Now read, was unread, book on my shelf – The Machine, James Smythe

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As promised, here is the first ‘now read, was unread’ book review (see previous blog article for details!). I had James Smythe’s The Machine on my bookshelf to read because it was listed in a ‘best dystopian novels’ article and was the only one listed I hadn’t read.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I have to admit to being rather disappointed by this novel. The protagonist, Beth, lives on a ‘rough’ housing estate near the sea in the south of the UK where the local kids terrorize the residents. Apparently sea levels have risen, temperatures have risen, it hardly ever rains any more and even when it does rain, it is very heavy and doesn’t help as the ground is too parched. But, rather than appear dystopian and challenging, it just seems as if it’s all just a bit hot and a bit of a nuisance. Life seems exactly the same as it is right now, everyone still appears to have jobs and housing, although water is rationed, and certain areas have been flooded so people have been relocated. And quite frankly, there are scary teenage boys in gangs hanging around every housing estate; you don’t need rising sea levels for that to happen.

We slowly (very slowly!) find out about Beth’s husband, Vic, who came back from the war with PTSD and voluntarily went through an untested and controversial ‘commit/purge/replenish’ memory treatment that was meant to remove his war memories (and the subsequent bouts of aggression and bad dreams affecting him) and give him new, happier ‘false’, memories but has instead left him a blank shell, a vegetable. Beth is convinced she can ‘bring him back’ from his current vegetative state and tracks down a version of ‘The Machine’ that was used in Vic’s original treatments, in order to put back the memories that were taken from him initially, using the original files she kept back after his treatments.

I don’t want to put in any spoilers so I will resist from writing further on the obvious plot ‘twists and turns’. I think my main issue is that the world this novel portrays just doesn’t seem very different, and certainly not any more dystopian, than society now. And it didn’t make me think about the ethics/moral code/attitudes being acted upon, which is one of the reasons I like reading dystopian novels.

Another issue is that being inside Beth’s head all the time gets a bit wearing, she just isn’t very interesting as a character. Her continuing mental disintegration seems workmanlike when you compare it to the woman’s in The Yellow Wallpaper for example. And for all the mysterious hints about ‘The Machine’, they don’t really come to much.

In summary, good concept, well-written with good descriptions of PTSD but could have been much more. However, don’t take my word for it. I read quite a few reviews on Goodreads, after reading The Machine, and it has received lots of positive reviews so maybe it’s just me!

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The curse of the unread book

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I am an inveterate book buyer; sometimes a red mist descends when I am ‘just browsing’ in a bookshop and I leave in a daze weighed down with books. I am also incapable of passing a secondhand bookstore without going in and buying at least two books. I also have to limit myself to only logging onto booktopia once a month (around pay day).

Unfortunately these bouts of bookish bagging have resulted in a number of books finding their way onto my shelves only to be forgotten about. I hadn’t realized how bad it had got until I was happily rearranging my books the other day and kept coming across them all.

So I have decided that before I buy any more books, I must read every unread one on my shelf, and to prove I have read it I will blog a short review every time I finish one. To make sure I don’t cheat here is the list of the unread books on my shelf (along with the reason for purchase at the time) that I am now committed to working my way through:
The Pages, Murray Bail (loved Eucalyptus)
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (it’s Julian Barnes!)
HHhH, Laurent Binet (heard a lot about it, thought it sounded interesting)
A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt (am working my way thorough her entire oeuvre)
The Trout Opera, Matthew Condon (thought it sounded interesting)
Old Filth, Jane Gardam (Vintage special offer)
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (saving to read on Christmas Day)
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (have been assured it is nothing like EPL)
Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood (Vintage special offer)
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (not sure why I haven’t got round to this)
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa (always wanted to read it, picked it up cheap)
Every Day, David Levithan (heard good things)
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough (saw the TV show years ago, got it cheap)
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan (haven’t liked anything later than Atonement, except Sweet Tooth so going back to his earlier books)
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel (picked it up cheap)
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer (Vintage special offer)
Silver, Andrew Motion (‘sequel’ to Treasure Island, seemed like a good idea at the time)
Goodbye, Columbus, Phillip Roth (Julian  is rude about in The Secret History)
The End of Your Life Book Club (good reviews)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson (liked the title)
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (I like bookstores)
The Machine, James Smythe (in list of ‘must-read’ dystopian novels, had read the others)
A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark (gorgeous Virago Modern Classic hardback 30th anniversary special edition, had to have it)
The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West (picked it up cheap)

Hmm, when I hit upon this idea I hadn’t actually counted how many unread books there were; this is a slightly larger undertaking than I first envisaged. I don’t know whether to be pleased at this bounty of reading material or embarrassed that I have this many unread books on my shelves. My main concern is how I will cope with this prescribed reading list; I hate knowing what I am going to read next, I like it to be a spur of the moment choice. Of course, this is probably why I have so many unread books and quite a few reread books (more of those another time).

So, watch this space. I won’t be reading in authorial alphabetical order although that is how I arrange my shelves and therefore how I listed them – I will dabble. First cab off the ranks is The Machine by James Smythe.

