Inga the Viking Girl- Jacqueline Grant Kent

Inga the Viking Girl by Jacqueline Grant Kent is about Inga Swensdotter, an eleven year old Viking girl, living with her family in Greenland. It is written with an intended audience of 8-12 year olds. It is split into two stories.

The first, Inga Goes A-Viking, tells of how young Inga has no time for the traditional tasks of the ‘women folk’ of her village, such as weaving, embroidery and cooking.  She is far more interested in the men’s activities of hunting, farming and A-Viking. After a particularly harsh winter, when it becomes clear that the merchant ships from Iceland aren’t likely to make an appearance, the village organises a party to go A-Viking to bring back the things they need. Inga contrives to defy  tradition and her parents to join the expedition.

Th second story, Inga Plans a Wedding, is about Inga’s sister Anna (14) who has had a marriage arranged to the worst boy in the village. Inga and her sister devised strategies and plans to prevent the marriage from taking place, and enabling Anne to marry the boy of her choosing.

These stories are reminiscent of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Especially the relationship between Inga and her father. I should imagine that this would be enjoyed by girls, in particular, in the target audience, and their parents who read it to them. I recommend this book to anyone with kids, and if you don’t borrow someone else’s.

The Coffee Story- Peter Salmon

  The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon is a death-bed confessional of Teddy Everett, the last of a dynasty of coffee barons. It recounts his coffee story, or rather a number of significant moments in his life with and around coffee.  It is story about the bitterness of regret and the feeling of being a traitor. Over the course of the novel, we learn that Teddy has had two wives, was raised in Ethiopia, just before the Italians came and lived in Cuba, just before the revolution. Over the course of his life he has been an important man, linked with the likes of Howard Hughes and William Hearst.  But now, he is dying of lung cancer in a prison hospital, and making his final confession, to no one in particular. This is his coffee story.

I came across this book at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival when I attended a couple of sessions when the author read from his book. (He was good enough to sign my copy afterward too.) I was intrigued by the interesting writing style employed by Salmon. It is a rambling, conversational style of writing. During the Q & A, Salmon said that he quite deliberately set out to tell the story in the voice of someone who is not a writer, and so not conforming to ‘accepted’ narrative norms. The story is non-linear for a start. Moving from thought to thought in a haphazard way, often sliding off into tangents, regularly repeating some sections of the story (especially parts which turn out to be of vital importance to him), sometimes stopping abruptly to bring us back to the present and his current set of circumstances.

The book is also full of sex, but without any sentiment behind it. The frequent sex scene are very direct and use quite strong, yet dispassionate language to convey. Sex does not equal joy, or love, or affection to Teddy. In fact he is far more eloquent and sensual when in talks about coffee, and the pleasures that a good cup of coffee can bring.

I liked this book. Although to be honest, I didn’t loooove it like I wanted to. I think that on a certain level I liked the idea of the book and was excited by the attempt to try something new in terms of writing style, more than the actual book itself. I admit there are times when the chopping and changing of the story is a little annoying. But, it is worth persevering, because I think that the point of this book is that it is meant to be read/viewed as a whole, something that you can’t do until you actually finish it. It is good, and like a good strong cup of coffee, although bitter, and if you’re like me a drink it without sugar, it can be a little rough sometimes. But the feeling you have afterward is worth every word.

Stray (Touchstone: Part 1)- Andrea Höst

  Stray (Touchstone: Part 1) by Andrea Höst is the first of a three-part Sci- Fi/YA series. It is written  in the form of a journal, and we follow the adventure of Cassandra, Cass to her friends, by never Cassie. Cass is a normal teenager in from Sydney, walking home from her HSC exams only to be suddenly, and inexplicably transported to a new world, Muina. She is in a strange world with only the contents of her school bag to keep her alive.  She manages to scratch together a meagre existence finding plants that she can eat, and even find ‘sheep’ she can shear with the help of her trusty scissors to make ‘blankets’.  But, then she is ‘rescued’ by people from a strange and technologically advanced planet, Tare. The Tarens her back with them, and she is designated as a ‘Stray’. Now, instead of basic ‘survival’ Cass must learn a whole new language and way of life, not knowing if she will ever make it home. Added to this is the fact that the Tarens soon discover that she is useful to them, so there is a question as to how much they are interested in helping her get home.

This book is excellent. One of the best Sci-Fi novels I’ve read in ages. Cassandra has a very dry sense of humour, that doesn’t leave her throughout her ordeal, but at the same time she experiences frustration, anger, fear and grief caused by her situation. The world that Höst has created is vivid and detailed. The fantastic creatures and the other worlds of ‘near-space’ are exciting and varied.

I have already started reading the second book in the series, and I’m looking forward to the third coming out soon.  For lovers of good quality Sci-Fi, or if you just like a good story this is for you.

