Book reviews

Archive for March, 2016

Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn


Jancee Dunn was very clever to name her book, Don’t You Forget About Me, which was the song from the classic 1980’s movie, The Breakfast Club.  I fondly remember wearing blue eyeliner, dancing to 80’s pop music and having a poster of The Brat Pack on my bedroom wall, which makes me Jancee Dunn’s target reader.

The heroine of Don’t You Forget About Me is Lillian, who was a teenager during the 1980’s.

Lillian works as a television producer and was enjoying a quiet life with her husband in New York, when he surprised her by telling her he wants a divorce, as he is bored. Lillian takes leave from her work and moves back into her old room at her parents’ home, where she starts to behave like a self-obsessed teenager. Boring.

Lillian’s High School reunion is coming up and she starts romanticising her teenage years more and more. In particular, she wants to reconnect with her old boyfriend, Christian, who was the coolest boy in school. Sigh.

The lead up to the reunion takes about three quarters of the book to arrive, but when it does, Lillian hooks up with Christian. Not surprisingly, their adult relationship is similar to when they were a couple in High School, with Christian determining when they meet and their level commitment to the relationship. Dramatic shrug.

The last quarter of the book races through the aftermath of the reunion, which is when most of the story’s action happens. As a heroine, Lillian didn’t grow as much as she needed to. Her interactions with her old friends show she  wasn’t a good friend or a good sister, both as a teenager and now, and eventually it also becomes clear that she isn’t good to herself either. Eye roll.

Don’t You Forget About Me is a predictable story. I enjoyed the 1980’s references, although not enough to recommend the book to anyone except those who were teenager girls in the 80’s and who have been unable to let go of their own obsessions with leg warmers, poodle perms and the hot guy in Year 9.

I have been playing the song Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds on YouTube as I wrote this review though, and next time I have a few hours to spare and need an 80’s fix, I’ll watch The Breakfast Club. It’s a classic and the music rocks.






The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan


I ripped through The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The story is quite short, a novella, but it is also a story that reads very quickly, with something exciting happening in almost every paragraph. I’ve read some terrible books lately and it was a pleasure to find myself in the capable hands of someone who could actually tell a story.

The story is narrated by Richard Hannay who made his pile in South Africa, before he came to England to spend it. Unfortunately, Hannay finds life in London boring, until his upstairs neighbour, Scudder, involves him in an adventure. Scudder tells Hannay an exciting story of a plot to kill a foreign politician and so start a war, which Scudder is working desperately to prevent. Hannay agrees to hide Scudder, but when he is mysteriously killed, Hannay goes on the run in order to continue Scudder’s cause.

Hannay goes to Scotland to hide, but is chased all over the countryside by mysterious assassins from an evil organisation called The Black Stone. He struggles to hide from their aeroplanes on the moors, but he manages to outwit his trackers using his impressive wits and daring on more than one occasion, even stealing and wrecking an expensive vehicle belonging to them. It does seem a bit of a coincidence that Hannay literally stumbles into the Black Stone’s headquarters while he is on the run in Scotland, but the harder you work, the luckier you get is what I always say…

The Thirty-Nine Steps passes my test of being able to be read aloud without me feeling like a fool. I got the feeling that the hero was only in it for the adventure, but I didn’t hold that against him. Since Hannay was bored seeing shows and dining in Colonial Clubs in London it seems reasonable that he should enjoy some genuine thrills being chased about on the moors by people who are trying to kill him.

I found it hard to believe that the story is over 100 years old. Some of the language, the racism and the events are dated, but the adventure itself is timeless. I didn’t even come close to figuring out how this would end, although the clues are all there in the story. My only quibble with The Thirty-Nine Steps is this, why didn’t Hannay’s trackers use dogs to find him? They could have finished off the search for Hannay much more quickly.

I can highly recommend The Thirty-Nine Steps to anyone who feels as if they need some excitement in their reading.


Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Mr wrong

Mr Wrong is a book of short stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

I expected a romance, with an unsuitable fellow from the title story, Mr Wrong, but couldn’t have been further from the mark. All I have to say after reading this story is, don’t pick up hitch-hikers.

