Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The magic of Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: the case for putting creative minds to work

Whether you loved it or loathed it, it was hard to avoid Elizabeth Gilbert's best-seller, Eat Pray Love, a few years back. I thought it was a great read - inspiring, well-written and elegantly structured - but for some reason I never got round to reading any of Gilbert's other books.

Until this week. I picked up Big Magic in the library and haven't been able to put it down. Sub-titled 'Creative Living Beyond Fear,' it might sound a little ponderous but isn't at all. In it Gilbert shares wisdom, wit and great insights into the creative process, shattering the myth that misery and creativity go hand in hand.

It's a light, easy read that is insightful, entertaining and at times made me laugh out loud. Divided into six sections (on Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity), there are tips and advice for us all in here. Yes, there's a wealth of understanding that creative types may find liberating, but there's also much that will appeal to anyone with a heartbeat.

It's hard to pick a favourite quote, but fellow dog lovers may enjoy this:
"Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble."
Big Magic is definitely a book for makers and creators, but should also be required reading for anyone who has ever doubted their own ability, lacked the confidence to follow their dreams or simply cared too much what other people thought. Probably most of us then.

Have you read Big Magic? What did you think?  And do you have a favourite self-help book?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Three of the best: Blogs I could read all day

Twinkle: so not PC but I loved it anyway

I was addicted to magazines from an early age. I first got hooked on Twinkle, which my nana used to send me every week, moved on to Mandy, Jackie and Company and eventually succumbed to the hard stuff - Cosmo and Vogue.

I still subscribe to a couple and can't wait to flick through the glossy pages when they arrive, but these days you're far more likely to find me browsing a blog when I have a few minutes to spare. I follow quite a few and it was tough narrowing my favourites down to three, but these made the cut for one common reason - the way the personality of the blogger shines through their words:

Styling You: Nikki Parkinson's blog is, as the name suggests, devoted to helping women look and feel their best every day. There are fashion and beauty posts, tips on blogging and even occasional travel tips and ideas. My favourite thing about Nikki's blog is that she has created a real community here; most readers pop in regularly, she replies to almost every comment and is generous to a fault with her advice. If you like the blog and fancy a bit more Nikki, she published her first book Unlock your Style earlier this year.

Maggie Alderson's Style Notes: Maggie is a British author and journalist who has had her own love affair with Australia. I started reading her style columns in The Times when I still lived in the UK and was delighted to find her writing in Good Weekend when I moved to Sydney. The unusual thing about Maggie is that she writes about fashion, but can also be very funny. I still remember laughing so hard I snorted tea out through my nostrils when reading a column she'd written about the pitfalls of choosing a  brown bathrobe. Being mistaken for a monk for starters.

Savidge Reads: Simon Savidge is the man behind this blog and describes himself as 'the bookaholic with a beard.' He is indeed and is also a very amusing writer - his book reviews plus descriptions of life in the North of England are best enjoyed with a strong cup of tea and a custard cream. Savidge Reads also features interviews with authors and a regular series on Other People's Bookshelves (you can read about mine here). He has just been nominated for the UKBlogAwards and definitely gets my vote.

It seems as though every man and his dog has a blog these days - and that's just fine with me. I love that no matter how niche your interests, no matter how small your voice, blogging can connect you with like-minded people.

Just as I used to fall in love with new magazines when I was growing up (and Twinkle will always have a special place in my heart), I love to discover great new blogs. So if you have any recommendations to share, please do post them in the comments below.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

My favourite book of 2014: Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies

My favourite book of 2014

When I unwrapped this book on my birthday, I smiled. I'd heard good things of Liane Moriarty and looked forward to discovering her writing for myself. Two months later and I'm still smiling. I LOVED this book. Let me tell you why:

1. It was like reading about my own life
What pulled me in to start with was reading about people, places and situations that felt so familiar it was almost spooky. The book begins and ends with a primary school trivia night that goes wrong. In between there are around 400 pages of daily life and domestic dramas, some are storms in teacups, but others are much much worse.

