Book reviews

Archive for April, 2015

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion



I read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion in one go because;

  1. I was on holidays and could stay up as late as I liked reading.
  2. The Rosie Project was a really enjoyable read.
  3. The Rosie Project is set in Melbourne, Australia and I enjoyed the sense of familiarity with the location and Australian culture.
  4. The story is romantic comedy, which is far and away my favourite genre.
  5. The hero, Don Tillman, is unusual, very likeable and the reader is on his side from the beginning of the story. I roared laughing as he got himself into and out of ridiculously funny situations.
  6. The heroine, Rosie, is clever and feisty and perfect for Don, if he can only recognise this.
  7. I love Don’s Standardised Meal Plan with lobster for tea every Tuesday night.
  8. The story is clever and ends in a way which I didn’t expect.
  9. The happiness I felt while I was reading this book stayed with me for quite a while after I finished reading.

I’m not unique in liking The Rosie Project. It was a bestseller when it was published a couple of years ago and will probably be made into a movie quite soon. I believe the author has written a sequel which I expect I’ll read sometime soon too.




High Fidelity by Nick Hornby


High Fidelity is the first Nick Hornby book I’ve read, although I’ve seen the movies Fever Pitch and About a Boy, which were based on his books. (Colin Firth was in Fever Pitch, which is a good enough reason for me to watch a movie).

Rob, the hero of this book, makes me feel anxious that the men in my life are not all they appear to be. Rob worries about stupid stuff, does stupid stuff and makes lots of stupid decisions. He is a very funny character, although more in a ‘laughing at him’ than a ‘laughing with him’ way. Do men really think like Rob? My ‘laughing at him’ was more than slightly nervous.

The book starts with Rob listing his five worst breakups with women. Four of them happened when he was still in school. One of Rob’s five most heart wrenching breakups was with someone he went out with for three days when he was thirteen years old. Several days before breaking up with another girlfriend, in high school, Rob almost got a tattoo with her initials. Luckily the tattooist wasn’t convinced it was true love and the tattoo didn’t happen.

Rob’s most recent break up was with Laura and he is at great pains to let the reader know she doesn’t make his top five breakup’s list. After Laura moves out Rob is at first elated, thinking about all the things he will be able to do now, namely; smoke in their flat, shag around and paint record label logos on the lounge room wall. But despite all of his big talk about not missing Laura, Rob eventually does realise that he misses her, particularly when he learns she has been seeing someone else.

I’m on Laura’s side here. Rob is 35 years old, has a failing business and has never really taken any responsibility in his life. He is still keeping his options open emotionally, while Laura has grown up.

High Fidelity is a little dated as it was set during the nineties. Rob owns a record (vinyl) shop, people smoke cigarettes and a lot of the descriptions of clothes, music and pop culture have clearly moved on.

I actually did enjoy High Fidelity, despite feeling alternately amused by and annoyed with Rob and his insecurities. He is entertaining and his character does actually evolve as the story develops. I just wouldn’t want to go out with him.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo


I quite enjoyed Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo, but I have a major complaint to make about the physical book. The cover was really stiff, with sharpish edges and some of the pages fell out as I was reading. It was really irritating, because the story deserved better.

Emma, the heroine of this novel, is an American college professor who has recently learned of a number of unpublished letters by Jane Austen. Can you imagine if this really happened? The Jane Austen letters in existence are the dullest correspondence of all time and the thought of seeing what Jane Austen was really capable of, uncensored by her sister, would blow the upcoming, formerly lost Harper Lee book out of the water.

Emma’s marriage ended after she learned in the worst possible way that her husband had been having an affair with her assistant (use your imagination here). To make matters worse, her rat husband and assistant framed Emma for plagiarism, causing her to be denied tenure at her school.

Emma flees to her cousin’s house in London, where she is surprised to learn that her former best friend Adam is also staying. Emma and Adam’s friendship ended when Emma married, due to Adam’s disapproval of her choice of husband.

Emma is in London to investigate the claim of a Mrs Parrot, who claims that she has a number of unpublished letters written by Jane Austen. On examination, the first letter Mrs Parrot allows Emma to see appears to be authentic and opens up more questions about Jane Austen than it answers. Mrs Parrot tells Emma that she is a member of a group known as the Formidables, originally headed by Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra, who existed to protect the letters and by extension, Jane Austen’s privacy.

