Book reviews

Archive for June, 2015

Withering Heights by Dorothy Cannell


I chose to read Withering Heights by Dorothy Cannell because of the gorgeous artwork on the cover and because of the clever play on the name Wuthering Heights, although that book isn’t a favourite of mine by any means. The cover illustrations on Withering Heights are credited to Tim Zeltner and because I liked this cover so much, I Googled his work, (as you do). I’m actually quite taken with this artist’s very distinct style.

Withering Heights is a fairly short book and would have been a fun read if there had been less going on. There are at least nine other books by this author featuring Ellie Haskell, the heroine of this book, so perhaps I should have started with The Thin Woman, which was the first book in this series.

However, to sum up a complicated story, Ellie, who loves gothic romances, has a young relative, Ariel, who unexpectedly turns up on Ellie’s doorstep after running away from home. Ellie, her gorgeous husband and their housekeeper take the young runaway home and then stay on at Ariel’s parent’s home, Cragstone House, (aka Withering Heights), to solve a mystery which Ariel has begged them to investigate.

Withering Heights would have been better if the story was simpler. There was too much happening and too many side-tracks and too many were too many characters saying and thinking clever things for me to keep everything in my head. I admit I have been a bit tired lately, (long hours at work which can’t be helped), but the funny things the characters said just seemed to get lost in everything that was going on.

As a mystery, I really enjoyed the cover art on this book.

Withering Heights was a fun and light read but I won’t read another Ellie Haskell Mystery.


Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

JamaicaJamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier is the kind of book that once you get about half way through, you have to keep reading until the end, preferably without stopping. The story builds up and up and up until the temptation to peek at the last chapter to check on the heroine’s safety is almost unbearable.

Jamaica Inn is situated on the moors of Cornwall and has a reputation as a dangerous, unwelcoming place. The moors are desolate, full of places where a person could be lost in boggy marshes. Even the weather seems threatening throughout this novel, as the moors are cold and foggy with almost constant rain. The loneliness and discomfort of the location and the nasty weather add a lot to the atmosphere of this story.

Mary Yellan is the heroine of Jamaica Inn. Mary was in her twenties when her mother died, when she left her family farm to live with her aunt and uncle at Jamaica Inn. Mary remembered her Aunt Patience as fun loving and joyful before her marriage, but on arriving at the Inn, Mary finds her aunt has become cringing and frightened, unable to think or act for herself after years of marriage to Joss Merlyn, who is an absolute brute of a man.

Mary very quickly discovers that her Uncle Joss appears to be leading a gang of criminals, who are using Jamaica Inn as a halfway house for stolen goods. Mary dislikes her Uncle Joss enormously on sight and grows to hate him when she realises he is a wrecker who, with other thieves and murderers, lures ships to the shore using false lights, then kills any survivors of the ship wreck to prevent them telling tales.

All good gothic novels have a romance, and Jamaica Inn is a very good gothic novel. Mary’s attraction to Joss’s brother Jem is convincing, but there is also an undercurrent of tension between Joss and Mary (mostly on his side, but a little on hers also). Joss’s feelings for Mary probably save her life on more than one occasion. The author’s line about attraction and aversion running side by side gave me chills down my back, as did the dreadfulness of some later events in the novel, which I won’t spoil here for those who plan to read this book sometime.

Mary’s opinion about romance is fascinating too. The matter of fact way that she recognises courting couples who are crazy about each other will very soon grow tired of each other is tragic and hard to forget.

I first read Jamaica Inn when I was in my twenties, but even after all of this time, the book was still quite familiar to me and I remembered most of the twists and turns in the story. This didn’t spoil my re-reading of the story at all, although there is always something special about reading a terrifying book for the first time.

Full House by Maeve Binchy


Reading Maeve Binchy’s stories are as comforting as snuggling into bed on a cold night in your warmest pyjamas, with the electric blanket on and a block of chocolate sitting on the bedside table. (It’s the small things that make me happy).

Full House is a long short story rather than a novel, but the plot is classic Maeve Binchy just the same.

Dee and Liam Nolan are an ordinary, hard working couple with three grown up children still living at home. Rosie came home when her marriage didn’t live up to her fairy tale dreams, Helen is too tight with her own earnings as a teacher to move out and Anthony is a musician who doesn’t live in the real world. Up until he loses his job in the recession, Liam was happy to continue providing for his grown up children, but poor Dee, who works hard all day only to come home and continue working as an unpaid drudge for her children, has been wanting to make changes for a while.

Dee and Liam quickly realise they can’t afford for things to go on the way they always have, with none of the children contributing in any way to the household finances. When Dee gets another job, in addition to her cleaning work, Rosie, Helen and Anthony are affronted by her suggestion that they do some housework, let alone that they contribute financially to the household. (The children really are the most enormous bludgers).

Dee stops cooking and cleaning for the children (about bloody time, in my opinion) and when Rosie goes to London for a six week training course, Dee and Liam force Helen and Anthony out of the house also, clean up their rooms and rent them out to paying tenants.

