Book reviews

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is by Australian author Melina Marchetta, who wrote Looking for Alibrandi. Honey-Bunny studied (and loved) Looking for Alibrandi in High School.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil follows Chief Inspector Bish Ortley’s unofficial investigation into the bombing of a school holiday tour bus in France where a number of children were hurt and killed. Bish’s teenage daughter Bee was on the bus and was miraculously unharmed.

Although Bish was on suspension from work after sticking a gun down the throat of a colleague who annoyed him, he was pushed to continue his investigations by the British Home Office after it became known that one of the teenagers on the bus was Violette LeBrac. Violette was the granddaughter of notorious suicide bomber Louis Saraf who killed dozens of people in an attack on a London supermarket. Violette’s mother, Noor LeBrac is serving a life sentence in jail for her role in the supermarket bombing, and Violette’s father is dead, having suicided when Violette was four.

Bish’s connection with Violette and her mother, was that he was the officer who took four-year old Violette from her mother when she went to jail. Violette was raised by her Australian grandparents but snuck off to Europe without their knowledge to tour Normandy. Bish has to gain the trust of Noor to find Violette and another boy who was on the bus, Eddie, after they go on the run after the bombing.

Bish is facing his own demons. He and his wife divorced after their son died and his wife is now married and pregnant to their son’s school principal. Bish drinks too much and has abandonment issues with his own mother, who gracefully swans in and out of the story.

None of the relationships in this book are straightforward, although the characters have a lot in common and their lives are woven together in more ways than I could have imagined.

There were so many mysteries in this book. Why was the bus bombed? Why was Noor, an intelligent, beautiful woman, involved in her father’s madness in bombing the supermarket thirteen years ago? Was Violette the present-day bomb’s target or was she the bomber? What was Violette’s relationship with Eddie? Indeed, what was Violette’s relationship with Bish’s daughter, Bee, or any number of other characters?

Race and religion and as a result, racism, is a key element of this story. The most important characters tell their family stories to each other in a way that made my heart hurt.

The love the characters had for each other despite their difficulties were at times overwhelming (especially for someone who sometimes cries when she is reading on the train). I also laughed out loud once or twice watching the teenager characters communicate using social media under the noses of the adults, and felt like an old fogey as I realised I would have had no idea what was going on either.

A small criticism was that there are so many characters and their relationships so complicated that occasionally I lost track of how they all fit in to the story.

Otherwise, I loved Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil.

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Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

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Miss S says she was ‘forced’ to study the novella Montana 1948 by Larry Watson this year at school and was surprised when I ‘chose’ to read her copy. Later, Miss S and I discussed the story and I was impressed by her insights into and understanding of the plot, characters, time and place.

Honey-Bunny was also ‘forced’ to read Montana 1948 when she was in High School. I read this book then, too, for similar reasons…

Montana 1948 is told by twelve-year old David Hayden, who is the son of Sheriff Wesley Hayden of Bentrock, nephew of war-hero Doctor Frank Hayden, and grandson of the richest and most powerful rancher in Mercer County. David’s mother Gail and his Aunt Gloria, Frank’s wife, are the most beautiful women in Bentrock.

David is an only child. He and his friends ride horses, swim, fish and hunt, although David admits to feeling his greatest contentment when he was on his own, outside of town, and left just to ‘be’. David’s home is happy and peaceful. The family housekeeper and David’s babysitter is Marie Little Soldier, a Sioux woman, and David loves her as much as he does his parents.

The story begins when Marie becomes ill and against her wishes, David’s parents ask Frank to pay her a visit. They put Marie’s refusal to see him down to Indian superstitions and insist on her being checked by Frank, but when they insist, Marie insists on Gail being present during the examination. Later, Gail tells Frank that Marie told her that Frank is known for sexually abusing the women he treats on the reservations.

David describes his father as having low regard for Indians and that his opinion was the usual for a white man in Montana at that time. Sheriff Hayden treated Indians with “generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being)” but he also believed most Indians were “ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible.” As an Australian, I can see why this book was chosen for our children to study…

Regardless of Sheriff Hayden’s prejudices, he and David’s mother begin an investigation and soon find that Marie’s claims are true. Soon after, Marie is found dead and the Sheriff finds himself in the difficult position of having to arrest his brother for Marie’s murder, a decision which is not supported by his father or mother. Frank is locked in the family basement while an arraignment in another town is being arranged.