Emma is set a number of tasks by Mrs Parrot before she is allowed to see subsequent letters and as she undertakes the tasks, she learns more about herself. Her emotions are complicated by Adam’s presence and their potential romance.

Emma’s story ends happily, with her personal affairs being resolved to a point where her reputation is restored and her hurt and anger with her former husband becoming her past, rather than her present. Emma defers her ‘happily ever after,’ but I can live with that, because for me, the ‘Emma’ part of this story was okay, but the Jane Austen parts of the story were thrilling. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Emma’s visits to Steventon, Bath, Chawton, Lyne Regis and other places that Jane Austen either lived in or visited. The possibility of Jane Austen having events in her life which were forever hidden after her death by Cassandra Austen’s censorship of her sister’s correspondence is fascinating. The author clearly explains that this story line is pure fiction, but I still found the possibility of these events to be enormously tantalising.

Fans of Mansfield Park will probably pick up on an error Emma (or the author) makes in this book. There are also a few typos, which along with the pages falling out, let the author and the publisher down. I think the title is a bit lame too, but I do understand that authors of Jane Austen fan fiction need to have a strong reference either to Jane Austen or one of her major novels in order to capitalise on their market.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Jane Austen fan fiction, but would recommend Jane Austen Ruined My life to other fans of this genre.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens


You know how runners are always telling people who don’t exercise (or want to) that they have just finished a marathon or how skinny people smugly tell dieters they can eat anything they like? Well, I have a touch of that annoying tendency to brag in me too, because I have just finished reading…..drumroll please……my first Charles Dickens book, Hard Times.

I was actually inspired to see what I have been missing out on after reading a review by FictionFan of A Tale of Two Cities (link to FictionFan’s review below). FictionFan recommended I start with either A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House, but Hard Times was the shortest Charles Dickens novel I could find. (Maybe I’m not worthy, but I do deserve some credit for honesty here).

I won’t lie, I found reading Charles Dickens harder than reading a contemporary novel. The language was really flowery and the characters use a lot more words in their conversation than I am used to. I even found myself saying some of the character’s lines aloud to try and get a feel for the language, particularly those who had broad accents, as Charles Dickens wrote their voices as they would have sounded to him. If I was speaking with some of these characters in real life, I would have been nodding a lot with a confused smile on my face while I pretended to understand them. More fool me though, because that’s how I’ve ended up doing a lot of dumb things, nodding and agreeing when I haven’t really understood what is going on.

Hard Times tackles some very big subjects, including social inequality and in particular the terrible conditions of the working class, the need for divorce and unequal marriages, amongst others. I had been expecting seriousness (the novel’s title is a big giveaway), but it was a surprise to find the character’s traits so exaggerated and the moral of the story to be told with humour. The characters are almost caricatures, made up of their best and worst tendencies. Their names told me exactly what to expect of them – Mrs Sparsit was an interfering old sticky-beak, Mr Gradgrind a man with no room in his character for frivolity or fancy, Mr Bounderby – a braggart business man who prides himself on his success and Mr Harthouse – a would be lover.

I didn’t expect Charles Dickens to be so funny. A physical description of a male character’s legs included the information that they were “shorter than legs of good proportion should have been.” Nothing much has changed since Charles Dickens time though, because in Australia we still say that a short-legged person’s arse is too close to the ground, and then fall about laughing. I had no idea that Charles Dickens wrote slapstick comedy.

The story, although told with humour and the author’s obvious affection for the characters, is not a happy one. It begins with the Gradgrind family, made up of Mum, Dad, Louisa, Tom and some smaller children. Mr Gradgrind, although a school superintendent, is a foolish man, to whom ‘facts’ are all important, and he has no tolerance for fun or make believe in his family’s lives. Louisa, although dearly loved by her father, is eventually married to Mr Gradgrind’s friend Mr Bounderby, who is much older than Louisa. Even though she is repulsed by Mr Bounderby, Lousia accepts this marriage out of duty to her father and also to promote her brother Tom’s interests with Mr Bounderby.