Dee takes full responsibility for her adult children’s lack of responsibility, which I really liked. I actually know some people who have grown children living with and sponging off them in real life and I feel a lack of respect for these parents for not bringing their children up to be responsible, independent adults. When Dee and Liam force changes in their household, they do themselves and their children a favour. (Isn’t having an anonymous blog freeing? I can say what I really think about all sorts of issues).

My favourite thing about Maeve Binchy’s stories are her ability to make me feel as if I know the characters. Some of the characters in Full House have appeared in her other novels, which also contributes to the feeling of familiarity. The characters aren’t quite as familiar to me as my own family, but they might be dear friends living somewhere I have visited and am fond of.

I don’t know how Maeve Binchy creates this comfortable feeling, but she managed it from the first paragraph in every single book or story she ever wrote. Her stories are never a strain, although sometimes the characters are unhappy and have terrible trials. I always feel satisfied after reading her stories and happier for the time spent in her world.


The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson


When I picked The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson by its cover, I assumed this novel would be a romance, with lots of recipes and descriptions of cake and biscuits and confectionery and other foods which I associate with love. (Sugar is obviously the way to my heart).

The Flavours of Love doesn’t isn’t a romance, but as it turned out I didn’t mind. The love the heroine has for her recently murdered husband, her children and her friends is enough to have kept me happy. There were no recipes but there were enough references to food to satisfy me.

Did you notice in the last paragraph that I referred to the heroine’s recently murdered husband? I wouldn’t be surprised if that word slipped past, hidden amongst the comfort of words describing loved ones.

Saffron Mackleroy is the mother of two children, Phoebe and Zane. Phoebe is fourteen years old and pregnant. Saffron’s husband Joel was murdered last year and the murderer, who has not yet been caught by the police, is stalking Saffron. Make no mistake, this book is a thriller.

There are two mysteries in this book. Who killed Joel and who is Phoebe pregnant to?

Saffron is an amazing woman. She has a career (not a job), and is a single mother. She is extraordinarily protective of her children and goes to enormous lengths to keep them safe. Not only that, she takes in Joel’s elderly Aunt Betty, who has been thrown out of her latest retirement homes for bad behaviour. Phoebe is an uncommunicative, resentful teenager, who has a big decision to make about her future. The whole family are grieving Joel.

Amongst all of this, Saffron is being stalked. She is receiving intimate letters from someone who may or may not be Joel’s murderer. The stalker is also damaging Saffron’s property and viciously cyber-bullying Phoebe.

On the surface, Saffron appears to be coping, but as you get deeper into the book, you realise that this is superficial only. Saffron’s methods for coping are making things even worse.

What I didn’t enjoy about this book was how ridiculous some of Saffron’s decisions were. It was a stretch of the imagination for me to believe that any mother wouldn’t be furious with her fourteen year old daughter when she learned she was pregnant, and even more of a stretch that Saffron wouldn’t make any decision’s regarding Phoebe’s future, instead leaving it up to her. Seriously, fourteen year olds need to be reminded to brush their hair and teeth, so leaving them to decide between keeping a baby, adopting out a baby and abortion is ridiculous. I also had to suspend my disbelief when I learned that Saffron hadn’t told the police particular information she had about the day of Joel’s murder.

Despite these issues, (okay, without these issues there wouldn’t have been a story), I did enjoy this book. There was a lot more going on besides the two big mysteries and the smaller characters were important to the overall story too. Saffron, Phoebe and Aunt Betty felt real and so did their grief. They had serious problems but dealt with them the best that they could.

Based on The Flavours of Love, I would happily read another book by this author. It didn’t feel particularly deep, despite the family’s horrendous situation, but it was an enjoyable read.



Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

pubertyLike most Australian teenager girls growing up in the 1980’s, I hid my copy of Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey from my parents, because they definitely would not have approved of me reading this book.

I think I saw the movie Puberty Blues long before I read the book, and I do remember being horrified at the time, because I was far too young for the movie. I was too young for the book too, but I was fascinated by the story of two thirteen year old girls, Sue and Debbie, growing up in the beachside suburbs of Sydney during the 1970s.

The story is told by Debbie, who along with her best friend Sue, desperately wants to be in the popular group at school. The very first paragraph tells the reader that the popular girls, “have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs and go to the beach.” At thirteen, I also desperately wanted to be popular but had no clue what sex was, hated the smell of cigarettes, was too afraid of my Dad to risk wagging school, lived in the country far, far away from a drive in and had no idea what drugs were. I might have been a dag, but at least I lived near the beach.

Part of the shock value of Puberty Blues originally was because it was written by teenagers. Kathy Lette is still writing books today and is quite well known. Gabrielle Carey has a much lower profile, although I believe she also continues to write.

Re-reading this as an adult, I found the story to be incredibly harsh. Debbie and Sue do what they have to do to join the popular group. In doing so, they risk becoming pregnant, their health and even their futures with the choices they made. So do most of the other girls. The boys seemingly get to have all of the fun, because they do all of the above but instead of being branded with the sort of reputation which stay with a girl forever, (yes, even in this day and age), the boy’s reputations are enhanced.

