Book reviews

Archive for September, 2016

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

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The Rosie Effect by Australian author Graeme Simsion is a follow-up to The Rosie Project.

If you haven’t read The Rosie Project, go and read it. The story is funny and charming and leaves you feeling good about life in general. The Rosie Effect is more of the same. Not as good as the first book, but still enjoyable.

In The Rosie Effect, Don and Rosie have gotten married and have moved to New York. Don’s life, which was rigidly planned and executed before he met Rosie, had already been changed forever by his and Rosie’s marriage, when she announces she is pregnant.

Rosie has lost some of her joy in life, which may be a side-effect of her pregnancy, or because she is working enormously hard to complete two degrees. It may even be because marriage to Don is not ideal from her point of view. Whatever the reason, Rosie’s unhappiness had an effect on the general feel of the story.

The Rosie Effect is a comedy of mistaken ideas about Don and Rosie’s expectations and Don’s concerns about whether he is capable of being a good father. Don’s friends don’t necessarily give him the best advice, and he complicates most things, however things generally work out satisfactorily for Don.

I can’t wait for The Rosie Project to be made into a movie, and am really looking forward to seeing Don’s Gregory Peck impersonation.

Graeme Simsion has recently published a new book, The Best of Adam Sharp, featuring all new characters, which I am looking forward to reading.

 

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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I relax into my pillows on Monday night, settle the doona around my middle and open The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I start reading.

I stop reading.

Flipping heck, I think, my voice in my head sounding just like Irene’s off Home and Away. The flipping book is written using first person, present tense.

I hate books written in first person, present tense.

I reach for the chocolate on my bedside table, ignoring the fact that I have already brushed my teeth.

I dither, as the square of Lindt extra-dark chocolate melts between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Should I continue reading or not? This book has been on my To Be Read pile since I read the blurb in the Readings’ catalogue the Christmas before last.

I close the book and look at the cover. A maze, an apple, a broken clock and a cassette tape. The colours are pretty, but as a teenager of the 80’s it is the cassette tape that speaks to me. I re-open the book and get on with it. The Readings catalogue rarely lets me down.

A week later, I close the book. I think about the characters and the story, and think about how I’ll write my review for the blog. First person, present tense springs to mind. I choose a pen from the holder next to my recipe books and jot down some notes.

Main character, Holly. Teenager in the 80’s. Runs away from home for a few days after a fight with her mother over her boyfriend. While gone, Holly’s younger brother disappears and is never seen again. Just getting to know Holly when the time and point of view changes to Hugo’s. Holly is now a supporting character. Hugo is a psychopath, but I’m hopeful he will be redeemed by his love for Holly. Seventy pages on, it happens again and there is a new character telling the story, sometime in the future.

At about this point, I had started skimming.

The point of view kept changing, a new character, another time, still first person, present tense.

It finished in the future, with no oil left in the world and life more primitive than we know it. There was a weird, behind the scenes war going on between good and evil. I had no idea what was going on, probably because of the skimming.

I sigh and wish I’d stopped reading a week ago. I decide I won’t read anything else by David Mitchell.

 

 

 

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

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I have no idea why I have never read anything by Australian author Liane Moriarty before coming across The Husband’s Secret. After reading a story about the author in The Age newspaper recently, then a review of the author’s most recent book, Truly-Madly-Guilty later that same week by FictionFan, I thought it was time I jumped on the band-wagon. And, wow, am I glad I did! You can check out FictionFan’s review using the link below, although I enjoyed The Husband’s Secret better than she enjoyed Truly-Madly-Guilty.

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/truly-madly-guilty-by-liane-moriarty/

The main story in The Husband’s Secret starts with Cecilia finding a letter addressed to herself from her husband, with the instruction that she is to read it only in the event of his death. (By the way, if I found a letter with that instruction on it from my husband, I would open and read it straight away. Just saying). Cecilia doesn’t open the letter right away, but she does put it aside in a safe place.

Cecilia is happily married to John-Paul. They live on Sydney’s leafy North Shore (true description, real estate agents and people living there actually do use the term ‘leafy North Shore,’ even though it sounds a bit pretentious to the rest of us), with their three children. John-Paul must be quite successful at whatever he does, because at the beginning of the story he is in New York for work, and Cecilia doesn’t work outside of the home. She is one of those church-school mothers who volunteer for everything, and knows everything that is going on in the school and church community.

The next most important character in the story is Tess. Tess, her husband Will, and Tess’s cousin Felicity have a business together, and are constantly in each other’s pockets. Somehow, it comes as a surprise to Tess when Will and Felicity sit her down to tell her that they have fallen in love with each other. Nobly, they also tell her that they haven’t done anything about it yet, ie, slept together. (I would probably have broken both of their noses. So far in this review I’ve shown myself to be a sticky-beak, and not very forgiving. If this was my story, at this point I would be charged with assault, and the story would go in a different direction entirely). Tess, who is a less violent woman than me, packs her things and takes herself and her son Liam off to Tess’s mother’s home (on Sydney’s leafy North Shore), leaving Will and Felicity to get on with it.

