Book reviews

Archive for August, 2015

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas


The author of Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas, wrote the bestselling Australian novel of the last few years, The Slap. For a little while, it seemed as if everyone I knew was talking about the book (in particular the rights and wrongs of hitting children, as The Slap is about what happened after a child was slapped by an adult who was not their parent at a BBQ). The story was eventually made into a drama for Australian television, and then re-made for the American market.

While I didn’t like any of the characters in The Slap, I did enjoy the story and author’s style. I absolutely loved the experience of reading a contemporary novel set in Melbourne, where I live.

As a writer, Chris Tsiolkas doesn’t seem to be afraid of much in the way of topics. Barracuda has a crack at race, religion, politics and class, sexuality, bullying, violence, family relations and friendship, and the importance of sport in modern Australia, particularly in Melbourne. I can verify this. Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. To justify this title, I can advise we’ve just been given a public holiday for the AFL Grand Final in September. (Go Cats!) We already have a public holiday for the Melbourne Cup, (a horse race), and on our most special day as Australians, ANZAC Day, when we celebrate those who have fought for our country, we have a game of football which has somehow become iconic, which sporting commentators call a ‘battle.’

Barracuda is the story of Dan Kelly, a young swimmer who hates himself.

Dan, who comes from a working class family, won a scholarship to a private boy’s school on the strength of his talent as a swimmer. Faster, stronger, better, is the mantra which constantly runs through his head. Dan’s dream is to win a gold medal swimming at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Dan’s time at school is difficult, where he is surrounded by rich boys whose fathers rule Melbourne business and politics. Despite Dan’s ‘Skippy’ name, he is a ‘wog’ – half Greek on his mother’s side. To further add to the drama of his family, Dan’s mother was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness. She is now considered to be dead by her family after marrying out of her religion. Dan feels unable to win the respect of his father, who is a truck driving, Labor voting, blue collar union man.

Dan is gay and although he doesn’t seem to recognise this while he is at school, he is in love with one of his schoolmates.

Dan’s biggest champions are his younger brother and sister, to whom he is a hero, his mother, who loves him unconditionally and his coach, Frank Torma, a Hungarian man who tells Dan to always have an answer to a bully’s insult.

The story jumps back and forwards through time, with Dan sometimes being tormented and at other times being the aggressor, from behaving so badly that he feels he will never live down the shame, to being a generous and loving man. At times this story made me cringe. The sex in the novel is graphic and on occasion, violent.

As expected, I enjoyed the familiarity of this story being set in Melbourne.

I enjoyed Barracuda and expect it will be a story I think about in years to come, as was The Slap.




How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets by Garth Stein


How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets by Garth Stein is the story of Evan, a man in his early thirties who has never had to grow up. Ten years ago, Evan had a one hit wonder with his band. These days, Evan still plays his guitar with his new band, and works casually in a music shop.

The story begins when Evan attends the funeral of his high school girlfriend, who died in a car crash. After the funeral, Evan meets his 14 year old son Dean for the first time since Dean was a baby. When Dean’s grandfather attempts to beat Dean in an inexplicable burst of anger, Evan takes off with his son.

Evan and Dean start to get to know each other, although Evan keeps the fact that he has epilepsy a secret from Dean.

As the story evolves, Evan meets Mica, a highly successful musical engineer. She becomes Evan’s girlfriend after engineering a recording session for his band.

Evan’s not a bad bloke, although he has never committed to anyone or anything. He took no responsibility for his son until the situation forced him to, even though he is in his thirties he goes out of his way to annoy his parents and he blames his younger brother for the accident which caused his epilepsy.

The developing relationship between Evan and Dean is often rocky and Evan finds being a parent to be difficult. The story is told almost entirely from Evan’s point of view, so when other characters contradict what Evan believes, it can come as a shock, to him and to the reader.

I enjoyed this story, (raced through it actually), and was pleased that all of the characters grow and learn as the story develops, which was satisfying. The only character I really struggled with was Mica. She really had her act together, which made it difficult to understand why she fell in love with Evan. The author provides an explanation for Mica’s choice later in the story, but I still struggled with believing it.

