Monday, September 28, 2015

'The Truth about Peacock Blue' by Rosanne Hawke


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 39 - A book with a colour in the title.

I attended the launch of book a couple a weeks ago, bearing a long peacock feather. Rosanne Hawke is a friend and fellow South Australian, and I've enjoyed her work for many years. This book lives up to the impact of her others, and fits well into this week's category.

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 A powerful story about one girl's fight for justice in Pakistan.

Everything changes for Aster the night her brother dies. Suddenly she's the only hope of the family, and instead of an early marriage to a boy from her small village in Pakistan, her parents decide to send her to the government high school in her brother's place. Aster is excited about this unexpected opportunity for a career, but, as a Christian, she is unprepared her for the difficulties of attending a Muslim school: her fellow students are far from welcoming and one of her teachers takes an instant dislike to her. One day, she is accused of intentionally making a spelling mistake to insult the holy prophet. Her teacher is incensed and accuses her of blasphemy. A violent crowd forms outside the school and Aster is taken to jail to be tried at a later date.

A young social justice lawyer takes up her case, and Aster's Australian cousin, Maryam, starts an online campaign to free Aster. But will it be enough to save her?

Fourteen-year-old Aster Suleiman is thrust into a nightmare. She knew she wasn't her Islamic teacher's favourite student, but a mistake on a High School exam has her arrested on a charge of blasphemy. As the teacher, Mrs Abdul, supposedly destroyed the offensive paper on the spot, her word alone is enough to shatter the lives of several people. Aster's parents have recently lost their son to a violent asthma attack, and now their precious daughter faces a death penalty.

I found Aster's plight extremely moving, especially as she is presented from the start as loving, merry-hearted and peaceable, like my own teenage daughter. Her greatest misfortune is simply to find herself on the wrong side of an extremist authority figure in a country like Pakistan, where blasphemy accusations can be used like a weapon. Through this powerful story, she becomes the representative for members of minority groups who face unjust persecution.

Peacock Blue is Aster's online identity, and the campaign to set her free is taken up by her cousin Maryam, who lives in Australia. This comes across really well, as peacocks are beautiful and inoffensive, like Asta herself, and their feathers are collected as symbols of renewal and patience.

As I read, I couldn't help noticing the huge potential for ripple effects. Minor characters are touched upon enough to show that they have astounding and terrifying stories of their own. Some are women who share Aster's prison cell and the adjoining one. Others are folk who leave comments on Maryam's blog posts. If their stories were all to be told at large, the effect would be far-reaching and never-ending.

The power of the written word comes through strongly. It's there when Aster receives supportive notes from friends and strangers, and when cell mates are impacted by the tales she tells from the Bible and books such as 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' Aster is encouraged to write her own story, just to increase people's awareness of atrocities which can so easily be hushed and swept under the carpet. Some of her emotions come across really helpful, although I've never been through such trauma in my lifetime. For example, when Aster can't feel God's presence in her squalid surroundings, the passing of time gives her a revelation about the true nature of happiness.

One of my favourite quotes from this novel compares prejudice to a dung heap. 'It seethes with life when it is left alone. We need to dig this dung heap up and spread it over the ground for all the world to see.' And as some of the less extreme characters ask, 'Is God so small that we have to protect Him from a child?'

I hope this novel will help make more of us increasingly aware of the plights of those who are arrested on a whim and given unfair trials, along with those poor asylum seekers who are denied entry to safe countries like Australia, because world attention may be a huge step toward stopping it all.

5 stars

You may also enjoy Rosanne Hawke's guest post about writing for young adults, here.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Slowing Down to Read Massive Books

I got a lot of interesting fuel for blog posts from My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Here's another example from her research which was an eye-opener to me as well as her. When Mead visited Coventry, the town where George Eliot lived a good portion of her life, she went into a local bookstore to try to buy a copy of Middlemarch. To Mead's surprise and annoyance, there were only abridged or condensed versions available (unlike my brick-sized Penguin edition below). Nowhere in the entire town could she find a copy of the classic in its entirety. Rebecca Mead sadly chalked it up as a sign of the ridiculously fast paced twenty-first century lifestyles we're living.

