Book reviews

Archive for January, 2016

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie


I must already have read The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie and forgotten about it, because for once I guessed who the murderer was before the end of the story. I’m hopeless at guessing who the murderer is usually, so this is the only explanation I can come up with.

The Sittaford Mystery starts with a group of neighbours gathering at Sittaford House, a country house which has recently been let to Mrs Willet and her daughter by Captain Trevelyan. None of the locals can understand why the Willets want to stay in their tiny village on the edge of the moor during winter, but Captain Trevelyan was more than happy to move into the nearby town of Exhampton, while pocketing the Willet’s rent money.

During the afternoon at Sittaford House, the group have tea and then, to amuse themselves, decide to try ‘table-turning’. I believe table-turning was a popular pastime during the 1920’s and 30’s when this book was written, when otherwise sensible people tried to communicate with ghosts. During table-turning, the participants put their hands on top of a table, and say the letters of the alphabet while ghosts answer questions or communicate by tipping the table to spell out words. Hmmm.

Anyway, in The Sittaford Mystery, the table spells out that Captain Trevelyan is dead, so one of the party, Major Burnaby, tramps off six miles through the snow to Exhampton to check on his friend. Sure enough, he finds the Captain dead.

Suspicion is thrown on just about everyone, until Jim Pearson, a young nephew of Captain Trevelyan, is arrested. Jim’s fiancé, the very likeable Emily Trefusis, begins her own investigations, enlisting most of the male characters in the book for her purposes. Emily is a terrific heroine, quick-witted and attractive. She manages the male characters very cleverly.

As always, Agatha Christie tells a very good story. Her characters become real in just a few words and all of them appear to have a reason why they would want Captain Trevelyan dead. I always forget how funny Agatha Christie’s characters are, but this book happily reminded me. The table-turning idea is out-dated, but it served the purpose in this book very well.

Despite guessing the murderer, there was a mystery in this book which I didn’t solve until the author told me and there was another twist at the end which surprised me. I enjoyed The Sittaford Mystery.





Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough


Happy Australia Day, everyone.

Like many Australian readers, I am a huge fan of Colleen McCullough’s books. McCullough’s The Ladies of Missalonghi has always been one of my favourite stories, although I believe the book was controversial because of the similarity of the plot to LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. I loved Tim, The Thorn Birds and McCullough’s seven Roman books are epic.

Bittersweet was the last book Colleen McCullough wrote before dying in early 2015. She had been suffering from ill health and poor eyesight while writing Bittersweet, which contains faults I suspect she would have removed had she been in better health.

Bittersweet tells the story of two sets of strong-minded twins, Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty Latimer, who lived in a large country town in Australia during the 1920’s and 30’s.

The sisters had a difficult relationship with their mother/stepmother (Edda and Grace’s mother died when they were babies, and their father married his housekeeper, who gave birth to Tufts and Kitty). The four women eventually left home to become nurses, one of the only professions available to women at the time. (Colleen McCullough was a neuroscientist herself, so it stands to reason that she had to write a story set in a hospital at some point in her career).

Grace dropped out of the story early to get married and have children, although she resurfaced from time to time to suffer her share of tragedy during the depression years. Tufts also played a smaller part, lacking passion for anything other than her sisters, her career and her friendship with an older doctor.

Kitty was the beautiful one, (isn’t it funny how every family has a ‘pretty’ one, a ‘clever’ one, a ‘funny’ one, or a ‘naughty’ one, and so on? I was the ‘one who liked to read’). Kitty hated being extraordinarily beautiful and desperately wanted to be loved for herself. She married the most important man in town, an English doctor who ran the hospital and was also heir to the richest man in town, but she chafed against his possessive nature. Kitty was also desperate for her children of her own, but found pregnancy elusive. (Being ordinary-looking myself, I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone whose beauty brings them opportunities).

Edda was the sister who most wanted to be a doctor, but because of the lack of money and limited opportunities, she had to settle for being a nurse. Edda was smart and stylish, took lovers and flouted convention, all the while holding down a respected position at the hospital.

