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My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman

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Well! My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman was a surprise! A delightful surprise! I’m a happier person (and full of exclamation marks!) as I express the joy of this story!*

The story starts with Elsa, a delightfully precocious seven-year old and her 77-year old granny at the police station, having been caught breaking into a zoo after her granny broke out of hospital, drove unlicensed to the zoo, then threw animal turds (Elsa’s expression, not mine) at the police officers who arrested them.

Elsa and her granny have exactly the sort of relationship which all children should be lucky enough to have with their grandparents. Granny challenges Elsa, plays with her, protects her, squabbles with her, sends her to the shops for cigarettes (oh, maybe that’s not a good example…) and tells Elsa glorious fairy tales about a kingdom called Miamas in the Land-of-Almost-Awake, where Granny and Elsa are knights and wonderful things happen.

Elsa is a child who desperately needs someone to be on her side. She is bullied ferociously at school. Her parents are divorced and her mother, a career woman who has remarried, is heavily pregnant with Elsa’s half-sibling. The neighbours in Elsa’s apartment block are the most disfunctional group imaginable, some of whom treat Elsa as an irritation who they wish would go away.

After Elsa’s Granny died, I worried about how Elsa would cope without her, but I shouldn’t have. Granny left Elsa a quest.

The quest consisted of letters to be delivered by Elsa, in a sort of treasure hunt. As Elsa finds and delivers each letter she learns more about herself, her Granny, their neighbours and the other kingdoms in the Land-of-Almost-Awake. Along the way Elsa has to negotiate through her own shadows and fight dragons, but she also finds princesses and warriors, and most importantly, a wurse. (At this point I need to urge you to read this book for yourself to find out what a wurse is, rather than doing an internet search).

There is a lot going on in this story, but by the end, everything comes together beautifully.

The edition I read was translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. I’ve been on a roll lately with Swedish fiction and have been enjoying the quirkiness of these. I wonder if Swedish authors were influenced by being brought up on Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, as the only thing all of these books have had in common is that anything might happen!

I laughed and cried reading My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, so it should be clear that I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

*The book isn’t full of exclamation marks. They’re all mine!

 

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On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong

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Australian author Jock Serong’s books are getting better and better. Quota was good. The Rules of Backyard Cricket was really good. On the Java Ridge takes on one of Australia’s biggest, most divisive issues and smashes it!

The story begins with Isi and her boyfriend, who own a surfing charter business in Indonesia. While Joel is in Australia trying to get more money from the bank to keep their business afloat, Isi takes a group of Australian surfers out on their boat to a remote surfing location. On the way they anchor at Dana, a lonely island with great surf where they camp overnight on the beach. In the middle of the night Isi wakes up to the sound of voices in the water calling for help and realises that another boat has been wrecked on the reef.

Isi, her crew from the Java Ridge and the surfers race into the water to do what they can to save the drowning people, managing to haul more than half to shore. The wrecked boat was full of asylum seekers who paid people smugglers to get them to Australia, not knowing that Australia is turning back the boats. Amongst the asylum seekers is a young girl, Roya and her pregnant mother. Along with most of the other asylum seekers, they are fleeing the Taliban.

During the rescue one of the Australian surfers received a life-threatening injury and amongst the asylum seekers, a young boy suffered a life-threatening concussion. One of the Australian surfers is a doctor, who does his best to keep the injured people alive in a tent on the beach with only the contents of the Java Ridge‘s First Aid box. The island is so remote that the Australians are unable to contact anyone in Australia or Indonesia for assistance.

Back in Australia, Cassius Calvert, a former Olympian (sporting stars have always been Australian’s favourite type of hero) is the Federal Minister for Border Integrity. He and his government have just announced a tough new policy saying that they will no longer help asylum seeking vessels in distress. There is an election around the corner and this policy is popular with the Australian people, who are happy to take the line that they don’t want crooks making a business of bringing asylum-seekers to Australia.

A few days before the election, Cassius receives and investigates an unverified report of an asylum seeking boat which appears to have been wrecked at Dana, causing the Prime Minister to show just what he is capable of doing to win an election.

The ending of this book took my breath away. To set the scene, I’m reading away on the train, getting closer and closer to the end of the story and wondering how the author is going to finish everything off, than BAM! I was left gasping, looking around at the people on my train in disbelief at what the author did to his characters.

