Book reviews

Archive for December, 2016

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka


After reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, I have the urge to write my memoirs; A Short History of Tractors on My Father’s Farm.

My story starts with something that happened before I was born. My brother, aged less than two, apparently announced to Mum and Dad one morning at the breakfast table that he was “just taking the tractor down the paddock, Dad.” Dad said, “Righto,” and no doubt, he and Mum exchanged a look expressing parental pride in their toddler. The next thing Mum and Dad heard was the tractor start up. Dad said he got out to the shed in about two seconds flat and never left the keys in the ignition ever again. *


At the age of six I remember jumping off the front wheel of an broken-down old Fordson tractor and landing on a port bottle (I think the tractor, the bottle and other rubbish had been left in the paddock by the former owners of the farm and never cleared up). My leg was cut near my knee and I was disappointed when Dad wrapped my leg up with an old rag (I wanted a Band-Aid). Turns out, I probably should have had stitches, as forty-plus years later, the scar is still about three inches long.


My next tractor story is about riding on the step of another tractor in the paddock while Dad drove. A very dangerous practise, which most farm kids from my generation would have enjoyed on many occasions. Riding in the bucket attachment on the front of the tractor with a group of friends was a real treat. I don’t think people let their children do stuff like that anymore, but we all survived. Sadly, loads of children on farms still die in accidents which should never happen.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a funny story, told in series of paragraphs which are each little stories of their own. The story is told by Nadezhda, whose widowed 84 year-old Pappa fell in love with Valentina, a grasping, busty bombshell who is less than half Pappa’s age. Valentina wants British residency and a rich man to keep her.

Nadezhda and her sister Vera are always at odds, but on this they stand united. Against their wishes, Pappa married Valentina, who up until their marriage, allowed him to fondle her superior breasts (yes, really…)

Nadezhda and Vera are outraged that Pappa is spending all of the money that their recently dead mother scrimped and saved all of her life for, buying broken down old Rolls Royces and brown cookers to impress his new wife, but a small part of Nadezhda is grateful that Valentina will look after Pappa in his old age.

However, Valentina is a volatile character and before too long she starts to verbally and physically abuse Pappa as she becomes less enraptured with him and his pension. Even though there is nobody so silly as an old man in love with a young thing, I felt sorry for Pappa.

The story itself is predictable, but the characters are wonderful and the story-telling, which is mostly told through the character’s conversations, is excellent. Pappa is hilarious and so is Valentina. Their squabbles are legendary and while they make my family look normal, I can see bits of nearly everyone I know in these characters.

Eventually Nadezhda and Vera mend their differences and Pappa finishes his book about the history of tractors in Ukrainian. I’m sure I’ll read something else by Marina Lewycka eventually.

*The pictures of tractors are not actually Dad’s tractors, but were similar.



The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak


You may remember my recent ungrateful whinging after being loaned a pile of books which I didn’t like the look of, but felt obligated to read. Well, The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak was in this pile, and it more than made up for my disappointment in the other choices.*

The Architect’s Apprentice is set in Istanbul in the 1600s and follows the life of Jahan, who at the age of 12 finds himself alone in the world pretending to be an elephant-keeper to Chota, a white elephant gifted to Sultan Suleimaniye. Many of the characters in the book actually existed, including the Sultan and another main character, Mimar Sinan. The following picture is the actual Sultan. I cannot imagine what is under that hat.


The Architect’s Apprentice isn’t one big story that starts with a problem, builds up to some big event or other, resolves and then ends. Instead it is a series of stories from Jahan’s life, some little and some big, which are put together to tell the whole story of his life. The story wanders here and there and although in the beginning I kept waiting for something to happen, eventually I realised it probably wouldn’t and settled into the style a little better.

Jahan and Chota travel through life together and their stories are entwined throughout the book. As a teenager, Jahan falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah when they meet by accident. Jahan tells the Princess stories about his childhood and his adventures to date, and of course, about Chota. She appears to feel affection for Jahan too, although the difference in their status is such that this hint of romance is all there is for Jahan. The story of Chota’s brief liaison  with a female elephant is also told, and more happily for Chota, his partner becomes pregnant.

Jahan and Chota go to war with the Sultan. Jahan finds the violence and fear sickening and the knowledge he has taught Chota to kill makes him unhappier than almost anything else in the entire story.

Jahan lives a blessed life in many ways. He is rescued time and time again from trouble by a gypsy, Balaban, who appears whenever he is needed. Jahan is also fortunate enough to become one of four apprentices to Mimar Sinan, the empire’s chief architect at a time when the Ottoman Empire were building great

Sinan is a wonderful character who shares his knowledge and his love of architecture and building with his apprentices, who vie for his favour throughout the story. During the course of Jihan’s apprenticeship he has the opportunity to visit Rome to see St Peters being built. He also meets Michelangelo. Later in life Jahan visits India, where he watches the building of the Taj Mahal.

