Monthly Archives: December 2014

My Favourite Novels of 2014

The following are my top ten novels of 2014, in no particular order:

1. Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. F**ken brilliant. Vernon was probably my favourite character of the decade, let alone the year.

2. The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King. This story of a story within a story filled in a part of The Dark Tower series which no one even knew was missing. I’ve said this before, but no one tells stories as well as Stephen King.

3. Dreamboat Dad by Alan Duff. The story of a boy who was born following a war time liaison between his Maori mother and American soldier father.

4. Room by Emma Donohue. This story has haunted me all year. There are some crazy people out there in our world.

5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. When I finished this book, I immediately turned back to the front page and re-read it. I haven’t done this since I was a teenager.

6. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The biting voice of the narrator, Barbara Covett, telling the story of a fellow teacher’s liaison with a student, was wonderful.

7. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. How do people think up these fantastic ideas for books? Then, how do they tell the story so well? Life After Life has a very clever plot. I did not want this book to end.

8. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Cassandra Mortmain was my favourite heroine for the year. I wish I’d read this book years ago, as it is the kind of book which could be read again and again. I feel as if I’ve been missing out on re-reads.

9. Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange. This was my favourite Jane Austen tribute novel of the year, and believe me, I’ve read quite a few. Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel, so this was preaching to the converted.

10. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. This was a big, sad story with a great many characters, all of whom take their turn to tell their own story, which makes a whole story.

In case anyone is wondering, I do read some non fiction also. Favourites this year included:

1. Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book, edited by Diane Muldrow. Life lessons with cute pictures.

2. Marian Keyes Saved by Cake. Gorgeous recipes for pretty cakes.

3. The Letters of Rachel Henning, edited by David Adams. This book was compiled from the real letters of an English woman who came to live in Australia in the 1800’s.

4. Letters From Our Heart, edited by Jennifer Campbell. This was my favourite Australian book of the year. The book is made up of the most beautiful love letters, farewells, letters of condolence, letters from mothers to their children, fathers to their sons who are off to war, Aboriginal mother’s pleas to the authorities to return their children and more. I howled all the way through this book.

Happy New Year to my fellow readers.

 

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Books I Could Not Finish in 2014

I usually finish books, even when I’m not really enjoying a story. Writing is difficult, for me anyway and I have a lot of respect for authors, who can do something I wish I could. While I feel an obligation to pay authors the courtesy of reading the words they have slaved over though, sometimes I just can’t manage it.

2014 was a great year of reading. I’ve read some fantastic books and will do a Top Ten later in the week.

However, these are the books I did not finish during 2014.

Dubliners by James Joyce. This is the second time I’ve tried to read Dubliners and failed. It’s obviously my failure though, rather than James Joyce’s.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner. I enjoyed the writing and the words, but the characters really annoyed me. I just couldn’t like them enough to keep reading. I didn’t need to finish this to take the lesson – don’t fall in love or get involved with drug addicts, you will regret it.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson. The plot jumped around too much for me. I think the characters may be part of an ongoing series, I’ll look for the first book in the series and start at the beginning. My fault, not the author’s. I loved Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Fleece Navidad by Maggie Sefton. I got sucked in by the cover art, which said there were delicious recipes in the book. There were, (the rum balls were very nice) but there were too many characters who seemed surplus to requirements. This book is also part of a series, so it would probably make more sense if I went back to book one and got to know the characters properly.

Otherwise, a successful year of reading.

 

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Christmas Bliss By Mary Kay Andrews

christmas

I never read novels by the same author in succession, or even close together usually, but lately I’ve been reading some really good, big novels and just wanted something light and fun to give my brain a break. Plus it’s nearly Christmas and this book seemed timely.

I read Savannah Breeze by Mary Kay Andrews earlier in the year and enjoyed it, and Christmas Bliss by Mary Kay Andrews, featuring the same group of characters, BeBe, Weezie and their circle, gave me the frivolity I needed. This time BeBe is heavily pregnant and Harry is a happy father to be, while Weezie is preparing for her and Daniel’s Christmas Eve wedding at home in Savannah.

Weezie becomes suspicious of Daniel’s relationship with the glamorous owner of the New York restaurant where he has been working as a special guest chef, so when he becomes sick Weezie hops on a plane to New York to nurse him. Happily for Weezie, Daniel’s boss is lovely and her fears were completely unfounded. Weezie gets to do all of the things she has ever dreamed about while in New York the week before Christmas.

