Tag Archives: e-books

Book review: Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough

bittersweetWhat an apt title for this book. Bittersweet. It explains how I’m feeling right now, having just read the final chapter on my Kindle app. I love some of Colleen McCullough’s previous novels. I adored The Thorn Birds. And Tim. And the slightly whimsical The Ladies of Missalonghi. But I didn’t adore Bittersweet.

I maybe the only reviwer who says this, and it’s probably un-Australian of me to say so, but I just don’t think it’s as well written as McCullough’s earlier novels. Characters have immense changes of mind and tenets without any prior inkling – unless the Kindle version was missing a vital piece or two.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is the story of four sisters – two sets of twins, Edda and Grace, Kitty and Tufts (Heather) by the same father and different mothers – and the story takes place during the 1920s into the Depression in the 1930s, set mainly in the fictional NSW town of Corunda. Their father, a lovely bloke, is a Reverend at the local church but to avoid their overbearing mother/stepmother and gain some independence the four girls become live-in student nurses at the local hospital.

All good so far. McCullough’s done her research, and the 1920s setting is pretty authentic, down to the duties and treatments the young nurses deal with and the clothing they wear. We learn more about their characters, and their characters develop now they are living out of home in a nurses’ house at the local hospital.

The twins are polar opposites: Edda is strong and intelligent, Grace is weaker. Kitty is the glamour girl, Tufts the practical.

It’s no real surprise that Grace, who doesn’t like the dirtier duties of nursing, marries quickly, but I was rather stunned to read her accepting a proposal of marriage from a man at their first meeting. Yeah, OK, there’s love at first sight but this stretched even my romantic belief.

Kitty is pursued by a wealthy man and finally her scorn turns to love. She marries him, but two miscarriages don’t make up for the big house on the hill and her husband’s interest in politics. He’s a possessive chappy, too, and resents the time she spends with her sisters.

After having an illicit relationship with a local, Edda marries a titled man in a deal that will see her attain a medical degree in return for protecting his homosexuality. It’s actually a better deal than it sounds.

Tufts’ love is the hospital; her relationships with men are fraternal, and she becomes more successful in her career as the book progresses.

Things don’t go well for Grace when the depression hits and her husband loses his job. She’s living in the poorer part of town and won’t accept charity from the wealthy husbands her sisters have acquired. She’s determined to stay there and send her two sons to a local school. But wait! Out of the blue she does a 180 and decides she wants to live in a posh part of Sydney and send them to a private school, and asks Kitty’s husband to help her. That’s the change of character thing I’m talking about.

There are bursts of lovely humour through the book; at times the writing is lyrical and evocative. At others though, it’s a bit rushed, staccato; almost as if two people were writing it, not just one.

Plot and style bunnies aside, this is a story of sisterly love and strength; and ambition. These are strong women who are in many senses ahead of their time. Given the setting, the four protagonists and the author, I should have loved this one.

But I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I’ve enjoyed McCullough’s earlier books. I reached the final page and was looking for the next chapter, or at least a really memorable closing paragraph. Bittersweet, indeed.

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When five bookshelves just isn’t enough…

Pile of books with additional catI would hate to try and count the books I own. Even with an annual purge of books I’ll never re-read the library overflows over five six feet tall bookshelves, with books wedged in wherever possible. There are now two tall and perilous piles of books sheltering against one of the bookshelves. Luckily the cats haven’t thought to use them as a stepping stone to the windowsill yet! I estimate that between my husband and I we have thousands of books. We both re-read most of them too.

I’ve now come to the conclusion that I should, despite my love of holding that thing made of paper, start collection more series as e-books. I had the best intentions there late last year when a friend put me onto Rita Mae Browns’ Mrs Murphy mystery series. I bought the first two in the series as e-books very cheaply, then to my dismay found that the publishers hadn’t issued the other 16 as e-books. They were only available as hard copy. As I was hooked by then, I bought them on eBay either new or second hand from international sellers (much cheaper!) and they form part of one of the perilous piles. I’ll be reviewing them as a series shortly.

Where and why do we buy our books? Our local bookseller gets a lot of business from us; he knows us well and has our preferences on file so when a new book by a favourite author is available he’ll give us a ring. He also regularly institutes that dangerous and money-grabbing invention, The Bargain Table. He’ll take boxes of remaindered new books from the publishers and sell them for anything up to 75% off the original price on big trestle tables in the middle of the shopping centre. Books in Australia are expensive; a new paperback will cost you at least $25, a trade paperback $35 or more. So The Bargain Table can see us grabbing four books for the price of one.

The danger with The Bargain Table is that one takes chances on authors one hasn’t read before. Sometimes we put the book away, half-read, with no enthusiasm to read the rest as it’s absolutely turgid and wondering why we bothered buying it. These books usually go straight into the charity box we keep near the front door and I feel guilty that I have done the author a bit of a disservice – writing books is a hard slog. If we find an author whose work we really enjoy, however, it’s likely we’ll start buying more from that author (see Rita Mae Brown above!).

