Book reviews

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Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance novels are amongst my favourite comfort reads. I started reading them in my teens and recently reread Arabella, enjoying the story as much as I did the first time (too long ago to think about).

Arabella Tallant is the beautiful daughter of a poor country clergyman, whose clever mother arranges for her to go to London for a season to find a rich husband. On the way, Arabella’s carriage breaks down at a hunting lodge owned by Robert Beaumaris, the richest, handsomest and most eligible man in London.

When Arabella overhears Mr Beaumaris tell his friend that he suspects her of knocking on his door in order that he will fall in love with and marry her, she pretends to be an heiress who wants to remain incognito in London. Of course Mr Beaumaris’ friend tells all of London that Arabella is rich, so it isn’t very long until she is inundated by offers of marriage.

One of the things I most like about Arabella is her social conscience. Arabella saves an abused child from a cruel master and a mongrel dog from children who are tormenting it and of course, Mr Beaumaris is at hand to assist her as required.

Mr Beaumaris is a hero with enough of a past to be interesting. It’s hard not to compare him to Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Darcy, although Mr Beaumaris is a more relaxed character than Mr Darcy. There is a sub-plot concerning Arabella’s brother Bertram, which is probably too predictable to surprise anyone. Thinking it over, the whole plot is very like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Arabella was written as a homage to that book.

Georgette Heyer’s style is delightful. The writing is good, the story is clever, the characters are funny and likeable (and in this case, Mr Beaumaris is also swoon-worthy). The dialogue is gorgeous, whether it is Mr Beaumaris talking to the dog, snobbish members of the Ton discussing Arabella’s wealth, or a friend of Arabella’s brother’s speaking in an almost indecipherable slang.

I’ve been collecting Georgette Heyer’s books for years, snapping up the Pan editions whenever I spot one at an op-shop or book fair. The covers are garishly 1970s, and the orange and purple colour scheme on Arabella should be horrible, but somehow it all works and is pretty in a way reminiscent of the old Quality Street tins.


Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields was written without the permission of or with any input from Nelle Harper Lee, yet still managed to present an in-depth, respectful view of the life of the famously private author.

The biography talks about the author’s life, providing details about her upbringing, family, friends and her writing, using anecdotes sourced from written materials along with personal ones from those who were willing to speak to Charles J. Shields, knowing that Harper Lee would not approve of their doing so.

The stories about Harper Lee’s upbringing were fascinating, even to how she fit into her family. I was very interested to learn about her childhood friendship with Truman Capote and of the enormous amount of assistance she gave him while they carried out research in Kansas for his book, In Cold Blood.

I was unaware that so much of To Kill a Mockingbird was based on what Harper Lee actually knew and experienced. Interestingly, she called her father by his first name, just as Scout and Jem called their father Atticus. Similarly, Harper Lee’s mother was mentally ill and was emotionally and physically unavailable to her children, so it made sense for the children in her book to be motherless.

The biggest question of all for most readers, of why she never write another book was fully addressed, too.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee provides an interesting view of Harper Lee’s personality, influences and values without feeling intrusive.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

When the movie Crazy Rich Asians came out last year a Chinese-Australian workmate raved about it to me. She said the way the characters judged each other and the speed at which their gossip spread at was such a perfect caricature of her own family that she couldn’t ever remember laughing so hard at a movie.

I love movies but only go when there is something I really want to see, because our local cinema’s prices are ridiculous. The price of two adult tickets is $46 Australian and that doesn’t include popcorn or a choc-top. Seriously, I can buy a plane ticket to Sydney from Melbourne for less than it costs me to go to the movies. So I thought, I’ll wait for the movie to make it to television, and read the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan instead.

The plot of Crazy Rich Asians reminded me of the Jackie Collins books which I used to read years ago, with fabulously rich, beautiful and outrageous characters doing whatever ridiculously extravagant thing they wanted to do. The only difference was, in Crazy Rich Asians, the characters live in Singapore rather than Los Angeles and are Chinese.

The story revolves around an American professor, Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young, who go to Singapore for a summer. Unbeknownst to Rachel until they arrive in Singapore, Nick is one of the most eligible bachelors in town, whose family and friends are amongst the wealthiest people in the world and live on the grandest scale imaginable. They wear designer clothes, travel in private jets, wear fabulous jewellery and don’t associate with anyone outside of their own social group. It probably won’t come to a surprise to anyone that Rachel was not accepted with open arms by Nick’s mother, grandmother or by most other people in their set.

