Book reviews

Archive for August, 2014

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton


Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the best book I have read all year. Edith Wharton’s style and choice of words and plot were so good that when I finished reading, I turned back to the first page and read the book again. I’ve never done that before.

The story is told by an un-named narrator who is working near Starkfield, Massachusetts, an imaginary village in the mountains where the winters are extraordinarily harsh. Ethan Frome, his wife Zeena and Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver live together in extreme poverty on the Frome farm. Ethan is a taciturn man, who has been lame since a “smash-up” in his youth. Ethan appears to the narrator to be much older than his 52 years.

The narrator hires Ethan to drive him to and from work in his sleigh, and after a week of travelling together through the snow, a bout of particularly bad weather forces Ethan to offer shelter to the narrator overnight at the Frome farmhouse. The narrator imagines the story of how Ethan, Zeena and Mattie came to be living in poverty and unhappiness based on the gossip he has heard from the Starkfield townspeople and on his own experience after staying in Ethan’s home. The narrator’s vision of how Ethan’s life came to this makes up the remainder of the story.

Ethan was quite young when he married Zeena, who is seven years older than him. Zeena came to Starkfield to nurse Ethan’s mother. Later, it comes out that Ethan would not have suggested Zeena stay with him if his mother had died in the spring, but the thought of a lonely, harsh winter was too much for him and he latched on to Zeena.

Within a year of their marriage Zeena became a miserable hypochondriac, who held Ethan back from selling his unprofitable farm and sawmill, unable to leave Starkfield to try and make something of himself in a town with better opportunities.

Mattie Silver, who is Zeena’s poor relation, came to live with Ethan and Zeena in order to assist Zeena with household chores. Mattie is young and light and bright and of course Ethan fell in love with her. Zeena appeared oblivious to Ethan’s feelings for Mattie, and uninterested in everything apart from her own health, to the point of leaving Ethan and Mattie alone overnight when she goes to town to visit a doctor.

Ethan’s pleasure in being welcomed home after his day’s work by Mattie, eating together and later sitting by the stove talking in Zeena’s absence is the high point of Ethan’s life. The message in this part of the book for me is to be careful of what you wish for.

When Zeena returns the following night, she tells Ethan that Mattie has to go, as she needs a hired girl who will take on more of the household work than Mattie is capable of. Ethan can not afford to keep a hired girl and Mattie. He is unable to stand up to Zeena, particularly when it becomes clear that his wife does know of his feelings for Mattie and he ends up taking Mattie to the train station. Ethan considers leaving Starkfield with Mattie, but he realises that Zeena would be left in terrible poverty. He is also aware that his and Mattie’s future would be financially precarious, and decides to stay with Zeena.

Ethan had previously promised to take Mattie coasting, and on their way to the train station, he delays their parting by offering to take her down the hill on a sled which was left behind by someone else.

Ethan and Mattie coast down the hill once and then kiss. Suddenly desperate for each other, and with no way to be together, Mattie convinces Ethan to form a suicide pact. Their plan is to coast down the hill again and kill themselves by smashing into the big elm tree at the bottom of the run. Ethan fails miserably, and instead they are both injured terribly. Zeena, who has been portrayed by the narrator’s vision throughout the novel as being unkind and unloving, ends up looking after a paralysed Mattie, and Ethan, who was lamed in the smash up. Ethan, Zeena and Mattie live together in extreme poverty and misery for the next 24 years, with Ethan sandwiched between a wife he doesn’t love and Mattie, who has become a querulous, whining, invalid.

Funnily enough, Zeena is a good nurse and actually seems to recover her own health as a result of being needed, but this and the happy night Ethan and Mattie spent together in Zeena’s absence are the only successes the characters enjoy in the novel. The misery of their poverty and the harshness of Starkfield is overwhelmingly sad.

It has been a few weeks now since I read this novel, but I can’t let go of the characters. I keep thinking of Zeena, and wondering why she was the way she was. The story is told from Ethan’s imagined point of view, but poor Zeena was a victim too, trapped in a loveless marriage and watching her husband fall in love with a younger, prettier woman. Even Mattie’s story may be different from the narrator’s vision. I can’t understand why Mattie didn’t flirt with and try to secure Denis Eady’s affections, another character who appeared to be romantically interested in her, and more importantly, was well off and eligible. Despite the narrator suggesting that Mattie had been in love with Ethan for eight or nine months, Ethan was another woman’s husband.

