Book reviews

Archive for May, 2015

Mr Lynch’s Holiday by Catherine O’Flynn


Mr Lynch’s Holiday by Catherine O’Flynn serves as a warning for people who holiday in some exotic location or other and then impulsively decide to sell up and move to the Maldives or Thailand or Mexico, or in the case of this story, Spain.

Big mistake. Apparently, beautiful weather, wonderful beaches, a new house in a swanky development and all that goes with it isn’t the luxurious, idyllic life that I would have expected.

Dermot Lynch, the Mr Lynch of this story, is a widower in his seventies, whose wife has recently died. He decides to travel to Spain to visit his only son Eamonn, who, along with his girlfriend Laura, bought into Lomaverde, a luxury development sold to people looking for an escape from their old lives. Unfortunately the developers of Lomaverde went broke, leaving Eamonn, Laura and a handful of people who they are sick of the sight of, living in a ghost town with feral cats and an swimming pool.

When Dermot arrives in Spain, Laura is mysteriously absent and Eamonn is suffering from depression. Dermot quickly gets sucked into the social side of things in Lomaverde, something which Eamonn tells his father that he and Laura try hard to avoid. Early on in their time in Spain, Eamonn and Laura made friends with other expatriates, although not with any of the locals. Soon after the development failed, most of the residents were angry and feeling trapped, and the gloss wore off their earlier friendships.

As the story evolves it turns out that Laura has gone home to England, possibly for good.

Dermot and Eamonn obviously love each other, but they don’t have a great deal in common. Dermot was a bus driver who is practical and stoic, while Eamonn is like a wet blanket, constantly sending Laura emails, pleading with her to return. (Obviously we are not seeing Eamonn at his best here, but you just know that if Dermot’s wife had left him, he would have done something about the situation).

The locals have the worst of it in Lomaverde, although Mr Lynch’s Holiday is not their story. The Lomaverde residents are afraid of the locals because of a spate of thefts and graffiti. The locals were not paid for their work by the developers and worse, due to poor work practices, one man actually died during construction, with his widow not even receiving any compensation for his death.

One conversation I really enjoyed in this book occurred when was Eamonn chipped his father about calling people something Eamonn said was racist. Dermot pointed out that his fellow bus drivers, who were his best friends were from Pakistan, Trinidad and Bangledesh, while Eamonn’s friend’s were all white. I enjoyed this because I am now old enough to realise that my own parents are not (or were not) always wrong.

Dermot, as an Irishman living in England, made a conscious decision with his wife to name Eamonn to celebrate his family’s Irish heritage. All of their lives Dermott, his wife and Eamonn also experienced being treating in particular ways because they were Irish (or perceived to be), which they all dealt with in their own ways.

The story started slowly, but as it develops, you realise that both Dermot and Eamonn have more of a back story than expected. There are plenty of insights and quite a few surprises.

I still think if a large amount of money ever falls into my lap, I’ll go and live on a tropical island, lie on a beach and drink out of coconuts all day, despite Eamonn’s experience in Spain. Mr Lynch’s Holiday is more than just a holiday read, but was just as enjoyable.


Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen


I have a confession to make. I nearly didn’t read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen because I watched the first Twilight movie and hated it. Detested it completely. After seeing Twilight I was furious with Honey-Bunny, because she loves Twilight – the books and the movies, and insisted I would too, but I didn’t and I knew I would never get back the 122 minutes I spent in the movie theatre looking at Robert Pattinson’s hair. So, seeing his name at the top of my copy of Water for Elephants put me off reading the book.

Obviously none of this was Sara Gruen’s fault. I take full responsibility for my own probably biased opinion, which came about because of my own low tolerance for zombie, werewolf-type stories, unless Stephen King is telling the story.

Once I got over my Twilight-inspired dislike of the cover, I read Water for Elephants very quickly, over a weekend. I would have read it quicker except that I have a family who need feeding and some attention, and a house that needs cleaning. Oh well.

Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattison in the movie) is the character telling this story. Jacob is in his nineties and has forgotten exactly how old he is. I think forgetting your weight would be better, but forgetting your age is good too, can’t wait. Jacob lives in a nursing home where he objects to being treated like a child, fed mush and humoured and patronised by the staff and his family. When Jacob calls out another resident for telling a lie about carrying water for elephants at a circus, Jacob starts telling the story of his youth, when during the 1930’s, he joined the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

Jacob was just about to sit his final exams to become a vet when his parents were killed in a road accident. Suffering from grief, he is unable to sit his final exams so he runs away to join the circus. Circuses in the Depression era are a very different thing to my previous circus-reading experiences, which admittedly were all Enid Blyton stories featuring the jovial Mr Galliano as the ringmaster.

Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth was a cut throat business. The circus employed hundreds of workers, transporting the show from town to town across America by train. When there was no money, workers didn’t get paid. Men who complained or those who couldn’t work were brutally disposed of.

Surprisingly, the class system existed in the circus, with performers and workers living in completely separate worlds. As a vet for the circus, (despite not having sat his exams), Jacob straddled both sides of the system. Things get complicated in this story when Jacob falls in love with a married woman, Marlena, who performs in the circus with horses. Marlena, who is unhappily married to the cruel and abusive ringmaster of the circus, falls in love with Jacob too.

This story had me feeling on edge the whole way through. The times were hard and the circus was a rough and dangerous place. I liked Jacob and felt frightened for his safety, even though I knew from the very first chapter that he lives to be a very old man. The combination of Marlena’s husband and characters being red lighted (thrown from the moving train) was frightening.

I didn’t feel that Marlena’s character brought as much to the relationship as Jacob’s did, although I could see why Jacob fell in love with her. Beautiful – tick, star of the show – tick, pink tights – tick. But as a character, Marlena lacked charm and as a romance, the story is a bit flat. Jacob’s enduring attachment to Rosie the elephant was more believable than his truly loving Marlena.

I enjoyed the story for the historical descriptions of what circus life was really like, (apparently Hurrah for the Circus is not a realistic depiction), and the stories about Rosie, as after reading Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult I am more interested in elephants than I ever thought possible.

I didn’t see the twist in the tale coming, although I should have, because there are plenty of clues. This isn’t a great book, but it is a fast, reasonably enjoyable read. I believe the Water for Elephants movie was a smash hit. Maybe Honey-Bunny and I could watch Water for Elephants together some time, since I pinched (borrowed without her knowing) this book from her.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

deptDept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill is the story of a marriage, told by the wife in a series of anecdotes.

The reader does not learn the wife’s name (or the husband’s) but this does not matter. For such a slim book which tells the story in such an unusual way, the reader gets to know the couple surprisingly well, albeit through the wife’s eyes.

The story starts when the couple first met, and tell the reader about the wife’s background; She has been in love many times before meeting the husband, she has a sister and she wanted to be an art monster. The husband and wife swap stories and start to create memories which become ‘their’ stories. They send each other love letters using the code words, “Dept. of Speculation’ to describe their relationship and marriage.

They have a child. Life becomes more difficult. Their marriage becomes frayed.

The issues this couple face are probably similar to those which many couples experience. Falling in love, beginning a shared life, having a baby together, career difficulties, bedbugs (ugh), loss of trust, uncertainty…

Reading between the lines, I think the wife in this relationship is probably high maintenance. I did feel sorry for her though, because she obviously lost herself somewhere along the line. Sometimes I felt annoyed hearing every single thing that went through her head. Probably her husband did too, although that isn’t a good enough reason for him to have had an affair. I didn’t love this book, but that is because I hate stories of infidelity – give me a happy romance any day.

The anecdotal style is very interesting though and added to the intensity of the story.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dept. of Speculation turns out to be one of those books that I’m still thinking about years after reading.

Espedair Street by Iain Banks


Espedair Street is the second Iain Banks’ book I’ve read in the past year. My new plan is to save the books of his which I haven’t read for when I am in a reading rut, because after reading Espedair Street and The Quarry, I feel as if I can rely on his stories to be entertaining.

The story of Espedair Street is told by Daniel Weir, a lonely man in his early thirties who used to be in one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Despite being a musical genius with fans from all over the world, Daniel has terribly low self confidence and is not a happy man. In the beginning of the book Daniel is contemplating suicide. He hides his true identity from his only friends and has regular bookings with a prostitute, to prevent him getting too attached to his own attentions, (for want of a better expression).

Before becoming famous as part of Frozen Gold, Daniel was a nerdy teenager from a very poor Catholic family in Glasgow. He very often comments during the telling of this story how physically ugly he is, but before the band became successful Daniel had a girlfriend, who seemingly loved him regardless. Being a teenage boy on the verge of stardom though, Daniel left his girlfriend behind to live the life of a rock star, flying around the world to play tours, partying and enjoying romances with other members of the band.