Bossypants- Tina Fey

Bossypants
Image by Michelle Wright via Flickr

This is another book that I picked up thanks to recommendations on both Library Thing and Amazon. Of course, I knew Tina Fey from Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock,  and thought it would be good for a laugh, and it was. Bossypants by Tina Fey is less a memoir and more a series of essays, mainly dealing with her experiences as a writer and comedienne.  There’s stuff about Sarah Palin too.

Fey is funny, intelligent and inspirational. She is not afraid to use the “f” word, by which I mean “feminism’. She provides insights into ‘making it’ in a male-dominated industry. For example, in the introduction she gives these words of advice, “No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say “never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, the cry. It terrifies everyone.)”.

She also provides advice on how to “raise an achievement-orientated, drug-free,adult virgin.” She openly discusses the pressures placed on women, often by other women over issues such as breast-feeding versus formula; working mums versus stay-at-home; having kids early/late/not at all. Plus, she has very definite views on matters to do with body image.

But, don’t think this is all a rant from her soapbox, pushing a particular barrow. Through it all she maintains her trademark wit that fans of her work on SNL and 30 Rock will be familiar with. This book is so easy to read, it took me less than a day to read it. When I was finished I ended up dragging out my 30 Rock DVD’s just so I could have some more.

If you’re looking for a funny, yet insightful autobiography, this is it. I highly recommend this book.

Water for Elephants- Sara Gruen

Cover of "Water for Elephants: A Novel"
Cover of Water for Elephants: A Novel

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this one up. I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen several months ago, before seeing the film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. I was lucky enough to score tickets to the Australian Premier of the film, from one of my good friends, Tara.  Where possible I like to read a book, before seeing any film, television or theatrical version of it. I like being able to make up my own mind about what characters and places look like, before seeing whether a director sees them the same way.

I have to say that this was one of the rare instances where the film improved upon the book. Although the book was okay, it felt like it was a couple of drafts away from perfection. The process of turning it into a film stripped away unneccesary extra characters and the annoying retirement home subplot of the novel, leaving behind what should have been a great story.

Water for Elephants is about a circus traveling through America during the Great Depression. Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary science student at Cornell University, about to take his final exams, when he learns that his parents have died. To add to the blow of loosing his parents, Jacob also learns that their house and all their possessions are now owned by the bank. Penniless, homeless and unemployed, Jacob takes to the rails in search of a living. On boarding the first train that comes along, he finds himself having joined the Benzini Brother Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He also meets Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star, married to the charasmatic, but often cruel animal trainer.

As I said this book could have been so much more than it was. The subject matter alone should have been enough. But, for some reason, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. There is no doubt that Gruen has filled her circus with all kinds of interesting characters, and has drawn an authentic picture of the prohibition era. But, it just misses something.

Although not awful, and a reasonable read, I would save this one for when you have nothing else to read.

When God Was a Rabbit- Sarah Winman

     I had seen When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman on various recommendation lists in my favourite book shops like Dymocks and Readings, and also on my favourite book websites from Book Depository and Amazon, through to Library Thing and Good Reads.  It’s pretty hard to resist temptation like that. I’m glad I didn’t. This book is awesome, even if not always an easy book to read. It tells the life story of Elly,  her family, her best friend Jenny Penny, and God, her rabbit, of course. The story is told in two parts. The first part is through her eyes as a child in england in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The second half jumps forward to see her fully growing up and heading toward the new millennium.

What this book is about is the importance of family. Not just blood family, but the collection of people who come into our lives and make a lasting impact, for better or worse, but usually for the better. These are the people from whom you (we) can be separated from, sometimes for years without contact, but knowing that they are out there is enough. When you meet them again, there is no doubt that they are still ‘your people’.

As a side theme, it also explores the BIG questions about god, spirituality and the existence of miracles.  Elly’s parents are liberal-minded children of the 60’s and tend to scorn organised  religion, meanwhile her early teachers try to instill in her the basics of christianity, but discourage her from asking questions about it.  Castigating her childish curiosity as blasphemy. As I said this theme is returned to continually throughout the book, the different way that people find to understand the workings of the universe, and to cope with the challenges that life throws at us are explored fully.

I adored this book, but as I said it is not light reading. This is not a book that can be skimmed through in an afternoon. I found I need breaks in between, to read other things. These people are real, and so there are tears and pain, balanced out by joy and laughter. But through it all, what permeates the whole story is love. Unconditional, wholehearted, sometimes painful, but always essential, love.

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Starter for Ten- David Nicholls

Cover of "Starter for Ten"
Cover of Starter for Ten

Starter for Ten was written by David Nicholls, the same author that wrote One Day.  It tells the story from the point of view of Brian Jackson, as he makes the transition into adulthood. Brian, who has been living with his mum, following the death of his father, when he was twelve or thirteen. They live in Southend, a place where few, if any, go on to higher education.

