Book reviews

Archive for June, 2016

The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall


The intriguing title of The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall was the reason I chose to read this book. The actual ‘Roundabout Man’ of the story is a man named Quinn , who lives in a caravan in the middle of a traffic roundabout. The roundabout is so big that, Quinn’s caravan is hidden from the passing traffic by trees and bushes.

Quinn, who is in his 60’s, has lived without money, foraging for food from traveller’s leftovers at a nearby service station and asking strangers at a local laundromat to wash his clothes with their loads for many years.

Quinn was the child of a famous author, whose books for children were on a par with Enid Blyton’s popularity. He and his sisters were neglected emotionally by their mother, who was happier living in the world of the stories she created. Unfortunately though for Quinn and his sisters, who were triplets, the characters in their mother’s books were based on them, and Quinn and his sisters struggled during their childhood to create identities of their own.

Quinn’s peaceful life at the roundabout came to an end when a young journalist writes a story about his life, after he was mugged and left with serious injuries by a group of teenagers who had read about Quinn in a newspaper.

Happily, the staff from the nearby service station took care of Quinn during his recuperation. He got to know their stories, and shared his own, although most people didn’t believe, at least at first, that he was the real Quinn from the famous stories. Eventually Quinn faced his emotional issues and in doing so, re-entered the world of people.

As I child, I would have quite liked to have been Enid Blyton’s child, and had adventures with the Famous Five, or midnight feasts at boarding school with the children in The Naughtiest Girl in the School or run away with Fenella and the others from Mr Galliano’s Circus. I suspect that Enid Blyton’s children would have happily changed places with me though, and enjoyed having their mother all to themselves.

The idea of living on a roundabout in relative peace and quiet is also strangely appealing, and I enjoyed reading about Quinn’s childhood, but I kept expecting more to happen in the story than what actually did. I am half-heartedly recommending The Roundabout Man because the idea is clever, and because of my fondness for Enid Blyton’s stories, but wanted more from the book and wouldn’t be surprised to learn other readers felt the same.



Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith


I’ve already read loads of Alexander McCall Smith books, possibly because he writes so many of them. While I enjoyed the 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosopher’s Club stories, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series didn’t capture my interest, and I didn’t like McCall’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma at all. However, Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party goes in a whole new direction, as this book features an Irish-American main character, Fatty O’Leary.

Fatty’s nickname reflects his physical state, as he is almost morbidly obese. He is a good-natured and successful business man, who lives with his wife Betty in Fayetteville Arkansas.

Fatty and his friends in Fayetteville are more Irish than the Irish, so when Betty surprises Fatty by planning a holiday to Ireland, he is delighted.

The trip itself is a disaster though, as Fatty’s weight creates problems from the beginning. At the airport, the airline announce the plane is overloaded and request a volunteer to fly on a later flight. Other passengers immediately nominate Fatty as the obvious choice to be left behind. Although he actually makes it on the plane, he squashes the passengers to either side of him. The airline move Fatty to First Class to provide relief to the other passengers, but when the airline serve him a meal from Economy, he behaves badly and is moved back to Economy. Fatty’s former seatmates are then served First Class meals and wines, which he considers to be discriminatory.

In Ireland, neither Fatty or Betty enjoy the holiday as they had anticipated. Other guests staying at their lodgings snub them and Fatty constantly finds himself in humiliating circumstances.

Eventually, though, Fatty and Betty get through their trials and they go back to America with plenty of stories to tell their friends.

The story is obviously a comedy, although how successful it is, I don’t know. I didn’t laugh at any of the situations. The jokes are at Fatty’s expense, and while his weight issues are his own fault, and there is a moral hidden in the story, he was a good fellow and I didn’t want to laugh at him.

I don’t think Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party is one of this author’s best stories so would probably recommend other readers try a book from another series.


On the Beach by Nevil Shute


On the Beach is my favourite novel by Nevil Shute, who wrote loads of very popular books in the 1950’s and 60’s, although his writing is almost unknown now. There is an Australian connection with Nevil Shute too, since he was born in England but lived in Australia during his later life. Several of his books, including On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, another favourite of mine, are set in Australia.

On the Beach is the story of a group of people, living in Melbourne and waiting for the end of the world. The book is set in the early 1960’s, after a short nuclear war wiped out everyone in the Northern Hemisphere. The radiation from the bombs is slowly spreading south and at the beginning of the story, the main characters, who are enjoying a Melbourne summer, are expecting to die in approximately nine months time, of radiation poisoning.

Peter Holmes is one of the main characters in On the Beach. Peter is a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Australian Navy, and he and his wife Mary, are responsible for bringing all of the other characters in the story together. When Peter is given a posting with an American submarine based in Melbourne, he invites Commander Dwight Towers of the US Navy to spend a weekend at his and Mary’s beach-side home. Mary then invites her friend Moira to stay to entertain Dwight, as Mary’s previous experience has been that visitors from the Northern Hemisphere break down when they meet her and the baby, thinking of their own families.

In Dwight’s case, he was happily married with a son and a daughter, who, along with his wife, died during the war. Dwight’s way of dealing with his approaching death is to look forward to going home to his family in nine months time.

