Book reviews

Archive for July, 2016

Different Class by Joanne Harris


Different Class by Joanne Harris is a psychological thriller which left me guessing, almost to the very end of the book.

The story is set in St Oswalds Grammar, a boys school in Mawbry, a fictional town in England. Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen & Players and Blueeyedboy are also set in Mawbry and share some characters, although Different Class can be read alone.

The story is alternately told by two narrators, whose chapters are represented by a white or a black chess king. The white king’s chapters are told by an elderly Latin teacher, Roy Straitley, who has taught at St Oswalds for over thirty years. Mr Straitley is a traditionalist, who has few interests outside of the school. He is passionate about St Oswalds, teaching and his form, who are known as his ‘Brodie Boys’.

The black king is more of an unknown quality. I didn’t know who he was almost until the end of the book, despite guessing at his identity throughout. The black king was a former pupil at St Oswalds and is clearly troubled, with a history of killing animals and possibly even other children.

The story swings back and forth in time between when the black king was a student of Mr Straitley’s during the 1980’s, and the present, where St Oswalds is undergoing huge changes to try to stay relevant and, more importantly, to remain financially solvent. An old student of Mr Straitley’s, Johnny Harrington, has recently become the Head Master, much to Mr Straitley’s dismay, and the school’s old traditions are being cast aside willy-nilly.

The black king becomes more and more dangerous as the book continues through time until the present, with the anticipation building as the black king’s state of mental health becomes more unsettled. A former English Master’s death, after having been jailed for twenty years after being found guilty of sexually abusing a student at St Oswalds, sets the drama in motion.

I read Different Class over a few days, and there was a patch in the second half of the book where I felt as if I couldn’t put the book down. I have enjoyed most of Joanne Harris’s books, some more than others, but I rate Different Class as a favourite and Roy Straitley as a favourite character.



Caravan Thieves by Gerard Woodward


Caravan Thieves is a book of short stories by Gerard Woodward.

I read three of the stories, then gave up because they all left me wondering what had actually happened. The cover blurb said the stories in Caravan Thieves are “brilliantly unsettling,” but I just found the stories to be confusing and surreal.

The first story was about an older couple who own a caravan which they use for extended holidays. One morning, instead of waking up in the spot in the caravan park where they had been parked when they went to bed, they realise that their caravan has been mysteriously placed in a paddock of rapeseed, (now known as canola). The couple were last seen walking through the paddock, confused and cross. In my opinion, aliens did it.

Another story was about a man going for a job interview in a bookshop. Job interviews are always horrible, that’s a given, but the interviewers are very strange and the interviewee worries throughout the interview that he hasn’t passed urine in several days. He wonders if this is linked with children in storybooks never having to use the toilet. Okay…

‘Why’ is a question I like to have answered, but Caravan Thieves left me none the wiser. That was probably the point, but these stories weren’t for me.

However, Gerard Woodward’s writing is good. I’m going to look for a full length novel by this author because I think that will suit me better.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh


Evelyn Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust, makes having an active social life in England’s upper class during the 1930’s seem like really hard work. The characters made such an effort to be invited to dine, or to parties with other toffs, that I don’t think I could have been bothered. I would much rather stay at home and read Evelyn Waugh’s version of what happened at an event.

A Handful of Dust has two distinct parts, which were so different from each other that for me, they didn’t gel. (I can’t believe I am actually criticising the great Evelyn Waugh, who wrote Brideshead Revisited, Vile Bodies and many other wonderful books and stories, all of which showcase the author’s clever, cruel and funny style, but there it is, when you have your own blog you get to express your own opinion).

The first part of A Handful of Dust is set in England during the 1930’s, at a time when even the upper classes had no money. The main characters are Lady Brenda Last and her husband Tony, who have been married seven years.* Brenda is bored with country life at Tony’s family estate, although Tony is happy. Tony particularly loves their Gothic monstrosity of a home, Hetton Abbey, which costs them more than they can afford to run. Tony and Brenda have a young son, who clearly wants to be just like his father when he grows up.

Things change when Brenda falls in love with a spare man about town, John Beaver. It is impossible to understand why Brenda fell in love with John, except to say he was the only man available to Brenda at the time. John, who is selfish and dull, doesn’t seem all that interested in Brenda, although I suspect he would have been, had she any money of her own.

After making a fool of Tony for two-thirds of the book, by gallivanting through London society with John, Brenda and Tony’s son dies in a horse riding accident. Later that same week, Brenda asks Tony for a divorce in order to be with John.