BeBe, in the last month of her pregnancy, is feeling fat and unlovely. Harry gives her a few frights when he comes home late from deep sea fishing. The only other exciting thing to happen in Christmas Bliss is that BeBe learns she may still be married to husband #2, which would make the terrible Richard the legal father of her and Harry’s unborn baby.

Not much else happens in Christmas Bliss.

Weezie’s parents are just as funny as they were in Savannah Breeze, although her father appears to be suffering from dementia. I wish there had been a recipe included for Weezie’s mother’s dreaded cake, which had a massive build up throughout the book before making it to the wedding buffet. Even a description of the taste would have pleased me.

The characters are lovely, but they don’t have any rollicking adventures the way they did in Savannah Breeze. The whole novel has the feel of a leisurely Sunday afternoon, rather than the excitement of frantic preparations for an upcoming wedding and birth, and the anxiety caused by a former husband casting his long shadow over present and future happiness. Every potential drama resolved itself easily and neatly.

I think Christmas Bliss could have been improved by introducing some different characters and relegating BeBe, Weezie and co into secondary roles. I still like the characters, but there wasn’t enough friction or drama for storyline to really interest me. Still, this book suited my purpose. My brain had a rest.

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Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

mad

OMG, Bridget Jones is in her fifties!! When did that happen? I can’t believe it!

Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding is a fast, cheerful, happy read. Bridget is fun. I’ve missed her. I’m glad she’s back.

Bridget still tells her story to her diary, but now we get to read her emails and social media entries also (the world has moved on since she was a singleton in her thirties, alternately shagging Mr Darcy and Hugh Grant – oops, I meant to say Mr Wickham – no that’s not right either – Daniel Cleaver). Bridget still obsesses over her weight, although her alcohol units are not as big an issue now she is a responsible parent. Physically, for a woman who regularly drank and ate too much, she has aged surprisingly well.

Bridget is now a single mother. She and Mark Darcy got married and had two children, before sadly, Mark died in a horrible accident four years ago. Bridget is struggling along with the demands of the children and her career, although thankfully she does not have money problems.

Bridget’s children are Billy and Mabel, who are delightful, apart from the head lice thing. Billy is like his father, very sensible and clever, and he has Colin Firth’s eyes. (Not that the author said that exactly, but you know Billy is the spitting image of him. Think of the BBC production, where Mr Darcy is looking soppy while Elizabeth sings at the piano and you will picture Billy’s beautiful brown eyes exactly). Mabel hath the cuteth lithp.

Bridget’s besties are still there for her, although they have grown up too. They convince Bridget she needs to find another man, or at least someone to shag. Bridget discovers Twitter, where she obsesses over how many followers she has (her numbers fluctuate, apparently some followers are put off by drunken ramblings). She hooks up with Roxster, a gorgeous 29 year old who follows her tweets.

Bridget ends up having a hot romance with Roxster, who is perfect apart from being too young for her. Lurking in the background though, is Mr Wallaker, one of Billy’s school teachers. He regularly rescues Bridget from ridiculous situations, or argues with her. I liked Roxster and thought he was the perfect person for Bridget at this point in her life, but the whole way through the book I was hoping that Mr Wallaker would rip his shirt off and dive into a pond (maybe I’ve watched the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice too many times).

Bridget’s mum is as self obsessed as ever. Bridget’s father has also died since the last book. Daniel Cleaver is as big a man-whore as ever, yet somehow he still pulls the girls with his terrible lines about underpants. Funnily enough, he is the children’s godfather.

I read Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy yesterday, and to be honest, I’ve already forgotten bits and pieces. I expect in a few weeks I’ll have forgotten all about the plot. As I said earlier, this was a fun, frivolous read, rather than the sort of thing that sticks with you. I suppose the next time I see Bridget she’ll be an empty nester or a grandmother or something, doesn’t time fly?

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Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

vernon

Wow, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre is a f***en ripper of a book. Since Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize in 2003, I rest my f***en case.

I don’t usually swear, but Vernon Little, the fifteen year old main character of this books swears a lot, and it rubs off. As a narrator, he has a way with words. He tells his story in the first person, and is hilarious, despite his best friend going on a shooting rampage at school and killing 16 people. Poor old Vernon, who seems to be one of life’s losers, has somehow become guilty by association.

Vernon lives with his mother, who is bloody hopeless. His father is gone, presumed dead. Vernon’s mother’s friends are a posse of bitches, one-upping each other every chance they get. The small Texan town Vernon lives in, Martirio, is the kind of place where everyone knows each other and everyone else’s business, although a few dirty little secrets come to light during the telling of this story.

