Monthly Archives: June 2017

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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After Sir Roger Moore’s death, Dad asked me if I had ever read any James Bond novels. He seemed disappointed when I said the only Ian Fleming story I had ever read was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so I bought a copy of Casino Royale.

I read the whole book one Sunday afternoon, sitting outside in the sun. The story is fast-paced and an absolute page-turner. I was surprised to find James Bond’s character to be much more human than the almost superhero-like character he is in the movies.

Casino Royale is during the Cold War and is quite dated, in that all of the men are think only about woman either in terms of how sexually attractive and available they are, or as nuisances who get in the way of the actual business. I am pleased to say that one female character cleverly uses these prejudices to her own advantage.

Most of the characters chain smoke and drink heavily. If they were real people they would smell like ashtrays, with tobacco-stained fingers and tongues, and be loud and slurry and fall over from all of the alcohol they drink. Personally, I wouldn’t trust anyone who drank that much with government secrets or with guns, but since this is fiction the characters dress glamorously, say witty, clever things, gamble enormous amounts of money at the Casino, drive fabulous cars (without smashing them while driving drunk) and physically, are devastatingly attractive.

In Casino Royale James Bond drives a Bentley, but in the James Bond movies, the character drives an Aston Martin. There was so much product placement in this book that it was noticeable while reading, Ian Fleming certainly didn’t leave his readers wondering about what brand of anything James Bond uses. I actually enjoyed all of the descriptions, which gave me a mental picture of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux, which is a fictional seaside resort in France based on real places. I know what Vesper Lynd, (the Bond Girl in this book) looks like and what type of clothes she wears. Most importantly, I know exactly what ingredients go into a Vesper Martini from the instructions James Bond gave to a barman when he ordered a particular drink which was to be “shaken, not stirred.”

There are some nasty torture scenes in the story and as previously noted, Ian Fleming provides a lot of description. I skipped over the parts that made me feel squeamish. However, James Bond escaped, and while he didn’t come out completely unscathed, at least he lived to die another day. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) The story and the torture scenes explain why James Bond went on to save the world from SMERSH baddies in all of the books that followed.

I’m glad I read Casino Royale but probably won’t rush out to read another James Bond novel. I am due for a re-read of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though.

 

 

 

 

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The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe

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My only excuse for reading, (or rather skimming through) The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe is that I’ve recently changed jobs and am taking the train to work again. If I had anything else to read, I would not have read past the first few pages of The Book Club. But I didn’t, and my train trip takes 40 minutes. Each way.

Five women. Book group.

Number One’s husband dies. Unknown to Number One, her husband had been having an affair. Number One sells up, moves and gets a job. Well done, Number One.

Number Two eats too much and is married to a bully. Number Two gathers her self-respect and gives her husband the boot. Well done, Number Two.

Number Three is in her forties when she gets clucky but has old eggs. The pressure is on Number Three’s husband to perform, which strains their marriage. Number Three gets cancer, beats it and says goodbye to her dream of motherhood. Well done, Number Three.

Number Four is hard-working and loyal. Number Four’s husband loses his job, so she mans-up and takes on more work to keep their household afloat. Well done, Number Four.

Number Five is **whispers** gay. And an artist. And has a difficult mother. Number Five is a minor character and I think I must have skimmed over how things worked out for her. But I expect she worked it all out, so well done, Number Five.

Now that you know what happens in The Book Club, if you find yourself on a train with nothing else to read, you can go to sleep. Or make conversation with the funny-smelling weirdo sitting next to you. Or just look out of the window at the graffiti until you arrive at your destination, I’ll leave it completely up to you. Happy travelling.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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I won’t lie, I think a lot of the themes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery went over my head.

I came across this book when a character in The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to another character who was lacking in self-confidence. I was intrigued by the theme in The Little Paris Bookshop that there is a perfect book for every reader’s emotional needs at any time and added quite a few titles to my wish list of books to read. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the first one I’ve found. *

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris. The heroine is Renee, a frumpy, ugly, and crotchety old concierge who hides her superior intelligence and taste from the rich and powerful people who live in her building.

The story is alternately told by Renee and Solange, a 12 year old girl who lives in Renee’s building. Solange is suffering from depression and plans to suicide on her 13th birthday. Solange also hides her intelligence from her family, who she judges as being superficial and unworthy of knowing her true self.

