Book reviews

Archive for October, 2014

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller


I watched the movie, Notes on a Scandal years ago and enjoyed it very much, but the book, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, is an absolute ripper. The cover art on this edition, by a tattoo artist named Valerie Vargas which was issued as part of the Penguin Ink series, is also enormously appealing.

The book’s narrator, Barbara Covett, is an almost retired school teacher who is disliked by staff and students equally. Her words are beautifully chosen, biting and precise, as she describes the predicament of Sheba Hart, a fellow teacher at St Georges School, who has been found out having an affair with a student.

Sheba, and art teacher, was new to teaching when she started at St Georges, and although entirely unable to control her students, she quickly became popular with other teachers. Barbara, who is almost completely isolated socially after a falling out with her dear friend Jennifer, is also infatuated with Sheba’s bohemian style and upper class manners and vies with other teachers for Sheila’s attention. Heller’s presentation of Barbara’s loneliness is painful to read.

Sheba seems almost desperate for admiration, and starts an affair with a Year 11 boy, Steven Connolly. When the affair is found out, Barbara becomes Sheba’s companion, in hiding from the media after Sheba’s husband Richard kicks her out of the family home.

Every character in this novel is a predator to some degree. Barbara controls Sheba’s situation to force Sheba to depend on her and her alone, Sheba’s husband is much older than Sheba and Barbara’s presentation of their history shows Sheba being selected and groomed by Richard as his second wife. Steven preys on Sheba to force the affair and of course Sheba, who is in her forties with children of her own, has preyed on Steven, by encouraging his schoolboy lust for her.

Barbara, in a supposed attempt to present the ‘true’ version of the events, as opposed to the lies and distortions which are appearing in the media, writes what becomes Notes on a Scandal, pumping Sheba for more and more information about the affair. Eventually Sheba finds Barbara’s notes and realises that Barbara was responsible for the affair becoming public.

Barbara appears to be a lesbian who has never experienced a love affair of her own, although this is never confirmed by actual words or actions in the book. Barbara writes that society is unwilling to forgive or accept love or lust in any other form than the norm, and in her narrative, presents Sheba and Steven’s affair almost as a case in point.

The affair itself is hard to understand, at least from Sheba’s point of view. Steven simply says Sheba is “hot,” which from a 15 year old boy, is straightforward enough. But as a forty something year old woman, I can’t understand Sheba’s attraction to Steven. Fifteen year old boys were fascinating when I was a teenager, but now? Not very. For a woman to risk her marriage, children, career and position in society seems ridiculous.

I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, many years ago and found it to be much more disturbing than Notes on a Scandal. I don’t know if that is because of the reverse gender issue with a teenage girl and older man (and I do recognise my hypocrisy), or if my unease is because of the more explicit telling of Lolita and Humbert’s affair. Either way, both books work (as art’s purpose is to create an emotion in the reader or viewer).

Moral questions aside, Notes on a Scandal is a wonderfully written book. I don’t have a point scoring system for my reviews, but if I did, this book is five out of five.



The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King


I can remember begging my parents and grandmothers to tell me stories when I was little. My Nana used to sing “Tell Me A Story,” which was a hit in the 1950’s and I would tell her to stop singing and tell me a real story. Some things don’t change. I still love being told stories and Stephen King tells really good stories. I am one of what King calls his Constant Readers.

Finding The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King was pure joy. This book fits into the Dark Tower series as book number 4.5, bridging two previously written novels. I’ve read and enjoyed all of the books in this series and was very happy to revisit the characters of Mid-World, but I also believe this book could also be read and enjoyed as a stand alone novel.

Coming across the characters again was like meeting old friends. In this story, Roland and his ka-tet of Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy are in Mid-World, travelling to the Outer Baronies when we (I went along for the ride) sat out a starkblast in a ghost town. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, a starkblast is a terrible storm where the temperature drops to “as much as forty limbits below freezing in less than an hour.” Then the wind blows for days, causing severe damage to the frozen world. While we were sitting out the storm, Roland told us a story.

