one questions the demands of newspaper magnate Lord Copper and so with these words Lord Copper sets in motion the unlikely rise to fame of retiring countryman William Boot rather than launching the newspaper career of aspiring novelist John Courtney Boot.
Sent off to the wilds of the African Republic of Ishmaelia, Boot is clueless and well out of his depth among the cut-throat world of international reporters. Fortunately he has a knack for making friends and being in the right place at the right time: The only question is whether he is able to spot the scoop that is in front of his face!
Dodgy ethics, famous reporters, bribery, secret police and international politics all play a roll - no-one is interested in what is good for the people as long as they get their scoop!
While the story shows it's age in the way Africans are treated, the slipshod way international powers treat poorer countries when resources are involved hasn't changed at all.
This is a commentary on news, the hunt for a story, the fight to grab the audience, and journalism, that is just as relevant in today's internet age as it was when it was written. There is still a very interesting story here - this is one book I would love to see a contemporary version created. Not that I'm usually keen on remakes but i'd love to see an insider's view of internet age reporting with the same style and humour.

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly ($24.99)

Overall, this is a fascinating look at a section of American history - not just the space / technological race but also the social, political, and global feelings at the time. Shetterly does a really good job of putting the fight for civil rights into a personal perspective - the subtle and overt aggression these ladies and their families put up with everyday - even at the relatively advanced Langley - and also the truly ridiculous lengths white people went to in order to keep black people down (closing school rather than allowing integration, etc.).

I did have a few mixed feelings about the way the story was written - I found the subject matter fascinating but the style of telling was sometimes a little confusing. There are various women we follow from childhood and because of that I sometimes struggled to keep the timeline straight as we spend several chapters on one person and then move back in time to follow another from childhood - and then Shetterly takes us on a segway into how each of the characters lives intersect / run parallel / almost crossed earlier. Which, for me, resulted in occasional confusion or having to re-read sections to get back on track.
Even with that frustration I feel Hidden Figures is still well worth reading for many reasons and I'm curious to see how this book was adapted for film - now I just need to find the time to watch it.

Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson ($12.99 - pictured edition)

This is one of the few books in my 2018 reading challenge I couldn't wait to finish - I just wanted it over! I had often heard of Hunter S. Thompson's "Gonzo" journalism style And I was intrigued by the subject but I found Thompson's personality to be both obnoxious, and far to present, for the book to be objective.
Maybe it's just me. This isn't the kind of book I normally pick up. But I just felt it could have been better told if Thompson had put less of himself in the story and more of his subjects. 

I can see why this was considered a breakthrough style of journalism - Thompson fully immerses himself in the culture and gets a very different story to what other news outlets are reporting about this fringe of society group that both fascinated and terrified. 
I was disturbed by Thompson's treatment of the crimes the Angels proudly admit to -in particular rape - but it is hard to know how much of his attitude (and my response to it) is a result of Thompson's personal style, the attitudes of the people he is reporting on, or the attitudes in society at the time and how much they have changed. Either way I''m glad I read Hell's Angels - I now know what people are referring to about it BUT I don't think I'm ever going to pick up another Hunter S. Thompson book. I've had my fill.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe ($19.99)

Why this isn't required reading in schools I don't know! This is Australian history as I have never read about before and I found myself becoming angry at the fact so much of this history has been deliberately suppressed!
Pascoe's very well researched (there is a massive bibliography in the back for anyone needing further reading) book is about the history of Indigenous farming / agriculture in Australia and the systematic erasure of that history by settlers: either out of ignorance, malice, racism or deliberately in order to justify the colonisation of Australia. 
The pre-colonisation Australia Pascoe describes comes directly from the journals of explorers and settlers as well as oral histories of Indigenous tribes. The images that they paint are very different from the  transient "hunter-gatherer" that I learned about in history class (maybe this has changed since I was in school but I have doubts).
The peoples Pascoe describes are complex, organised, and co-operative. They not only farmed but did so successfully in areas that today are considered agriculturally useless. They had grain stores, preserving techniques, fisheries, and a functioning trading economy. 
Not only is the proper acknowledgement of history important if we as a nation hope to move forward in treating all our people equally, but the agriculture techniques of Indigenous Australians, tried and tested over 80,000 years, will be important if we are to properly care for and utilise our land in a changing climate. 

This book is fascinating and very easy to read - if you have any interest in Australian history, Environment,  or Indigenous Australia it has to be on your reading list!

Books I now want to read: 
The Greatest Estate on Earth - Bill Gammage
Thicker Than Water - Cal Flynn

HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance ($24.99 - paperback)

A surprise best seller in 2017, this is one from my 2018 reading challenge - now I can see why everyone was reading it!
This is a fascinating and personal look at the disenfranchised poor white people of America's rust belt. Vance gives us all a glimpse of the social, economic, religious, and political influences on the breakdown of blue-collar working class society in America. 
Vance is an exception to the usual in his home town and family - not only was he the first in his immediate family to graduate college, he was the first in his extended family to graduate law school. 
His mother's love of education, his grandparents encouragement and insistence on finishing school, a stint in the marines and the experience of seeing extreme poverty in other parts of the world motivated him to achieve what most people in his life couldn't even imagine - but something that most of us would take for granted: He is educated, employed, and is happily married.
These might not seem like massive achievements but in the world Vance grew up in employment, education, and emotional stability are not the norm. 
Intergenerational violence, drug & alcohol abuse, and a never ending stream of step-fathers marked Vance's early life. He moved between his mother's house and his grandmother's - later living entirely with the latter in his final years of high school as his mother's substance abuse took it's toll.
This is a story of one person's (and one family's) experience - but it echoes what is happening in the larger society as a whole and the attitudes go a long way to explaining the rise of Trump and rise of distrust American's have in science, authority, and the press. As a non- American I found it fascinating and it made me wonder about the parallels in Australian society.

THE BODYSURFERS by Robert Drewe ($12.99 - popular penguin edition)

This was a bit unexpected as I had not realised that this is short story collection - I know there has been a TV series so I was a bit surprised as most of these stories have little to connect them apart from the beach setting they share. I'm assuming that the tv series is only loosely based on the book.

