Book reviews

I spun The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Classic Club’s most recent spin and admit to groaning slightly when I saw the result. I first read this book thirty years ago and at that time didn’t like the characters or the plot and couldn’t understand what made the book a classic. Watching and enjoying the over-the-top decadence of Baz Luhrmann’s movie several years ago caused me to add The Great Gatsby to my current list in the hope of appreciating this book better as an older reader.

While I didn’t find the characters to be any more likeable this time around, I have achieved a better appreciation of the book.

The story is told by Nick Carraway, a young man who has to make his way in the world despite having very good social connections. When Nick moved to Long Island after the Great War he reconnected with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, who were part of New York’s young, rich and beautiful set.

Although Nick didn’t particularly care for Tom he accompanied him on one occasions to New York, stopping along the way at a garage in an area dominated by a rubbish dump to collect Tom’s mistress Myrtle, who was the wife of the garage owner. When they arrived in New York To and Myrtle hosted a small party in a hotel room which ended when Tom slapped Myrtle and broke her nose.

Nick lived on Long Island next door to Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire known for hosting extravagant open-house parties for people he didn’t know. Nick only met Gatsby after having been invited to one of his parties.

Gatsby, who was obsessed with Nick’s cousin Daisy, used Nick to engineer a meeting between himself and Daisy. Daisy and Gatsby had been in love before the war but at the time Gatsby was penniless and Daisy married Tom while Gatsby was still a soldier overseas. Rekindling their affair made Gatsby think he had achieved the American Dream, although Gatsby doesn’t realise he is in love with what Daisy symbolises for him socially, rather than with her as a person.

Eventually everything came to a head one extraordinarily hot day when Tom discovered that Daisy had been cheating on him. Gatsby and Daisy raced off to New York in Tom’s coupe, followed by Tom, Nick and Nick’s girlfriend, Jordan in Gatsby’s sedan. When they arrived the couples fought some more, then raced off home again, only for there to be a fatal accident at the garage where Myrtle and her husband lived. The tragedy is compounded by further reprehensible actions.

Jordan cheats at golf.

To me, this sentence sums up the morals of most of the characters in this story. They want to win without putting in the hard work required to deserve their success. They seek out amusement and love but they aren’t interested in earning anyone’s respect. They attend Gatsby’s parties and drink his boot-legged alcohol but they won’t befriend him because despite his wealth he will never be one of them. They grab whatever they want without taking any responsibility for their actions. If this story represents the American Dream, then in my opinion, this group of extraordinarily shallow and selfish people are welcome to it.

Disillusionment is what makes The Great Gatsby a classic. Exposing the shoddy morals of these fabulously wealthy characters is disappointing. I expect people who seemingly have everything to also have good morals, to be kind and giving. While there are plenty of extremely rich philanthropists who are wonderfully generous people in real life, their type are not represented by any character in this book.

The Great Gatsby was book eighteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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I sat up until 3.30am to finish The Lost Man by Australian author Jane Harper. I was too tired the next day to do anything properly but it was worth it.

The Lost Man is set in a remote area of outback Queensland. The extreme heat and isolation are a dangerous combination, even before people are brought into the mix.

The story begins with Nathan Bright and his son Xander meeting Nathan’s youngest brother Bub at a lonely stockman’s grave on the boundary of their properties, an hour and a half drive away from each of their homes. Nathan and Bub are there to meet the police after the body of their middle brother, Cameron was found at the grave having apparently died from dehydration. Mysteriously, Cameron’s vehicle was found approximately ten kilometres away from the grave fully stocked with water and emergency supplies.

The story is told by Nathan, who had been acrimoniously divorced by Xander’s mother when Xander was very small. I felt sympathetic towards Nathan even after I learned that he had been guilty of one of the worst crimes in the outback many years ago, that of ignoring a stranded neighbour. Since then Nathan had been shunned by his entire community and had been living one of the loneliest, saddest lives imaginable.