Vernon becomes a “skate-goat” for his friend’s killing spree because the people of the town are looking for someone to blame and the actual murderer, Vernon’s friend Jesus, ‘got away’ by killing himself. Although innocent, Vernon is implicated by a series of co-incidences and a con man presenting himself as a reporter. The con man wheedles his way into his mother’s pants, house and surprise, surprise, bank account.

Vernon eventually escapes to Mexico and just when you think he is in the clear, things go from bad to worse for him. I won’t say how things end up for Vernon, but bear in mind, Texas has (or has in the novel) capital punishment. I will admit to shedding a tear in the last chapters. The con man, who has now dumped Vernon’s mother for a better offer, has created a reality show for death row, where the inmates go up against each other on votes to be executed.

There are good people and bad people in this book, just like in real life. Frighteningly, there seem to be more stupid people than clever too, and combined with various faults, including greediness and vanity, Vernon never had a chance. Vernon’s own fault, lust (not surprising in a fifteen year old boy) is his undoing.

On an aside, Australian Prime Minster John Howard changed the laws to tighten gun ownership in Australia after a gunman went on a rampage and shot loads of innocent people. Since then, it hasn’t happened here. Just f***en sayin’.

Back to the book. I loved it. Vernon is wiser than most and funnier too. I can’t wait to read Ludmila’s Broken English, also by this author. Vernon God Little is a wonderful book.

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Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

lost

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis is a written in an unusual style, which I didn’t like. I didn’t like the story or the characters either, which is mostly set in an un-named part of Western Australia.

There are three main characters in this novel, Millie Bird, who is seven, Karl the Touch Typist, 87 and Agatha Pantha, 82. (Really, agapanthus? Groan.) All of these characters are lost in their own way (the title is a little obvious too). The telling of the story swaps between these three characters.

The story begins with Millie, who makes lists of dead things she has come across. Millie’s conversations with other people regarding death do not give her the information she is looking for, which to sum up, is the mystery of life and what happens when we die. Most of the people she questions are quite uncomfortable with the subject. Not surprisingly, she does not receive any satisfying answers, probably because there aren’t any. Mille will just have to wait and see, like the rest of us.

The story starts with Millie having been abandoned by her mother in a department store. Millie waits for her mother to return, hiding under a mannequin and writing notes to her mother so she can find Millie when she returns. The reader learns that Millie’s parents were unhappily married and that her father has died quite recently. It is apparent to the reader that Millie’s mother is not returning. It doesn’t seem fair of me to say that I didn’t like Millie’s character, as I should at least have felt sorry for her, but I just couldn’t connect with her.

Anyway, after a few days in the department store Millie is discovered by the store detective. She absconds with Karl the Touch Typist and a mannequin, who it turns out has also been living in the department store after escaping from his retirement home. Karl has a nervous habit of tying everything he says or thinks onto whatever surface is available. He desperately misses his wife Evie, who died. Karl is a man who wants to be alive and have adventures.

Millie and Karl leave town along with Agatha Pantha, who has not left her home since her husband died many years ago. Agatha has spent the time alone measuring her body daily for signs of aging, shouting out at passers-by and listing her daily routine. Agatha is a woman who has forgotten (or possibly never knew) how to live.

This very unlikely trio decide to catch the bus to Kalgoorlie and then travel to Melbourne by train, where they believe Millie’s mother has gone. For Agatha and Karl the trip is an opportunity for an adventure although for Millie the business is much more serious.

I found the characters in Lost & Found too crazy to like. Millie’s, Karl’s and Agatha’s personalities were too disjointed to feel as if I connected with any of them. For me, the description of characters in Kalgoorlie and the train trip across the Nullabor Plain were the most enjoyable part of reading this novel, but that is not a good enough reason to recommend this book when you could flip through a Lonely Planet guide with photographs of exotic areas.

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Dreamboat Dad by Alan Duff

dad

Why wasn’t Dreamboat Dad by Alan Duff a best seller when it came out in 2008?

This book is good. Really good.

Maybe Dreamboat Dad flew under the radar because the author is a New Zealander. People from other countries often don’t know anything about Australia, and so know even less about New Zealand. I can tell you though, New Zealanders punch above their weight in a great many ways.

Alan Duff’s best known work, Once We Were Warriors, won a PEN award. I haven’t read Once We Were Warriors. My husband watched the movie and told me it was “not bad”, (strong praise from him), but said that I wouldn’t like it due to the violence. If I had realised the author of Dreamboat Dad was the same as Once We Were Warriors I might not have read it, because as my husband knows, depictions of violence cripple me with fear.