All of the girls are incredibly critical of each other. They call girls who have sex with boys other than their boyfriends names such as “slack-arsed molls,” (I remember these words still being used when I was at school) and these girls are treated terribly by boys and girls, although for all of the girls, whether they are molls or Top Chicks, there are frequent rapes and abortions, girls who end up as single mothers. All of the girls seemingly have no value other than as the girlfriend of some boy or other.

The story races through Debbie and Sue’s experiences as they edge their way in with the popular girls, get themselves some surfer boyfriends and ‘earn’ their friendship rings. The beach and surfie lifestyle is the perfect setting for this book, which has become a cult classic. The book is actually quite funny, despite how horrendous the subject matter is and how callous these teenagers are. The story ends on a really good note, but even so, I’m grateful that my teenage years were much more innocent than those depicted in Puberty Blues.

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris


So shoot me, I hate novels with character lists. I figure if I need a character list to keep everyone straight, then there are probably too many characters in the book. But because the character list in The Gospel of Loki was by Joanne M Harris, the author of Chocolat, I read on.

The Gospel of Loki are stories of the Gods from Norse mythology, told by Loki, a trickster from Chaos. Against all of the rules, Loki left Chaos to live with Odin, Thor and the rest at Asgard, Odin’s citadel with 24 halls, (one for each god). Loki’s nature is to create havoc and he does. He constantly gets into trouble, usually because of his tendency to be a smartarse, and then gets out of trouble again, by way of a trick.

Loki is a funny narrator, who starts each chapter with a warning. “Never trust a relative”. “Never trust a lover”. “Never trust a wise man”. “Never trust an artist.”  “Run first, talk later.” As each chapters unfolds the story explains the reason for Loki’s warning – or Gospels – the reasons for his belief systems.

Each chapter could be read as a stand alone story. One of my favourites was of Thor dressing as a bride in order to retrieve his hammer from the Ice Folk with Loki’s assistance. The story of the beautiful Freyja selling herself for a gold necklace is good too. The gods are apparently as full of envy, lust, wrath and other sins as everyone else is.

Loki, who calls himself ‘Yours Truly,’ comments that clever people aren’t usually popular and he is right – think how much money sportspeople get paid compared to scientists. But in Loki’s case what he says is true because his pranks, however clever, harm the gods. The gods are often physically hurt or emotionally traumatised and are very often embarrassed by Loki’s interference in their lives.

Loki’s confusion about the taboos surrounding sex made me laugh, and so did his stories, which in the beginning of the book showed the Gods at the peak of their powers (and popularity). Loki’s arrival in Asgard was the beginning of the end for Odin and his fellow gods who had previously ruled their particular World. Loki comments that the Worlds never end though, as Order and Chaos simply take their turn at being in charge.

The story is full of runes and glams and gold and magic. I remember Thor comics from my childhood, but am otherwise completely unfamiliar with Norse mythology. I can see that changing sometime soon though. When I finished The Gospel of Loki I went back to the beginning of the book and read the character list. And enjoyed it. As Loki would say, “So shoot me.”



Sweet Nothings by Sheila Norton


In my opinion, female British writers write the best chick-lit.

Sweet Nothings, by Sheila Norton is a clever and funny book in the chick-lit genre. I particularly enjoyed Sweet Nothings because it isn’t politically correct. I’m sick of books where the characters smile sweetly and apologise when they say ‘Darn’. The female characters in Sweet Nothings swear properly, (and by this I mean they use the F-word), get drunk, fantasise about movie stars and fight with their families.

Hear, hear.

This story is told in alternating chapters by an English mother and daughter, Penny and Michelle, who live in Panbridge Park, a fictional English town with a traffic problem.

Michelle is a twenty-something Nurse’s Aide, who is shacked up with her boyfriend, Robbie. The story begins with Michelle and Robbie out to lunch, when he mysteriously disappears. Michelle isn’t very upset or worried about his wellbeing, which is a clear sign she should have dumped him years ago.

Later that same afternoon, Penny is interviewed by a shock-jock radio star, as she is the spokeswoman for a local action group who are campaigning to have a bypass built around Panbridge Park. In her frustration at being asked questions irrelevant to the cause, Penny answers a question about how she keeps her husband happy with a flippant answer about her Bread and Butter Pudding.

Robbie doesn’t turn up again and Michelle eventually moves back home with her parents. Michelle’s story evolves around dealing with people who Robbie owed money to, her career and her would-be romances, in between fights with her brother and dealing with her three year old niece Jessica, who no doubt will one day star in her own chick-lit novel.

After Penny’s throwaway line about her pudding, it takes on a life of its own, when the story is picked up in the media throughout England. Penny follows the advice of the radio interviewer not to divulge the recipe and despite her irritation, she is able to use the attention for the good of the bypass. Penny’s story is just as interesting as Michelle’s; career issues, fending off her husband’s advances after years of no interest at all, deciding whether or not to fend off her employer’s advances, and dealing with petty jealousies and irritating people on the bypass action group committee.

Sweet Nothings isn’t a story that will live on in my memory forever, but I had a good time reading this book and would recommend this story for a good time.

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