Cameron was the golden child of the Bright family. He had been well liked and respected in the outback community, a successful farmer and was married to Ilse, who Nathan had fallen in love with first. Nathan had given up his relationship with Ilse in shame after he was barred from the town where she had been working in the pub.

In the time between Cameron’s death and his funeral, Nathan learned from other family members and staff at Cameron’s property that he had lately been worried for an unknown reason recently. Nathan and Xander began discreet investigations to find out what had been going on.

The other main characters include Nathan, Cameron and Bub’s mother, Cameron and Ilse’s two young daughters, an old man who had worked on the property since before Nathan was born and a couple of English backpackers who were working on the farm.

The mystery of what happened to Cameron wasn’t resolved until the very end of the book and it certainly kept me guessing, not to mention feeling anxious for Nathan and Xander’s wellbeing as I suspected everyone in this book of wishing them harm. The reasons for Cameron’s death were quite dark but the story was told with compassion and I have continued to think about these characters and their motivations for some time after having finished the book.

I’ve previously read The Dry and Force of Nature by this author and enjoyed both, but the trip to the outback in The Lost Man was truly gripping. I loved reading about the incredibly dangerous landscape and the people who choose to make their homes there. The little details were satisfying, even to the scars most of the characters carry from having skin cancers removed.

My purchase of The Lost Man by Jane Harper goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (May).

It seems strange to have read Summer Secrets by Jane Green in early May in Australia. May is our last month of autumn and while I was reading the temperature in Melbourne turned cold, the wind howled and we had good, soaking rain over several days.

Not surprisingly I enjoyed my little summer escape to London and Nantucket with Cat, a London journalist.

Cat is an alcoholic. Time and again she messed things up for herself. She always meant well but lost jobs, woke up in strange apartments with men she didn’t know and ruined relationships with people she loved. Like a cat with nine lives though, she somehow also managed to fall on her feet most of the time, at least up until her husband decided he had had enough and left her.

Through hard work and the invaluable assistance of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cat managed to work her way through a number of steps to recovery. When she got to a step which required her to make amends to those she had wronged, Cat travelled to Nantucket with her teenage daughter to apologise to her estranged sisters for her past behaviour.

While I enjoyed Summer Secrets (particularly the chapters set on Nantucket, which I plan to visit one day), I did slightly skim through the story, probably because this was the wrong book for me at the wrong time. Like many others I’m struggling to concentrate on novels at present.

Despite my lack of concentration, I think Summer Secrets is an ideal beach holiday read.

I’ve been on a John Banville reading binge for some time now and generally I am loving his novels. My most recent read, The Sea has been an absolute stand-out.

The story is told by a newly widowed man who has returned to grieve at a seaside village where he holidayed with his parents as a child. While he stays at a guesthouse called the Cedars he tells the story of a tragedy that happened there during a long-ago summer alternately with that of his wife’s recent illness and death.

Max befriended twins Chloe and Myles Grace the summer when he was 11. The Grace family were staying at the more up-market Cedars, while Max and his parents stayed at a ramshackle Chalet and did their own cooking on a fuel stove. Max fell in love for the first time that summer with Mrs Grace, only later transferring his affections to her aggressive and volatile daughter Chloe, with whom he shared his first, memorable kiss.

Max’s emotions concerning his wife Anna’s recent illness and death are raw. He talked about his awkwardness with Anna while she was dying and not knowing what to say to her as she told him her truths. Max was still dazed by her death and his grief was new, although he was conscious of having been eyed speculatively at Anna’s funeral by their female friends. Max’s relationship with his daughter is strained.

Max was an art historian and there are references to art in the story which reminded a little of those in The Blue Guitar which featured an artist who painted. The story of Max’s lust for Mrs Grace reminded me of the plot of Ancient Lights in which a teenage boy had an affair with an older, married woman. Max wasn’t old enough for anything of the sort, but I expect he would have wanted to pursue Mrs Grace sexually had he been older. Max told his story in a similar way to the main character in Ancient Lights, too. Now that I think about it, everything I’ve read by John Banville deals with grief in some way or other too.

