Monday, March 30, 2020

The Toll

The Toll, Neal Shusterman

We were all waiting for eager expectation for this third and final instalment of the Scythe series (having also appreciated Shusterman's other writing in Unwind and Dry) While still a good solid story with many interesting developments and premises, overall Husband probably summed it up well with his statement, “one book too many in the series”.

There’s not a lot of point detailing the story here, for you need to have read the first two and there is no need to have spoilers. Many of the same characters are still here, in fact there are so many concurrent storylines going on (some crossing over timing) that there are a fair amount of people and events to keep track of.

Rather than a review of the story then, I’ll offer two observations.

Firstly, it is indeed possible to trace societal change in teen fiction. My guess is 20-30 years ago all teen books started to have characters with a variety of cultural backgrounds. Then maybe 10-20 years ago there were always characters with a variety of sexual preferences and expression. Today, you cannot read a teen fiction book without having characters with variable gender expression. So, entirely predictably here there is Jericho who is gender variable, according to the weather: female when sunny and male when cloudy. It’s fits into the world he has created, but in the beginning I almost wondered if he was having a bit of a dig while also being culturally relevant. Yet considering the ongoing comments related to this character, I think Shusterman was very clearly making a statement about stopping fussing about gender specificity. I am starting to wonder if all young adult authors have content requirements from publishers they must meet to get published.

Secondly, while there were some elements of religious following in the first two books, in The Toll it has developed into various forms of fanaticism. At points snippets from the Toll’s holy books are included, with commentary and analysis of the text alongside it. For those with no religious background (especially teenagers) I suspect most of this will go completely over their heads. For those, like me, who spend their life in biblical commentaries, there is something arrogant and insidious here about the subtext that no commentary ever correctly interpreted a religious text. So, again, Shusterman as an author is presumably being critical about Christianity and other religions in the way he has done this.

I note these things, but not because I have a major problem with them, but they alert us again to the current climate we live in: tolerate everything, except organised religion.

Which just goes to say, keep enjoying well written books and encourage your teens to do so as well. Shusterman’s books certainly are well written, creative and very interesting. But also help them to analyse the world view of the author and the world view the book is presenting, for nothing we ever read is value neutral, so at least take the time to consider the various messages being communicated.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Jane Harper novels

The Dry

This is Harper’s very impressive and highly acclaimed first novel and I can see why. Aaron Falk, a Federal Police financial investigator has come from Melbourne to his home town of Kiewarra, to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadley. The whole town is in shock, although not overwhelmingly surprised, for it seems the pressure of the drought got to Luke and he shot his wife and son, before turning the gun on himself. Luke’s mother is convinced it doesn’t add up and asks Aaron to look into it. He joins forces with the local cop Raco, who still has questions of his own. But Aaron’s past history threatens to muddy the waters; as a teen he and Luke were close friends with a girl, Ellie, who was found dead in the river. That mystery has never been solved to the town’s satisfaction, at the time all turned on him and his father as suspects, causing them to leave town, never to return. Harper has a strong insight into human personality, and what can drive people, with layers of complexity and nuance. Nothing is quite what it seems on the surface, and there are some kind and generous characters, as well as some selfish and downright nasty, all with different secrets. There are some themes of domestic violence and alcohol fuelled violence. Harper has very realistically portrayed the toll that long term drought can have on a farming community, combined with long term memories, long held ideas and unsolved tensions.

Force of Nature

Harper’s second book has Aaron Falk returning, later in the same year as The Dry. He and his police partner, Carmen, are working with Alice Russell, who is secretly assisting them with an investigation into her workplace. Alice has been away for the weekend on a team bonding exercise camping in the Giralang Ranges with four other women in the company: the chairwoman, an old school friend in management, her assistance and her assistant’s twin, a new data archivist. But something has gone very wrong, and when the women return many hours after expected on Sunday night, Alice is no longer with them. The book runs two storylines, first is the investigation as Falk hears what happened from various people. The second is the chronological account of the women’s trip, as various relationships fracture and change. At the same time, there is an ominous tension over the whole area, as this was the place where 25 years ago Martin Kovac murdered numerous women, This has (one assumes intentionally) eerie parallels with Ivan Milat and Belanglo State Forest. While a solid story with interesting characters, this was my least preferred of the three. You definitely will want to read The Dry first to understand the references to Falk.