Funnily enough, it’s like a meeting of the United Nations on my train as people from all sorts of backgrounds live out my way. Quite a few of them may even have been asylum seekers once themselves. No one cared about my big shock, though, instead everyone just kept scrolling through their phones… Ah, the lucky country…

The three books I’ve now read by Jock Serong were in Aunty Gwen’s big bag of books. Jock Serong’s latest book is Preservation and I’ll by buying it to pass on to her once I’ve read it.

Ancient Light by John Banville

 

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Ancient Light has converted me to the delights of John Banville, although had I known this was the third book in a trilogy I would have started with the first book instead. The only other John Banville book I’ve read was Mrs Osmond which I didn’t enjoy, probably because I’d never read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James which that story is a sequel to. Not my fault, because there was nothing on the cover blurb of either to alert me.

Ancient Light is the story of Alexander Cleave, an actor in his mid-sixties, who tells the intriguing story of his first love affair as a fifteen-year old – with his best friend’s mother.

Alexander and his friend Billy are typical teenage boys, smelly and dirty, who alternate between sullen and boisterous behaviour. Mrs Gray initiated the affair, which seemed to be predominantly sexual and extremely risky, particularly for Mrs Gray’s, although Alexander says that on his part it was also love.

The book is about memories, and how they become distorted over time as people rewrite their histories. As Alexander tells the story, looking back so many years, it becomes clear that he has fashioned his memory of Mrs Gray and their affair to suit his own image of himself.

The present-day story is equally strong. Alexander’s only daughter suicided ten years earlier. Although he and his wife have grown out of the vicious fights they had when they were younger, they are not happily married. Alexander is working on his first film and his film co-star, a young glamour-puss, is also suicidal. Her story becomes part of Alexander and his wife’s grieving.

The film Alexander is working on is called ‘The Invention of the Past.’ Alexander is playing the title role of Axel Vander, the story of a literary man who may not have been who he said he was. Alexander comes to believe that there may have been a connection between his own daughter and Axel Vander.

The writing in this book is beautiful. I could use any sentence from the book at random to illustrate this, but I think the following is a lovely example of Alexander’s impeccable voice; as an actor every word he speaks is chosen to tell his story in the way he wants it to be delivered.

Mrs Gray for all her worked-at air of hazy detachment, was, I have no doubt, permanently on tenterhooks, fearful that sooner or later I was bound to go too far and take a pratfall  and send us both sprawling in the disarray of our perfidy at the feet of her astonished loved ones. And I, I am ashamed to say, teased her heartlessly.

I suspect I may have condemned this story if the affair had between an older man and younger woman, but by applying the usual double standards I didn’t find Alexander’s affair with Mrs Gray creepy at all. (It was smutty, but that is a completely different set of moral values). I’m justifying my lack of concern because the events happened a long time ago, Alexander was a more than willing participant and that so many years later, he remembered Mrs Gray and their affair with pleasure. I’m well aware that none of these arguments would stand up in an Australian court of law if Alexander were to decide otherwise.

As previously noted, I was disappointed to learn that this book was part of a trilogy, which began with Eclipse, then Shroud before finishing with Ancient Light. Luckily for me, Ancient Light also worked as a stand-alone. (Note to self, write to John Banville’s publishers suggesting they add more information to his cover blurbs. For this to happen to me twice is frustrating).

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

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Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork was recommended to me by indiefan20 following a conversation about books with autistic characters.

https://sarahblogger94.wordpress.com/?s=Marcelo+

Marcelo in the Real World is Young Adult fiction, which I don’t read a great deal of, but I did enjoy this book. The main character is Marcelo, a seventeen-year old boy whose life is about to change over the course of a summer. Marcello hears and experiences music internally, not exactly by hearing the music, but by experiencing the emotions caused by his internal music as a result of having autism or Asperger’s Syndrome (or something similar, no one, including Marcelo’s doctors, are able to agree on exactly what causes Marcelo’s brain to act this way).

Marcelo attends Paterson, a school which attends to his and other children with specific needs. Marcelo is happy at Paterson and is looking forward to working with the school’s ponies over the summer holiday, then to his final year at Paterson when his father, a lawyer, asks (tells!) Marcelo to expand his world by working in the mailroom at his law firm over the summer, to gain experience in what Marcelo’s father calls the ‘real world.’

I resented Marcelo’s father’s implication that Marcelo’s world was not real. He seemed to me to be too hard on Marcelo, although Marcelo’s mother seemed to me to be too accepting and giving. Perhaps this is often the case with parents in general and that somewhere in the middle there is balance, however because of this, both Marcelo’s parents seemed to me to be flat as characters.

Marcelo worked in the mailroom beside Jasmine, the novel’s other main character. Jasmine was at first angry to have been saddled with Marcelo, but she quickly showed herself to be kind and intuitive, and she and Marcelo became surprisingly good friends.