The sister’s bonds with each other were stronger than their marriages and love affairs, and although they fought, disagreed, and knew each other’s weaknesses and failings as well as they knew their own, they always stood up for each other.

I had high expectations on starting this book, but was so disappointed by the first few chapters that I nearly didn’t continue reading. The only reason I did, was because it was by Colleen McCullough. The book could have done with a hard edit. The dialogue was melodramatic and too much of it didn’t ring true. Some descriptions were ridiculous too, for example, Kitty’s eyes constantly changed colour, depending on her temper. If anyone other than a respected author wrote something like that, their book would not get published. Bittersweet didn’t have much of a story either, for all that it is a doorstop of a book, and the last half of the book dragged.

Regardless of my disappointment in Bittersweet, Colleen McCullough was an enormously successful Australian writer whose books are well worth reading.





Empire Day by Diane Armstrong


Next Tuesday is Australia Day, so I’ve been reading Australian authors lately in preparation.

However, reading Empire Day by Diane Armstrong has been a little like listening to an elderly neighbour who has all the time in the world telling me a story that I’ve probably heard before.

Imagine this. You’re in a hurry to get to the Post Office before it closes, and you don’t have time to listen to your neighbour ramble on, because you have a demanding job, and a household to run, and children to look after and dinner to cook. You like your neighbour though, they are kind and generous and they treat your children as if they were their own grandchildren. But you’ve been caught by them at your gate and their story is going on and on and on, and even when you butt in with little prompts in an attempt to skip ahead a few sections in their story, your neighbour refuses to be hurried, and instead continues to tell you every little detail until you want to scream with frustration and irritation. At 504 pages, Empire Day is the elderly neighbour’s never-ending story.

Empire Day starts in Bondi, Sydney in the late 1940’s, with a group of neighbours, a mixture of working-class Australians and recently arrived ‘reffos,’ who have come to Australia from different areas of Europe after World War Two, gathering to celebrate Empire Day with bonfires and crackers in the street. (Empire Day was replaced by Commonwealth Day in the 1950’s, but this is no longer celebrated in Australia).

The Australian-born and the refuges are suspicious of each other’s ways and have regular misunderstandings. Empire Day tells of romances, single mothers working as bar maids who are looked down on by their neighbours, lonely old busybodies and kids with polio. There are people who have married the wrong person, workers who want to get ahead in their careers and people who desperately want children. There are refugees who feel guilty because they survived the war and other refugees who are war criminals in hiding. There is a lot going on and I didn’t really connect with any particular character or story above any of the others.

I felt the author tried too hard to push the ‘Australian-ness’ of the setting. There were references to every Australian thing you could think of, from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to Bondi Beach, kookaburras and various native flowers and trees, politicians and newspapers of the time, the murders of prostitutes at Kings Cross and shopping at Mark Foys. Even the street where most of the characters lived was called ‘Wattle Street.’ In the beginning of the story I felt nostalgia for times past, but the more I read, the more irritating the constant reminders that this story was set in Sydney became.

Empire Day would be the perfect book to give to my elderly neighbour. The print is quite large, so they could read in comfort, and the book is long enough to keep them occupied long enough for me to slip in and out of the house a few times without getting caught for a chat. No doubt they will also enjoy the references to times gone by. The only problem is, once they finish the book they will probably want to tell me all about the plot, in great detail. Sigh. Oh well, since Australia Day is a holiday, I’ll have time to hear all about it then.




Hester & Harriet by Hilary Spiers


I won the book Hester & Harriet by Hilary Spiers in a competition. I probably wouldn’t have read this book otherwise, but found it an easy, although slightly boring Christmas holiday read.

Hester and Harriet are widowed sisters who live together in a small English village. The only blight on the sister’s lives are their do-gooder cousins, who inflict their dull company and horrible cooking on them during the holidays. Coming up to Christmas, the sisters are not looking forward to their cousin’s boring conversation, hor d’oeuvres, which they call ‘little nasties’ and gluhwein. I had to Google gluhwein, which sounds truly horrible, but it turned out to be a sort of mulled wine.

