‘A Girl’s Guide to Moving On’ by Debbie Macomber – Book Review

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Big thanks to NetGalley for my advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Chick lit really isn’t my thing. This preface should be seen as a lens through which to read the following comments. Fans of Ms Macomber, please don’t hate me.

I was browsing NetGalley one day, feeling rather blue from my previous read, the bulk of which I read with misty eyes and thumping heart. I needed the literary equivalent of a bottle of wine and a foot rub.

The pitch promised a ‘powerful and uplifting novel’ from a bestselling author I’d never heard of. The story of Leanne and daughter-in-law Nichole would apparently make me feel empowered and prove the power of love, friendship, and New York Times best-seller lists.

Once upon a time, Nichole was married to Leanne’s son, Jake, who is a lying cheat just like his father. At some point prior to the first page of A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, Leanne and Nichole both divorced their horrible husbands, moved into snazzy little flats across the hall from each other, and devised rules and plans to help them regain their life and their happiness.

They both meet new men. Complications ensue. The exes are horrid. Time goes on and the exes are less horrid. The new men think their women don’t love them. It rains. They all kiss and make up. The end.

Debbie Macomber seemed to be writing by numbers. There was a lack of characterisation and any personal development seemed beyond plausibility. For example, Jake receives a talking to by Nichole’s new burly truck driver boyfriend and not only does Jake accept Rocco’s views, but also immediately changes his mind, his ways, and his personal hero.

Initially I was convinced the author needed to take herself to a workshop on showing not telling but, to her credit, the writing seemed to improve as the story advanced and I did feel slightly empathic for the plight mirrored in the lives of both Nicole and Leanne.

A Girl’s Guide to Moving On is beige and mildly pleasant; it is so overtly predictable that I regressed to the days when I nicked my mums Mills & Boon just to read the sexy bits. But even the raunchy scenes were MIA here, leaving me high and dry and unrewarded for ploughing through all that sporadic pashing.

Perhaps I’m being unfair – I’d just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and with my heart in tatters, I sought solace in something lighter. Be careful what you wish for – this was so light, its flimsy words practically blew off the page in wake of my exasperated sigh.

‘It isn’t only that you’re good for my dad,’ Kaylene said, growing thoughtful. ‘You’re good for me, too. You’re teaching me how to be a woman.’

I mean, really?

Sorry Debs, I didn’t buy it. I’ve heard some of your other work is fabulous in the chick lit world but this was far from my cup of tea.

 

 

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Quarter Life Poetry by Samantha Jayne – Book Review

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Big thanks to NetGalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

This is the sort of rhythmic verse I’d expect to find composed in the margins of uni lecture material, on the back of bar napkins, or maybe the underside of a pizza box. A collection of musings and grumbles from our generation Y representative, Quarter Life Poetry presents a series of stand-alone quatrains sorted into nine different categories and accompanied by some elementary abstract clip art. With themes like money, food, sex and unemployment, Jayne injects light-hearted amusement into the issues and gripes bearing down on first-world millennials.

These poems are basically short anecdotes written with the aid of a rhyming dictionary and using a ‘Roses are red, Violets are blue…’ template. That’s not to say they don’t tickle a rib:

‘Let us all gather ‘round

as we mourn side by side

to commemorate the fateful day

my metabolism died’ – p. 61

Samantha Jayne makes no pretence about her poetry, using a tone of disbelief to tell us how lazy, poor, bored, lost and helpless she feels. Her voice is sardonic and tinged with early-onset cynicism, making for a topical look at the very real struggles facing today’s young people (and, in fact, anyone who dreads going to work in the morning.

Apparently, Jane started out using social media to share her childish prose, attaching the simple vibrant animations to further promote an aura of regression.

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Like our poor puppy friend, Quarter Life Poetry tells us why the 24-year-old author doesn’t want to deal with grown-up responsibility. Unemployment is possible, smug couples abound, money is elusive, and dating is a technological nightmare.