The blurb says the stories follow a family through three generations but I really didn't pick up on a generational theme at all - maybe I wasn't paying attention? and maybe it really wasn't relevant to the stories being told?
These stories could really be set on any Australian beach at almost any time - they are stories of life, love, isolation, heartbreak and change, and death. Little glances into everyday life of ordinary people.  I have to admit I am not a massive short story fan but these do manage to catch an evocative slice of Australian life.

LISTENING TO COUNTRY by Ros Moriarty ($24.99 - paperback)

Another one for my 2018 reading challenge and I am finding out so much about Australian history and Indigenous Australia that I feel I'm seeing a completely new side to everything I was ever taught in school. This one, along with Stan Grant's "Talking to My Country", have given me so much to think about. 
This memoir is of Ros Moriarty and her experiences of being welcomed into her husband's indigenous family, learning the law, language and lifestyle. It is also the story of her husband, John, and his experiences of being stolen from his mother at 4, of finding her again (by pure chance) at 15, of being Indigenous in Australia, of balancing the modern world and ancient traditions. 

Ros clearly deeply respects the ancient traditions and is doing her best to share that love and respect with us - both she and the elders of the community are in despair over the breaking of tradition as elders die away without being able to pass on their knowledge.
Alcohol, violence, depression and lack of education have impacted generation after generation. Decades of government interventions and policies (some with good intentions and many not so much) have mostly been implemented without actual consultation with the communities they affect. Compounded over generations it is no wonder issues in indigenous communities are complex and deeply ingrained with no simple solutions. 

At the heart of this story is a deep love for family, land and home and if you don't finish reading this with a deeper respect for Indigenous Australians then there is something wrong with you. 

THE HAPPIEST REFUGEE by Anh Do ($32.99 - paperback or $39.99 - audio)

This is one of the most consistently best selling biographies in Australia - helped along by the fact it is frequently set on the school book lists. Anh is a well recognised and well loved comedian on both the Australian and international scene. 
I have been meaning to read this for years and when it was suggested for my 2018 reading challenge I was so happy. This bio is uplifting, entertaining and generally feel good, but that is not to say that Anh and his family haven't been through some pretty hard times. Family and a good dose of optimism have carried them through things that would have made other people fail. 
This story is told with characteristic Anh Do style on the audio book (it is narrated by the author) with short, simple sentences and enthusiastic delivery. His love for his life, family, and country comes through with every chapter. 
This is a great bio for both teens and adults who want to get a perspective on a refugee's journey and what is really important in life.
I highly recommend reading this with A.B. Facey's "A Fortunate Life".

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG by Ian Fleming ($14.99)

This story was written by Fleming for his son while he was in hospital recovering from a heart attack.  Sadly, Fleming never saw this beloved classic published.

This is a fun little story that has not aged too badly given it was originally in 1964. And it really nice to see the female characters treated with respect (I was a bit worried as I have read a couple of old James Bond stories).
It is a bit daggy and bit silly and I'm sure kids 5+ will love it as a bedtime story - although I think you might have to have a talk about how you maybe shouldn't blow up the belongings of dangerous criminals?
But the "bad guys" in this story are about as competent as the baddies in Enid Blyton adventures so everything works out well for the Potts family and their truly amazing car Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. 
This is the first book in a series of four but the other three were written by Frank Cottrell Boyce after Fleming's death.

MRS FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien ($14.99)

At first I wasn't too sure about this one - it seemed very Beatrix Potter - but as the story unfolded I found myself enjoying it greatly. There is no "magic" here just experimental rats escaped from a lab who are determined to make their own destiny. I'm kind of surprised I managed to miss reading this as a child as it would have been perfect for me way back then. 
This is a perfect book for independent 8+ age readers who love animal stories with daring and adventure. Or younger readers as a bed time story read by parents. 

WHERE THE HEART IS by Billie Letts ($24.99)

I really enjoyed this story - it is full of quirky but real characters. I had seen and enjoyed the movie that was made of it starring Natalie Portman years ago and I was pleasantly surprised at how true the movie was to the book. 
When 17-year old Novalee Nation is dumped at a Walmart of a small town with $7.77 in change and 7 months pregnant by her deadbeat boyfriend Willy Jack, she doesn't know what to do, but fortunately for her this town is full of caring people; Sister Thelma Husband, Moses Whitecotton, Lexie and her brood of children, and the odd but kind Forney Hull.

This is a book about little lives, strange names, and finding home. The cast of characters is quite diverse and their eccentricities are what make them believable and charming. No one in this book is perfect but none of the characters are labeled in the way they are in other novels - I can't help but feel Forney's character especially would be treated very differently by an author today (his behaviour comes across as Asperger-like) but the author and the characters just treat him as any other person with a few quirks. Sister Husband could have been a bit of a bible-basher but that notion is dismissed the second time we encounter her - turning her into an approachable person anyone can relate to.

You get a really sense of small town hominess and friendship here and this is a really lovely book.

HOPE IN A BALLET SHOE by Michaela & Elaine DePrince ($15.99)

A wonderful story of hope, perseverance and love suitable for 10+ Aged children all the way up to adults. Michaela's early life was marred by death, violence and abuse, but now a talented ballerina making her mark on the professional international stage, she is sharing her story. 

Micheala was born in the 1990's to loving but poor parents in Sierra Leone. Her father worked long, hard hours in a diamond mine and both her parents wanted their only child to have an education - in spite of the fact she was a girl and had a skin condition called vitiligo (areas of skin lose pigment creating white spots - a harmless condition that can cause superstition and shunning in Africa and elsewhere).

Sierra Leone in the 90's was a place overrun with violence and it soon came to Micheala's village. Every man in the mine was shot, causing Michaela and her mother to move into her uncle's house. Only men deserve respect in her uncle's eyes and both Michaela and her mother were beaten and starved. Eventually the treatment resulted in her mother's death and at the tender age of 4 Michaela was dumped at an orphanage by her uncle. Treated little better there than at her uncle's house at least for the first time Michaela had friends and the promise that an American family wanted to adopt them. One day a magazine was blown against the orphanage fence - it had a picture of a dancer, tall, elegant and standing en pointe - not that Michaela knew what en pointe was or even the word "ballet" but she wanted to be that girl more than anything.