Despite this being a book about grief, there were moments that made me laugh too, such as when the landlady at the Cedars served up a particularly horrible meal that caused Max and a fellow guest to “sit in vague distress listening to our systems doing their best to deal with the insults with which they have been just been served.” I’ve served up a few similar meals to my poor family too. I’ve found John Banville’s character’s faults to be similar to my own in other books, too.

The writing in The Sea is extraordinarily beautiful. This is a book which would be lovely to read aloud and I’m hoping to find a version of this to listen to sometime in the future. While reading The Sea I contented myself by closing a door at home (we’re in COVID-19 lockdown) and reading aloud to myself.

The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005, so clearly I’m not the only reader who loved it.

I’m one of Stephen King’s constant readers, so Just After Sunset, a collection of short stories was a re-read for me. I enjoyed these enormously.

Something weird happened when I read the first story in this collection though.

For years I’ve been day-dreaming about a story which I thought I had invented. My plot was based on a sudden event that occurred which killed two people in a building at the exact same time. The dead man and woman emerged unhurt from the debris of the building but when help didn’t come they walked to a nearby restaurant which should have been crowded with people but found it deserted too, along with everywhere else they went. The couple went to each other’s homes hoping to see their loved ones, but when they got there found their homes were deserted too. Eventually they realised they were dead. After a respectable amount of time they became romantically involved, which was lovely at first but after a while the couple realised that forever was going to be a really, really long time. I think the reason why I never had a crack at writing this story was because of the forever thing. It’s just too long and I couldn’t figure out how to end it.

The weird thing was that when I read Willa, I realised where I got my plot idea from. There are differences in the stories (for one, Stephen King doesn’t write romances) but the idea is close enough that I knew without doubt that ‘my’ plot must have come to me after reading this the first time around (probably in 2008 when Just After Sunset was first published). Now I think about it some more I think my plot probably also owes something to the movie Ghost as well as the television series Lost.

I remembered most of the other stories in this collection as I read them, too. Knowing what was going to happen didn’t make me any less anxious for the characters in some of the scarier stories. Stephen King has an extraordinary knack of making a character feel real to the reader very quickly and very often, to care about them.

My favourite stories in the collection were The Gingerbread Girl where the main character, a recently separated woman, was captured by a madman who planned to kill her, along with Graduation Afternoon, where a teenage girl could see both her future as a successful journalist and her present, as she saw a nuclear bomb detonate in the distance with a wave of destruction come towards her. I also enjoyed Mute, the story of a man unburdening himself to a Catholic priest in a confessional booth.

I was unable to read large sections of A Very Tight Place because they were so yucky, but I enjoyed being horrified by the story all the same. It is surprisingly enjoyable to finish reading a story that has grossed you out so much that you’ve squeezed your mouth shut and clenched your shoulders up near your ears. My sigh of relief at the end of this story brought me a physical and mental release.

Some of the stories in this collection have a supernatural element while others had more of your everyday-type of horror. I like both.

I also liked the notes at the end of the book where the author said what prompted him to write each of these stories and a little about where he was living or doing at the time. His notes offer a fascinating look into his personal life as a writer and I always appreciate and enjoy these.

I’m looking forward to getting my hands on If it Bleeds, Stephen King’s latest short story collection sometime soon.

The Last of the Greenwoods is by English writer Clare Morrall. I have previously read The Roundabout Man by this author and although I thought that story promised more than it delivered, the idea was clever and stayed in my head.

The Last of the Greenwoods also had an intriguing plot.

The Last of the Greenwoods follows several main characters whose lives become entwined. The first story is that of Zohra, a young woman who worked as a postal deliverer in Bromsgrove. Zohra had been a brilliant student but wasn’t living up to her potential because of a traumatic event that affected her as a teenager.

