Category Archives: Book Review

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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Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

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I read Laurinda by Australian writer Alice Pung some time ago and quite enjoyed the story of a Chinese-Australian girl from the western suburbs of Melbourne who won a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s school. When I found a copy of this author’s biography, Unpolished Gem, I was very happy to have the opportunity to read her story of growing up in Footscray, a suburb in western Melbourne where I have worked. Footscray is home to a great many Asian-Australians and this story gave me an insight into a world I can see but not be part of.

I suspect the author was able to tell her Chinese-Cambodian family’s story so openly because her parents do not read English, so she was quite safe from getting into trouble with them after telling all of their secrets. I suspect her parents would say “Wah!” if they realised she had written so openly about their faults and failings.

The family’s life in Australia was in complete contrast to her parent’s lives in China and Cambodia, from the atrocities of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime in particular.

Some of the stories are funny and absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing about the author’s grandmother blessing Father Government for giving old people money in the form of a pension, and the joy that came from shopping at supermarkets and stopping traffic with the little green man at the pedestrian crossings. It made me laugh to hear that the Chinese people call white Australians ‘ghosts.’ The happier stories also reminded me of how much I take for granted as a white Australian.

Other stories were more difficult to read. A number of generations living together has its’ blessings and its’ curses, and I felt terribly sorry for Alice as her mother and grandmother used her as a tool to make each other angry or unhappy. Sharing her bed with her grandmother must have been difficult for Alice too, possibly not so unusual for a child visiting a grandparent but quite unusual in everyday life in contemporary Australia.

The story which most made my heart go out to the author was an incident when Alice’s younger sister rolled off the bed and had to be checked for brain injuries while Alice had been looking after her. Luckily the baby was fine, but the blame and guilt heaped on Alice, who was also very young, was excessive.

Alice was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and did amazingly well to end up studying law at Melbourne University. In Australian, Chinese parents are known for expecting their children to do well at school and I found it sad to read stories of families treating their children with contempt when they failed to achieve what was expected of them. Often these ‘failures’ were just shy of achieving the marks to do law, so in reality, they had achieved very good results in school.

The story ends with Alice about 19 or 20, breaking up with her Skippy (white Australian) boyfriend.

I preferred the fiction of Laurinda, but Unpolished Gem was an interesting read.

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my first Anne Tyler book. Not sure why I’ve never picked up one of her books before, because she is good.  I think I was put off by watching The Accidental Tourist starring William Hurt. The story was terribly sad and I didn’t enjoy it.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of a very ordinary, unhappy family. The story goes back and forward in time, but starts with Pearl Tull dying as one of her sons sits with her.

Pearl was the mother of three children in 1944 when her husband, a salesman, left her. Somehow Pearl never got around to telling the children that their father wasn’t coming back, assuming that because he travelled so much they wouldn’t notice. Pearl found a job in a grocery store and got on with bringing up the children in their joyless home.

Pearl’s children are wildly different from each other. Cody is an attractive bad boy. Cody is horribly jealous of his younger brother Ezra who is a goody-goody, while their sister Jenny is unsettled and flighty. Pearl is disappointed by all of her children, wanting them to be whatever they are not. Pearl is a perfectionist with a nasty temper, and as adults, the children do not remember their childhood with pleasure.

Each family member has a different view of the events that happened to shape the family. I found it fascinating that what Pearl remembered as the happiest times of her life were when the children were small, but Cody, Ezra and Jennifer have very different memories of particular occasions. This reminded me of a comment one of my sisters once made when she was living overseas and was receiving letters from all of us at home. (Yes, actual letters which had been posted, sent overseas by airmail and delivered into her letterbox. Way back in the olden days…) Anyway, my sister said we all wrote to her with the same news, however everyone had such different outlooks or points to make that each writer could have been describing a completely separate event.

Not much actually happens in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The characters live ordinary lives, day after day, but the story is so readable and the characters so real that I couldn’t put the book down. The dynamics between Cody and Ezra were particularly interesting, as Cody was so terribly jealous of Ezra that he could barely mention Ezra’s name without saying something mean, and Ezra was so bumbling and eternally hopeful that it was no wonder to me Cody hated him. Maybe an only child wouldn’t find these relationships so fascinating, but I’m sure I’m not alone in recognising some of my worst traits in these characters, particularly those which come out when I am with my siblings.

I hoped that the characters would eventually be able to eat a meal together as a family at Ezra’s restaurant, the Homesick Restaurant, without somebody leaving in a snit, but it wasn’t to be.