How interesting that publishing houses seem to assume that abridged classics will be more in demand than the originals. They are catering to a public comprised of skimmers, who want to claim that they've read Middlemarch but are unwilling to put in the hard work. They'd prefer to get it done as quickly as possible. We've adapted to living life on the run, flitting from one task to the next. We assume that a long list of items ticked off a 'To Do' list is a sign of day well spent. I've bought into that myth myself, and recently started to question the philosophy behind it. Maybe a day well spent is when we get only a couple of things done, but give them the depth of time and attention they deserve.

We're living in an age when we're counseled to keep things quick and short, so we can zoom on the million other jobs waiting to be done. Tweets need to be 140 characters or fewer. We're told to keep blog posts and book reviews brief, because 'people are busy', as if that's a really positive thing! What if it's really deplorable?

I stumbled upon an article by Hugh McGuire entitled, 'How reading can make you feel less busy.' He describes how he constantly felt tired, distracted and irritable, and sensed that his stress had an electronic feel to it. The crunch came when he realised he'd read only four books in 2014, even though he loved reading. But he figured out that with every four sentences he read, he was either battling urges to check emails and social media or falling asleep.

Training himself to start reading real books again was part of McGuire's stress management plan. He cites scientific studies which indicate that flitting from topic to topic as we tend to do, helps exhaust us. The human brain is not really designed to multi-task. I can't help thinking how the lives we live are poles apart from those of even our recent ancestors. I visited a small ghost town on the tip of South Australia's Yorke Peninsula with my husband and kids. It was inhabited until the 1960s and in a lot of that time, residents had to wait months for visits from the postman. Maybe having the whole world's information at our fingertips is a step too far in the opposite direction.

In the Victorian era, there weren't so many labour-saving devices, but people possibly thought with more depth and intensity. With our twenty-first century technology and mod-cons, you might assume we'd have more time freed up to be deep and intense if we want to be. Instead, many folk are scattered and unfocused with sick, slack attention spans.

Reading is a terrific slow down activity. For the last few years, I've been setting myself reading challenges. I've done the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I'm currently on the home run of my 2015 Reading Challenge. They've been great, but do help me put pressure on myself to meet the criteria, and tick off a book from each category each week. I'm thinking that maybe next year, I'll take some time to tackle a book that forces me to slow down even more.

We seem to be all about breadth in our activities, at the expense of depth. Maybe reading the occasional massive book may help us cultivate depth again. We expect our modern stories to zoom straight the point and rivet us from the first page. People advise writers to cut out verbosity and waffle. Even though that's good advice to a point, it may be a sacrifice when beautiful descriptive passages which invite us to linger and ponder get the flick. If you're thinking the same way I am, why not consider a challenge like Middlemarch, or Nicholas Nickelby, or Anna Karenina? A few weeks ago, I discovered William Thackeray's Pendennis on the shelves of my second hand shop for just a dollar or two, and decided I might tackle it as one of next year's reads. Don't hold me accountable though, because 'might' isn't the same as 'will.' It has 1060 pages of minuscule writing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

'The Slow Down Diet' by Marc David

2015 Reading Challenge, Week 38 - A book you should have read at school but didn't.
Let me explain my rationale behind this weeks choice, especially since the first edition was only published ten years ago, long after I left school.

At first I thought nothing would fit this category. I used to read all the books we were set at school, even if I hated them. We had to complete work based around them, so I could see no point in not reading them. Once, I even plowed through 'Sons and Lovers' over the school holidays, only to return to hear the teacher say, 'We decided not to do D.H. Lawrence after all.'

As I was such a conscientious student, I choose to interpret this a different way. I've changed the reading from 'A book you were supposed to have read at school' to 'A book you should have read at school.' I'm choosing a book which, in my opinion, should be on school curriculum, but isn't (as far as I know). The sensible health advice within these pages should be presented to people from a young age to make up their own minds about, and I'm sure students would enjoy it too.

