Book reviews

Archive for November, 2015

Confessions of a Wild Child by Jackie Collins

 

confessions

I haven’t read a novel by Jackie Collins in twenty-five years. I do remember reading a previous book featuring Lucky Santangelo, the main character in Confessions of a Wild Child, but since then, apparently, Jackie Collins wrote a whole series of best-selling books about Lucky’s adventures as an adult.

Confessions of a Wild Child goes back in time to when Lucky was a boy-mad fifteen-year old, ending on her wedding day at the age of sixteen. Lucky’s father, Gino ‘The Ram’ Santangelo, arranged the marriage in an attempt to curb Lucky’s wild behaviour, (chasing boys, messing around with boys, running away from school with a school friend, getting caught by her Dad with boys. Hmm, not so different to most teenagers).

Lucky is a beautiful, smart, feisty heroine who does exactly as she wants, except for agreeing to enter into an arranged marriage. She gets expelled from her strict girl’s school in Switzerland, has adventures in the Greek islands with her school friend, Olympia, and runs away from another exclusive school to the French Riviera. Confessions of a Wild Child is pure escapism, although there isn’t much of a plot and thinking is not required.

The type was so big I could read in bed without my glasses and the story so slight that I finished the book in just a few hours. The story was not as exciting or ground-breaking as I had expected from Jackie Collins. Probably I’m a bit harder to shock these days.

I think I’ve outgrown this style of book. I probably realised this twenty five years ago when I read my last Jackie Collins novel, but I must have forgot. Apparently that happens as you get older.

 

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Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue was an interesting story, although as I read I continually wondered why the author was allowing her characters to complicate their lives so badly. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised the book was based on a true story. Emma Donoghue was obviously hamstrung by the facts.

I read Room a while ago and loved it. Frog Music was good, but for me, never reached the same levels. I think I stayed up all night reading Room until I finished the book, but read Frog Music over a week.

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876 and tells the story of Blanche, a French exotic dancer and prostitute, who befriends (or is befriended by) Jenny, a pants-wearing frog-catcher. (Before you ask, Jenny sells the frogs to restaurants. Yes, to be cooked for people to eat. No, I haven’t eaten frogs, but I hear they taste like chicken. Enough about the frogs already). Jenny croaked, (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), after being shot by an unknown person early on in the story while hiding out with Blanche.

Blanche’s lover, Arthur, is also the father of their child, P’tit, who has been in care since he was a few weeks old. Arthur is nasty, and has an equally horrible friend, Ernest, who idolises Arthur and barely tolerates Blanche, although her ‘leg dances’ and prostitution bankroll all of them. I consulted Google to see what a ‘leg dance’ is, and still am not sure, but think a leg dance must be something like a can-can. The description of another dance performed by Blanche, reminded me of Lola Montez’s Tarantula, where the dancer strips, supposedly unaware of her audience as she tries to get a spider out of her clothes.

Blanche’s dancing and prostitution meant she was successful enough to have owned the six story Chinatown building she and Arthur lived in when Jenny ran Blanche while riding her bicycle, a Penny-Farthing. Somehow Blanche and Jenny, who has been in and out of jail for cross-dressing and is far and away the most interesting character, become friends. Jenny’s nosy questions caused Blanche to rethink some aspects of her life. In particular, Blanche seeks out the now one-year old P’tit and finds him living in squalor. She brings P’tit home, which throws all of their lives into a different kind of chaos.

The story, which goes back and forward constantly in time, becomes even more complicated at this point. By now I was feeling annoyed with Blanche for not booting Arthur and Ernest out of her home and hiring someone to look after P’tit while she got on with earning money. Even at the very worst times, Blanche had options which she did not take. Sigh.

Arthur caught smallpox and Ernest faithfully nursed him, while Blanche did her best to care for P’tit, all the while avoiding Arthur for fear of catching smallpox herself. Arthur survived, but fought with Blanche once he recovered, causing her to flee in fear of her life, leaving P’tit behind with Arthur and Ernest. Arthur sold Blanche’s apartment building out from under her, Jenny was killed by an unknown person, and Blanche suspected she was the intended victim. Meanwhile, Arthur and P’tit disappeared.