How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets is an entertaining story, although it would probably make a better movie than a book. I would go and see it. The soundtrack would probably be great too.





Laurinda by Alice Pung


Australia has some really good writers of Young Adult fiction; John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy and, drum roll please, Alice Pung, who wrote Laurinda.

The heroine of Laurinda, is Lucy Lam, a teenager whose family were refugees from China, via Vietnam. Lucy and her family live in a low socio-economic area, (if anyone else who has read this book is from Melbourne, do you think Lucy’s fictional suburb is modelled on Sunshine?), where Lucy attends the local Catholic school. Lucy’s life changed completely when she won a scholarship to an exclusive girls’ school called Laurinda.

Lucy’s education quickly extended to dealing with privileged school girls, the worst of whom is a social group is known as ‘The Cabinet.’ The trio of girls who make up The Cabinet rule their classmates and horrifyingly, some of their teachers, with some very nasty antics.

Lucy is a great heroine, whose greatest strength is that she is able to see straight to the heart of an issue. Lucy is not indulged in any way at home, instead her parents rely on her assistance to look after her younger brother, to interpret bills and official correspondence and to contribute to the running of their household in a great many other ways. Lucy is portrayed as a respectful and dutiful member of her family and community, although sometimes her values and behaviour become confused when another side of Lucy tries to assert itself.

The contrast between Lucy’s parents, (her mother sews clothing in the garage for below the minimum wage and her father works in a factory) and the parents of other Laurinda girls is extreme. The author gives a lesson about valuing things you work for, in comparison to not appreciating that which you are undeservingly given.

Laurinda is set in the 1990’s, and some of the references to popular culture may seem out-dated eventually, but on the whole, people were the same then as they are now, which is probably not that much different to people at any other time during history.

The lack of understanding of character’s class and race differences is interesting, and is shown when Lucy’s teachers and the parents of her schoolmates fail to appreciate the differences between Lucy’s background and that of other Laurinda students. The reverse is also true, as Lucy’s father thinks a meal of McDonald’s is a wonderful treat for Lucy’s rich schoolmates. Racism is also treated with humour.

In my experience the world is divided up between people who would rather drink rat poison than relive high school and those who remember high school as the high point of their lives. Kurt Vonnegut is quoted in Laurinda saying, “Life is nothing but high school,” but Lucy definitely shows that even if this is all we have to look forward to, she has managed her school experience and prepared for a glorious future by working hard and remaining true to herself.

Laurinda may be aimed at Young Adult readers but I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it as a thought provoking read.




A Poor Relation The Regency Lords & Ladies Collection by Joanna Maitland


If you like Regency romances, read Georgette Heyer. If you have already read all of her novels, read them again. Joanna Maitland’s A Poor Relation, which forms part of The Regency Lords & Ladies Collection, is a poor relation indeed to Miss Heyer’s novels. (Okay, okay, I admit it, that last sentence was a little obvious. I did say it in my best Regency style though).

A Poor Relation is not really as terrible as some Regency stories I have read, and on the plus side, the version I read was Large Print. As I have said before and will no doubt say again, Large Print books are easy and comfortable to read, particularly when I can’t find my glasses. However, although A Poor Relation is not the worst Regency romance I’ve ever read, it was also a long way from being the best.

To sum up, Lord Amburley, (our hero), attempted to rescue a poor, shabby damsel, who appeared to him to be in distress.

On being rescued, Miss Isabella Winstanley, (the shabby damsel and our heroine), advised Lord A in no uncertain terms she was not in distress, and did not require rescuing. Despite annoying each other, Lord A and Miss W could not stop thinking about each other, (didn’t see that coming…)

The next time our hero and heroine met, Miss W appeared to be passing herself off as a lady of fortune, which annoyed Lord A enormously. He decided to catch Miss W out in her masquerade and expose her.

After more misunderstandings than I would have thought possible, all is revealed – for readers who couldn’t figure things out back on page 3. The romance came to the only possible conclusion, a proposal from Lord A and fluttery feelings on the part of Miss W. (I could point out the really obvious here, and say that Miss W’s fluttery feelings are actually lust, but I probably don’t have to. Romance readers already know).

