Category Archives: Book Review

The White Monkey by John Galsworthy

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I started reading The White Monkey by John Galsworthy with the plan of giving up The Forsyte Saga if I didn’t like this fourth book in the series, but it is my favourite book so far! Looks like I will continue reading…

The White Monkey is the story of Fleur Forsyte and Michael Mont, who married after Fleur gave up her sweetheart, Jon, after learning about their parent’s history (see the previous three books for their parent’s story). Michael is in love with Fleur, but she isn’t in love with him – that sad, old story. Michael’s best friend Wilfred is also in love with Fleur. She keeps him dangling alongside Michael, while she decides who, if either man, she loves…

The story is set during the 1920s and Fleur and Michael are rich and privileged, able to enjoy life in London society while others around them starve.

Michael, who will eventually become a baronet, is a good man who knows and understands Fleur very well. John Galsworthy did very well not to have Fleur come across as a spoiled brat, one whom the reader would lose patience with. Instead I liked her and sympathised with her, hoping all the time she would see sense and fall in love with Michael.

Soames Forsyte, Fleur’s father, appears again in this story as a main character. He is embroiled in a business scandal when he discovers inconsistencies in the accounts of the P.P.R.S., of which he is on the Board of Directors. To his credit, he brings the inconsistencies to the attention of other board members, most of whom would rather not know or let their shareholders know about. Soames still regularly buys art and purchases a painting called The White Monkey, which he gives to Fleur. The significance of the painting is in the composition, a monkey with haunting eyes eating fruit with the discarded rinds thrown about it.

Art appears regularly throughout The White Monkey. Michael is a publisher and Wilfred a poet. One of the characters is a painter and another his model. Some characters visit art galleries to carry out liaisons, and all of the characters talk about books and art.

I loved Michael and Fleur’s slang, which Soames despised, his exact words in response to something Michael said were; ‘Good Gad! he thought; ‘what jargon!…’

There are less Forsytes in this book than in the first three, apart from Fleur and Soames, but there were a few minor characters who I enjoyed very much. I don’t think these minor characters will appear again in future novels but I would like to know what happened to them, especially the Bickets, a poor couple who were dreaming of a better life in Central Australia.

The Silver Spoon is next in the series. I plan to read it on the beach this summer.

 

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A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

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After reading Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks’ homage to P.G. Wodehouse, I jumped on this author’s bandwagon, reading A Possible Life and A Week in December in quick succession.

A Week in December is told over the course of a week in December 2007, in London. A politician’s wife is organising a dinner party, a hedge-fund manager works to carry out a trade so big that it will take down a number of banks, a wealthy business man prepares to be honoured with an OBE, a Polish footballer tries to fit in to his new club, a young lawyer hopes for some clients, a teenage boy risks his mental health for his drug addiction, a jaded book reviewer allows his jealousy of fiction-writers to get the better of him, a young woman risks falling in love and a young Muslim man who should know better uses Islamic theory to justify belonging to a group who plan to bomb a London hospital.

You may be able to tell from my previous sentence that A Week in December had too much going on, too many characters and too many stories. I couldn’t keep track of them all and would have preferred to follow just one or two of the stronger character’s stories.

I also struggled to believe in all of the characters. For example, Hassan, the would-be suicide-bomber, is from a wealthy industrialist English-Pakistani family, has loving parents and has had an excellent (English) education. Really? Maybe my view of terrorists is stereotyped, but I don’t think they usually spring from this particular set of circumstances. Another character, a businessman who is to be awarded the OBE hires the book reviewer to teach him about books, in case he and the Queen get into a conversation about literature. Again, really? Where did that come from? Successful business people are usually socially adept and unlikely to do anything so silly. On the other hand, I did believe in Jenni, the train driver, who after work reads novels and plays an internet game where her alter-ego lives the life that Jenni wishes she lived.

While telling the story, the author gave pages and pages of explanations about hedge-fund trading, the mechanics of driving a train, the connection between drugs and schizophrenia, and how terrorists find each other, make and execute their plans. The research must have been interesting for the author, but I felt as if his learnings were too obviously used in this book.