It was not long before fighting reached the orphanage and, after Michaela witnessed the brutal murder of their teacher, the orphans and their guardians were turned out of their building, allowed only to take their personal documents. They walked all the way to the border, passing village after village that had been massacred. Finally getting to Ghana, adoptions were arranged and Michaela and her best friend Mia were adopted together by their new American family and began a new life at the age of 5. 

It was fortunate for Michaela and Mia that their new parents were both kind and experienced. They had already raised 5 boys - two of whom had passed away due to being born with hemophilia and contracting AIDS via blood transfusions - and would go on to adopt 4 more girls after Michaela and Mia. Understandably, Mia and Michaela were extremely traumatised as well as having to learn a whole new way of life. They learned form their new family, started school, and soon they started dance lessons. 

Michaela's early life was brutal and traumatising, but the love her birth parents had for her was never forgotten, and the care and dedication of her adoptive parents to ALL of their children made Michaela's dreams possible. Michaela's own dedication, hard work, and passion for ballet have taken her far but she wrote this book along with Elaine, her adoptive mother, to be an inspiration to all girls to pursue their dreams.

FIVE CHILDREN AND IT by Edith Nesbit ($7.99 for pictured edition)

I can see why this one has been loved for so many years - it has a very Enid Blyton-like feel with the adventures of five siblings and the grumpy Sand-fairy.
This reminded me a bit of the The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, where wishes were granted but with deadly consequences. Five Children and It, of course, is written with a child audience in mind - the wishes the children are granted always have contrary consequences but nothing that can't be fixed by sundown.
The wishes may be the beginning of their problems but these kids love to create a bit of chaos too - stealing lunch from the Vicar, tricking gypsies and carnival folk, causing chaos for their poor maid / nanny. The kid's lack of perfection makes them that much more likeable, especially to the children reading the book.
If you have finished The Magic Faraway Tree then Five Children and It should be next on your reading list.

THE METAMORPHOSIS AND OTHER STORIES by Franz Kafka ($5.99 - pictured edition)

The Metamorphosis is one of those tiny little stories that has had a massive impact on literary cannon. It has influenced other writers and stories for the better part of a century. So when creating y challenge for 2018 I had to include it. 

It is a very short story - only about 40 pages long - the tragic tale of a man who wakes on an otherwise ordinary day to find that he has turned into a giant bug! From this absurd beginning unravels a tale of human nature and family when confronted with the bizarre and horrifying. I know that there were layers to this story that went over my head simply because I don't know enough about the social and political climate of the time and place in which it is set.
What I found most interesting is the way the narrative voice changes through the story as Gregor (the unfortunate man who woke as a bug) slowly loses his identity to the animal. 

The other stories in the collection didn't grab me as Metamorphosis did but the all had that same surrealist / fairytale / horror-story like quality which, I am sure, has kept people intrigued for decades.

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt ($19.99)

Number 28 on my personal reading challenge for 2018 and the second book I've done with book club. I'm really looking forward to the discussion for this as there is a lot to unpack. What surprised me most was how easy it was to read! The second it is labelled an award winner I kind of start to dread that it will be so esoteric the average person gets lost in the literary bullshit that most award winners appear to consist of; but this one was more straight forward than most, even if the author did occasionally get lost in descriptive phrases.
The action packed and drug-fueled life of Theo Decker is quite a page turner, right from the explosive start. Theo deals with grief and guilt over his mother's death, ends up in his unstable and gambling addicted father's care (if you can call it that) and makes friends with the equally troubled Boris. Boris at 15 is already an alcoholic but is street smart, worldly, charming, intense and the best friend Theo will ever make. After Theo's father dies in a drunken car crash Theo heads straight back to New York and begins a new life again - haunted all the while by the painting he took from the Museum explosion that killed his mother; the titular "The Goldfinch".

I have of course left out numerous details in this quick synopsis, after all this is a 700+ page book and Tartt has filled each page with details of Theo's internal and external worlds. There are people who will during the reading of this book lose patience with Theo's self-involvement but each time I found myself coming to the end of my tether with him a narrative twist would suddenly occur and I would be interested again. 
There are many deeply flawed and very human characters that populate this novel (Boris being one of my favourites, even though his influence on Theo is far from positive, he is one of the most memorable characters in the book). Kitsy, Pippa, Mr & Mrs Barbour, Andy, Platt, Xandra, and Theo himself are all troubled and have both positives and negatives to their characters. Even the lovely Hobie isn't perfect. But that is what makes them believable as "real" people. No one is entirely "bad" or "good" and that is what generates a great discussion! 

Read this book with a book club or a friend as you will definitely want to talk about everything when you finish it!

WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG by A.A. Milne ($29.99 - hardcover)

I can see why this has remained a perpetual favourite for so many years. The simple but enchanting poems are chock-full of nostalgia and childhood innocence. There are little ditties of imagination and exploration - missing pets, and a teddy bear worried he might be a little tubby, attracting bears by stepping on pavement cracks, and explorations on the high seas. Milne captures childhood wonder with an expert eye and these little poems are accompanied by lovely little line drawings by E.H. Shepard.
It is amazing how nostalgia works: I have never worried about stepping on cracks or played with soldiers in redcoats yet I instantly felt a sense of connection. The poems about games of imagination hit a nerve even though they weren't the same sort of games I played (I was pretending to be a ghost-buster or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Little Mermaid not an Amazonian explorer or circus lion tamer) and that is the magic that has kept these books in print for decades. I did have moments when the wording or a phrase showed the book's age but they weren't really things that frustrated or annoyed me; but those moments did make me wonder how much a parent would have to explain to a young child when reading them today?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster ($12.99)

This book is so much fun! Perfect for mid to late primary school readers who are reading independently and just starting to appreciate how much you can play with language. Young Milo is perpetually bored and unimpressed with everything so when a new game appears in his room he unenthusiastically puts it together and gets much more than he bargained for when he drives his little car through the tollbooth. 