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Our modern culture revolves around fitting as much as possible into the least amount of time. As a result, most people propel themselves through life at a dizzying pace that is contrary to a healthy lifestyle. We eat fast, on the run, and often under stress, not only removing most of the pleasure we might derive from our food and creating digestive upset but also wreaking havoc on our metabolism. Many of us come to the end of a day feeling undernourished, uninspired, and overweight.

In this 10th anniversary edition, Marc David presents a new way to understand our relationship to food, focusing on quality and the pleasure of eating to transform and improve metabolism. Citing cutting-edge research on body biochemistry as well as success stories from his own nutritional counseling practice, he shows that we are creatures of body, mind, and spirit and that when we attend to these levels simultaneously we can shed excess pounds, increase energy, and enhance digestion to feel rejuvenated and inspired.

This is one of the most unusual books about managing our eating habits I've come across. The author doesn't separate body and soul but shows how they are two sides of the same coin. And he does it in a beautifully written and lyrical way. Far from being another dry health book, this often reads like a poem. Many diet books try to convince us to make the effort of  rationing carbs and proteins, etc. I'm tired of having to wrap my mind around something like a mini science/nutrition course to get healthier!Thankfully, Marc David doesn't do that. He separates his dietary advice into eight interesting aspects, one for each week of his two month course, which I'll do my best to summarise below.

1) Relaxation.
This is the importance of eating slowly, with your full attention, while you're relaxed and happy.

2) Quality.
Instead of stressing about which of the myriad diets we should try, simply elevating the quality of our food may be the way to go. David explains how the food we ingest actually speaks to the cells of our bodies. I like his advice that instead of going flat out fanatical about it, we should aim for an 80% quality food target each day. It's counter-productive when the stress of searching for the best quality food neutralises its good effects.

3) Awareness.
We should focus on the pleasure we take from the flavours and aromas of our food and drinks, rather than wolfing it down on auto-pilot. He convincingly argues something I've often heard dieters say as a joke. Would you believe our thoughts actually can be fattening? It seems that using self-denial while fantasising about forbidden foods may not be all its cracked up to be. We might as well eat the treats with mindful gratitude.

4) Rhythm
In this section, he looks at the human body temperature at different phases of the sun, when it comes to timing our meals. In particular, he explains why eating smallish portions during the day, followed by a large main meal at night when we're hungry, can create problems.

5) Pleasure.
Science has shown that when the pleasure factor is taken away, the nutritional value of a meal plummets. So this is a good chapter for those of us who deny our taste buds by eating spartan, non-tasty food.

6) Thoughts.
Each eater metabolises an identical meal quite differently from others at the table, according to our unique thoughts. It's handy to know that digestion is limited by toxic thoughts of any kind. We should stop labeling different foods 'good' or 'bad' for a start. David talks about our 'inner pharmacies' secreting chemicals to our bodies based on positive and negative thoughts. Even junk food eaten with a happy mind set may give us more benefit than superfoods with a negative mind set.

7) Story.
The stories we tell ourselves are like powerful drugs that ignite our metabolism and create our biochemistry, so we should tell ourselves good ones. He makes some fascinating quotes, such as, 'Our DNA is the biochemical equivalent of a story.'

8) The Sacred.
In this chapter, he sets out to show that what people sometimes call miraculous phenomenon may actually be latent biological traits which are activated when we're touched by the divine. The eight sacred metabolisers he mentions sound similar to the fruits of the spirit mentioned in the Bible. As we create our body chemistry instantly, we might as well be sure it's what we want. Just as God said, 'Let there be light,' we often don't stop to consider that we may be saying, 'Let there be anger,' or 'Let there be fear,' or 'Let there be discord.' According to Marc David, even partial negativity may undernourish the soul and rob the body of nutrition.

