Saturday, 30 August 2014

Too close to home: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it and weep: Lisa Genova's Still Alice
I ran into a girlfriend while walking our dog on Monday morning. Last time I saw my friend - three weeks ago - she told me that her mum, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, had just gone into care. I asked how her mum was doing and was shocked when she told me she had died.

I knew her mum wasn't well, I knew she wasn't going to get any better, but still I was appalled by the speed of her decline. What made me even sadder is that I know so many, too many, people whose lives are touched by this terrible illness.

I didn't know much about Alzheimer's until I read Lisa Genova's amazing debut novel, Still Alice. It's a first person account of an extraordinarily bright woman's descent into dementia: Alice Howland is a mother and brilliant Harvard professor in the prime of her life who initially notices she is becoming forgetful and is eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

Genova, an American neuroscientist, explores in painful detail what happens as the disease progresses and Alice's condition declines. It's been some years since I read this book, but I still remember reading about Alice getting lost in her own neighbourhood, believing she sees the floor of her house transformed into a gaping hole and being humiliated at work because she can't remember what she has or hasn't done or is supposed to do.

There are moments of great pathos. For example, Alice, once she knows what's happening to her, makes a pact with herself to end things once she has passed a certain point in her illness. She writes a note to herself in a special file on her computer, but by the time she finds and reads it again she is incapable of carrying out its instructions.

The book is as enlightening as it is unnerving - and I learned a lot from it as the scientific and medical aspects of the story are covered in a way that makes them easy to understand. The human pain - Alice's and her family's - is described unflinchingly too. Here is one of many memorable exchanges between Alice and her husband, John. She has asked him not to accept a great job offer in New York (they live in Boston) but to take a year's sabbatical and spend it with her:
"I don't think I can do it, Alice. I'm sorry, I just don't think I can take being home for a whole year, just sitting and watching what this disease is stealing from you. I can't take watching you not knowing how to get dressed and not knowing how to work the television. If I'm in lab, I don't have to watch you sticking Post-it notes on all the cabinets and doors. I can't just stay home and watch you get worse. It kills me."
"No, John, it's killing me, not you. I'm getting worse, whether you're at home looking at me or hiding in your lab. You're losing me. I'm losing me. But if you don't take next year off with me, well, then, we lost you first. I have Alzheimer's. What's your fucking excuse."
It's not all bleak though. Still Alice is also a warm and funny account of a high-achieving woman who loves her job and her family and is determined to make the most of the time she has left. I've just heard that the film of the book is due for release in 2015. Julianne Moore plays Alice with Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart in supporting roles. It'll be tough to watch, but I think it's a movie we all need to see.

In the meantime, if you haven't read it already, do pick up a copy of the book. September is Dementia Awareness month and given that 1,700 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each week in Australia and it's the third leading cause of death here, perhaps Still Alice should be required reading for us all.

I loved this book. Have you read it and what did you think?




Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sweet reading: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl

A book for peanut butter lovers: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl
I'm a great believer that variety is good for us. That applies to food, exercise - and reading too. And call me a lightweight, but I don't think reading should feel like hard work. So while I love a thought-provoking book that lingers with me long after I've read the last word, sometimes something short and sweet can be just the ticket.

If you're feeling in the mood for a little reading confectionery, may I recommend Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl? I picked up this book at the National Book Bloggers Forum a few weeks ago and decided to add it to my reading list as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I knew I was going to like this book as soon as I read the words:
"Dedicated to whoever it was who invented peanut butter. I - we all - thank you."  
On the cover it says the novel is about 'what happens when you discover the man of your dreams is going out with your best friend.' For me that undersells this book. Foster's story is the delightful and often amusing tale of young TV producer, Lily, struggling to find her way in life and love. It's well written and offers plenty of insights into what it's like to work in TV, particularly in food programming (lucky Lily finds daily banter with a gorgeous TV chef is part of her job description).

Of course, romance is on the menu and Lily eventually gets together with Jack Winters, the tasty young cook to whom her flatmate Simone, a swimwear model addicted to prescription drugs, is plainly unsuited. This element of the story is entertaining enough, but there's no real tension here. It's evident from the outset that Lily and Jack will soon be an item.

The book ends in traditional fashion with our hero and heroine about to kiss. I'm not sure what drew my eye to the next page, the acknowledgements, but I was glad it did. Foster has one last laugh in store for her readers:

"First of all, I must thank my dear friends Jamie Oliver and Curtis Stone, who spent hours, many hours, with me detailing how exactly chefs operate on a day-to-day basis, as well as the inner workings of live TV production. Second, I must retract those thanks, because I've never met either of those men. But I think they'd both definitely be very lovely and helpful."
The Wrong Girl is a fun read - a perfect refresher between heavier books. I'm reading Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed now and loved it from the very first page. But next time I'm looking for something light, I might try Air Kisses, Foster's novel about 'the magazine world's most unlikely beauty editor'. How about you? Do you like to mix your reading up? What are your fave light reads?






Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Do we need an Australian Women Writers Challenge?