The kingdom of Wisdom is located in the sea of knowledge, and is jam packed full of strange and unusual (yet strangely familiar) characters and places. Milo gets lost in the doldrums as he drives without thinking, he meets the Spelling Bee who happens to be a very nice, if large, bee. He gets to eat his words a a fantastic feast, and takes on an impossible quest to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the kingdom! With the help of Tick, a watchdog, Humbug, and various helpful advice from many strange and educating characters Milo is on his way! One thing is sure, Milo will never be bored again!

I can't believe I never encountered this as a kid! It is clever but still fun, and it will make anyone reading it look at common turns of phrase differently. It's as fun for adults as it is for kids and this would be a super book for a classroom reader. 

TALKING TO MY COUNTRY by Stan Grant ($19.99)

Well, I am halfway through my challenge now and what a GREAT one to mark the occasion with! I'm not going to go into the details of this book for two reasons 1) I don't think I would do it justice and 2) I want you to read it!
How is this book not already on the Australian school curriculum? It is relevant, timely, necessary and interesting. Grant tells a massively personal story that is also the story of his people and this country.
If you are interested, even remotely, in understanding Australia's relationship with Indigenous Australians you need to read this.

I strongly suggest you pair it with "Terra Nullius" by Claire G. Coleman.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens ($9.99 - pictured edition)

I didn't hate this, but I also didn't love it. There was a lot more humour in it than I was expecting - most of that came through as word play in the narration which might be why I have felt the movie / television adaptions I have caught bits of over the years (I've never managed to sit through the whole thing at a go) seemed to be pretty bleak and dramatic - neither of which incline me to pay attention. 
I think Dickens loses a lot when taken off the page. 

I have to admit the first half of this book was not so much a struggle to read, but a struggle to get enthused about. I just didn't want to pick it up - once I did, the reading was fine. The second half as the narrative picks up pace was much more intriguing. 

The thing that bothers me most about this story (and many others of the era) is the number of coincidences between the characters; CAUTION Spoilers Ahead:

Jaggers isn't just the lawyer who distributes the trust, he the one who places Estella, defended both Magwich and her mother (separately) and is Havisham's Lawyer. It's like he's the only lawyer in all of London. The one that doesn't fit is him being Havisham's lawyer - why would a gently-raised woman from the country have a criminal defence lawyer to see to her affairs? Maybe lawyers were less specialised then, but still I can't see anyone of any consequence associating with someone who had a rep for defending convicts at the old bailey.
Magwich isn't just the prisoner who demands Pip's help, but later his benefactor (OK, so that is related) but also Estella's father, AND sometime companion / partner to the man who swindled Havisham. It's like there was a tax on characters so every author had to make every character do double or triple duty.

Essentially this is a coming-of-age story. We watch Pip go from young, carefree child, to snobbish and entitled young man, to an adult with knowledge of his own weaknesses, faults, and responsibilities. Along the way we get to know various colourful characters (my favourites were Joe and Wemmick) and descriptions of life in London. I have to admit I liked Pip a lot better at the end of the book than I did in the middle.

The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason ($16.99)

If you can get past the hokey story-telling there is some extremely sensible financial advice in this book. This has been around since the 1920's so clearly many people need basic financial advice, but if you are already fairly financially literate there won't be anything here you haven't heard before in less archaic language.

The principles can be summed up as follows:
1. Save 10% of everything you earn.
2. Once you have saved for 6 -12 months start investing.
3. Reinvest your earnings from your investments.
4. If it's too good a deal you are probably going to get ripped off.
5. Don't spend more than you earn.
6. Face your debts and put together a plan to deal with them.
All of which is sound advice and relevant to any time in history.

This would be a good book for younger readers or people who think best with a narrative rather than facts.
I found the Thee's, Thou's, maketh and desirest and other 'ye olde timey' words irritating but I imagine that the style might lend this book gravitas it otherwise would not have. By setting these homilies in an imaginary, long distant past Clason has managed to both make this book timeless (no-one can say that these are ideas that would only belong in the 1920's) and borrow a bit of biblical style (a style most of us are raised not to question).
This would be a great book for someone who has just gotten a first job, or is struggling with a  debt / spending spiral.

HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson ($19.99)


The whole point of a reading challenge, for me, is to push the boundaries of comfort, to expand literary horizons and to possibly find new and exciting genres and authors. I try to go into each book of this challenge with an open mind. This was reccomended to me by a regular customer who has quite literary taste so I knew it would firmly fall into the "literary fiction" genre. That's the genre that supplies the majority of award winners and makes up most of those "greatest books of all time" lists. I've always felt that a lot of these books are all about form and lack function, but this is a challenge for a reason and it is time to test the boundaries!
I'll be honest with you, I'm beginning to dread the words "literary fiction". I think is some sort of code for 'this is a book about damaged people doing damaging things but told with really pretty language'. I always feel like I must be missing something that everyone else can clearly see - that I must lack the understanding or education to properly appreciate such a story. Its taken me years to get over this feeling of inadequacy but I got there. Housekeeping helped me do that. Now I can finally say 'it's not me, it's you, Literary Fiction: You are full of poetically told ugly stories and I don't like you." I don't. I work in a book story and I LOATH literary fiction.
There, I've said it.

This story is very prettily told. And it bored me and frustrated me in equal measure. 
Some time in the 1970's, two young girls are abandoned by their mother on their grandmother's doorstep. Their mother then commits suicide. The girls would probably still have ended up fairly balanced individuals but their (decent / kind / boring) grandmother dies and they come into the care of their spectacularly unbalanced (kind, but clearly not right in the head department) aunt, who has apparently spent the last 10-odd years as a hobo / drifter. Over time their Aunt unravels, the house deteriorates, hoarding happens and the younger girl finally snaps and goes to live with a teacher. The town then becomes aware of the situation and start questioning the aunt's fitness as a guardian (why it took that long is a mystery - the house sounds like a dump and neither of the kids has friends). The older girl (the story's narrator), clearly under the unstable influence of her aunt, becomes panicked at the idea of being separated from the one person who she feels understands her (she has no other friends and the sister has distanced herself) and together she and the aunt try to burn down the house and then run away to begin a new life as hobos. As you do... This is the story Robinson takes nearly 300 pages to tell. Can you see why I was bored?