He winds up with an eloquent plea for us to allow the language of the soul and sacred things back into science and medicine. Although I haven't put this book to the test yet as a weight loss program, it rings true and convinces me not to focus on superficial aspects such as calories and personal appearance anyway. I'm sure I'll use it as a reference often. I hope you'll take my brief sentences or paragraphs above as an invitation to read something far more profound and original. And if I do lose a bit of weight by embracing all this, I'll be recommending it all the more.

Thanks to the publisher, Inner Traditions, for providing me with a review copy.

5 stars.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

'The Lost Heiress' by Roseanna M White


Brook Eden has never known where she truly belongs. Though raised in the palace of Monaco, she’s British by birth and was brought to the Grimaldis under suspicious circumstances as a babe. When Brook’s friend Justin uncovers the fact that Brook is likely a missing heiress from Yorkshire, Brook leaves the sun of the Mediterranean to travel to the moors of the North Sea to the estate of her supposed family.
The mystery of her mother’s death haunts her, and though her father is quick to accept her, the rest of the family and the servants of Whitby Park are not. Only when Brook’s life is threatened do they draw close—but their loyalty may come too late to save Brook from the same threat that led to tragedy for her mother.
As heir to a dukedom, Justin is no stranger to balancing responsibilities. When the matters of his estate force him far from Brook, the distance between them reveals that what began as friendship has grown into something much more. But how can their very different loyalties and responsibilities ever come together?
And then, for a second time, the heiress of Whitby Park is stolen away because of the very rare treasure in her possession—and this time only the servants of Whitby can save her.

This is a charming story set in the early 1900s. The heroine discovers two things; her lost identity and her changing feelings toward the young man she's regarded more as a brother since they were both children. It has a cast of well-rounded supporting characters from both their families, including a villain who's a bit like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Brook is an easy heroine to like. Novels with that setting and period are already full of English heroines, so her foreign characteristics make an interesting change. Having been brought up in Monaco, she comes across as very continental. (I was trying to pronounce 'Justin' the way Brook did, but although the French accent was described in detail, I just couldn't get it.) We get the benefits of her comparisons between coastal France and the Yorkshire moors, where she ends up with her long lost family. She's really sweet, but also shrewd enough to read people well and make things happen without throwing her weight around.

I like the 'Upstairs Downstairs' aspect of the story, and the fact that some servants and staff are main characters too, especially Deirdre, Brook's Irish maid. Both girls become involved in some old danger which was responsible for the death of Brook's mother, but of which she knew nothing.

My curiosity about the early twentieth century was piqued. How does Justin get his Rolls Royce across the channel? He was driving it in Monaco and then shows up with it in Yorkshire. What were ferry systems like back then? And why did so many otherwise kindhearted people participate freely in barbaric events such as the fox hunt, a tradition which is thankfully outlawed now.

I'm sure the cast of supporting characters will become main characters of several sequels.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Poppies and Story Heroes

Andrew's uncle grows poppies, and we acquired this beautiful bunch last weekend from a local concert for a gold coin donation. I was thinking how they would brighten up the house with a splash of early spring, but the scent soon got to me in the car, and had me sniffing. I put them on a vase near my computer desk, but as I worked on some writing, it proved to be too much. What some people might call their perfume reminds me more of the potent breath of an old wino. It made my head ache and my sinuses itch. I had to move them out to our front room, where nobody was sitting. It reminds me of an occasion long ago, when Andrew bought me a bunch of flowers, and I ended up having to fling them out the back door just to get relief from the hay fever symptoms they caused.

Now, whenever I enter the front room, the odor from that one bunch of poppies overwhelms me. It brings to mind the poppy field from 'The Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum. When I was little, I thought that was just a fictional scenario, but now I can quite understand why they made any creature who ventured through them collapse from breathing in the concentrated odor. Remember how Dorothy, Toto and the Cowardly Lion crumpled down in the poppies in a stupor from their opiate influence? I would have been right there with them in a meadow of that magnitude.

That might have been the end for those three, except that their travel companions, the Scarecrow and Tin Man were immune to the poppies' effect, not being mammals. They managed to pull their more vulnerable friends away from the evil influence of the powerful flowers until they revived.