I also felt as if one of the character’s lack of respect for the Koran was too clumsily used as a tool to disparage Islam. Maybe the author hoped a would-be terrorist would read A Week in December and be swayed by this character’s argument that the Koran was bombastic, sexist and unlikely to present a true version of what happens to a terrorist after death. If so, great. However, I expect most Muslim readers would be offended by the use of this character to undermine their religion. I don’t believe in much myself, but I do understand that faith is believing in something which can’t be proved to exist, which is not unique to any religion.

I loved Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, liked A Possible Life and disliked A Week in December. I’m going to give myself a break from Sebastian Faulks before reading Birdsong by this author, as this story has been highly recommended and I don’t want to spoil it for myself.

 

 

 

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In One Person by John Irving

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I did not finish John Irving’s In One Person. After reading A Prayer for Owen Meanie, I wanted to love every other word he wrote, from his shopping list to his novels, but the main character’s sex life became far too explicit for me to enjoy reading about.

The story starts with Billy, the bi-sexual main character, as a child, falling in love with various people. Billy’s step-father gave him lovely advice, which was to enjoy his crushes and not to worry about the appropriateness of who they might be on. Billy’s first crush was on the town librarian, Miss Frost, who might have been trans-gender – I expect this query was answered later in the book. His next crush was on a boy at school, Jacques Kittredge. Billy’s best friend and pseudo-girlfriend Elaine is also crazy about Kittredge, despite Kittredge being a nasty bully.

The story then jumped to Billy as an adult, and while I had been enjoying the story up until then and liked Billy’s character very much, there were too many explicit details about his sex life for me to feel comfortable continuing.*

Billy’s family are theatrical and are a funny and interesting bunch of characters, although I did notice similarities between some of them and the characters in A Prayer for Owen Meanie. Billy’s grandfather, who played most of the female roles in local plays was a terrific character, and I would have liked to know how things worked out for him.

I’ll try another John Irving book instead, hopefully one which doesn’t offend my delicate sensibilities.

*I don’t care who does what with who (or should that be whom?), but I don’t like to know the details…

 

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Paris For One & Other Stories by Jojo Moyes

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Well, the day has finally come when I can say I’ve read something by Jojo Moyes, whose name is everywhere after she wrote loads of best-selling novels which have been turned into block-busting movies. I started with a collection of short stories, Paris For One & Other Stories and found them to be enjoyable, in a completely forgettable way.

The title story, Paris For One was predictable and dragged on a bit. I think about a third of the story could have been shaved off. But, since Jojo Moyes is a New York Times bestselling author, and I’m just a reader, I might be wrong. (Maybe only a quarter of this story should have gone).

The next story, Between the Tweets, was better. It was very short, only five pages long, and the characters came alive. This story had a terrific twist which I did not see coming.

The themes of Love in the Afternoon, A Bird in the Hand, Thirteen Days With John C and Last Year’s Coat are similar; the tribulations of marriage, children and work when there isn’t enough time or money to enjoy life properly.

My favourite story was The Crocodile Shoes, where the heroine spent an interesting day wearing a pair of red-soled Christian Louboutin high-heeled sling-backs. My feet hurt just looking at these gorgeous shoes, but wouldn’t it be lovely to have somewhere to wear them?

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I can see why Jojo Moyes is so popular. Her short stories are ideal for a little escape from real life and I expect her full-length books give readers the same effect. I might read a Jojo Moyes novel when I am next on holidays or looking for a lighter book to read in between more taxing works, but if not, will watch the movie of Me Before You with Miss S, some chocolate and a box of tissues one night.

 

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Summer at Mount Hope by Rosalie Ham

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Summer at Mount Hope is by Australian author Rosalie Ham, who also wrote The Dressmaker and There Should be More Dancing. Unfortunately, Summer at Mount Hope lacked the cutting humour and style of the other two books.

The story is set in the 1890s. The heroine is Phoeba Crupp, who wants to run her father’s vineyard near Geelong alongside him. Other farmers in the district run sheep but are struggling due to the drought and depression. Phoeba’s family need the dry for the grapes, but they are also struggling financially and as a family. Phoeba’s parents are unhappily married and Phoeba’s mother hates the isolation of living in the country. The story’s theme is the lack of power that women have over their own futures.

Phoeba’s friend Hadley is keen to marry her, but she sees him as a friend rather than a lover. Phoeba’s mother wants her to marry Hadley to secure her future, but Phoeba is interested in someone else. Phoeba’s spoiled sister Lilith is doing her best to catch a husband and is aiming at the most eligible man in the district, the recently widowed squatter’s son.