When Zohra delivered a letter addressed to Nick and Johnny Greenwood, two elderly brothers who lived in two old train carriages hidden in a paddock just out of Bromsgrove, the character’s lives became connected.

The letter was purportedly from their sister Debs, who Nick and Johnny believed had been murdered over fifty years ago. Debs’ letter told them she has been in Canada since she disappeared and that she was planning to visit them. The brothers lives were thrown into turmoil.

Debs arrived and although the brothers welcomed her, they were suspicious that she was in fact Debs’ best friend Bev, who had disappeared at the same time as Debs did.

Meanwhile, Zohra’s friend Crispin, who was restoring an old railway line was keen to buy Nick and Johnny’s home to use the train carriages with a steam engine he had bought to use on the railway line.

I loved reading about how the train carriages had been turned into a home and about Crispin’s group of train buffs, who worked to restore the line and the engine.

The story eventually foisted each of the characters into situations that caused them to confront and overcome their problems. The story could have been pruned to remove a few characters and events which I thought were unnecessary and padded but on the whole I enjoyed The Last of the Greenwoods, which had a feel-good feel to it.

Goodwood, Australian author Holly Throsby’s first novel, is set in the type of small town I recognise. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone else and most of each other’s business. Neighbours generally watch out for each other but occasionally they ignore the plight of those who need protection. On the whole, Goodwood is a good place to live.

The story is narrated by 17-year old Jean who in 1992 was closely connected with most of the Goodwood community, including her fellow students, young adults, the town’s business people, her grandparent’s friends and the local policeman, Mack, who was also Jean’s cousin.

Jean knew 18-year old Rosie White, who disappeared from her bedroom in the middle of the night and she also knew Bart McDonald, the town’s charismatic and generous butcher, who went missing while fishing at the lake just a week after Rosie vanished.

Rosie and Bart’s disappearances were a mystery to everyone in Goodwood. In a town where no one ever locked their doors, Jean’s mother started locking Jean’s bedroom window at night. Mack, with the help of detectives from the next town over investigated Rosie’s disappearance but clues to her whereabouts were hard to find. The lake was searched after Bart’s boat was found floating alone, but his body wasn’t found either. Local gossips wondered if Rosie and Bart’s disappearances were connected.

Jean knew secrets about Rosie and Bart along with secrets she knew about other people, but initially didn’t think that what she knew was important enough to tell Mack. In many ways Goodwood is a coming of age story as Jean contends with growing up. Her best friend seems the most likely of their classmates to become a teenage mother as she enjoys her first sexual experiences with a boy from their class, while another boy is keen on Jean. As a foursome, Jean, her best friend and the two boys cruised around town, got drunk and generally messed around, as their families and community watched from a distance.

I enjoyed how small-town Australian this book felt. I felt comfortable in Goodwood and recognised the people in the Bowlo, locals at the pub, neighbours down the street and friends and family at Nan’s house. Sadly, I also knew who belted their wife and children and that no one would do anything, because that would be interfering in someone else’s business. I knew who had a gambling problem, and most importantly, who to avoid because they were creepy.

While it didn’t spoil the book in any way for me, I guessed how things would turn out for the missing characters long before the story disclosed the answers, although there were still a few surprises. I felt satisfied that some of the characters got was coming to them and frustrated with others who wouldn’t help themselves, which is a bit like in real life, really. The ending for Jean and a new friend left me feeling intrigued with what Jean’s future might hold.

I did feel as if Goodwood could have done with a prune. Some sections dragged and other parts had nothing to do with the story. There were also too many characters to keep a track of, many of whom didn’t need to be in the story.

However, on the whole I enjoyed Goodwood, and liked the characters, the place and the time the story was set. Holly Throsby, who is also a songwriter and musician, has since published another novel, Cedar Valley, which I expect to read and enjoy in future.

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