Friday, August 28, 2015

The City of Ember

I read this one to Mr 12 and we both loved it.   It was interesting, exciting and based on a great premise.

Lina and Doon, both 12 year olds, live in Ember.  Ember is lit only by lights, all powered by a great river turning a massive generator.  Over 200 years ago, the people of Ember began living in this place that The Builders created.  No-one knows any other life, yet the electricity is failing, the storerooms that once were bountiful are running low and regular blackouts leave the city completely dark.

While the residents around them remain wary and ignorant of a way forward, Lina & Doon believe there must be a solution to the increasing problems.  It becomes clear to them that there must be a way out of Ember, even though darkness is in every direction.  It’s exciting and we were very keen to see how it ended.

We then went on to individually read the other three DuPrau has written in the series.  Short summary – The City of Ember is the best. 

The second, The People of Sparks, continues the story once the people of Ember have found a solution to their problem.  It’s a good picture of a post-apocalyptic world, where everyone has had to return to completely basic living after the fall of civilisation.

The third The Prophet of Yonwood was much more disappointing.  It is in some sense a prequel, set ~50 years before the City of Ember is built.  But rather than continuing with that storyline as it’s main focus, it becomes an analysis of wrong religious interpretation and how fervour for the truth can be misapplied dangerously.  Both of us found it a bit tiresome.

The fourth, The Diamond of Darkhold, returns to the original story line following Lina & Doon almost a year later in the city of Sparks, and what happens when they decide they need to return to the City of Ember.

So, I highly recommend The City of Ember, and it works well as a standalone book.  If you really like it, push on to books 2 & 4 but I personally wouldn’t bother with Book 3.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Stephanie Thornton

I have recently read 3 historical fiction novels all by Stephanie Thornton.  She has chosen to write about women that played a major role in history, but of whom we know little about today.

The first was Daughter of the Gods and is set around the life of Hatshepsut, daughter of Pharaoh Tutmose I in Egypt in the 1400s BC. It charts her whole life: her loves, losses, and the power battles that raged to lead the people of Egypt. I really enjoyed it, and while Thornton acknowledges there are some liberties taken as it is fiction, most of the characters and events depicted occurred. It was an eye-opening view into the life, customs and beliefs of Ancient Egypt.

The second was The Tiger Queens, set in the region of current Mongolia and it charts the lives of the women connected to Genghis Khan. It starts with his promised wife, Borte, and moves to his daughter Alaqai and then onto other women in the family. I have never read anything about this time or region and really enjoyed the insight it gave me into a very different era. Again, I appreciated Thornton’s explanation at the end about which aspects were historical and which parts were more fictional.

The third was The Secret History, set in 6th century Constantinople in the   Byzantine Empire. It charts the promiscuous youth of Theodora (often the only way for poor women to survive) to her eventually marrying the nephew of the Emperor and becoming Empress is her own right. In the end, after dreadful beginnings, she does become a woman to admire, even if somewhat grudgingly. She was able to play power games with the best and ended up a both a powerful asset to and true love of her husband.

As all three books are well researched and detailed, it definitely pays to have pen & paper handy to keep track of the characters. Many names are unfamiliar to modern ears and the details quickly become murky if you aren’t keeping track. These books would have greatly benefitted from a list of characters (and also gods and spirits) to refer to when needed. (I found after reading there was one hidden towards the end of The Tiger Queens, but I didn’t find it when I went looking!). She weaves in and out with details and often refers back to previous details. Keeping track makes the whole book easier to follow and reduces much potential confusion!

She has another book due for release in December, The Conqueror’s Wife, telling the story of the women around Alexander the Great.  I am looking forward to it already.

If you like historical fiction, especially about times and parts of the world where you might have less knowledge, these are an enjoyable read. They will also serve a double purpose, if you are a woman, chances are you will end up very thankful you live in this day and age!

The Shell Seekers

I first read this book as an older teenager after my mum raved about it. I've had fond memories of it ever since and pick it up every 5 years or so for another read.

Penelope Keeling, in her mid-sixties, has just had a minor heart attack. She has returned home of her own accord to the consternation of her children: Nancy (the eldest, responsible and over-bearing); Noel (flighty, spendthrift & selfish) and Olivia (Penelope’s favourite).

Penelope’s father was Lawrence Stern, a painter whose work has slowly gained in value over the years. She has a number of his works and her children would quite like to get their hands on them, or at least the money they would earn.

With various flashbacks we learn of the entirety of Penelope’s life, concentrating on her early twenties during WWII. It’s a lovely story, with a good variety of characters thrown in. We are clearly not meant to like two of her children, yet other young people grace Penelope’s life who she comes to have great affection for.

