Reading challenge part 5 (21-25).

That Sugar Book

Damon Gameau

Category: A book about food

Once upon a time I went through a phase where I cut out refined sugar. Not gonna lie, I still ate sugar… I had coconut sugar and maple syrup and honey. But I avoided pretty much everything else. I lost weight without trying, I felt healthier. But it was a giant pain in the butt because sugar is everywhere and everyone wants to feed you sugary foods and it got too hard. And TBH I felt *too* skinny so I figured I’d just eat it in moderation. Hahahaha. No. Anyway, today I was in the library searching for a book about food and I saw this. I’ve been stuffing my gob with sugar mindlessly for far too long and, well, I know it is taking a toll on my health. Also the book seemed like it would be a quick easy read.

It was. Lots of pics, probably a little *too* simplistic for me but I appreciate why he went with that approach. I tried not to be turned off by the quotes by a certain “wellness” person whose views I find particularly repulsive. The science is there and I’ve also experienced the effects of a low-sugar diet, so I was mainly interested in the measurable health impacts of his experiment. And it’s good to get a reminder kick up the bum when the habits are entrenched. I reckon a lot of people I know would be turned off by some of the fluffy wellness stuff and some thinly veiled digs at pharmaceutical companies etc BUT if you can see past the incidental asides then there is some good stuff in the book. 3.5 stars.

Crossroads of Canopy

Thoraiya Dyer

Category: A book set in the wilderness

Disclaimer: I know the author through twitter and through the same writerly social circles ;). I started reading Crossroads while camping and my eldest forgot to bring a book, so she stole it and read it before me. Hrmph. There is a lot I loved about this book: the setting is gorgeous and a super cool concept; the deeply flawed characters; the confusing mess of injustice and wrongness and ulterior motives which had me second-guessing my predictions right up to the end. The writing is great and it’s not your typical fantasy. Unar is a difficult character BUT I obviously have a soft spot for these kinds of characters because I thought she was great. And Frog! Wowsers. 4.5 stars.

Winter

John Marsden

Category: A book with one of the seasons in the title

This book is categorised as YA but I reckon it’s ok for upper primary. John Marsden is a solid writer and storyteller but even though I read Winter in one sitting, I felt it was lacking in depth. Suspension of disbelief was just too hard in some areas, and I wanted to see more character and plot development. I enjoyed it, it was an easy read and as per usual I had no issues with the main character (I’m starting to think that there is a theme going on here with reviewers hating on flawed female characters… hmmm). 3.5 stars.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Karen Joy Fowler

Category: A book about a difficult topic

I got this book at our bookclub swap night. Initially I wasn’t sold on it but at some point when Michael was talking about it I decided to give it a try. And I’m really glad I did. It is difficult to describe, and I refuse to be spoilery. Rose (Rosemary) starts her story in the middle, and we get a gradual unfolding of incidents surrounding the disappearance of her sister when she was 5 and the impact on her family in the years that have passed. The characters are all extremely well developed, the reveals are foreshadowed but maybe not quite what you expect. The writing is superb… and that’s about all I want to say. Just read it. 5 stars.

Lotus Blue

Cat Sparks

Category: A novel published in 2017

Disclaimer: I know the author and she’s fab. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Lotus Blue, mainly because of the changing POVs and shortish chapters. There was so much going on I felt a bit disoriented. Once I got more of a handle on the story I picked up pace and roared on toward the end. I loved the world-building and appreciated the little bits of post-apocalyptic Australia. Thankfully I liked Star (even though it seems yet again that some reviewers didn’t) and some of the other characters I didn’t think were necessary as POV characters to start off with ended up winning me over. Am looking forward to the next one! 4 stars.

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Reading challenge part 4 (16-20).

(Wow…. this lot of 5 took a LONG time. Been crazy busy, with work and fieldwork and uni deadlines and moving).