I would love to read a tribute style novel (fan fiction, I think they are called) based on Ethan Frome, perhaps from Zeena or even Mattie’s point of view. Even Ethan’s own point of view may be different to this story, which meets up with the facts the narrator learns, but may otherwise be imagined.

I haven’t read anything else by Edith Wharton, but don’t expect that to be the case for much longer.


Divergent by Veronica Roth


Divergent by Veronica Roth is the first book in a series aimed at teenagers. Divergent has strong willed main characters, alternate realities and loads of obstacles to be overcome. The story will appeal to the same audience as the Tomorrow series by John Marsden (he is a fantastic Australian author, do yourself a favour and read these books if you haven’t already), The Hunger Games and of course, the Harry Potter books.

The Divergent series is very popular, according to my source of youth fiction book recommendations (thanks Honey, you rarely lead me astray when it comes to a good book), and has been made into a very successful movie.

One of the main themes of Divergent is belonging. When I read the Harry Potter series, I couldn’t help wondering which house the sorting hat would put me into, as determined by my characteristics and values. Obviously everyone can’t be Gryffindor, but to be placed in Hufflepuff would have been an insult to my organisational skills, Slytherin would mean I am not trustworthy and I forget what the other house is…obviously I didn’t align my values with it.

Twilight has Team Edward and Team the other bloke (or vampires vs. werewolves), so female readers probably choose their alignment based on the gorgeousness of the actors playing these roles. The Tomorrow series is straightforward, as it is us against them – Australia fighting an un-named invading enemy. In The Hunger Games people become part of a community based on where they are born, which is probably the closest to real life.

Divergent is set in Chicago in a future where something seems to have gone terribly wrong right about now.

In Divergent, sixteen year olds take part in a simulation where their responses confirm their aptitude for one of the five factions which make up society. The day after the simulation is known as Choosing Day, where they must select a faction to align with. They can choose to ignore or follow the results of their tests. Either way, the indcutees may still have to prove their worth to their chosen faction to become part of it. Choosing a faction other than what they were born into generally means losing their connections with family and the community they were brought up in.

The factions in Divergent are Abnegation – the selfless, Dauntless – the brave, Erudite – the intelligent, Candor – the honest and Amity – the peaceful. Those who fail to become part of their chosen faction become factionless – similar to the untouchables in some cultures. The factionless do the worst jobs in society. Abnegation members ensure the factionless are supported by charity.

Trisis the 16 year old heroine of Divergent. She was raised by her parents in Abnegation, and was brought up to always put others first, in a kind and loving community. Due to their qualities, Abnegation govern and are thought to be incorruptible.

When Tris sits her aptitude test her results are inconclusive, or ‘divergent’, meaning her characteristics are suited to more than one faction. The woman from Dauntless who oversaw Tris’s test manually alters her results and told Tris not to tell anyone what has happened, as to be known as divergent would put her in danger from unknown people.

When the time comes to choose a faction, Tris’s brother Caleb unexpectedly chooses Erudite and Tris chooses Dauntless.

When Tris arrives at the Dauntless compound she is surprised to find that they will not be automatically accepted by the faction. They have to pass a harsh initiation with difficult physical and mental challenges. Not surprisingly, the initiations prove too much for some, who suicide or die in accidents. There is also a culture of bullying throughout the Dauntless community. Friends betray each other and others fall in love.

As the initiates work to overcome their fears, Tris and her instructor, Four, fall in love. Like Tris, he was a transfer from Abnegation. Tris suspects Four may also be divergent.

Towards the end of the novel, the action, which is already fast paced, speeds up. Dauntless members are injected by a serum which allows their minds to be controlled by Erudite leaders, and they are used to try and wipe out everyone in Abnegation, in an attempt by Erudite to gain power and greater riches for themselves.

As Tris is divergent, the serum does not work on her. Tris’s parents and brother make another appearance and in the killing frenzy, not everyone survives. The story ends with Tris, Four (or Tobias, as he was called before joining Dauntless) and some of her family escaping. The story continues in book two of the series, ‘Insurgent,’ which I am busting to read.

