Hope Farm, by Peggy Frew

hope-farm

A snippet of a discussion about this book on the radio was enough to pique my interest. Hope Farm is the story of a young girl, Silver, growing up in a Hippie Commune. Her mother, Ishtar’s story is intertwined in the form of a diary.

I was a young mother in the 70s, living a very conventional life, but a part of me yearned for a commune. The notion of living with a small community of like-minded people, whose children would be constant playmates with mine, and adults who shared household duties, home grown vegetables, and lively discussions about interesting subjects, sounded idyllic.

But I didn’t know any real hippies, and even if I had, I’m sure the reality wouldn’t have lured me to give up the comforts of my home and my independence.

This book confirmed that for me with its vivid descriptions of what I suspect many communes were like, and I know would not have liked it.  

Hope Farm is written in the adult voice of the child, Silver, as she remembers her thirteen year-old self living at Hope Farm, and becoming aware of the flawed people in her life. Intertwined with her story, are diary entries written by her mother, Ishtar. 

The first thing that appealed to me when I began reading this book, was the descriptive writing. I loved the way Peggy Frew’s words seemed to flow with a randomness that connected to the unwieldy life Ishtar, and by default Silver, led.

Long before I reach Ishtar’s hut and long before I reach the gate to Hope itself, just short of where the bridge flattens its back and the sunken runnel of the creek sends up it’s cool vapours, my vision slips, slurring like the tyres of my city hatchback on the loose surface. I’m skidding. I’m sliding. I’m going too fast, into a spin; I’m slamming into a tree. Or I’m slowing down, losing power — I drift to a standstill.

But it wasn’t long before the excessive descriptions began to irritate me, especially when she described the creek, a place she’d go to read and hide from the awful reality of life at Hope Farm. The sentences were often overwhelming, lengthy, and rambling.

The lightness of the flow of water, the warm, brown look of it — even though. when I put my hand in, it was so cold my fingers turned white and numb — the wet fissures in the big rocks that sat half submerged; the refractions of amber light deep down, and the mossy looking spotted fish that lazed there.

The chapters aren’t numbered or marked in any way, which befuddled me when suddenly I found myself reading something written in a starkly different voice, and using a different font. The grammar, spelling, and lack of punctuation made me think it was a mistake, that somehow the editor had overlooked it. It took a couple of these seemingly random intrusions into the story before I realised that these sections were excerpts from Ishtar’s diary. 

One time he was waiting he left the car with its bonnet up left his tools out on the concrete he stepped in to the footpath and blocked my way.

With all the lengthy descriptive paragraphs, the story failed to develop any interest for me for some time. I didn’t really care about the characters, or what happened to them, until two new characters arrived in the story, Ian who became Silver’s friend, and a bit later, Dan. It was also at this point that Ishtar’s diary entries seemed to give the story an added interesting element.

If the author had cut even half of her lengthy descriptions from the story, it would have been a much shorter tale. As it was, not a lot happened, although once I cared about Silver, the story gave me a few suspenseful moments, and the climax was fairly dramatic.

I’m glad I read this book. I’m interested in mother/child relationships, and in the end, I felt sorry for Ishtar, a victim of her time. She was tossed into a tough life at seventeen, and made choices I’m very glad I never had to make, Her actions, or lack of action, had a profound effect on her daughter, who chose a very different life path when given the chance. 

And that is what I think this book is largely about, the circumstances we find ourselves in, the choices we make, and how they can dictate our future.

Such a fickle thing, the hand of fate. 

Hope Farm is available in Book Stores and Amazon.

Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

paper-house

My daughter alerted me to this book because the subject matter relates to the subject matter in my own novel, Absent Children. However, although Paper House is also set in my old home town of Mt Eliza, the book differs greatly from Absent Children in other aspects.

I really enjoyed reading it, although ‘enjoyed’ doesn’t feel like the right word for a story about a depressed woman slipping  into serious mental illness after her baby girl is stillborn, but apart from the depressing subject matter, the novel has many positives. 

The beginning was slow to grab me, but the interesting style of writing kept me reading until I was gripped with the desire to read on for answers to the questions that arose for me. The writing was visceral, abandoned, and connected me with Heather, the mourning mother, deeply. 

My heart fell out on a spring morning, the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.

The chapters alternate between the adult Heather’s viewpoint, and the viewpoint of Heather as a child. It is through the child’s voice that the reader learns about her mother’s fragile mental state.

We just sit there in her bed, waiting to hear the rest of her wish, but she has her eyes closed. Then Fleur says, Lame! and gets out of bed, and I stroke Mummy’s hair and she is crying.

