My 2019 Reading (and Writing) Challenge



It has been quite some time since my last post and well … I don’t really have an excuse apart from the fact that I’ve once again moved continents, changed jobs and have very recently relocated (internally this time) to start another new job next week! I’m hoping to stay put for a while and in turn to try and write some more, which my new surroundings are rather conducive to.


Isn’t there is a gothic story in the photo of the black cockatoo perched on the cross in the cemetery that I took on my ramblings yesterday evening?

I digress! Getting back to the purpose of this post I was rather proud of my reading challenge in 2018 and I have once again set myself a personal goodreads challenge for 2019. In addition, I stumbled across this Read Harder Challenge, 2019 edition ran by Book Riots. Rather than simply picking a number of books to read for the year, they have put together a reading challenge that contains 24 different categories of books ranging from epistolary novels, humour books, manga, a novel by a trans or nonbinary author, a translated book written by a woman, and the list goes one. The New York Public Library have put together a useful list of suggested books for each category. Being a true bookworm, I’ve already joined my new local library and have sussed out which of the books I have provisionally selected they have on offer. The range, so far is pretty comprehensive!

As a rather prolific reader myself – and I do believe I read quite widely – I know it is easy to get stuck reading books within the same genre, time period or written by a specific gender etc, which is why I think this particular reading challenge is brilliant. While I have read books within several of the 24 categories, there are quite a few that I have never explored. I have on occasion picked up a manga to see what all the fuss is about as many of my students have been rather partial to the genre, however, I have never read one myself. In addition, despite finding Howard Schultz’s ‘Onward’ about the success of Starbucks an interesting read (it wasn’t a personal choice, but part of a company bookclub book when I worked in PR in London), I have to admit that I often scorn the idea of reading business books. I guess I will have to be open-minded and remove my prejudice in my completion of the challenge.

Now my personal reading challenge is rather more than 24 books, but my plan is to complete the Book Riots challenge as part of my goodreads challenge. Furthermore, I aim to write at least one post per month which is a review of the books from my 2019 reading challenge. Well it’s only half way through January, so I’m off to a semi good start. Let’s see if I can sustain and complete both the reading and writing challenges I have set myself for 2019!


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‘The Girl With Seven Names’ by Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee

After a welcome and very digestible diet of P. G. Wodehouse and James Herriot, I felt that it was time for me to expand my literary cuisine to include more substantive choices. My mum had quite enthusiastically mentioned a book she had borrowed from her local library called ‘Schwarze Magnolie’ and when I visited her during my February school holiday I was suitably intrigued. So I picked it up and I have to confess, I found it hard to put down.

The Girl With Seven Names

‘The Girl With Seven Names’, as it is called in English is written by Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean woman in her early 30ties who escaped the dictatorship in North Korea and spends over 11 years trying to find safety and her place in the world. I have to admit that prior to reading the book I was slightly ignorant of the full extent of the supression in North Korea. The scope of my knowledge was limited to what I had heard on the news, which was predominately related to the military power feud between North Korea and the US.

The book was a real eye opener and left me feeling rather humble, somewhat ignorant and with a sense of having always taken things for granted in my own life. I am by no means an uninformed person but I guess my worldview has, like that of many others, been largely guided by the content of my education and indeed the coverage the Western media has chosen to show of the North Korean situation.

‘The Girl With Seven Names’ spoke to me on a number of levels. Firstly, I have an avid appetite for learning and expanding my own knowledge, and almost everything in this book was new for me. Secondly, I am a strong human rights advocate with a keen sense of justice and the full extent of the dictatorship, propaganda and human rights abuse in North Korea astounded me. And finally, Hyeonseo Lee is just a few years older than I am, which made her story all the more real and close to home for me. While reading the book I often found myself wondering what I would have done in her situation. Her tenacity, spirit, determination and unbelievable perseverance in the face of so many  obstacles and setbacks is astounding.

While the majority of her book is worlds away from my largely privileged and cushy life growing up in Northern Europe – I am in no way making any parallels to my own experiences – there were some parts of Hyeonseo Lee’s struggle that I could identify with. She spends a significant portion of her twenties and early thirties trying to deal with an identity crisis. Since leaving North Korea at the age of 17, she not only changed her name seven times in order to ensure her safety, but she also struggled to integrate, to find her place in the world and to find out where she belonged: is she North Korean, Chinese or South Korean? Where is home? I think this issue of identity crisis – although not usually to this extent – is one that many people of my generation, myself included, have to deal with. In the fluid modern world that we live in, people are constantly moving from one country or continent to another for numerous reasons including to be with family, in search of work, in order to migrate or simply to explore the world.