The Lost Man

This compelling and very readable story is set in far outback Queensland. Husband and father Cameron Bright, has just been found dead on his own property, under the Stockman’s Grave, the only shade for miles around in the scorching summer sun. Nothing adds up though, his car was 9kms away, fully stocked with water and supplies, and there is no sign of any struggle. The story is told from the perspective of his brother Nathan, who has an adjacent property, a bitter ex-wife and a 16-year old son who has come for the holidays. As Nathan starts to explore both the present situation and revisit his family’s past, it is clear that some things were not quite as he thought. It’s gently done rather than explicit, but it does include themes of domestic violence and rape. It’s an intriguing story about the realities of outback life and the isolation many face, as well as the communities around them. I really enjoyed it.

I appreciated all three books and am hoping Harper writes many more, perhaps also developing Falk as an ongoing character.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Art of Rest

The Art of Rest, Claudia Hammond

I really enjoyed this book. In fact, just the process of reading it was immensely restful.

Claudia Hammond worked as part of a multidisciplinary team for two years studying rest. They covered research in numerous areas, as well conducting a survey called the Rest Test, of which over 18,000 people took part across 135 countries. This book summaries some of the findings, by investigating in detail the top ten activities that people surveyed found restful.

There is an acknowledgement that many people today do not feel they get enough rest:
“Modern work practices, modern lifestyles and modern technology have combined and conspired to make life in the early 21st-century ceaselessly demanding.”
Hammond does not include sleep as rest, but rather she means “any restful activity that we do while we’re awake”. For some, this may be active like exercise or gardening, for others rest might be more sedentary, perhaps listening to music, lying in the bath or reading. Some prefer it to have some mental effort like cryptic crosswords, others prefer to watch TV, or just sit quietly in nature.

She then counts down the top ten, starting with mindfulness, helping explaining what it actually is, and then turns to almost the opposite - watching TV:
“We could practice mindfulness, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mindlessness. Nothing wrong with zoning out rather than zoning in. Watching TV is escapist and easy…No practice needed. Just switch on the set and switch off the brain.”
She then covers daydreaming, a bath, a walk:

“So much of life these days is speeded up. Walking slows us down.” I found this chapter interesting as she looked at the relationship between rest and exercise, because for some people, including myself, exercise is restful, and it seems to have a double benefit:
“As well as finding the exercise itself restful, people who exercise tend to reward themselves with sedentary rest afterwards. A double whammy.”
Later chapters look at doing nothing in particular, not really something I find restful, but it was a helpful look into the chronic busyness of lives generally. Then came listening to music, where she notes “that listening to music is one of the most common self-care strategies used by people under twenty-five”.

The final three were choosing to be alone, spending time in nature and reading. That reading came in number one was absolutely no surprise to me - it is always my go-to activity for some downtime.

The team were also interested to observe the things that didn’t make the top ten, including catching up with friends and family, or time online. The majority of the activities could be, and often are, done alone, “it seems when we want to rest, we very often wasn’t to escape from other people”. Yet there is a fineline here, and she also explored ideas of too much rest, enforced rest, loneliness and boredom.

I appreciated how Hammond identifies numerous types of rest and how they might work, but acknowledges this is a personal thing,
“The fact is we are all on our own on this one. It is a case of self-diagnosis and self prescription. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others. Everybody rests in their own way, but there are many common elements to the different ways we choose to rest.”
At the end, she considers what might the perfect prescription for rest. Some of these are obvious like make sure you rest enough, and do what works for you. But others about reframing your idea of rest were quite helpful - so give yourself permission to rest, keep an eye out for resting when you don’t realise it, and reframe your wasted time as rest (that time in line, on the train, etc). Then she moves into some life management tips for considering your own busyness - don’t fetish busyness, say no, and put breaks in your diary as well as appointments. Again, reasonably obvious, but it doesn’t mean we actually do it.

I found one comment particularly insightful here - that we often think we will have more time in the future, but we rarely do. So if you are asked to go to a two-day conference in 6 months, consider how you would feel in you had to fit it in in the next two weeks. If that thought fills you will dread at trying to fit in in, there is little chance you’ll be less busy in 6 months, so perhaps you should turn it down. Now, I know it’s not quite that simple, I often commit to things a long way out and then adjust my upcoming commitments because of that future choice, but I see what she is getting at.

All in all a very helpful book to consider rest as a whole, the things we might personally find restful, and it gives permission to see rest as important and necessary in our lives.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Diary of a Teenage Girl - Chloe

This is the second Diary of a Teenage Girl series by Melody Carlson, and fans of that series will enjoy this new one, which has some character overlap.