I’m sorry, I say. I’m sorry.

The story is propped up with some colourful characters, especially Heather’s neighbour, Syliva, the local storekeeper, Rupert, and Noel, the man who lives at the bottom of her garden.  And orbiting around her, worrying and trying to care for her is her sister, Fleur,  her loving and patient husband, Dave, and her dad.

I imagine this is not a book that everyone would enjoy, but I’d highly recommend having a look at it if you’re at all intrigued. Don’t judge it too quickly, because if you’re like me, it takes a few chapters before it holds you fast in it’s grip.

Paper House is available in good Australian bookstores, and  on the Amazon.com.au Kindle Store.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Amazon Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was promoted in America  as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, which probably explains why so many reviews I read were written by disillusioned readers.

However, before it’s release in Australia, I read an article that described the book as Lee’s first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that she worked with her editor for the next two years to transform it into the bestseller.

Which led me to wonder if the reason Harper Lee never wrote another book was because she was scared of failing. If I had an editor help me transform my book into a best seller, I’d doubt my own ability to write a good book by myself. Is it possible she felt a little like a fraud when To Kill a Mockingbird generated such acclaim?

As a writer, the main reason I wanted to read this book was because I LOVED that it took the author and the editor two years of working together to mold a first draft into a best seller, and I wanted to find out how far the draft was from the final product.

Finally, the truth was out there!  First drafts sometimes suck, and rewrites are what makes a book good.

Apart from the characters, the book is vastly different from To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently, the editor saw the possibilities of that story in Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood, and encouraged Lee to write the story around Tom Robinson’s trial in the child’s voice.

In Go Set a Watchman, Scout, known as Jean Louise, is a 26 years old New Yorker, who travels by train to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit to her father, Atticus. A love interest develops between Jean Louise and Henry, who now works for Atticus, but little else happens apart from occasional pointers to the South’s continued struggle at embracing the local negro community as equals.

The adult Scout believes passionately about equal rights for the black community, and she can’t understand why this should be a problem, whereas her father understands the bigger picture.

My overall impression was that the story was about the way children see everything as either black or white, whereas maturity teaches us that there is a grey side to every issue.

Another angle, is that the story was simply about growing up and coming to the realisation that a worshiped parent is flawed.

I found it to be generally well written, although dated in many ways, but still a compelling read. There were a few points where the writing was amateurish, especially in the long and unrealistic rants by some characters towards the end. And the conclusion of the story seemed a little simplistic to me, but I’d still recommend the book.

As an aside, I found the following words from Scout’s uncle and mentor, to be almost prophetic in today’s political climate:

“The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.

Scary.

Did you read Go Set a Watchman? I’d love to know why you read it, and what you thought of it. Please feel free to disagree with me – I love other opinions.

Book Review – Freedom from Addiction by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell with Denise Winn

The secret behind successful addiction busting.

Change is much easier than you think…

I didn’t envisage reviewing non-fiction books here, but this happened to be the first book I read after setting up this blog, and I can’t see why I should leave it out.  The authors appear to have the credentials in psychology, research, and counselling services, but more to the point, what they preach makes a lot of sense.

Addiction fascinates me, mostly because I have a son with a serious addiction problem, but also because I see various degrees of addiction in myself and everyone I know very well. To quote from this book

…anything pleasurable (even if it might not be an obvious candidate for addiction) can become addictive if it is done compulsively in the desperate search for a lift of mood.

Most of us err on the side of liking and indulging in something on a regular basis, but can manage without our drug or action of choice if we have to. I guess we have habits, and habits can be very good. So what turns a habit into an addiction?

I have long held the belief that some people are genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to certain substances. Many people enjoy alcohol, without becoming alcoholics. or exercise, without becoming anorexic, and so on, but a predisposition doesn’t mean it has to happen. To me, the big question is why so many of these addictive substances are used by our society in the first place. As an ex smoker, I’d have to say that I doubt anyone really enjoys their first cigarette, but once the addiction kicks in, it makes us believe we enjoy them.

In this book, I gained a deeper understanding about humans, and how we are wired to experiment, take risks, and push boundaries.

To go into more detail, first let me explain a little about ‘human givens’. They are the basic needs we are born with, those that help us live successful and fulfilled lives. At the most basic level, we all need food, water, warmth, and shelter from the elements, but as human beings, we have emotional needs that are crucial for our well-being as well. Needs such as security, volition, attention, privacy, self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a connection to others.

When any of these needs are unmet, we tend to suffer from a form of mental distress, and will seek out some way to relieve that distress. For the lucky among us, it could be as simple as a piece of chocolate, a drink, or a walk that will make us feel better enough to find a positive way to satisfy our missing need.

