Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Author’ Category

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl

I had read a couple of the short stories from The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl previously but the rest were new to me. The stories are aimed at older children so of course I enjoyed them enormously.

The collection started with The Boy Who Talked With Animals. The narrator is an Englishman on a beach holiday in Jamaica where local fishermen caught an enormous turtle which they dragged up onto the beach. One particularly obnoxious holiday-maker wanted to buy the turtle’s shell while others looked forward to eating turtle soup and steak. At this point I considered becoming a vegetarian. It seemed to me that the turtle owned its own shell and contents, regardless of who else wanted them. Although the narrator was sympathetic to the fate of the turtle, the only advocate for the turtle’s life was a young boy.

The next story was The Hitch-Hiker whose narrator picked up a hitch-hiker in his high-powered car. The hitch-hiker’s trade as a ‘fingersmith’ proved useful when the narrator was caught speeding.

The Mildenhall Treasure was new to me. The story is a fictionalised version of an actual find of Roman treasure by a farmer in England while ploughing a paddock. I’ve been fascinated by the details of the find since reading this story and have been poring over photos of the 34 pieces of magnificent silver which are now housed in the British Museum.

The Swan is the story of two teenage bullies who went out bird-shooting but ended up tormenting a younger child. Nobody portrays horrible children quite so well as Roald Dahl.

The title story, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar tells of a rich, good-for-nothing who reads an account of a man who could see without using his eyes. Henry Sugar decided to learn to do this himself so he could cheat his friends at cards. It took him years to learn but once he did, Henry Sugar became a better person.

Lucky Break How I Became a Writer is the author’s account of what it takes to be a writer and how he became one, starting with his childhood at boarding school where he was brutally beaten by school masters and older students. Fortunately he also learned to love good literature from a wonderful woman who taught him and his fellow students about a different landmark event in English Literature every Saturday morning. Dahl then talked about his first job with the Shell Oil Company, for whom he was working in Tanzania when World War Two broke out. He became a writer after the war when he met C.S. Forester, which is every bit as amazing a story as all of the rest.

The last story in this collection is A Piece of Cake My First Story – 1942. This is Dahl’s account of a plane crash he had during the war in the desert, which he wrote for C.S. Forester when asked to provide the details of his most exciting adventure during war time. C.S. Forester had requested this with the intention of turning into a story for a newspaper but ended up submitting Dahl’s story to the newspaper without changing a word. The story earned Dahl $1000 and a letter from C.S. Forester asking, “Did you know you were a writer?”

I’d forgotten how readable Roald Dahl’s stories are. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne at the moment and seeing the gorgeously purple and gold advertising for the show on the theatre’s fa├žade and on trams, buildings and flagpoles all around town made me pick up this book.

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald was laugh out loud funny, which was occasionally a problem for me as I read the book on the train to work.

The story is set in a small town in New Zealand and followed 11-year old Tippy Chan as she investigated a murder-mystery with the help of her Uncle Pike and his partner Devon. Pike and Devon live a glamorous life in Sydney and couldn’t help adding sparkle and excitement to life in Riverston, even though Tippy’s best friend was in a coma after a mysterious accident and she and her mother were struggling to come to terms with her father’s recent death.

While Tippy’s mother went on a cruise (lucky woman!) Pike babysat Tippy, intending to get to know his niece. When her teacher was murdered and horrifically dismembered, Tippy, Pike and Devon styled themselves on Tippy’s hero, Nancy Drew, in a sort of bonding exerceise to investigate the murder clues that the local police have either ignored or failed to find. Tippy’s life was put into danger as she got closer to finding out who killed her teacher and why.

The laugh out loud bits were often because of characters saying and doing things that were wildly inappropriate and socially unacceptable. There were a lot of innuendos which made me laugh. The New Zealander characters all swore constantly, even more than Australians supposedly do, so clearly this book won’t be for everyone.