The bully in this story is Wendell, Marcelo’s father’s partner’s son. Wendell is also working at the law firm for the summer and tries to coerce Marcelo so he can get to Jasmine, who is smart enough to not want to have anything to do with him.

The other villain is Marcelo’s father’s law firm itself, who are acting on behalf of their largest client to shut down multiple claims that the client knowingly sold a faulty product which seriously injured their customers. When Marcelo sees a photo of a young woman who was injured by this product, he acts according to his morals on her behalf, risking his relationship with his father, the law firm and the client’s business in the process.

If I heard internal music and experienced the emotions accordingly as did Marcelo, I don’t know that I would want to live in Marcelo’s father’s ‘real’ world either. However, Marcelo experienced the growth (for want of a better word) that his father wanted for him because of his job. Speaking and working with people was challenging for Marcelo, and he coped surprisingly well with many unexpected situations.

Some of the plot points were over-complicated and felt like padding (Marcelo’s fascination with religion, or his weekend away with Jasmine to see her father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, for example), but on the whole I liked Marcelo’s principled character and I enjoyed this book.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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I had assumed I would suffer through Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations but instead, I loved this story. I was particularly dreading was the time this book would take to read, because Dickens can’t be read quickly, but on that score at least, I was right. I’m a fairly fast reader, but I seemed to be reading this story for weeks.

I read this on the train to and from work, at home in between doing housework, while I was cooking (Pear Jam included) and the last thing at night; at times I felt as if I would never finish the book. In an ideal world Great Expectations would be read aloud, but when I checked audible I found that the length of the version with Michael Page narrating goes for 18 and a half hours! Sadly I just don’t have that much time available. One day…

Great Expectations is a story told in three volumes. Volume One starts with Pip, the narrator, living in a small English village with his angry, abusive sister and her kind, generous husband Joe. Joe is a blacksmith and is, I meantersay, my favourite character in the whole book – more about him later. Pip is an orphan so Mrs Joe is credited with “bringing him up by hand,” which seems to be more of an euphemism for her belting Pip regularly. Pip is expected to become apprenticed to Joe in due course, and Joe often refers to the great larks they will have together then, presumably while out of Mrs Joe’s long reach.

The first big event of the story has Pip coming across an escaped convict hiding in the village churchyard. He frightens Pip into supplying him with food and drink, plus a metal file of Joe’s so he can escape his manacles. Soon after, though, the convict is recaptured and returned to the nearby prison ships.

Next, Pip is engaged to visit and amuse a local recluse, Miss Havisham, who was left many years ago at the altar by her bridegroom. Since then, Miss Havisham has worn her wedding dress while she sits in the room where her wedding feast was to be held surrounded by mouldy food, cobwebs and mice. There Pip meets and falls in love with Miss Havisham’s ward Estella, who Miss Havisham encourages to make Pip fall in love with her and so break his heart.

Volume One ends with a London lawyer, Mr Jaggers, visiting Pip to tell him he has the opportunity to go to London to become a gentleman, at the bequest of a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous. Pip is keen to do so because he believes that Estella will never want him as he is, a humble blacksmith’s apprentice.

Volume Two follows Pip, who is now an impressionable young man on his way to becoming a gentleman in London. Pip makes a true friend of Herbert Pocket, a delightful young man with no expectations of his own, and of Mr Wemmick, Mr Jagger’s henchman. Mr Wemmick looks like a post box and lives by the motto that ‘work is work and home is home,’ but Pip gets to know the ‘at home’ man and finds him to be as kind and generous as Joe, particularly to his elderly, deaf father, the ‘Aged P.’

While Pip is living in London, Mrs Joe dies following a mysterious accident which damaged her brain. Pip attends her funeral but by this time, he has become embarrassed by Joe’s simple manners and no longer appreciates his many qualities.

Pip continues to slink down to the village to visit Miss Havisham in the hope of seeing Estella, who still treats him indifferently, all the while avoiding Joe. Pip believes his expectations are from Miss Havisham and that eventually, marriage to Estella will form part of his bequest. By the end of Volume Two though, Pip learns who his mysterious benefactor is and has to adjust his thinking.

Volume Three weaves and winds, eventually tidying up all of the mysterious and questions raised in the first two volumes. During this part of the story Pip has to make difficult decisions, and learns some hard lessons about loyalty and character.