The author brought me to tears during a seven-page story, Summer Picnic, which tells of several generations picnicking together. A woman from each generation remembers or experiences her first kiss during this story. It made me smile when I realised that each generation believe they are the first to discover romance.

Pont du Gard tells of an unhappily married couple holidaying in France with their youngest daughter and her friend. The husband tells the wife abut the end of his latest affair, looking for sympathy from her, but as soon as he has that off his chest, notices how attractive his daughter’s friend is. These characters are nasty and I was glad to finish this story.

The Proposition is the story of a job interview, but the actual position turns out to be a surprise. If I told you the young man being interviewed was handsome enough to be a model and his services were expected to be used exclusively by an older man, what would you think the job was? Me too. But you’ll never guess what he is to be employed to do.

The Devoted is a story that takes place over Christmas, with a grandmother, two brothers, their wives and their children all telling part of the story. For me, this story made it clear that some of us are the devoted, while others are the subject of our devotion.

Child’s Play is a story about women, and being Daddy’s girl. Daddy’s girls can always be relied upon to look after their father when they are old, to forgive their fathers anything and to blame their mothers for everything. Sadly, every mother of a daughter will relate to this story to some extent and every daughter will also recognise this truth in her heart, to some extent, whether she admits it or not. As the mother of a daughter and as a daughter, Child’s Play left me feeling uncomfortable with this realisation.

Toutes Direction is another unpleasant story. A woman goes on holiday in France, then finishes up her visit by staying overnight with an old school friend. When she arrives, she learns the old friend is to have an illegal abortion that night. The woman helps out by holding the bucket, then has a quickie with the friend’s lover en route to the train station. Not my idea of a holiday.

Three Miles Up is another ghost story. Two friends go on a canal boat holiday and pick up a hitch hiker, (they should have read Mr Wrong), who cooks for them and keeps the peace, but they never seem to get anywhere. (Neither did this story, really).

Although Mr Wrong was published in 1984, most of the stories didn’t seem dated at all. I thought Summer Picnic and Child’s Play were the best stories in the collection, and on the strength of them, intend to read a full novel by this author in future, although I hope she has written about some characters who aren’t miserable, or selfish or nasty. Most of the characters in this collection were horrible.




Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto


I didn’t exactly chose to read the novella Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto because of the cover, more because of the intriguing title, and the author’s even more intriguing name, ‘Banana’.

The story’s narrator, Mikage Sakurai, loves kitchens and early in the book, gets the opportunity to make a character judgement about another character based on their kitchen. (Hmm, what does my kitchen say about me? A slightly dirty oven, a crumby toaster and an enormous pantry filled with delicious things to eat are your clues to my personality – and weight).

When Mikage’s grandmother dies, she is left without any family. Yuichi Tanabe, who Mikage barely knows, offers her a home with him and his mother. Mikage’s grandmother was a customer of the florist where Yuichi works and was as heartbroken as Mikage when her grandmother died.

Strangely enough, Yuichi’s mother Eriko, used to be his father. This is probably worthy of a story on its own, but is treated very matter-of-factly in this novel and is really only background information.

Mikage falls in love with Yuichi’s spacious and elegant apartment, which has a beautiful kitchen, containing, amongst other things, a “delightful German-made vegetable peeler-a peeler to make even the laziest grandmother enjoy slip, slipping those skins off.”

When Eriko is killed by a jealous lover, Yuichi and Mikage reconnect over food. (Writing this review makes me realise that the whole story is actually about food and tragedy, not the connection between people and the contents of their cutlery drawers…)

The edition of Kitchen I read was translated from Japanese by Megan Backus. I struggled to identify with the characters and the story, which felt sparse and superficial, particularly the conversations between Mikage and Yuichi. Despite this, the actual sentences, read individually, are beautiful and contain messages which are worth thinking about.

The insight into Japanese culture was interesting to me. The reference to the vegetable peeler and the lazy grandmother make me wonder if a grandmother’s role in Japan is to work for her (younger) family members. Mikage doesn’t seem to consider it unusual that Yuichi has a transgender mother or that Yuichi and Eriko invite her to live with them on such a flimsy connection, but I have to admit, all of these situations seem unusual to me.

