Book reviews

Archive for September, 2014

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates


I read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates while travelling between my work in the city and my suburban home by train. This reading time is often the highlight of my day, as at work I feel like a mouse running in an endless, pointless wheel, trying to earn enough money to keep us in the drudgery in our boring, ordinary life in our suburban home… or so I felt while I was immersed in Revolutionary Road. Luckily these feelings went away after I finished the book, otherwise I would probably have told my boss where to jam the job that I actually love, thrown the keys to our dearly loved home back to the bank and gone off footloose and fancy free to start a whole new life, somewhere initially exciting but ultimately unsatisfying, while I desperately missed my family and friends.

Revolutionary Road is set in the 1950’s in the suburbs. Frank Wheeler, the main character, was a promising young man, all talk and no action, who impressed his friends so much during their late night, drunken conversations that based on their flattery he came to believe he could do anything or be anyone. At the height of his confidence, he met and fell in love with a first rate girl, April, who at the time was a not very successful actress.

Frank and April married and had two children before moving to a dinky little house on Revolutionary Road, out in the suburbs. Frank and April’s think they are more interesting than their friends, much more interesting than their neighbours and that they the trapped in the mundane lives they are actually living. April never wanted to be a mother and is bored and lonely out in the suburbs. Frank took a nothing job in the nothing company his father worked at for his whole career, and does as little as possible while on the payroll. Frank is on the verge of starting an affair with a woman he works with. They fight almost constantly, blaming each other for their unhappiness.

April convinces Frank that they should move to Paris where she will go out to work while he finds himself. Frank is also taken with the idea of escape and for a time they are happy together, making plans for the amazing new life they are going to have. Having a shared dream brings April and Frank closer than they have been in years and for a time they are happy.

April is more serious about moving to Paris than Frank and she starts taking actual steps to make the move happen. Frank, almost by accident though, does some actual work for his company and he is offered a promotion. Frank has second thoughts about leaving and when April falls pregnant, Frank is secretly relieved that this will not allow them to move to Paris. April wants to terminate the pregnancy but Frank won’t allow her to, even though he doesn’t want another child either. Their relationship deteriorates again and to further complicate things, Frank’s affair with the woman he works with heats up.

By now, you’ve probably realised that there is no way things are going to turn out well for Frank and April.

This book is very, very well written. The character’s voices became real to me very quickly. The whole point of art, in this case writing a novel, is for the author to cause the reader to feel particular emotions, and Richard Yates certainly achieved this with Revolutionary Road. Frank and April had no gratitude for what they had, no satisfaction from doing things properly, no joy and very little love for their children. Apart from their shared fantasy of escaping their real lives, they took no pleasure in each other’s company. While I felt sorry for them, I was also glad to finish this book and leave their unhappiness behind, before they affected my joy in life.

I will be watching the movie of Revolutionary Road sometime, which was directed by Sam Mendes and starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates. I don’t know if Richard Yates wrote anything else, but if he did I’ll be reading it.


Hamlet and Ophelia by John Marsden


Reading Hamlet and Ophelia by John Marsden is the closest I’ve come to reading Shakespeare. I’m not even familiar with any of Shakespeare’s stories, except for Romeo and Juliet, and the only reason I know that plot is because of the gorgeous film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes which was directed by the fabulous Baz Luhrmann.

I tried reading Macbeth once, but couldn’t get past the first page. When I saw John Marsden’s name on this book, I had high hopes of learning to love Shakespeare’s work.

John Marsden is an Australian author who writes books for children and teenagers. My daughter introduced me to the ‘Tomorrow’ series and despite being an adult, I’ve enjoyed and appreciated a great many of his books. If you haven’t read any, get yourself to a bookshop and buy ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’. John Marsden is a good writer who tells a good story (there is no higher praise than this).

Okay, back to Hamlet and Ophelia. The main character, Hamlet, is crazy. He is also the Prince of Denmark. In the opening pages, the reader learns that Hamlet’s father was recently murdered by his own brother, Claudius, as he wanted to become king. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, married Claudius just two months after Hamlet’s father’s death, and Hamlet strongly suspects her of carrying on with Claudius well before his father’s death (talk about sibling rivalry). Apparently, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

While Hamlet is struggling emotionally following his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage, Hamlet’s father appears to him as a ghost, demanding that Hamlet seek revenge for his death. Polonius, an adviser to Claudius, was so hungry for power that he was accidently killed by Hamlet while eavesdropping on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother. Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter, but not surprisingly, after her father’s death she also suffers mental health issues and suicides.

This whole bunch of Danish royalty were a sad and sorry lot, and an extreme example of a dysfunctional family. The only character who appeared to be good, sane and honourable in this whole book was Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. Everyone speaks in riddles, from cryptic gravediggers to the main characters.