The third main character in the story is Rachel, whose daughter Janie was murdered as a teenager. Rachel works in the office at the Catholic school, which is where Cecilia, Tess and Rachel’s lives start to overlap into each other’s when Tess enrols Liam into school.

I’m not going to discuss the plot any more, because The Husband’s Secret is a thriller and readers should get the chance to find out what happens for themselves. But I will say how much I love reading contemporary Australian books. I love reading about communities that are so familiar to me that they could be mine. I love wondering if the author knows the same people I do. I’ve been a school mum and done Canteen Duty, and made terrible Easter bonnets that have fallen apart before the school parade even started. I’ve avoided the President of the Parents and Citizens group so as not to get roped into volunteering for working on the school playground for three Saturdays in a row, I’ve been to Tupperware parties where someone got drunk and had to be driven home and I watch The Biggest Loser while eating chocolate and chips. I know these characters. So much of what I read is set in England or the United States, and while I love the sense of travelling somewhere through my reading, it is also satisfying to read a good story with a known setting and characters who could be my neighbours.

The story started a little slowly. Cecilia’s dithering about whether to open the letter or not was annoying. Some of the things that happen are a little predictable, but there were also a few surprises for me. By the middle of the book I was hooked and I ended up finishing it in one sitting. I’ll definitely be working my way through Liane Moriarty’s other books soon. And lastly, a newsflash to my husband, if you are reading this – don’t get any ideas…

 

 

 

 

 

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

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I loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, so leapt on to The Summer Before the War when I saw this author had written a second novel. The gorgeous cover swayed me too. The simple colour scheme and the woman’s glamorously red lips and hat nearly make me want to go off bicycling somewhere myself, although the reality is, in Australia, bike riders are required to wear helmets and I don’t have the right kind of hair for a helmet. (Call me vain, I don’t care. I look horrible with flattened hair).

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a contemporary story of two lonely widowers, Major Pettigrew, a pillar of his English community and Mrs Ali, a charming Pakistani shop-keeper, who have in common a love of literature. The story is a romance, and I enjoyed the characters and the dry wit enormously. I can highly recommend this book so had high hopes of enjoying The Summer Before the War.

The Summer Before the War begins in 1914 with the recently orphaned Miss Beatrice Nash arriving in Rye to teach the town’s children Latin. The appointment of a female teacher to a traditionally male position has been championed by Rye’s Agatha Kent, whose husband John does something important at the Foreign Office.

Agatha is an important person in her community, which at her level of society, is a political minefield. Agatha is constantly working behind the scenes to prevent the mayor’s wife and other fools from having their way on matters which will affect the community adversely, although she is cautious about her reputation to a degree which I found strange, (although all will be revealed by the end of the story). She and Beatrice take to each other from the very beginning and Beatrice becomes a regular visitor to her household.

Beatrice also became firm friends with Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel. When they meet, Hugh is studying to become a doctor, while Daniel, who is a poet, plans to move to Paris to start a literary journal with his dear friend Craigmore.

Beatrice is a clever and resourceful woman, and much like the characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, her dry wit is gorgeous. Before her father died they lived all over the world, with Beatrice acting as her father’s secretary and running their household, wherever they were. This made it difficult to believe that on his death, his estate was left in trust for Beatrice until she married, leaving her virtually penniless and dependant on family.

If Beatrice’s father had left her his estate unreservedly though, there wouldn’t have been a story, as living with her father’s relations proved to be difficult for an independent-minded woman, and as Beatrice had no intention of marrying, the job in Rye was her only chance to live freely.

Beatrice’s move to Rye and her inclusion into Agatha’s household and society showcases a golden age. Those with money and position seemingly lived an idyllic life, which changed when the Germans invaded Belgium. Beatrice had barely settled into life in Rye when a number of refugees arrived and were billeted around the town, including a young woman who Beatrice takes in.

Very soon after this, the men of Rye, including Hugh, Daniel, one of Beatrice’s Latin students and various friends and neighbours, head off to the war.

There is a lot going on in this story, with possibly too many characters to keep track of. The class system is interesting and so are the community politics, with women constantly jockeying to keep or improve their social positions. The story also highlights women’s role in society, their importance of their reputations, their lack of power over their own finances and other inequalities during this time.

At first the characters in The Summer Before the War felt stiff and awkward, but by the end of the book I was sniffling and weeping over the characters. Like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Summer Before the War is a gentle romance, set in an interesting time and location, with characters who became dear to my heart.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

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Miss S, who is 14, recommended I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. She loved the movie and liked the book.

The narrator is Greg Gaines, who is in his senior year at High School. The narration changes between Greg speaking straight to the reader, using dot points, presenting the story as a film script and occasionally, as essays of life instructions.