2. It's funny
Moriarty has a wicked sense of humour and doesn't miss a trick. She's ruthless in her assessment of playground politics, shows but doesn't tell and gives her cast of characters - many of whom are like a chorus, voicing their own opinions at the end of chapters - plenty of rope with which to hang themselves.

There's something to make you smile on so many pages. Opening the book at random I found this:

He turned off the bathroom light. They both went to opposite sides of the bed, snapped on their bedside lamps and pulled back the cover in a smooth, synchronised move that proved, depending on Madeline's mood, that they either had the perfect marriage or that they were stuck in a middle-class suburban rut and they needed to sell the house and go travelling around India.
'I'd quite like to give Jane a makeover,' mused Madeline as Ed found his page in his book. He was a big fan of Patricia Cornwell murder mysteries. 'The way she pulls back her hair like that. All flat on her head. She needs some volume.'
'Volume,' murmured Ed. 'Absolutely. That's what she needs. I was thinking the same thing.' He flipped a page.
3. It's beautifully written
To say there's a lot going on in this book is something of an understatement. But it's easy to read because Moriarty's prose just sparkles. Every word on the page earn its keep and the story has its own momentum - I couldn't put it down.

4. There's more to Big Little Lies than meets the eye.
You could be forgiven for thinking, at a quick glance, that the book is chick lit. Flicking through the pages you'll find the characters gossipping and bitching and falling in love too. But the story has a dark underbelly and Moriarty's exploration of domestic violence is one of the reasons the book has garnered so much attention.
'Mum! Come on!' Josh yanked on Celeste's arm. She clutched at her tender right shoulder. 'Ow!' For a moment the pain was so sharp she fought nausea.
'Are you all right?' said Renata.
'Celeste?' said Perry. She could see the shameful recognition in his eyes. He knew exactly why it had hurt so much. There would be an exquisite piece of jewellery in his bag when he returned from Vienna. Another piece for her collection. She would never wear it and he would never ask why.
For a moment Celeste couldn't speak. Big, blocky words filled her mouth. She imagined letting them spill out.
My husband hits me, Renata. Never on the face, of course. He's far too classy for that.
Does yours hit you?
And if he does, and this is the question that really interests me: Do you hit back?
'I'm fine,' she said. 
5. There's more where this one came from
There's nothing I like more than finding a new favourite author and discovering he or she has written lots of books. I'm going to track down Three Wishes and The Husband's Secret next. Also on my list are The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot and The Hypnotist's Love Story.

What's your favourite book of 2014? And have you discovered Liane Moriarty yet?

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Too close to home: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it and weep: Lisa Genova's Still Alice
I ran into a girlfriend while walking our dog on Monday morning. Last time I saw my friend - three weeks ago - she told me that her mum, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, had just gone into care. I asked how her mum was doing and was shocked when she told me she had died.

I knew her mum wasn't well, I knew she wasn't going to get any better, but still I was appalled by the speed of her decline. What made me even sadder is that I know so many, too many, people whose lives are touched by this terrible illness.

I didn't know much about Alzheimer's until I read Lisa Genova's amazing debut novel, Still Alice. It's a first person account of an extraordinarily bright woman's descent into dementia: Alice Howland is a mother and brilliant Harvard professor in the prime of her life who initially notices she is becoming forgetful and is eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

Genova, an American neuroscientist, explores in painful detail what happens as the disease progresses and Alice's condition declines. It's been some years since I read this book, but I still remember reading about Alice getting lost in her own neighbourhood, believing she sees the floor of her house transformed into a gaping hole and being humiliated at work because she can't remember what she has or hasn't done or is supposed to do.

There are moments of great pathos. For example, Alice, once she knows what's happening to her, makes a pact with herself to end things once she has passed a certain point in her illness. She writes a note to herself in a special file on her computer, but by the time she finds and reads it again she is incapable of carrying out its instructions.