Moira, as requested, flirts madly with Dwight in an attempt to distract him. She is attractive and bright, but drinks heavily to blot out reality. Over the course of the book Moira falls in love with Dwight, but does not attempt to seduce him, out of respect for his love of his wife and family, although she freely admits that had his wife been alive, she would have considered him fair game.

Dwight’s submarine is sent to the Northern Hemisphere to test radiation levels, and also to investigate a mysterious radio signal coming from a Naval Communications Station. The signal represents the possibility of human life.

For me, On the Beach is all about how people deal with the knowledge that their lives are coming to an end. Some characters bury their heads in the sand, while others try to fulfil their bucket lists. Others, including Mary, continue as if life will go on, planting her garden and planning for the future, refusing to acknowledge any other possibilities.

Another main character is philosophical and accepting; “It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

I have a copy of the movie of the same title, which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, but haven’t watched it yet. I believe Ava Gardner is credited with saying that Melbourne at that time was the perfect place to make a movie about the end of the world. While her comment was considered to be a criticism of Melbourne’s lack of excitement, it was also a fair representation of Melbourne at the time.


beach 3


I loved the references throughout the story to Melbourne and the surrounding suburbs. The characters take trams and shop in streets that I know, and they work in places I have worked in, which gave me a real thrill when I was reading. (When I first read this book, those places of work were still in my future). Australia was very English until quite recently, and the language and style of the character’s speech is familiar to me too.

My biggest criticism of this book is that women aren’t treated particularly kindly in this story. There are only three main female characters in On the Beach, and one of them is already dead. Of the other two, Moira, drinks heavily and has no purpose in life, while Mary’s emotional response to reality is portrayed as being particularly weak minded. This may have been representative of the times, with men making all of the decisions in many Australian households, but Peter treating Mary like a child and Mary behaving like one grated on me eventually. However, I don’t remember this author treating women this way in other books I’ve read by him.

I enjoyed my re-read of On the Beach so much that I will be re-reading other books by Nevil Shute sooner rather than later, starting with A Town Like Alice.





Where Memories are Made by Lynda Page


Where Memories Are Made by Lynda Page has a gorgeous cover and a woeful first chapter. The second chapter may have been better but I’ll never know. I decided that life is far too short for me to find out.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


“So it goes.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is a story I expect to continue thinking about forever. I’ve never quite realised that I am mortal before, but this book has confirmed for me that one day I will be dead and life for everyone else will go on. “So it goes.”

So many tones, so many meanings in the phrase, “So it goes,” which is used over and over throughout the story, each time someone dies.

Sometimes the phrase seems to mean, ‘whatever,’ along with an eye roll.

Or sadly, ‘life is hard and then you die’.

At other times, the words are reassuring, because the words are saying that we are no different from anyone else, because we will all come to the same in the end.

However, in the midst of grief, life goes on which Slaughterhouse-Five tells. It contains a story within a story, with both stories telling of men who lived through terrible times.

The first (or outer) story starts with an un-named narrator, a writer who was an American prisoner of war during the Second World War, in Dresden when the city was fire-bombed. Thousands of people died during the fire-bombing. “So it goes.”

Chapter Two is the beginning of the un-named narrator’ story, which tells of another man, Billy Pilgrim, who was also at Dresden during the World War Two fire-bombing. The reader learns that Billy is a time-traveller. Sometimes he is a senile old man, sometimes a child, next a middle-aged married optometrist and at other times he is an American prisoner of war, in Dresden. He is a fatalist, and he knows how he will die. “So it goes.”

My knowledge of the fire-bombing of Dresden was non-existent before reading Slaughterhouse-Five. The only thing I thought I knew about Dresden was that it was a city in Germany, where Dresden dolls were manufactured. Even this turned out to be incorrect. According to Google, the dolls I thought were Dresden dolls are actually called ‘Parian dolls’. You live and learn.

After the actual destruction of Dresden by the British and Americans, there was enormous controversy regarding the rights and wrongs of the fire-bombing. Some people say this was a war-crime and others say the actions were justified. Reports also differ regarding the amount of people killed and during my limited investigation I also learned that the fire-bombing was virtually unknown or unreported amongst the Allied countries. Based on reading Slaughterhouse-Five and knowing very little about the events, I don’t believe I am qualified to comment.

What I do know though is, Billy Pilgrim was not only a time-traveller, but he believed himself to have been captured by aliens and taken to a planet named Tralfamadore, where he was exhibited to the Tralfamadorians as an exotic creature. While there, he had a glamorous movie star (also from earth) as his wife, and they had a child together. Back on earth, Billy was married to an obese woman whose father set him up in business as an optometrist. The diamond in Billy’s wife’s engagement ring was obtained in Dresden while he was a prisoner of war.

Billy’s story is circular, with surprising revelations in the end. I want to believe stories, but with each revelation, I was left more and more uncertain of what to believe, even though the characters were very real to me. They are sometimes ridiculous, often funny, sometimes tragic, and always completely believable.

I don’t know if I have sold Slaughterhouse-Five very well in this review, but I do believe it is a story which should be read. I’m certain I will read it again.



Tag Cloud