Book reviews

Archive for October, 2016

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

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Labor Day by Joyce Maynard is a coming of age novel, told by thirteen-year old Henry Wheeler. Henry is a likeable character who suffers from the usual teenager’s worries; dealing with his changing body, a growing interest in sex and being terrible at sports. On top of being a teenager though, his family life is difficult. Henry’s parents are separated, he lives with his depressed mother, Adele, Henry suffers through regular Saturday night dinners with his father, stepmother and their blended family.

Adele is a character who I instantly wanted to protect. She is a bohemian, who was madly in love with Henry’s father before a series of miscarriages destroyed her emotional balance. Henry loves his mother dearly, but is unable to help her regain her happiness and confidence.

The story starts with Adele and Henry visiting the shops to buy Henry school clothes, when a man asked Henry for his assistance. The man, who was bleeding, asked Henry if he would ask his mother if she would take him someplace. Neither Henry nor Adele thought it strange when he suggested he go home with them and do some odd jobs around their house. I would have been screaming for Security at this point, even if the bleeding stranger asking had been a Hollywood movie star in the form of Josh Brolin, but Adele and Henry took him home with them.

Once home, the man, who introduced himself as Frank, explained to Adele and Henry that he had escaped from prison and hurt himself jumping out of a second-story hospital window after having his appendix removed. (I haven’t seen the movie, but suspect there are opportunities for Josh Brolin to take his shirt off because of the appendix wound).

Adele, Henry and Frank go about their day, with Frank taking care of odd jobs around the house until a newsflash comes on the television. Adele and Henry learn that Frank had been serving a twenty-year sentence for the murder of his wife and child. Frank tells them that it didn’t happen the way the television newsflash told his story, but he then ties Adele to a chair, explaining to Henry that he won’t go to the police because he doesn’t want his mother to be harmed.

At no point does the reader ever think Adele will be harmed by Frank, he ties her up in the most gentle, considerate way imaginable, then feeds her while Henry watches. (Sigh. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I believe there is tying up involved. I very much doubt the characters in that novel are fed while tied up, poor things).

Over the next few days, Frank teaches Henry all sorts of practical things, like how to catch a ball and how to make a peach pie, as well as building his confidence during their conversations. Frank continues to do odd jobs which Adele has been unable to manage and most importantly, he makes them into a family.

Labor Day is actually a love story, as well as Henry’s coming of age story. Frank is gentle and kind and sweet and considerate and he has abs and clearly I can’t wait to see this movie to see how his character (and abs) are portrayed. I’ve never seen Josh Brolin in anything, but after reading this story I think I’m a little bit in love with this character, despite him being a convicted murderer. Adele is played by Kate Winslet, and I’ve enjoyed all of the movies I’ve watched her in, so I have high hopes of this movie.

Anyway, while I don’t think that Labor Day is great literature, I really enjoyed it and had a little cry at the appropriate times. There was a sweetness about the main characters that was enormously appealing and I expect to read more books by Joyce Maynard in the future.

 

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Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

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Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo is a big, slow story, and I admit to feeling irritated by the pace for the first third of the book. I felt as if I, and the story, was going nowhere, and taking ages to get there. Eventually, though, I figured it out. I had to slow down and take in the story at the pace the author had determined the story would be told.

Bridge of Sighs begins with Louis Charles Lynch, who has been known as Lucy since his first day of school, writing his memoirs. He starts with his childhood, and I swear, he tells the reader every single thing that ever happened to him.

Lucy’s bumbling, optimistic father is the complete opposite of his quick-witted, shrewd mother, and while he loves both of them, it is his father who Lucy wants to be like when he grows up. Lucy’s father was a milkman, who didn’t see the end of his career coming when a supermarket opened in the neighbourhood. He was a sucker, who bought a convenience store which had formerly only made the owner money because of illegal gambling. Lucy’s mother recognised her husband for a fool, but eventually helped him to manage the business well enough for the family to eke out a living.

As a child, Lucy idolised another boy, Bobby. Bobby remains a central character throughout the whole story even though he and Lucy haven’t seen each other in forty years. Bobby lives in Venice, and when the story starts, Lucy and his wife Sarah are planning a trip to Venice to visit Bobby, who is now a painter. Lucy has mixed feelings about going to Venice, as he has never wanted to leave Thomastown.