My Name is Chloe, is about a talented 15 year old singer songwriter who avoids the preppy types at school aiming for a more grungy look. She starts a band with two friends, Laura who is a Christian and Allie who is interested in Wiccan witchcraft. In time, both Chloe and Allie come to faith. Caitlin (from the Caitlin series) encourages her to read the bible, just the red letter words of Jesus, so she can be challenged by what he says. In the Caitlin series, every diary entry finished with a written prayer. In this series, each entry finished with a poem or lyrics that Chloe has written to sum up her feelings, in time they are often prayers too, and there is a lot of creativity contained here. Again, like the Caitlin series, there is a real honesty about teenage life, including how she feels about her parents, having friends who do drugs and bullying by other girls.

In Sold Out there are problems when Laura’s pastor starts questioning Chloe and accusing her of not being Christ centred, and of leading Laura astray. In time though, they come to the attention of a Christian music agency and end up being signed as a band. A trio of sixteen year old girls are now going on tour as Christian musicians.

Road Trip is the account of the touring. They make it big early on and become good friends with the band they open for, Iron Cross, a group of young men who currently top the music charts. This book has another reference (like the Caitlin series) to Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, it’s almost like Carlson is paid to promote his stuff. Chloe also buys a new bible and starts reading The Message. One band member struggles and ends up taking drugs to help her, which not surprisingly causes major problems for her and the band.

In Face the Music, the band members are now all 17 and balancing the touring life with high school commitments, friends, potential boyfriends, family and fame. Carlson is skilled at showing the ways we still fall into sin, yet how we can continually be saved by grace and desire to live in ways that honour God.

As I found with the Caitlin series, these are solid storylines with Christian influences throughout. You may not agree with it all (eg. the Message, the red letters and Josh Harris), and I noted other hesitations in my first review, but in the end, they are stories that engage young women and help them consider what it can mean to live a life of faith, while facing the realities of the adolescent world. Miss 14 loved this series.


After these books series, it was the right timing in the set to return to Book 5 of the Caitlin series, I Do. Caitlin is close to finishing college and Josh has just proposed. It’s all very exciting, but still there is the reality of planning a wedding and keeping two sides of the new family happy. I’m sure teen girls would enjoy this, but I don’t need to relieve the days of engagement, and we are party to enough weddings these days for me not to read about it in my fiction choices! So, all fine, and I’m sure fans will find it a suitable end to the Caitlin series.

Monday, March 2, 2020


Educated, Tara Westover

This is a book that will stay on your mind long after you have read it. Westover has provided a riveting and very challenging account of her childhood and early adult years. If it was a fiction book you would think the author had gone a bit overboard, but the fact that it is autobiography supports the saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, often much worse as well.

Westover was born into a strict Mormon family in Idaho where the father was convinced at various points that the end of the world was imminent and they needed to prepare. They were against the government educating their children and provided no real homeschooling at all. They were completely against medical care, despite family members suffering numerous major life threatening injuries, all treated entirely with the mother’s ointments and herbal remedies. Her father is strict and reckless, although kind at times. He dominates and controls all of those who do not follow his ways, and Westover later ponders whether he was either bipolar or schizophrenic. Older brother Shawn was very physically and verbally abusive in later years, which is possibly linked to when Tara hit puberty. He was nasty and vindictive, and no one in the family ever stood up to him.

She wanted to go to college, and was encouraged by older brother Tyler to do so:
"There is a world out there, Tara," he said. "And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear."
She teaches herself Maths and English from textbooks (with some help from her brother). After two attempts at the entrance test, she got a high enough mark to be accepted into BYU in Utah, a mostly Mormon college.

Once she gets to college she is almost unable to comprehend the differences between herself and others:
"I’d always known that my father believed in a different God. As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practised it. They believed in God‘s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’ve known that members of my own family were the only true Mormons I have ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the intensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between."
She comes to realise how little education she has about everything, and is drawn to history subjects.

Now two concurrent storylines emerge: Westover’s life as she studies and shows remarkable gifts, eventually ending up at Cambridge for graduate study; and then the realities of what happens every time she returns home to Idaho, where patterns of abuse and control reign.

In the end, she concludes it is education that makes the difference. Three of the children left home, got educated and broke the patterns of their children. Four were never educated at all, never left the area and all still operate under the dominating control of the men in their family. She is quick not to denounce Mormonism entirely, and this is no doubt an extreme version of it, yet the warning is there. A man-made version of religion can produce dangerous men, who twist and turn things their way. Of course this can happen without religion too.

This is a gripping story, but it probably needs a bit of a warning about the explicit themes of domestic violence in it. I kept pondering afterwards, what happens to the people in these situations who do not get out? Tara got out. She will live with the consequences for the rest of her life, but chose to be removed from it. What about Shawn’s wife, his sisters and now his children? Fiction you can put down, non-fiction you are left pondering about the real people affected. A sobering but compelling read.