Anyway, regardless of my speculations regarding its sales, Dreamboat Dad is a wonderful book. It is the story of a boy, Mark, (known as Yank), who is growing up in a village near Rotorua in New Zealand. My husband and I visited this area a few years ago and it is truly beautiful. The air smells like sulphur (not so beautiful, but you get used to it) and there are geysers and hot springs and boiling mud pools in the middle of town and all around the area. I was particularly taken with the photos and paintings of the Pink and White Terraces, which were known as the Eighth Wonders of the World, before being destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886. Google them.

I was also taken with how much better New Zealanders had managed settlement by Europeans than Australians had. The English sent convicts and soldiers to Australia and in the aftermath of European settlement, wiped out most of the Aboriginal people, leaving those who were left as third class citizens. By comparison in New Zealand, on the surface at least, Maori people and Europeans co-existed and in doing so created a much better future for everyone. I am aware that what I am saying here is probably quite superficial and that there are inequalities in New Zealand, but the inequalities in Australia for Aboriginal people at least, were and are far greater.

Okay, back to the book. Yank was born after his mother had an affair with an America soldier who was in New Zealand briefly during WW2. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except that Yank’s mother, Lena, was married at the time. Lena’s husband, Henry, came back from the war to find another man’s child living in his house.

Domestic violence is a theme of this story. Henry very often beat Lena, and other men in their village very often beat their wives too. The women downplay the violence, which is a part of their every day lives. The characters, men and women, know this behaviour is wrong, but they justify the violence as learned behaviour and continue behaving the way their own parents did.

Henry provides for Yank, but never speaks to him or acknowledges his presence in the household, which is not a happy one. Yank grows up thinking his father died in the war. This changes when Lena receives a letter from Jess, Yank’s father, which she shares with him. Yank writes back to Jess and they form a relationship. Yank believes his father is rich, and is a sort of John Wayne or Elvis Presley type of character.

Yank is musical and with the money Jess send, he buys records and a guitar. Eventually Yank sees a photo of his father and to his surprise and dismay learns that Jess is Negro. Yank struggles with his heritage due to the Negro people having been slaves, a concept he finds completely alien as a Maori. Yank eventually visits his father in Mississippi during the mid 1960s. As Yank has white skin and Jess is very black this puts both of them in danger many times from murderous white people. Yank’s understanding of how the Negro people had to live on their knees in order to survive grows, accepting all the while that understanding this way of life does not make it right.

The white people of Mississippi have as much to be ashamed of in their history as Australian people of English descent have, for the same reasons as I’ve commented on earlier. I won’t comment on more recent history as this book was set in the period between WW2 and the mid 1960s, and my blog is for the purpose of reviewing books rather than a platform to spout off my opinions. However, the whole purpose of art, is to make the viewer, reader or whoever think and respond, and Dreamboat Dad had me burning with indignation over a great many issues.

Dreamboat Dad had me feeling emotions other than anger too. I cried tears of joy during a happy event and had a few tears of sadness during others. I read the part where Yank is seduced by (or seduces) a friend’s mother several times, for both the pleasure of the romance and because the language used is so beautiful. I was also horribly afraid a great many times while reading this book, afraid of Lena being beaten by Henry, afraid that Yank’s best friend, Chud, would lose his way completely and afraid that Jess and Yank would be hurt or lynched, amongst a great many other fears.

Give Dreamboat Dad a whirl, it should be read by lots of people, not just me. I think it would make a good movie, too.

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It’s a Crime by Jacqueline Carey

crime

Yawn. I’m not sure why I finished It’s a Crime by Jacqueline Carey. Maybe because I kept hoping the story would go somewhere. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

To sum up, Pat Foy is a landscape gardener, who fluffs around for the enjoyment of plants rather than to make a living. She doesn’t need to work anyway, because she and her husband Frank are very rich. Frank is a dodgy accountant who has fudged some very big numbers on behalf of his company. Pat is clueless about Frank’s work and his crime, although she enjoys living in their expensive home and the other benefits of being rich.

The bodgy practices are found out and Frank, despite assisting with the investigations, goes to jail. Pat meets up with her old friend Ginny, who has been hurt financially by the company’s share prices diving. Pat and Ginny mess around paying back (some) shareholders who have lost money because Pat feels sorry for them. I’m not sure why Pat still seems to have plenty of money in her cheque account.

Along the way, Pat also takes in her former boyfriend’s son as a nanny for her delinquent daughter. Pat’s former boyfriend is a successful mystery writer. Pat loves mystery novels, although she never realised her husband was a thief.