The story itself meanders from long distant past to the girls' present. It is full of superlatives and adjectives. There are metaphors and long descriptive phrases galore. The style varies from pretentious to prosaic. It is full of words I had to look up in the dictionary. Clearly the author had a very good thesaurus in their possession and used it to the full. This is the kind of book that gets awards and is named a "great" novel - In 2003, the Guardian Unlimited named Housekeeping one of the 100 greatest novels of all time! And I don't know why! Are the judges so bamboozled by the big words they can't see what a shit story it actually is? Are they driven purely by character with no regard to plot or even readability? Seriously, there were times my eyes glazed over from the excess of adjectives. 

I'm sure there are people who will object to my opinion. All I can say is I am glad we live in a culturally diverse literary society and I am so happy that I have options other than Literary Fiction.

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann ($19.99)

An interesting tale of history, obsession, disappearance and death. Even today the Amazon is one of the last great unexplored wilderness areas. When gentleman explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett (PHF) began exploring it in the early 1900's it was referred as "the green hell" - if tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever didn't kill you, then the piranhas, insects, starvation, dysentery, or the locals surely would. It was not uncommon to return with only half (or fewer) of the people who set out on an expedition.

PHF was an extraordinary figure even among the colourful crowd of explorers; tall and strong with an almost inhuman ability to avoid the diseases that afflicted most people, he was irascible, driven and determined. Mapping rivers and tributaries he became convinced that at some point the Amazon had supported not just the small tribes there now but a complex and numerous civilisation to rival anything in the world. This view went against the common (Europe-centric) view - most European explorers were convinced that even if the "savages" were capable of such intelligence it would be impossible to support any significant population in the Amazon with it's leached soils, dark canopy and high water table. 

There have been rumours of "El Doraro" in the Amazon since the Spanish first arrived. The large population and societies the very earliest explorers described were, over time, dismissed as fevered delusions and exaggerations. PHF was convinced that they were true descriptions, depicting a time before the area was devastated by European diseases. In 1925, affected by the war and paranoid that the new breed of university educated archaeologists would beat him to it, PHF managed to scrape together the funding for one final attempt to prove his theory right. Together with his son and his son's best friend, he set off into the Amazon in search of the city he had named "Z". And there they disappeared...

After months with no contact various search parties went after them - and a lot of those didn't come back either. For the next decade there were dozens of lives lost searching for the explorers and the city of Z. In 1996 James Lynch, a banker and keen adventure sportsman from Sao Paulo, became obsessed with the mystery and took his 16 year old son to retrace PHF's route. They were kidnapped by a hostile tribe and were only released after paying a ransom. In 2005 David Grann, a journalist and the author of this book, stumbled upon the legend of Z and the story of PHF and became determined to trace the story .

Honestly my only issue with this book is the stupidly small size of the font in the edition I read (and I have GREAT eyesight!) . This is a fascinating story of an extraordinary life and a very different time. Its a story of hardships, culture, obsession and loss. This book is extremely well researched (there are about 10 pages of references at the back of the book) and even handed in the treatment of PHF - he was by all accounts quite a polarizing figure. 
The descriptions of the diseases and hardships explorers endure was enough to make me squirm. The ecological and cultural damage done (and still being done) to this area of the world was enough to make me cringe. This book will challenge your sense of history.
I hope that Grann's research and book brought some sort of closure to PHF's descendants, and some comfort in the knowledge that modern archaeology has proved him right. There really was a City of Z.

Ragnarok by AS Byatt ($23.95)

I can't remember who recommended Ragnarok for my 2018 reading challenge but it was a great pick and I'm happy they did.
This small book is quite a comprehensive look at the mythology of the Norse gods from beginning to end, framed within the story of a young girl experiencing the very real threat of war. While the book itself is quite small, the myths are well fleshed out with lots of descriptive detail. 

The stories within the unnamed girl's book of mythology contain both an escape from the realities around her, and acceptance of the realities that adults don't discuss - death happens and even the gods can't avoid it.

The girl is based on Byatt's own life as a young child living in the English countryside during WWII (though I'm struggling to believe such a young child (3 at the time war broke out) tackled Mythology and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress - but maybe she was simply more literate than any kids I know - maybe she mixed those experiences with later reading?). Either way, the narrative framing certainly works well - the child's wonder at the stories and the mixing in of references to fairytales and christian mythology are bound to make you think about the parallels between the different story forms.

This is a great introduction to the Norse Myths if you have never read them before and it is suitable for younger readers too (mostly - there are mentions of sexual acts and some violence in the myths). I'd classify it as a YA title rather than adult. Anyone adult who has spent a bit of time reading mythology might find Ragnarok a bit dull as most of the stories mentioned are the better known ones. However, if you have only experienced the Marvel version of this mythology this one will be an eye-opener!

The Alchemist by Paulo Ceolho ($22.99)

URK. After reading this one it amazes me that this book continues to sell the way it does.  I admit this is yet another challenge book that was just not my thing at all!
The overall message isn't bad: be true to yourself, don't let life stop you from discovering your destiny, god (what ever sort you choose to believe in) want you to succeed. The book has both Christian and Muslim characters and all are treated with respect so that's good but overall I just don't give a crap about any religion so....
It reads like a fable, with a whole heap of preachiness thrown in, some new age self-realisation, and some really long-winded christian moralising and all that jazz. If you are a believer than you'll probably love it. If you are not you will be bored out of your brain.

The story itself is simple to the point of childishness but technically well told. I have read some of Coelho's other work and I found those very readable and interesting so I feel it is the constant in your face with both fatalism and god are what really put me off this one. That and the story, for all it isn't even 200 pages, moves a quite a slow pace - action is glossed over while the character's internal debates go on and on and on...
At the core of the story is a shepherd named Santiago, who decides to persue a dream (literaly something he dreamed about while asleep) and attempt to find treasure near the pyramids of Egypt. To do so he has to sell his sheep and travel to Africa and then across it. Along the way he meets various "mystic" archetypes who each tell him that he needs to persue his "personal legend", learn to listen to "the language of the world" and if he doesn't he will never be completely happy - because anyone who gives up on their personal legend is at heart utterly miserable even if they are rich / successful / happily married on the outside. There are bits of this that read like Rhonda Bryne's "The Secret" - Santiago is constantly told that as long as he is living his "personal legend" the world will conspire to make things happen so he can achieve it.
Of course, this only applies if you are a man apparently - the only female character, Fatima, Santiago's love interest, apparently achieves her personal legend when she meets Santiago (because that as high as any woman could possibly aspire??).  Even elements have more interesting legends - lead wants to turn into gold - poor Fatima.