Lucy’s whole world has always been with his parents, his uncle, his community, working in his family’s convenience store. When they met as teenagers, Sarah joined Lucy’s and his family’s world too, rather than him becoming part of hers, or even them creating a new friendship group together. Lucy went away to University, but even then, came home every weekend to be with his family in the store and eventually left University when his father became ill.

In the present, Lucy is in his 60’s, and has been happily married to Sarah for forty years. He is content with their life in Thomastown and sees no reason to leave. Along with their son and daughter-in-law, Lucy and Sarah continue to manage the family’s convenience stores.

There are some big issues in the story, including racism, poverty and domestic violence. There are good people and bad people in Lucy’s community, and people who are a little bit of both. The story is told over sixty years and there are plenty of things to think about during the reading of this story.

Some sections of the story felt repetitive, just like life, really. But that doesn’t mean I want to read the same things over and over. I got sick of Lucy’s neediness when it came to Bobby and I don’t think his character grew much, essentially he was the same as an adult as he was as a child. I also felt irritated by Lucy’s obsessive need to tell the reader every detail of every single thing that ever happened, if he considered the event to be meaningful. As it happens, it turns out that Lucy left some pretty big things out of his memoir.

While I enjoyed reading Bridge of Sighs, I’m not sure if I would read another book by this author anytime soon, simply because this story took me so long to get through. At the moment, I’m too busy to slow down enough to enjoy another similarly-paced story, so more books from this author may have to wait until I’m on holidays, or have learned more patience.

 

 

Falling by Jane Green

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I find Jane Green’s novels a bit hit and miss, sometimes I love them, sometimes I don’t. Falling fell into the enjoyable but predictable category. I finished the book in a few hours, and I’m writing this review right away as I probably won’t remember the plot tomorrow.

Falling tells the story of Emma, an English, upper-middle class banker, who recently left her job in New York with a big pay-out, in order to live a simpler life in a small town on the beach. Emma chooses Westernport because she has a single friend living there, but she quickly becomes friends with her hunky next-door neighbour, Domenic.

Domenic is a single father to a six-year old boy. He is also a bartender and a bit of a man about town, however he dumps his regular girlfriend, (apparently they weren’t serious), when he decides Emma might be ‘the one’.

Emma is a loner, who hasn’t had much luck with boyfriends. She falls in love with Domenic and they become a couple, despite their differences and the complications that come with Domenic being a single father.

This plot was all a bit fairy tale-ish, Emma of course is beautiful, Domenic is sexy and handsome, Emma is quite well off financially and so is Domenic, Emma decides to be an interior decorator when she has her sea-change and of course she finds rich clients who love her decorating style about a minute after she arrives in town. Not everything in the story is happy-happy though, Domenic’s six-year old son is a spoiled brat, plus Domenic has a lurking ex-girlfriend, and both Emma’s and Domenic’s parents are difficult.

From the beginning I couldn’t see this romance having a happy ending. I just got the feeling that eventually Domenic would get bored and take up with one of the yummy-mummies he regularly flirted with before Emma came along and she would get hurt. Both characters were lacking in depth and seemed to have become a couple based only on their sexual chemistry. (Hey, I’m not saying that never happens in real life, but unless I’m reading a Mills and Boon romance, I expect a bit more story).

I won’t spoil the surprise of how the story actually does finish, but don’t be surprised if you guess what happens for yourself. Falling is the perfect book for a sleepy read on the couch one afternoon when you can’t be bothered doing anything else.

 

 

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

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After blubbing my way through Love Anthony by Lisa Genova last year, I had a feeling I would also need the tissue box close by when I read Still Alice. I was right. Sniff. Gulp.

Still Alice is the story of Alice, a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard University, who is happily married with grown up children. Alice’s life is terrifyingly busy, as well as teaching, she travels to conferences, serves on exam committees, speaks publicly, has a social life, and finds time to run. She is also incredibly intelligent, to the point where if she was real, her friendships would be limited to people she works with. However, as a character, I liked Alice, felt as if I knew her and felt empathy for her situation.

The first sign for Alice that something is wrong is while guest speaking at Stanford, when a word gets stuck on the tip of her tongue. Then she goes out for a run and gets lost a mile from home, in an area she knows as well as the back of her hand.