I mentioned this to Andrew, who said, 'I like that quality in a story, when different characters all have their chance to be heroes. Everyone gets an opportunity to use their strengths at a time when nobody else can.'

I agree that this aspect is an excellent feature of a story. I thought of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' and the way the three young first years, Harry, Ron and Hermione (later nicknamed the Golden Trio) saved the day when they managed to get through the maze of impossibly difficult tests set up by different teachers. Of course, they would never have been able to manage separately, but together, they were unbeatable.

Do you remember how Hermione saved the boys who were getting entangled by the Devil's Snare vines, and later, she was the only one who could solve Snape's tricky logic puzzle to dodge the poisonous potions? And Harry, of course, was the one with the speed and sharp eye to zoom around on the broomstick to catch the correct flying key. Even then his quidditch skills were phenomenal. Ron's big moment came when they had to figure out how to get through the life sized chess game. The way he played it out was awesome, especially when he knew he'd have to sacrifice himself  with a colossal belt on the head from an opposing chess piece, because that would be the only way. It was team work at its very best, and a great introduction to the rest of the series.

Maybe it's similar in real life too. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something well enough to hone it until it is our strength. Then it may benefit others, while their input benefits us. Some may grow potent poppies and other agricultural products. Others may have the strength and skill to protect their loved ones physically, if necessary, while others have the voices of angels to wow us with song (definitely not me). Whenever we need something broken fixed, we probably all know the people from our friends and family who are best to ask. If something delicious needed to be cooked, I might call on my daughter, Emma, before tackling it on my own. She's acquired quite a bit of knowledge about different cooking techniques. For directions to places and possible chaffeuring, it would definitely be Andrew. If I wanted some computer help, I might ask my tech-savvy son, Logan. And for tricky cleaning advice, I'd ask my mother-in-law. These are all some of my everyday heroes.

As for me, I like to think I might be the person to turn to if you'd like a thoughtful book recommendation. I've been passionate enough about a good story to keep me both reading and writing them for years.

How about you? Who are your everyday heroes, and which trait would you consider your own strength?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

'I Always Cry at Weddings' by Sara Goff


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 37 - A Popular Author's First Book. 
Even though this is her debut novel, I've chosen this category because Sara Goff has been a popular author with me and many for a long time. I enjoy her warm-hearted blog posts and hard work with the Beyond the Borders crowd of the American Fiction Writers. It's great to get to read this novel.


Ava Larson is going to bring all the other brides to tears.

Engaged to a wealthy NYC socialite's son, Ava is ready to set the city abuzz with her glamorous wedding. At least until she realizes her relationship isn't what it should be. Then, in a move as daring as a red satin dress, she does the unthinkable - she calls it all off and makes a promise to God that from now on, she'll save sex for marriage.

She's convinced the future is hers for the taking, especially when an undercover cop promises a new romance...and an unexpected friendship with the homeless guy under her stoop brightens her days.

But when her carefully balanced life teeters out of control, weddings aren't the only thing to make her cry. Ava has to figure out what life she really wants to live... and what is the world love really means.


Ava is trying to please herself by pleasing others in New York City, but everything seems to fall apart. Her mother is dying, her job as buyer for a handbag company leaves her cold, and with just a few weeks until her marriage, it dawns on her that she and her cynical fiance, Josh, are a bad fit for a life together. Their attitudes about showing love are poles apart. But making the right move in the nick of time leaves her saddled with a $70 000 debt for a massive wedding which never was. There is also tons of disapproval to face, and she may soon be evicted from her apartment. Could things get any worse?

Many people are giving her conflicting advice, all of which sounds wise, making it confusing to figure out what to take on board.
Her father says, 'The very nature of routine is that it works.'
Bucksley, her boss, says, 'Your career deserves more attention than you've been giving it. It defines you and determines your lifestyle.'
Phoebe, Josh's mother, says, 'I'll never forgive you for the hurt you've caused. How can you treat people this way?'
Her own mother says, 'Go and find somebody more like yourself.'
Chris, the young homeless guy who lives outside her apartment building, takes his dog, Chickpea's philosophy on board. 'Any day with food in your bowl is a good one.'
No wonder Ava herself delivers a desperate line of her own. 'Pros and cons are shape shifters!' What is she to do?