But the unlucky get caught up in the highs they get from their action or substance, which usually results in adding to their list of unmet needs. Those with severe addictions often lose their jobs, friends, family, and homes.

The beauty of this book is the way everything is explained in a simple, readable way, and it deals with common addictions that don’t severely disrupt lives, such as smoking, coffee, and food, right through to the extreme addictions. I liked the way it referred to sufferers as people with addictions, rather than addicts, effectively equalising rather than demonising them. It also doesn’t advocate the twelve step program, which is the predominant solution offered to those with severe addictions. This book gives ownership of the problem to the person with the addiction,  offering tips on how to give up their addiction, beginning with exercises like listing the negative affects their addiction has had on their lives, and then listing  what they would gain if they didn’t have the addiction. It sounds too easy – right? And that’s the shocking news – it doesn’t have to be hard!

I related to their explanations of why I began smoking, but even better, armed with that information and their step by step guide to giving up, I imagine stopping would have been far simpler than I made it when I did eventually quit.

An important part of the process is for the sufferer to find healthy ways to meet any unmet needs, which can include therapy, and the writers don’t reject medical help with those substances that could create severe physical withdrawal symptoms.

I think they do make some solid arguments against the established myths of addiction and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fresh look at the problem, especially if you’re a family member or friend of someone with an addiction. or a person with an addiction who would like to regain control of your life.

The book is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk:

Make Me Cry

Zeva at beach

I didn’t read much when I was a child. It wasn’t that I didn’t like reading, I was simply too busy making up stories inside my head and then playing them out.

Even as a teenager, I spent endless hours daydreaming rather than reading or doing schoolwork.

But in early adulthood, not being a reader suddenly became embarrassing among my group of friends, and so I gradually started catching up.

But it wasn’t until I became a mother that I really fell in love with books. Initially, I read everything I could find on pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, but I quickly progressed to fiction when I was spending endless hours breastfeeding. I had four children and they all self weaned, so that adds up to a lot of time feeding babies, blissfully happy doing my job, and reading.

I’m not a fast reader. My favourite books are about ordinary people conquering their hard times, their drawbacks, failings, or fears. I like to immerse myself in the character’s lives, to weep for them when they hurt, and rejoice with them when they succeed. They become my friends for a while, so I don’t want to rush through their story. Sometimes I almost dread coming to the end of the book and being forced to say goodbye to them.

It’s because I care about these ‘friends’ that I want a finish to the story that feels real. I don’t want my protagonists to be saved by Superman, James Bond, or some other fantastical magic.  It doesn’t have to be a happy ever after ending either. I’d rather it be more like life. I want them to struggle, and to learn something on their journey, a skill or an understanding that will lead them to a believable but ultimately uplifting ending.

I do read other genres, but to be honest, I generally rate a book well if I have to fight back tears at some stage in the story, and if any section reduces me to a sobbing mess, that book is sure to zoom to the top of my favourite list.

Apparently, I love to experience the wide range of emotions we are all capable of, but I’d really rather avoid feeling heartbreakingly sad, or frightened silly, which is why, I suspect, I love feeling them vicariously through stories where I can turn the page and read on until things get better. Sad events are always resolved faster in a story.

They feel safe.

Yeah, I love a good cry, but please don’t hurt me!

Before I published Absent Children, my novel about a young couple’s journey from the tragic birth of their firstborn, to the birth of their next baby, I submitted it for review to an online critique group. Most of the reviews I received from them were very positive, which made me happy, but I think this one from Liz, thrilled me the most:

I’m wondering, if this goes to print (which I’m almost sure it will) will it come ready packed with a box of Kleenex tissues included?

It delighted me because it meant I’d succeeded in a wish that happened back when I was feeding one of my babies. My heart was broken in one section of the book I was reading, The Bone People by KerI Hulm, and I remember enjoying the cry, and wishing I could write stories that made people cry.

At the time, I was far too busy raising my children and working as a nurse to even contemplate the possibility of that dream ever coming true. Besides, I didn’t have the skills required, or the imagination, and certainly not the determination.

But years later, I did have the time, and I discovered that the basic skills can be learnt. I also realised I’d been imagining stories all my life, and that determination is and has always been there when something is important to me.

And my first book was very important for me.

As well as posting about writing and publishing, one of my plans for this blog is to write honest reviews for the books I read. If you’re a reader, I’d like to think my reviews might help you choose your next book, and I’d love to hear about your favourite books too.

You might also like to be a guest reviewer here, as well, and we could create a world-wide book club, one with no required reading list, but plenty of discussion.