Alice seeks medical advice but continues to suffer from what she calls memory disturbances. Her doctor runs a series of tests, and diagnoses her with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice is fifty.

The chapters are broken into months, and document Alice’s memory decline over the next 18 months. Her decline is rapid. She begins with forgetting small things, then big. Sometimes she is completely lucid and at other times, she drives her family mad by asking them the same thing over and over again. Alice works for as long as she is able, but has to give up teaching when her performance starts to impact her students. There are times when she does not recognise her children.

Alice’s family cope with her health changes in ways entirely suited to their personalities. Alice’s husband gets lost in his work, her son goes missing emotionally, one daughter, who is about to become a mother herself takes more and more responsibility for Alice, while her youngest daughter, an actress, is the one who is best able to connect with Alice emotionally as her health deteriorates.

I read Still Alice over a couple of hours. The story educated me about Alzheimer’s disease, which is clearly a terrible, terrible disease, but I also happy to get to know Alice and her family while reading this story. I will probably seek out the movie of the same name soon, no doubt with a tissue box close by again.

 

 

 

The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams

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The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is a Young Adult novel, published this year but set in Melbourne in 1986, when Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road.

There are four main characters in the story; Guy, who is failing Year 12 at school, Rafi, a Columbian girl whose mother has mental-health issues, Luke, an attractive and successful artist who cares more about himself than anyone else, and Penny, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their son.

As I read I became more and more interested in the actual story of the painting, which was of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, a poet and an artist. Picasso is said to have interpreted Dora’s sadness at being unable to have children in his Weeping Woman series of paintings. Picasso treated Dora cruelly, setting her up against his other mistresses and even after she suffered a nervous breakdown, he went out of his way to make her unhappy.

The theft of the Weeping Woman actually took place. The painting was purchased the year before the theft for about 1.5 million dollars, which was the highest price paid at the time by the NGV for an artwork. The painting disappeared one night and a note left saying that the painting had been removed for maintenance, signed by the ACT (Australian Cultural Terrorists). As ACT also stands for the Australian Capital Territory, staff at the NGV didn’t immediately realise the painting had been stolen. The thieves sent ransom notes for the return of the Weeping Woman, demanding an increase in funding for the arts. Eventually the Weeping Woman was found in a locker at the Spencer Street Train Station. The thieves have never been found.

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Guy, Rafi, Luke and Penny all, either wittingly or unwittingly, play a role in the theft of the painting and in its return. Their lives are all changed by the painting and the theft. Apart from Luke and Penny, who have a child together, they begin the story as separate characters whose lives become entwined as the story develops.

Interestingly, Penny’s party trick, which initially attracted Luke to her was something that Dora Maar did when she first met Picasso, quickly stabbing a knife between each of her fingers.

I didn’t become very attached to any of the characters, although I did have more sympathy for the girls, who had a harder lot in life than the boys in the story. The story is quite clever and I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the actual painting and the theft. I also enjoyed that the story was set in Melbourne and the 1980’s references. I suspect teenage girls would particularly enjoy The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex.

 

 

 

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

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The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber has left my head full of strange new ideas. Exactly what I want from a book that took me nearly a week to read.

Several days after finishing reading this story, I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, but I cannot stop thinking about the main characters, their world and what is going to happen to them in the future. The story is science fiction, set in a completely believable alternate reality.

The story follows Peter, an English missionary who takes a job with a mysterious conglomeration who send him for five years to a distant planet to teach the occupants of the planet about the Bible, which the planet’s occupants call ‘The Book of Strange New Things’.

Peter’s wife Bea was not chosen to go on USIC’s mission to Oasis. When they met, Peter was a drug-addict recovering in hospital after an accident and Bea, his nurse. With Bea’s assistance, Peter turned his life around and eventually became the Pastor of their church. He and Bea worked together to help the poor and needy in practical ways, although Bea also continued working as a nurse. Peter recognises how much he needs Bea by his side, but chose to go to Oasis alone anyway.

Once Peter arrives on Oasis, (the planet was named by a girl from America in a competition)after a month-long journey which he slept through, Peter is immediately charmed by the alien surroundings. Days and nights on Oasis last for about three earth-days, the rain dances around the sky and tastes of honey-dew, and the ground is a never-ending stretch of flat, dark brown dirt. The locals, who Peter calls ‘Oasans,’ supply the humans living there with foodstuff they grow.