I actually felt sorry for Daniel, which doesn’t seem all that crazy when you consider the lives of celebrities these days. I don’t think there is enough money in the world to make up for not being able to do what you like when you like without being photographed or harassed or taken notice of, but as a young man Daniel loved his life with the band. He and the other band members were a family of sorts and had their adventures together. Drugs and alcohol were a major part of all of their lives and should have been their downfall, but somehow it was their more considered choices which harmed them, rather than the insane things they did when they were smashed.

Daniel’s depression is due to his feelings of guilt because of tragedies affecting his fellow band mates. Rightly or wrongly, Daniel feels responsible for the choices other band members made.

Even though Daniel is a melancholy character who has experienced some really hard times, the comedy in this book is really funny. Daniel and his mate get a dog drunk, (hear me out, I’m not condoning getting animals drunk – I don’t drink alcohol myself and don’t forget, this didn’t really happen – it’s a made up story), but the story of the poor dog getting drunk after going on a pub crawl with Daniel and his mate is hilarious. The dog was actually owned by Daniel’s mate’s uncle, who gave the dog money to pay for a round when it was the dog’s turn to shout.

The story of Daniel and his mate getting in a fight which trashed a nightclub is hilarious too. Now I come to think of it, a great many of the funny stories in this book happened when Daniel or other band members were either drunk or on drugs…hmmm, maybe I’m missing out on something as a teetotaller… Nope, not really. The things that could have gone wrong with Daniel and his fellow band members but didn’t, made great stories, but they could just as easily have ended tragically.

Despite all of the crazy things Daniel and the other characters did when they were drinking or drugging, (if that isn’t a word it should be), these were only things that happened along the way of the actual story. The story shifts back and forwards between the present, which is Glasgow sometime in the 1970’s, and Daniel’s recollections of the past with the band. There are a lot of layers to this story.

Espedair Street was a very enjoyable second Iain Banks book and I am already looking forward to my third.



The Railway Children By E Nesbit


The Railway Children by E Nesbit is the first book I’ve read on my tablet and I’m not sure if I loved the experience or not. I missed the feel of a book in my hands while I was reading. I have a lot of screen time at work and wonder if reading on a screen as well is good for me or not. The experience wasn’t all bad though, I really liked being able to make the font size big enough to read without wearing my glasses.

The Railway Children is probably a familiar story to most readers my age or older, although I had never read it. I read a lot of children’s classics growing up and plenty of abridged adult’s classics too, but somehow this one slipped past me. I quite enjoyed reading the story as an adult though. The characters have good morals and values, and the message couldn’t be clearer – do the right thing and you will be rewarded.

I expect the story has limited appeal for younger readers these days though. For children who read Harry Potter before moving on to Twilight and other wizard/vampire/magic type books, the story of The Railway Children might seem too simple.

The story follows three children, Roberta, Phyllis and Peter, who have recently moved from the city to a house in the country with their mother. The children’s father is mysteriously away from home. The children get to know their new home and community, particularly the nearby railway station, the train travellers and the railway workers. They are involved in quite a few adventures and on more than one occasion behave heroically. When the children save a train from crashing, they become friends with an old gentleman who they have often waved to on the train. The old gentleman is able to help the children’s father to return to them.

The children in this story seem far more innocent than children today and I think this reflects the time the book was written, which was over one hundred years ago. The book was quite sentimental and I admit to feeling a bit teary when I read the end. I would be very interested to hear what a child of today thought of The Railway Children. Probably a child of today would rather read The Railway Children on a tablet than in a book form, too.




Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves


Murder mystery isn’t my usual reading genre, but I enjoyed Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves very much regardless. The cover advertises this book as “A Vera Stanhope Novel. As seen on ITV,’ so I imagine the main character, Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, has a string of books and television series in which she stars. I haven’t read any of these or seen the series, but this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story.

Harbour Street is set in a seaside town called Mardle, located somewhere near Newcastle, in England, the week before Christmas. Detective Joe Ashworth is on a crowded train with his teenage daughter when a fellow passenger, Margaret Krukowski, is murdered by an unknown person.

Joe’s boss, Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope takes charge of the investigation while Joe and the rest of Vera’s team begin delving into the murdered woman’s life.