Tony very gallantly goes away for the weekend with a woman of not-much-virtue in order to provide Brenda with evidence of infidelity in order that they can divorce, but when her financial demands mean that he would have to sell Hetton Abbey, he comes to his senses and tells her that he is going away for six months, and that on his return, if she still wants a divorce, she can have one, although she will not get any money from him at all.

Tony then goes off exploring in the jungles of South America. Yes, South America, to the Amazon to be precise, where he meets a man who wants him to read the novels of Charles Dickens aloud to him for the rest of his life. I didn’t see that coming, and the ending was just weird. However, who am I to question Evelyn Waugh, even if I can’t figure out why he didn’t let this story finish in England where it belonged?

I very often wanted to slap Brenda, who behaved like a fourteen-year old girl throughout this novel. She was a selfish, greedy woman who destroyed Tony’s life, for the sake of entertainment. I don’t believe she genuinely felt anything for John Beaver and only wanted a bit of excitement.** I wish Evelyn Waugh had written a third part of the novel, where Brenda went to Papua New Guinea looking for cannibals. It would have been just desserts if the story had finished with Brenda sitting in a pot of hot water, waiting to be eaten.

The characters spoke in a distinctive slang, which must have been fashionable during the 1930’s. The slang was clever and witty and didn’t feel dated, although it did set the story in a particular time. Brenda’s and her social set’s use of their slang was a sign of their exclusiveness, full of in-jokes and it served very well to make me feel on the outer, looking in at fashionable people’s lives.

As much as I enjoy Evelyn Waugh’s writing, I think in real life people probably loved his company, and sat with him and laughed themselves silly while he said maliciously funny things about other people, then suffered the same fate when their backs were turned.

A Handful of Dust is said to be autobiographical of Evelyn Waugh’s own divorce. I wish the book hadn’t gone off into the jungles of South America, but had stayed in the English social jungles instead. Otherwise, I recommend this book and author to all readers who like to be amused at the expense of others.

*I wonder if the seven-year itch started with this novel?

**Tony should have found a handsome game-keeper for Brenda to romance and kept her at home, happy. He already had a heir…


The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon


The Shadow of the Wind by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon had me hooked from the very first sentence. Listen to this. “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

See what I mean? I really, really want to go to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books too, and since I know I can’t, (because it doesn’t exist, except in the pages of this book), I had to keep reading.

The Shadow of the Wind was written in Spanish, and translated into English by Lucia Graves. The language and story was so beautiful that I wish I read Spanish to be able to read the story as it was intended.

The story is set in Barcelona in 1945, when the behaviour of those in authority was very dangerous for other residents of the city. The main character, Daniel was 14 when his father, who owns a second-hand bookshop, took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books to choose a book of his own, to learn and care for and protect. Daniel chose a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.

Daniel loved the story and over the next few years tried to find more books by Julian Carax, only to find that someone had been destroying every copy of every book written by Carax, which also put Daniel’s copy of The Shadow of the Wind in danger. Owning the book also became dangerous for Daniel, particularly when he began trying to find Carax.

The story is a mystery, with mysteries inside mysteries, inside mysteries. Every character in the novel has a story, every story has an intriguing detour and each word has enticing descriptions to accompany it. The language is glorious, full and descriptive and wonderful.

Old crones in black rags, priests, loving mothers and homeless men, young men and women in love, thuggish policemen, poor writers and rich businessmen, all of these characters have a story of their own within the story, which somehow come together to make a whole story. The story got complicated at times, but always unravelled itself.

The following wisdoms were  spoken by my favourite character in the novel, a fast-talking, fool-hardy, fellow called Fermin. Each time he spoke, Fermin left me with something to think about.

“Few things are more deceptive than memories.”

“People who have no life always have to stick their noses in the life of others.”

“What destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”

“Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty.”

I’m using examples from The Shadow of the Wind to try and sell this book to others, because I feel as if my own words are falling short of expressing just how pleasurable this was to read. I truly can not get my hands on more stories by Carlos Ruiz Zafon quickly enough. Happily, the last chapter of The Shadow of the Wind hints at another story by the mysterious Julian Carax, and after checking it out on Google, I can see there another two books to come in this series. Hurra!


Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner


I read Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J Dubner with the intention of finishing the book with a higher IQ, but I don’t think that happened. Think Like a Freak was a comfortable read, very interesting and amusing, but I’m certain that ‘thinking smarter’ will need more effort from me than just reading a book about people who are already good at thinking.

