Author: welloflostplots

Book Review of Mischling

28664920The Holocaust must be one of the most written-about events in history – and so this makes it a risky bet for a novelist.  You need powerful storytelling or a real angle.

Affinity Konar definitely comes at it from a different angle, telling the story of a set of twins who catch the eye of infamous Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.  Pearl and Stasha are those twins so intertwined that Stasha often answers to Pearl and resents anything that reinforces their separateness.  This unfortunately makes them fascinating to Mengele, who longed to explore this kind of connection, purposefully protecting one twin whilst damaging and deforming the other to watch it impact the pair.

Konar definitely exposes the world of Mengele’s ghastly twin experiments and uses some astonishing language to describe the strange beauties of the environment even in the most horrid places in the world.

“Night. It had forgotten it should not be so beautiful in Auschwitz.  There was no stopping it’s velvet sway..”

But beyond language and conception, there isn’t much original about the story Konar tells.  Some takes place in Auschwitz, but there are also long and meandering sections afterwards.  The title too is a strange misnomer… ‘Mischling’ is the German term for a person of mixed race.  Is it meant to suggest that each twin is merely the product of the mixing of both?  This seems limiting and redundant.

Although Pearl and Stasha make interesting characters and the nature of their “twin-ness” is heartwarming, I’d save my reading of the Holocaust for Eli Weisel’s Night or even Martin Amis’ Times Arrow instead.  These have real power.

Excited Book Review of The Choke

the-chokeSofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin – and is one of my favourite reads of recent years.  So when I was offered a review copy of her latest, The Choke, I could not say yes fast enough.

The Choke is destined to win awards too.

Laguna excels at writing complex child narrators, and placing them in dangerous worlds.  But thats where the similarities between these two books end.

Justine is a girl abandoned by both father and mother and living with her ailing grandfather in a remote place known as the choke – where the bush meets the river.  She’s not neglected, but certainly lives a simple lifestyle in a man’s world.  It’s a violent world too – and Laguna makes this apparent even in describing children’s play in the opening chapter.

School is no refuge either – at least, not until she befriends a young disabled not who is also an outsider.  But not even this can save her from the violence in her world.  Before she is 14 she has witnessed and experienced abuse.  And your heart will break.  I doubt anyone could read this story and not be moved by what Justine experiences – and perhaps more powerfully, how she turns something just awful into something potentially beautiful.  There were tears in my eyes as I closed the final pages.  This is not to be missed.

Book Review of Carve the Mark

carve the markVeronica Roth’s Divergent series was so incredibly popular, that publishing a new storyline, especially one markedly different, must elicit some angst – for the author and readers alike.  And while I haven’t read that many positive reviews of her latest offering Carve the Mark, I ended up really enjoying it.

Much less dystopian than Divergent,
is pure science fiction.  It concerns itself with two peoples who live on the same planet – the Shotet and the Thuvhe – but cannot live in harmony. The Thuvhe live quietly and peacefully while the Shotet pillage and scavenge, and violent existence best represented by their tradition of carving a mark on their own arms each time they take a life.

Naturally, a young man and a young woman from each culture are thrown together and fall in love.  But its a little more complicated than that.  This is a galaxy with two particularly interesting features. Firstly, oracles make the fates of important people public – and this causes political manipulation to attempt to challenge or protect fate.  The second, is the energy source known as the ‘current’ which flows around them all, and gifts each inhabitant with a particular ‘currentgift’. Cyra, our Juliet character, can make others feel pain, but the cost is that she lives in constant pain herself.  Akos, kidnapped from Thuvhe by Cyra’s brother as he was fated to serve them, is gifted with the ability to block the currentgifts of others – and thus relieve Cyra’s constant pain.  Eventually they come to mean something more to each other than forced companions and Cyra is forced to confront her brother – a violent dictator – and take a stand for the rights of others.

There’s more to the story than this, including the brother of Akos who becomes a willing oracle to the Shotet and an underground rebellion.  Overall, I thought this was a well-realised fictional world with interesting moral quandaries and the beginning of a tasty story.  Definitely worth a look.

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.