Spoiler alert. Eventually Pat admits that it was wrong of Frank and the company (and particularly of the directors and other employees) to have gained financially from the company using criminal means, which would mean the point of the story is that we all need to take responsibility for our behaviour.

Unfortunately, It’s a Crime was boring. The story and characters were wishy-washy. I had my doubts about this book by the end of the second page, but I’m not very good at not finishing books. No mystery here, but I won’t be reading another novel by this author.

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Breakable You by Brian Morton

breakable

Breakable You by Brian Morton is the love stories of a family, a father, mother and their daughter during a particular time in their lives. The stories swing back and forwards between each character. There are some ideas presented in this novel which had not occurred to me before and I enjoyed thinking about them very much.

The father, Adam Weller, is an author in his sixties who hasn’t written anything well received critically for quite some time. His ex-wife, Eleanor, is a psychologist, and their daughter Maud is a student in her late twenties who is regularly bailed out of situations of financial and emotional duress by her parents. The family’s Jewish-ness is a strong theme throughout this book.

For me, Maud was the most likeable character in this book. In many ways, she also has the hardest life of the three main characters, although to say why would be to spoil the plot for other readers. One of the reasons, which is not a spoiler, is that Maud suffers from periodic depression.

Maud meets an Arab American man, Samir, who is in mourning for his dearly loved daughter from his failed marriage. Despite Samir’s emotional barriers and his and Maud’s religious and cultural differences, they persevere and by the middle of the book are on the verge of an amazing relationship. I really wanted these two characters to have a happy ending. As an Australian, my political world view is probably sadly lacking, but it seemed more unlikely that these two would originally have gotten to know each other, let alone fall in love, than almost anyone else on earth. Forgive me if this is obvious to everyone else, but the only comparison I can make is the most unlikely marriage I know of, between a man who barracks for Collingwood and a woman who barracks for Geelong (Australian Rules Football teams). This husband and wife don’t speak to each other the week before their teams play each other except to snipe at each other, and apparently their household is not a happy place the week after a game either, with one crowing about their team’s win and the other partner not speaking. Their sons barrack for Collingwood and the daughters for Geelong. Australian Rules Football is serious business indeed.

To continue in Australian parlance, Adam, Maud’s father, is a wanker. He is selfish, unpleasant and completely immoral, although he is very, very human. Throughout his marriage to Eleanor, Adam had regular affairs and now has a much younger girlfriend, Thea. Adam and Thea are both ambitious and use each other in a number of ways to gain credibility.

The widow of Adam’s oldest friend, a writer who was once in competition with Adam, contacts him after finding an unpublished manuscript belonging to her husband, and Adam’s behaviour in this instance is particularly reprehensible.

Eleanor, Maud’s mother and Adam’s former wife was for me the most frustrating character of the three. Eleanor comes off as a bland woman who has sacrificed too much of herself, and so has completely failed to live up to her potential. As a therapist, she should have had more of a clue.

Eleanor was recently contacted by her first love, Patrick, who she stole from her own sister way back when they were teenagers. Eleanor ditched Patrick at the time for Adam, because he offered her a more exciting life. I can not understand why Eleanor bothered meeting with Patrick again, as she obviously never truly loved him the first time round. Patrick told Eleanor she had always been his true love, but for me, Eleanor seems to have saved all of her passion for being a mother. I kept wishing Eleanor would stop feeling sorry for herself and get out there and live a bit more, instead of wallowing in being the dumped wife or dithering about whether Patrick would think she was fat or not.

There are some really big ideas in Breakable You which made me think about things I never had before. For instance, the idea that the dead don’t care. According to Morton’s character, Adam Weller, when I’m dead, I’m not going to care about anything. I’m not going to give a rat’s tail about what happens to my loved ones, or if my collection of recipes which has given me so much pleasure is thrown into the garbage or if my life’s work is found to be meaningless and useless. It’s a hard idea to get my head around, but the author may well be right.

Another big idea, “Every choice we make is either a growth choice or a fear choice.” I’ve never broken choices down quite so much, but the more I think about this idea, the more I like it as a way to make a decision. This idea should be a fridge magnet.

Breakable You is beautifully written. The characters felt real and full and whole. Their lives were interesting, sometimes funny and sometimes sad, and while I didn’t like the behaviour of some of the characters (Adam Weller, I mean you in particular), I could completely understand their motives.

I really enjoyed Breakable You and will go out of my way to find other books by Brian Morton.

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