It's been said many times that writing is a solitary profession and I have to say I find that to be true. There are some days when I don't speak to anyone - except my dog - from 8am in the morning to 6pm at night. Most of the time I don't mind too much, but it can mean I have a lot of pent up talking to do.

And I'm not the only one. This year's inaugural National Book Bloggers Forum, hosted by publishers Random House, was full of booky bloggers just bursting with things to say about the books they'd read, the books they were going to read and, in some cases, the books they were going to write.

It was great to meet Shelleyrae Cusbert of Book'd Out who is surely one of the most prolific readers on the planet. Shelleyrae has four kids, but still makes time to read a book a day and blogs about most of them. I can only imagine she's mastered the art of reading while she sleeps.

Reader, writer and film reviewer Susan May of An Adventure in Words shared plenty of ideas too - including her cure for writers suffering from that common disease - 'life-gets-in-the-way-itis.' (In case you're a sufferer, the remedy is to: "write a page a day no matter what.")

Chatting to blogger Elizabeth Lhuede, I learned about the Australian Women Writers Challenge, an initiative that 'encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year.'

It's a challenge I find quite appealing, not least because it will help reduce the number of books on my 'to read' shelf for this year. Although I've never chosen a book because of the gender of its author, on balance I'd say that I prefer female writing. I generally don't find thrillers very thrilling and am drawn to books publishers categorise as quality commercial fiction - and they're often written by women.

Towards the end of the day, Random House previewed some of the books readers could look forward to for the second half of 2014. The list was long and included quite a few clearly destined to be bestsellers (more on this later). But when I was thinking about what to read next, I remembered my chat with Elizabeth.

Cute, funny and beautifully written: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl


I'm now reading Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl (I'm not sure where Zoe was born, but understand she lives and is published here, so hope that counts) and on my 'to read' pile there's Sisters of Mercy and Matilda is Missing both by Caroline Overington, Elianne by Judy Nunn and Hades by Alexandra Adornetto. Have you read any of these and what did you think of them? Do you think we need an Australian Women Writers Challenge and who are your favourite Australian women writers? I'd love to hear what you think.


Friday, 16 May 2014

A book to devour: Caroline Overington's Ghost Child

Some books are there to be savoured, others are gobbled down in just a day or two. When I picked up Caroline Overington's Ghost Child, I had a feeling it would be one of the latter. I didn't know much about it, but I'd heard Overington's writing compared to that of Jodi Piccoult and expected a quality commercial read. In fact, Ghost Child exceeded my expectations.


Caroline Overington's Ghost Child: a delicious read


Overington's publishers, Random House, describe Ghost Child as 'a multi-voiced novel centred around a child's death and its terrible repercussions.' Here's their summary of the story:


"In 1982 Victorian police were called to a home on a housing estate an hour west of Melbourne. There, they found a five-year-old boy lying still and silent on the carpet. There were no obvious signs of trauma, but the child, Jacob, died the next day.  
The story made the headlines and hundreds attended the funeral. Few people were surprised when the boy's mother and her boyfriend went to prison for the crime. Police declared themselves satisfied with the result, saying there was no doubt that justice had been done.  
And yet, for years rumours swept the estate and clung like cobwebs to the long-vacant house: there had been a cover-up. The real perpetrator, at least according to local gossip, was the boy's six-year-old sister, Lauren. 
Twenty years on, Lauren has created a new life for herself, but details of Jacob's death begin to resurface and the story again makes the newspapers. As Lauren struggles with the ghosts of her childhood, it seems only a matter of time before the past catches up with her."

Ghost Child is an easy read, but it's a confronting one too. Overington tells the story through the mouths of a whole cast of characters, some major some minor, and so we have a glimpse of multiple perspectives as the story unfolds. She has a real talent for taking us inside someone else's head - and for conveying characterisation through little more than speech. Whether we love or loathe the people in this story, our feelings are usually inspired by their thoughts, their words...

By the same token, it's hard not to feel that the children in story have been failed by the state systems that are meant to care for and protect them, but at the same time we are led to understand how many of the system's failings have come about.

I picked up this book expecting a quick easy read. And it delivered on both fronts. But days later Ghost Child is still haunting me. This was the first book I've read by Caroline Overington, but it's left me wanting more.

What are you reading at the moment? And has it surprised you in anyway?




 


Sunday, 6 April 2014

How to get kids hooked on books: 6 tips for reluctant readers




A litte school holiday reading...
Kids today grow up in a world where so much competes for their attention - school, sports, friends, technology - that reading isn’t always at the top of the to-do list. Yet reading is so important; it helps develop imagination, emotional intelligence and language skills; can introduce us to people and places we might not otherwise encounter; and is a soothing and restorative end to a jam-packed day.

But what if your kids don’t want to read? Forcing them to do so rather defeats the point if you are trying to pass on the pleasure of reading. But there are ways of encouraging them to read more – without resorting to bribing or berating them. Here are my top tips for getting reluctant readers hooked on books:

Make it all about them
Allow them to choose their own book. Don’t be disappointed if they don’t fancy your suggestions; they’ll be far more likely to read if the book is about something that interests them. Some kids prefer non-fiction, particularly books full of facts about topics they’re interested in such as animals, science and so on.