I think it is time I wrote my own romance story.

I’m sick of reading about beautiful 26 year old women, who are always described as being ‘past the first flush of youth’, getting all of the action.

I’ll start my Great Romance story by introducing Our Heroine, a frumpy, tired, (because she is overworked) woman. Reading is the joy of Our Heroine’s life, but she also loves to bake (and eat, hence frumpy). Sometimes when Our Heroine is feeling especially daring she puts on the roller skates she has had since she was a teenager and skates in the driveway, (and inside the house too, but don’t tell Our Hero, he gets cross when I skate inside). For Our Hero we will have a tall, grey haired, (he used to be dark, back when he had hair), good Aussie bloke who is a little bit grumpy, but he likes chicken and hot rods and a television show called Australia’s Stupidest People Do Particularly Stupid Things While Someone Else Videotapes Them So That Other Stupid People Can Watch The Television Show. Then, something will happen in this Great Romance and Our Heroine will mistakenly think something… (at about this point Our Hero is most likely in Big Trouble), then, something else will happen… (now Our Hero will think something of his own and will, no doubt, get it all wrong), and then, something else will happen and so on.

I would go on writing this Great Romance story, but unfortunately I have writer’s block. You should be grateful. Go on, go and read some Georgette Heyer, you’ll like her stories much better than mine.




I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall


I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall was mandatory reading in Primary School for Australians of my age. As a child I loved to read, and read everything I could get my hands on, from old Reader’s Digests to Nana’s hospital romances from the 1960’s (imagine cover art of dark haired, strong jawed doctors and pretty nurses looking adoringly up at them – I suspect no one realised I was reading these) to Dad’s cowboy paperbacks (Pretty sure no one knew I was reading these either!), but for reasons I cannot remember, I truly hated I Can Jump Puddles. However, I recently found a copy in an op shop and decided to give the story another try. This time I loved it.

First, a disclaimer. I usually review novels, but I Can Jump Puddles is the (mostly) true story of the author’s childhood in Western Victoria during the early part of the twentieth century. The area where the author grew up is close to where I grew up, (actually it is 100 kilometres away, but in the country that is nothing). Plus, an old man living near to us, who was an eccentric and reclusive alcoholic who my father kept an eye on, was the son of one of the doctors who treated this author as a child. This connection made Alan Marshall and his story part of our local history.

As an adult reading I Can Jump Puddles, I found the descriptions of place and the characters in this story made me nostalgic for the conversations I listened to during my childhood, where the grown ups reminded each other of stories from the old days, from tall stories and true stories about the extended family, of friends and neighbours, of whisky stills, and house fires to collect the insurances, local scandals and plenty of absurdities. In this book Alan Marshall tells these same kind of stories.

Alan Marshall was born in Noorat in 1902 and contracted Polio as a child. He was left with a twisted back and legs that didn’t work. Despite the inconvenience of having to use crutches, (and Marshall barely even acknowledges that his legs or crutches were a nuisance), the author tells the story of a full and active childhood in the country, racing all over the countryside with his friends, getting into fights at school, riding horses; a feat which left his parents white faced with terror, and going out into the bush camping with bullockies. The only thing I didn’t find in the stories which I expected was the legendary swearing, as it is common knowledge that bullocks don’t recognise when they are spoken to unless they are sworn at.

Marshall’s father was a horse breaker who must have also been a great story teller. From the way he tells the story is obvious that his father gave Marshall the confidence to try anything and everything and to never give in. The stories from my childhood show the older generation to have been tougher and more stoical than those who followed and that is how this book reads too.

The stories were funnier too, and a kind of funny that doesn’t exist now. Marshall’s stories were of the “Cripes, he lost his pants fishing and it were a full moon,” or, “Strewth, that old swaggie who used to come round here fell in the fire when he was full of metho and God rest him, the poor beggar’s dead now,” variety.

The Australia I grew up in has been and gone, as has the Australia of Alan Marshall’s childhood. It was an age where only people of British descent counted in Australia. I’m not making any judgements here, as Marshall was a man of his time, as we all were, but the omissions in the story are also telling. There are no stories of Aboriginal people, or Chinese or even stories of Marshall’s mother. Only men counted.

