Book reviews

Archive for November, 2014

Save Me by Lisa Scottoline


If I was Lisa Scottoline, I would not have named my novel Save Me. My reason why is if the novel was bad, there would be too much chance of some critic savaging the author using her own title. Luckily, the story and the writing were good. Not great, but good.

I really enjoyed that the author was able to have me feeling as if I cared about the main characters by the end of the very first page. Some authors are unable to create this feeling of empathy from their readers with a whole book to work in. I also really enjoyed the first half of this novel.

The main character of Save Me is Rose McKenna, a former model who looks like Snow White. Rose is married to a lawyer and has a school age daughter, Melly and a baby whose name doesn’t matter. Rose is a stay at home Mum, and on page one you learn that she is on her first day as a volunteer in Melly’s school cafeteria. By the end of the first paragraph you realise that Rose’s ulterior motive for volunteering at the school is because Melly is being picked on by other girls in her class. Melly has a birthmark on her face which makes her a target for bullying.

Rose intervenes when Melly runs and locks herself in the handicapped toilet, after the bullies make fun of her birthmark by remonstrating with Amanda, the ringleader of the bullying. All of the other children have gone out to the playground when the other volunteer parent leaves the cafeteria to get a teacher, telling Rose that she is not permitted to discipline the children, or to detain them in the cafeteria.

While this is going on an explosion in the kitchen sets the cafeteria on fire. Rose is torn between helping the bullies to escape the fire and rescuing Melly, who has locked herself in the toilet. Rose manages to get Amanda and another child out of the cafeteria to the corridor before she runs back through the burning cafeteria to rescue Melly. Melly is taken unconscious to hospital and Rose is hailed as a hero for saving her child.

Later in the hospital, Rose learns that three other people died in the explosion. Amanda, the child who was bullying Melly, ran back into the cafeteria after Rose took her out and is now in intensive care, expected to die. Melly is fine.

At this point, the school principal advises Rose that legal action may be taken against her by Amanda’s mother.

If the novel had continued in this direction, I think I would have enjoyed Save Me more. Rose’s husband was angry with her because she put the safety of the other children before rescuing Melly. The other parents ganged up on Rose and treated her horribly because they believed she had put her own child’s safety before that of the others (duh), but they also falsely believed she had not even tried to assist Amanda or the other children. Rose underwent a trial by media and her past was raked over. There were also questions raised about the cause of the explosion and the obligations of the school and the volunteers in an emergency situation.

Rose does some snooping around to find the cause of the explosion, at which point the story goes in a whole other direction. There is no way that a reader could guess where this story was going to end based on the beginning of the novel. I wouldn’t let this put me off reading another book by Lisa Scottoline, but I felt that the questions raised in the first half of Save Me were not answered to my satisfaction.


Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid


Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid was written as part of the Austen Project, where contemporary authors re-write Jane Austen’s six major novels. This author is well known for her crime novels, which are very good.

I quite enjoyed Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey, but I did finish the book feeling slightly disappointed, as I always do after reading Jane Austen tribute novels, or sequels or whatever they are called. Nobody writes Jane Austen like Jane Austen. Still, I keep picking these novels up because I’m not ready to let go of my favourite author.

This version of Northanger Abbey is set in Scotland in the present time. Cat Morland, a 17 year old, home schooled, would-be-heroine, goes to Edinburgh for the festival with her wealthy neighbours, the Allens. In a whirlwind of social engagements, Cat meets and becomes besties with Bella Thorpe, who is keen on Cat’s brother, James. Bella wants Cat to fall in love with her brother Johnny, however Cat is already sweet on Henry Tilney, a young lawyer.

Cat becomes friends with Henry’s sister Ellie, both of whom appear to be bullied by their widowed father, General Tilney.

Really, I don’t know why I am telling you all of this. The story is the same as Jane Austen’s, just set in the present time. The characters have Facebook and mobile phones. Cat’s reading of choice features vampires, zombies and werewolves. Cat and Bella use expressions such as OMG and LOL. The faults and failings and the good points of the characters haven’t changed since the original Northanger Abbey. Cat is na├»ve and Ellie is sweet. Bella Thorpe is still a young woman on the make and her brother Johnny remains a jerk.

