Book Review of Fever Dream

I always make it a point to read at least a few of the Booker-nominated titles each year.Fever-Dream-Samanta-Schweblin  The first was Judas by Amos Oz – not a book I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but Oz is such a beautiful writer I thought it was worth a look.

Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream is a very different kind of book.  A fast-paced novella, Fever Dream is a chilling mystery that is never fully solved.  This will alienate some readers straight away.  And even though I too was somewhat frustrated by the lack of resolution, Schweblin’s story is a hard one to put down.

The story begins in a darkened hospital room.  Amanda is near death, and telling her story to David, the enigmatic son of a neighbour.  David urges her to recount her last 24 hours to identify the exact time the ‘worms’ took over and caused her death.

In recounting her time in the Argentinian countryside Amanda ends up telling David about a conversation she has with Carla, David’s mother.  She is worried about David – ever since a psychic transmigrated his soul in order to save his life.  She calls this new David “a monster”.  Amanda is worried for her child Nina too.  Something is strange about this landscape, and she feels the “rescue distance” (the space between her and Nina that she feels is safe) is getting smaller and smaller.

David is a hard task-master, shaping and cutting off Amanda’s narrative, focused on getting to the story of the worms.  And something is definitely wrong here.  Schweblin’s all-pervading and lasting sense of foreboding is inescapable.

I doubt you’ll be able to put Fever Dream down.  I don’t know whether you’ll find it entirely satisfactory at the end, but you’ll be impatient to get there.

Book Review of Angela Duckworth’s Grit

gritThose of you who know me, know that I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction when it comes to my reading.  Although there is plenty of great non-fiction out there, and I have certainly been enjoying the books on Positive Psychology I have been picking up lately.

But when it comes to Grit by Angela Duckworth, I have no hesitation in saying that this is a book everyone should read.

Duckworth’s work was of interest to me as the longer I teach, the more aware I become that talent isn’t enough.  Time and time again, especially in my Year 12 classes, the most ‘talented’ student – the one with the greatest natural affinity for language – is trumped by one who works hard and works SMART.  The question I had was – how can I help each of my students to become that smart worker?  The one who succeeds in a way that surpasses their expectations?

Duckworth’s key mission here is to break down for us how some people achieve high levels of success – much higher than the average person.  She is particularly interested in understanding how they were able to do this, and how we can actually teach this to young people.  So it’s a great book for teachers and parents.

The bottom line is – Grit.  Those with Grit go further and do better than those that don’t.

But Grit does not just mean perseverance.  To truly have Grit – Grit that will lead us to success – she concretely discusses four things we need. The first is interest – high levels of interest.  We can only be truly gritty about things that deeply matter to us. But she tells us we can stimulate and develop interest, giving terrific advice for how to do this with children and even as adults.

After interest, we need to practice.  But we need to practice purposefully and strategically.  It’s not enough to work hard – we have to really consider what strategies will actually lead to improvement.  As a teacher we often see students working hard, but completing tasks that do not develop the needed skills.  Instead, Duckworth talks honestly about how painful practice can be and how to do it well – how to embrace negative feedback and seek coaching and set powerful goals.

After practice, she suggests that purpose helps separate high achievers as well.  If you have both passion and a sense of purpose about your work – if you love your chosen field and thin that you are making a difference – you are almost unstoppable.  Your motivation levels cannot be higher.  Sometimes even a few tweaks in thinking can assist us to re-evaluate and find the purpose in our work.

The final quality is hope.  This links in pretty strongly to Carol Dweck’s work about the Growth Mindset. We have to have hope – the belief that we can improve through the strategies that we have put in place.

Each of us will find some of these things difficult.  For example, having hope at times is hard.  Overcoming failure with a positive attitude sometimes relies on self-talk rather than a natural response.  I like how Duckworth acknowledges this – it’s all part of the process.  You don’t just HAVE Grit, you can learn to be grittier.  And that’s the message for us all.  We can all be better at those things we care about.  And what is more empowering than that?

 

Book Review of The Girl Before

thegirlbefore.jpgThis is the kind of book you know is going to have legions of female fans – and no doubt will be made into a movie as well.  It’s very much in the style of The Girl on the Train – an entertaining mystery, cleverly told and deep in fiction’s mainstream.