I found this book trite, preachy, sexist and just plain boring - if you are into spiritualism then it might appeal but frankly I'm certain that there are much better books out there. 

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami ($19.99)

At 1318 pages I'm pretty certain this will be the biggest book I will read this year (possibly this decade). It beats out Gone With the Wind by about 400 pages and that is the next biggest one on my 2018 reading challenge. I'm going on about the size because I was putting reading this off because of the sheer size of it but once I started I was surprised at how quickly I got through it - I easily devoured 100-200 pages at time. Any other book read at that rate would have lasted only a few days. This one took me closer to 3 weeks but I never looked at it with dread thinking I'll never get it finished. If the reason you haven't read this is the size do yourself a favour and pick it up now!

1Q84 is a totally strange book - set in Tokyo in 1984 it is the story of Tengo, a math tutor and aspiring novelist, and Aomame, a fitness instructor who moonlights as an assassin. While Tengo and Aomame went to primary school together they haven't seen each other for 20 years but neither one has forgotten the other. Through circumstances strange and fantastical they find themselves in opposition to a fanatical and mysterious religious organisation and at each turn of the page the long distance bond between them draws tighter and stranger.
1Q84 is actually a trilogy of books that were originally published separately and are now published as a complete bind-up. I have to admit that while interested, I'm not sure I would have gone onto book 2 if it hadn't been immediately available to me: at that point the strangeness of the story hadn't been taken over by fascination. When I got to the end of book 2 I couldn't wait to dive into book 3 and I was glad it was there so I didn't have to wait even a second!
Anyone who has read any of Murakami's stories (I've read a couple of his shorter ones) knows that there will be magical realism / fantastic elements mixed into a story about an ordinary life and this is no exception. 1Q84 is as much about the mystery of "little people" and their machinations as it is a character study of Tengo and Aomame and a look at modern isolation, loneliness and life in 1984 Japan. There are a lot of reminisces, introspectives and general description that will not be everyone's cup of tea. Personally, I liked the cultural insights so they didn't bother me. I have to say I usually hate a book with too much introspection but 1Q84 didn't bother me. I didn't find myself getting frustrated with the characters as I normally do so there was enough plot to keep everything moving.
The writing style is so timeless that I frequently forgot that it was 1984 and it was usually the technology (or lack thereof) that reminded me (things like Tengo's word processor and people constantly using telephone boxes).That and the smoking. 
It was originally written in Japanese and translated into English by two different translators (the first translator for books 1 & 2 the second for book 3) so while I feel they did a great job I noticed a distinct difference in style in the last book - Especially in the third book when Murakami breaks the third wall to tell us what might have happened in a particular scene. I really felt that it broke the spell. I'm pretty sure I can't put that on the translator though. I also felt that some of the nuances of Japanese culture probably went over my head.
If you are looking for super fast paced action this will not be the book for you but if you like to see your characters develop and don't care too much that the plot is sometimes more than a little strange then this is a must read.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells ($12.99 - Popular Penguins Edition)

So 99% of Griffin's (the Invisible Man's) problems come from the fact he is a self-absorbed megalomaniac a-hole with massive delusions of importance. The only thing being invisible has really changed is that now people bump into him.
H G Well's tale of a scientist going against nature and paying the price reads more to my mind as a tale about ensuring the mental stability of anyone you give power to, rather than an allegory about pushing the extremes of scientific boundaries. Let's face it Griffin was off his rocker long before he experimented on himself!
Let's start at the beginning: A mysterious and arrogant stranger arrives at a country inn. Demanding private rooms he proceeds to put everyone's backs up by generally behaving like an entitled prick, but he has money so the Landlady tolerates him. He has mysterious "science" equipment and swears loudly when things don't go his way. But then his money runs out and a strange burglary points to the rude stranger. After a struggle the truth is revealed: The stranger is invisible!!
Taking off, the stranger runs into a drifter whom he threatens / bribes into helping to retrieve the stranger's journals from the Inn - resulting in another tussle and them both escaping by the skin of their teeth. The stranger's reluctant companion manages to escape him and in the struggle the invisible man is shot. He takes off and finds shelter at the (extremely coincidental) house of an old medical school chum, Kemp, to whom the whole story is finally told. We learn the invisible man is in fact, Griffin, a former medical student and chemistry student who dropped out to study the new field of physics. 
Griffin became obsessed (and paranoid) with the idea of invisibility, and after a little larceny from dear old dad (who later killed himself as a result of the loss - no regrets from Griffin) and some pretty sketchy science (really putting the 'fiction' into science fiction) managed to make invisibility a reality. Aaand immediately ran into issues... resulting in him justifying the fact he blew up the building he was living in and went on the run. I imagined that Kemp was slowly backing out of the room while this tale was told. When Griffin realises Kemp isn't going to fall in with his cunning plan of **dominating the world through the terror of being invisible** the excrement really hits the fan. 
Griffin loses what marbles he has left and decides to kill Kemp for "betraying" him. Helpfully Griffin announces all of his plans with a note (the guy is totally nutso at this point) so Kemp has time to plan and prepare. Things all end in tragedy when the invisible man finally realises that 'invisible terror' is no match for an angry mob.
Like a lot of early science fiction this doesn't really stand up well to contemporary education - I'm pretty sure anyone with a faintest grasp of high school physics will be able to pick this apart easily - and in a world filled with horror stories, movies, and well, the nightly news, having an invisible adversary just isn't that terrifying. I'm pretty sure I read scarier storylines in Round-the-Twist books as a kid.
Having said that I really enjoyed reading this, the story is told well. It sucks you in and keeps you glued. I found myself thinking about it whenever I put it down and I was eager to dive back in as soon as I could. Considering it was published in 1897 The Invisible Man manages to be easily readable in the 21st century and I am sure if you read it with others there would be a lot to discuss.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot ($19.99)