However, I have the same problem with Val McDermid’s version of events that I do with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Why would a young man, specifically Henry Tilney, who is a lawyer, fall in love with and remain in love with, a 17 year old girl? I think the age differences and intellectual differences between Catherine and Henry are too great for their relationship to work in real life. I can understand Henry’s initial interest in Cat’s pretty face and her lovely personality, but at some time in the future, he is going to be bored stupid with her. And then what? In Jane Austen’s time they would politely have lived separate lives, with Henry finding his amusement elsewhere, but in the present time, Henry would eventually move on and Cat’s heart will be been broken.

Regardless of my fault finding with the plot, I did enjoy this novel and would recommend it to fellow Janeites. In future though, I would prefer to read a Val McDermid crime novel though than her re-telling someone else’s story.

The Time of Our Lives by Jane Costello


You know how when you read a novel, sometimes you feel envious of the characters? For example, you get the travel bug after reading something set in a glamorous location, or you get the wants for a fabulous new pair of shoes when the heroine of the book you are reading shops like a character in a book? Or if the characters are enjoying a hot new romance and your husband is snoring like an asthmatic camel?

My personal demons are characters in novels who bake sweets. I do far too much sympathy baking and eating while reading this kind of books.

However, I didn’t feel envious while reading The Time of Our Lives by Jane Costello, although I should have. The three main characters in this novel are young enough to be fun but not so young that they bored me. They have interesting jobs and interesting lives. They go away together on a holiday to Spain and have an absolute ball, despite loads of mishaps. By rights, I should have been crying “What about me?” but I wasn’t. I laughed and cried with the characters and felt as if I got to experience all of their adventures too.

Imogen is the main character of this novel. She has a great job with a major company, supportive parents and is the single mother of a four year old girl, Florence. When Imogen’s friend Meredith, who is heavily pregnant, wins a holiday to Barcelona’s most exciting new hotel, Meredith, Imogen and their friend Nicola head off for a last blast holiday before the baby is born.

Poor Imogen is taken advantage of by everyone (the old ‘ask someone who is busy because they are obviously capable’ thing). While Imogen is on holiday, her mother, who is looking after Florence, constantly phones or Skypes Imogen with every little thing. Imogen’s co-workers and boss are even worse. Her boss gets caught out doing something he shouldn’t have and Imogen gets stuck with the media, trying to manage damage control for the company from Barcelona. Not only that, but she is seated with demon children on her first ever business class flight, gets robbed, meets her old geography teacher on a nudist beach (Ewww) and breaks her arm while on holiday. (Maybe all of these horrible events explain why I didn’t get character-envy with this book).

But, there are loads of good things too. Imogen’s friends are wonderful. They take her out shopping and ramp up her look, which has become dull and frumpy since she became a single mother. There are loads of trips to the beach, the pool, crashing parties they haven’t been invited to and getting smashed and dancing. To cap off all of the fun, Imogen meets a great guy in Spain who is clearly very interested in her.

The Time of Our Lives is a fun holiday romance with far more depth than I expected. There wasn’t anything particularly ground breaking in the plot, but that didn’t matter. The formula was well done. I had loads of laugh out loud moments while reading but I also shed a few tears. The Time of Our Lives left me feeling as if I had just been on a holiday with friends and had a great time too.

The Spa Decameron by Fay Weldon


The Spa Decameron by Fay Weldon is more of a group of short stories than a novel. Not that I’m complaining, either way the book is very entertaining with quite a few twists and turns.

The reason why the Phoebe, the narrator ends up at Castle Spa over the Christmas-New Year holiday is every woman’s dream. Her husband floods the house three days before Christmas, then leaves her to deal with the aftermath when he leaves to assist his mother, who has broken her hip. Phoebe cancels Christmas and books herself a spa holiday in Cumbria. As it turns out her children and grandchildren prefer staying at home over Christmas anyway.

So far, so good. No cooking, no cleaning, no shopping, no presents. No visitors, no drunken uncles, no family fights. I wish I could go on a spa holiday myself. Christmas is over-rated, especially when you are the female of the household.

Castle Spa isn’t everything it was advertised though. The owner, Lady Caroline, hasn’t paid the bills and most of the advertised treatments and indulgences are unavailable. A New Zealander, Beverley, seems to be running the place almost singlehandedly, grumbling under her breath all the while.

The guests, who are all women, are successful, well off and have very interesting backgrounds and stories. They gather daily in the Jacuzzi to share their stories. Quite a few have twists in their tales which I did not see coming.