Summer at Mount Hope, like this author’s other works, is a black comedy, but is not as polished or as enjoyable as this author’s other stories. The story is slow, jumps around, and I felt the slang and dialogue was wrong for the times. There were a few running jokes, such as Phoeba’s constant struggles with horses and the non-arrival of a peach-parer in the mail which got old quickly.

I also had issues with the timeline. The story starts on New Years Eve in 1893 and ends two months later, at the end of February, but during that time a character managed to catch a man, fall pregnant and drag him to the altar!

I was interested to read about the itinerant workers and the difficulties which arose when farmers tried to introduce machinery to their farms and thought that these sections of the book made it worth reading. I also enjoyed hearing about the characters going out one night to watch the electric lights being turned on for the first time in far-off Geelong.

The painting below is ‘View of Geelong’ by Eugene von Guerard from 1856. This hangs in the Geelong Art Gallery.

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I hope Rosalie Ham publishes something new soon, as The Dressmaker left me wanting more and Summer at Mount Hope has not satisfied me. I know this author can do better!

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Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel

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Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel has an unpleasant plot and nasty characters whose behaviour is mean. Fay Weldon’s comment on the front cover, “What a terrific book,” sucked me right in, causing me to expect fun and frivolity from the story. I should have known better though, as Fay Weldon’s own writing often features a mean streak…

Evelyn Axon is an old duck who lives in a once-grand English home with her mentally disabled, adult daughter Muriel. Evelyn is a highly sought-after medium (by her neighbours, anyway), but is struggling with poltergeists terrorising her at home.

Evelyn desperately needs help, but won’t admit it, and she won’t accept help when it is given (or forced) upon her. A barrage of social workers become involved in Muriel’s case and arrange for Muriel to attend Daycare Sessions, where she makes baskets and steals the tea-money. When the Daycare Sessions are temporarily closed without Evelyn’s knowledge, Muriel goes off during the days to goodness knows where and comes back pregnant.

Eventually Isobel Field takes on Muriel’s case after four or five other social workers have been involved over less than six months. Isobel genuinely cares about her clients and tries to do the right thing by Muriel and Evelyn, but she is overworked, out of her depth and is blocked by Evelyn at every turn. Isobel is also distracted because she is having an affair with Colin, an unhappily married man.

Every Day is Mother’s Day was set in the early to mid 1970s and it shows. The misery of marriage, the casual way that Colin and Isobel fall into their affair, ‘hip’ parties where guests ignore drunken sexual abuse, characters drink-driving, Evelyn’s snobbish attitude towards her neighbours and her uncaring, hostile behaviour towards her daughter all showcase the worst of these times.

The book is well written, but the story is bleak. I didn’t find anything funny in it.

I believe Every Day is Mother’s Day was Hilary Mantel’s first book. I will give this author one more try, but am hoping for a happier plot and some likeable characters next time.

 

 

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After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

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I’m a fan of Haruki Murakami’s writing, but I was unable to connect to any of the characters or plots in the six short stories in the collection After the Quake. I’m struggling to express why exactly, the closest I can come to is that I think these stories need to be read in their original language (Japanese) by people who experienced the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which the stories are centered around.

In the first story, UFO in Kushiro, a husband and wife separate after soon after the earthquake. The wife tells her husband there is nothing inside of him that he can give her. He is devastated, but eventually gets a glimpse of his future self, which leaves him with some hope.

The second story, Landscape with Flatiron, tells of two suicidal people who live to have bonfires on the beach. If there was a moral or a point to this story, it went over my head.

All God’s Children Can Dance is the story of a man whose mother led him to believe he was like Jesus, in that he was the result of a virgin birth, although eventually the man sought out a person who he believed was his father.

Thailand tells the story of a spiritually-tired business woman who swims her way to peace while on vacation. Her chauffeur offers her guidance and enlightenment, both directly and indirectly.

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, like many of this author’s stories, has super-natural elements. The hero of this story is able to help save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake with Frog, by dreaming and believing while Frog fought a terrible battle with Worm.

