Book reviews

Archive for March, 2017

Dolly: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill


The scariest thing about Dolly: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill was not being able to find my bookmark after I finished the book.

This is what happened.

I was reading in bed at night, just like I always do, before I went to sleep. While I was reading, I put my bookmark on the bedside table to the right of my bed. I finished the book, placed it on the bedside table too, turned off the lamp and went to sleep.*

When I woke up the next morning, I looked for my bookmark so I could put it inside the next book I was going to read, but my bookmark was not on the bedside table.

I checked the floor and my bookmark wasn’t there. I looked inside the book I had just finished, (Dolly: A Ghost Story), but it wasn’t there either, even though I thoroughly shook out each page. I shook out the pages of all 23 books in my stash of library books, but it wasn’t inside any of them either. I went back to my bedroom and looked under the bed, I shook out the sheets and the doona, I even looked under my pillow, but my bookmark had disappeared. I am telling you, I looked everywhere.

I went to the kitchen and had breakfast, because by this time, I was starting to run late for work. After eating breakfast, I went to have a shower, and you won’t believe this, but there was my bookmark on the bathroom floor. I have no idea how it got there, and the more I think about this, the scarier I find it.

*Before going to sleep I actually plotted a short story of my own, also called Dolly: A Ghost Story, except that my story was much scarier than the book I had just finished reading. Unfortunately, the book I had just finished was not scary at all. The kindest thing I can say about Dolly: A Ghost Story is that it was short. But enough about that, let’s get back to the plot of the story I made up.

My version of Dolly: A Ghost Story is going to start off with a lovely family, made up of a father, a mother and their small daughter. The family are well off and have a nanny and a housekeeper, leaving the mother with enough time to have fun with her daughter and to feel well-rested enough to be nice to her husband when he comes home from work, which makes them a really happy family.

When it is nearly the little girl’s birthday, her father (who will be played by George Clooney in the movie) decides to have a doll made for his beloved daughter. He keeps the doll a secret from his wife because he loves surprising her as well. (The wife has brownish-grey hair and likes reading, roller-skating and rockabilly, just so you know.)

He collects the doll on the day of his daughter’s birthday and is on his way home when a beggar curses him because he won’t give them any money . He usually would have, but he was on his mobile phone and trying not to drop the doll and he was distracted. Anyway, when the curse is made, inside the box, the doll blinks in a very creepy manner and…. actually,  I won’t tell you the rest now so the suspense builds up a bit more, but let me tell you, my story is very scary. You’ll love it when it comes out at the movies. I’m not sure yet who will play the wife, but if Hollywood really want me to, then I will.




Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin


Do you ever go read something so good that when you attempt to write a review, you think to yourself, who am I to make comment on this author’s work? Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin falls into that category.

Each of the stories in this collection left me feeling completely sated. I found myself finishing each story and then putting the book down to do something else while I mulled over the story I had just read for a while.

The Age of Reason was my favourite story in the collection. The main character is a solitarily-natured criminal who master-minded the theft of a priceless Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ along with some other fine art.


The criminal uses his own brand of reasoning (threats and violence) to make other people behave as he wants them to, although he struggles to convince his own mother not to talk too much about his criminal activities. His character was formed by a stint in a Youth Detention Centre, where violence and erotica became entwined in his psyche, and by his alcoholic mother, who continues to use her son to protect her when her own behaviour isn’t acceptable. While the criminal doesn’t particularly value the stolen Rembrandt portrait as art, he believes that the woman in the painting looks as if she would be difficult to reason with.

A Song is a sad story about a young man who sings in a pub band, whose mother was a famous singer in the 1970’s. The young man hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 20 years, since he was nine years old, when he found himself in a pub where she was singing. They noticed each other and seemingly connected, although they did not speak to each other. The young man left after her song without learning if his mother recognised him or not.

The Name of the Game is another sad story. (Come to think of it, all of the stories in this collection are sad). A widow who found herself left with a failing family business and a hungry family built up the business with the intention of selling it for a better life someplace else, but her decision to sell disappointed her son who had expected to run the business himself someday.

In Famous Blue Raincoat, a teenage boy discovers a pile of old records, amongst them a record by a band which his mother and his dead aunt sang in, long before the boy was born. The band was always on the verge of enormous success, but they never quite made it. The son blindly transfers the records to CDs, telling his mother some of the songs were great and wanting to listen to them with her, without understanding that it breaks his mother’s heart to hear her dead sister’s voice again.

Who would want a Priest in the Family in this day and age? No, me neither, and this story goes exactly where you just thought it would.