I think the key to survive if one does move around a lot and when dealing with an identity crisis is to really give oneself the time to settle and integrate. No matter where you go, some or all aspects of the change will be difficult and at times unbearable, but you have to give things time. I myself am guilty of cutting and running as soon as things start getting hard, rather than weathering it out and giving things a chance. We humans are strong, adaptable creatures, our problem I believe, is that we simply think too much. If against all odds Hyeonseo Lee could do it, we all can. She’s my new hero, a truly remarkable woman and a truly inspirational story. ‘The Girl With Seven Names’ is most certainly a worthy read.

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Teaching Human Rights

Amnesty International

“One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.

Education is the only solution. Education First.”

These are the last two lines of the inspiring and powerful speech made by 16 year old Malala Yousafza at the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013.

We’ve all had someone who inspired us in some way as a child or in our youth. For me there were two women whose influence has had a lasting impact on me. One was a family friend who fostered in me from an early age, a love for reading and literature, the other I have written about before, Janet Coggin who lived in the community I grew up in in Ireland. Janet inspired me in many ways, one of which being her passion for human rights and her work with Amnesty International. I remember at 13 or 14 after I received one of my first pay checks from my work in a local cafe, I was out in the Big Smoke (that’s what the Irish fondly refer to Dublin as) with my sister for a day of retail therapy. As was often the case there were charity street fundraisers at various points along Grafton Street. I usually sped up and feigned haste when I saw them, but not this time. That day I went up to the Amnesty International representative and asked if I could sign up and donate on a monthly basis to the organisation.

Over the years I have continued to support Amnesty and maintained a keen interest in their work. When I started teaching I tried where possible to incorporate human rights into my English and History lessons and I often did this successfully and with some inspiring results from my students. However, it is a daunting and challenging issue to teach young, and indeed older people about as it is such a vital and complex area to teach about in an engaging and relatable manner. When I lived in Australia, I saw that Amnesty ran Teacher Programmes but they were delivered in London and as you can imagine the distance posed a slight hurdle. So when I recently found myself back in Europe and teaching here, I decided to finally sign up and do the training.

20171014_084748_resizedI returned this afternoon from the first inspiring and motivational session in London. Myself and the other teachers on the training spent all day Saturday at the Amnesty offices in London soaking in all the information. I got so much energy and enthusiasm from the training, so much new knowledge, resources and ideas from the session but also from the other teacher who were there. We shared best practice and what we are doing, or have done in our schools and in our classrooms. I now feel that I can stand in front of both adults and children and teach them about and through human rights a lot more comfortably and engagingly than I did before.

It may sound odd but it felt so right being there. I feel that I have a renewed focus, energy and enthusiasm and I’m going to do my utmost to transfer that enthusiasm to my students and fellow teachers at my current school. 20171015_210631_resizedHuman rights is such an important issue and rights are violated and denied a lot closer to home than we realise and on a daily basis. It’s so easy to forget that, we get caught up in our own little bubbles, and often think that human rights violation (if we thing about it at all) is something that is removed from us and happening far away.

As Malala so aptly said in her speech, ‘education is the only solution’. It just takes one person to be passionate enough and to have the courage to start to make a change. Teaching others about human rights is to empower them with the knowledge and skills and for them in turn to pass this on to others. So me, my newfound knowledge, my bag of resource teaching goodies and my empowerment are going to set out to start making a change, even the smallest change, at my current school. I know it won’t be an easy task, but what worthwhile things in life are every easy!

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Bryce Courtenay’s ‘April Fool’s Day’ and a renewed perspective


Every now and again a book comes along, that for whatever reason you read at precisely the right moment and it has the potential to affect you tremendously. Most recently I had this experience with Bryce Courtenay’s beautifully written, but heart wrenching story about his youngest son’s death at the age of 23, which I have just finished reading. The cover was familiar. I had glanced over the book hundreds of times both as an adolescent perusing my parents bookshelves for something to read and later as an adult on the same mission when visiting my mother. But for some reason, I had not picked it up to read until now. I always say you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read some books and perhaps my current state of mind was simply ripe to read April Fool’s Day.

The book brought me to tears on many occasions but it also occasioned me to laugh out loud and at other instances to feel genuine anger and disgust towards the blatant lack of empathy and consideration of the Australian medical and political communities of the time. Not since reading Shantaram or indeed Sepharad last summer in Europe, have I felt this connected and impacted by a book and even then not on this level.