Mr Bounderby believes that his employees expect to become rich working for him, although the opposite is true. Hard Times is set in a fictional town, ‘Coketown,’ which is horribly polluted by the factories that have made Mr Bounderby wealthy. When the working class unite to try and force better pay and conditions, Stephen Blackpool, a worker with a wife he would have divorced if the option had been available to him (and an accent I struggled to decipher), stands alone, unable to join the union. Stephen is alienated by his fellow workers and then fired on a whim of Mr Bounderby’s. With no possibility of gaining employment in his hometown, Stephen has to leave Coketown, and when Tom Gradgrind steals money from Mr Bounderby’s bank, he sets things up so suspicion fall on Stephen.

Tom is a selfish, no-good, who the narrator calls ‘The Whelp.’ He is responsible for introducing his sister Louisa to Mr Harthouse, who tries to embroil her in a romance. Of course Mrs Sparsit learns of the would-be romance and tries to damage Louisa’s good name with her nasty information. I kept wishing that Mr Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit had married each other in the first place, because they deserved each other.

All of the story lines are finished satisfactorily by the end of the novel, although some characters enjoy happy endings while others do not.

I’ll give myself a little holiday and read some lighter stories next, but will work my way through other novels by Charles Dickens eventually. In the meantime I’ll be congratulating myself on having made a beginning, although I hope not in a Mr Bounderby way…



Revival by Stephen King


I feel as if I am about to betray one of my favourite authors in this post.

Here goes. I didn’t love Revival by Stephen King.

The main character in Revival is Jamie, who was a child at the beginning of the story. Jamie is one of a large, mostly happy family living in a small community. He and his family are members of a church ministered to by the Reverend Charles Jacobs.

The minister is a charismatic man whose passion is electricity. When his wife and son were killed in a tragic accident, Reverend Jacobs lost his faith and in his misery, preached what became known as the ‘Terrible Sermon’, using horrific examples of unlucky coincidences to ask why God allowed the deaths of innocent people. Listening to the Terrible Sermon, Jamie lost his faith too.

As always, Stephen King created a fast connection between me and his characters. I felt as if I knew Jamie, Charles Jacobs and the other key characters, their passions and their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know how he does it, but I like it.

Not surprisingly, Charles Jacobs left town after the Terrible Sermon. The next chapters were a happy contrast to the previous part of the story, filled with Jamie’s nostalgic memories of growing up, his teenage sweetheart and his joy at discovering music.

Years pass and Jamie becomes a heroin-addicted, rhythm guitarist. When he goes to a carnival to buy drugs, he sees Charles Jacobs working a crowd, using electronic tricks to sell magical photos to ‘rubes.’

Charles’s electricity turned out to be more than the usual stuff you get when you flick a switch though, and the buyers of the photos were unwitting guinea pigs for Charles’ research into ‘secret electricity’. Charles uses his secret electricity for healing purposes as well as for tricks and using it, he cures Jamie of his heroin addiction. As the story continues Charles gains a large following as a healer and he rakes in cash, which he uses to further his research. The secret electricity idea is intriguing, but it wasn’t apparent to me until almost the big moment at the very end where Stephen King was going with this plot, which became terribly dark and bleak.

Over the years, Stephen King has stolen a lot of sleep from me. I’ve hashed over the wickedness of Apt Pupil for years. Nearly thirty years after reading It, I’m still frightened when I use the toilet at night in case that bloody clown who lives in the drains gets me. Pennywise. I can’t even say the name without feeling uneasy. Thinking about The Sun Dog sends shivers down my back and as for Misery, there were quite a few pages which I could only read by peeking through my fingers at the pages.

The promise of Revival felt unfulfilled though. The story built up and up and up, but the big moment, when it finally arrived, wasn’t big enough to satisfy me. I wanted more gory details, more horror, more scary imaginings to keep me awake at night, but I didn’t get it. Unfortunately, (?) tonight I will sleep just fine.

Revival had the potential to scare me every time I flicked on a light switch for the next twenty years, but Stephen King didn’t take his opportunity with this story.



Washington Square by Henry James


Washington Square is the first book I’ve read by Henry James and already, I think I am going to like his works as much as I like Jane Austen’s. Every word in Washington Square is perfect and is in exactly the right order. Every sentence adds a little more to the story, without any padding or boring bits.

The story is well mannered and gently told. The heroine of Washington Square is a young woman called Catherine Sloper, who is the only daughter of a prestigious New York doctor. Dr Sloper is wealthy and very, very clever. Catherine, to her father’s disappointment is not clever, nor is she pretty, interesting or particularly attractive to men, despite being brought up with every possible advantage available to girls at the time.