This has been on my to-read list for ages so I'm glad it ended up on my 2018 reading challenge. This is a biography, a family history, a scientific history of genetics, a social commentary and most importantly the very real story of children who lost their mother.
The consequences of Henrietta's death and the effect her genetic legacy has had on her children, grandchildren and community is still profoundly felt.
Henrietta Lacks died of an extremely aggressive cervical cancer in 1951. While being treated a doctor took tissue samples of both the cancer and healthy tissues and grew them in culture. Like pretty much every cell culture at the time the healthy cells lasted a few days but the cells from Henrietta's cancer grew like nothing anyone had ever seen. As long as they had space and cell medium to "feed" on they doubled in size every 24 hours. Named after Henrietta the HeLa cells are effectively immortal.

HeLa solved many problems for scientists - at last they had cells that survived more than a day or two in culture - the possibilities were endless! One of the biggest and most immediate uses for the cells was to test the efficacy of the newly developed Polio vaccine - a process that could have taken years could now be done in months with the endless supply of HeLa. After that HeLa spread to labs across the globe, it was used to help map the human genome, to test the effects of radiation, space, cancer treatments, drugs and more. Companies set up to grow and distribute HeLa.

Meanwhile, her family had no knowledge that any of this was happening: That is until a journalist contacted them to ask questions about Henrietta 20 years after she passed away. Her husband and children (most of whom hadn't finished high school, let alone any scientific education) got the garbled impression that Henrietta was somehow still "alive" and being kept in a lab. Form then on Henrietta's family had one long fight: for recognition, for understanding, and for clarity as to what had really happened to their mother.

This is a story about the black and white divide in America. It's a story about poverty and education. Its a story of scientific discovery and the ownership of genes. Who really has a right to genetic information? Should families receive a payment when the legacy of a loved one results in riches for doctors and companies? Who should have access to patient records? What rights do we have over our own genes? Would Henrietta's family have been treated so badly if they had of been educated and / or white? What becomes painfully apparent was that at no time anyone tried to reach out and offer to explain what and why HeLa was used. Partly because none of the doctors seemed to even think of it, and partly because the Lacks' didn't know what questions to ask - the gap in education between the two parties meant they were basically speaking different languages.

I had so many questions as I read this book and none of them have easy answers. There's a lot of history and much has changed, but the control of genetic information is something we should all be concerned about going into the future as genetic profiling becomes more prevalent.

Given how much angst and stress the whole situation has caused to the Lacks family they were understandably resistant to talking to yet another (white) reporter. When Rebecca Skloot came knocking it took her months to get anyone to talk to her (the community had closed ranks and wouldn't speak to anyone without permission from the family) and years to get the full story. This book manages to get the balance right between the story of Henrietta's family (Warning: you might cry. I did.) and the science HeLa has unlocked. Even if you don't like science books there is plenty of human interest here and this is one Popular Science book I'm going to be recommending to everyone!


The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (12.99 -Popular Penguin edition)

This is book 15 in my 50 book reading challenge and the first I have totally hated!! The Prophet has been continually in print since 1923 and that is quite a feat for any book, so I thought there must be something that makes it so perennially popular I have to try this book...
I am the first to admit I am not a spiritual person - religion, horoscopes, numerology, spiritualism, fuzzy thinking, ghosts, afterlife, anything promoted by Dr Oz: it all goes into the same bullshit box for me. Maybe if I were inclined toward this kind of thing it wouldn't have been such a chore, but as things are I had to force myself to finish (I had assumed it would be a quick read as there is fewer than 100 pages of actual text. It took me 6 days to force my way through!).

I can see why it may appeal to some; like all good spiritual texts The Prophet is so open to interpretation that pretty much anyone will be able to find somethings they a) agree with; and b) don't understand and feel that if they think about it long enough meaning will come to them (why does it not occur to people that when B) happens maybe it’s just a sign the author was just full of shit??!)

Like all good religious texts there are parts that directly contradict other parts and some bits that have not aged well. If you, like me, love logic, reason, and like more of an explanation to this life than "god did it" or “do x because god will love you” then don't waste your time. If you like beating your head against opaque text and the musings of an average writer who is clearly seeped in the sociocultural bounds of his time and religion then go for your life...
Don't say I didn't warn you. 

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (24.95 -pictured edition)

I have a feeling I may have read this as a kid but it was long enough ago that I really have only the vaguest memories of the story and reading it as an adult is a different experience. There is still a lot to like here; Doctor Dolittle's attitude toward animals was massively progressive when it was published - the idea that animals had thoughts, feelings and might be worth learning from and about was pretty radical for 1922. It's just a pity that Hugh Lofting didn't extend the idea to other peoples (apparently the idea that black people might have something worth learning was a bridge too far).
Young Tommy Stubbins first hears about Doctor Dolittle when he discovers a squirrel with a broken leg. His enquiries as to how to help it lead him to the extraordinary house of the Doctor, who turns out to be much more than an ordinary veterinarian - Dolittle can actually talk to animals in their own languages. This opens a whole new world for Tommy whose parents cannot afford to send him to school. Tommy becomes the Doctor's assistant and student and before too long is speaking to animals himself. Soon the Doctor decides to go on another adventure in the hopes of meeting another famous naturalist, Long Arrow. Through various adventures they end up marooned on a floating island with hostile natives but through an unlikely set of events the Doctor not only finds Long Arrow and saves his life, but also ends a war between the tribes of the island, solves an environmental crisis, and ends up being crowned King of the people there!
And that is where I really struggled with this book: the white man as saviour trope. Race is an issue throughout the book: Bumpo, one of the doctor's friends, a prince from an African kingdom in England to study at Oxford, asks to come with them on the sea voyage, and the doctor claims he will be a valuable member of the crew - he is immediately put to work as the ship's cook ....
On the island the doctor teaches the natives how to make fire (literally bringing light to the darkness), ends a war by threatening the "bad" tribe with attack by parrot (actually organised by Polynesia, a bird who probably should be the actual hero of the story as she comes up with pretty much every plan), teaches the natives about sewers and art (cleanliness and enlightenment to a society that has clearly been functioning for hundreds of years but couldn't cope without him (that was sarcasm in case it wasn't obvious)). Even though he was crowned King very much against his will, he tells himself he can't leave because the natives are now "his children and he has so much to teach them still"(European paternalism).