Reading for me is, and always has been, a refuge, an opportunity to delve into another world and escape my own for a while. The topic of Courtenay’s book is not what you would call light reading or indeed lighthearted. The story of his son’s slow and painful demise is horrendous and Courtenay does not shun away from the details or try to hide the reality of the suffering caused by haemophilia or AIDS. But what struck me most about the book, and I believe this was one of the goals in writing it, was the sheer positivity, willpower, desire to live and unfailing love portrayed by his son Damon and the entire family, and in particular in the relationship between Damon and his girlfriend Celeste.

You really begin to question your own priorities and petty problems when confronted with a book like this. I almost felt ashamed at myself for giving my own minor grievances so much airtime and energy over the past few months.

Courtney masterfully blends raw despair and heartfelt humour, both of which make up most human lives, throughout his writing. Despite the seriousness of the book, one particular scene is simply brilliantly written and had me in absolute stiches. It is when Courtenay is describing his three son’s plunge into what he calls ‘pubescent insanity’.

‘Instead of quite liking their parents they now see them as practically mentally retarded. Everything “sucks” and nothing can be done to please them. Their angst, confusion, malice, ill-temper, thoughtlessness, despair, superiority and disinterest comes out in the form of arms locked across their chests and brows so deeply furrowed as to be practically prehensile. Their voices drop an octave and they temporarily lose the ability to speak, this faculty being replaced by a Neanderthal grunt which covers every possible situation they may confront.’

The book not only provided me with a bit of a shake up to reconsider my own priorities but oddly enough it was also a balm of sorts. Since leaving Australia four months ago after an almost four-year stint Down Under, I have only recently begun to realise how much I missed the country, the people, the way of life and my own life there. Despite being born in South Africa, Courtenay lived most of his life in Australia and in my opinion – having taught and read some Australian literature – he has developed an Australian flair for writing. Reading this quasi-Australian novel with many familiar expressions and locations was like a temporary balm on my still open wound.

I have to admit that it took me a while to appreciate Australia literature and the books and short stories of writers such as Tim Winton and Henry Lawson. They have a unique quality about them that makes them distinctly Australian, as well as possessing an uncanny ability to capture the feeling of the country and it’s people. The writing is raw and open, unlike many of the American and British authors I have read over the years, who often tend to embellish situations and skirt around the reality. There are of course many exceptions to this claim, Zadie Smith being one that immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless it took me a while before I really appreciated the writing of Australian authors. I suppose coming from a diet of largely classical books, the majority being from English authors and female, maybe I am slightly late in coming to the table in my appreciation of more modern and realist writing. However, being a high school English teacher in Australia certainly helped in broadening my literary repertoire.

Being the true geek and English teacher that I am, despite leaving Australia, I have kept abreast of the changes being made to the NSW English curriculum. I most recently perused the new list of prescribed texts for the HSC. Always on the lookout for new books myself – my amazon Wish List is almost at 200 books – I was pleasantly surprised by the many new and varied texts that have been added and indeed to the extensive number of Australian authors included. While I cannot as of yet offer an opinion on many of these authors, apart from Winton’s of course, I do plan to read a number of these over the coming months.

But I digress from my original purpose in writing this post, which was to talk about Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day. The book simply has to be read. I cannot say much more than that, it is a wonderful, heartbreaking and life-affirming book that has helped me in beginning to get back on track and refocus my priorities. But please ensure you have time to savour it, don’t rush this book, and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to read something of this intensity.


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Europe with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s ‘Sepharad’


Being back in Europe is like coming home. After more than three years of living in Australia, I had not forgotten the pull Europe has on me, however, it had become fainter in its intensity. As the plane descended towards Schiphol Airport, it felt like I was coming home. Then over the next few days as I wandered through the streets and grachten of Amsterdam, with various friends and family members, the scents, sounds and scenes of the city enveloped me, filling me with heady and intoxicating memories and emotions.


While travelling through Europe I am reading Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad (in English), which a friend lent to me. I am rarely at a loss to describe my feelings about a book and to give an overview of what it is about. The last book that left me equally at a loss was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. With Sepharad I once again struggle to explain competently why the book is so great and what it is ultimately about. Potentially contentious for some, I would have to say that I would put Sepharad above Shantaram. Maybe it’s due to the timeliness of my reading the book, during my return to Europe after a notable absence, while travelling and as I once more immerse myself in the history and culture of Europe which I have missed so much. They are such vastly different books, yet both are equally thought provoking and inspirational. Sepharad has launched me once again into the literary world of Europe, reminding me of books and authors I have loved and had somewhat forgotten about during my sojourn on the other side of the word. My knowledge of the culture and history of this part of the continent is suddenly being refreshed, and the cities of Europe, many of which I have lived in and grown attached too over the years are once again focal points for me.