Roland’s story was a true tale, of himself and his friend Jamie in their youth, although they were already gunslingers. Roland’s father, Steven, sent them on a quest to clear an outlying area of Mid-World of a skin-man, a mysterious shape-changer who was randomly killing and maiming the people of Debaria.

Next came the story in the story, in the story.

While Roland was laying a trap for the skin-man using an orphaned boy named Bill as bait, he tells us (the ka-tet) the story he told Bill to distract him from the dangers of his situation. This story is of a boy named Tim, who was the son of Nell and Big Ross. Big Ross was killed by his partner, Big Kells, who had made it appear as if a dragon had killed Big Ross. Kells then married Nell, to save her from the dangerous and evil Covenant Man, who will soon want taxes whether Nell can afford them or not.

Kells turned out to be a drinker and a wife-beater, rather than the saviour he presented himself as to Nell. When Big Kells blinded Nell after viciously beating her, Tim, who is an extraordinarily brave 11 year old, went on a quest of his own, to save his mother’s eyesight. He was guided by the Covenant Man, who set him on his way with some magic, although the Covenant Man also bears some responsibility for the events which lead to the beating.

There is magic everywhere in this story, some good and some bad. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dark Tower novels, particularly The Eyes of the Dragon, but I suspect that The Wind Through the Keyhole will also be one day counted amongst my favourites as a few weeks after finishing the book, I am still thinking about the story.

The last word about The Wind Through the Keyhole goes to Roland, who tells another character, “A person’s never too old for stories.”

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee


I’m at risk of repeating myself here, but I love novels with recipes. Preferably recipes for cakes, biscuits and confectionery, but bread is good too.

The novel, Friendship Bread, by Darien Gee, uses the circulation of a starter (fermented ingredients) for Amish Friendship Bread as a plot device to bring the characters together and to make things happen. At the end of the book, there is a recipe and directions for the starter, as well as a whole lot of bread and other recipes which can be made using the starter.

The first bag of starter in the town of Avalon in the USA mysteriously appears on the doorstep of a main character, along with a plate of Amish Friendship Bread, and the recipe and instructions for how to care for the starter. The recipient, Julia Evarts, is convinced by her five year old daughter Gracie to feed the starter so they can bake their own bread in ten days time, which they do. On day ten they also have three additional bags of starter.

Julia has been grieving for her son Josh, who died from a wasp sting while in the care of her sister Livvie for five years. Since then, Julia has refused to see or forgive Livvie. Julia has also pushed her husband Mark away, to the point where Mark could be tempted into an affair with a workmate.

By chance, Julia visits Madeline’s Tea Salon and meets Madeline, a grieving widow. She also meets Hannah, another customer to the Tea Salon, who has recently moved to Avalon. Hannah is a world-famous cellist who is struggling with the break up of her marriage to another famous musician. Before the women part ways on their first meeting, Julia gives Madeline and Hannah a bag of Amish Friendship Bread starter each along with the instructions and the recipe, which sets off the baking epidemic in Avalon.

Before long Avalon is over-ran with Amish Friendship Bread starter. Some people furiously curse anyone who tries to give them some starter, but other happy bakers form a club to swap recipes to use the starter in (if I lived in Avalon I would probably join the club, but I wouldn’t use anyone else’s starter. You don’t know how clean their kitchens are). When a journalist writes a local interest story for a newspaper identifying Julia as the first person to pass on the starter, she is swamped by bags of starter anonymously dumped on her doorstep by the Amish Friendship Bread haters.

Luckily, (for the plot, I mean, not so much for the fictional characters), the flood of a neighbouring town brings the people of Avalon together, and using their surplus starters the Avalonians bake over 7000 loaves of Amish Friendship Bread in a single night to feed the victims of the flood. (Loaves and fishes?)

The events caused by the spreading of the starter force the main character’s issues to come to a head, namely Julia’s isolation from her husband and family, Hannah’s attitude towards her marriage break down and Madeline’s broken connection with her former step-son. Along the way, the three women form a strong friendship.

Friendship Bread is a feel-good novel, although I don’t feel the urge to begin a starter of my own to bake some bread. I’ve still got all of the ingredients in the pantry from when I read How To Bake A Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal and decided to make Sunshine Fruit and Honey Bread. (I still plan to make the bread, I just haven’t got around to it). Regardless, I really enjoyed the feeling of hope and optimism that this novel left me with.