I did enjoy coming across phrases and quotes in Hamlet and Ophelia from Shakespeare which are in common use today, and I particularly liked Horatio’s advice to Hamlet, that “If your heart dislikes anything, obey it. Trust your instincts.”

“To be or not to be, that is the question,” is from Hamlet too. I never knew the meaning of this quote, but when he says this Hamlet is querying if it is better to live or die. Better to live, I say. There is so much to look forward to and take pleasure in. However, my life is a lot less complicated than Hamlet’s was.

After reading Hamlet and Ophelia by John Marsden I wouldn’t go out of my way to read Shakespeare. This story lacked depth and I was disappointed that the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia wasn’t developed more fully. Although I’m a reader, rather than a movie buff, I’m going to watch the Kenneth Branagh version of Hamlet, because I feel that I have to get to the bottom of what Hamlet and Shakespeare are all about. This retelling was too superficial to give me the Shakespeare experience that I was looking for. Either that or I could try harder with the real thing and persevere with The Tragedy of Hamlet.

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal


How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal is a novel with bread recipes. I’ve never made bread in my life, but since finishing this novel I’ve copied out the recipe for Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread and bought all of the ingredients.

The main character in How to Bake a Perfect Life is Ramona, who is a baker. After falling pregnant at the age of 15, Ramona kept her daughter, Sophia, despite family pressure to give her baby up for adoption. Now Sophia is an adult and pregnant herself with her first child. Sophia’s husband Oscar is a soldier in Afghanistan, and when he is badly burned, Sophia goes overseas to be with him, leaving Ramona to care for Katie, Oscar’s child from a previous relationship.

Poor little Katie has her trials too. She is 12 and her mother is a drug addict who manipulates and takes advantage of Katie to feed her addiction. Katie’s father attempts suicide as soon as he is well enough. Not surprisingly, Katie has abandonment issues, although she is very capable and quite resilient.

There is a lot going on in this story, with all of the characters, and they all have their struggles. Ramona’s bakery is under serious financial pressure, due to the global financial crisis and a series of ongoing repairs needed for the bakery.

Ramona and her sister have a serious case of sibling rivalry, something which seems to run in the family. Ramona also has issues with her mother, and her mother and aunt also had unresolved issues with their mother. Ramona feels as if she has lost her close connection with her family because they kept her husband in the family business instead of her and to further complicate everyone’s emotions, Ramona had an affair with an older man who was once in love with her mother. (Yuck, is all I can say).

Ramona fell in love with Jonah when she was pregnant with Sophia, although at the time he was too old for her. When they meet again in the present time of the book, their age difference is no longer a problem. Ramona is resistant to entering into a romance with Jonah, because emotionally she has so much else going on. Obviously she did eventually, otherwise this book would have been a failure as a romance novel. Ramona invented the recipe for Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread after a hot first night with Jonah (the author’s words, not mine. Cringe, is all I can say here, too much information).

Ramona has been in the habit of leaning on Cat (her mother’s old flame) who bails her out financially and emotionally when things go wrong with her business. Eventually Ramona decides to stand on her own two feet, but when her hot water system for the bakery fails, instead of running to Cat as she used to do, she went to her sister for advice. I quite enjoyed most of the book (cringe-y bits aside) but this plot device was ridiculous. It is not credible that a grown woman who started and runs her own business lack the know how to pick up the phone to call a plumber. Not surprisingly, Ramona’s sister did not offer her assistance in this instance. I got the feeling that the reader was supposed to think Ramona’s sister’s behaviour was overly harsh, but on this occasion I was on the sister’s side.

The other thing that irked me about How to Bake A Perfect Life was the title. There is no such thing as a perfect life. Not all of the loose ends were tied up in the novel either, but that is probably the same in real life too. Still, the recipe for Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread may turn out to be the perfect loaf, I’ll let you know. I actually enjoyed this book a lot more than it sounds like in this review and would read more books by Barbara O’Neal.

Hidden Knowledge by Bernandine Bishop


Bernandine Bishop, the author of Hidden Knowledge, wrote just two novels in the 1960s, before having a fifty year break before writing another three novels. I can not imagine why an author wouldn’t write. (Harper Lee, I’m asking you!)

All of the characters in Hidden Knowledge are connected by three siblings, Hereward Tree, who is a renowned author, his sister Romola, a teacher and their brother, Roger, who was recently outed as a paedophile priest.

Hereward is in his fifties when he has a heart operation and does not wake up. The events of the novel take place while he is unconscious, as his family and friends wait for him either to wake up with brain damage or to die.

Romola takes responsibility for Hereward’s affairs, which includes providing assistance to Hereward’s helpless 21 year old fiancĂ©e, Carina. Carina who is Italian, is very lonely living in the UK. During the novel the reader realises that Carina wants Hereward to die, in order that she can return to Italy as a rich woman, as she is to inherit Hereward’s estate. This should make the reader dislike Carina intensely, yet I felt sympathetic towards her and wanted her to go home to make a life with someone who was a more suitable age for her than Hereward.