There are several other storylines which run alongside Rachel and Nick’s story, including a wedding, an affair or two and a marriage breakdown.

I didn’t really enjoy this book. As someone who thinks it is enormously bad manners for anyone to brag about how materially rich they are or to dismiss other people for how materially rich they aren’t, I was irritated by many of the character’s conversations in this book (with a smidge of jealousy because these characters can afford to go to the movies whenever they want). The constant name dropping of brands and luxuries only available to a wealthy few became repetitious to the point of being boring. Exposing the superficiality of these characters may have been the point, though. Some of their behaviours were truly dreadful.

Other irritations for me were that the story had too many characters and not all of them had a place in the book. In fairness, I can see that the plot is probably better suited to a movie. I’d much prefer to be shown the couture dresses and jewellery rather than reading of how much they cost and the opulent surroundings (houses, gardens, furniture, cars) would be lovely to see. I did enjoy the many conversations and references to food in the book though. Apparently, the fabulously wealthy talk about and enjoy their food just as much as they do their money.

However, the dialogue was stilted, some of the behaviours too nasty to find funny and the plot was overly dependent on name-dropping expensive products. The book, Crazy Rich Asians was not for me, however I believe the movie does not use some of the plot lines that I disliked, so when it turns up on tv, I’ll be on the sofa.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes is the third novel in the Women Crime Writers Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s and has been my favourite book of the set to date, even before I knew there was a movie based on the book starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

The story is set in Los Angeles after World War Two. Dix Steele was in the Air Corps during the war, but since then had been living in a friend’s apartment, pretending to his rich uncle that he was writing a crime novel.

Dix was also a serial killer. About once a month, when his loneliness got too much for him, he stalked and raped a random victim before murdering her, confident that he wouldn’t be caught, firstly because he of his intelligence and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because he was an ordinary looking man who blended in wherever he went.

He became vulnerable when he reconnected with a friend from the war, Brub Nicolai, without realising that Brub was now a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and investigating the case. Brub’s wife, Sylvia, from the beginning was uncomfortable around Dix. She was certainly the only woman in the book who didn’t fancy the pants off Humphrey, I mean, Dix. Enjoying the risk, Dix furthered his relationship with Brub and Sylvia and went so far as to accompany Brub to his own crime work in the guise of research for his novel.

When Dix started an affair with Laurel Gray, a beautiful actress living in an apartment neighbouring his, he became obsessed with her. Things came to a head when suspicion fell on Dix for the murder of an old flame of his in England.

The mystery of this story is learning if Dix will be caught and how, and if he is caught, if it happens before Laura, Sylvia or another woman who Dix has become interested in is murdered.

I loved In a Lonely Place and can’t wait to watch the movie. I’m also very keen to read more stories by Dorothy B. Hughes.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

I’m not sure why I never read Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster as a child, it would have been right up my alley. I was charmed by this story as an adult, although I have one very large reservation. As it is a plot spoiler, I’ll give you fair warning before I talk about this.

The story is told in letter form written by an orphan, Jerusha, or Judy as she wants to be known, who at the start of the story is 17 years old. When Judy is given the opportunity to go to college by one of the orphanage’s benefactors, she leaps at the chance. Her anonymous benefactor expects her to become a writer and the only thing he asks of Judy is that she write to him of her experiences once a month.

Judy’s letters over the course of her four years at college are delightful. She briefly caught sight of her benefactor at the orphanage and knows that he is tall, so she addresses her letters to him as Daddy-Long-Legs. In the letters she tells him about her classmates, who come from all walks of life, what she is learning about and of what she is reading, her sporting endeavours and of the people she meets. In one letter, Judy confesses to failing her mathematics and Latin prose exams… but of course, she promises him she will work hard to rectify her failure which she does.

Judy is a terrific heroine. She is gracious in her gratitude to her benefactor, and importantly, doesn’t accept more from him than she needs. She returns excessive amounts of money which he gives her for hats and fripperies, and makes it clear to her benefactor that she will pay him back financially for his investment in her future. Impressively, she takes on paid work during her holidays rather than accepting an expensive trip to Europe from him.

Now for the spoiler.

I found it creepy that Daddy-Long-Legs moulded Judy to become a particular person, then fell in love with her. I disliked him taking advantage of her trust as she wrote to him as Daddy-Long-Legs, even telling him about the lovely man she had met, who of course was him only she didn’t know it. I was surprised that Judy, who showed herself to be independent and clear-thinking in every other way, was all too happy to fall in love with Jervis/Daddy-Long-Legs once all was revealed to her.