This story has similarities with To Kill a Mockingbird, racism, family, moral dilemmas, love, strength of character and growth in a coming of age story.

I remember being ‘forced’ to study Animal Farm by George Orwell and Lord of the Flies by William Golding in school. I disliked both at the time, but all these years later I still think about the questions raised by both stories, which is how I judge a ‘good’ book. I’m sure Miss S and her classmates will remember Montana 1948 for the same reasons when they are older.

A little story from when He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and I were first going out. He asked me to the movies to see Of Mice and Men because he’d read and enjoyed the book by John Steinbeck, which convinced me that HWEAoOL was a keeper. Later, when I was well and truly hooked, HWEAoOL told me Of Mice and Men was the only book he’d ever read and that was only because he had been ‘forced’ to in school. Swallowing my disappointment, I realised that if you were only going to read one book in your lifetime, it might as well be a good one.

 

Frozen Assets by P.G. Wodehouse

 

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Frozen Assets by P.G. Wodehouse has the usual group of characters associated with this author’s works; chaps with hearts of gold but a tendency to punch policeman, pretty, clever girls who are there to be fallen in love with, rich godfathers, morally dubious tycoons, and of course, a Private Investigator or two. In Wodehouse’s familiar and distinctive slang, these characters are either cheery beans, misguided young cuckoos, or Dutch uncles and aunts, who are avoided in case they earbash the younger generation about How They Should be Living their Lives.

Frozen Assets starts with Jerry Shoesmith losing his wallet and keys in Paris. French bureaucracy is no laughing matter (!), so it is with enormous difficulty that Jerry is able to report his lost possessions to a policeman with a suet-like face, only for the policeman to reveal that Jerry’s things are in his drawer but that Jerry needs to return in three days time to collect them. This reveal was my first laugh out loud moment in the book.

On leaving the police station Jerry bumps into Kay Christopher, and falls instantly in love.

Unfortunately, Kay is already engaged to a cold fish, but Jerry is friendly with Kay’s brother Biff, who encourages him to have a crack at breaking up Kay’s engagement.

Biff has just learned that his godfather died and left him an enormous amount of money, which Biff is to inherit on his thirtieth birthday, so long as he doesn’t get arrested in between now and then. For most people this wouldn’t be an issue, but Biff’s main hobby is getting drunk and punching policeman. If Biff gets arrested, the loot goes to Lord Tilbury, who is already rich but who would like some more…

Kay and Jerry team up to try and keep Biff out of trouble, which leads to a ridiculously funny ‘trouser’ scene which has to be read for yourself. I think this scene would be even funnier in a movie.

While I enjoyed this story which was written and set in the 1960’s, I prefer Wodehouse’s stories with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Aunts and club members, rather than the later settings. Frozen Assets is a stand-alone story though and loads of fun.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

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I like Herman Koch’s novels, but I don’t want to meet any of his characters in a dark alley or even on a sunny day on the beach. The Dinner has stuck in my head because of the unsettling characters. The behaviour of the characters from Summer House with Swimming Pool also left me feeling uneasy.

House with a Swimming Pool is narrated by Doctor Marc Schlosser, who on the face of things is a devoted family man, husband and father. Marc is a doctor with a successful practice and is often invited to star-studded movie premieres, plays and concerts by his famous patients. Underneath his capable appearance though, Marc is squeamish, and doesn’t really like people or their bodies.

The story starts with Marc being charged for malpractice after Ralph Meier, a famous Dutch actor, dies. The rest of the story tells us how and why Marc found himself in this position.

Before Ralph’s death, Marc, his wife and two daughters (one 14 and the other 12), went camping near Ralph’s summer holiday house and when they met at the beach, were invited to pitch their tent in Ralph’s yard. Marc, who engineered the meeting, accepted because he intended to have an affair with Ralph’s wife.

Of course, things went horribly wrong on the holiday and become worse and worse for Marc and his family, but also for Ralph, his family and other houseguests for reasons which I did not see coming. This was possibly because I was too busy feeling squeamish myself after reading a horribly graphic account of an eye infection that Marc suffered. The pus, treatment and general yuckiness was described in such detail that I could only just manage to read this section of the story. Marc regularly tells (in loads of detail) about bodily functions and illnesses which disgust him, all of which add to the uneasy feeling of the story.

