Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Darlings Buds of May by HE Bates

darling

The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates is a very surprising story. It isn’t very long and is quite light, but is very entertaining.

The book tells the story of the Larkin family, scally-wag Pop, obese Ma, the beautiful Mariette (who may or may not be pregnant – neither Mariette or Ma are exactly sure who the father might be) and the rest of the Larkin children, who live in a “perfick” English rural paradise in the early 1950s.

Pop Larkin makes a good living for his family in a very dubious manner. The family have plenty to eat and own a farm, as well as all sorts of strange and wonderful items which were acquired by Pa as payments for debt, including a pre-war Rolls Royce complete with speaking tubes for passengers to direct the car’s driver.

The story begins with Pop and the family returning home from an ice cream run on a “perfick” (Pop Larkin’s word) May evening to find a tax collector, Mr Charlton, waiting for Pop. Mr Charlton, who Mariette takes a liking to, is treated as a long lost friend, plied with food and alcohol and invited to stay for the night. (‘Invited’ is probably the wrong word, as Pop gets Mr Charlton so drunk he was unable to remember his own name, let alone leave the farm). Mr Charlton is also attracted to Mariette, but in Ma’s words, Mr Charlton needs to improve his “technique” somewhat before a romance can blossom.

Not surprisingly, Mr Charlton stays on at the farm. He quickly becomes ‘Charley’ and his initial visit to collect a tax form extends to a three week stay. Charley picks strawberries with the Larkin women for cash, finds himself to be the cause of a physical fight between Mariette and another girl who has tried her own techniques on Charley, and practices and improves his own technique with Mariette enormously.

Pop lends his meadows to the local gymkhana for a competition and hosts a cocktail party, where Charley’s and Mariette’s engagement is announced. Pop also turns out to be less faithful to Ma than the reader originally realises, although Ma is aware of Pop’s romantic philandering. Ma doesn’t mind Pa’s romantic adventures with other women so long as she doesn’t miss out on any affection herself. Pop Larkin is a character who really knows how to live.

Charley becomes a happy convert to the Larkin’s way of life and by the end of the book, it is unlikely that he will ever return to his job at the tax office. This is not all that surprising based on the lovely food and alcohol descriptions throughout the book, which include ice creams, cocktails, roast goose, pork, strawberries and more. Not many pages go by without a description of good things to eat. The food alone makes me want to live with the Larkins, let alone getting my share of Pop’s affection.

I quite enjoyed The Darling Buds of May and found Pop to be a very entertaining character. If there is a moral to the story I’m not sure what it is, except that perhaps we could all could take a leaf out of Pop’s book and not take life so seriously. I didn’t see the television show way back in the 1980s which launched Catherine Zeta Jones’ career, but based on my enjoyment of the book, will probably try and find a few episodes to watch.

 

 

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Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell

mozart

Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell didn’t thrill me the way Mozart’s music does.

To cut a long, (and mostly true) story short, Mozart came to know the Weber family (Dad, Mum and their four daughters) as a young man. As young men tend to do, he fell in love with Aloysia, who was the pretty one. The other girls were Josepha, who was Daddy’s girl, Constanze, who had a great personality and Sophie, who as an old lady narrates the story to a Mozart fan.

Unfortunately, Aloysia played up on Mozart while he was out of town, fell pregnant and married someone else.

Daddy Weber died, so Mummy Weber and the other three daughters moved to a new town. Mozart found himself in the same town as Mummy Weber and her three remaining daughters, and despite Aloysia’s fickleness and Mummy Weber’s craziness, he moved in with the Webers as a lodger. Mozart then fell in love with and married Constanze, (the one with the great personality), who, although she couldn’t sing as well as Aloysia, had great legs.

If you are a Mozart fan, you may enjoy this book, which highlights the Weber family, with Mozart as a character of middle importance rather than as the main focus of the story. For me, I’d rather listen to Mozart’s music.

 

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An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

abundance

I read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green last year on the recommendation of my niece and really enjoyed it, but I have to say, I enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines even more than TFIOS (as the teen mags call the blockbuster book and movie).