I wasn’t wild about the age difference between Judy and Jervis either and don’t see theirs as an equal pairing. The thought of Judy continuing to call him ‘Daddy’ after the big reveal made me feel even more uneasy.

End of spoiler.

However, despite my reservations about the romance-side of the story, I loved everything else about the story. Daddy-Long-Legs is a gorgeous look at the life of a girl in college in the early 1900s and Judy herself is a heroine whose character is one to live up to.

An Unreliable Man by Jostein Gaarder

I expected great things from Jostein Gaarder’s An Unreliable Man after having loved Sophie’s World when I read it over twenty years ago. Not surprisingly, I found An Unreliable Man to be entertaining and mildly thought-provoking, but not all-engrossing in the way Sophie’s World was. Sophie’s World is a hard act to follow.

An Unreliable Man is narrated by Jakop, a lonely man who attends the funerals of people he doesn’t know in order to feel a sense of belonging. On the occasions when he was challenged by other funeral-goers, he trotted out made-up stories of how he had met and befriended the dearly departed, based on their death notices in the newspapers and any other glimpses into their lives he could find. Sometimes, he winged it, attending funerals without having done any research, and fabricated a story of his connection with the deceased based on what he learned at the actual funeral.

Jakop tells this story in letter form to Agnes, a woman he met at a funeral. The story he tells follows what he calls the red string line of the funerals which they connected through, either because they were the funerals of her family or because he met other of her friends or family members there. He is completely honest about the lies he told to her family and friends at funerals, some of which were completely preposterous. He actually came unstuck when he met Agnes at a funeral, having explained his friendship with the deceased in a way which anyone who had known her knew to have been impossible.

Prior to meeting Agnes, Jakop’s only long-term relationship has been with a puppet he had had since childhood. When Pelle, Jakop’s puppet is speaking, all sorts of truths which Jakop would not say himself came out. (I’ve noticed this myself about puppets…)

Jakop is fascinated by language and how words from all different cultures connect and interweave. He recounted conversations he had with other people about language in enormous detail. In the beginning, I found the sections about language to be fascinating, but before long I felt lectured and started skimming over them.

I enjoyed An Unreliable Man, but do not see myself looking out for more books by this author.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

The title story of Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann is a novella. It is accompanied by three shorter stories in this collection.

Thirteen Ways of Looking is almost crime fiction, in that the main character, an elderly retired judge, is murdered as he leaves a New York restaurant after eating lunch with his disappointing but much loved middle-aged son.

The story is told in alternate points of view. Most are of Peter Mendelssohn’s thoughts as he goes through his last day on earth. They show him to be a loving, gentle and hopeful man who is struggling with the humiliations of old age. Peter misses his dead wife, wants his son to be a better man and is proud of his activist, reactionary daughter. He is kind to the people around him.

The alternate chapters are told in the third person, looking over the shoulders of the detectives who are investigating Peter Mendelssohn’s murder.

It was impossible for me to work out who the murderer was and why anybody would have wanted to murder this kind old man until the author revealed the reason. The story isn’t really crime fiction, though. It is more of a story of Peter’s life.

Each chapter starts with one of the thirteen sections of the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens. I’m not familiar with this poem and struggled to connect it with this story, nor was I able to see thirteen different ways of looking in each chapter. I did like Peter Mendelssohn very much, though and thought the story very good.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are? is a very short story within a story. A writer is tasked with writing a short story for a New Year’s publication and eventually he dreams up Sandi, a 26-year old Marine in Afghanistan who somehow became more real to me than the narrator’s story. I enjoyed the cleverness of this story enormously.

Sh’khol is set in Ireland and tells of a single mother and her adopted son’s Christmas. Rebecca gave Tomas a wet suit for Christmas but when he disappeared her feelings of guilt became overwhelming. This is a sad, complicated story.

Treaty is another sad story, this time of a nun who had been kidnapped and brutalised almost forty years ago. When she saw her kidnapper on the television news, spruiking peace, she was able to come to terms with her past in a particularly brave way.

All of these stories left me with something to think about, but it was the lovely, gentle writing which I enjoyed most, which I found surprisingly because none of the stories themselves were gentle, although the characters generally were.

I’ll be happy to read a novel by Colum McCann in future.

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