The book is an epic journey through time of history, culture, passions and literature laced with the nostalgia experienced by many travellers returning to and yearning for their homeland from far-flung places. There are loose threads evident throughout the book but many of the characters stories stand alone, linked simply by a shared yearning for their homeland. Muñoz Molina lives and breathes history, bringing memories and characters to life in this thought provoking book.

As one of Muñoz Molina’s characters says, several days before leaving on a journey the traveler has already left in their mind. Similarly the day before leaving Australia I sat at my desk at school, watching the clock, already tuned out and ready to leave. Luckily for me, and my students, I did not have to teach many classes on that last day as my distraction was palpable. Like Muñoz Molina’s character I too had already left the school and Australia in my mind.

The excitement of travelling back to loved places can hypnotize you, as Muñoz Molina aptly wrote the pull of return is like ‘the strong current of time that carries you back at a speed greater even than that of the car on the flat straight highway’. Memories are indeed a strong trigger and as I walked through Amsterdam and later sat on the train to my grandmothers village in Germany with the constant stream of travellers entering and exiting, each engrossed with their own agendas and lives, memories came flooding back. The pull of return and the transition between languages and dialects so familiar, yet at the same time slightly foreign to me after years of solely speaking English enveloped me in memories of my childhood and adolescence in these places, and of people familiar and loved.

Muñoz Molina’s book is both nostalgic and new for me, a piece of edible literature which I find hard to put down and which sees me rereading and savouring certain passages over and over for their beautifully written images, metaphors and language. The English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden is superb, I can only imagine how beautifully written the original is in Spanish. If I ever learn Spanish well I will re read it in its original form. Reading Sepharad has also encouraged me to write again, something I have struggled with over the past few years, neither finding inspiration or the right words. But through Muñoz Molina’s book and while travelling through Europe I am inspired to write again. It almost feels as if I have emerged from a cocoon that has been incasing me for a long time, I feel emotions and passions returning that I had forgotten I possessed.

I have just finished reading the last few pages of the book while sitting on my grandmother’s balcony in Germany on a balmy July evening, accompanied by a glass of red wine. I cannot even feign to try and do this wonderful book justice, but I have tried to explain in some coherent manner why I love this book and how I related with it personally.

Reading it during a crossroads in my own life and on my return to Europe after a notable absence has been both a balm as well as an awakening of senses. Will the next stage of my life be governed by the passions I have constrained for so many years or will my pragmatic logic continue to persevere?

It is now so dark outside that I can only make out the silhouettes of the plants on the balcony and the peaked roofs of houses beyond the garden. It is time to finish up and retire for the evening. For those literary, culture, history and travelling enthusiasts, Sepharad is an absolute MUST! Just make sure to read it slowly, savouring each and every word.

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We’re all going on a summer holiday

The beach

It’s the last day of school; you’re sitting quietly in the classroom at the edge of your seat, eyes glued to the clock. The ticking seems to be getting louder and louder and the hand is crawling, as if in slow motion. You’re waiting, waiting for the final bell of the school year to go: the signal that it’s the holidays, the summer holidays.


It’s been over 10 years since I left school, but I’m getting that unmistakable summer holiday buzz. That feeling of waiting impatiently for that final bell to go so that I can dash out of the school grounds and enjoy my five-week, well earned break.

It’s funny, when I left school I never thought I’d set foot on school grounds – never mind voluntarily – again. And I certainly never imagined I’d experience that distinct summer holiday excitement, exclusive to my school days ever again. But after completing my first term as a fully-fledged schoolmarm, and at the cusp of a well-earned five week summer holiday, that feeling is palpable.

I did it; I survived my first term of teaching! It feels like quite an accomplishment and I’m pretty impressed with myself for making it. I must have done a half decent job as the school have lined me up to continue teaching in Term 1, starting at the end of January.


On my way to work this morning, on the last day of school, I had to stop in at the mechanic to get the bumper of my car bolted back on – not as dramatic as it sounds. While waiting, I popped into the little café next to the mechanics to get a coffee. In our current cashless society, I like many others, rarely carry cash, so I was somewhat surprised when the café owner said they didn’t have Eftpos facilities. On hearing I was a local and waiting for my car to be fixed the barista bartered with me; either I come by later and pay for the coffee or I could pop into the Servo and buy him a Powerade in return for a coffee. Much amused I popped next door and got him a purple Powerade.