My favourite tales were those of the Company Director, who looks decades younger than her 77 years and is in love with the most unexpected person, the Trophy Wife’s, who has just been released from jail after having been set up by her tycoon ex-husband and the Step-mother’s story (here’s a clue, the step-daughter always wins). Phoebe doesn’t get the opportunity to tell her own story due to a power failure, but the reader already knows it from Phoebe’s segues between the other women’s stories.

The only other Fay Weldon book I’ve read is Letters to Alice, which is probably an obvious choice for me, due to the Jane Austen theme. I noticed the author used similar phrases and voice in both books, possibly she writes as she speaks. The Spa Decameron was enjoyable but if I had to take either of these books on my spa holiday, I would choose Letter to Alice.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin


Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin is an historical novel, the imagined life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who was told the story of Alice in Wonderland as a child by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), an Oxford mathematics professor.

The novel starts with Alice as an elderly woman. Alice is tired of always being Alice in Wonderland, and of sharing her memories of childhood and the author with fans of the stories. Alice feels as if those who fete her are disappointed to realise she is a real person with a real life, rather than a little girl frozen in time.

As a child, Alice’s father was the Dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford and her mother, a socially ambitious woman who ruled the household. Alice was one of ten children, but for the purposes of this novel, only her older sister Ina and younger sister Edith feature prominently during her childhood, along with their governess, Miss Prickett (Pricks).

Mr Dodgson was a family friend. His preference was to spend time with the children, regularly photographing the girls, telling them stories while taking them for walks, rowing or on picnics, accompanied by Pricks and occasionally by other adult men from the University teaching staff. Alice is aware that Mr Dodgson enjoys her company most of all, although she and Ina vie jealously for his attention. Alice is also aware that Pricks has romantic feelings towards Mr Dodgson and she laughs and makes fun of her governess’s hopes.

Mr Dodgson very often used Alive and her sisters as models for his photography. The front piece of this Alice I Have Been is a photograph of Alice taken by Charles Dodgson, who posed her provocatively as a gypsy child. The book and this photograph particularly, interested me enough to Google Charles Dodgson’s photography. He was a prolific photographer of young girls (aged between seven and twelve years old) and very often the girl’s poses are provocative. Alice I Have Been stops short of accusing Mr Dodgson of being a paedophile, but the question is certainly raised.

The book describes the circumstances of Charles Dodgson telling Alice and her sisters the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and of Alice begging Mr Dodgson to write the story down, which he eventually did. He also gave the original manuscript to Alice. The story was published and was eventually followed by Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

The relationship between Alice, her sisters and Mr Dodgson ended after Alice, waking up on a train after an outing with Mr Dodgson, kissed him in the way her “Papa kissed her Mamma”. This was witnessed by Ina and Pricks, and the blame laid entirely with Mr Dodgson.

As an adult, Alice went on to have a romance with His Royal Highness Prince Leopold, the son of Queen Victoria, which ended at the Queen’s request. Alice believes this is because of her reputation having been stained by Mr Dodgson, but the official reason given is that the Queen wanted the Prince to marry royalty.

Alice eventually married and had children of her own, recognising all the while that she still loved and always would love the prince best of all.

Towards the end of the novel Alice and Mr Dodgson meet up again. He is a fussy old man by this stage, while she is the mother of rambunctious boys. Both are disappointed in each other. Mr Dodgson wants Alice to continue to be a child, and Alice wants Mr Dodgson to grow up.

I enjoyed Alice I Have Been, even though as I child I read and disliked Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Season to Taste, or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young


Regular readers of Rose Reads Novels will already know of my love for food themed novels, especially those with recipes.

Well, Season to Taste, or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young takes the genre of novels with recipes to a whole new level.

For whatever reason, Lizzie, the main character of Season to Taste, who has been married to Jacob for thirty years, hit him over the head from behind with a spade and killed him. She then cut him into pieces, bagged and labelled the pieces, then put the pieces into the freezer with the intention of cooking and eating him. Hence, the recipes.

Lizzie is not a cannibal. She may well be a psychopath, as she has little regret for her actions or empathy for Jacob, apart from believing she has put him out of his misery (he suffers from depression). She believes that to go to prison for murdering Jacob would be a waste of her life. Her marriage was unhappy, but Lizzie never made a serious attempt to leave Jacob.

I enjoyed the first part of the novel enormously, especially the nasty shivers which came about from the shock value of the particularly yucky bits. Learning that even the dog couldn’t eat the soles of Jacob’s feet (too tough) was really nasty. Reading the section where Lizzie straightened Jacob’s fingers before cooking his hand was written in a very matter of fact manner, yet this part hit me like a sledgehammer.