Dogsbody

Diana Wynne Jones

Category: A book you loved as a child

I can’t quite remember how old I was when I first read Dogsbody. I just know it stuck with me and even though for a time I couldn’t remember the title I could always remember the story of the Dogstar, Sirius, accused of a crime and sentenced to become a dog on Earth. I was at the Lifeline Bookfest a couple of years ago and picked up Dogsbody and instantly recognised it. I bought it for my school library, but didn’t re-read it until this challenge. Re-reading books you loved as a child can be risky… not all books stand up to the test of time. Adult brains work differently to child brains, and sometimes things you loved as a child are better left to memory.

However, Diana Wynne Jones is something of a legend. A fabulous storyteller, with a way of writing compelling narratives for any age. I finished the book and felt that familiar ache from my childhood, so I reckon it withstood the test! 4.5 stars.

Code Name Verity

Elizabeth Wein

Category: An espionage/spy novel

I wasn’t very excited about this category. It was set as the challenge category for the next meet up (it was this or a book set around a holiday other than Christmas). I don’t, as a rule, love spy novels. I think of James Bond and my feminist brain groans. So I sought out a YA spy novel with a female protagonist. And Code Name Verity looked like the best choice. Well… it’s kind of epistolary, as the spy has already been captured and is, in essence, writing her confession, and also a book with an unreliable narrator, because can you trust what she says? We know she’s been tortured and maybe there is more going on than what is filtered through her words. I don’t want to be spoilery so I won’t write much more, other than to say I loved it. It made me very teary and after I finished I was in a bit of a fugue state for around an hour or so, just processing. It wasn’t perfect, for reasons I can’t go into as it strays into spoiler territory, but it was emotional and compelling and personable. 4.5 stars.

Swarm

Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti

Category: A book with multiple authors

This one seems to divide people as much as Liar does! I thought Swarm was stronger than Zeroes, maybe because I was already invested in the characters, maybe because the stakes were raised so much higher? It’s a pretty grim YA, and I loved the character development in Scam and Anonymous especially, but I did love the way Mob’s character changed along the way. The ending… sheesh. Cliffhanger much? I can’t wait to get my hands on the third book, though, so I guess you got me :P. 4.5 stars

Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain

Maryanne Wolf

Category: A book recommended by a librarian

This has taken me a long time to read, but not because it’s bad, it’s actually fascinating! I just keep needing to retreat to fiction because life and my brain ;). The subtitle really encapsulates what the book’s about. Wolf is a scientist and it really shows, the book is tremendously well researched and written. Much more rigorous than a lot of pop science books published these days. The book is divided into three sections: “How the brain learned to read”, “How the brain learns to read over time”, and “When the brain can’t learn to read”. My understanding of reading acquisition has expanded enormously. I used to think reading was something quite naturally acquired… but the amount of effort the brain goes to to create pathways that didn’t exist before is quite phenomenal. It was also a fascinating read as it’s yet more evidence of the quirkiness of my son’s brain. Far from being a natural at speech (Wolf states that humans are hardwired for speech and visual processing but not reading), he seems to use his visual processing (and reading) abilities to learn to speak. The reading (no he’s not reading much but he *is* reading) he does reinforces his language acquisition. I also now have a far better understanding of reading diabilities including dyslexia. While it’s a bit old (2008) it’s well worth a read as the science is sound and I’ve seen recent articles that support statements she makes in this book. 5 stars.

Breaking the Jump: The Secret Story of Parkour’s High-Flying Rebellion

Julie Angel

Category: A book with a subtitle

My interest in this book was piqued by 1) a personal interest in the subject matter 2) being introduced to the author’s photographic and film work and 3) a review. I requested the BCC library purchase a copy of the book and so when I was notified to say it was in it jumped (haha) to the top of my reading pile. I was pretty fascinated by the origins and originators of modern parkour, especially having been to a few classes and heard the safety spiels! Suffice to say the first lot of traceurs trained in ways that are really not recommended these days… I understand there are some diehard parkour fans who hated the book due to the negative light David Belle is portrayed in. I don’t have much to comment on there as I’m pretty new and not obsessive about the history. I don’t tend to elevate people to guru status and I’m super wary of celebrity as it’s clear that humans are involved and humans make things messy. I find the story of the schism sad and I’m really glad parkour has evolved into a community of effort rather than competition. I would have liked a little more discussion of parkour and women, as Katty is mentioned very very briefly but her story as a traceur is sidelined. I am really keen to track down some of those films too! Enjoyed, 4 stars.