I enjoyed and related to Honey-Pie best of all the stories. Three friends from university, two men and a woman, almost lost their friendship when two of them fell in love. The pair married and had a child, but the other man was the better match for the woman and long-term, theirs would be the relationship that lasted. The child dreamed of ‘The Earthquake Man’ which is something I imagine many Japanese children who lived through the Kobe earthquake did.

After the Quake isn’t my favourite of Haruki Murakami’s works, but his ‘okay’ is still better than most writer’s ‘best’.

 

 

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Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee by Wayne Flynt

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Is it uncharitable of me to have wondered if Wayne Flynt, the author of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, would have gone out of his way to befriend Harper Lee’s sisters, which led to a friendship with one of the most beloved authors of our time, Nelle Harper Lee, had she not been the author of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Flynt and his wife first met and befriended Harper Lee’s sister Louise, with whom he shared an interest in Alabaman history and literature, then another sister, Alice, and eventually, Nelle (Harper) herself. Nelle and Flynt became family friends, exchanging visits and letters over the last 25 years of Nelle’s life.

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee includes the letters between the two families. As expected, Nelle’s letters to Flynt are funny and interesting. Reading her letters left me wanting to read other works by this author, which if they existed, I imagine would have come out of the woodwork by now.

Her letters show an increasing affection towards the Flynts. Eventually the Flynt’s got a little Harper of their own, when their grand-daughter was named for the Harper Lee. Nelle’s letter to the Flynts on receiving the news of a namesake was charming.

Nelle comes across as a very private person, although somewhat lonely. She struggled with ill-health and eye-troubles as she aged. In one letter she writes;

“The only thing I have to report is that Tom Carruthers said he couldn’t recall the word “ineluctable” which I use to describe the passing of days here. He said he hadn’t heard it in so long he couldn’t remember it.

Well, the days do go by with ineluctable sameness, but I feel most fortunate that they go by for me at all, lorn lone creature that I am.”

I had to look up ‘ineluctable’ to learn what it meant – something which can’t be avoided or escaped, even though I had caught the gist of the word from the passage.

Wayne Flynt has good credentials. He is Professor Emiritus in the History Department at Auburn University, the editor of an Encyclopedia of Alabama and has written loads of books about Alabama, plus he actually knew and was friends with Harper Lee, so we have to trust his judgement that she would have been happy for him to publish her letters.

 

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Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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Everywhere I Look is a collection of memories, essays and true stories by respected Australian author Helen Garner.

I attempted to read Monkey Grip by Helen Garner a few years ago and while I enjoyed the author’s actual style, the idiocy of the characters annoyed me so much that I didn’t finish the novel. My notes from that review were; “I just couldn’t like them (the characters) enough to keep reading. I didn’t need to finish this to take the lesson – don’t fall in love or get involved with drug addicts, you will regret it.”

Everywhere I Look was broken up into loosely put together sections which occasionally offer life lessons. The first section, White Paint and Calico, are the author’s personal stories about home and moving house. The messages I took from this section is that home is where the ukulele is, that there is no such thing as a perfect table, and that moving house is up there with the strain of a death in the family, a new job or a divorce. I particularly enjoyed Suburbia, where the author shared the joys of living in a suburb, compared to previous experiences of having lived in ‘hipper’ places, such as a share-house in the inner-city.

There are so many stories of friendships with well-known and respected Australian authors that I got the feeling that Helen Garner knows and corresponds with everyone who counts, but my favourite was Eight Views of Tim Winton, who is a great Australian writer. I would love to know if Tim Winton really said, “Thanks, Mate,” to a priest instead of “Amen,” when taking communion at church, but even if this didn’t happen, it is a good story. I expect the gist of ‘Amen’ and ‘Thanks, Mate’ are much the same.

I found From Frogmore, Victoria to be the most heart-rending story. Helen Garner wrote about her visit with Raimond Gaita, who wrote the tragic memoir, Romulus, My Father. During the visit, Helen and Raimond visited many of the places where the events he had written about occurred, leaving me feeling flattened by the end of the story. For example; this is the shovel we buried the dog with, this is the tower someone jumped off when they suicided, and so on. I’m not being flippant here, Raimond Gaita’s family experienced terrible tragedies and the entire tour around Frogmore was punctuated by sad memories.