One of the novel's themes is the concept of 'The One.' Is it reasonable to hope for a soul mate, or can you make a fair enough match with anyone? Ava discovers that whether or not her true love really is out there, there are plenty of duds who don't fit the bill and need to be thrown back in the sea. (It's satisfying to see her figure this out and tell them so.) I found the ending highly romantic, and I'm sure many readers will cheer, as I did, and wonder why the truth took so long to dawn on her. What a fascinating Mr Right.

Sometimes Ava comes across as an innocent lamb in a fold of wolves and scavengers, but she never passes through regrettable incidents without gleaning plenty of wisdom. That's one of the best takeaways from this book, that mistakes are valuable, because without them behind us to draw from, we may never be in the position to recognise a perfect fit when it stares us in the face, whether it comes to marriage partners, work or lifestyle.

I'd recommend this to any lady who feels that things may never look up, or thinks too much time may have passed to pursue her dream, or would just enjoy a good story set in what I imagine to be the rom-com central of the world, New York City, even though I've never been there. That might cover pretty well any lady.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

5 stars.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Transformation stories - friends or foes?

For years, I'd devour self help books, trying to discover whatever I lacked, so I could fix it. I was the sort of person who believed I never measured up to whatever high standards made a person acceptable. It shook me up when I came across a list experts had compiled of the best self help books ever written. I'd read many of them already, and sincerely tried to take their advice on board, yet there I was still searching for more. At that point, I decided that my sense of self esteem had to come from within. I had to decide that I was already worthy, rather than wait for all these authors to convince me to jump through hoops before I would believe it.

Since then, I've come across many people who avoid self help book altogether. 'If you don't think there's something drastically wrong with you before reading these books, you surely will by the time you finish,' is their philosophy. 'It's the mission of self help books to make people believe they're deeply flawed and need fixing. If you don't want to buy into their premise that you must always be working on self-improvement projects, just stop reading all that stuff and be kind to yourself. Stick to fiction stories instead.'

If their point is valid, then I have to wonder whether sticking to fiction stories is the solution. For they may help convince readers that we're flawed in a far more emotive and subtle way than self help books ever can.

In his book, 'Waking the Dead', John Eldredge makes the following observation.

'The phoenix rises from the ashes. Cinderella rises from the cinders to become a queen. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. Pinnochio becomes a real boy. The frog becomes a prince. Wretched old Scrooge becomes "as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old city knew."'

Wow, stories of transformation really are prolific! If we live and breathe this sort of literature, if we were brought up on it, has it really been good for us? Doesn't it convince us, in a very palatable and surreptitious way, that we need to become something completely different in order to be acceptable? That we're not good enough as we are? Are transformation stories the feel-good treats we consider them to be, or unhealthy food-for-thought which damages our self concepts and make us discontent with where we are? I hate to think that we put ourselves on a treadmill of frustration whenever we open up any book, whether personal development or engrossing fiction. Isn't that enough to make you wonder whether non-readers are onto something?

Eldredge thinks transformation stories have always comprised part of the fabric of literature because they mirror the essential Christian gospel message. The sin-steeped, darkness of the human heart is such that we need to be completely transformed. That's what being 'born again' is all about, and humanity has always known it deep inside.

I agree with him, but after lots of reflection, would take it a step further. Rather than advocating complete change to become someone totally different, transformation stories aim to ignite the innate value that lies in our hearts all along. Although our human natures may indeed be too dark to change without celestial help, God doesn't desert us. He knows the value of what He created. He probes to stir up goodness which has been lying there latent, so deep we've missed it. And he uses stories, particularly transformation stories, to help do it.