I read the whole thing in less than an hour and while certainly no Keats or Hegley, it still made me smile. Student loans + dieting + share housing? This 30 year old can relate (in retrospect only, I assure you).

3/5 Stars

‘The Orange Girl’ by Jostein Gaarder – Review

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I once had a really horrible boyfriend, (actually, I’ve had several), and while he busied himself with Crown lager and transforming into Mr Hyde I would bury myself in ‘Sophie’s World’, a book lent to me by a kind aunty with impeccable timing. The solace I found among those pages initiated a quest to read more of the Norwegian writer’s stories, much like my later obsession with Paolo Coelho or Juliet Marillier.

But Jostein Gaarder’s offerings are a bit hit and miss. The curse of being a seasoned authorial fan lies in the comparison of ‘other’ works to the big, wonderful ‘one’ that finds its way onto the shelf in more than one edition. ‘Sophie’s World’, Gaarder’s most famous YA novel on the history of philosophy, is an epic work that began my love affair with the ideas of ancient and modern thinkers. On this pedestal is also ‘The Solitaire Mystery’, a fantastical adventure story about a son and his father on an expedition with a living, dancing deck of cards.

‘The Christmas Mystery’ however was a diluted version of ‘The Solitaire Mystery’ and sits in my mind next to ‘Maya’, an Indonesian journey that entertains the spiritual search for meaning. I’m afraid that ‘The Orange Girl’ also belongs in this second category: Gaarder’s prose is so beautiful, and the lovely turn of phrase never fails to surround me with magic and delight. But the story that pours from a letter written to a teenage boy by his deceased father lacks much in the way of plot or intrigue.

The missive from Jan to the narrator was hidden for years in an old pram and now that it’s been found, we sit with Georg as he reads his father’s words and provides for us a commentary about his family, his life, and his interests. Attempting to convey nostalgia, ‘The Orange Girl’ tells the love story of the boy’s parents and the saddening circumstances that pulled Jan from his wife and young son.

This is a sweet novella about a man who posthumously desires that his son should know him. It smacks with sentiment, but my reaction was not so much ‘oh, life is so precious!’ but rather ‘this is lovely, but so what?’ (I feel so dirty being harsh to the man who wrote the book that still saves me from Plato’s allegory of the cave.)

‘The Orange Girl’ is a character led story, which is all well and good but it needed to have more to drive it forward in order to sustain my attention and distract me from nasty, beer-guzzling bogans.

A sentimental 3 stars.

‘The Poet’s Companion’ by K. Addonizio & D. Laux – Brief Review

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A book for poetry lovers, The Poet’s Companion caters for aspiring writers who wish to improve their craft and understand the genre at an advanced level. Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux have taken great care in sectioning individual chapters that let the reader dissect verse and understand a poem’s mechanics. The novice or experienced poet is gently encouraged to experiment with rhythm and word choice and to proactively investigate what constitutes a successful piece.

The authors use clear language and a kind approach to be frank about publishing expectations. Discussion of themes should spark inspiration but, if the instructional chapters fail, the final third holds a series of exercises so that the preceding intricacies can be put into working practice.

I felt that stronger diversity amongst the referenced poets could have taken the learning further and given the book a more universal appeal. But as a writer who naturally gravitates toward poetry, The Poets Companion has deepened my grasp on verse and on what makes a successful poem.

Highly recommended to anyone who loves reading or writing poetry, or to those who are curious about the how’s and whys of its impact.

 

4 Stars.

‘A System of Ghosts’ by Lindsey Tigue – Short Review

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Reviewing a book of poetry feels a little unfair; each piece is deserving of an individual, separate examination, to be taken as a stand-alone narrative speaking from the mystery in the author to the longing in the reader. Yet the voice of the poet carries a collection like System of Ghosts; it’s what gives the work its overall tone, its objectives, and its rhythm on a wider, macro level.