Greg’s strategy for surviving High School is to keep a low profile, be friends with everyone on the most superficial level possible, and not be pigeon-holed into belonging to any group. The only exception Greg makes to his friendship rule is with Earl, who he makes films with, and even then, Greg and Earl aren’t really friends.

When Greg’s mother insists he spend time with Rachel, the daughter of a family friend, Greg doesn’t want to. Rachel is dying of cancer. Although Greg resists, his mother forces the issue. Earl also spends time with Rachel and to Greg’s dismay, allows her to watch the films they have made.

Greg is a funny and truthful narrator, although he is in denial over how to handle his own emotions. Greg’s concern over his reputation prevents him from truly becoming friends with Rachel, although she accepts him as he is. She also loves the films he and Earl have made. I’ve heard a phrase that writers use about their ‘ideal readers,’ the person they seek to amuse, or frighten or instruct when they write, and I think Rachel was Greg’s ideal audience, both for his films and for his companionship.

Earl, although he comes from a poverty-stricken, drug-addled, dysfunctional family, has twenty times the compassion and humanity that Greg has.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t a romance. Greg and Rachel don’t fall in love, and there is no happy ending for Rachel. I’m not even sure that Greg grew up emotionally during the telling of the story.

Parts of this are hilarious. Greg’s take on girls, film-making, his family, school and life in general made me laugh out loud throughout the book. The book was educational for me. Miss S didn’t warn me about the swearing or the gross and horrible conversations teenagers have with each other, which might mean that this is how teenagers actually behave. Or maybe not. I can’t remember, I’m too old. The plot was a little light, too, but it was still quite entertaining.

Anyway, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was made into a movie which Miss S loved, so maybe I’ll watch it sometime. I expect Jesse Andrews will continue to write successful books for the Young Adult market too, although I probably won’t read them.

 

 

 

The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

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The Wreckage is the first book I’ve read by Australian writer Michael Robotham, but it probably won’t be the last. This thriller kept me up all night, racing between a series of events in Baghdad and London, which eventually joined together in an exciting conclusion.

“Follow the money,” is the advice journalist Luca Terracini adheres to while working on a story in Baghdad, the most dangerous place on earth. Iraq is a war-zone and foreigners, including Luca’s colleagues, are just as likely to die as locals in shootings, bombings and other commonplace atrocities. Luca, who has already won a Pulitzer Prize, is chasing a story about a series of bank robberies. Enormous amounts of US dollars are regularly being stolen, but no one except Luca is interested in finding out where the money is disappearing to .

In London, a retired detective named Vincent Ruiz is robbed in a scam by a young woman named Holly Knight. Ruiz goes looking for Holly with the intentions of recovering his property. When he finds Holly, he learns that her boyfriend has mysteriously been killed and that someone else with murderous intentions is also looking for her. Ruiz becomes Holly’s protector and very soon is deeply involved in the mystery.

The story features governments with secrets, bank scandals, terrorism, blackmail and a hired assassin known only as The Courier, as well as crooked pawnbrokers and loads of other unsavoury characters. The plot is quite intricate, and I’m not sure I kept up with all of the ins and outs of the story, but it didn’t matter. I just keep racing along, trying my best to keep up.

There was a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, but since I never manage to figure anything out until the author tells me, don’t take my word on this. Regular readers of thrillers might guess at the twist better than I can.

Michael Robotham’s writing style features loads of conversation, which I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed the fast pace and the intricacies of The Wreckage. I would have liked to learn more about one of the character’s ability to know when someone is lying to her, as this seems to me to be a handy skill, (although it could detract from my ability to enjoy a book without wondering if the plot is actually credible).

I will definitely be reading more books in the future by Michael Robotham, at least once I’ve had a bit of a lie-down and caught my breath back.

 

 

Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs

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Ethel & Ernest is the story of the parents of author and illustrator, Raymond Briggs. The subtitle of Ethel & Ernest is, ‘A True Story.’

Ethel & Ernest is a graphic novel. The story starts with Ethel working as a lady’s maid, when she looks out of a window as a cheeky fellow rides past on a bicycle and waves to her. A few days later he comes to the door and asks Ethel out to the movies.

Sometime after, Ethel takes Ernest home to meet her family, and eventually they get married, buy a house and have a baby, Raymond. The story follows the family chronologically through war time and peace, and finishes in the early 1970’s.

Ethel and Ernest disagree over their politics, as Ethel has pretensions of middle class, while Ernest is a socialist. Having the phone connected frightens Ethel and purchasing a fridge and eventually a television are major family milestones. Young Raymond getting into art school is a major disappointment to his parents, who wanted their son to get a “nice job in an office”.

The story of this family’s lives sound horribly bald put into words, but these comic strip characters are so real that I laughed and cried when I read this for the first time ten years ago, and again more recently.

This is a quick read, but a lovely tribute to the author’s parents. I can thoroughly recommend Ethel & Ernest for anyone who feels as if they want to read something simple which will remind them of what it is to be human.

 

 

 

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