Renee and Solange’s worlds expand when a Japanese man, Monsieur Ozu, moves into their building and befriends them both. He immediately recognises that he and Renee have a great deal in common, as both love Tolstoy and Art. They become instant friends and appear to be ideally suited in their tastes. Renee blossoms with this friendship, and with Monsieur Ozu, expands on her knowledge of Japanese culture, which she adores. She eats Japanese foods, drinks Sake and admires the way he has decorated his apartment. Monsieur Ozu is far too good to be true, but since this is a novel, I was able to suspend my disbelief. I also found it funny that the French characters fetishized about Japan, while the rest of the world feel that way about France.

Solange and Renee also become friends, to both of their benefits. These unexpected friendships show why the character in The Little Paris Bookshop used this book to press the point to the other character that everybody is worthy of being loved.

The language is very formal. The book was written in French and translated into English, and my understanding is that French is quite a formal language. (I only know a few French words and they are all words for nice things to eat). Renee’s character is also a stickler for the use of correct grammar which adds to the formality of the story.

A great many philosophies and big ideas are explored in this book, which attempts to educate the reader in a way which reminded me of the massively popular Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, although The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a more difficult read than Sophie’s World.

I enjoyed the last half of the story much more than the first, because by that time I had become fond of Renee. I didn’t much enjoy Solange or Renee’s philosophical meanderings, although if I were more interested in philosophy these sections might not have felt so heavy-handed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog probably deserves a re-read because I was too tired to appreciate the formal language and the ideas properly on my first read. I’m guilty of skimming over the parts where the characters banged on about philosophy, but think that a slow, careful read would be the best way to approach this story.

*My self-confidence is fine.

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Away by Michael Gow

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Miss S has been studying the play Away by Australian author Michael Gow at school and recently went on a school excursion to the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne to see the play performed.

I took the opportunity to read Miss S’s copy of the play too.

Away is set in Australia in 1967 and starts with the end of year school play being performed, in this case, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The performance ends with the school principal making a very ockerish speech, thanking the local supermarket for supplying cordial at half-time, someone’s mother for making the cakes, and ending with a request for everyone to be careful of the flower beds when they leave the school hall. Later, talking with one of the parents, the principal comments “It’s a pity they weren’t selling something a bit stronger than cordial,” as they would have made a killing. Agreed. School plays, dance recitals and prize-giving ceremonies could all be improved by alcohol. And I don’t drink.

After the play there is a gorgeously awkward scene between Tom and Meg, two teenagers who have gotten to know each other during play rehearsals. Tom is chatting Meg up before they are interrupted by Meg’s parents who are ready to go home. (Isn’t ‘chatting up’ a gorgeous expression? I can remember wearing my bubblegum jeans and blue mascara to a school social and being chatted up by a boy, oh, about 40 years ago now, but the memory makes me very happy still).

Meg’s mother is hard work, whinging about having being unable to see the stage during the play, complaining about her head hurting and carrying on because she still has to pack for the family’s annual holiday when they get home. It is clear that Meg and her father chip in, but Meg’ mother is someone who doesn’t give much credit to anyone else.

Tom and his parents are also going on a camping holiday the next day. Meg’s mother brags that her family are staying in a motel a little bit further up the coast and is rude about Tom’s family staying a tent. When they leave, Tom, who played Puck in the play, curses Meg’s mother and her holiday.

As it turns out, the school principal and his wife are also holidaying on the coast, although they are staying in a resort. He and his wife are grieving their son’s death in Vietnam the year before. His wife is on the edge of madness, bailing strangers up for weird conversations and staring at people in a way that discomposes them.

After a series of storms and other incidents, all of the families end up in the same holiday spot and spend time together. They each have complications or tragedies in their family life to resolve or to come to terms with.

The story is deceptively simple, suitable for teenagers to read and study, but with enough going on in the background to keep teenagers and adults interested. Miss S said she and her group discussed the play and the themes all of the way back to school in the bus, which is a sure sign of this play’s success. I enjoyed reading the play, and would dearly love the opportunity to see it performed.

 

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Inspector Morse Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

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My mother is a massive fan of the Inspector Morse television series and was delighted to hear I was reading Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse Last Bus to Woodstock. Mum visited Oxford while in England some time ago and until now, I thought that had been an ordinary day out, never realising that the Oxford excursion had been meticulously planned to indulge Mum’s penchant for Inspector Morse and his sidekick, Lewis. (As an aside, well done to the organisers of the expedition, who found themselves at the top of Mum’s ‘favourites’ list).

Last Bus to Woodstock is the first novel in the Inspector Morse series and is set in the 1970’s. The story begins with a couple of girls hitch hiking to Woodstock on a summer evening. One of the girls is found murdered later that evening in the car park of a pub.