In two different narratives separated by a handful of years, two women move into an architectural experiment, a home so minimalist that it actually trains the tenant to change and let go of unnecessary thoughts, feelings and possessions.  Each woman is running away from a tragedy, and the house seems like a safe haven – and the architect an irresistible bonus.

But nothing is quite as it seems and the reader becomes increasingly alarmed as the house takes on a slightly sinister role for both, and both engage in highly controlled relationships with its designer.  But then both women learn the woman who lived there before them died in mysterious circumstances….

This will keep you guessing and entertained right towards the end.  A good choice for holidays any teacher friends.

Book Review of Into the Water

into-the-water-672x1024Many authors stumble when it comes time to follow up a phenomenally successful first novel – but instead, Paula Hawkins has no doubt given her legions of fans more of what they are looking for in the intriguing, if lightweight, Into the Water.

Into the Water is set in the fictional town of Bickford in the gloomy north of England, famous only for it’s drowning pool and the dark history of troublesome women finding their end in it.  Years ago, it was accused witches but more recently, a young mother and in just the past few weeks, a young local girl and the mother of her friend.  It is the death of this final woman, Nel Abbott – a writer and photographer fascinated by the history of the drowning pool – that sparks this story. Although Nel’s death and the one that proceeded it, have all the earmarks of a suicide, the motives for such actions are a mystery to those closest to them.

The story eventually unravels through multiple narrators, and it has the same feminist bent of The Girl on the Train, where poor women are suffering for the choices of violent and disturbed men.

Behind all of this though, is the story of two sisters.  Estranged for years, as one uncovers the reasons for her sister’s death a tremendous family misunderstanding is revealed, leading to a period of renewal amongst the grief.

There’s a lot to like here and Into the Water won’t fail to engage Hawkins’ legion of fans. The same dark sense of mystery and foreboding accompanies this tale.  It might even pick her up a few more.

Book Review of Goodwood

goodwoodThere has been a lot of buzz about Holly Throsby’s Goodwood (especially as Throsby herself is better known for singing words than writing them).

And the buzz is well worthwhile – Goodwood is a finely crafted read that reflects real and engaging characters living that small-town life. You know the sort – where the local fish and chip shop is the centre of society, and fishing is one of the more popular pastimes.

But this quietness is disturbed when two residents go missing within a week of each other.  One, a young woman, has vanished without a trace, but with plenty of mystery and discussion.  The second, an older man who is well-respected within the town followed after just a week.

Are the two cases connected?  Or is life just not as simple as it appears in Goodwood?

This was a really solid read that made me happy to pick up the book each night.  Definitely worth a look.  Throsby’s move into the literary world is a good one – and I daresay more novels will follow this.

Book Review of 10 Conversations to Have With Your Son

This is a work read – a book used by some high profile schools as part of their pastoral care programs.10 convos

Helping boys to be confident, caring and aware young men who aren’t held back by fear or stereotypes is a big ask – but a worthy one.  And Dr Tim Hawkes recommends some crucial conversations men really should be having.  You can see in the image attached to this post, that it covers everything from love and intimacy, to financial literacy.

There are also some great activities throughout.

My only real concern here is how conservative and hetero-normative it is.  All mentions of sex and romance are male-female – and we know that this approach is now going to alienate a significant proportion of the young population.  Something a little more open about gender identity and sexuality would address a few more issues and be more modern and appealing to all.

Book Review of The Last Garden

last gardenEva Hornung’s The Last Garden is one of those quiet, introspective books in which not much occurs.  And these aren’t bad – they can be very powerful in their quietness and emotional honesty.

This one was a little hard to relate to for me, although not without its pleasures.

Set in a small farming community in rural Australia, a group of religious Germans and their descendants have left the modern world behind to wait for their Messiah.  But the modern world cannot be kept at bay for long – nor can the growing unease of the townsfolk who begin to doubt…

So when a tragic murder suicide occurs on the Orion farm – the populace don’t know what to think.  Nor does Benedict Orion – the young man who arrives home from school and finds his mother and father dead.

Unable to face the family home, he moves into the barn, taking solace in a simple life and the company especially of the horses.

Pastor Helfgott, the son of the original leader of the settlement, has his own doubts.  But amongst this is the tantalising idea that Benedict – wild but insightful – may just be the one they have been waiting for.

Full of unrealised potential in my mind, The Last Garden leaves me wondering if it could possibly have been more…