Frog Music started really well but the story quickly became far too complicated. I would have preferred to read more of Jenny than Blanche, and for Blanche to have made better choices. The sex was constant and unappealing. I get that Blanche was a prostitute and exotic dancer, but it was still hard to understand Blanche’s attraction to Arthur. Based on how good Room was, I would read another book by this author, but I wouldn’t recommend Frog Music unless you are very, very interested in the history of this particular unsolved crime, or of San Francisco during the gold-rush.

 

 

Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy by Stephanie Barron

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Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy is one Stephanie Barron’s ‘Being A Jane Austen Mystery’ series.

I’ve read a few others in this series and enjoyed them. Each story involves Jane Austen as a character, set in a known location that the real Jane Austen either lived in or visited during her lifetime, and have a mystery which Jane uses her detective skills to solve.

Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy is a sadder, darker story than the others I have so far read. Jane, Mrs Austen and Jane’s sister Cassandra have recently moved to Chawton Cottage in Hampshire. Jane is mourning Sir Harold Trowbridge, who she has known and loved since earlier books in the series. Sir Harold, who was known as The Rogue, left his diaries and letters in a bequest to Jane, with the intention that she write his memoirs.

Soon after they arrive at Chawton Cottage, Jane finds a dead man in the cellar. He was a local labourer, who had recently been boasting to his neighbours that he had information which would lead to him becoming a rich man. Jane attends the Coroner’s Court and of course, becomes involved in searching out the truth of the labourer’s death and other mysteries in the neighbourhood.

All the while Jane and her family are battling the dislike of the entire village, because Jane’s brother Edward removed the ‘widow Seward’ from Chawton Cottage, to make a home for Mrs Austen and her daughters. Sir Harold’s legacy has also tarnished Jane’s reputation.

I’ve believed the character of Jane Austen in each of the books I’ve read in this series, including Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy, although this is not the best book of the series, as the story was too complicated. It was interesting to have new characters introduced, such as Miss Benn, who the author advises was the role model for poor Miss Bates in Emma. Mrs Austen is also annoyingly similar to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, which I can’t believe she was in real life, but sadly, there was no sign of any characters resembling either Mr Darcy or Colin Firth.

I haven’t read the ‘Being a Jane Austen Mystery’ stories in order, but probably should have. While the books do stand alone, I hadn’t realised Jane loved Sir Harold from the books I’ve already read. I’m continuing to look forward to reading more of this series.

 

Mrs Harris goes to New York by Paul Gallico

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Mrs Harris, Paul Gallico’s creation from the 1950’s, goes everywhere! In the first book of this series, Mrs Harris goes to Paris, a London charwoman goes to Paris to buy herself a Dior frock. The story of Mrs Harris falling in love with a dress, working and saving for the dress and finally getting to Paris, where she makes friends with models and marquises, before coming home with her frock, is lovely. The movie starring Angela Lansbury is gorgeous too.

Mrs Harris goes to New York, from 1960, has a similar, simple charm.

Mrs Harris and her friend and neighbour, Mrs Butterfield, are having a cuppa together one evening listening to the radio, when they overhear their neighbours, the horrible Gussets, beating a child in their care. The child, little Henry Brown, is the son of an American GI, who divorced Henry’s English mother before returning to America. Henry’s mother remarried and farmed out her son, as her new husband didn’t want Henry around.

When one of Mrs Harris’s customers asks her to go with her to New York to set up her household, Mrs Harris wangles a job in America for Mrs Butterfield also, then kidnaps Henry with the intention of reuniting him with his father.

Getting Henry out of England without a passport was no trouble for Mrs Harris, but smuggling him into America would not have been possible without the assistance of the Maquis, (from Mrs Harris Goes to Paris), who luckily, was also on the ship on his way to America to take up the post of French Ambassador to the United States.

George Brown proved harder to track down than Mrs Harris expected, but after a number of adventures in America, predictably, everything turns out for the best for little Henry, Mrs Harris, Mrs Butterfield, the Marquis and the rest of the crew.

Mrs Harris Goes to New York is an easy and happy read.

 

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautiful but sad story which tells of the passing of the era of the English upper class in the time between World War One and Two.