I cannot imagine why Marc ever became a doctor, but am grateful Herman Koch became an author, even if he is one I would cross the street to avoid. He writes about psychopaths and people with skewed morals and values so well that I’m more than a little frightened of him too.

 

 

 

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

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Stephen Orr, where have you been hiding? Somewhere in Adelaide, I’m guessing, due to the distinctly South Australian flavour of the short stories that make up Datsunland. Many thanks to Whispering Gums for bringing this book to my attention.

Stephen Orr, Datsunland (#BookReview)

The following stories were my favourites;

Dr Singh’s Despair. This story is a ripper. The title character, Dr Singh, came to Australia to work as a doctor in Coober Pedy, an outback town in South Australia, with the intention of bringing his wife and son to Australia once he settled in. (Australia has a shortage of doctors in remote and rural areas, so the Australian government offer overseas doctors working visas to fill the vacancies). What Dr Singh didn’t know in advance was that Coober Pedy was no place for him (or for any civilised person, you would think after reading this story). After a traumatic (and hilarious) three days in Coober Pedy, Dr Singh writes to the South Australian Health Commission to tell them he has returned to India and to stick their job up their jumper.

The Shot Put is a tragic account of an elderly couple in a remote farming area who are doing it tough. Their dearly loved son Tom went missing during World War 1 at Fromelles and never returned, and is presumed to be a coward. After the war the Department of Defence advise they intend publishing the Coward’s List and naming the deserters, self-mutilators and cowards, causing Tom’s parents to try to have his name removed from the list.

The One-Eyed Merchant is the story of a young boy working as riveter in a ship-building yard. I felt a physical jolt when the ending of this story was revealed.

The Adult World Opera was for me the stand-out story in the collection. I suspect the story of six-year old Jay Foster, who is neglected and mistreated by his weak mother and her no-good boyfriend will haunt me for some time to come. The author didn’t spell out how things worked out for Jay, but I felt uneasy and sad for Jay and other children in similar homes as I read this story.

Datsunland is the longest story in the collection and tells of the friendship between teenage Charlie and his music teacher at Lindisfarne College, William Dutton. Charlie’s musical talent comes to the fore as William introduces him to the blues and punk rock, but Charlie is not always ready for the experiences he seeks out. Datsunland itself is the used-car lot where Charlie’s father struggles to make a living selling cheap second-hand cars. Although I had the feeling that William had already settled for a similar numb life to Charlie’s father, there was still hope for Charlie to live a fuller life.

There is a strong religious flavour through this collection of stories. The stories are all about men and boys, many of whom are Catholic. Quite a few of the stories refer to or have characters with links to Lindisfarne College, an elite school where the boys are taught by the Christian Brothers. There are religious zealots and mad priests everywhere you look in these stories.

I liked Stephen Orr’s plain writing style, which led me clearly through a variety of emotions, from laughing at (and with) poor Dr Singh’s failure to see the funny side of things in Australia (!), to feeling horror, sympathy, pity and joy. The stories have a very Australian feel about them, but as a Victorian, the stories also felt ‘South Australian,’ which I enjoyed. I’ve been told by friends who live in SA that there is a rivalry between the Crow-Eaters and the Vics, but as a Vic, I’ve never heard of it. Possibly Goliath hadn’t heard of David before the big fight either.

I’m looking forward to working my way through this new-to-me author’s works soon.

 

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

 

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Howard’s End by E.M. Forster is overrun with characters who have clever thoughts and conversation about Nature, Literature, Art and other Capitalised Ideals, although these intellectually blessed characters were generally short of common sense, to the detriment of themselves and other characters whose more ordinary thoughts were more in keeping with my own.

I read Where Angels Fear to Tread by this author and enjoyed the writing style and the story, but did not like the characters any better than those in Howard’s End.

Howard’s End follows the lives of the Schlegel and the Wilcox families who meet while travelling on the Continent (I guess there is no need to say when this story is set after using the term “travelling on the Continent”). Sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel have a large enough income to indulge in Clever Thoughts, but they are fascinated by the self-made, buttoned-up Wilcox clan to the point where Helen entered into a hasty and soon regretted engagement with the younger Wilcox son.