Marshall advises that he changed names and circumstances to tell his story in the most entertaining way, but everybody who featured in his stories would be long dead now. I really enjoyed I Can Jump Puddles and am going to seek out the following two autobiographical books by this author, where I am hoping to be further reminded of a time gone by.







Emily Goes to Exeter by MC Beaton


On the cover of this novel, ‘Kirkus’ advises that “M.C. Beaton is the best of the Regency writers,” but obviously the reviewer hadn’t read Georgette Heyer, (I’m assuming the reviewer meant Modern Regency writers). Still, Emily Goes to Exeter by M.C. Beaton was sort of fun.

The story begins with Miss Hannah Pym, a housekeeper whose elderly employer has just died. Miss Pym was lucky enough to be left 5000 pounds in her employer’s will, which makes her an independent woman with the means to fulfil her heart’s desire – to travel on Flying Machines stagecoaches all over England.

Cashed up, footloose and fancy free, Miss Pym purchases a ticket on the Exeter Fly and promptly has her first adventure. An accident and a snowstorm causes Miss Pym and her fellow travellers  to be held up at a country inn. The travellers include a rich widow and her bullying, would-be-suitor, a runaway bride and a tall, dark handsome Lord, a lawyer who desperately needs a bath and a host of other characters who are only included to make up the numbers. While stranded at the inn, Miss Pym marshals the other characters to cook, clean and play games in order to pass the time and ensure their enforced stay run smoothly. Not everyone wants to pitch in, but each character’s willingness to assist is a good measure of their worth.

During the course of the story Miss Pym gains the title, ‘The Travelling Matchmaker,’ and I understand there are a number of Miss Pym books following this first romantic adventure.

I was annoyed by the main romance in this story, because although the hero was ideal, (good looks, charm, wealth and street smarts), he fell in love with a young chit for her pretty face alone. Typical. I know he isn’t the only hero to make this mistake in a novel, but I must be getting old when I want more substance from my heroines than violet eyes and a dainty figure, particularly when their moral characteristics include vanity and selfishness.

I hope Miss Pym has a romance of her own with a worthy hero someday, (and there were hints and possibilities that this might happen), but if she were to marry it would probably end the series, so I suppose Miss Pym will remain a spinster and continue travelling.

I would read another book by M.C. Beaton as the book had a happy, frivolous style and a lovely heroine in Miss Pym, perfect for when you want a light read without having to think at all.




Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige by Kathleen Gilles Seidel


I chose Keep Your Mouth Shut and Wear Beige by Kathleen Gilles Seidel for two reasons, one because the book was available in large print, which I love – being able to read in bed without wearing my glasses is one of the pleasures in life, and because I will be a mother in law one day and as we all know, when I am a mother in law, I will have earned my licence to wear beige.

I expected this book to be a fluffy romance, but it wasn’t. Although the story featured a wedding, there was no romance at all and it didn’t matter at all.

The story is told from the point of view of Darcy Van Aiken who has recently divorced, happily, from Mike. Darcy and Mike have two sons, one of whom, Jeremy, is getting married.

Jeremy’s bride to be, Cami, is from a very rich family, and their wedding threatens to become a circus, although not one of their making.

Darcy, Mike and Mike’s new (and unpleasant) girlfriend, Claudia, start spending a lot of time together because of the wedding preparations, which is a strain for all of them. Darcy and Mike’s relationship is amicable, although during their marriage Darcy struggled with Mike’s critical nature. (Not surprising, being criticised is no fun). Mike’s criticism stemmed from being unable to accept Darcy’s haphazard ways at home, even though she is an ICU nurse who is very good at her work.

This was a fun read with likeable characters, although some are there expressly to be disliked. There are serious moments and lessons learned, but on the whole this was an enjoyable story. Darcy’s character grew in strength and Mike recognised that he wasn’t always right.

I enjoyed the wedding preparations, (reading about a wedding is nearly as good as watching a movie about a wedding, both of which are better than attending weddings, especially when you are the one wearing beige).

Read this book if you need a happy little escape without romance.

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