Lindsay Tigue delivers emotionally charged words that mesmerise in their melancholic honesty. System of Ghosts opens with ‘Millions’, introducing themes of hope, adversity, anonymity. ‘Directions’ invokes persistence with lines like ‘I can be energy and wait’. The pain and nothingness of being lonely underscore ‘Solitary, Imagining’ and ‘Convergent Boundaries’, the latter of which further expands to observe forces great than the self.

The titular poem conveys Tigue’s relationship with things lost or hidden from view, whether by chance or subconscious choice. And ‘E-how’ struck me with its examination of our relentless need to know and continual reliance on the Internet when deciding how to live.

A System of Ghosts plays with free form, cleverly uses lines to create a horizontal and vertical effect, and dabbles with the more traditional pentameter rhythm. Like a favourite music compilation, not all cogs in the wheel will shove your head under the lyrical surface to emerge panting at the souls raw longing. But Lindsey Tigue’s debut collection will hit more than one nerve, especially for readers nursing a solitary heart.

4/5 stars.

 

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ – Film Review

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With epic screen presence and notorious off-camera attitude, Bette Davis is a Hollywood legend. Made later in her career, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ casts her as Baby Jane Hudson, a retired performer who lives with her crippled sister, Blanche, herself an ex-film star and clearly the more adored of the two sisters. We watch as Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, undergoes a two-hour descent into a panic reminiscent of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’, while the calculating Jane attempts to salvage any fame left over from a childhood in the spotlight.

The film opens in 1917. A young girl cries, frightened by the ghastly appearance of a Jack in the Box clown. Moments later the same girl, Baby Jane Hudson, sings to a raptured audience, deflating the adoration shortly after by demanding ‘I want ice cream’ in front of disappointed fans. These moments set the tone for Jane’s tumultuous relationship with a fickle limelight.

It’s then 1935 and two movie executives are panning Baby Jane’s latest picture, lamenting the contract that requires Jane be granted a film each time her more talented sister, Blanche, accepts a starring role. The problem is Jane’s alcohol dependence and lack of artistic talent. The Shirley Temple get-up and doll faced act apparently doesn’t translate into adult motion pictures and we get a sense that Blanche has well and truly rained on Baby Jane’s parade.

Finally, it’s 1967. Rumours circulate that Jane was responsible for the accident that left Blanche in a wheelchair, entirely dependent on Jane and confined to an upstairs bedroom. Upon learning of her sister’s intention to sell the house, Jane begins to turn on her sibling, spitting a level of vitriol and sarcasm that is delightful to watch. Attitude turns to action and Blanche is served her pet bird and then a drowned rat alongside her bread and milk.

Laughing Jane

Blanche becomes so fraught with tension that she slowly begins to starve.

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When not participating in psychological torture, Jane spends time with a creepy ‘Baby Jane Doll’.

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Drunk and delusional, she decides to revive the child star routines and hires a musical schmuck who has no idea who she is and who plays piano in time with her atrocious singing. A lack of fame and stardom deeply wound the aging starlet. Jane’s coping mechanisms are those of a petulant child and, although not a classic sociopath, she lashes out violently before a long-buried secret is finally brought to light.

‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ is a testament to Davis’ ability and the role of Jane Hudson is practically tailor-made. As in ‘All About Eve’, Bette Davis obstinately campaigned to have her age highlighted and refused any attempts to have her looks softened. The result is a whitewashed, gaudy old hag who transforms into the very thing she was frightened of as a child.

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Jane is a one-hit wonder who never matured, a vicious brat in a woman’s body desperately seeking admiration. Her platinum blonde curls and pastel clothes contrast with Joan Crawford’s dark locks and sombre costume, perhaps as an attempt to contrast between the flashy or superficial, and a deeper, more mature type of notoriety. The only personal criticism was the incompatible score. My twenty-first century ears felt it was too upbeat and off-balance with the film’s suspense. If I closed my eyes I could have been watching a Disney film, at least for seventy per cent of the running time.

Historical music trends aside, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ is a classic thriller worthy of its reputation. Watching two Hollywood icons slowly morph into the bleakest versions of themselves is captivating. Bette Davis might have been the prima donna of tinsel town, but the woman knew what she was doing. Pure magic.