I’ll definitely read more Anne Tyler and might even try The Accidental Tourist sometime, although possibly with a box of tissues at hand.

 

 

 

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Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

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Lisa Genova has a distinct story-telling style. Pick a horrible disease, preferably something untreatable and fatal. Introduce a lovely character who is an asset to their family and community, make the reader care about the character’s fate and then boom! Give the character the disease and allow the readers to learn about it as the character does. Leave readers sobbing as the character realises how grateful they are to be alive at all, and how blessed they are to have their family and friends.

Inside the O’Briens follows the formula.

The O’Brien’s are an Irish Catholic family living in Boston. Joe O’Brien is in his forties and happily married to Rosie. They have four grown up children and a dog. Joe is a police officer, who, along with his workmates, is jittery after the Boston Marathon bombing. The whole family religiously follow the Red Sox baseball team.

Joe’s temper occasionally flares up and he is clumsy. Rosie gets fed up with him breaking things around the house and when she notices him wriggling constantly, she forces him to visit a doctor.

Joe is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.

I knew very little about Huntington’s Disease before reading this story, and neither did Joe or Rosie. Over the course of the story, the O’Brien’s and I learned exactly what a terrible disease Huntington’s is, which manifests as follows;

motor, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms that typically begin at age 35-45 and advance relentlessly until death. There is currently no cure or treatment that can halt, slow, or reverse the disease’s progression.

Most of the story follows Joe’s day to day life. He chooses to work until he is no longer physically able to manage, but unfortunately, when he does have to retire it is before he is financially ready. Early retirement affects Joe’s pension and Joe and Rosie are advised to take measures they find abhorrent to protect the family home.

Worst of all for Joe, Rosie and their children is wondering which others of them have the disease. There is a fifty-fifty chance for each of his children that they will have the disease. If they don’t have it, the disease stops with them, but if they do, then their children will also have a fifty-fifty chance of having Huntington’s Disease.

Other chapters follow Joe’s children’s lives. One of Joe and Rosie’s children is married, and his wife has just learned she is pregnant. One daughter’s is a ballet dancer and the other, a yoga teacher. Their youngest son is the one they worry most about, he works in a bar, gets in fights from time to time and might be using drugs. Some of the children choose to find out if they will develop Huntington’s, and others are happier not knowing.

For such a sad story, the book ends on a gracious and hopeful note, just as Still Alice and Love Anthony did. There is no hope that the characters (or real people) who have Huntington’s Disease will get a reprieve, but the O’Brien’s are accepting of their fate, grateful for their family and friends, and most importantly, aware they are loved.

 

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Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

 

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It is lucky that Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie features legendary detective Hercule Poirot, because none of the other characters in this novel had a clue who murdered their fellow character, sex-pot Arlena Stuart, and neither did I.

Evil Under the Sun is set on Smuggler’s Island, where a group of holiday makers, including Hercule Poirot, Arlene, her husband Ken and step-daughter Linda are staying at The Jolly Roger Hotel. Arlene, in her green Chinaman’s hat and white swimsuit is, to everyone else’s disgust, making short work of a fellow guest’s affections, young Patrick Redfern, while feeling sorry for Patrick’s heart-broken wife Christine.

Also holidaying on the island is a sensible dress-designer who grew up with Ken, a pair of oblivious Americans, several shady characters, a fellow who is best avoided once he starts telling long-winded stories about his time in India, and others who are only there to swim, boat and build sand-castles.

As always, Agatha Christie tells an entertaining story.

I did have a bit of a giggle to myself when all of the holiday-makers continued their holiday after Arlene was murdered. Never let a murder get in the way of a good day at the beach!

The landlady of The Jolly Roger was the most distressed person of the lot, worrying about what people would think when it got out there had been a murder on the island. The investigations continued around the holiday making, with Hercule Poirot asking questions and observing his fellow character’s behaviours, while putting together what had happened like a jigsaw until he had a clear case and could expose the murderer. When he did, I realised I had suspected every other character in the book, including the landlady*, while discounting the guilty party.

I did think that some elements of this particular murder were too far-fetched, but Evil Under the Sun has really good characters and the most appealing location of an Agatha Christie novels other than the Orient Express. I would love to holiday on Smugglers Island myself, but at the rate bodies turn up wherever Hercule Poirot goes, would have cancelled my reservation when I saw him just in case it was my turn to be the murder victim.

*It wasn’t the landlady.

 

 

 

 

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