Hester and Harriet are, under sufferance, on their way to their cousin’s for Christmas lunch when they notice someone at their local bus stop. Being Christmas, they investigate, and find a woman and a baby hiding inside. Hester and Harriet leap at the opportunity to take the woman and baby home with them, thus avoiding their cousin’s company and the terrible food. The woman and baby turn out to be illegal immigrants, who have been caught up in some nasty events.

Soon after Christmas, the fifteen year old son of the horrible cousins arrives on Hester and Harriet’s doorstep too, looking for relief from his parent’s nagging. He moves in for the week between Christmas and New Year while this story takes place, and provides a mixture of help and hindrance to the running of the sister’s household during his stay.

I still couldn’t tell Hester and Harriet apart by the end of the book. Although kind and sensible, I found the characters (and the story) to be slightly long-winded, with not enough story to hold my interest. There are plenty of issues, including illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, criminal activities, homelessness and infidelity going on, but these are only lightly touched on.

The story is written in the present tense too, which is not to my taste.

The excitement of winning a competition and receiving Hester & Harriet in the mail made my week, regardless of me not particularly liking the story.


The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King


The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King is a book of short stories. None of the stories are truly scary, in the way Stephen King can leave you too frightened to get up in the night to go to the toilet at night without putting the light on, in the way of It, Cujo or Christine (at least they were for me), but the stories are still good enough to leave you thinking about the plot or twist or even some of the characters after you finish reading.

I prefer Stephen King’s longer short stories or books, and think some of these stories could have been stretched out a bit more.

The following stories were my favourites.

Morality is a story of temptation. If a dying man who offered you a fortune to carry out an act of violence on his behalf, would you do it? How much money would be enough, if you were to do it? I’m not comfortable thinking too deeply about these questions, because that implies that I might do something terrible for money.

The Dune is the story of an elderly judge, who visits a magical place where he is sees the names of people about to die. I can understand why visiting this place to see the names could become addictive.

I particularly loved Batman and Robin have an Altercation, which is a story about the relationship between a man and his elderly father, who has dementia. The affection these characters have for each other comes through despite their difficulties.

Summer Thunder is the last story in the collection, and is an end of the world story reminiscent of On the Beach by Neville Shute. I hate thinking the end of the world could come in this way during our time, but it is possible, and that makes Summer Thunder the story that will stick in my head.

I can recommend The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to Stephen King fans and to readers who don’t enjoy horror, or the supernatural.





The Believers by Zoe Heller


After reading Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller a few years ago and loving the story and the writing, I was very excited to come across The Believers by the same author.

Zoe Heller does not create likeable characters. Everyone, excepting two minor characters in The Believers, are horrible. The characters in Notes on a Scandal were unpleasant too.

Joel is the character in The Believers who all of the other characters revolve around. He is a radical American lawyer, married with grown up children. Joel has a stroke in the early pages of the book and spends the rest of the book in a coma. Despite not being a part of the current action in the story, Joel is a large presence in the book.

In the introduction to the story, Joel visits London, where he meets and forms an instant connection with Audrey. Joel is personable and clever, and impresses Audrey with stories of his involvement in various causes. The first section ends with Joel asking Audrey to return to New York with him. She accepts, imagining a romantic and glamorous future together leading the fight against social injustice. The story then skips ahead forty years to the time of Joel’s stroke.

In the introduction, I believed Audrey was clever and likeable, but she turned out to be nasty. Audrey’s foul and abusive language and behaviour towards her children, Joel’s workmates, the staff in the hospital who are caring for Joel, and even her friends, is appalling, throughout the entire book. Her anger is overwhelming. I couldn’t understand why any of the other characters gave Audrey any of their time, attention or love. Audrey doesn’t believe in anyone or anything.