The engagement ends as quickly as it begun and the two families would not have met again except that the Wilcox’s took a house in London across the road from the Schlegel’s. Mrs Wilcox and Margaret form a friendship and when Mrs Wilcox dies suddenly, the Wilcox family were angry to learn she left her family home, Howard’s End, on a whim to Margaret. As Mrs Wilcox’s wish was not formalised in a will, the Wilcox’s did not action the wish and Margaret herself was unaware of the bequest.

A few years after Mrs Wilcox’s death Mr Wilcox began courting Margaret, who agreed to marry him for reasons I found difficult to understand. Personally, I would have been put off by his horrible cigar breath during the first kiss, but Margaret professes to Understand and Respect who Mr Wilcox is as a Man. Mr Wilcox’s children, however, were unhappy with their father’s choice of Margaret.

Margaret’s younger sister Helen was the type to interfere and cause trouble wherever she went, most significantly when she and Margaret became involved in the life of Leonard Bast, a poor clerk they met by accident at a concert and took an interest in. Leonard’s common-law wife Jacky had an unexpected connection with the Wilcox family too.

The differences between the three families seemed insurmountable to me for them to have been connected socially, but these differences in their outlooks were the whole point of the novel. The different standards for men and women, the extreme divide between the rich and the poor, the stiff English nature of the Wilcox’s compared to the expressive, romantic nature of the half-German Schlegel’s, even the differences between the love of the city and the country. “Only connect” is the most well-known quote from this novel.

My irritation with the characters, who mostly had unlikeable natures (excluding Mrs Wilcox and Margaret), meant that I struggled to like this story. The Schlegel’s Big Ideas drove me mad, while the Wilcox’s weren’t my type either. Funnily enough, I think I related best to poor Leonard Bast, whose only aim was to improve himself culturally.

Regardless of my general dislike of the characters, I can Respect and Admire the Beauty of the Writing. The story is also fascinating in that Mr Wilcox believes a war with Germany is coming (Howard’s End was written several years before World War One broke out). The author delighted me by suggesting in Howard’s End that in 100 years, it would be unthinkable for a woman not to work. Woohoo!

 

 

The Next Always by Nora Roberts

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When I feel like a big hit of romance, I turn to Nora Roberts. I started on The Bride Quartet ages ago but couldn’t find the third book in the series when I went to the library last week, so I chose The Next Always, Book 1 of the Inn Boonsboro Trilogy to provide me with a romantic setting, a hunky bloke, a gorgeous heroine and a friendly, welcoming community. I probably should also have checked that my library had books 2 and 3 of the series, but if they don’t, I can always start another set of books by Nora Roberts as she is extraordinarily prolific.

If you like romance, all you need to know is that The Next Always delivers.

Beckett Montgomery (tall, handsome, knows how to use a hammer) lives in Boonsboro in Maryland, a historic town with a generous, friendly community. Beckett, his two brothers and his mother have a building business and are in the middle of renovating an old hotel, the Boonsboro Inn. The Boonsboro Inn is exactly the kind of place where romantic couples will want to stay once it is complete, there is a ghost and the rooms are named for famous couples in literature, including ‘Jane and Rochester,’ ‘Elizabeth and Darcy’ and ‘Buttercup and Westley’.*

Beckett has had a crush on Clare Murphy since they were in High School, but it’s complicated… Clare married someone else, left town and had three kids before returning to Boonsboro a war widow, where she opened a book shop. Luckily, as well as being the most gorgeous man in town, Beckett is also great with kids. And dogs. And he loves to read. And he can cook. And he looks FANTASTIC when he takes off his shirt. And so on.

I don’t watch much television, but I do enjoy renovating shows, so The Next Always hit all of the right spots for me. I’m reasonably certain another book in this series will feature Beckett’s crabby brother Ryder, who has an irrational dislike for Hope, a lovely woman the family hired to run the Boonsboro Inn. I’m sure to enjoy it too.

*Squeal of excitement! I googled Nora Roberts and found that Boonsboro is a real place and that the Boonsboro Inn is real too, and what’s more, she and her husband renovated the building and own the business! You really can stay in the ‘Buttercup and Westley’ Room! (Not with Westley, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything).

Check it out for yourself!

https://innboonsboro.com/

 

 

 

 

 

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