Airports are another trap for the reader. My husband travels quite a bit and he often comes home with a new gem from the excellent bookshop in the domestic terminal at Sydney airport, where you can buy books that are not simply the top 100 bestselling paperbacks you typically find at airport bookshops.

Church fetes and second-hand shops are bliss – here’s where we pick up the books missing from series we’ve collected years before. Paperbacks for 50 cents, anyone?

eBay is another favourite of mine for tracking down missing books from series that I can’t seem to find anywhere else. It’s also a place where I dispose of unwanted books in good condition from time to time.

I often get asked by friends – typically the ones who don’t read very much at all – why we don’t just borrow from the local library. Firstly there’s not one in walking distance but the main reason is that if I have a hankering at 10pm to read a particular book, I have it to hand. I’m a fast and voracious reader. I should probably use the library for cost reasons alone though; I have never dared tot up how much I’ve spent on my reading habit. Books are an addictive drug!

Slowly however the e-book collection is growing, as even with purges those piles aren’t diminishing, and e-books, like The Bargain Table, are substantially cheaper than real books. I’ve got used to reading on my iPad now but admit that I do tend to bolt e-books and speed read through them. If I have made any new year resolution this year it’s to stock up on e-books rather than hard copies. There just isn’t space in our cottage for a sixth bookshelf!

What’s your book collection? Does it fit neatly on your shelves, messily on them, all over the floor, in boxes, on an e-book reader, or in your local library?

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Online, on iPad or hard copy – how do you read?

If somebody asked me what my greatest passion in life was, I’d say ‘reading’ without any hesitation. Give me a spare few minutes and I’ll have a book in my hand, typically a novel rather than non-fiction, as I do like to escape. I also enjoy flicking through magazines but don’t get the same ‘read many times over’ value I get out of books.

As we head towards Web 3.0, I find I’m ingesting my reading now in different ways, and each has its own pleasures.

Rather than buy hard copy magazines on a regular basis (apart from UK Country Living… my guilty pleasure) I read mags online, usually in the form of a website but occasionally on my iPad. It’s a different reading experience reading a website; I find my attention span is shorter because there might be something more interesting to click on. Like many web users I’m either hooked in the first para or two or I’m off in new directions.

iPadTake the best of printed and online worlds and you can read a magazine on the iPad which offers you a superior interactive experience, if it’s done right. National Geographic, for example, is pretty good at this. As yet I haven’t really deeply explored the world of magazine apps from a reader’s perspective, as I’m a cheapskate and there aren’t many free ones which appeal to me, but I’ve sampled National Geographic’s offering.

The key phrase in the para above was ‘if it’s done right’. When magazine and newspaper apps launched for the iPad many of them simply jumped in not to get left behind, with the result that their iPad app wasn’t much more than a glorified PDF. Apps are capable of far more interactivity than a PDF with a couple of links. Put it this way: if I’m going to fork out $8+ for a magazine in app form it had better offer me a more fulfilling experience than the paper copy for the same money. I expect videos, links, pages which expand with more information at the touch of a link, photo galleries, and some real interactivity. (One advantage with magazines in app form is that one can zoom in on the pictures!)

Back to your plain vanilla online mags – ie, a website which has specific sections and is updated at regular intervals, and centres around a particular interest, hobby or ism. Most of these now feature regular blog articles, so are updated on a daily or almost daily basis, falling in between a news site and a magazine site in terms of ┬ánew material being posted. These are the sites I’ll flick through first thing in the morning or, depending on how busy my day is, while dinner is cooking. I’ll typically view them on my laptop in the morning and the iPad in the evening.

Hard copy magazines are my tea break joy. As I’ve said I only buy one regularly, and I’ll make it last and dip into it for several days until I’ve read it cover to cover. I archive my old copies rather than chuck them out or pass them on, as I get design ideas from some of the properties featured in them. (One day I really must go through the four year old pile and clip or scan the stuff I’m interested in and give the older ones to charity.) There is something truly satisfying about reading a paper copy, and while I revel in the vast amount of information available on the net it’s not the same as picking up a real, old-fashioned magazine.

The same goes for books. I have book reader software on the iPad and iPhone, and went through a mad phase of reading books electronically when I got the iPad last year. I’ve downloaded dozens of free ones I have yet to read. Having electronic editions of books is a boon when I’m on public transport – I can read on the iPhone while I listen to music on the iPhone, and don’t have to weigh my bag down with paperbacks. It’s also great for travelling for the same reason. The books I have on my iPad are ‘plain vanilla’ with no interactivity in them; basically electronic versions of classics and mysteries.

As a reading experience e-books for me are about convenience. I wouldn’t read an e-book in bed, as I do with hard copy books. If I fall asleep and drop a paperback it’s no big deal. If I fall asleep and drop an iPad or iPhone it could be expensive.

E-books do have advantages in that the electronic version is typically at least half the price of a new release hard copy, and of course they don’t overload our already overflowing bookshelves (currently five big ones plus more books at my mother’s house). I’m slowly warming to them. After all, a good novel is about the story, not the medium you read it in.

What about you? Paper or screen? What works for you and what do you prefer and why?

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