As children, Romola and Hereward created and wrote stories together. Before his operation, Hereward was working on a novel, which his publisher asks Romola to forward for publishing. Romola read Hereward’s book and changed the ending, knowing that Hereward would never know. A month after finishing reading Hidden Knowledge, Romola’s actions still annoy me enormously. I’m not sure if there is a word for changing someone else’s work. It wasn’t stealing, as the book was published under Hereward’s name and it wasn’t plagiarism, as Romola did not present Hereward’s work as her own, nor did she benefit in any way by changing the book’s ending. If anyone else knows what a crime of this sort is called, I would love to know.

Also while Hereward is unconscious, Roger admits to having sexually molested a child many years ago and is sentenced to jail. Romola supports Roger emotionally during this time too. Somehow, the author creates sympathy from the reader for Roger’s character, when there should be none. Roger is honest about his crime, and completely open about his attraction to young boys. Roger seems to believe that his crimes are partly redeemed by his years of work as a priest and his good standing in the community.

Roger’s biggest secret is that he molested another boy many years ago while acting as a supervisor on a school camp. This boy drowned in an accident the day after Roger molested him. Almost randomly, the boy’s mother contacts Roger to learn more about the events surrounding her son’s death, as Roger had unsuccessfully tried to save the boy. Roger eventually admits to her that he molested her son.

Most of the characters in Hidden Knowledge have terrible failings. Despite this, I had enormous sympathy for all of them and while condemning their actions, found the book to be very well written and the story well told. The author has not shied away from some very difficult subjects and I would read more of Bernardine Bishop’s works.

The Outsider by Albert Camus


The Outsider, originally named The Stranger, by Albert Camus was written over seventy years ago and set in Algiers. Regardless of the time and place though, the emotions people usually feel and what they want are the same, particularly the need to feel a part of a community.

The Outsider is narrated by Meursault, who is one of the strangest characters I have come to know in a novel. His character is the embodiment of an outsider or a stranger in his community. Meursault appears to be a psychopath although the word ‘psychopath’ is never used in the book, possibly the word was not in use when The Outsider was written. Apart from desire for his girlfriend, Meursault showed very little humanity or real understanding of other character’s emotions, although he did express irritation and a desire to be noticed, or recognised as important.

Meursault announced his mother’s death in the first sentence of The Outsider. He showed no emotion before, during or after the funeral, only describing the events factually, although he explained that he understood the emotions others were feeling.

After the funeral, Meursault meets Marie, who he used to work with, and starts an affair.

Later, he assists a friend to write a letter designed to punish the friend’s former mistress. Here he shows himself to be indifferent and possibly unaware of the hurt this will cause the woman. He also appears indifferent to right and wrong, although he comments that he understands why the friend wants to punish his former mistress.

On a day at the beach with Marie and the friend, Meursault almost randomly kills a man who is a relative of the friend’s former mistress by shooting him five times. Meursault’s justification for the murder was that he was irritated by the burning sun.

Meursault spends the remainder of the book in prison, on trial and later as a man condemned to death. In court, the indifference he showed at his mother’s funeral does not help his case, although as he shot a man five times this probably made no difference to the outcome. While on trial, Meursault expressed irritation because he perceived himself as being unimportant to the proceedings, even though he recognised he was the central figure.

In prison, Meursault argued with the prison chaplain, refusing to accept God, religion or regret in any way for his actions, something the chaplain could not understand. The reader gets the feeling that if Meursault were to show some of the feelings that others expected from him, he would be redeemed in some way. By staying true to his beliefs, he remains an outsider.

The Outsider is a strange book. The characters are not likeable, the situation is nasty and their behaviours are worse. If there is a message here I didn’t get it, unless it is to avoid pyschpaths.

Last Stage to Satan’s Butte by Sundown McCabe


I actually bought Last Stage to Satan’s Butte by Sundown McCabe at an Op Shop with the intention of buying three or four similar paperback Westerns to cut out and frame the covers. After reading the book, I’m not sure that I will.

At first sight, I loved the cover art on Westerns. Handsome, rugged looking men, gorgeous horses and romantic scenery, with beautiful women falling out of historically inaccurate dresses. A closer investigation of the covers either show bad guys giving chase to stagecoaches, or dead people lying on the ground. According to the storylines, the dead people mostly deserved to be shot by the hero.

The title of this novel appealed to me too. ‘Butte’ is a term which is rarely used in Australia and it made me laugh. Connotations of Satan’s bottom or rings of fire are funny.

The author’s name is great too. Sundown McCabe is the perfect choice for this genre.

Okay, now that I’ve justified selecting this book, on to the story.