The main character of An Abundance of Katherines, Colin Singleton, is a child prodigy, a fast learner, and a champion anagrammer who also speaks multiple languages. Colin has other talents too, but he is also a social disaster. Somehow, (and this was the only sticking point of the whole novel for me), Colin has gone out with and been dumped by 19 Katherines by the end of High School. At the beginning of this novel, Colin has been dumped by his 19th Katherine, otherwise referred to as Katherine XIX. (Although some of his ‘relationships’ with the various Katherines have been very short lived – a few hours in some cases).

So, my problem is that I have no idea how Colin managed to meet 19 Katherines, let alone go out with them all. Is every second girl in the United States of America named Katherine? I don’t even know 19 men named John, which is the most common man’s name I can think of. Here is my list.

1. John B, who was family friend of my great aunt, who died years ago. Obviously I didn’t go out with him.
2. John who worked with my husband, also known as ‘Shallow Hal’. Notice the use of the word ‘husband’ in my last sentence? I didn’t go out with this John either.
3. Lucky John, who I worked with (if anything went wrong, he was involved). Nope, I was married, so didn’t go out with Lucky John.
4. John V, who I also worked with, who is kind, funny and generous (and happily married). We’re both married to other people, so obviously not.
5. John B2, who is my sister’s fellow’s father, although strictly speaking, I have never met him. I hear so many funny stories about him I feel as if I do, though. (Our family are actually closer than this not-meeting implies, but my sister and her fellow and his family live in England and I live in Australia). Nope, we haven’t even met.
6. John someone whose last name I have forgotten, who I knew very casually through work. I’m not even sure if I would recognise this fellow again.
7. I can’t think of any more real John’s who I actually know.

My point is, Katherines are even less thick on the ground than men named John. And Colin is a geek. How did he persuade anyone to go out with him?

Anyway, on with the story. Not only has Colin’s heart been recently broken, he is in despair as he believes the specialness of having been a child prodigy is coming to an end. Colin recognises that he is not an actual genius, (apparently there is a difference between prodigies and geniuses, who knew?) and is worried that his opportunity to make a mark on the world has passed him by.

Colin and his friend Hassan, who is a Muslim Arab, (Colin is half Jewish), go on a road trip, partly to cheer Colin up and partly to get Hassan out of his parents house. Hassan deferred college to spend a year watching television and is in desperate need of a shake up.

They get as far as Tennessee, where they end up in a town called Gunshot to look at the tomb of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose death was used to start WW1). Colin is sceptical about the authenticity of the tomb, but he and Hassan are tired of driving. They meet the heroine of the novel, Lindsey, who is working behind the counter of the Gunshot General Store, when she takes them for the tour of the tomb.

On returning, they meet Lindsey’s mother, who recognises Colin from when he won a television quiz show several years ago. She offers Colin and Hassan a job researching Gunshot’s history and accommodation in her and Lindsey’s surprisingly palatial home, which of course they take. (Okay, this bit was also hard to believe, but the reader has to go with it, because the author gets to decide what happens in the stories we read. 19 Katherines? Okay. The mother of a girl you’ve just met offering a teenage boy and his mate a home and a job? Sure, why not, I’ll believe that).

While in Gunshot, Colin comes up with an idea for a theorem which tracks the relationships he had with his various Katherines. The theorem accurately shows how long each of Colin’s relationships lasted for, based on variables such as age, relative popularity and other factors. For people who are more mathematically inclined than me, this may or may not be interesting. I got as far as learning my times tables and no farther so will not comment.

Not to give the whole story away, but Colin has a few Eureka moments creating and furthering his theorem, and makes self discoveries which are very good for him. Lindsey is a good heroine and has a few adventures and learning moments of her own, and Hassan is a great character too. Between hornets, Thunderstick (you have to read about Thunderstick for yourself, I am not going to go into details here!!!), surprising items manufactured by factories and moonshine, I laughed a lot while reading this book.

