Book reviews

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The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

I recently read The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan. While I enjoyed this story, I struggled to concentrate well enough to appreciate it fully.

The Beguiled is set during the American Civil War in a girls’ boarding school in Virginia run by two middle-aged sisters, both of whom are spinsters. Due to the war there are only five students still at the school, all teenage girls of various ages and backgrounds. An elderly slave, Mattie, also lives at the school.

When young Amelia was out in the woods she found an injured Union soldier and took him back to the school with her. Although Miss Martha knew it was risky to have Corporal Johnny McBurney in her home she operated on his leg after which he was left to recuperate on a settee in the parlour. As Johnny recovered he charmed the girls with his flattery, stories and kisses and much like a rooster in a henhouse, became the focus of all of their attention.

Two girls hoped Johnny would be their lover and when one girl found him in bed with the other girl, she caused him to have an accident that further injured his leg. Miss Martha then amputated Johnny’s injured leg, although whether this operation was actually needed or not was ambiguous. Once he recovered, he was furious and began a reign of terror against the women to get his revenge.

The story is told in chapters told alternately by the five girls, Miss Martha, Miss Harriet and Mattie. Each of the narrators had a different view of Johnny and they each wanted something different from him. Despite this, I struggled to distinguish between the girls’ voices as they all sounded exactly the same regardless of the difference in their ages, life experience, morals and backgrounds.

None of the characters excepting Mattie were particularly likeable. The girls constantly squabbled amongst each other and rebelled against their teachers, while Miss Martha and Miss Harriet had carried grudges from their youth into their current circumstances. Johnny lied so much he believed his own stories and although he was charming, he was a fiend when things didn’t go his way.

Amongst all of the characters, Mattie had the most to be unhappy about. She was the last slave left at the school after Miss Martha sold all of the others including Mattie’s husband, but she was the only person with true strength of character and a good heart. In an interesting twist she saw straight through Johnny’s wiles when he showed sympathy for her situation as a slave in an attempt to gain rapport with her.

The Beguiled has been made into two movies, an earlier one starring Clint Eastwood and a more recent version directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. While I’m more inclined to watch the more recent adaptation of this movie than the Clint Eastwood version, I won’t go out of my way to find either.

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie is set in one of her terrific village settings full of little old ladies, likeable young people, pompous older people, weirdos and suspicious characters, and of course a murderer. Unusually for this author, the story also contains a romance.

Luke Fitzwilliam had just returned to England from the Mayang Straits (now Singapore) after retiring from the police force when he met an elderly lady on a train who told him she was on her way to Scotland Yard to report a murderer who had been working their way through her village. Luke thought Miss Pinkerton was imagining things until he read in the paper the next day that she had been killed in a hit and run accident in London.

With the assistance of a friend who had a cousin living in the old lady’s village, Luke arranged to visit Wychwood to investigate the deaths that Miss Pinkerton had told him about, posing as an author writing about superstitions and witchcraft in the village.

Luke soon fell in love with Bridget, his friend’s cousin in Wychwood but their romance was complicated by Bridget already being engaged to Lord Whitfield, a pompous fellow whose enemies have a habit of dying seemingly by accident. While Luke investigated several other suspects in the village as well as Lord Whitfield, I thought I could have saved him the trouble as I identified a particular person as the murderer early in the story. It turned out that I’m not very clever at all though, because I was wrong and the murderer was someone else entirely who I hadn’t suspected at all. I honestly don’t know how Agatha Christie does it, but that’s how it goes for me every single time.

For a policeman, Luke wasn’t any better at identifying the murderer than I was and before long he found himself and Bridget in mortal danger. Luckily, he survived, with the assistance of Superintendent Battle who appeared briefly at the end of the story, just in time to arrest the murderer.

Murder is Easy probably isn’t one of Agatha Christie’s better murder mysteries, but as her poorer stories are still better than many other efforts, I enjoyed this story.

A Pleasure to Burn Fahrenheit 451 Stories by Ray Bradbury

A Pleasure to Burn by Ray Bradbury is a collection of short stories connected to Fahrenheit 451. I expected to be enthralled by these stories and I was.

These stories have in common with Fahrenheit 451 that they are set in a world where books are outlawed and burned. Some are told from the point of view of the firemen whose job it is to find and burn books, other stories are told from the point of view of readers and book-lovers who are trying to protect books, while some are told by the authors whose books are being destroyed. As a book-lover, it is hard to think of a more chilling theme.

There are many references to the world’s great horror authors and stories in these short stories but unfortunately most of these went over my head. One example of this was the main character in Carnival of Memories who took inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher to seek revenge on the authorities responsible for banning horror stories.

Many of the stories are set in the future. Pillar of Fire is set in 2349 and features a corpse who, rather than allowing his body (and presumably his soul) to be incinerated when the authorities decided to get rid of all the old graveyards, rose from his grave after being dead for centuries only to find that nobody in 2349 was afraid of anything, partly because all horror stories had long since been destroyed. As a result the dead man found it difficult to frighten anyone, even though the people he met should have been terrified of him and the evil deeds he carried out.