Reading challenge part 3 (11-15).

Zeroes

Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Deborah Biancotti

Category: The first book in a series you haven’t read before

Such a fun read! I really enjoyed Zeroes, I found the narrative compelling, the characters well-realised, the take on superpowers to be incredibly interesting and the writing tight. 4.5 stars.

Binti

Nnedi Okorafor

Category: A book with a title that’s a character’s name

This is a novella, and it’s particularly teeny at 90 pages (I couldn’t find a word count for it online but I’m very curious–I just reformatted my 22000 word novella and it came in at 137 pages). I have mixed feelings about it and a scan of Goodreads tells me I’m not alone. I’ll start off by saying the main character is likeable and there are a whole bunch of really cool and creative ideas expressed throughout the story. I wanted it to be more fleshed out… there was a major plot point that would have been traumatic for Binti and the other people on the planet she was heading to and yet that was glossed over. I felt quite distanced because of the speed of the plot, I would have loved a lot more detail and grounding in the world of the story. I’m going to give it to my 12yr old and ask her thoughts on it. 3.5 stars

I am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban

Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb

Category: A book about an interesting woman

Who hasn’t heard of Malala? I remember the international outcry when she was shot, catapulting the everyday struggles of Pakistani girls and women into the international spotlight. I didn’t know anything about Malala before that moment, and I couldn’t understand why the Taliban would shoot a schoolgirl. This book provided the perfect opportunity to educate myself.

I struggled through the sections on Pakistani history, even though I found it interesting (I was woefully ignorant I admit!) I most enjoyed the sections relating to Malala’s life. I now feel I have a lot more understanding and insight into the context in which she was shot, and to be perfectly honest I am horrified. To illustrate: “We were warned not to be out late on Broad Street on weekend nights as it could be dangerous. This made us laugh. How could it be unsafe compared to where we had come from? Were there Taliban beheading people?” (p. 253)

If only to get some perspective into the lives of ordinary Pakistani people, you should read this book. 4 stars.

Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Christopher McDougall

Category: An audiobook

I figured the audiobook section of this challenge was going to be the most difficult for me. I love to read, but I’m not a big fan of listening to storytelling. I lose track of the narrative, my mind wanders, and you can’t re-read something you’ve missed. It’s also much slower for a speed-reader like myself. So I went looking for something non-fiction in an area I have an interest in, in the hopes it would hold my attention.

I stumbled across this one while browsing the BCC’s Borrowbox library (I can recommend this app for audiobook listeners too, but it didn’t have a lot of the books I was interested in – other than that it is easy to use). The blurb of this (and, I admit, the cover) made me think this book might be about parkour. I’m going to post the Goodreads blurb here:

While researching Born to Run, Chris McDougall encountered the story of Pheidippides, the legendary ancient Greek “all-day runner.” Later, when McDougall met a dedicated amateur historian, he saw a connection to one of the most fascinating mysteries of World War II: How did a small band of Resistance fighters surrounded by German troops kidnap a top German general? What he discovered is that ancestral techniques for extraordinary endurance, natural movement, and nutrition allowed ancient Greek soldiers and Cretan shepherds to race across mountains on all-night missions. Inspired by their heroic acts, McDougall sets off to discover the lost art of the hero, both throughout history and across the world. Just as Born to Run inspired casual runners to get off the treadmill, out of their shoes, and into nature, Natural-Born Heroes will inspire casual athletes to leave the gym and take their fitness to nature doing cross-training, mud runs, parkour and free-running to bound–and climb, swim, skip, wade, and jump–their way to heroic feats.