The victim, Margaret, was an elegant and still beautiful woman in her seventies, when she died. Her past was mysterious, and when her secrets are revealed, they are quite surprising. Margaret boarded in Harbour Street with Kate Dewar, a single mother with two teenage children. Margaret was almost a surrogate mother to Kate and a grandmother to Kate’s children, as well as working alongside Kate in the boarding house, but somehow Kate and her family weren’t as sad as I would have expected them to be in the circumstances.

This may not be a fair observation, because different people and different culture grieve differently and react to bad news differently. My feelings about their reaction to Margaret’s death made me care a bit less about Kate and her children though, which for me, weakened the story slightly.

The Mardle and Harbour Street community are very little help to Vera and her staff’s investigation of Margaret’s death. Community members each have their own secrets and reasons for not wanting to assist, but when a second woman is murdered, the police have to keep trying to make connections, to prevent more murders from taking place.

Vera is a strong-willed, intelligent woman who also has connections to the Mardle community. She calls everyone ‘Pet,’ which amused me enormously, as my mother calls her children ‘Pet,’ possibly because she forgets our names! Vera is also ugly and obese, which makes a change from female heroines who are beautiful, or beautiful in a quirky way etc.

There was a potentially unresolved issue in the story, which annoyed me when I finished the book. **SKIP the next paragraph if you ever intend to read this book. **

The second murdered woman, who was an alcoholic and occasional prostitute, had a baby who had been adopted out many years ago. There is a hint that another character might have been her child, but this is such a slight suggestion that I am wondering if I missed something, or read too much into this possible connection. While I enjoyed the book, I didn’t enjoy it enough to read it again to find out for sure. If anyone else has read this book, please let me know what you think about this possible connection – is the person who hums a particular song the parent of the person who was a singer before she retired?

I didn’t guess who the Harbour Street murderer was before the big reveal. For me, the murderer was the most unlikely person in the book and I wish it had been someone else. I think the clues were there in the story though, but I missed them.

I haven’t read enough murder mysteries to be an expert in this genre, but for what it’s worth, I enjoyed Harbour Street.


The Travelling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones


Is there a genre of fiction called Food Lit? If so, The Travelling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones fits right in. Sadly, there weren’t any recipes mixed up in the story, but there were lots of references to yummy things. I liked the cover too, the pink and green is really pretty and the cake silhouettes look fantastic. Since I love cake and biscuits and pastries and pies and just about everything that can be found in a bakery window, this cover is my idea of perfection.

The story is a romance, (yes, this is obvious from the pretty, girly cover), but with travel and food thrown in.  The story was enjoyable while I was reading it, but not memorable in any way. Just the thing for an afternoon on the couch.

The heroine of The Travelling Tea Shop is Laurie, an English woman living in the USA. Her business is arranging the most wonderful holidays for her clients, one of whom is a famous English baker named Pamela someone-or-other.

Pamela is writing a new cookbook, which are to be based on areas visited during the trip Laurie plans for Pamela and her family. Laurie ends up accompanying the group as they travel between New York and Vermont, visiting areas which are famous for particular sweet treats, with Pamela swapping recipes with other famous chefs along the way. Boston Cream Pie, Victoria Sponge, Whoopie Pies, Salted Caramel Cupcakes, Red Velvet Cheesecake and many more lovely descriptions of cake left me raiding the pantry to find something sweet to scoff while I read. (I found chocolate, if anyone cares).

Laurie gets caught up in Pamela’s family troubles, of which there are many. Pamela is getting a divorce and is struggling with her emotions. Her feisty mother, who is driving the red, double-decker bus the group is travelling in is a breath of fresh air, but Pamela’s spoiled teenage daughter, Ravenna, needs a good smack. (Not that it is politically correct for parents in Australia to smack their children anymore, but you know what I mean). Ravenna has an eating disorder, a nasty boyfriend and a sense of entitlement, which poor old Laurie gets to deal with. The situation is complicated when an accident leaves Pamela’s mother in hospital and an old boyfriend of Pamela’s joins the group to drive the bus.

Laurie has problems of her own which come to a head during the trip too, but fear not, with a cover this pretty, you know things will work out for the best for everyone.

I would read another book by Belinda Jones on a lazy day, but the story, (apart from the fantastic idea of combining travelling with a cook book author and all of the lovely descriptions of baked treats), was probably not distinctive enough for me to particularly recommend unless you’re a sucker for romance, travelling and cake.





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