My favourite line from the book is from Sinan, who said, “If not put to use, iron rusts, woodwork crumbles, man errs.” Sinan, pictured below, was the architect responsible for the Suleiman Mosque. He lived to be nearly 100 years of age, and was worked his whole life.


The artwork on the cover is exotically beautiful, and the gold catches the light when the book is moved. It is a fitting cover for a lovely story. I would definitely read another book by Elif Shafak.

*I think my resentment on having been loaned a pile of books stems mostly from losing my power to choose my own reading matter, even for a short time.

The Great Christmas Knit-Off by Alexandra Brown


The Great Christmas Knit-Off by Alexandra Brown is the perfect book to read coming into the holiday season, when you are tired out from working, cooking Christmas puddings, cakes, shortbread, coconut ice and the like, staying out too late at Christmas parties, thinking of, shopping for and wrapping Christmas presents, and doing your best to avoid putting up the Christmas tree. (I’m not saying I don’t enjoy all of the above, I’m just a bit tired…)

The Great Christmas Knit-Off meets most of the criteria required to relax during these hectic times.

Christmas time? Tick.

Recently single heroine, who has lovely red curly hair? Tick.

Wonderful friends who come to the rescue of those in need? Tick.

A charming village, with a pub called the Duck and Puddle, a village green, quaint shops and a close community? Tick.

Knitting and other crafty things? Tick.*

A new friend who is a fairy god-mother type character, specifically, a gay hairdresser? Big Tick.

Another new friend in the form of a burlesque dancer, who just so happens to own a vintage/retro clothing shop in the village, who lends the heroine great clothes? Big, Big Tick.

An opportunity for the heroine to help someone who desperately needs assistance? Tick.

A love interest for the heroine, named…. wait for it…. Dr Ben DARCY (I kid you not!)? Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick!

Large print? Tick.

All in all, I enjoyed The Great Christmas Knit-Off and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an escape from reality the week before Christmas.

*I’m not crafty and would have preferred a food theme (baked items spring to mind), but I’m not complaining. Reading about people who love knitting was sort of sweet and old-fashioned.





Reckoning: a memoir by Magda Szubanski


Magda Szubanski is one of my favourite Australian comedians. She was ‘Michelle’ in Michelle and Ferret (go on, Google a skit on YouTube, you know you want to), played Pixie Anne Wheatley, Chenille, and Joan Kirner in Fast Forward, which was the most popular comedy television show in Australia in its day. Magda played Mrs Hoggett in Babe, and topped that off as Sharon in Kath & Kim. It turns out she can write, too. I read Reckoning: a memoir from start to finish without stopping.

Reckoning is Magda’s story, interwoven with the story of her family and particularly that of her father, who was an assassin in Poland during World War 2. After the war he went to Scotland, where he met Magda’s mother. They married, had three children, of which Magda was the baby, and moved to Melbourne, Australia during the 1960s.

Magda tells her family’s story with enormous respect, pride and affection. It sounds as if her aptitude for comedy came from her mother, who I would have liked to have read more about, but her father’s story is stronger. She also identifies more with her Polish heritage than her Scottish side, and seems to have craved her father’s approval more than anything else. Happily, it sounds as if Magda had that, and also knew she was loved and respected by her parents too.

The family and personal stories are told very honestly. The family stories from Poland during the war are quite traumatic, and on Magda’s visits to her extended family it is clear that she and her Polish relatives continue to live with sadness and survivor’s guilt from the events of that time. Magda doesn’t hide any of her own difficulties either, such as wondering where she fits into in the world, dropping out of university, her sexuality and most of all, seeking approval from her wonderful but alpha-male type father.

My favourite part of the story was Magda’s entry into comedy. Her realisation that she needed to write her own material if she was going to get airtime was interesting and the never-before heard stories about the shows she worked on were filled with funny stories about people who I have been watching on television for years. I didn’t watch D Generation, but can see I’ll have to rectify that. Since reading the book I’ve watched some old clips of Michelle and Ferret from Fast Forward… which still make me laugh.

Magda is hilarious in Kath & Kim too, where she plays Sharon, Kim’s second-best friend. My only regret from the book is not hearing more about pashing Shane Warne, when he appeared on the show as Sharon’s boyfriend. The pash-rash on those episodes were spectacular.

I think what makes the best performers so successful is that they don’t leave anything on the table, and as a comedian, that is exactly what Magda does. Reckoning is a successful memoir for the same reason because she has let so much of herself be shown while telling her story. I can’t imagine Magda ever being anyone’s second-best friend… she is much more likely to be everyone’s favourite.



Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli


I’m going to sound really, really ungrateful here, but I need to vent. Don’t you hate it when someone discovers you like to read and then insists on lending you a stack of books, and you can just tell by the covers that you are not into the same type of books. One of the books I’ve been lent in this instance is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and believe me, I’ve hated everything I’ve read by her.

So I’ve looked at the pile of books I was loaned and chosen Daughter of Venice, a young adult novel by Donna Jo Napoli as the best of a bad bunch, and started reading in the hopes of being happily surprised.

But no.

First person, present tense.

I sighed and kept reading. I really like the person who lent me these books.

Anyway, Daughter of Venice. The story is set in 1592, and told by Donata Mocenigo, a 14-year old girl from a noble family in Venice. Donata, along with her sisters, is uneducated and sheltered, however Donata wants more, so she dresses as a boy and escapes the family home to see a bit of her home town.

I won’t continue with the plot, which actually sounds better put in a few bald words than it reads when you are reading the story, but will tell you instead what I did enjoy about this book.

For instance, did you know that in noble Venetian families of that time, only one boy married and had children, so as to keep the family wealth intact? Other boys in the family went into business, or were educated, or went into the church, according to their inclinations and how they could best serve the family. Same with the girls, one married, one stayed a spinster aunt to help the brother who married with his children, and the remaining girls became nuns.

I liked that Daughter of Venice wasn’t a romance, but instead provided a valuable life lesson – sometimes you don’t get what you want. I also liked that another life lesson is that if you persist, you will sometimes get other things you want, for example, in Donata’s case, she wanted and eventually was allowed to receive an education.

I won’t go out of my way to read another Young Adult book by this author, but would consider reading a novel aimed at adults.

Next time someone tries to unload a heap of books on me I’ll tell the truth and say I’ve got so many I haven’t read that my husband has said he will divorce me if I bring any more home, thank you anyway.



The Grownup by Gillian Flynn


The Grownup is a short story by Gillian Flynn, who wrote the wildly successful Gone Girl.

The first sentence of The Grownup shocked me. The narrator provides soft porn services, and she doesn’t keep any secrets from readers about the practicalities of her job, let alone her thoughts, or her morals. Due to an RSI-type injury (don’t ask) she also works as a psychic. Funnily enough, both businesses operate out of the same building and are owned by the one person.

Anyway, while working in the psychic side of the business, the narrator takes a job with a woman who has a troubled step-son and a haunted house. The narrator tells the woman that her library is particularly haunted, and requires extra attention, then locks herself in the library for 12 spirit-cleansing visits and reads to the tune of $2000. Nice work if you can get it.

The Grownup is a very short read, but is full of shocks, surprises and helpful life advice. For example, the boss tells would-be psychics;”Just tell them what they want to hear.” I enjoyed reading this piece of advice.

Fans of Gillian Flynn will enjoy this story, and probably won’t be shocked if they have already read Gone Girl, as they will already know that this author will give them a twist they won’t see coming, and then leave them confused about what they thought they knew. Not to mention being better educated about the seedier side of life.



The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


Hmmm. I’m not sure about Emma Donoghue’s stories. I was unable to put down Room, but found Frog Music to be irritating, and I didn’t finish Life Mask as I got bored with the story. The Wonder was intriguing, but there is always a streak of nastiness in this author’s stories.

‘The Wonder’ is an 11-year old Irish girl named Anna, who has supposedly not eaten for months, and is instead said to be sustained by ‘manna from heaven’. Lib, a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, along with a nun, have been engaged by a local Catholic committee to provide a constant watch on Anna, to determine the truth about her eating habits. Anna’s family and many of the locals are deeply religious and they, along with visitors who make a pilgrimage to Anna’s home, believe she is a saint in the making.

Lib is not religious, believing in science instead. She suspects Anna is being fed secretly by someone but is unable to work out who by, and how they are managing this. Lib comes to care for Anna and suspects that the girl is being manipulated by others either for financial gain or to ‘create’ a saint, and she becomes increasingly afraid that Anna will starve to death during the watch.

The story is well written and I could not have stopped reading without finding out how the story ended, but the nastiness that is always somewhere in an Emma Donoghue story has coloured my enjoyment of the book. I liked the characters of Lib, Anna and a journalist who sniffs around looking for the true story, but I found the religious zeal of the remaining characters to be so over the top that I could not like them. The local doctor was a particularly poor example of a person, as were other characters who should have protected Anna.

I admit to liking books which leave me feeling happy and uplifted more than those that portray misery, but will no doubt continue reading Emma Donoghue’s stories, which admittedly leave me with slivers of hope that no matter what, things might turn out to be okay.

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