 

5 stars.

‘How to Find Fulfilling Work’ by Roman Krznaric – Book Review

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The lowdown:

We all hate our jobs. Well, I hated my job, which is exactly why this book ended up in my handbag. That, and my adoration for The School of Life and anything connected to Alain De Botton. In How to Find Fulfilling Work, Roman Krznaric gives compact advice on how we can use our passions and talents to create a meaningful career and live a simpler existence.

Supporting his advice with statistical data and an historical perspective on the evolution of work, Krznaric asserts that nothing is beyond our reach so long as we consider hybrid careers and direct our potential toward ‘wide achievement’: excelling in multiple areas rather than swallowing the popular notion of specialisation.

The book itself is neatly set into five sections in an attempt to keep a daunting topic easy and forthright; instead of quoting journal articles, examples are made of Hollywood movies and notorious personalities.

What I liked:

I felt less alone in my discontent. The use of case studies helped disprove the idea that something is wrong if we don’t find our work fulfilling. Dissatisfaction at work is widespread and does not discriminate amongst industries or personal temperament.

Exercises in brainstorming empower the reader to think outside the box and break a potentially scary change into manageable baby steps, often by recruiting others to provide suggestions and/or an element of mentorship.

What I didn’t like:

Although the content was reassuring, I felt I was already one step ahead of Krznaric’s ideas. This is possibly just a personal impression due to months of career-change rumination; those just beginning to feel restless may be enlightened by the suggestions on offer.

Also, the exercise that suggested sending a mock personal ad to ten people was beyond my reach. Yes, I could have scraped together some friends and family to throw ideas at me, but I couldn’t get past the fear that they’d think I was circulating chain mail. Again, maybe just me.

Verdict:

For those who have ever wondered if there’s more to life, this pocket-sized manual will prove that there is. Encouraging and written with kindness, How to Find Fulfilling Work is for anyone wanting to get a sense of value and meaning out of their working life. As John Burroughs said, ‘Leap, and the net will appear’.

4/5 Stars

‘The Short Drop’ by Matthew FitzSimmons – Book Review

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Big thanks to NetGalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Still finding my way around NetGalley.com, this was one of my first approved requests and boy, did I hit the jackpot. Matthew FitzSimmons first novel The Short Drop is a spellbinding and immersive thriller, rich with political intrigue and complex familial mystery.

The story opens in an all-American diner. Ex-marine Gibson Vaughn occupies a booth while searching online for a way to support an ex-wife and six year old daughter. A television newsbreak recaps the disappearance of Suzanne Lombard, Gibson’s childhood playmate and daughter of family friend, senator Benjamin Lombard. The abduction occurred almost ten years earlier, after Gibson’s infamous computer hacking stunt that exposed dodgy dealings within Lombard’s cartel. But all was not as it seemed and Vaughn’s own father ended his life after becoming implicated in the scandal.

Now, with a bad reputation keeping him jobless, he’s desperate for honest work when approached by someone from his past. A friend of his father and an insider in the political sphere, George Abe seeks Gibson’s computer skills to help track Suzanne’s abductor who, after almost a decade, has sent through evidence of involvement in the case.

The pull of sentimentality yanks Gibson into the covert investigation. Abe Consulting uncovers a long and intricate back-story before landing on the horrifying truth of what happened to Suzanne Lombard all those years ago.

FitzSimmons is not a word-waster. Tightly written and action packed, The Short Drop is accessible without being patronising. Time is a major theme and he uses it to explore the texture of grief and the complexities of human relationships. Conventional narrative works to keep a fast pace while the depth of the characters allows the reader to form alliances and race with them toward a tidy resolution.

Matthew FitzSimmons has produced a fantastic piece of crime fiction. It’s marked as the first in a series and even though it’s unclear how much more of this story could be teased out, I wouldn’t be sorry to see more of Gibson Vaughn.

5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Note: If this is typical NetGalley standard, I may never visit bookdepository again. *

 

*This is a total lie.