I would certainly recommend An Abundance of Katherines right back at my older nieces, although the younger ones had best wait until they have finished with Mary Poppins and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, as this is an older teenager’s book.

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Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness by Farahad Zama

farahadMrs Ali’s Road to Happiness by Farahad Zama is a gorgeous novel, full of delightful characters who made me laugh again and again throughout the events that made up this story. I haven’t read the other books in this series, (I believe this book is the fourth) but that didn’t matter at all. This novel was able to stand alone.

The story centres around the household of Mrs Ali, a woman with a recently retired husband and a grown up son. Mrs Ali is a wonderful manager, who encouraged her husband to open a Marriage Bureau for Rich People, which he runs from the veranda of their home (the main purpose of the business is to keep Mr Ali from getting under his wife’s feet, a complaint my mother makes constantly about my father since his retirement from work).

Mr and Mrs Ali live in Vizag, a town with Muslim and Hindu families. The Ali family are Muslim and when Mrs Ali’s niece Pari, adopts a Hindu orphan, Vasu, both the Hindus and the Muslims are up in arms. The Imam and members of the Ali’s mosque want Vasu to convert to Islam, while the Hindus are adamant that Vasu be brought up as a Hindu, which Pari had already committed to. The religious differences leave the Ali family on the brink of being excommunicated from some of their family, their mosque and community.

Other household problems include the power being disconnected because of an electricity meter reader who recognises that the household should be on a commercial meter because of the family business, a road widening project threatening their home and arguments about when Ramzaan (Ramadan) starts and ends.

The cover of this novel has the words, “A novel of sense, sensibility and exceedingly trying times,” which is clearly a nod to Jane Austen. Mrs Ali has both sense and sensibility, and deals with her trying times admirably.

On one occasion, Mrs Ali took a taxi to visit her family and made the observation that the driver appeared “to regard anyone overtaking him as an insult to his manhood.” This made me snort with laughter, as I have noticed this trait in various male drivers in my own family.

Another character bought a microwave for her family, in order that they could impress their friends and neighbours. The family only had one power point, so the television was unplugged in order that the microwave could be tested and admired. Water was heated up, to everyone’s astonishment, but then two eggs were placed into the microwave…resulting in egg on someone’s face, literally. Reading this, I howled with laughter.

Mrs Ali’s good sense also extends to advising a new groom to give flowers to his bride and to take her out sometimes on their own, despite his father having told him not to spoil women, else they “climb on your shoulders and dominate you.” Mrs Ali tells the groom that in the early days of his marriage he should be depositing happy memories so that when trying times come the couple will have a bank of shared emotions to draw upon. In my opinion, all engaged and newly married couples should be given this good advice.

I used to work with an Indian man and I recognised the traits and mannerisms and even some of the sayings in the characters in Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness from him and they made me laugh. People are the same everywhere, regardless of nationality and this book reminded me of that. For me, this was the most important message from the book, along with a saying which Mr Ali quotes from the Qur’an, “Your religion for you and my religion for me.”

I am so glad I picked this book up. As I said earlier, Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness was an absolute delight.

 

 

 

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Saving Grace by Jane Green

jane

When I saw Saving Grace, the most recent book by Jane Green, I wasn’t really enthusiastic about reading it. I’ve read and enjoyed most of her novels, but some of her more recent novels have felt too choppy for me. Jane Green has a distinctive style, in which the character’s voices can be quite abrupt, but Saving Grace was much more to my liking with characters who thought in full sentences.

The heroine of the novel is Grace Chapman, a beautiful and elegant middle aged English woman, who is married to a best selling American writer. On the surface, Grace’s life looks idyllic. Grace has a grown up daughter, good friends lives in a farmhouse on the Hudson River in New York state. She sits on the board of a shelter to assist abused women and cooks for the shelter. Cooking is Grace’s passion and there are recipes at the end of some chapters, which is a bonus for people like me who like to read recipes. (I often have great intentions of making recipes I’ve read in novels, but despite occasionally going so far as to buy the ingredients, so far have never followed through with the actual cooking).