The Journey tells of a woman collecting her depressed son from hospital and bringing him back to the family home to care for him. The woman’s husband is recovering from a stroke, and waiting for them at home. I felt depressed reading this story, on behalf of that poor woman.

Three Friends shows that life goes on for the living after a death. After Fergus’ mother dies, his friends come to her funeral and wake, and later collect him for a night out. They go to an all-night rave at an isolated beach, then swim in the morning. While they are swimming, Fergus and one of his friends, Mick, become filled with desire for each other, and the story finishes on the cusp of the two becoming lovers.

A Summer Job is the story of a grandmother who is desperately attached to her favourite grandson. Without going too much into the plot, this story has left me conflicted about the character’s motives, as I can’t decide if the grandson’s behaviour towards his grandmother or his mother stemmed from love or from a sense of duty.

I liked A Long Winter, the longest, and last story in this collection the least. An alcoholic mother disappears in the first snow of winter in the Pyrenees after a fight with her husband over her drinking. The son is grieving for his mother and missing his brother, who has gone to serve in the military for his two years of service. I wanted this story to have a definite end, and it didn’t.

Generally I prefer happier stories, but as I said earlier, who am I to quibble with someone who writes this well?






The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton


Mum suggested ages ago that I should read something by her favourite author, Kate Morton, so as a dutiful daughter (hmm) I read The Lake House. I enjoyed the story, and also enjoyed talking about the book with Mum. The next thing I knew, The Secret Keeper turned up from under Mum and Dad’s Christmas tree for me. When I unwrapped my present, Mum mentioned that she hadn’t read this particular book, so would I please pass it on to her once I finished….

I loved the idyllic setting of The Lake House, which featured a mysteriously abandoned home and a story about the family who lived there a long time ago, and the woman who re-discovers the house. I remember the story as being a comfort read, with a disappointingly predictable twist at the end. (Mum unwillingly agreed that the twist was obvious).

The Secret Keeper also featured an idyllic moved house and past, and the story also moved back and forwards during time, although The Secret Keeper was told across three times during the character’s lives, namely WW2, the early 1960’s and the present. The story starts in the early 1960’s at a country house by a stream, a picnic being enjoyed by a happy family consisting of Mum, Dad, four daughters and a son, when a mysterious male visitor was murdered by Mum using a big knife.

In the present, Dorothy, the mother, is in her nineties and dying in hospital. Dorothy’s children are old too, although still working and successful in their fields. Laurel, who was a witness to the actual murder, decides that the time has come to find out why her mother committed the murder. Since Dorothy is asleep most of the time, and isn’t often coherent when she is awake, Laurel has to start asking questions of people from her mother’s past. She learns that the victim was a neighbour of her mother during wartime in London.

The story flips between Dorothy’s life in London during the war and Laurel’s present as she spends time with her sisters and brother caring for their mother, and trying to solve the mystery of the murder.

I expect I would have enjoyed this story more if I had waited longer in between reading this and The Lake House. I probably won’t read another Kate Morton book for some time, as I found The Secret Keeper too similar to The Lake House and guessed the twist by about half way through the novel. If I’m being really picky, a hard edit would also have seen some of the WW2 stuff disappear from the story without being missed. My biggest whinge was about the physical book itself which was uncomfortable to read because the book was too heavy and difficult to open. A story of this size should have been on a bigger page. My paperback edition was published by Allen & Unwin.

Anyway, I’ve finished the story and have set the book aside to give to Mum. Her birthday is coming up soon and I’m hoping she will see the funny side if I re-wrap The Secret Keeper for her.


The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George


I was captivated by The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George from the very first page, when the main character, Monsieur Jean Perdu is trapped by two of his neighbours gossiping about a new neighbour in their apartment building, whose husband has left her for his mistress. The new neighbour has been left without any furniture, so the two women request a donation on her behalf from Monsieur Perdu. As he owns a bookshop he offers a book, but the women suggest that a table would be more useful.

To give a table to his new neighbour, Monsieur Perdu has to steel himself to go into a locked room inside his own apartment. He has been living in a single room with only the bare essentials for 25 years since his lover left him, and the table is in the locked room, along with a letter from his lover which he has never read. Expecting the usual “Dear John, it’s not you, it’s me,” Monsieur Perdu locked up the letter and his emotions and got on with his bookselling business, where he provides the appropriate book to customers who need therapy of some type or other.

Monsieur Perdu’s bookshop is on a floating barge on the Seine River in Paris, and his speciality is finding the right book for people’s emotional needs. He finds consoling novels for readers who are heartbroken and books about living for those who are afraid of dying, and pushes The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery on to a woman who he believes needs to learn her own worth. I found the idea of there being a perfect book for everyone’s emotional needs to be one of the most charming ideas I have ever come across, and think (hope?) this is true. The only problem is this lovely idea is that the person who matches the ideal book with the reader, Monsieur Jean Perdu, is a fictional character.