The Second Life of Amy Archer by RS Pateman


I hate ambiguous endings.

The Second Life of Amy Archer by RS Pateman has an ambiguous ending. If I had known this in advance, I wouldn’t have read this novel.

Amy Archer was ten years old when she disappeared from a playground, after arguing with Dana, her best friend. Ten years later, Amy’s mother Beth, who is the narrator of this book, is still grieving. Beth and Amy’s father, Brian have divorced. Brian has remarried ans has step-daughters who have, in Beth’s eyes, taken Amy’s place in her former husband’s heart.

Beth has consulted a great many psychics, none of whom have given her any comfort since Amy’s disappearance. On the tenth anniversary of Amy’s disappearance, Beth consults a new psychic, who gives her new information and advises her that he sees a girl with the letters ‘E’ several times in her name near to Beth. Beth discounts the psychic’s vision, but over the next few chapters his words prove true.

The next few events are hard to describe, because even though I suspended my disbelief while reading the novel, they appear ludicrous when written as part of a review.

A child, Esme, who appears almost physically identical to Amy and who is the same age as Amy when she went missing, becomes known to Beth when Esme’s mother, Libby visits Beth at Esme’s insistence. Esme throws herself onto Beth and calls her Mum.

Beth doesn’t know what to believe. Esme believes she is Amy and that Beth is her mother. She knows things about Beth and the family that nobody outside of Beth’s immediate circle of family and friends could know. Beth wants to believe that Amy has been reincarnated as Esme, but also suspects that she could be the victim of an elaborate fraud, as Brian posted a large reward for information which would lead to Amy or Amy’s body. Beth is outraged when she learns that Brian quietly withdrew the reward many years ago.

There are a great many twists and turns as Beth gets to know Esme and investigates their background. Some of the devices the author uses to manipulate the story are too far fetched to really work, but reincarnation is probably a hard theme to pull off. Beth’s character was inconsistent, a grieving mother wanting to believe psychics, but unwilling to believe what looked like hard evidence of what she had been searching for. The reader doesn’t get to know any of the other characters well enough to care for any of them.

I didn’t enjoy The Second Life of Amy Archer enough to forgive the ambiguous ending.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson


I didn’t want Life After Life by Kate Atkinson to ever end. Which is funny, because the heroine of this novel, Ursula Todd, who is a heroine in the true sense of the world, lives her life over and over again.

Ursula was born in 1910 to an English couple. Again and again and again. Then she dies. Again and again and again. Sometimes Ursula dies as a baby and is born again. Sometimes she dies as a child, and eventually she dies as an adult. As the book continues, Ursula lives longer, and has different experiences in each of her lives, although some events occur and re-occur regardless of the feeling of deja vu which guides Ursula through her many lives.

Ursula never quite remembers her previous lives, although she usually learns from her mistakes. Her mistakes include being taken advantage of by a friend of her brother, causing her to fall pregnant without even knowing how it happened, and marrying a bullying, cowardly wife-beater. Eventually Ursula learns how to manipulate her family and friends to achieve her ends too, for continued health and longevity for all of them.

The times Ursula live in are central to the story. Her father leaves the family to fight in the Great War, which are her formative years. During some of her lives Ursula lives in Germany between the wars and in one life, she lives in Germany during WW2. In other lives, Ursula works as an English warden during WW2 and in another, she works for the Home Office, surrounded by the people who are making the military decisions which affect the whole world. Ursula’s lives all lead her eventually to a single point, with the reader being led by the author through version upon version of Ursula’s life, waiting and watching and becoming more anxious for Ursula to take a particular action which appears to be her destiny.

The essence of Ursula’s family and friends remain much the same throughout each life she live, although her mother, Sylvie, who in some lives is a loving, tolerant mother to Ursula is in others unforgiving and cruel, which seems particularly harsh as the circumstances which govern her mother’s behaviour to her were not caused by Ursula. Sylvie is the next most interesting character after Ursula, and her attitudes and the funny things she says are generally wise and witty, in the very clever, English style of the time, reminiscent of the writings of Noel Coward and the Mitford women.