The book is as enlightening as it is unnerving - and I learned a lot from it as the scientific and medical aspects of the story are covered in a way that makes them easy to understand. The human pain - Alice's and her family's - is described unflinchingly too. Here is one of many memorable exchanges between Alice and her husband, John. She has asked him not to accept a great job offer in New York (they live in Boston) but to take a year's sabbatical and spend it with her:
"I don't think I can do it, Alice. I'm sorry, I just don't think I can take being home for a whole year, just sitting and watching what this disease is stealing from you. I can't take watching you not knowing how to get dressed and not knowing how to work the television. If I'm in lab, I don't have to watch you sticking Post-it notes on all the cabinets and doors. I can't just stay home and watch you get worse. It kills me."
"No, John, it's killing me, not you. I'm getting worse, whether you're at home looking at me or hiding in your lab. You're losing me. I'm losing me. But if you don't take next year off with me, well, then, we lost you first. I have Alzheimer's. What's your fucking excuse."
It's not all bleak though. Still Alice is also a warm and funny account of a high-achieving woman who loves her job and her family and is determined to make the most of the time she has left. I've just heard that the film of the book is due for release in 2015. Julianne Moore plays Alice with Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart in supporting roles. It'll be tough to watch, but I think it's a movie we all need to see.

In the meantime, if you haven't read it already, do pick up a copy of the book. September is Dementia Awareness month and given that 1,700 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each week in Australia and it's the third leading cause of death here, perhaps Still Alice should be required reading for us all.

I loved this book. Have you read it and what did you think?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sweet reading: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl

A book for peanut butter lovers: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl
I'm a great believer that variety is good for us. That applies to food, exercise - and reading too. And call me a lightweight, but I don't think reading should feel like hard work. So while I love a thought-provoking book that lingers with me long after I've read the last word, sometimes something short and sweet can be just the ticket.

If you're feeling in the mood for a little reading confectionery, may I recommend Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl? I picked up this book at the National Book Bloggers Forum a few weeks ago and decided to add it to my reading list as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I knew I was going to like this book as soon as I read the words:
"Dedicated to whoever it was who invented peanut butter. I - we all - thank you."  
On the cover it says the novel is about 'what happens when you discover the man of your dreams is going out with your best friend.' For me that undersells this book. Foster's story is the delightful and often amusing tale of young TV producer, Lily, struggling to find her way in life and love. It's well written and offers plenty of insights into what it's like to work in TV, particularly in food programming (lucky Lily finds daily banter with a gorgeous TV chef is part of her job description).

Of course, romance is on the menu and Lily eventually gets together with Jack Winters, the tasty young cook to whom her flatmate Simone, a swimwear model addicted to prescription drugs, is plainly unsuited. This element of the story is entertaining enough, but there's no real tension here. It's evident from the outset that Lily and Jack will soon be an item.

The book ends in traditional fashion with our hero and heroine about to kiss. I'm not sure what drew my eye to the next page, the acknowledgements, but I was glad it did. Foster has one last laugh in store for her readers:

"First of all, I must thank my dear friends Jamie Oliver and Curtis Stone, who spent hours, many hours, with me detailing how exactly chefs operate on a day-to-day basis, as well as the inner workings of live TV production. Second, I must retract those thanks, because I've never met either of those men. But I think they'd both definitely be very lovely and helpful."
The Wrong Girl is a fun read - a perfect refresher between heavier books. I'm reading Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed now and loved it from the very first page. But next time I'm looking for something light, I might try Air Kisses, Foster's novel about 'the magazine world's most unlikely beauty editor'. How about you? Do you like to mix your reading up? What are your fave light reads?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Do we need an Australian Women Writers Challenge?

It's been said many times that writing is a solitary profession and I have to say I find that to be true. There are some days when I don't speak to anyone - except my dog - from 8am in the morning to 6pm at night. Most of the time I don't mind too much, but it can mean I have a lot of pent up talking to do.