I also enjoyed the life advice from Lizzie’s mother, which was funny and surprisingly good.

Eventually I stopped cringing at the gross bits. By the middle of the book, I actually found a recipe for a marinade using pineapple juice, which looked delicious. I did a mental inventory of my pantry, ticked off all of the ingredients, then stopped short. Was I seriously thinking of making this recipe? A recipe for a marinade which the main character of Season to Taste used to flavour the meat from her husband’s body?

I find myself looking at my husband and thinking, I couldn’t do it. He is far too big to eat. I would never get through him. Plus, he wouldn’t fit in the freezer. I don’t have an axe. (Lizzie might think I was just looking for excuses not to kill and eat my husband).

The end of Season to Taste petered out a bit, and became slightly boring. Perhaps the shock value of the premise wore off. I don’t usually read anything gruesome, but I quite enjoyed the chills which ran down my back in the first half of the novel.

As it turned out, my husband was never in any serious danger. I already had pork and beef in the freezer. Nor did I write the recipe out for future use.

For the record, Lizzie said Jacob tasted a bit like chicken.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson


Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson won the Miles Franklin Award in 1978. This prize is awarded annually for the best novel (of high literary merit) presenting Australian life. Miles Franklin, whose best known novel was My Brilliant Career, made a bequest in her will to establish the prize which was first awarded in 1957.

As an Australian, I particularly enjoy reading novels set in Australia. While the characters in Australian novels are not as familiar to me as my own immediate family, they often remind me of my aunts and uncles or cousins. Familiar locations might make me feel nostalgic or give me a sense of belonging. Most of the novels I read are by American or English authors and while I enjoy the feeling of a trip somewhere while I am reading a novel, there is no place like home (remember how Dorothy felt while she was in Oz?)

I found the character’s names in Tirra Lirra by the River to be particularly evocative of the time and place the novel was set in. Growing up in the 1970’s in country Victoria, there were plenty of Noras, Dorothys, Bettys, Jacks and Freds, albeit of an older generation, in my community. From Jessica’s Anderson’s description of the country town in Queensland where this book was set, I could almost picture the street and the houses, smell the trees and dust, and hear the birds and other sounds which are so distinctively Australian.

Tirra Lirra by the River is the story of Nora Porteous’s life, following her return to the house she grew up in after almost a lifetime in London. Nora falls ill immediately on her return and is bedridden. While confined to bed, she has plenty of time to reflect on her childhood, family, friends and her failed marriage. From the neighbours who care for her, Nora learns a great deal more than she realised earlier about the community she grew up in. Nora’s suppressed memories flood in and eventually she comes to understand herself and her motives better than ever.

Very early in the novel the reader learns that Nora believes that she and her mother had little in common and that they didn’t like each other very much. Nora says, “it happens more often than is admitted,” something which is rarely seen in print, apart from the obvious example of when there is a psychopath in the family, such as We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. In stories about ‘ordinary’ families the only examples of parents and children disliking each other I can think of is temporary, that of battles between parents and teenaged children, and even then it is understood that with the passing of time, friendship, love and harmony will be restored. I agree with the author that parents and children in real life don’t always like each other, but it still shocked me to see this particular truth in print, especially for a novel of this time when so much emphasis was on putting on a good show for the neighbours.

Nora is artistic. Her friends are a very bohemian group, but she marries a miserly mother’s boy, who eventually leaves her for another woman. He was no great loss to Nora, who took the opportunity to leave Australia for London with a thousand pounds from his savings in her pocket.

Nora has a shipboard romance, followed by an abortion, then a stint as a student which led to a career as a dressmaker. After WW2, life was London hard. Nora moved in with friends to save costs, but eventually decided to give up London and return to Australia, to her family home in Queensland. By this time Nora’s hands were arthritic and her career over. Nora resented her sister Grace for making the arrangements for the house to be kept for Nora’s use during her lifetime, but even though Nora believed Grace was still trying to boss her around from the grave, the use of the house was also a blessing, as Nora was so poor she would otherwise have been homeless.

While the novel came full circle in terms of place, and Nora reached a better understanding of her family and friends, the story also felt unresolved. Nora always seemed to be wanting something, I can’t put my finger on what exactly, which she did not achieve. Despite this, I enjoyed Tirra Lirra by the River and think the book a worthy recipient of the Miles Franklin Award.

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