The idea of eternity always really bothers me, because, as I may have commented before, forever is a really long, long time. The thought of living my own life over and over again is intriguing though. The possibility of righting wrongs and doing things better the second or third time around is very appealing, although there are mistakes I would happily make again. Only the future would tell if I got the opportunity to make a grand gesture to change the whole world for the better, in the way Ursula did. It is far more likely that for real people that the small things count, for example the times I bite my tongue when I am tired and cross instead of snapping at my family, or do something for someone else when I would rather not.

I could not put this book down. I read it on the train to work, it tempted me all day by sitting in my handbag while I worked away at my desk living through my own version of Groundhog Day, and then I read it on the train going home. Once everyone was packed into bed a little earlier than normal, I hopped into bed and read some more. I could not wait to read the end, to find out what happened, but as I said earlier, I did not want Life After Life to actually end.

I’ve already found another Kate Atkinson book to read, Started Early, Took My Dog.

The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean


Finding a novel by Erin McKean, the author of my favourite blog, A Dress A Day, made me feel very happy. The pastel pink cover with a gorgeous black party dress (which I would love to wear if I was slimmer and had somewhere to wear it,) makes me smile too. The characters were likeable, the story was bright and happy (despite being written around the death of a dearly loved character) and the descriptions of the dresses are delightful.

The main character, Dora is at college, and in unrequited love with Mr Wrong, although the reader instantly realises Dora is far too good for the object of her desire. When her grandmother, Mimi, becomes seriously ill, Dora drops everything to go home, where she can be close to the hospital and run Mimi’s vintage clothing shop. While Dora is running the shop, she meets Con, who is her Mr Right.

The novel is light and breezy and an enjoyable read. This might be a weird thing to say, but I feel as if this book was written especially for my enjoyment. The first reason why I believe this is that I’m into rockabilly, and I got a massive kick out of one of the characters referencing a rockabilly band, Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, who actually came to Australia a few years ago. The second reason is that Dora and Con go to the movies to see The Princess Bride, which is a favourite of mine. (The book is just as good as the movie too, if you’ve never read it). Then to top it all off, there are lots of dresses, descriptions on top of descriptions of gorgeous vintage dresses.

The secret lives of the dresses are stories which are given to the purchasers of the dresses, as written by Mimi. In the blog, A Dress A Day, Erin McKean writes funny and clever pattern stories which I look forward to reading, as do a great many others. Mimi’s stories in the book are an extension of these. My recommendation is that you check out Erin’s blog and read the pattern stories for yourself.

I hope Erin McKean puts together a collection of pattern stories in a book one day. If she does I’ll buy it. I’ve already bought The Hundred Dresses by the same author, which details the most iconic dresses of our times.


Cum Laude by Cecily von Ziegesar

Cum Laude

I had high hopes when I started reading Cum Laude by Cecily von Ziegesar, who is the writer of Gossip Girls. I even googled ‘Cum Laude’ to find out what the novel’s title means, and learned the expression is Latin for ‘with honour’. Specifically, in a college or university context, graduating with high praise.

I doubt any of the characters in this novel managed to do anything with honour. Behaving dishonourably wouldn’t have been so bad, if they hadn’t been so boring. The characters are mainly college students, and include an emotionally neglected rich girl, her college drop out brother who suffers from mental illness, her rich, handsome and stupid boyfriend who discovers drugs, her room mate who has loads of attitude and a poor townie boy who the poor little rich girl really fancies. To top it off, there is a lesbian teacher. The only stereotype missing is a nerd.

The students in this novel (I struggle to call them young adults, as they are in no way self reliant) are supposed to be getting an education at Dexter College, but are petted and pampered, fed and housed, while they drink and use drugs and have sex at their parent’s expense. The teachers were glorified babysitters.

There characters weren’t even redeemed by any growth. Not on of them seemed to learn anything (in school or out) that provided a point for the novel. The character building moments were so few and far between that I’m still not sure what the point of the book was. If Cum Laude is a typical example of college life (or in Australia, university) I don’t think I missed out on anything by leaving school at 16 to get a job.

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