The letter from Monsieur Perdu’s lover ends up with Catherine, the woman who he gave his table to, along with a book he prescribes for crying. Catherine and Monsieur Perdu become friends and almost start a romance of their own, but desist because Catherine is still mourning the end of her marriage and Monsieur Perdu the end of his relationship from 25 years ago. Catherine returns the letter to Monsieur Perdu who finally reads it, and learns that Manon, his lover, left him because she was dying.

In grief all over again, and struggling with guilt, Monsieur Perdu decides to travel in his barge down the rivers of France to the South, partly in search of an anonymous author known only as Sanary, who has written a book which is Monsieur Perdu’s literary medicine and partly to visit Manon’s home. A wildly successful young writer from Monsieur Perdu’s building, who is desperate to escape his sudden fame and the fear of writing a second novel accompanies him on the trip. As time passes and they have  adventures along the way, they both become emotionally stronger.

Part of the story is told by Manon, in the form of a diary. She was engaged to another man when she and Monsieur Perdu met, and was open with both men about her relationship with the other. Eventually she married the other man. The letter she wrote was asking Monsieur Perdu to come to her while she was dying.

I couldn’t read the first half of this book comfortably, because I kept stopping to write down books which Monsieur Perdu recommended for certain ailments, or ideas or passages that struck me as if I have lived my life to date without realising essential life lessons. Eventually I settled down and just read and enjoyed, but I might have to go back and read the first half of the book again so I can take in the story properly.

For example, Monsieur Perdu says he has three types of customers who buy books, and the first is me; people who read because books are the “only breath of fresh air in their claustrophobic daily lives.” True, for me anyway. Books are an escape, an opportunity to live as many lives as possible, to be an adventurer, an explorer, to live a seedy, criminal life, to experience romance and travel, and to do ordinary things in other people’s shoes. Saying that my daily life is claustrophobic is probably over-dramatic, but I do enjoy the opportunity to live additional lives.

One of Monsieur Perdu’s customers needed a particular book as “she is in the process of editing herself out of the story, because her husband, her career, her children or her job are consuming her own text.” I suspect most women who have a husband, children and a career will relate to this, at least a little. (I didn’t write down which book is recommended for this ailment, and now I can’t remember. When I’ve finished this weekend’s housework, I’ll check it out, if I’m not too tired….)

Paris and France as a setting for The Little Paris Bookshop were gorgeous. I liked Monsieur Perdu enormously, Manon less so. All of the characters played their roles in the book perfectly. Monsieur Perdu found the answers he had avoided questioning for so long, and I found a book, characters and truths that I loved. Highly recommended for people who are suckers for sentimentality.






The Model Millionaire by Oscar Wilde


Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. I’ve been re-reading Oscar Wilde’s works recently, and decided that a review of his short story, The Model Millionaire, is perfect for today. The Model Millionaire has exactly the type of fairy-tale type plot which most people hope will happen to them, and goodness knows, anything can happen today.

The main character is the delightful and charming Hughie Erskine. He is handsome and kind, not very ambitious or clever, but is liked by everyone. Hughie is in love with Laura Merton, but because they are both poor, they cannot marry. Even Laura’s father, Colonel Merton quite likes Hughie, but as he recognises the couple cannot live on love alone, he tells Hughie to come back when he has ten thousand pounds of his own.

One fine day Hughie drops in to visit an artist friend and finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Hughie feels sorry for the beggar and when the artist momentarily leaves the studio, gives the beggar a sovereign, even though it means that Hughie himself will have to walk everywhere for the next few weeks because he won’t be able to afford a hansom cab.

The ending is pure fairy-tale. The model for the portrait turned out to be one of the richest men in Europe, who had a whim to be painted in the guise of a beggar (I don’t feel as if I am giving anything away here, because the story’s title is so obvious). Hughie is mortified once he finds out.

Every sentence in this story could only have been written by Oscar Wilde. His distinctive charm is evident from the very first sentence, “Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow.” Hughie has a short-lived crack at working on the Stock Exchange, “but what was a butterfly to do among bulls and bears?” Or, the millionaire is so rich that; “He has a house in every capital, dines off gold plate, and can prevent Russia going to war when he chooses.”

If you haven’t read The Model Millionaire, I’ve attached a link below. The story is very short, but it is as delightful and as amusing as anything else Oscar Wilde has written. It will also leave you feeling as if good things happen to people who are blessed with true kindness.


Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks




Year of Wonders is by Geraldine Brooks, who wrote the best-seller March.