How to: Make book recommendations to your book club or book group

I love recommending books; it is one of my favourite things – when I’m not reading books of course. So I am always very (too?) vocal in my book group, when we get round to discussing and choosing ‘the next book’. I have belonged to, or run, many book clubs over the years and have the following advice for members of book groups who struggle to choose books or want to get out of the rut of their current choices.

Selection system

Before talking about book selection choices, as a group you need to agree HOW you will select your books.  Democratically (obviously) but how? One option is for each member of the group to take their turn to select the following month’s book; another option is for all of the group members to each recommend a book, then once all books have been presented, the group votes and the book with the most votes is selected.

Some groups like to have their reading list set for the next six months, or even the year, others like to ‘wing it’ a bit more and don’t like the idea of being tied down to six to 12 book selections. It’s up to you.

Accessibility of the text is another element to take into account; you don’t want to select books that are only available in hardback, are brand new so super expensive or not stocked in the library.

What sort of books do you want to read?

Once you have decided how you will be choosing books, you might want to limit the selection to a certain genre (science fiction, contemporary literature, short story), a specific author (Dickens, Austen) or award winning books (like working your way through the Booker winners list). Ongoing or monthly themes are also a useful way to limit selection e.g.  ‘madness’ (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

How to select a good ‘discussion’ book

As Dorothy Parker so beautifully put it once about a hated tome, “…this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” It is too easy to select a book that doesn’t work for a book group discussion: Too pretentious; too simplistic; too controversial; sometimes a book that is really enjoyable to read for one’s own pleasure just doesn’t have enough depth for discussion purposes.

Books that work well for discussion are novels that offer an intriguing plot such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a polarizing storyline such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or something that enables an ‘ethics’ discussion such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Further suggestions are listed at the end of this article.

Reading guides, book recommendations, resources

Need a bit of extra help to talk about your chosen book, or come up with discussion questions? Publisher sites are very supportive of their readers; many post discussion guides, author interviews, suggestions for further reading, etc.  Some also host online book clubs/discussions that you can join in. There are, of course, also many, many book group guides sites: Goodreads is the largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world. It has more than 14,000,000 members who have added more than 470,000,000 books to their shelves.  There are online book clubs, online discussions, etc. and it is a great site to get ideas for books to read. Reading group guides and Book Browse both offer hundreds of reading guides to a range of contemporary and classic literature and fiction (and some non-fiction too).

List of further suggestions

This could be endless, I know I will have missed lots of people’s favourites. I apologize in advance!

Books that stimulate strong discussion/dissension:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gone Girl, Gilian Flynn
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Books made into films:

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Short stories:

  • Collected short stories, Roald Dahl
  • Short stories, W.Somerset Maugham
  • Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy
  • The Garden Party & Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

Historical fiction:

  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Restoriation, Rose Tremain

Dystopian themes:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Wool, Hugh Howey

Fantasy/Magic Realism

  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

Who am I? And who are you? Book review of ‘Before I go to sleep’ by S.J.Watson

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What would you do if you woke up every morning with no memory of who you are? Where you are? And who the man walking into the bedroom towards you is?

Before I go to Sleep is a psychological thriller about a woman suffering from anterograde amnesia (the loss of ability to create new memories after the event that caused the amnesia, leading to an inability to recall the recent past but with long-term memories from before the event usually remaining intact). The novel follows her day by day as she tries to reconstruct her memories from a journal she finds that apparently she has written. She learns that she been seeing a doctor who is helping her recover her memory, her name is Christine Lucas, she is 47 years old and married, and she has a son.

But is this the truth? As Christine ‘rediscovers’ her journal each day, and reads more and more about her own life, she feels increasing disquiet at the ‘official’ story and with the man in her life who claims to be her husband.

This makes for an uneasy read, it is a great first novel that cranks up the tension very effectively as more and more is revealed.

Voucher vulture: Or how to get the most out of your 2013-14 Entertainment Book

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It’s now coming up to half way through the 12-month cycle for the current Australian & New Zealand Entertainment Books. How many vouchers have you used so far? Have you even registered your gold card yet, let alone put it in your wallet? The Entertainment Book is a fabulous saving for those who like eating out and/or for those who want to stretch that dollar a little further. I think I can honestly say that I am an expert on navigating the book and therefore maximizing its value to me; my 2013-14 Greater Melbourne Entertainment Book is the fifth I have purchased and used.

I am assuming you are reading this because you know what the Entertainment Book is but just in case you have stumbled across my ramblings by mistake…the book contains hundreds of ‘up to 50% off’ and ‘2-for-1’ offers for many local restaurants, cafes, arts, attractions, hotels, travel services and online shopping. The books are sold by community groups, schools and other organisations as a means of raising funds for their causes. The vouchers/offers are valid from purchase until 1 June of the following year e.g. my current book vouchers will expire on 1 June 2014. There are 14 books available within Australia, and five in New Zealand, all based in and around the major cities.