The term 'character development' is often applied to a good novel. When you think about it, it's simply part of the transformation process. When the circumstances of the plot bring out the best in characters, it's like excavating what was already there. It isn't making something brand new from dross, like alchemy. It's highlighting what was within the heroes already. If stories can do this with characters, then readers' hearts are often pulled along for the ride.

There are Bible precedents. Gideon was greeted by God's angel as a great and mighty warrior, while the young man himself was busy threshing his grain in a wine press, to hide from the terrifying Midianites. Peter was given the appellation 'the Rock' even before he lost all his courage on the night of Jesus' crucifixion and denied that he knew him three times. God sees attributes in us which we don't even recognise ourselves yet.

This is biblical history, but our fiction stories follow suit. Snow White was a princess at heart, which was evident in the gracious way she behaved in her humble forest home with the dwarfs. The Scarecrow and Tin Man really did have a brain and heart respectively, for they were using them all along the Yellow Brick Road. And when Harry Potter first met Hagrid, the lovable half-giant told him, 'You are a wizard, Harry.' Not, 'You will be.' Only then did Harry understand some of the weird phenomena which had happened occasionally in his life.

I'd never stop reading wonderful stories, and transformation tales are some of the best around, but maybe that's only if we read them with the ideal mindset. If we aim not to think, 'What do I need to change?' but rather, 'What attributes of mine should I celebrate and highlight?' then they really are like friends, and not foes.

Monday, September 7, 2015

'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 36 - A Book that Scares you.

I didn't know what to choose for this category, as I didn't want to delve into horror or tragedy. It's not worth getting myself totally miserable just for the sake of this challenge. When I saw this book's spine on my library shelves, I knew it would fit the bill. Since it was first published, I've heard people call it deplorable, horrible and dark with no redeeming feature. That's what scared me off reading it in 2012. I even included it on my list of books I was hesitant to read. Having finished it now, I'm glad I read it, although I can see both sides of loving and hating it. 


When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?


Middle-aged Barry Fairbrother, school teacher, town councillor and pillar of his small community, dies suddenly from a burst aneurysm. Everyone presents a sorrowful face, although secret, heartfelt reactions range from devastation to relief and pleasure. He has left a gaping hole in council to fill (the casual vacancy) and some townsfolk are anxious to put their own names forward. The story is all about the chain of events which is set off when they do. 

There are not really any main characters to single out, but rather several. We are introduced to them thick and fast in the first fifty pages or so, and I started writing a list to keep track of them. Before too long, I didn't need the list anymore, as each of these Pagford identities had become very familiar to me.

One thing I found hard to get used to is the omniscient, third person narration, which hops from head to head, and place to place within the one scene (if you can really call it a 'scene' since it hops from place to place). I don't come across much modern writing done like that anymore. 

Swearing and coarse language is applied with a shovel. It raises the question is all this necessary? JKR has always evoked character and emotion very well in the HP books without resorting to foul language. A prime example is Uncle Vernon Dursley's fury expressed toward Harry on numerous occasions. I'm sure she could have done the same with the small town folk of Pagford, even though others may argue that it would compromise the integrity of the novel. The character Sukhvindah Jawanda reflects that her fellow school student, Krystal Weedon uses the f-bomb interchangeably with 'very' and seemed to see no difference between them. Should a novel which aims to present the stark reality of characters such as the Weedons hold back in any way without selling the characters short? Perhaps any reader who dares face up to the harsh, in-your-face themes of the book needs to accept the language as part of the whole.

As for the themes themselves, anyone wanting to write an essay would have plenty to choose from. Some reviewers have commented that it needn't be such a thick book, considering that it's just about sad, sordid people living their normal lives. But beneath the surface, there's domestic violence, rape, cyber-bullying, infidelity, OCD, slashing/cutting, complications from adoption, drug addiction, gluttony, and overall, the secret nastiness and hypocrisy in many human hearts. Teenage characters are shown up as secretive, deep and cynical people who have grown old enough to see through good-looking masks and pretensions which adults put up, so watch out anyone with teenagers in your life! However, even though the teens are judgmental, they're certainly not portrayed as any nicer than the adults.