It’s interesting to read again now because as a young woman, I loved the character Olivia, she was strong, successful & independent. Now I think she is a little sad – career driven and refusing to open her life up to almost anyone. Our perceptions do change over time!

This has been one of Pilcher’s most loved & acclaimed novels. I tried other books of hers over the years, but felt nothing else ever matched it for scope, interest or storyline.

A lovely, long book about families and friendships, with all their highs and lows.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

This book has been doing the rounds for a while now, having been originally published in 1999. However a revised edition has been released this year. Having read both within 2 months of each other, not much has been changed and the good concepts and ideas of the first book are still the same in the revised edition. I have found it to be incredibly helpful, wise and insightful.

Gottman has been researching relationships for 40 odd years and he is known as one of the world’s leading relationship experts, you will often find his work cited by other authors on marriage.

He starts dealing with some marriage myths (pretty much debunking the whole ‘active listening technique’ in the process). He outlines the research he has done and how it points to key problems in marriages. He outlines what makes marriage work (essentially mutual admiration, respect and friendship) and then his key indicators of future divorce, which are almost entirely related to how a couple communicate.

From these he has developed 7 principles that make marriages work, in essence:

  1. Knowing and being involved in the details of each others lives
  2. Having fondness and admiration for one another
  3. Choosing to turning towards each other rather than away from each other
  4. Allowing your partner to influence you
  5. Being committed to solving solvable problems
  6. Overcoming the gridlock of perpetual problems
  7. Create shared meaning for life together

Each of these has detailed explanations, examples of marriages doing it well and poorly, and then extensive exercises for a couple to do together. In essence he has written a ‘do-it-yourself’ marriage course for any couple willing to put in the time and effort.

His detailed comments & observations on communication are very helpful. He points out the risk of starting conversations harshly, rather than gently; 4 danger areas he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling); how to manage flooding (emotional overload); and he makes a distinction between problems that you can solve and problems that you have to live with and manage.

It is a secular book so for Christian content you need to go elsewhere, yet his framework is clearly pro-marriage and pro-working at it to make it better. Time after time I found myself writing out quotes from it to remember.

Here are some:
The more emotionally intelligent a couple – the better able they are to understand, honour, and respect each other and their marriage – the more likely they will indeed live happily ever after (p5)
...happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company. These couples tend to know each other intimately – they are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but through small gestures day in and day out. (p21) 
The more you can imbue your relationship with the spirit of thanksgiving and the graceful presence of praise, the more profound and fulfilling your lives together will be. (p284)
people with the highest expectations for their marriages usually end up with the highest quality marriages. This suggests that by holding your relationship to high standards, you are far more likely to achieve the kind of marriage you want than you are by looking the other way and letting things slide. (p262)
Not surprisingly, a fair amount of his ideas have made it into our new marriage course.

Having re-read this in 2020, I still believe this is one of the best practical books on marriage, with the research to back it up. Gottman provides couples with excellent wisdom and advice, even if the exercises might feel forced for some. Highly recommended for all couples wanting to improve and strengthen their marriage, no matter how strong or weak it currently is. 

Monday, August 3, 2015


Useful, Debra Oswald

This modern Australian fiction was an enjoyable & interesting read. Sullivan Moss decides that after years of being an unreliable friend, uncommitted husband, useless employee and regular drunk that he is a waste of space and attempts to kill himself. Waking in hospital to find he has failed, he decides on the spur of the moment that his body is still useful and therefore he will donate a kidney. After realising it will take some time to be allowed to donate, as well as needing to prove himself healthy enough in mind and body, he starts to take care of himself, stops drinking and finds a job.

At the same time single-mum and radio producer Natalie’s dad dies leaving a dog to care for. Through mutual friends, Sullivan ends up dog and flat-sitting for her. As they interact, they start to form a friendship.

Through the various interactions with their mutual friends, you see the history that has brought them both to where they are now. There are some sad and harsh figures along the way who drink & swear too much and sleep around, however they are fully in character and quite believable.  Unlike the depressing awfulness of The Slap, whose characters had no redeeming features or any positive change, these characters and their relationships are slowly changed for the better. Spanning about a year, it charts well the ups and downs of friendships and relationships and towards the end there were some twists and turns I really didn’t expect.  It is set in Sydney and much of it I could visualise.  I never know if that’s good thing for people who have no connection with a setting, but I liked it.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read.  Oswald has been involved with writing many Australian TV dramas, has authored numerous plays and also a number of kids’ fiction books.  This appears to be her first adult fiction.  I hope she writes more.