Rosa, Audrey and Joel’s eldest daughter, spent four years in Cuba as a revolutionary socialist, but returned to New York disillusioned with that particular cause. She recently started attending an Orthodox synagogue, much to the dismay of Audrey and Joel, who, along with their own parents, threw off their own Jewishness, calling themselves ‘anti-theists.’ Rosa seems to need something to believe in, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she joined some mad cult after she grows out of her current Jewish phase. (Please note, I’m not commenting on religion, Jewish or otherwise, I am commenting on Rosa’s need for a passion).

Karla is Audrey and Joel’s second daughter. She struggles with her self-esteem and overeats to feel better about herself. She feels trapped in her loveless marriage, but is being pushed by her husband to adopt a child with him. Karla is probably the most likeable of this family and I felt sorry for her. Karla needed to be able to believe in herself. By the end of the story, there was hope this would happen.

Lenny is Joel and Audrey’s adopted son. He is in his 30’s and is addicted to drugs. He sponges off Audrey, who enables his bad habits by supplying him with cash, a roof over his head, meals, even drugs… Lenny probably still believes in Santa Claus.

When Joel had the stroke, a secret relationship and another child were exposed, but somehow, by the end of the book, his family, friends, co-workers and everyone else he ever met still seem to believe he is ‘Saint’ Joel. I’m not sure how that worked.

The Believers is funny and clever, but all of the horrible characters in this story were a little depressing. I like Zoe Heller’s writing but would love to read something more inspirational and joyful from her. Not everyone wants to believe that everyone else is horrible.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby


Funny Girl by Nick Hornsby is very readable. Set in the 1960s, it is the story of Barbara Parker, a girl from Blackpool who wants to be a comedian. Barbara’s idol is Lucille Ball.

Barbara entered and won the Miss Blackpool 1964 contest, but declined the title on realising she would be required to stay in boring Blackpool for a year to carry out her official duties. Instead of taking on the role of Miss Blackpool, Barbara moved to London where she took a job selling cosmetics in a department store. On a date with a customer at a famous nightclub, Barbara met a theatrical agent who immediately employed her and changed her name to the more glamorous Sophie Straw. (Sigh. Fulfilling their ambitions is ridiculously easy for very beautiful people, particularly in novels).

After just three weeks of unsuccessfully auditioning for modelling, radio and television roles, Sophie auditioned for a television show on the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse. At the audition, Sophie, the writers, producer and another actor immediately clicked, and spent a happy afternoon bouncing ideas off each other to improve the script. By the end of the afternoon, the writers had re-written their script as a vehicle for Sophie to star in. The show was called Barbara (and Jim), with Sophie playing a woman married to someone who was her opposite in every way.

The story of Funny Girl itself isn’t funny, but it is a very enjoyable story of a group of people who work together to make a wildly successful television show. Sophie is the main character, but the two writers, the producer and other actors all play roles in this story too.

Sophie becomes famous in England, and at the height of her fame meets her idol, Lucille Ball. Eventually, though, the series ends, and for the rest of their lives, most of those involved in Barbara (and Jim) look back at their time working on the show as the best time of their lives.

While I was reading Funny Girl I couldn’t work out if the story was real or fictional. The edition I read contains photos from the era of beautiful girls in swimmers competing for the title of Miss Blackpool, a photo of a nightclub called The Talk of the Town nightclub, (in the photo The Seekers are headlining), a photo of a very young and unlined Mick Jagger at a restaurant frequented by Sophie and more. When I read that nearly all of the episodes of Barbara (and Jim) had been destroyed by the BBC I was horribly disappointed, only to have it confirmed at the end of the book that the show didn’t exist, and was an invention of Nick Hornby for the purposes of the book.

Funny Girl isn’t a book that will live in my memory forever, but I did enjoy the story, the time and setting and the look at pop culture from those who were creating it. The photos are great too. I think the moral of Funny Girl is that comedy is as valuable to society as anything else and should be valued as such.





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