When a would-be young man about town, Morris Townsend, starts paying attention to Catherine, she falls in love with him. Her father, Dr Sloper, almost instantly decries Morris as a fortune hunter. Catherine’s Aunt Penniman, who is as silly as Dr Sloper is clever, involves herself in Catherine’s romance, siding with Morris against her brother and constantly meddling, in an attempt to create drama and excitement, which is the opposite of Catherine’s nature.

Catherine wants desperately to please her father. She is known throughout society for her goodness and placidity, although in one respect she is very like her father, as both are intractable, to the point of pig headedness. When Dr Sloper investigates Morris Townsend and finds him to be a waster, he lets it be know that he will disinherit Catherine if she were to marry Morris. Dr Sloper appears to want what is best for his daughter, but his behaviour seems unkind.

When Catherine and Morris become engaged, Dr Sloper takes Catherine off to Europe in an attempt to force Catherine to change her mind. Dr Sloper seems to regard his daughter coldly, studying her feelings and behaviour as if she is an experiment he is involved with. Despite his apparent coolness, one of the most dramatic and forceful moments in the book is between Dr Sloper and Catherine while they are walking on a lonely track in the Alps, when Dr Sloper confronts her about her plans to marry. He seems almost jealous of Catherine’s relationship with Morris, although Catherine comes to believe that her father doesn’t love her at all and that his behaviour is to do with wanting to control her.

Throughout my reading of Washington Square, I kept thinking of the heroine as ‘poor Catherine.’ I felt enormously sad for her, feeling unloved by her father, worrying that Morris was indeed a fortune hunter, and having to cope with the continual annoyance of her foolish Aunt Penniman.

My emotions were manipulated by the author constantly throughout this novel, and I was on Catherine’s side the whole way through. I laughed aloud at some of the descriptions of characters. I felt anxiety for Catherine during social situations, angry with Dr Sloper for his controlling behaviour, frustrated with Catherine’s aunt and hopeful that Morris would turn out to truly love her. I also felt both disappointment and satisfaction for reasons that I won’t say here because they would spoil the plot for would be readers.

During my reading of this novel, I continually found myself closing the book in an attempt to prolong the pleasure of my reading. I could not be happier to know that there are so many more books by Henry James, just waiting for me to read them. Life is good.


Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

leavingYou always know where you are with a Jodi Picoult novel, reading about some terrible dilemma or other and trying to guess the twist. They are almost comfort reading.

I did guess the twist in Leaving Time about half way through, and texted my guess to Honey-Bunny, who had already read this book. She very wisely didn’t respond, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the story without being completely sure of myself or the author.

Leaving Time follows the story of Jenna Metcalf, who has been searching for her mother, Alice, for over ten years. Alice was a scientist who studied grieving elephants. She disappeared after a terrible accident (or possible murder?) at the family’s elephant sanctuary, when an employee was trampled by one of the elephants. Jenna’s father has been in a mental asylum since the accident, which happened when Jenna was a toddler.

Jenna lives with her grandmother, who refuses to talk about Alice with Jenna. Eventually Jenna starts to actively search for her mother, using the services of Serenity Jones, a once celebrated psychic who had her own television show, and Virgil Stanhope, a former police officer. Virgil originally investigated the accident at the elephant sanctuary.

The novel is told by all of the characters in turn, Jenna, Serenity, Virgil, and Alice. Alice’s chapters tell the history of Jenna’s search, from when she first met Jenna’s father in Africa and fell pregnant, to when she came to live at his elephant sanctuary in New England. Alice’s story is mixed in with the findings from her research and examples of elephant’s behaviours, which are more interesting than I would have expected before I read this book.

I’ve read quite a few Jodi Picoult books and enjoy them, despite some of the issues she raises having no happy solution or answer at all, but Leaving Time is a gentler read. It doesn’t even bother me that I sometimes think I am reading the same book over and over, just with a different set of characters and issues to resolve, as I said earlier, sometimes it is comforting to know where you are with an author.

In Leaving Time, there are no nasty dilemmas to ponder over, except for the plight of elephants in captivity. I will never see an elephant in a zoo or away from its natural environment again without feeling terribly sad for the elephant.

I don’t think Leaving Time is one of Jodi Picoult’s best books, but readers who enjoy her work will enjoy Leaving Time.



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