Hard drinking, middle aged Inspector Morse enters the scene and with the help of Sergeant Lewis, sets about working out exactly what happened to the victim. Everyone from the bus driver, to the girls’ workmates, people in the pub and teaching staff around Oxford are potential suspects. Inspector Morse is clearly the brains of the organisation, but Mum told me that after the death of Inspector Morse (and the actor who played the character), Lewis now has his own television series.

I found Last Bus to Woodstock to be a little dated, with the characters very much of their times. The girls wear mini-skirts and no bras and defer to men in a way that I find laughable, while the men are lords and masters of all they survey. All of the teaching staff at Oxford were having affairs. I felt as if the author really enjoyed writing about the swinging times, much in the way that I like to read about other people’s adventures but not actually have them myself.

Inspector Morse had an eye for a pretty girl too and is surprisingly attractive to women.

The story itself was good. I worked out what had happened slightly before Inspector Morse told all, but didn’t have a clue earlier in the book. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I find myself sitting up on the couch sometime with Mum watching an episode of the Inspector Morse television series with her, as she points out the places she visited in Oxford.

 

 

 

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End of Watch by Stephen King

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I don’t know.

I just wasn’t feeling it with Stephen King’s End of Watch, the last story in the trilogy which started with Mr Mercedes. 

Mr Mercedes was an excellent read, with great characters and a story that kept me turning the pages when I should have been doing other things, such as sleeping, doing housework or going to work. The second book in the set was Finders Keepers, which could have been read as a stand alone novel. Despite being unnecessary to the trilogy, I enjoyed Finders Keepers too.

End of Watch went on another adventure as well as adding onto and tidying up all of the loose ends from Mr Mercedes, but the story just didn’t grab me. I was finding it hard to work out why, because I always enjoy the feeling of familiarity of being in Stephen King’s world for a few days and I’ve become quite fond of the characters in this trilogy. Then I realised that the previous two stories were straight crime novels, but End of Watch had some supernatural elements which one of the characters developed as the story went on.

This seems to me to be a cheat. A crime novel should be a crime novel. Same for a supernatural novel. If you’re reading this, Stephen King, don’t add a different element at the end of a three-book story and expect me to like it. This is comparable to reading about a fantastic adventure which ends with the line, “and then I woke up,” which everyone knows is not playing fair.

However, despite my disappointment with the twist in End of Watch, Stephen King is still one of my favourite authors and I’ll be lining up for his next creation, along with his other Constant Readers.

 

 

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All the Sad Young Men by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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All the Sad Young Men is a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of which were new to me.

The collection starts with The Rich Boy, which tells the story of an exceedingly rich young man with commitment issues (as we would say now). Sadly for him, this young man felt himself unable to love any of the various women who loved him due to a sense of his own superiority, and by the age of thirty, felt as if he had missed his opportunity for happiness in the form of marriage.

I’m more than a bit cynical about the plot of The Rich Boy, even though the quality of the actual writing puts this author up with the ‘greats.’ One of the other characters ought to have told this precious fellow to get over himself.

Winter Dreams was a sadder story. A poor young man made something of himself, then fell in love with an ‘It Girl.’ The ‘It Girl’ dangled the young man on a string for her own amusement until she fell in love with someone else, got married and turned into a sad frump and of course the poor young man thought he would never get over the disappointment. Again, I felt as if someone should have advised this character to give himself ten years, by which time he would probably have forgotten the girl’s name. Perhaps I would have felt more sympathetic to this character’s troubles when I was young and romantic myself, but that is such a long time ago now….

My favourite story in the collection was Rags Martin and the Pr-nce of W-les. This story has the most glamorous heroine of all time in Rags Martin, who is everything any woman could want to be, except for feeling bored with people falling in love with her. Rags is rich, clever and charismatic. When she returned to the USA after five years in Europe she pushed an old flame into the Hudson River when he annoyed her by trying to command her attention, but there is more to this old flame than immediately apparent. If anyone is interested, you can read the story here;

http://www.gutenberg.net.au/fsf/RAGS-MARTIN-JONES.html

There are a number of stories in this collection about young men who are desperate to get ahead in the world. Hot and Cold Blood is the story of a man who discovers he must be true to his own nature in order to be happy. I don’t know why this theme isn’t used more often in fiction as it seems truer than many other things authors write about.

Absolution is supposedly a forerunner to The Great Gatsby, and features a boy who realises that God is not all-seeing. The Baby Party tells the story of a group of badly behaved new parents who discover that their children mean more to them than anything else ever will again.

All of the stories in this collection are set in the Jazz Age, a time which appears to be almost unbelievably glamourous. The joys and tragedies seem greater to these characters than anyone had ever felt before, and life for these characters is all or nothing. Probably this is true of every age, but F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses the urgency of young men who are desperate to experience life better that most authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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