So how to maximize dollars saved? No matter how you intend to use it, the first thing you must do is to grab a highlighter pen, go to the index at the front of each of the five voucher sections and highlight places you already frequent/want to visit. You must also register the gold card that accompanies your Entertainment Book; this gives you access to the members’ area and to the bonus dining offers, additional discounts for cinema tickets and holiday destinations, etc. Once registered, you will also receive a monthly email that lists the available bonus offers as well as the occasional special offer on specific services or destinations. And for social media tragics such as myself, you can also follow the Entertainment Book on Facebook and/or Twitter and be notified of additional bonus offers and changes to venues that way. Proviso, the restaurant vouchers do tend to be relatively city- and inner city-centric although the take away deals and services are obviously more flexible.

How much more time you spend on ‘prepping’ depends on you. If you always book ahead so know where you are going or if you drive everywhere, then all you need to do now is the put the book in the car/next to the front door (and remember you have it!). If you tend to take public transport or walk to lots of places then you are going to need to make the book  a bit more portable as it’s very bulky (and heavy)! I would suggest using the highlighted indices to find the vouchers you want, rip them out and put them in little envelopes, sorted suburb by suburb so you can simply grab the envelope(s) of the suburb(s) you are going to that day or quickly find the voucher to that local restaurant as you walk out the door.

The gold card that accompanies the book deserves a section all to itself. Offering discounts to ‘fine and contemporary dining’, using it just twice will mean the book has already paid for itself. Any usage on top of that is pure ‘profit’. The easiest way to maximize return on this section is to either go through and fold down the corner of the pages of restaurants you want to visit or make a note separately; then you can simply flick through or consult your list when you want some fine dining (I use Evernote on my iPhone). A word of warning, some restaurant staff rub off the wrong number, refuse to accept it, don’t understand the offer, forget to take it off the bill or all of the above. Just be nice and stick to your guns; all restaurants listed in the book have signed up with the Entertainment Book so they have to honour the discount (unless new owners of existing registered business, etc.). If you don’t have the book with you, you can always call up the website on your phone or use the app (see details below) to show the deal to the staff.

There is also a free Entertainment Book app, which you can use when out and about; however, the search function is pretty simplistic and of course, if it recommends a place that requires a voucher and you don’t have the voucher with you then it is no help at all and quite frankly frustrating! It is good for using the the gold card (which should be in your wallet at all times!) but you can’t search by ‘gold card’, just ‘fine dining’ (which will pick up most of them) or ‘near me’ and then you can laboriously go through each option. Also, the app doesn’t appear to have its info updated so it won’t show if a business has shut down since 1 June that year or if it has changed address.

Aside: I would love to see a day when we don’t have to buy the book anymore but can buy the app (with revenue still going to the charities of course). Imagine how much easier it would be to just show the voucher on your phone to the staff, they would discount your bill and then it would show as used on your phone. And the search function could be massively improved while they’re at it.

Don’t forget at the very back of the book are pages and pages of online savings for hotel bookings, car rentals, flower deliveries, magazine subscriptions, etc. This final section also offers savings on groceries if you purchse the discounted $100 gift cards and then use on your weekly shop at Woolworths or Coles.

And last, but certainly not least, if you have a friend who also has an Entertainment Book then you can double up on your vouchers/gold card savings when dining out (unless, rarely, the restaurant has specified this is not possible). This system is too complex to explain here, as it all depends on the value and type of the offer, but it is clearly explained on page 3 of the book. You can also swap unused vouchers with them, if you live in different areas and intend to use different vouchers to them.

SO there you go, my embarrassingly nerdy and tight-arse recommendations for getting the most out of your Entertainment Book. If I have inspired you, that’s great they are still available. And for those who have read this and scoff I would just like to say that it’s only the beginning of November and I have already saved over $295 (deducting the cost of the book). Of course, this really only demonstrates how much my husband and I eat out…

Top Ten Tips

  1. Use the index!
  2. Register the book/card to access the bonus offers.
  3. Keep the book in the car/easily accessible.
  4. Keep the gold card in your wallet at all times.
  5. Download the app for searching on the go.
  6. Don’t forget the online shopping discounts at the back of the book.
  7. Swap unused vouchers with friends who live in a different area to you.
  8. Keep the take away vouchers in your wallet, particularly coffee and fast food.
  9. Be aware of the small print – most venues don’t honour vouchers on public holidays/Valentine’s Day/Mother’s Day.

Bonus tip: Jot down the amount each time in the index & cross out voucher detail (this will help you keep track of money saved and therefore if it is worth investing in again).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own and are in no way endorsed or sponsored by Entertainment Publications of Australia Pty Ltd.

The Last of the Mojitos

cocktail book pun

Books and alcohol. Throw in a couple of cute cats and I think I may just have the ultimate combination. Honestly though? Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a literary twist had me at ‘books’ and ‘alcohol’. Plus I love a good pun (and this book has plenty, ‘Vermouth the Bell Tolls’ for example). And I love a party theme. Wow, it’s like the author knows me and wrote this fabulous little book just for me (thanks Tim Federle!).

Having just purchased this fabulous collection of bookish drink recipes, and now summer is here, I look forward to trying out a few.  My only problem will be deciding which one to make. Who am I kidding? I shall just work my way through the whole collection.

Gin Eyre anyone?