I mean, it even mentions parkour! So basically, yes it had stuff about parkour in it (though the author did seem to conflate parkour with freerunning although they are not the same thing). It also has a historical war mystery, stuff about acts of heroism (mostly by ordinary people), nutrition, Greek mythology, etc etc. I thought it might be a bit sexist but the author obviously wanted to ensure it was an inclusive message, and I appreciated that he tried. I thought the biographical stuff about the British dirty tricks fighters was pretty boring, and my attention wandered a lot when hearing about them. The book did ramble quite a bit, and maybe if I’d read it rather than listening to the audiobook it wouldn’t have been so noticeable, but the way it jumped around messed with my processing. There were definitely a lot of things I liked about the book, and some stuff that was maybe a little out there for me. I found some of his messages a little contradictory and prescriptive and lacking in science, but overall I definitely got some cool things from the book. Am I going to read more audiobooks? Not likely. 14 hours is way too long! >_< 3 stars.

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes

Category: A book involving travel

Ok so the thing is, The Shining Girls is about time travel… in terms of geography, Harper doesn’t go very far. But he doesn’t need to because the girls are in different time periods, not different places! I am a fan of Beukes, she can really tell a story… I loved Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls had come highly recommended so when I saw it at the library I decided I needed some escapism.

Hahahaha.

Well, sure, I read the book quicksmart! But holy shit… it has one of the most intense scenes I’ve experienced and I had to put the book down and regather myself, even though I knew it was coming. NOT for the faint-hearted. There were elements I didn’t enjoy (Dan reminded me a bit too much of Jonno from Broken Monsters, though a much more likable character) but I am always impressed by Beukes’s writing and her world-building and attention to detail without slaving over it. It all seems effortless even though it obviously isn’t. Anyway, enough rambling, time-travel-murder-mystery-thing 4.5 stars.

Rules by Cynthia Lord – a review

I had read a review of Rules that made me pretty hesitant to buy it, but since our school library has very few books featuring disabled or differently-abled characters when I saw it I decided to grab it, and read it myself before putting it into the collection. I asked my 12yr old to read it first, and warned her a review had said the treatment of the autistic child wasn’t good. (My youngest child is autistic, by the way, early verbal, with most of his speech scripted or echolalia).

My eldest really liked the book. She said she couldn’t see what the problem was, so I read it today while confined to bed. And I’m a little puzzled by the scathing review I read.

The argument is the main character’s brother is dehumanised. I don’t agree with this assessment at all. The book is squarely from the sister’s perspective, and as a 12yr old whose parents don’t really seem concerned about her needs because they’re overwhelmed by her brother’s needs, it’s clear she’s coping the best she can with a difficult situation, without really being adequate support by her parents. She confronts her dad toward the end over his priorities. Her “rules” seem to me to be an attempt to explain the unconscious rules of social behaviour that NT people seem to absorb, that are so difficult for autistic people to understand. Some of them are blatant rules, for sure, but the majority of them are designed to help David understand the ways other people behave, or as Catherine says, “…how the world works…” (p. 9).

The emphasis on the parents forbidding David’s scripting is overdone. Catherine mentions her parents don’t like David “borrowing” words but she happily goes along with it, and, without spoilers, she obviously understands it’s important to David and it’s important to her. There was one interaction between David and Catherine that made me a little teary, because I hope my daughters will have that kind of interaction with their brother when he’s older, if he continues with scripting (it was a GOOD interaction!). In one scene her mother says “He needs to speak his own words, and he won’t if you keep encouraging him to echo” (p. 111). Maybe it’s my own education and stubbornness that enables me to dismiss this kind of ignorance, but I don’t see this as a flaw in the book, I see it as a flaw in the parents and a flaw in the therapy approach. I know there are therapists who do discourage echolalia and scripting so I would imagine it could be upsetting thinking that this book also condones that kind of thinking. Ideas around speech therapy have changed though. It would be good to include a note at the end that it’s actually ok to use echolalia and scripting, and that attitudes have changed since 2006 (in fact I’m tempted to include such a note in this book when it’s ready for circulation).

Catherine is definitely guilty of micromanaging her brother and overreacting to little things. But I’ll admit sometimes I lose my filter too… I no longer have the capacity to filter out the things people won’t care about, and only focus on the things I really need to focus on. I fear that I end up being over-controlling of behaviour in strange places because I no longer know what’s appropriate behaviour for a 5yr old and I worry things might escalate. I think the story did a good job of illustrating that Catherine was overreacting, through the way other characters responded to her.