When he starts out he has fantasies that he will spend his time at university discussing literature, political philosophy and other weighty topics while using words like ‘eponymous’, ‘utilitarian’ and other big words in regular conversation. He says there are “three things he expects to happen at university- one was to lose his virginity, two was to be asked to become a spy, three was that he’d be on University Challenge.”   As for the first two, the first was taken care of before he left home, the second was unlikely, but the third…  and so we follow Brian’s clumsy exploits as he becomes part of ‘The Challenge’ team all while trying to woo the beautiful, ‘love of his life’ Alice.

This book is essentially about the often painful process of growing up, and becoming an adult, all the while trying not to lose too much of yourself in the process. Brian finds that balancing his ‘new life’ with the elements of the old that he would like to keep are especially difficult.

I enjoyed this book, however it is not in the same class as One Day. This is a good read, and an easy read, with plenty of laugh out loud moments. This will especially appeal to anyone who has spent any time at university, doubly so if you ever spent time at university being ‘outraged’ by the latest ’cause de jour’. It’s a good book, and worth picking up.

Bronze- B.B. Shepherd

  Bronze by B.B. Shepherd is the first of four books from ‘ the Glister Journals’. It tells the story of a young  girl, Allison who has just moved, with her parents from West L.A to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada   Mountains. Allison, an only child, is shy and bookish, and has always been a target for bullies in the past.  In addition to adjusting to a new town, and a new life, Allison is dealing with all the usual changes that come with growing up.

Soon after arriving at her new home she begins two relationships that will affect her life in a profound way. First is the discovery of a horse on their property, the second is Dave, the handsome third son of a local ranch owner. Through her friendship with the horse, this boy, and Dave’s old friend Robin, she develops a close circle of friends and a love affair with all things equestrian. She finds that she, and her parents, have a whole lot of new terrain to negotiate.

This book is fantastic. The characters are all well-rounded and fully developed. It is a large book, and simply for convenience sake I was restricted to reading it at home, before bed, and I found that I was stretching out my ‘bedtime’ so I could keep reading  for as long as possible. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. While most things are resolved at the end of the first book, there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered. Plus, I am finding that, since I finished reading it, I am missing the characters and want to know what they are up to.

I have categorised this book as being “Young Adult” fiction, but this classification shouldn’t suggest that the writing is in any way deficient or weak. There are very strong themes about friendship, loyalty and integrity that should be universal for everybody. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants a good read.

Willowtree- Mike Bove

Willowtree  by Mike Bove is a so-so murder mystery set in the fictional Arizona town of Willowtree, it is  the first Bruce DelReno Mystery. When Bruce, a retired mail-man, is playing golf, he stumbles across some old bones, while looking for his ball. Later, while investigating the find with an anthropologist friend (a fellow golfer) and his Golden Retriever, Keely, believing the bones to be from an old Indian burial ground, they discover a much more recent set of human remains. Bruce, who spend everyday at the golf course since his retirement, adds amateur sleuth to his favourite pastimes in a bid to catch the killer.

This book takes a while to get going. There were a number of times in the beginning when I came close to abandoning it. As I mentioned earlier, the main character, and narrator, is a keen golfer, and there is a little too much attention, and detail given to the golf in the beginning. Not being a fan of the game (sport?) myself, these descriptions became a bit tedious. Ordinarily, I enjoy the opportunity to learn about things, through my reading, that I don’t know much about, and I thought that golf could be one of them, sadly this wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, the slow pace of a stroll around the golf course, set the pace for the rest of the story.

However, I persevered, and to a certain extent, I was rewarded. Certainly once the body is found and the search for the killer begins, there is enough interest to keep you going to the end of the book. As a murder mystery though, I would classify it as more Murder She Wrote and less James Patterson. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way to track down a copy, but if you do come across it, it is an okay read.

One Day- David Nicholls

I initially started reading One Day by David Nichols, because after having read a lot of heavy, ‘serious’ literature lately, I wanted something light. I had heard some discussion about it in connection with the film, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. I was intrigued, but suspected that it would just be a bit of light ‘chick-lit’ froth, that would be enjoyable, but hardly ‘life changing’.  How wrong I was. This is a wonderful book, and one I suspect will become a well-worn favourite to be returned to regularly like an old friend. Which is appropriate because that is what the book (and the film too I suppose)  is all about.

The main premise of the book is that we begin with the meeting of the two main characters following their graduation from university, on the 15th July 1988, which is also St Swithin’s Day. We then revisit the two characters every year for the next nearly 20 years, always on the same day. With each chapter, and each passing year, we are quickly become acquainted with what has been happening in their lives over the last twelve months.

As I said, I loved this book. The two main characters are great, with great depth. We don’t always ‘like’ them, indeed there are times when the male lead in particular makes me want to throw things at him, but we still retain a desire to keep up with the events of their respective lives, and how their friendship grows and survives through all that life can throw at any relationship.

It is also an emotional book, surfing the joys, the sadness and the in-between of these two people.Be warned, you will need to keep the tissues on stand-by on several occasions. But there are also plenty of laugh out loud moments too. Although this will probably appeal more to women than men, it is an excellent book that I would happily recommend it to anyone.