Anyway, Kitchen is so short that even though I didn’t particularly like the sparseness of the story, I didn’t feel as if I had been hard done by. The story and the characters were interesting and unusual, and I expect that people much cleverer than me like this book a lot.


Conference-ville by Frank Moorhouse


Conference-ville is the first book I have read by Australian author, Frank Moorhouse, who, back in the day, was huge. He has written novels, short stories, essays and won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Dark Palace.

Conference-ville was written in the 1970’s. Despite the novel feeling quite dated though, Moorhouse is a good writer who doesn’t put words into stories unless they belong there.

The chapter titles are funny and clever. The first, In-Flight Sadism, sets up the story. The narrator of Conference-ville, a successful writer, is on his way to a political conference when someone else on his plane buys him a drink. Since Conference-ville was written in the olden days when you could move around on a plane, the writer goes and sits with the fellow who bought him the drink. During their conversation they discuss another writer, and the other fellow says, “he was a darling of the literary world, but no one reads him now.” The poor writer knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night knowing that one day, the same would be said of his writing. It seems cruel that this is almost Moorhouse’s fate now.

Class Warfare in the Bistro has the writer meeting with his fellow conference-goers and seeing through their facades while believing he is maintaining his own, then Words and Blood tells of the first morning of the conference. Some very big names from Australian politics are dropped in this section, with Jim Cairns and Frank Hardy as conference attendees, along with other names I didn’t recognise. During the conference’s first lunch break, a radical group try to break away and the writer, who would rather be at lunch, gets involved in the move. The mob turn on the writer when he points out that the conference wasn’t a protest.

Classroom Liberal and Saying Your Piece show the poor old writer making his official contribution to the conference, a speech that no one takes any notice of, but things improve with Motel Midnight when he goes to bed with an old flame who is also attending the conference. She turns out to be a popular guest, with a number of other men who thought they were ‘in’ knocking on her bedroom door while she and the writer are in bed together.

The next day the writer is interviewed by an idealistic young journalist in Pictures of Corruption. The journalist sees religion and big ideas in the writer’s work, which the writer says were never his intention. When the writer gets annoyed with the journalist the journalist breaks out photos of the writer which expose him as a ‘rhino’, someone who no longer thinks for himself.

In A Homely Experience, the writer arranges for a prostitute to visit him on the second evening of the conference. He pays for an hour, finishes in forty minutes and is then stuck with the prostitute’s conversation for the last twenty minutes, because as she says, he has paid for her time and companionship.

The writer sees video of himself during the chapter called Access to Ourselves and realises, to his dismay, that he fawns over other people. In The Holocaust Game, the conference-goers get drunk and play a stupid game where they guess if they would have survived the holocaust, and in A Gentlemen’s Club During the Cold Civil War, the writer and others in his group attend a club, where they don’t discuss anything of importance but enjoy being important. Conference-ville finishes with Café Society – table-to-table Fighting, with the aftermath of the conference, where it seemed little was decided on or actioned, and no one cared anyway.

By the end of Conference-ville, I still had no idea what the purpose of the conference was, but expect that the shifts in the attendees allegiances and the politic-ing in this story is much like an actual political conference. If I ever get invited to one, I’m not going. I’ll stay home and read another book by Moorhouse instead.

The truth According To Us by Annie Barrows


The Truth According To Us is by Annie Barrows, who co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I definitely read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when it first came out, and I think I enjoyed it, but I’ve forgotten the storyline. Something about a woman visiting Guernsey, letters and WW2 is all I remember.

The Truth According To Us is set in the 1930s, in a depression-affected town called Macedonia in West Virginia. The story starts with Willa Romeyn, of the infamous Romeyn family of Macedonia. Willa is 12, and she and her sister, Bird, live with their Aunt Jottie. Willa’s father, Felix, who is the most attractive man alive, comes and goes from their household in between bootlegging trips. Another two sisters, their husbands and another brother make up the rest of the Romeyn family.