Examples of how very successful people think were shown in easy to understand stories, demonstrating how problems can be solved by being approached in new ways. One example which I particularly enjoyed described how to win a hot dog eating competition. Instead of stuffing the hot dogs in, then chewing as hard as you can, the authors used the example of a successful hot dog eating competition winner, Takeru Kobayashi, to explain how to think a problem through, then to use a trial and error approach to practice a winning technique.*

The problem for me with thinking, and the authors told me this very clearly, is that most people only think once or twice a year. They cited the example of a very clever person, an absolute genius, who, on purpose, makes time to think for an hour, every week.

What the authors say is true. I readily admit that I am not a genius, and I’m not alone. Hardly anyone else is a genius either. But, since I don’t have time to think for an hour at a time, I’m unlikely to improve matters. If I did manage to find an hour for some hard thinking, I would probably just fall asleep anyway. Besides, making excuses for not being able to find time to think is much easier than actually thinking.

However, if you have the time and want to have a crack at thinking, especially if you  intend to make a name for yourself as a problem-solving thinker, then here are some of the tricks of the trade for you, as described in Think Like a Freak:

  1. Pick a small problem, because you’ve got too much competition in the bigger, show-pony type of problem areas. Everyone wants to solve the issue of world peace.
  2. Break the problem into smaller parts.
  3. Continue breaking the problem down until you get to the root cause.

Be warned though, the authors of Think Like a Freak advise that trying to convince people of the results of your thinking might make you wildly unpopular. Let me know how you get on.

*So, if you are interested in how to eat 52 hot dogs and buns in a really short amount of time, here’s how. Separate the dogs and buns. Break the dogs up with your fingers, to save time chewing. Dunk pieces of the bun into your drinking water to make the bun go down faster, (a legal manoeuvre in hot dog eating competitions), then prepare to accept your trophy.

I Amaving So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum



I Am Having So Much Fun Without You by Courtney Maum wasn’t for me. I got bogged down because I didn’t like the narrator, a married artist called Richard who has just been dumped by his mistress. I shouldn’t have started reading this book, because I hate stories about married people who have affairs*, they just make me miserable. I didn’t like Richard, I didn’t like his morals, and his whinging and complaining stopped me from getting get past Chapter Five.

Miss S, who is fourteen, commented that the title of this book is unkind. Out of the mouths of babes…

*Except for The Bridges of Madison County which I enjoyed enormously, judging by the amount of tissues required for me to sob my way to the ending. I liked Anna Karenina too, although that ended badly for the heroine, as did Nantucket Nights. Similarly, Heading Out to Wonderful ended badly for the characters who had the affair. I haven’t read Madame Bovary or The English Patient yet, but they are also on my list.

I love the movie Same Place Next Year, which is the story of a couple who, although they are married to other people, meet for an adulterous weekend together every year, for years and years.

I think I have to retract what I said earlier. On reflection, I do like stories about people who have affairs. I think Richard just got up my nose. I wouldn’t have married him in the first place.



The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac


Seriously, was Jack Kerouac taking a lend of the reading public when he wrote The Dharma Bums?

I love ‘Beatnik’ art, so I expected to love The Dharma Bums, but instead found the characters and the story to be irritatingly self-indulgent. The narrator’s long rambling sentences, which started somewhere, then took meandering detours before ending someplace entirely different, also annoyed me enormously.

Actually travelling with Ray Smith, the Zen Buddhist narrator of The Dharma Bums, would probably ‘do my head in’, as my husband says when other people’s less than rational behaviour annoys him. Let’s hope I never have to attend a poetry jam session with Ray and his peers, or have a sexual relationship where everyone shares themselves with everyone else (!) I’m not going mountain climbing with one pair of good walking shoes shared between two people either, or eating bulgar, even with bacon. Ray Smith’s life is definitely not for me.

I honestly can’t decide if Jack Kerouac was making fun of his characters and the ‘beat’ generation, or if he was sincere. I have read that his books are based on his own experiences, but still…

I read On The Road years ago, so was already familiar with Jack Kerouac’s distinctive style. I wish I understood what makes other people think his writing so good, because I just don’t get it. I admit his name is very cool though. Jack Kerouak. Say it aloud and see what I mean, the three ‘ck’ sounds are cool.

Obviously my own world-view is influencing me to the point where I just don’t get this lifestyle, this author or this book. Jack Kerouak is very hard on the middle class, and that is what I am. I work full time, and run my household and family with military-like precision in order to find ten precious minutes to read each day. Possibly I’m jealous. The main character did get to spend a whole summer on top of a mountain doing fire watch alone. Sounds like heaven. If ever I get to spend a summer doing the same, I won’t be reading any more Jack Kerouac books though. Not my style. I’m too judgemental.



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