The stretch for readers of Divergent is that all of the characters except those who are divergent, identify strongly enough with particular traits that they commit to one faction or other. In real life, we are all divergent, a bit brave and a bit cowardly, sometimes truthful and sometimes liars. We behave selfishly and generously within minutes of either action. On a given day we may be peaceful and the next at war and we all show flashes of brilliance amidst our blind spots. We all have elements of the five characteristics which make up the factions in this novel in varying degrees.

However, this is a novel and the whole point of reading novels is to go with the author on the trip they take us, so in order to enjoy this novel I had to let go of my irritation that all of the characters weren’t divergent, because then there would not have been a story.

I will be recommending these novels to my teenage nieces C, G and S, all of whom are the perfect audience for the Divergent series.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle


I owned an abridged version of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle when I was a child, which was read so many times that the book eventually fell to pieces.

I’m not sure why I was prepared to frighten myself all over again as an adult (I had a lot of nightmares about demon-like black hounds as a child), but when I spotted the complete version of the book in the library, I had to find out what I missed out on reading the abridged version.

Not much, as it happens. The adult version of the story seemed a little fuller, but the plot, the characters and the fear were just as I remembered them, skilful and enthralling. I thoroughly enjoyed the book all over again.

Sherlock Holmes is the star of this book. His detective skills are legendary and a great many of the things he said are still quoted (or misquoted) today, although the words “Elementary, my dear Watson,” did not appear in The Hound of the Baskervilles at all. Neither did “No, s**t, Sherlock.” Holmes’s arrogance is legendary, but his belief in his own mental abilities is justified.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes is engaged to investigate a suspected murder and to prevent a possible upcoming murder. Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s much more likeable sidekick, narrates the story, in a combination of letters written to Holmes, diary entries or by direct narration.

Sir Henry Baskerville inherited the title, Baskerville Hall and an enormous amount of money from his uncle, Sir Charles, who died in suspicious circumstances. Sir Charles seemingly died of a heart attack, trying to run away from a monstrous black hound. The hound is a family legend, or curse, which kills the men of the Baskerville family when they go onto the moor alone at night. (I had no idea what a moor was when I was reading this book over and over as a child, but I didn’t like the sound of it).

I won’t give away any more about the plot, or tell ‘who dunnit’ to the six people in the world who are not familiar with this story, but it is an enjoyable read, with good characters and an interesting plot. Be warned though, after reading The Hound of the Baskervilles you may become anxious crossing paths with big black hungry dogs. Some of my anxieties appear to have returned.

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen


Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen is a peaceful book to read. From the very beginning the story felt almost soothing and relaxed, as if everything would come out all right in the end, despite some quite challenging times for the characters.

The main character is Kate, who is just starting to come out of the fog she has been in since her husband’s death a year ago. Kate’s mother in law, Cricket (cute name, by the way), is a perfumed steamroller who wants Kate and her daughter Devin to move in with her. Cricket intends to use Kate and Devin for advertising purposes for her real estate business and for her upcoming political campaign.

Kate gets sidetracked by an old postcard of Lost Lake (evocative name, isn’t it?) in Georgia, which she finds during the move to Cricket’s house and decides to visit her Aunt Eby who owns the holiday resort at the lake. Kate had two perfect weeks at the lake when she was 12, playing with Wes (which is a good strong name for a hero) and his brother Billy.

Q. Who is an appropriate person for a widow with an eight year old daughter to fall in love with?
A. Her childhood friend, who she has not seen since she was 12 years old.

Eby (what were her parents thinking when they named her?) and her late husband George bought Lost Lake when they were newly weds, but lately Eby has been thinking of selling the property and travelling back to Paris, where she and George spent their honeymoon. George was rich, but after they bought a house for Kate’s grandmother and Lost Lake, they gave away all of the money. Their main reason for giving away the money was to get some peace from Eby’s family, who wanted more and more and more.

Lost Lake has a cast of interesting characters who all have their own stories. For example, Lisette is a mute French woman who cooks for Lost Lake’s guests. Lisette has lived with Eby since Lisette attempted suicide as a teenager after she broke someone’s heart. Eby rescued Lisette while on her honeymoon.

Jack is in love with Lisette and has been visiting Lost Lake for years. Bulahdeen was a orphan who dragged herself out of poverty to become an English professor. Selma is a woman with eight charms, which she uses to snag eight married men, each of whom leave their wives to marry her.

There is plenty of magic in this story, including an alligator who is a major character with a story too (I know, I know, the alligator is weird, but somehow it works).