The story begins with the massacre of the O’Leary family by an Apache raiding party. Deborah O’Leary, who was the sweetheart of Dan Calhoun, is raped and murdered and her sister Bonny is taken prisoner by the tribe.

When Dan returns from the Civil War he goes on a ten year hunt to find and kill Hawk, the leader of the raid on the O’Leary family. During his hunt for Hawk, Dan has rescued seven white women from the Apaches and has heroically killed loads of Apache people.

While in town, Dan has a chance meeting with Sally-Anne Parker, who is presumed by the townspeople to be the whore of a rich man named Van Cleet. Sally-Anne gets on a stage coach to Satan’s Butte.

Sally-Anne’s stage coach is ambushed by Apaches and she is taken hostage. Dan rides out after her, hoping her trail will lead to Hawk. Van Cleet, who turns out to be a bully and a fool follows Dan, along with one of his stooges (being a rich man, Van Cleet has several). Van Cleet and the stooge get them all captured by the tribe who took Sally-Anne, who, being beautiful and red haired, is being kept as a bride for Hawk, the man Dan has been hunting.

Bonny O’Leary turns out to be living with the tribe. She is married to a brave and has children of her own. Bonny helps Dan, Sally-Anne, Van Cleet and the stooge to escape, but decides to stay with her husband and children and the tribe.

Eventually Dan and Van Cleet argue over Van Cleet’s treatment of Sally-Anne and Dan shoots Van Cleet when Van Cleet tries to shoot him. Despite Sally-Anne’s fear that a white man will never want her again because she was raped by the Apache men, she and Dan fall in love and have a romantic night beside the campfire. (I bet the ground was hard and they both smelled horsey and sweaty, and that was before things got interesting). Dan goes on to shoot more people (the white men who have been supplying the Apaches with guns and ammunition), then meets Hawk and shoots him, as revenge for killing Deborah and her parents. Presumably, Dan and Sally-Anne live happily ever after.

The story was probably a formula, although the actual writing was better than I expected. I won’t go into the cliches and stereotypes and racism and sexism or the rights and the wrongs of the Apaches versus the white people. I probably won’t be framing the cover art of this novel either, because I liked the idea much more before I read an actual example of a Western novel. There is obviously something for everyone, but this wasn’t for me.

Precious by Sapphire


Precious by Sapphire is an amazing, inspiring book. The voice of Precious, the sixteen year old heroine, became so real to me that I felt as if I were inside in her brain and heart and body, hearing every one of her thoughts, and experiencing all of her emotions and sorrows and hopes and dreams, without a single restriction on what I was allowed to learn about her.

Precious was let down by almost everyone. She was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father and mother since she was a very small child. When she gave birth for the first time to her father’s child at the age of 12, nobody followed up to ensure she was protected in future. No one. None of the hospital staff, no welfare agencies, none of her school teachers, not even her grandmother intervened to protect her from further abuse.

Somehow Precious made it to the ninth grade, (being kept back twice) without any of the teachers at her school realising or caring that she was illiterate. She actually received A grades in class, because she used her size and personality to keep other students in line during class, something teachers who were unable to do appreciated.

When a school social worker realised Precious was pregnant for the second time at the age of 16, Precious was suspended from school and transferred to an alternative school. Here she met a teacher, Blue Rain and her classmates, a group of girls who formed a supportive community where they all began to learn to read and write together.

Not long after starting at the alternative school, Precious gave birth a second time, to a son. When she returned home from the hospital, her mother tries to kill her out of jealousy, because she believed Precious had stolen her man. Her teacher, Ms Rain, who is a wonderful, strong woman, arranged for Precious and her baby to be housed at a halfway house which became their home.

As if all of this wasn’t enough for Precious to have endured, her father then dies from HIV. Precious is tested, and has the disease. She is grateful that her son has not been infected.

Precious’s voice changes throughout the novel as she becomes literate. In the beginning, her voiced words are almost inarticulate, although her thoughts are descriptive. Both are peppered with swear words and full of shocks for the reader as she tells of the life she lives. As the novel progresses, Precious becomes literate, to the point of writing poetry which would make the reader cry with joy for how beautifully she tells her story and with sadness for what her story has been.

Parts of this book are so terrible I could hardly read them. My discomfort reading about Precious’s sexual feelings and emotions while her father raped her was almost more than I could endure. It was an act of courage on my part to continue reading, although nothing compared to the courage shown by Precious during every word of this book.

The story finishes with the creation of a class book, where the reader learns the stories of Precious’s class mates, in their own words. Sapphire leaves what happens next to Precious a mystery. We don’t know if Precious passed her G.E.D. or if she eventually got a job and went to college. The book is set during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a lot of people with HIV died. If Precious were real, she probably died. If she did, Precious would have faced her illness and death with grace and courage, but I prefer to hope she made it to college.

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