Read together
Winter afternoons and evenings are the perfect time for curling up with a great read. School holidays can give you the time to do this together and may mean you have time to read a longer book than you might otherwise. Share a book by taking turns to read a chapter aloud or simply snuggle up together to read your own books.

Look for great kids’ series
Finding the right series can help get children hooked on reading. Classics like Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie books are excellent choices. For something more contemporary look out for John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice or Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant series.

Let them laugh
Most kids love reading comic-style books. Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, for example, has delighted millions of kids who might not otherwise have picked up a book. For me these books are a little like junk food; you wouldn’t them to be the only thing on the menu, but a little from time to time doesn’t do any harm. Hopefully these easy readers will be the first step to something a little more challenging.

Show them you love reading
Be a great role model by having plenty of books at home and letting your kids see you reading for work and pleasure. Chat about what you’re reading and why it interests you and ask them about their books too. Sometimes this will give you ideas for books you might enjoy together. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder  for example is a great book for kids and adults - I loved hearing my kids’ perspectives on the issues it raises. My younger son says Sharon M Draper's Out of My Mind (a story about a highly intelligent 10-year old girl who can't walk or talk) is excellent and I'm looking forward to discussing it with him once I've read it.

Highly recommended by my son: Out of my mind by Sharon M. Draper
Don’t stress
Family life is busy these days and even the most ardent readers can find it hard to make time for books. Don’t worry too much if your kids don’t have time to read every single day, just try and make it part of their routine when you can.

What do your kids like to read? Do you have more tips on encouraging reading? I'd love to hear them…


Monday, 17 March 2014

Chic lit: books for women who love fiction and fashion

Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro: Elle magazine describes it as 'an irresistible love story and self-help manual rolled into one.'

I rediscovered Elegance by Kathleen Tessaro while I was loitering in the local library the other day. I used to have this book, but think it was purged when we moved to Australia. It's chick-lit with a twist, weaving together classic style advice from another book (also called Elegance) by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, and the story of Louise, a young woman whose marriage breaks up, but who eventually finds happiness in the arms of a much younger man. (Did I mention this was chick lit?)

It's well-written light reading, but for me Ms Dariaux' quotes steal the show. Here she is on the subject of yachting:
"Now is your chance to show everyone that you are not afraid to be seen without make-up, that you never leave a trail of disorder in your wake, that you have a wonderfully even disposition, and that your elegance is based on utter simplicity. If this be the case (and if you are not subject to seasickness and know how to swim), you will surely have the most wonderful time of your life." 
Beautifully put, Genevieve.

Elegance by 1960's style guru Genevieve Antoine Dariaux: where has my copy gone?

Now I'm reading The Seamstress by Maria Duenas. This is not such a light read; its elegant prose tells the story of a young dressmaker, Sira, from Madrid who leaves Spain with her lover in 1936 when the country is on the brink of civil war. They travel to Morocco where he betrays her and leaves her with huge debts. Civil war engulfs Spain. Sira cannot go back so she sets up her own salon and makes beautiful clothes for upper class expats and their German friends. WWII is looming and Sira becomes involved with the British Secret Service, a move that puts her in great danger.

I haven't finished The Seamstress yet, but am enjoying it very much. I love Duenas' writing - and her descriptions of Sira's sartorial creations, such as the time she has to whip up a faux Fortuny Delphos (evening dress) in a few hours, add to the allure of the book.

Fortuny Delphos: don't try this at home


I read Elegance in a twinkling, The Seamstress is taking me a little longer. If you love a good read - with a smidgeon of style advice on the side - I'd recommend them both. And I'd love to hear about any other great chic lit finds...

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Stepping outside my reading comfort zone: the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014


I'd never thought of making a reading resolution before, but I'm planning to for 2014. This will be the year I step out of my reading comfort zone and discover the thrills of new genres including the medical thriller and cosy mystery fiction.

Don't ask me what those two are - I'd never even heard of them before today. But I know a woman who has. Shelleyrae Cusbert, who reads a book a day and blogs about her reading habit at Book'd Out, is hosting The Eclectic Reader Challenge (ERC) for 2014. The ERC invites participants to read up to 12 different books from 12 distinct categories by 31st December 2014.

You can read your selected titles in any order and at your own pace, but you must complete the challenge by the end of 2014.

Here are the categories:

1.  Award winning
2.  True crime (non-fiction)
3.  Romantic comedy
4.  Alternate history fiction
5.  Graphic novel
6.  Cosy mystery fiction
7.  Gothic fiction
8.  War/military fiction
9.  Anthology
10. Medical thriller fiction
11. Travel (non-fiction)
12. Published in 2014.

So that's my reading resolution for 2014. Fancy joining me? Head over to Book'd Out for more details - and do let me know how your reading year goes.