While I enjoyed the humour, the story is not without faults. I felt that Tippy’s character, vocabulary and thinking was far more grown-up than most 11-year old children are capable of. Pike and Devon’s relationship also felt much stronger and longer-lasting than expected from a man who was supposedly unable to keep a relationship going for longer than three months. Most of the characters tipped into being caricatures of their strongest characteristics. I also felt that the murderer was a ridiculously unlikely person to have killed Tippy’s teacher.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed the humour enough in The Nancys enough not to mind the bits of the story which didn’t ring true and I hope this author goes on to write many more novels. If he does, I’ll go on a cruise (just like Tippy’s mother did) and read them by the pool…

The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson

The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson follows on from The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

In The Accidental Further Adventures Allan and his friend Julius, who accompanied Allan through the adventures of the previous book escaped a growing debt which they could not afford to pay and the boredom of life in Bali (apparently paradise becomes dull after a while) when they took a trip in a hot air balloon on Allan 101st birthday, landed in the Indian Ocean and were picked up by a North Korean ship that was smuggling uranium.

Luckily Allan knew enough about nuclear bombs to keep him and Julius alive during their meetings with the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un, inventing an imaginary science which he called ‘hetisostat pressure’ which he promised would enrich North Korea’s uranium stash. Even more luckily for Allan and Julius, the Swedish UN Ambassador Margot Wallstrom was visiting North Korea at the same time and managed to get the pair on a plane to New York where President Donald Trump was waiting to meet them.

Allan had intended to give North Korea’s uranium to Trump, but after watching the president have a tantrum decided he was far too volatile to trust with the product and instead, used a diplomat to unwittingly deliver the lead-encased suitcase full of uranium to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Allan and Julius then returned to Sweden and fell in with a woman who owned a corner store and a coffin shop. The three of them eventually found themselves on the run from an angry neo-Nazi.

Between the plot and Allan’s wit, this story exposed the fictionalised versions of various world-leaders as dangerous fools while promoting others as having the world’s best interests in their sights. The Accidental Further Adventures is much more of a commentary on world politics than The Hundred-Year Old Man was and although not as funny, was equally as clever. I think The Accidental Further Adventures would work as a stand-alone novel although it would be better to read the books in order to learn Allan’s history.

While poking fun at our world leaders, The Accidental Further Adventures also helped me to see the funny side of current events that are frightening on the news. The fictional characters seemed equally as real as the (fictionalised) real people used in the book. Most worryingly, although I was highly entertained by this story, I’m now wondering to what extent voters in the western world are manipulated by external forces when making the decisions which affect their countries.

I got on to this author following a recommendation from Honey-Bunny and haven’t looked back. Can’t wait to find out what Allan gets up to when he turns 102.

I’m going to take a short break from blogging as work is taking up a lot of my attention lately and I’ve fallen behind on my reading. (I blame Tom Jones…)

See you when I’ve caught up.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre

I couldn’t figure out what was going on in John Le Carre’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy and was so bored by the politics and the jargon of the spy-games the characters were playing that I didn’t finish the book.

I loved the first chapter which told of a new school teacher arriving at a boy’s school sometime in the 1970s. Bill Roach, one of the students, was fascinated by Jim Prideaux, his car, his trailer, his military style and his easy way with the boys he teaches. I read far enough into the book to learn that Jim was a former spy who had been injured during a former spy operation.

In chapter two the story moved to George Smiley, a has-been spy whose job it was to figure out who was the mole (double-agent Russian spy) in the Circus (British Intelligence). Suddenly a cast of thousands arrived in the story, including a spy who had previously been thought to have defected to the Russians. This was when things got too complicated for me.

I lost faith in George’s ability to work out what was going on in the Circus when I learned his wife was messing around with one of his colleagues. Since I didn’t finish the book, I don’t know if either story line was resolved.

Obviously my opinion should not be taken as the last word on this subject as John Le Carre is one of the most respected and beloved writers in this field. I’m not very good at keeping secrets, whatever I’m thinking shows on my face and I can’t understand why all of our countries can’t just get along, so perhaps I should have realised earlier that spy novels are not for me.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was book fourteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson was not authorised by Agatha Christie Ltd. I should have heeded the warning on the preface page and not read the book. As it was, I got to a particularly abhorrent scene somewhere around the middle, then decided I’d had enough.

In A Different Kind of Evil Agatha Christie is a character, telling the story in the first-person. It begins with Agatha, her daughter and her daughter’s nanny on their way to Tenerife in 1927 where she was sent to investigate the death of a British Secret Intelligence Service agent.