And I'm not the only one. This year's inaugural National Book Bloggers Forum, hosted by publishers Random House, was full of booky bloggers just bursting with things to say about the books they'd read, the books they were going to read and, in some cases, the books they were going to write.

It was great to meet Shelleyrae Cusbert of Book'd Out who is surely one of the most prolific readers on the planet. Shelleyrae has four kids, but still makes time to read a book a day and blogs about most of them. I can only imagine she's mastered the art of reading while she sleeps.

Reader, writer and film reviewer Susan May of An Adventure in Words shared plenty of ideas too - including her cure for writers suffering from that common disease - 'life-gets-in-the-way-itis.' (In case you're a sufferer, the remedy is to: "write a page a day no matter what.")

Chatting to blogger Elizabeth Lhuede, I learned about the Australian Women Writers Challenge, an initiative that 'encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year.'

It's a challenge I find quite appealing, not least because it will help reduce the number of books on my 'to read' shelf for this year. Although I've never chosen a book because of the gender of its author, on balance I'd say that I prefer female writing. I generally don't find thrillers very thrilling and am drawn to books publishers categorise as quality commercial fiction - and they're often written by women.

Towards the end of the day, Random House previewed some of the books readers could look forward to for the second half of 2014. The list was long and included quite a few clearly destined to be bestsellers (more on this later). But when I was thinking about what to read next, I remembered my chat with Elizabeth.

Cute, funny and beautifully written: Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl

I'm now reading Zoe Foster's The Wrong Girl (I'm not sure where Zoe was born, but understand she lives and is published here, so hope that counts) and on my 'to read' pile there's Sisters of Mercy and Matilda is Missing both by Caroline Overington, Elianne by Judy Nunn and Hades by Alexandra Adornetto. Have you read any of these and what did you think of them? Do you think we need an Australian Women Writers Challenge and who are your favourite Australian women writers? I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, 16 May 2014

A book to devour: Caroline Overington's Ghost Child

Some books are there to be savoured, others are gobbled down in just a day or two. When I picked up Caroline Overington's Ghost Child, I had a feeling it would be one of the latter. I didn't know much about it, but I'd heard Overington's writing compared to that of Jodi Piccoult and expected a quality commercial read. In fact, Ghost Child exceeded my expectations.

Caroline Overington's Ghost Child: a delicious read

Overington's publishers, Random House, describe Ghost Child as 'a multi-voiced novel centred around a child's death and its terrible repercussions.' Here's their summary of the story:

"In 1982 Victorian police were called to a home on a housing estate an hour west of Melbourne. There, they found a five-year-old boy lying still and silent on the carpet. There were no obvious signs of trauma, but the child, Jacob, died the next day.  
The story made the headlines and hundreds attended the funeral. Few people were surprised when the boy's mother and her boyfriend went to prison for the crime. Police declared themselves satisfied with the result, saying there was no doubt that justice had been done.  
And yet, for years rumours swept the estate and clung like cobwebs to the long-vacant house: there had been a cover-up. The real perpetrator, at least according to local gossip, was the boy's six-year-old sister, Lauren. 
Twenty years on, Lauren has created a new life for herself, but details of Jacob's death begin to resurface and the story again makes the newspapers. As Lauren struggles with the ghosts of her childhood, it seems only a matter of time before the past catches up with her."

Ghost Child is an easy read, but it's a confronting one too. Overington tells the story through the mouths of a whole cast of characters, some major some minor, and so we have a glimpse of multiple perspectives as the story unfolds. She has a real talent for taking us inside someone else's head - and for conveying characterisation through little more than speech. Whether we love or loathe the people in this story, our feelings are usually inspired by their thoughts, their words...

By the same token, it's hard not to feel that the children in story have been failed by the state systems that are meant to care for and protect them, but at the same time we are led to understand how many of the system's failings have come about.

I picked up this book expecting a quick easy read. And it delivered on both fronts. But days later Ghost Child is still haunting me. This was the first book I've read by Caroline Overington, but it's left me wanting more.

What are you reading at the moment? And has it surprised you in anyway?