The humans living on Oasis are similar in that they have few emotional ties to others, either on Oasis or on Earth, are passionate about their work and are reasonably easy-going. They live in a man-made, climate-controlled space next to their airport.

The Oasans are so strange looking to Peter that he is initially unable to tell them apart. He describes the faces of the Oasans, (or what he thinks are their faces) as looking like two unborn foetuses fused together. Over time he gets to know some of the Oasans individually and learns to distinguish them by the colours of their robes and their voices. The Oasans have learned to speak English from a human linguist and have previously learned about the Bible from another Pastor sent by USIC. The Oasans are desperate to learn more from the Bible and have named themselves ‘Jesus Lover One’ and ‘Jesus Lover Two’ etc, although not all of the Oasans are ‘Jesus lovers’.

Peter is able to communicate with Bea on a device called the Shoot which sends letters, but not photos. There is no internet access either, news only comes via letters or a selection of magazines which appear to have been censored. From the very beginning Peter’s letters to Bea are full of the joy he feels from the opportunity to teach Oasans who welcome him with open arms and who are happy and greedy to learn from him.

Bea’s letters to Peter continue to haunt me. She realised she was pregnant not long after Peter left Earth, but Peter was so full of his own experiences that Bea’s news barely registered with him. Bea’s news about what is happening on Earth became more and more difficult to read, as she tells him about terrible natural disasters to do with climate-change and wars and terror and a divide between the rich and the poor which became impossible to overcome. I found these events terribly sad to read about and became more and more frustrated with Peter’s lack of empathy or even acknowledgement of what was happening to Bea and Earth.

The Book of Strange New Things isn’t my usual type of read, but even though the book left me feeling sad and wondering about our future, I’m glad I read this.

 

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

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I read Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte without expecting to like it, because as a teenager, I read and hated Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Bronte’s sisters Charlotte and Emily. I suspect I was too young for these stories when I read them.

So, why did I read Agnes Grey? Vanity. I thought it was time I improved my mind with a higher class of literature than I usually read, and the Bronte’s usually spring to mind when I think about literature. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story of Agnes Grey was a romance.

The story is told by Agnes, a young woman who leaves her family to become a governess. She was brought up in a gentle and loving home, but when her father, a clergyman, loses most of his money in a risky financial venture at the beginning of the story, Agnes recognises that the financial pressure on her parents would be eased if she were to earn her own living. Agnes is also keen to be independent and to see a bit of the world, although she doesn’t phrase her plans to her parents in those exact terms when asking their permission to seek work.

Agnes gained her first position as a governess with a horrible family, and had a fairly rude awakening regarding her value in the household. The adults were selfish, nasty bullies, and so were the children, who were spoiled brats, and possibly psychopaths; here I’m thinking of the little boy, who liked to kill baby birds using several cruel methods. Agnes was unable to govern these brats with kindness and love, but luckily, she got the sack before too long and left this unhappy position.

Agnes’ second position as governess to two teenage girls was better paid than her first, and the family slightly kinder to her than the first, although the older girl, Rosalie, is vain and selfish, and a boy-mad flirt, while the other girl, Matilda, is a rude tomboy. Agnes does her best with the two girls, but honestly, I suspect she was wasting her time with them too.

During her free time, Agnes helps the poor and sick people of the neighbourhood. She also meets the parson, Mr Weston, who is also good and kind, and she falls in love with him. Rosalie recognises that her governess has a high regard for Mr Weston and from sheer maliciousness, decides to charm him herself for the fun of it.

You can read Agnes Grey for yourself to find out if Agnes has her happy ending.

The characters of Agnes and Mr Weston are a bit too good to be true, as they are both kind, considerate, clever, they help the poor and the needy, and are generally far more patient and humble than anyone I’ve ever met. Agnes spent most of her time with her first family telling readers how terrible it was to be a governess, especially one in a family who believe that their children are little angels, but once she moved into her second position, her whinging stopped and the story started.

Anne Bronte’s writing is descriptive without being overly ornate, the story is plain and straightforward, and everything in the book belongs in the story. The conversations very quickly give the reader an idea of each character’s values and morals.

I’m going to have a crack at The Tenant of Wildfell Hall next, and who knows, I may even have another go at reading Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s works again sometime….

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