It felt like it should already be the holidays as I sat outside on the verandah in the morning sun, listening to the birds and looking out at the trees swaying in the breeze. Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to the coast to spend Christmas with my mum, sister, her partner and my gorgeous nephew. After about six Christmas’s Down Under and living here for over two and a half years, I still can’t get used to Christmas in the sun. There is something just not right about it being hot and going down to the beach at Christmas. It’s supposed to be cold outside with snow on the ground, while you sit inside in front of an open fire curled up with a good book where it’s warm and cosy with the smell of Christmas baking wafting through the house.


The bell is about to go, I’m sitting at the edge of  my chair – like I did all those years ago at school – watching the clock on my computer screen crawl from 3.19 to 3.20. I’m going to press the ‘Publish’  button and then dash out the door, into my car – with a secure bumper – and home to the pub for a well earned glass of Vino Bianco before finishing off my packing and going to bed on time as I have an early start in the morning.

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Book Review; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My favourite books

For those of you who have already seen this post in draft format, apologies, it decided to publish itself, clearly too eager to wait for me to finish it!

On a trip to Bathurst recently I renewed my love of secondhand bookstores, purchasing eleven new books in the process, that’s my winter reading sorted. I just adore the rows and row of books; that old and worn book smell, the intrigue as to who the books former owner was and who else has thumbing through its pages deciding whether or not to give it a home. One of these eleven books that I picked up was Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Borrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now I’d seen this book in London and the title had always intrigued me, but for some unfathomable and shameful reason I never bought it!

At the weekend, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows I sat inside curled up in front of an ope fire, with a cup of green tea, an Anzac cookie and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in hand. In my opinion, the absolutely perfect reading conditions!

The book is an epistolary novel, which is not a format I’ve read since reading Evelina by Francis Burney at University. The correspondence is between the main character Juliet Ashton and a range of characters from friends, to acquaintances, her publisher and a suitor.

It is the most delightful, witty, well written, captivating and beautifully descriptive book that I have read in a long time. I had heard nothing but praise for it and now I know why. Mary Ann was clearly an avid reader with a love for literature and reading. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is like taking the things you love the most about your favourite books and rolling them into one marvellous novel.

At times I was reminded of Anne of Green Gables, when Juliet writes to Sophie and tells her that she is going to ‘run through the wild-flower meadow outside my door and up to the cliff as fast as I can. Then I”m going to lie down and look at the sky, which is shimmering like a pear this afternoon, and breath in the warm scent of grass’.

The game ‘Dead Bride’ which Juliet and Kit play, could easily have been something Lucy Maud Montgomery might have had Diana and Anne play at in Anne of Green Gables. The description is very Anne like; ‘The bride veils herself in a lace curtain and stuffs herself into a laundry basket, where she lies as though dead while the anguished bridegroom hunts for her. When he finally discovers her entombed in the laundry basket, he breaks into loud wails’.

I got glimpses of the Secret Garden when Kit and Dawsey watch a blackbird tug a worm out of the ground. And the description of how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was founded and the roast pig saga is almost Wodehousian in it’s description and humour.

Juliet’s London suitor Mark Rynolds is like a modern day version of Mr Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility; handsome, proud, fickle and vivacious, while Dawsey is a Mr Rochester like character; mysterious, brooding and hiding a ‘secret sorrow’.

Mary Ann’s fabulously vivid imagery really brings her characters to life and I found myself laughing aloud as well as close to tears at a number of points throughout the book. I particularly liked when she describes Isola as being ‘better than a stalking horse’, her language is so full of luscious words, images and quirky sayings.

The book mentions many loved authors and well known books, poems and plays. The Brontë sisters, in particular Anne Brontë are mentioned extensively as well as Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and there is an entire Oscar Wilde section, as well as many more favourites.

Mary Ann’s novel has also got a serious historical side to it through it’s setting in post World War II Europe and its focuses on the German Occupation of Guernsey. I have to say I was ignorant of the fact that Guernsey had been occupied during the war, so it was equally intriguing to read about this from a historical point of view. The book mentions the Todt workers, the German prisoners of war who were sent to Guernsey to work during the Occupation and the inhumane way they were treated. Two of the characters are sent to Concentration Camps in Germany, and the Islanders experience of the Occupation is detailed and harrowing in it’s description.

If you love books, reading and literature, you will adore The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I don’t know how and why but this book makes you feel so good but it does. It also makes me want to re read all my favourite books again. I have to say, I’m really missing all my books at the moment, they give such a homely touch to a place and I just want to be able to get up, browse through them and re read all my favourites. One day I’ll get them all from London, and line a bookshelf with my old and trusted friends.

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