The novel dwells on the darkness in human hearts. The people who appear the most squeaky clean may be concealing the most unsavoury thoughts and motivations. I was sad at first that out of so many characters, nobody stood out as good and admirable. Everyone was small, petty, cruel and mean in their own way, which I thought a waste, since JKR can clearly invent magnificent heroes. But then I started liking a couple of them. Maybe that's what books like this are all about. In order to like others, including ourselves, we could train ourselves out of expecting perfection.

So overall, no, it didn't have the same magic as Harry Potter. (I couldn't resist throwing that one in.) It wasn't my favourite book of the year. It leaves a bit of a nasty aftertaste. I doubt I'll ever want to think about it or return to it again. However, I was hooked enough to read it fairly quickly, and I definitely don't think it deserves a ranking of one star. I can't help wondering if several of those were from disappointed readers who expected a story that would wow them the same way as Harry and his friends. If the author had been anyone different, they might have ranked it higher too. I wonder if she was sorry not to have chosen a pseudonym for this. It might have gone over better all round from the pen of Robert Galbraith.

3.5 stars     

Friday, September 4, 2015

'A Noble Masquerade' by Kristi Ann Hunter


Lady Miranda Hawthorne acts every inch the lady, but inside she longs to be bold and carefree. Entering her fourth Season and approaching spinsterhood in the eyes of society, she pours her innermost feelings out not in a diary but in letters to her brother's old school friend, a duke--with no intention of ever sending these private thoughts to a man she's heard stories about but never met. Meanwhile, she also finds herself intrigued by Marlow, her brother's new valet, and although she may wish to break free of the strictures that bind her, falling in love with a servant is more of a rebellion than she planned.

When Marlow accidentally discovers and mails one of the letters to her unwitting confidant, Miranda is beyond mortified. And even more shocked when the duke returns her note with one of his own that initiates a courtship-by-mail. Insecurity about her lack of suitors shifts into confusion at her growing feelings for two men--one she's never met but whose words deeply resonate with her heart, and one she has come to depend on but whose behavior is more and more suspicious. When it becomes apparent state secrets are at risk and Marlow is right in the thick of the conflict, one thing is certain: Miranda's heart is far from all that's at risk for the Hawthornes and those they love.


Sometimes, all I feel like is a light-hearted, amusing romance with a bit of action and some heartfelt moments. That is exactly what I got. For some reason, the Regency Era is the ideal time period to fit the bill. Maybe it's because it was such an age of extremes. While war raged with France right across the channel, an elegant facade was always kept in place on the home front.

I can relate to the heroine, Lady Miranda Hawthorne, as my well-meaning mother used to tutor me on socially acceptable behaviour until I didn't know if I was coming or going. In Lady Miranda's case, it was all to do with 'being a lady.' At least we no longer live in a time period when the expression, 'Be yourself,' was light years away. Miranda provides many moments of comedy, as she's free-spirited and spontaneous but has to rein it in. Even though she's memorised all the right moves, we always know her true self isn't far beneath the surface.

There is lots she has to keep secret, including the fact that she's been writing to her brother's school friend, the Duke of Marshington, since she was eight years old. They are more like journal entries, as she never actually posts them to the boy, even though she's heard rumours that he might be a kindred spirit. The idea of him is enough to help her pour out her heart. When her brother's handsome new valet catches her eye, Miranda mentions those feelings in her letters too. That's about the time when one of her letters accidentally makes it way to the Duke of Marshington for real!

We might imagine that women of her era and station (who couldn't even prepare a cup of tea) lived wonderful lives, but working hard at being ladies of leisure was a 24 hour job I would have found hard to take on. A lady can't even show the world such an unnatural weakness as sneezing if she is to be taken seriously. You can't help wishing a happy ending for her, and I found the hero very swoon-worthy and a perfect match for her. He's had a sad childhood, but is still resourceful and heroic. His sense of humour probably helped a lot.

I hope the future novels in this series focus on members of her family, and especially her two entertaining brothers. I'm sure their stories would be great.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

4.5 stars.