Underneath the surface though, Grace’s life is not ideal. Her husband, Ted, is a bully, whose books are becoming less popular. Grace has a history of being a victim. Her mother had mental health problems and when she was ill, treated Grace very badly. Ted’s long time assistant has also recently left their employ, causing their well organised life to deteriorate.

Grace and Ted attend a function where they meet Beth, who seems like the answer to their problems. Grace employs Beth as Ted’s assistant and she quickly becomes indispensable to him. Beth also takes on household jobs and assists Grace with work for the shelter. Little by little Beth insinuates herself into their lives. Beth quickly transforms from a plain and frumpy woman to become slimmer and more elegant, modelling herself on Grace’s style.

Beth also begins to undermine Grace, with Ted and with her work at the shelter, calling into question her sanity. Eventually Grace is misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and becomes dependent on a cocktail of drugs. (The author makes a very strong point here that Americans have the highest incidences of bipolar disease and drug use in the world, and suggests that this is because of the influence of drug companies rather than true cases of mental illness in society). Either way, things come to a head when Grace catches Ted and Beth in an embrace and is locked up in a mental asylum because she became very, very angry. (I found Grace’s anger in this instance to be completely normal and understandable, but what would I know?)

Grace escapes to back to England to her surrogate family, where she is weaned off the drugs, correctly diagnosed with menopause and meets up again with the man who has always loved her. Things end up working out, (I suppose they always do, one way or another) but for me, the biggest part of Grace’s growth was realising and admitting that as both Ted and her mother’s victim, she had also played a part in enabling them to bully her. I don’t agree with bullying in any form, but all of the bullies and victims that I have ever known have both had a particular role in their relationship.

Based on my enjoyment of Saving Grace, I’ll go back to looking forward to reading the next Jane Green book.

 

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Cry No More by Linda Howard

cry

My niece S, who was 11 at the time, gave Cry No More by Linda Howard to me. I’m not sure why she chose it, or even where she got it from. I don’t really have a ‘type’ when it comes to books, but this wasn’t a book I would have chosen.

However, despite my scepticism, I read Cry No More and I actually did have a little cry at the end of the book.

The heroine, Milla Edge, was a new mother, living in Mexico with her obstetrician husband when two men snatched two month old Justin from her in a market and disappeared with the baby. Mila was taken to her husband’s hospital with stab wounds, where her husband had to make the choice of whether to save his wife or to search for their baby. He chose Milla, but ten years later, when the story gets going, the reader learns that Justin was never found and Milla and David have divorced. David has remarried and has more children, while Milla founded and works for an organisation called Finders, who search for lost people. Milla has never stopped looking for Justin.

Milla receives anonymous information about the whereabouts of Diaz, a man who is rumoured to know something about Justin’s disappearance. Watching a meeting between four men from undercover, Milla recognises the man who took Justin and in a rage, she reaches for her pistol, but before she could shoot the man, a stranger knocked her to the ground, holding her down until the four men concluded their business. The stranger disappeared after the meeting without harming Milla.

In a fury after the meeting, Milla goes into a cantina and offers an enormous reward for information leading her to Diaz.

Soon after, the stranger who prevented Milla from shooting the kidnapper turns up at the Finders office. He turns out to be Diaz and he had nothing to do with Justin’s kidnapping. They team up on the search for Justin, who was taken as part of a complicated baby smuggling ring.

The story moves along very quickly and is quite exciting. Milla is a single-minded heroine, who is kind and attractive and honourable. Diaz is a dangerous assassin, a social misfit who is absolutely frightening, yet he loses his heart to Milla. Diaz ends up betraying Milla, but romantically, I wanted them to become a couple.

I’m glad I read Cry No More. If you read it, keep the tissues handy.

 

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The Prophecy of Bees by RS Pateman

rsIf I had realised The Prophecy of Bees by RS Pateman was the same as author as The Second Life of Amy Archer, which I read last year, I would not have started reading this novel.

However, I chose this book because I like bees (and honey). Unfortunately, the title led me astray. I didn’t even notice the author’s name.