I would have liked to explore some of the character’s stories more, as each were worthy of being the main focus of this book. As a heroine Kate probably needed a few more challenges and some conflict to be a really good, strong character. The author touched on the idea that Kate’s husband Matt loved her less than she loved him, and I felt this theme could have been expanded to give Kate more depth.

The cover art is lovely and the old post cards which mark each section of the book are wonderful. I would love to have seen these in colour.

Sarah Addison Allen has written other books which I won’t rush out to read, but will get to eventually, knowing that Lost Lake was an enjoyable read.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Woods is a suspense novel, where the crime is known from the first page, but the events leading up to the death of a number of characters continue to unfold right up to the end of the book.

Do you know what a ‘bellwether’ is? I had heard of the political trend, but when I Googled ‘bellwether’ I learned that a bellwether is also a male sheep – a castrated ram (or wether) who is the alpha male of the flock, on whom shepherds hang a bell so they can easily find their flock. This sounds really obvious once pointed out, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

The story is told by Oscar Lowe, a twenty year old who works as a carer in a nursing home. Oscar meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a cello playing, privileged medical student who attends university. Iris’s brother Eden is the bellwether of Iris’s group of friends. Eden is a charismatic musician, an organist who holds the organ scholarship at King’s College.

As Oscar is drawn deeper into Iris’s circle of friends (or more specifically, Eden’s circle), Eden’s mental health becomes the focus of the story. Eden believes he has the power to heal sick and injured people through a combination of music and hypnotism. Unbeknown to Oscar, Eden, Iris and their friends hypnotise Oscar in an experiment where they skewer his hand with a nail. Oscar is outraged when he realises what has happened, but despite his misgivings he and Iris continue their relationship.

As the story progresses the seriousness of the illnesses of people Eden tries to cure become greater. Iris swings between believing in her brother’s abilities and thinking he is insane. Eden’s theory seems possible and as a reader, I wanted him to perform miracles and cure other characters.

Dr Crest is a psychologist who is dying from a brain tumour. Dr Crest formerly studied and wrote about patients with ‘God Complexes’ and is interested in Eden as a study, but mostly he hopes Eden can perform a miracle for him.

The concept of the ‘God Complex’ is also fascinating. The criteria described for Narcissistic Personality Disorder describes everyone I know, including myself. (Sense of self importance – check, fantasies of unlimited power – check, believe I am special – check, requires excessive admiration – check. I could go on, but you get the idea).

My only real fault with this novel is that I didn’t find Iris and Oscar’s relationship particularly believable. It is a long time since I was 20, but I remember how I felt at that age, and falling in love with someone for me was far more passionate and exciting than Oscar and Iris’s romance. Their attraction to each other was impossible to understand.

Other than Iris and Oscar’s tepid relationship, I found the story interesting and the setting fascinating. The portrayal of Oscar’s friendship with Dr Paulsen, an elderly man who lives in the nursing home where Oscar works felt genuine. All of the characters are very, very clever. In real life, these people would be completely bored with me, but I enjoyed getting to know them and living in their world for a little while without the fear of rejection.

The Bellwether Revivals probably isn’t my ideal book, but that is only because suspense really isn’t my thing. If it is yours though, you will probably enjoy this story enormously.

Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange


Sigh…(of happiness). Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange left me feeling as if all is right with the world.

First, a disclaimer: Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel, and Captain Wentworth from Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen hero. As you might expect, Anne Elliott from Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen heroine. To re-visit their story in Captain Wentworth’s Diary was an unexpected pleasure.

In my opinion, Persuasion is the ultimate romance novel.

The plot summary of Persuasion is as follows. The major characters meet, and fall in love, only to be separated by reasons beyond their control. Now, pay attention to the next sentence everyone, because this is the reason why Persuasion is so wonderful. The separated lovers do not stop loving each other. They meet again, many years later, and after a series of misunderstandings, re-unite. At the end of the book you just know they are going to live happily ever after.

Captain Wentworth’s Diary tells of how he and Anne Elliott first met and fell in love, and is told via Frederick’s diary entries. Persuasion, by Jane Austen is told through Anne Elliott’s eyes and Anne and Frederick have already parted by the beginning of the story.

Frederick’s diary entries show him to be young and girl crazy, a sailor on shore leave who has his money burning a hole in his pockets. The reader knows Frederick will become a good  and successful man, as he is kind and straightforward, and most importantly values Anne, who is not treated with love or respect by her father and sister. Anne is clever and funny and pretty blossoms with Frederick’s attentions. During his visit to Somerset, she and Frederick become friends and eventually fall in love.