March is the story of the father in Little Women while he was away at the Civil War, and it was a shock to my system. I expected Mr March to be good, in the way that Beth and his other ‘Little Women’ were, but instead I learned that Mr March sometimes does the wrong thing. I didn’t enjoy March because it made me feel as if a hero had fallen from his pedestal, although maybe that was the point. I only read Year of Wonders because a friend loaned me her copy. Funnily enough, I’ve loaned my friend Little Women to read before she reads March.

Year of Wonders is the story of Anna Frith, a young widow living in an English farming community in 1666, at a time when plague was decimating the population. After her husband died in a mining accident, Anna took in a boarder from London who unwittingly brought the plague to the area. After her boarder died, plague spread throughout the community, with Anna’s two young sons amongst the earliest victims.

Despite her grief, Anna worked tirelessly beside the minister and his wife as their community rapidly lost numbers to the plague. The minister asked their neighbours to quarantine themselves within the town’s boundaries and most agreed, although the richest family in the district left the area as quickly as they could.

Anna works as a servant to the minister and his wife, Elinor, and during the year had the opportunity to learn and grow from her proximity in particular to Elinor, whose goodness is almost saintly. Anna’s behaviour to me seems almost saintly too, and during the year in which the story takes place, she acts as a midwife, nurses countless plague victims and learns about herbs and their healing powers as she and Elinor attempt to curb the disease in their community. Anna and Elinor also become very dear friends. During this time the minister provides spiritual comfort to the dying, as well as practical help by digging graves.

When Elinor is murdered the minister falls apart emotionally. Anna continues with her work, and also continues to protect the minister, despite learning secrets about his and Elinor’s relationship which cause him to fall from the pedestal Anna had placed him on.

The one thing that I think I will remember about this book for the rest of my life was a female character warning Anna not to get too attached to her babies. This was because so many babies died, not just from the plague, but from all sorts of other diseases which babies in first world countries don’t die from anymore. Heartbreaking.

While I enjoyed the first part of the story and particularly liked Anna and her strength of character, I thought the last part of the book went a little bit off course. I also thought that the twist revealed in the epilogue was too predictable. However, Year of Wonders is a good book and I imagine most people who read it will take something from it, and you can’t say that about every book you read.



Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts


Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts is the second book in The Bride Quartet novels, a series which are perfect for those times when you need a big hit of romance, in particular weddings, gorgeous flowers, indulgent food. Not to mention a group of supportive, funny and like-minded friends, a satisfying and lucrative career where you get to work with said friends, and oh, I nearly forgot to mention the most important component; the perfect man!

I started reading this series on the  recommendation of Sarah from The Aroma of Books, as per the following link.

The Bride Quartet follow the lives and loves of four best friends since childhood, Mac, Parker, Emma and Laurel, who run an enormously successful wedding business together from Parker’s family estate. Parker provides the brains and management, Laurel is the chef, Mac the photographer and Emma, a florist. Each of these women are doing what they love and are happy, satisfied and stimulated in their work. Pure fantasy, but I love it.

Vision in White was first book in the series. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Mac, the group’s photographer, finding love with her high school crush.

The second book is Bed of Roses, which tells the story of Emma, the florist. Emma is the man-magnet of the group, but she has a soft spot for Jack, who used to share a room at college with Parker’s brother. Unfortunately this makes him off-limits, because Emma believes that dating him would ruin the dynamics of their group’s friendship, along with the fact that Emma believes that her friend Mac once dated Jack, as the women have a rule of never dating each other’s exes.

Emma is gorgeous (of course) and not surprisingly, it turns out that Jack also has a thing for her. When he confessed to having loved her from afar for years, I melted. Nora Roberts has a knack of making her heroes say exactly what a female romance reader wants to hear.

The big problem is that Jack was a player before he and Emma started seeing each other, and he still doesn’t want to settle down, but in order for Emma to get her happy ending and become a bride herself, Jack needs to realise that he loves her so much that he will push past this terrible obstacle. I won’t tell you if they manage to get past this difficulty or not, but you probably don’t need to skip to the end to guess.

I smiled the whole time I was reading Bed of Roses, enjoying the romance without having to make any effort myself (do hair and make-up, iron a dress, find where I left my other high-heeled shoe, buy candles, change the sheets etc), although I admit that when things got too steamy between the heroine and her lover, I skipped ahead. (I’m a prude, remember?)

Since I’ve had all the romance I can take for a while, it may be some time before I get to the third book in the series, although I think Laurel secretly likes Parker’s brother, while a new bloke in town seems as if he might annoy Parker a bit before they realise they were made for each other. When I do read this I’ll let you know if my hunch is correct!



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