The story is told in the first person by an elderly butler, Stevens, who has lived his entire adult life serving others in grand houses, most recently Darlington Hall. Stevens’ life of service has been at the detriment of his own personal life, although Stevens feels that his work has allowed great men to live great lives, with his employers serving humanity through their involvement in politics.

In the beginning of the book, Stevens is working at Darlington Hall for the rich American, Mr Farraday, who bought the property after Lord Darlington died, when he is encouraged to make a trip in his employer’s car to visit Miss Kenton, who used to be the housekeeper at Darlington Hall. During his travels, Stevens reflects on his life and of the importance of his career.

Steven’s ideal of the perfect butler is one who is dignified at all times. He holds other qualities in high esteem, particularly good moral values, but it is Stevens’ regard for dignity which carries the whole story.

In the beginning of the story, Stevens is anxious because Mr Farraday seems to want to banter with him, which leaves Stevens at a loss. He studies and practices bantering, but never quite manages to successfully amuse his employer, and he worries that this inability makes him deficient in his duties. Stevens’ humour and Mr Farraday’s are too different for them to understand each other perfectly.

During Lord Darlington’s time, Darlington Hall was filled with important political people of the time, from England, Germany and other parts of Europe. The reader recognises that Lord Darlington was probably not a great man at all, that in fact he lacked strength of character, was prone to flattery and made some racist decisions which impacted the Jewish staff members of his household terribly.

An important social event earlier in Stevens’ career at Darlington Hall was particularly tragic. Stevens tells the story of continuing to serve Lord Darlington’s guests, smiling and laughing at the guest’s jokes, and facilitating their comparatively trivial needs while his own father was upstairs dying. Stevens sees this night as the most triumphant of his career, as he never let his mask slip or provided less than the best possible service.

Another tragedy of both Steven’s life and that of Miss Kenton’s, the housekeeper, is that they grew to love one another, and could have married, had children and made a life together, except that Stevens never allowed this to happen. I was unsure if Stevens was aware of Miss Kenton’s feelings towards himself or not until the end of the book when they met again after many years apart, but either way, Stevens’ inability to allow himself to feel his emotions makes him one of the saddest fictional characters I have ever read about, although, if he wasn’t so self effacing, he would probably argue that these qualities made him a ‘great’ butler.

The language and dialogue in The Remains of the Day is beautiful and this would be an excellent book to read aloud. When I read parts of the story aloud to myself, I put on the snobbiest English-butler accent that my Australian drawl could manage, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

The Remains of the Day left me feeling as if I should chuck in my job and live my life while I can.

The question is though, can I afford to learn what not to do from Stevens, and throw in my job to do what I want all day? (Read, eat chocolate, roller-skate, travel, laugh more, etc). If I do, will my family, (who, it could be argued, are my most important job), suffer? Yes, probably they would. Should I try harder to even up my work/life balance? (Yes, I know ‘work/life balance’ is an ‘it’ phrase, but it does describe the issue). Yes, probably I should. I work long hours and sometimes that is to my family’s detriment. Could I throw in my job? No, we have to eat. Plus, I like my work and take pride in it, although luckily for my family, not as much as Stevens does.

At the end of his story, Stevens realises what he has given up when he meets with Miss Kenton, and this is bittersweet.

I could not be gladder to have read The Remains of the Day, which must be one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m planning on watching the movie and reading more books by this author soon. Hopefully when I am an old lady on my deathbed, I don’t look back on my life and wish then that I had taken a lesson from Stevens.

 

 

Chocky by John Wyndham

chocky

Chocky, by John Wyndham, didn’t terrify me the way The Day of the Triffids did, but the story still left me feeling uneasy.

Chocky is the imaginary friend of eleven-year old Matthew Gore. The story is told in the first person by Matthew’s father David, who is a very understanding man when it comes to Matthew’s imaginary friend, although he isn’t all that understanding, as he says he doesn’t understand women, and apparently, nobody does, “Least of all themselves.” David and his wife, Mary, are also far more critical of their daughter, Polly, who gets the blame for quarrelling with her brother, than they are of Matthew, who, in my opinion, must have been doing half of the quarrelling. Mary’s character is the type who says of herself, “I’m sorry to be so silly.” Maybe John Wyndham had issues with his own wife or sister.