The true stories which featured in On Darkness would be familiar to most Australians. Punishing Karen was difficult to read. This was the true story of a schoolgirl who gave birth at home after hiding her pregnancy from her parents and also from herself, mentally and emotionally. Also difficult to read was The Singular Rosie, which tells of Helen Garner interviewing Rosie Batty about how she had coped since her son Luke was tragically and shockingly killed by his father. Another story tells of Robert Farquharson, who killed his three sons to get revenge on his former wife. Helen Garner says she was strongly criticised while writing a book about this tragedy for expressing sympathy for men in the position of being unable to cope emotionally when their wives leave them.

I actually liked reading the funny little stories about what Helen Garner’s grand-children said and did. Funny, because when I get bailed up by someone who wants to tell me stories about their kid, or grandchildren or even their dog, I, like most people, would prefer to throw myself under a bus rather than indulge the proud story-teller for longer than ten minutes. I think Helen Garner’s stories were bearable because they were short and to the point.

Helen Garner’s crowning glory though, for me, was her opinion about the indignities of old age. Being patronised by anyone is irritating at any age, but when Helen Garner can run circles around most people intellectually, I’m sure that being patronised by someone who looks as if they should still be in nappies is particularly frustrating. I loved that in The Insults of Age, she says she now saunters “about the world in overalls,” tears strips off idiots and confronts people who are doing the wrong thing without fear. I also like that she is honest about wanting to punch people’s lights out when they are stupid… because thinking about punching people’s lights out might not be socially acceptable, but is not a sin either (in my opinion, anyway).

Helen Garner’s style is straightforward and honest. Her voice is so strong that reading her stories make me believe that I am having an actual face-to-face conversation with her. Even though I am not speaking in this conversation, she still manages to tell me what I would want to know if I were participating.

I don’t think I will try Monkey Grip again, but will instead continue with Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She has written several books about defining Australian events, which I think will suit my reading tastes better.

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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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Just like Ann Patchett’s kidnapped characters in Bel Canto, I never wanted to leave the beautiful world I found myself in. I wish this book had gone on and on and on…

Bel Canto is set in the home of the Vice President in an unnamed, poor Latin American country. The story starts with the Vice President hosting a dinner party for a Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, to entice him to build a factory in their country. The guests include a who’s who of business people and their wives, along with Mr Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer, American Roxanne Coss, who is engaged to sing after dinner.

Just as Roxanne finished performing the lights went out and when they came on again, the guests realised that a band of kidnappers had snuck in and taken them hostage. The intended target was the country’s President, but unbeknownst to the kidnappers the President ditched the party at the last minute to stay home to watch his favourite soap opera.

The rest of the story takes place over the next four months. Some of the guests and staff were freed, but the most important guests remained as hostages in the Vice President’s living room. Mr Hosokawa, his translator, Roxanne, a priest, the Vice President and a bunch of Russian businessmen make up the main characters amongst the hostages, while the kidnappers include three self-appointed Generals and a motley group of teenagers; both boys and girls with guns.

Because of the many language barriers amongst the parties, Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, becomes the most important person in the room. Gen translates the negotiations between the kidnappers and a Red Cross negotiator, for different groups of guests and between the hostages and the kidnappers. He translates for Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne as their friendship begins and develops during their imprisonment, and he translates a delightful declaration of love from one of the Russian businessmen to Roxanne. After the declaration, Roxanne comments to Gen that “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.”

Every day Roxanne sings while a Japanese businessman accompanies her on the piano. Mr Hosokawa and a General play chess. Gen teaches one of the kidnappers to read. The Vice President discovers the joys of cleaning house. Various parties fall in love. Businessmen learn how to relax. Kidnappers and hostages become friends. As time passes, most of the kidnappers and the hostages realise they do not want their life in the Vice President’s house to end.

I am not a fan of opera but I enjoyed the way that singing and music brought these characters together, although I suspect that in real life some of the guests would have their fingers stuck in their ears for a bit of peace and quiet, rather than everyone falling under the spell of the music. I almost brought myself to listen to some of the pieces sung in this book, but I couldn’t quite manage it… I would quite like opera if nobody sung.

I loved Bel Canto. Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer whose skill and craftsmanship show in every word of this story. I didn’t like the ending of the book, but although I have been thinking and thinking of how else it could have ended, I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

I’m a newcomer to Ann Patchett’s writing, having only recently read her collection of essays and memoirs in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, but am looking forward to making my way through her works.

 

 

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