Probably the most upsetting thing Catherine thinks is that she wants to change her brother, so he is no longer autistic. She hides this as she knows she gets in trouble for saying that out loud. To be perfectly honest, I have no issue with this being explored in fiction. There would be NT siblings out there who are thinking and saying “I wish my brother/sister wasn’t autistic” and getting in trouble for it. I know how tiring it can be looking after an autistic child (and it’s not that anything he does is terrible), and I know how much my older kids are expected to just deal at times. It can be hard on siblings. And autism can be extra tricky to navigate as other people have unreasonable expectations because there is no visible marker of difference. I do wish Catherine had embraced David’s difference more by the end, but I do think the book ends on a hopeful note, that Catherine is beginning to learn to accept her brother and value what he brings to her life. I get that for people with a disability it would suck to have to read over and over again that people want to fix them, I really do get that. I have no perfect answer. I am a big believer in letting people have their feelings, especially when something does actually affect them, because learning to accept your crappy thoughts is the first step toward changing them. Denying thinking negative thoughts is counter-productive. However, as a counterbalance, we need more portrayals written by people with disabilities themselves.

I haven’t touched on the portrayal of Jason in this review as the criticisms I’ve read stem mostly from the portrayal of David. I totally agree that pushing people to communicate on our terms is disrespectful, and I thought the book itself criticised a particular kind of therapist in the speech therapist and Catherine and Jason’s assessment of her.

In short, people aren’t perfect, and non-autistic people are not perfect, either. I think Rules does a good job of showing how one NT sibling relates to her autistic brother in their family context. Yes, we definitely need more books written from the perspective of autistic people (preferably BY autistic people). I will be including Rules in the school collection and welcome suggestions of books (for primary school kids… 5-12yr olds) that feature autistic main characters too.

 

Reading challenge part 2 (6-10).

Monstress

Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

Category: A book with pictures

I wanted to read a graphic novel for this category, and Monstress has been on my radar for a while. I don’t tend to read graphic novels but I really enjoyed Saga so am keen to read more. I found Monstress hard to comprehend, as we’re thrown right in the deep end and the back story is parcelled out in jumps back in time. Some of the characters look very similar and are wearing similar clothes so it can be hard to tell them apart, leading to more confusion about what exactly is going on. That said, even though I found it difficult to read, I did enjoy it… it may be that my own inexperience with graphic novels worked against me. 3.5 stars.

Who’s Afraid?

Maria Lewis

Category: A book involving a mythical creature

Maria Lewis and I agree that there are not enough women’s stories through werewolfism. Since she wrote one, I resolved to read it! (Did I ever mention my defunct PhD where I had to watch a bunch of werewolf movies?) Anyway, Who’s Afraid? was a quick read, enjoyable enough although flawed. My biggest issue was that I wasn’t too keen on the portrayal of the Maori side of the main character’s (Tommi’s) family. 3 stars

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan

Category: A book by an author you admire

Shaun Tan is rather well known for his picture books with their dreamlike, “something’s weird about this” illustrations and narratives. Tales is a collection of short stories and vignettes that continue this tradition, except that doesn’t really explain how well the illustrations work with the text. One story is structured like a newspaper article, surrounded by other headlines such as “Truth over-rated, explains Minister” (timely!), another is an instruction manual for making your own pet, another is a homage to unread poems. I think “Alert but not Alarmed” was my favourite, speaking to the times we live in, but with I think a hopeful message. “Distant Rain” was also up there, but honestly each story or vignette is good and beautiful. I only wish there had been more! 5 stars.

Liar

Justine Larbalestier

Category: A book with an unreliable narrator

Yeah I loved this book. As I said on Goodreads, it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste. For a variety of reasons though, it really spoke to me. You need to go in with eyes wide open, knowing you’re going to get taken for a ride and at the end will not really know what happened to you. But that’s ok. The protagonist, Micah, has been described as unlikable, but I could relate to her, even though I’m a terrible liar. She’s weird and outsidery and she seems to have sensory issues. There were quite a few scenes in the book where I felt the old ache of being an oddball at school. Part Two made me love it even more. I find it fascinating how much some people hate on this book. It is what it is and don’t expect it to be a straightforward package with “here is the end and everything is tied neatly with a bow for you” because it’s not. 5 stars.