I didn’t enjoy The Second Life of Amy Archer because the ending was ambiguous and the characters left me cold. The Prophecy of Bees had a straightforward, although predictable ending and the characters were quite likeable, so that was an improvement. This time though, it was the plot that left me cold.

This story is about a troubled teenager, Isabella, and her mother, Lady Lindy Someone-or-other, who move to Stagcote Manor in the middle of nowhere against Izzy’s wishes. The story is told by Izzy, who appears to be going through a goth-ey, heavy metal-ey stage with her band member boyfriend, who recently dumped her.

From the beginning, the villagers around Stagcote Manor believe that the house is haunted, although they are unable to actually say so. (Their taciturn ways are part of the curse). The locals are also full of superstitions about bees and rocks and moles and dogs crossing funeral processions and just about everything else that moves. Izzy hears strange noises at night and on investigation, the bones of a child killed centuries ago falls out of a chimney. Izzy continues investigating and realises that the villagers are involved in black magic.

Izzy’s mother doesn’t believe a word of the superstitions or of Izzy’s findings.

For the record, I’m with Izzy’s mother. If I can’t see it, touch it, feel it, smell it or eat it, I don’t believe in it. This was my whole problem with this novel. The book is reasonably well written, the characters are mostly believable (although Izzy’s character was a bit too grown up for the bratty drop-out she was meant to be), but I just couldn’t suspend my lack of belief in the supernatural and just go along with the plot. Plus, as I said earlier, what happens is very predictable.

If you like curses and magic and supernatural stuff, by all means give this book a read, you’ll probably enjoy it. But I won’t make the same mistake a third time. There will be no more RS Pateman stories for me.

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The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

jk

Everyone I have spoken to about The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling has told me how much they have hated this book. Some people said the story was too slow, or there were too many characters or that they just couldn’t get interested in it. Someone said that they didn’t like The Casual Vacancy because they wanted Harry Potter and Ron and Hermoine to be involved and of course, they weren’t.

I quite enjoyed the Harry Potter books, although the movies didn’t really grab me. As a reader, I nearly always enjoy a book more than a movie based on the same book. Brokeback Mountain is the only movie I can think of at the moment that I’ve preferred to the book.

I also struggled (at first) to become interested in The Casual Vacancy. There are a lot of characters whose lives are entwined and it wasn’t until I was a bit more than half way through the story that I didn’t have to actively try to place each character’s when the viewpoint changed.

The story starts with the death of a man who held a place on the local council in the English town of Pagford, leaving what is known as a ‘casual vacancy’. Almost as soon as the news of his death becomes known, jockeying for position begins amongst the remaining councillors and other townspeople, to promote their own agendas. The most controversial issue is that of the Fields, a housing estate where the poorest people in the Pagford community live. Some of the councillors would like to hand the Fields, with its drug addicts and criminals, over to a neighbouring town to administrate. This change would also remove children from the Fields from Pagford’s schools, particularly Krystal Weedon, the high school aged daughter of a drug addicted prostitute.

Barry Fairbrother, the man whose death brings about this story, was a generous, popular do-gooder who had himself come from the Fields. He and Krystal Weedon are the true heroes of this story.

Whole generations of families feature as characters in this book. They include teachers and doctors, social workers and local business people. Some are wife beaters and others are victims. Some are middle aged women looking for their youth. I enjoyed reading the stories about the teenage characters most of all, (I’m not sure if this is a true or a biased opinion on my part, since JK Rowling is best known for her teenage characters from the Harry Potter books).

All of the characters (except Barry, who died) are miserable, some with good reason. Most of the characters also had secrets or agendas they wanted to hide, some emerging as the story is told. By the time I was three quarters of the way through the book I felt very involved in some of the character’s lives and struggles and wanted better things for them, particularly Krystal. Others were just annoying, and I wanted to tell them to grow up and to appreciate what they had.

I would read another book for adults by JK Rowling, although I would appreciate an editor removing more of the boring bits and anything that doesn’t move the story along.

 

 

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