On the journey, Agatha witnesses the suicide of another passenger’s wife, a stowaway, who jumped overboard. The passenger was travelling with his mistress. On arriving in Tenerife, Agatha involved herself with several unpleasant and potentially dangerous characters, all of whom may have had something to do with the death of the agent.

I found the portion of the book I read to be overly complicated, overly dramatic and overly nasty.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’ve been enjoying reading my way through Ann Patchett’s books, most recently State of Wonder which I thought was readable, although not up to the standard of Bel Canto.

State of Wonder follows an American scientist, Marina Signh, whose colleague recently died in the Amazonian jungle while carrying out investigations for the company at an outpost laboratories in Brazil.

Marina was sent to the jungle to follow up by her boss, Mr Fox, who wanted her to find out what happened to Anders Eckman to give Eckman’s family closure, but also, and more importantly for the company, to learn how Dr Annick Swenson’s development of a drug which allows women to remain fertile their whole lives is progressing.

Marina’s journey to the remote tribe somewhere living in a rainforest somewhere in Brazil is not for the faint-hearted and when she arrives, things in the laboratory were not as expected.

Marina’s romantic involvement with Mr Fox complicates matters, as does the fact that the abrasive and driven Dr Swenson was Marina’s idol and teacher when she was in university. The horrible nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drugs Marina takes further complicate the decisions she needs to make.

The story seemed overly muddy and complicated to me, with characters who didn’t add much getting in the way of the story. There was too much detail about things that didn’t matter and not enough details about those that did. I struggled to believe in Marina’s relationship with Mr Fox, mostly due to the differences in their moral values and strengths and also because after a year of seeing each other Marina was unable to call him by his first name.

I think State of Wonder is a book Ann Patchett fans will enjoy, but not the book I would recommend to someone new to this author.

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

I nearly cast aside Cressida Connolly’s After the Party as after reading several books set around World War Two recently I was ready for a break from stories set during this time. However, I started reading and realised that these character’s viewpoints and situation was one I had never thought much about before.

The story is told by an English woman, Phyllis Forrestor, who along with her husband and young children returned to England in 1938 after being overseas for years. Phyllis and her family soon became immersed in her sister’s social groups, Patricia’s, a rich, privileged and nasty bunch of snobs, and Nina’s, a jolly political group concerned with ‘peace work’

The chapters are set between 1938 until 1941 which alternate with others from 1979, as Phyllis explains the events of the earlier time which caused her to have been jailed in Hollingsworth, a women’s prison.

When Phyllis returned to England in 1938, her sisters Nina and Patricia were both heavily involved with the British Union of Fascists or British Union Party. For Phyllis, assisting Nina shop for and feeding the members of the peace group at a summer holiday camp allowed her to feel useful and as if she belonged somewhere after being away from England for so long, and with Patricia, she got to know members of the group on a more social footing, which she also enjoyed very much. A visit from the party leader, Oswald Mosley, was the social event of the summer for all of the sisters.

I was genuinely shocked when characters who I thought were just normal, good-mannered, considerate people expressed anti-Semitic views and condoned their children’s behaviour as they harassed others with beliefs different to their own. (Obviously I didn’t know anything about this political group before I started reading this book, so much like Phyllis, believed and went along with everything I was told until this event forced me to question what the story had told me so far).

Phyllis is the middle sister, a pleaser by nature who became caught between her sisters’ issues with each other. She didn’t want to rock the boat when her husband had an affair with Patricia, and this unwillingness to ask questions and think for herself about political issues in particular led to her and her husband being jailed for their involvement with a party whose ideologies she didn’t really seem to understand. Phyllis seemed to me to be a (mostly) good person, who did her wishy-washy best for her family and friends as she tried to fit in with and please both her sisters. However, as the law says, ignorance is no excuse and to be fair, Phyllis’ best was really not good enough.

The other main strand of this story was more personal. Through Patricia, Phyllis met and befriended a very rich and exotic woman, Sarita, whose story ended sadly. As Phyllis looks back at her life in 1979, she was sadder about how her own behaviour had affected Sarita than she was about her involvement with the party, her time in prison or even that her own family no longer saw each other.

The Mitford sisters weren’t mentioned, but I suppose their glamourous and notorious lives influenced this story enormously. While After the Party isn’t a great book, this is an interesting look at a viewpoint which I’m fairly unfamiliar with and now, slightly intrigued by.

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