The characters and their names are delightfully descriptive. Mr Pumblechook is bossy and self-important, while Mr Wopsle is a church clerk who wants to be an actor. Dolge Orlick is a bully who argues constantly with Mrs Joe, while Flopson is a children’s nurse, falls over her mistress constantly. Estella is obviously a stunning young woman, and Miss Skiffins with her variety of coloured gloves, is Mr Wemmick’s ‘lady-friend.’ Drummle is a brutish young man who Pip meets in London and Abel Magwitch is the convict with a generous heart.

One of my favourite scenes in this story was Mr Wemmick’s wedding to Miss Skiffins. Mr Wemmick, who treats the whole event as a series of happy coincidences, engineers Pip’s attendance in the most delightful way imaginable. Out walking, “Halloa! Here’s a church!” and so on, until, “Halloa!” said Wemmick. “Here’s Miss Skiffins! Let’s have a wedding.” I nearly cried with joy while reading about this wedding myself.

I have to confess, I’m a little in love with the character of Joe, who reminds me enormously of my very own He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers. Both are good and kind, loyal and honourable and put up with a lot, although I like to think I’m in no way near as bad-tempered as Mrs Joe.

Sadly, Estella marries the brutish Drummle to avoid letting her heart to thaw towards Pip. I know she wanted to love Pip, but Miss Haversham trained her too well. I’m happy to say that Miss Haversham eventually saw the error of her ways.

I’m planning to watch a film version of Great Expectations sometime soon, then will wait a while before reading my next Charles Dickens’ story.

Great Expectations was book two for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaelle Giordano

 

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I chose to read Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaelle Giordano because of the pretty cover. I stopped reading when I discovered the book was self-help disguised as a novel.

I started reading again when I realised I still had another 40 minutes before my train was due to arrive at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne for me to get to work and then I read the book for another 40 minutes on the train home that night. In the chapters still to come after I stopped reading, I’m fairly certain that Camille, the whinging, unhappy heroine, managed to lose that extra four kilograms, throw out the junk that was cluttering-up her Paris apartment, work out her differences with her emotionally absent husband, find a job better suited to her talents and regain her joy in life by the end of the book (with the help of Claude, her ‘routinologist’ who looks like Sean Connery). Or maybe not. I don’t really care either way.

Sigh. Maybe I should start carrying a ‘just in case’ book in my backpack to work…

 

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

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I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Someone whose opinion about books I respect enormously says she loves Joyce Carol Oates’ work. Everyone else seems to love her books too, except me. I read We Were the Mulvaneys years ago and it left me lukewarm. I’ve just finished reading Jack of Spades and this story left me stone cold.

I couldn’t find an emotional connection with the narrator, a middle-aged man who is an enormously successful writer of thrillers, although not on the same scale of success as Stephen King. Andy is known in the business as ‘the gentleman’s Stephen King’ and in private, Andy is enormously jealous of Stephen King’s success.

Andy is an odd fellow, whose character didn’t ring true for me. For example, every time Andy mentions his wife, he calls her ‘his dear Irina’ or something similar. That’s just creepy. They’ve been married for a long time. Nobody could keep up all that ‘dear Irina’ stuff unless they were doing it in a sinister manner. (Which he probably was).

Andy, who writes as Andrew J Rush, also has a secret persona. He also writes violent, masochistic fiction under the pseudonym Jack of Spades. These books are so secret that not even Andy’s wife or children know about his alter-ego. When his daughter accidently comes across one of the Jack of Spades books, she reads it and recognises in it an event which happened to her. In the Jack of Spades book, this event is twisted to provide the worst possible ending. Andy’s daughter thinks that Jack of Spades is someone known to the family who is using the family’s stories for their plots.

The story get weirder when Andy is sued by an elderly local woman, who insists that Andy has broken into her house to steal her diaries or stories, then used them as the basis of his own fiction as Andrew J Rush. After the case was thrown out of court Andy learned that the woman had previously sued Stephen King and other well known and successful writers in a similar manner. The court case causes Andy’s thoughts to become darker and darker, as if Jack of Spades is taking over his personality. Instead of seeking professional help, Andy broke into the woman’s house and finds that her written works are similar to his own. And to Stephen Kings’. And that she might have written her stories before they had written theirs… Hmmm.

Most of the time I couldn’t figure out what was going on in Jack of Spades. Questions were raised, but nothing was resolved. I think the story is a homage (of sorts) to Stephen King’s The Dark Half, where a writer’s personality is taken over in a similar way. However, I don’t think Joyce Carol Oates is writing for me. I’m more of a Stephen King sort of reader. A Constant Reader, as Stephen King would say…

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