Despite agreeing to marry Frederick, Anne is persuaded by a family friend to break her engagement, so as not to hold him back in his career. There is also an element of snobbery in Anne’s friend’s advice not to marry him, as Anne is a Baronet’s daughter, and her friend believes Anne could do better for herself than a sailor.

When they part, Frederick, who is heartbroken and bitter, goes back to the Navy to make his fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. At this point in the story, Captain Wentworth’s Diary merges with Persuasion. Frederick returns eight years later as a rich man to Somerset, where he meets Anne again. Despite recognising that he still loves Anne, Frederick flirts with and considers marrying other girls. The girl he favours is headstrong, a characteristic Frederick believes is important, in light of Anne having been persuaded not to marry him. Frederick is compromised by the girl he has been flirting with and thinks he will have to marry her, but luckily for him she falls in love with someone else.

The next obstacle to Anne and Frederick’s happy ending is Frederick’s belief that Anne is to marry her cousin, who is to inherit the Baronetcy on her father’s death.

Frederick and Anne’s eventual realisation that they still love each other, have always loved each other and that they should have fought harder for each other in the beginning is satisfying but bittersweet.

Based on my enjoyment of Captain Wentworth’s Diary I will read more books by Amanda Grange and I would highly recommend this book to fellow Janeites.


Uncoupled by Lizzie Enfield


When I started Rose Reads Novels, I hadn’t decided if I would review books I didn’t like. Initially, I wanted my blog to be positive and happy, brimming with recommendations of books I enjoyed. But not all of the books I read are light and bright, although often dark novels have other qualities which make them good. For example, a book might have a sad plot but be beautifully written, or unhappy characters who live on in my mind long after I have finished reading their story.

The choices were: one, review everything I read honestly, and say why I haven’t enjoyed a book, or two, treat my blog as if I was training a puppy – ignore books I don’t like and praise those I do.

Being honest won. I’m not Little Miss Sunshine, I don’t like all of the books I read, and not every book is great. To be fair to the authors whose work I don’t like, I’m probably not their ideal audience anyway.

So, on to today’s book, which is Uncoupled, by Lizzie Enfield. I considered not finishing Uncoupled several times during my reading of it, mostly because I was bored by the story, but stuck with it because I was on the train and didn’t have any other reading material available. Funny, really, because Uncoupled is the story of an English woman named Holly, who was in a train crash. The carriages in Holly’s part of the train become uncoupled from the engine inside a tunnel, then another train smashed into them. Holly was trapped in the wreckage, where another passenger, Daniel, stayed with Holly and comforted her until she was rescued. 

After the crash, Holly and Daniel develop a friendship. Meanwhile, Holly’s marriage to Mark is struggling, partly due to the role reversal in their family – Holly is the main breadwinner and Mark, whose business is failing, is taking on more and more of the household duties.

Nearly every other couple in the novel are having marriage problems too – becoming ‘uncoupled’, as per the book’s title. Almost all of Holly’s workmates appear to be having extra-marital affairs and so do a great many of her friends. Even Holly’s parents join in the the act, with Holly’s father running around after a recently widowed family friend while her mother jaunts off to Thailand alone.

As Holly’s marriage deteriorates, her relationship with Daniel, her rescuer from the train, gains strength. I found Holly’s behaviour irritating and frustrating. This next sentence is probably more about my value system than the book, but anyone with a sense of honour knows that messing around on your partner won’t take you anywhere worth going.

For me, the problem with Uncoupled was that I just didn’t care about any of the characters. Holly was boring, even when she was contemplating an affair of her own with Daniel. The story got bogged down in the trivia of Holly’s life. Drinks at the pub, whinging about her husband’s cooking, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All of the other characters were similar, uniformly shallow and wallowing about in misery which was mostly brought on by their own vanity and selfish behaviour.

Uncoupled could have been improved by removing some of the other character’s stories, which I don’t believe added anything to the story. Holly’s story could also have been tightened up, and her character strengthened.

I feel a bit mean writing a negative review about a book I didn’t enjoy, especially when writing a book is something I am not capable of. Still, the whole point of my blog is that these are my reviews and my opinions, which I have come to based on my own experiences. We’re all different.

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