 

‘JPod’ by Douglas Coupland – Book Review

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Recently, a new friend introduced me to the concept of biji, a Chinese form of writing roughly translated as ‘brush notes’ or ‘jottings’. This literary genre is defined by a three-part division consisting of different styles and lacking definitive structure. I sought an example of the format and was directed toward Douglas Coupland’s ‘JPod’, an off-beat story of life in a modern Vancouver office.

Meet Ethan, a 28 year old games developer who spends his days toggling between virtual world building, nicknaming co-workers, and fetching the company snack supplies. In his down time, he helps his family dispose of drug dealers, sever ties with psychotic lovers, and feed illegal immigrants squatting in his apartment.

After a ruling from new boss Steve, Ethan and his five pod mates must overhaul their current project to accommodate a turtle modelled on a reality T.V. presenter. They decide to corrupt the game with a rogue clown demon, stopping work only to deal with incestuous sexual emergencies, lesbian cult members, and the suspicious abduction of a recently appointed superior.

Obligated to undertake a rescue mission in China, Ethan fights off the threat of a viral outbreak, and begs a cantankerous author to rescue him from an early roadside death. Here, Coupland openly inserts himself into the narrative as a character that, although grumpy and not averse to sneaky blackmail, conveniently turns up to save the day.

‘JPod’ reads like a scrapbook, shifting between witty narratives, streams of consciousness in squashed or inflated text, character constructed interviews, anagram definitions, and a lengthy chunk of the number Pi. The biji style is used as a visual representation of life with its interruptions and conflicting demands on attention. Instead of finding the strange digressions distracting, the reader bounces around a lively story full of entertaining, and somehow relevant tangents.

Coupland has created a modern tapestry, one I can only describe as an absolute circus. My usual enjoyment of a book lies in how much I miss it after the final page. And still, every morning at reading time, I wish Ethan and the gang were still going strong. It was the first of Coupland’s novels I read and it certainly won’t be the last.

5/5 Stars

(You can find more on the history of biji here).

Note: I’ve been told there is a T.V. spin-off which I’ve ordered via Amazon. Stay tuned for my thoughts!

‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ – Review

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Social media is currently favouring the introvert, the empath, and the highly-sensitive type, so it’s no surprise that bookshelves are becoming populated with literature exploring these trends.  ‘Quiet’ is a book about the power of introversion, which challenges the Western expectation of ambition and turns to biological and social studies to provide a hefty backing.

Chances are you’ll pick up this book as an introvert looking for self-validation. But what of the reader who identifies as a gregarious extrovert? According to Cain and the multiple studies she cites, an outgoing, chatty extrovert often has less intelligence and originality than those who opt for peace and solitude.

Cain asserts that a show pony may get the attention but the nerdy brainiac will ultimately inherit the earth. She makes introversion so appealing that I suspect many readers will come away convinced it defined them to a T, relieved that, finally, someone understands them, whether this is true or not.

The audience seems to be the savvy, upper middle class US business person.  Many of the discussions focus on the implications of introversion in the workplace and while the book employs examples to back the arguments, I found it too limited in its corporate focus.

Cain only seemed to interview wealthy, successful types, defining them by their job roles and career trajectories. This consistent use of famous and successful figures only serves to alienate those sensitive readers who already feel they aren’t up to scratch. I’d personally have liked some gender-based discussion – a large portion of CEO’s and interviewees were male – with more focus on relationship interplay or motherhood to potentially expand the dialogue further.

‘Quiet’ might have lost me quickly and this would have been a shame considering the more personal, human element which evolves in the final third. It was here I identified why I felt so uncomfortable at school and why I had to use excessive force when dragging myself to nightclubs ten years ago.  According to Cain, the key is finding your ‘sweet spot’, that precarious balance that meets your need for alone time with your desire to be with others and get the job done.

‘Quiet’ outlines what it means to be born with an introverted temperament. It certainly allowed me to understand myself better but, for those seeking information outside of the work arena, you’d best not rely on this book alone.

3/5 Stars.