The Guest Cat

Takashi Hiraide

Category: A book with a cat on the cover

This is a strange little book. It’s definitely not the kind of thing I would normally read… it’s description-heavy and the narrative moves forward slowly. It’s meditative, I guess. It didn’t thrill me, but I liked it in a quiet way. 4 stars.

Reading challenge part 1 (1-5).

Short reviews of the first 5 books read for my 2017 reading challenge.

Vigil

Angela Slatter

Category: A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long

I kicked off the year with Vigil, as it’s been on my TBR pile since July last year (ok, I have books that have been on there longer but they’re mostly anthologies and collections and I wanted a novel). Disclaimer: I know Angela, and I love many of her stories, so I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer here. Vigil was a fun (it is dark though), quick read, with mythical creatures living alongside mundane humans in Brisbane (or Brisneyland). There were lots of little deft touches I appreciated. 4 stars

Ugly

Robert Hoge

Category: A book by or about a person with a disability

I read the younger readers edition of Ugly as it’s on my selection list for the school library this year. I wanted to be able to sell it to the kids (and the teachers). Another disclaimer: I also know Rob, and have been meaning to read this for a while. I think Ugly is a must-read, and am planning to read the adult’s version as well. 4.5 stars

Poison

Sarah Pinborough

Category: A book with a red spine

I picked up Poison because it has a red spine. The blurb promised a sexy retelling of Snow White. I read the first page and the writing seemed fine so I borrowed it. Read it in a couple of days. Poison isn’t amazing, it was an enjoyable read, though I had some issues with the storytelling. 3 stars.

Fingersmith

Sarah Waters

Category: A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read

I am so thankful for this reading challenge as I never would have read this book otherwise. I loved it, even though it was quite hefty I devoured it within several days (I even stayed up late to read it, which I rarely do now). It’s kind of a LGBT Dickensian con story, with love and intrigue. 5 stars

Everfair

Nisi Shawl

Category: A steampunk novel

I had some big issues with this novel, from a narrative perspective. It was structured like a bunch of short character vignettes to tell the story of the country Everfair (spanning 1889-1919), which meant that there wasn’t any real plot to follow. It took me over 100 pages to feel any kind of pull to continue reading, and I came very close to abandoning it purely because there were only a couple of characters I could really “see”, and I was having trouble keeping track of everyone else. I like character-driven stories; “idea” stories where the characters serve as chess pieces moving around the board don’t tend to drag me in so much, and I did think this book has too much of the chess board feel. Which was a pity, as I desperately wanted to love it (African steampunk!) and it’s a fabulous concept (I loved the prosthetic limbs). Lots of key action moments happened “off-screen”, POV characters died but were mentioned in passing as having died in a vignette set a couple of years later. There were quite a few “plot” devices that made no sense, and lots of character moments that made no sense. There are some very comprehensive Goodreads reviews that summarise my exact feelings about the novel. 2.5 stars

Popsugar Reading Challenge

So I signed up to participate in this reading challenge with a group of workmates (librarians!) I’ve let my reading slip since having children, and over the past few years have been mostly reading short stories because 1) I write short stories 2) they are quick to read 3) my attention span was pretty fragmented for a while there. I used to love reading big thick novels but these days my patience is gone for rambly, under-edited novels. And if the writing frustrates me or I’m bored I’ll happily give up on it. (That, by the way, is why my Goodreads ratings tend to be on the higher side, because I rarely rate books I don’t finish as I feel it’s unfair).

When I was invited to participate I saw this as a good way to read a bunch of novels this year, for once. You can see the categories here. I’m also setting myself an extra challenge to ensure I get a good mix of diversity in my authors and protagonists, and there’ll be some children’s books as well. At the end of the year I’ll do a break down to see how I go with that. I’ll do a post every 5 books to provide brief reviews. First one should be up soon.