The household is joined by an attractive young woman, Layla Beck, who has been banished from her senator father’s household because she won’t marry the young man he chose for her. Without her father’s allowance to keep her, Layla gets a job writing The History of Macedonia for the town’s upcoming anniversary as part of the Federal Writer’s Project. (By the way, the Federal Writer’s Project was real, with the US government funding written work during the Depression).

The story is told alternately by Willa, Jottie and Layla.

The histories that Layla digs up are nothing like the story that the town’s most important citizens want to read in the book, although they are much more interesting. Layla fits in easily with everyone in the Romeyn family except Willa, who dislikes Layla for falling in love with Felix.

Jottie and Felix’s father had been an important man in Macedonia before the Romeyn family’s downfall. He was the president of the American Everlasting Hosiery Company until the mill burned down during a robbery which went wrong. Felix and his best friend, Vause Hamilton, who died in the fire, were implicated in the crime, although Felix’s involvement was never proved. At the time Jottie was in love with Vause. Jottie never stopped loving Vause, although Sol McKubbin, who loved her since their childhoods, courts her throughout the story. (Why is there always a love triangle? People always want what they don’t have, it seems to be a law of nature. Or of romance in books, anyway).

The Truth According To Us started slowly, and for a while I was wondering if I would be able to continue reading. However, things improved and by the end of the story, I was racing along to learn what I probably knew was going to happen all along. As much as I enjoyed the second half of the story, the first half could have used a hard edit.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the town of Macedonia and the history, which were as important to the story as any of the characters. The heat is imortant too, causing a huge need for iced teas, ice creams and skinny dipping in the river (with Felix, of course).

The Truth According To Us isn’t a great read, but it is enjoyable. Skim the first half, then settle in to enjoy the second half and the conclusion.





Eden by Candice Fox


Eden is the second novel by Australian author Candice Fox, who won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut novel in 2014 for Hades, then won the best novel award again in 2015 for Eden. These awards are known as the ‘Neddies’, and are given for Australia’s best crime writing.*

Eden Archer is a police officer. She is a psychopath, although this is never spelled out. While off-duty, Eden dispenses her own justice to killers and enjoys every moment of it. For reasons of her own she only kills bad people while she is off-duty. Hades, of Candice Fox’s first novel of the same name, is Eden’s father.

The story is told in turns by Eden’s partner, Detective Frank Bennet in the first person, and by two other omniscient narrators who swap between Eden’s present and Hades’ past.

In the current story, Eden and Frank are looking for a killer in Sydney who has been murdering young women. The murders may or may not be connected to a spate of videos which depict the rape of women linked to the murder victims. Eden goes undercover, posing as an itinerant woman who would appeal to the murderer as a likely victim, although at no point did I worry about Eden’s safety. She was well able to look after herself.

At the same time, Frank is employed by Eden’s father, Hades, who was a Sydney crime lord before going into semi-retirement, to find out who is watching him. Hades lives at a rubbish tip, where he has for many years disposed of dead bodies, both for himself and for other people. .

When Frank finds out who is watching Hades, another mystery arises, one which Hades says he will pay Frank $100,000 to solve. Frank takes on the work, of which the mystery becomes another story in Eden.

Hades’ past is intriguing, and I wish I had started with Hades, but Eden stood alone. To anyone else planning on reading these books though, start with Hades.

One of the tips I learned from Eden is that when you’ve got a dead body to dispose of, don’t wrap it in an ordinary tarp because, according to Hades, tarps leak, which will leave clues to link you to your crime. His advice is to use plastic drop sheets and wrap the body up like a burrito using proper tape rather than occy straps. (Hey, you never know when something like this will come in handy…)

Eden is not a story for those with weak stomachs or for those who are put off by bad language, nasty people or violent, greedy behaviour. While it wasn’t my usual style of reading though, I enjoyed Eden enormously and look forward to going back and reading Hades. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Candice Fox goes on to win a great many more Neddies.

*Ned Kelly was an Australian bushranger who somehow become a legend. He was a thief and a murderer and was eventually hung for his crimes, but he had a way with words, written and spoken. Supposedly his last words were, “Such is life.”






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