It is really only the last quarter of this book that really bothered me but at the same time I don't think a young reader would notice these issues. I'm sure I didn't at the age of 9 or 10 when I first read this. But then again the world has changed a bit since the 80s, maybe kids today would notice.

Having said all of the above I still think this is a book well worth reading for any kid that loves animals or is interested in nature - as much as it is a fantasy, it is enjoyable and will encourage a curiosity about the marvelous things out in the big, wide world. A parent or teacher who talks about the issues I've mentioned would make this a great teaching moment about how attitudes have changed and why it's important to read about the past as it was - I am not someone who thinks books should be edited - they represent the attitudes at the time they were written and it's important to understand how far we have come (or haven't as the case may be). This particular edition has illustrations, footnotes explaining certain concepts and words that time has changed or removed from the lexicon. It also has questions for young readers compiled by an educator - although they don't touch on the Doctor's paternalistic attitude to the islanders there is nothing to stop a parent or teacher adding their own questions to get young readers thinking.

Steal Like an Artist ($24.99)

After reading this book I will happily highly recommend Steal Like an Artist to anyone, not just artists - anyone who needs to build a business profile online, or feels stuck in a rut, would be able to pull some real and meaningful advice from this little and easy-to-read book. Adults and especially teens who are interested in an artistic career would really benefit.

Kleon's advice of borrowing ideas from your heroes and making them your own; of slogging away at your work; of enjoying anonymity while it lasts because that gives you freedom without judgement; about putting your ideas into the world and ignoring the trolls, listening to criticism, and enjoying praise (in moderation); of staying focused but having hobbies and other interests to balance your life are all things, I think, everyone needs to hear - not just creatives.

A big part of Kleon's ethos is to build your tribe and your space both in person and online - surround yourself only with those who inspire you and demand the best of you. Find the most interesting person in the room (digitally or physically) and stand next to them, learn and engage. If the most interesting person happens to be you then you need to find another room. There is always someone to learn from no matter how good you become at what you do.


Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw ($12.99)

I have to admit I do like the movie My Fair Lady. The songs always get stuck in my head, the clothes are pretty, and it's fun. But this is one of those times when the movie has missed the point of the book. Shaw was a socialist, he believed in social equality and women's rights. This play was a go at everything he was against - the attitudes of the privileged against the lower classes. 
Shaw, as a Irishman living in London, was well aware of the effect that an accent had upon people's perception of him and the prejudices an accent would bring out in others.

If you have never read Pygmalion or seen My Fair Lady the plot is this: An arrogant professor (voice-coach) Higgins and his friend Pickering make a bet that Higgins can turn the most ignorant and badly-accented cockney flowergirl into someone who could pass for royalty in six months. Enter Eliza, the flowergirl in question, who, of course, takes to her lessons like a duck to water and turns out to be stunningly beautiful to boot (starvation and poverty being good for the complexion I guess?). But while Higgins is thrilled about winning his bet he is less thrilled that his compliant student finds a voice of her own: refusing to fit into the mould he has made for her. In the movie they changed the ending: a compliant Eliza comes back to Higgins.

The character of Higgins is both forward thinking - he thinks that with the right education and money anyone could be mistaken for Upper-class - but at the same time he has no consideration for the fallout from his "experiment" - Eliza no longer belongs in her former life but hasn't the funds to maintain her new one. Higgins is a bit of a d*&k to be perfectly honest. He has the unthinking arrogance of someone who has never experienced poverty or desperation. 
Pickering's role in the play is partly for exposition and partly to move the plot along. He, in spite of the fact that he didn't think Higgins would succeed, treats Eliza as he would any lady. Higgins meanwhile treats her the whole way through as a lowly flowergirl - someone to be used and discarded. Higgins claims that that is the way he treats everyone; the fact is he never looks at Eliza as a being worthy of notice. 
Eliza is almost a non-person. At the beginning of the play she is almost comically idiotic - bursting into tears over every little thing. It seemed to me that someone who is on the mean streets of London scraping a living everyday wouldn't be quite so thin-skinned. By the end of the play she has somehow become a poised, articulate, beautiful young woman, but still lacking in personality. Higgins' mother refers to her very accurately as a "living doll". At the beginning of the play she irritated me. It is one thing to have a limited vocabulary and an atrocious accent but that doesn't automatically make a person stupid. Nor does a nice voice make someone smart. Shaw may have been quite a forward thinking person but he clearly didn't write women well.
Overall, I enjoyed the play but having a better understanding of Shaw's life gave it more layers than I had been aware of previously. Knowing now where Shaw was coming from I am angry at the Hollywood ending of My Fair Lady. This is still a play with a lot so say: prejudice and class still effect the way we treat people, even now when the class system isn't as visible as it was when Shaw wrote Pygmalion. Well worth reading and I'm glad it was on my 2018 reading challenge, but make sure you read an edition that includes notes about Shaw's life (like this one) because that will make it so much better.


"Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life."

This was unexpected on so many levels: The structure; the hero getting crucified in the first act; the fact it has very little to do with Alice Springs; a heroine that both breaks and conforms to stereotypes; the way the story is narrated.
It feels both dated (the racism is the major factor in that but also the sexist attitudes) and very modern (mainly due to the heroine's attitude to every challenge). The racism might cause some to dismiss this book but if anything it is a true and accurate reflection of the attitudes of the time and I don't think we should be allowed to forget it.
Having said that I really enjoyed it. A Town Like Alice is a total page turner - just the right level of description to create an evocative landscape and characters without getting bogged in detail. A plot that moves at just the right pace and characters you can (mostly) respect.
This is an Australian classic and I think it deserves to be on everyone's reading list.

Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave ($12.99)

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)


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)

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.

REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier $19.99

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.


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)

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.