Polly was actually the first one in the Gore family to have an imaginary friend. Polly’s was called Piff, and, as imaginary friend’s go, was not very unusual, more the type who Polly could put the blame onto when she did something naughty. When Polly made some real friends Piff was forgotten.

Eleven year old boys don’t usually have imaginary friends. When they first heard their adopted son Matthew talking to himself, separately of each other, David and Mary were both struck by the unusual subject matter of the conversations they overheard, where Matthew was seemingly explaining our natural world, time on earth and eventually, limited intelligence in animals to Chocky.

There is a conversation in the book about limited intelligence which I found very interesting, (possibly because I strongly suspect my own is limited). The subject arose when Matthew and his father were walking through a paddock, and Matthew asked why cows stop learning and understanding. The example he used was that cows are able to learn and remember milking time, because they make their way between the dairy and the paddock, but they never open the gate to get in or out of the paddock. If John Wyndham had not put that into Chocky, the idea of limited intelligence would never have entered my mind, (see? I told you mine was limited).

Anyway, Mary in particuar became more and more worried about Matthew’s mental health and eventually had David set up an informal meeting with a doctor who, after spending time with Matthew, horrified Mary by saying that Chocky was real, and worse, that Matthew was possessed by her/him. (Chocky’s gender is difficult to understand).

Chocky does go on to possess Matthew, although by his own choice and on quite a few occasions. While drawing, Matthew allowed Chocky to take over his brain, which allowed Matthew to create amazing works of art. The art was recognised as being brilliant, but bizarre by everyone who sees them, including Matthew’s art teacher. On another occasion, when Matthew and Polly were knocked into a tidal river in a freak accident, Chocky helped Matthew to rescue himself and Polly, even though Matthew had never been able to swim. The media picked up the story of the amazing rescue and turned Matthew into a hero, although he was such a fair and honest little fellow that taking credit for something Chocky did made him unhappy.

The dialogue in Chocky is terrific and the characters reveal themselves perfectly through their conversations. For example, Matthew told his mother, “I was fought at,” when she chided him for being in a fight, and the sarcasm of Matthew’s physics teacher, “no that we have established that nothing in the universe – with the possible exception of Matthew Gore’s mind – can exceed the speed of light, let us return to our lesson,” gave me a mental image of each character’s personality, strengths and weaknesses. Truly, I could hear their voices in my head while I was reading. (Please don’t say that is the first sign…)

Chocky is a surprising story which I highly recommend to those who enjoy science fiction.

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodrguez

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The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez appealed to me after reading several books by Khaled Hosseini, which are also set in Afghanistan.

There seemed to be a cast of thousands in this story, with each of the five main female characters having a back story and something going on romantically. About half way through I got sick of trying to keep track of everyone, and considered not finishing the book, but by that point felt too committed, so continued. All of the stories became connected with the personal issues resolved by the end of the book, but I never became emotionally attached to any of the characters.

However, each of the female characters did show individual strength and together, they assisted each other and less fortunate women. The author highlighted that in Afghanistan, many women are in prison for crimes such as refusing their husbands, or being unmarried and pregnant, while others are enslaved as prostitutes, often from very young ages.

The book shows farmers growing poppies for opium as a way to provide a living for a family, with farmers telling of how they tried food crops only to find they had no market for their products. This was something I didn’t know about Afghanistan.

Despite all of the sorrows shown in this story, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is a cheerful and happy book, with the main characters enjoying friendships and romances. The women are resourceful and determined. There are weddings, and a birth, bravery and heroics, although there are also injuries and death caused by Taliban bombings.

I think the story would have been stronger if there had been less characters, and a bit less going on. I might also have enjoyed it more if I had not read A Thousand Splendid Suns and And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, both of which left me filled with sadness for the Afghan people.

Khaled Hosseini is a very hard act for Deborah Rodriguez, or any other author, to follow. The Little Coffee Shop in Kabul is a light and breezy read, although the danger to the characters and the tragedy of the war-torn country is constantly in the background throughout the story.

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