Some of the stories are set in the past. These featured characters who had escaped from a future that can only be described as frightening and miserable. These characters viewed our recent past as an utopia.

I enjoyed the The Fireman and Long After Midnight which are both early versions of Fahrenheit 451. These two stories featured Guy Montag, the fireman from Fahrenheit 451.

Fans of Fahrenheit 451 will appreciate these stories.

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Gwendy’s Button Box is a novella jointly written by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar.

The story is set in the fictitious town of Castle Rock which is a very familiar place for Stephen King’s regular readers. It begins with twelve-year old Gwendy Peterson running up the Suicide Stairs to Castle View after a boy from school started calling her ‘Goodyear.’ Gwendy was keen to lose weight before the nickname caught on amongst her peers.

When she reached the top of the stairs Gwendy entered into a conversation with a mysterious stranger, who before he left Castle View gave Gwendy a button box with coloured buttons and levers. The stranger explained to Gwendy that each of the coloured buttons related to a continent of the world. One of the levers delivered Gwendy miniature chocolates that were so satisfying they removed her will to snack between meals while another lever delivered valuable coins.

Out of curiousity, Gwendy pushed one of the coloured buttons and was horrified by a corresponding disaster occurring in the part of the world that button represented. During the remainder of her guardianship of the button box, Gwendy did her utmost to protect and hide the box from anyone who might inadvertently push a button and cause another disaster.

The tense is unusual, third person, past tense. For example, In June of 1975, Gwendy stops wearing her glasses. I didn’t notice that there were two separate authors, but I did find the writing style to be familiar and I recognised Stephen King’s Castle Rock community.

I found this story to be more like a fairy tale than a horror story. Gwendy was a likeable heroine and the story was enjoyable, although it lacked depth. Gwendy’s Button Box is probably best for Stephen King’s ‘Constant Readers.’

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

I was describing the plot of Boy Swallows Universe by Australian author Trent Dalton to Honey-Bunny, who said, “That sounds depressing.” I had to laugh, because the story I was describing did sound depressing, even though it isn’t. Despite all of the terrible things the narrator and his family endure Boy Swallows Universe is full of hope and joy. Not only that, the story is funny and clever and most surprisingly of all, based on the author’s own life.

The story starts in the mid 1980s with twelve year old Eli Bell who lives with his family in a rough Brisbane suburb. While Eli and his brother August’s drug-addicted mother and heroin dealing stepfather Lyle are out doing business the boys are babysat by Slim Halliday, the most infamous criminal to ever break out of Brisbane’s Boggo Road Jail. The family are poor, surrounded by violence and are prone to bad luck but they genuinely love and care for each other.

When gangster Tytus Broz caught Lyle making drug deals on the side of their own arrangement, his henchman dragged Lyle out of the family home never to be seen alive again. During the attack Eli’s mother was beaten up and Eli’s lucky forefinger with the freckle on the knuckle was chopped off. Eli woke up in hospital to learn that Tytus had arranged for their home to be raided by the police which caused his mother to be sent to jail for two years. Eli and August went to live with their alcoholic father in his Housing Commission house.

Elis and August are both extraordinary characters but August has a kind of magic about him. August is mute and writes his messages in the air for others to read. Some of his messages are prophecies which play out throughout the story.

Slim, who is based on a real person, is Eli’s best mate as well as his babysitter. He teaches Eli important life lessons, and put particular emphasis on Eli to learn to watch what is going on around him closely and to remember details. This trait becomes more and more important as Eli grows up and attempts to become a crime writer for Brisbane’s newspaper, The Courier-Mail.

I’m still not sure how this story about a family living in horrific conditions, who struggled with domestic violence, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, surrounded themselves with criminals and involved themselves in criminal activities also managed to be so joyful, but it is. The language the family use is when speaking is often profane but their love of reading is a joy to read about.

My only complaint about this story is that I thought the ending was implausible.

However, the writing in Boy Swallows Universe is poetic, the characters are enthralling, the story is fascinating and I loved it. Several weeks after our conversation a workmate gave a copy of Boy Swallows Universe to Honey-Bunny saying that it was the best book he had read during 2018. I’m really looking forward to hearing her opinion of the book.

Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer was a comfort read for me. It’s a book I’ve read several times before and will no doubt enjoy again in future.

A friend from school started me on Georgette Heyer’s novels when we were around twelve years old. I was staying with her family during the school holidays and the highlight of my visit was a trip to the town library. I was in heaven! My lovely friend borrowed several Anne of Green Gables books and a Georgette Heyer regency romance for me to read during my visit. While I don’t remember which Georgette Heyer novel I started on, I’ve loved them ever since.

At that time the library was housed in three or four small rooms in an old house next to the Post Office in the town’s main street. These days I believe the library is housed in a much larger building at the far end of the street.

Faro’s Daughter was a pleasure to read from beginning to end. The heroine is 25 years old, slightly older than many of Heyer’s heroines. Deborah Grantham helps her aunt to run a London gaming house which was frequented by the richest men in London. Unfortunately Deb’s aunt was a poor businesswoman and at the beginning of the story they were on the verge of financial ruin.

When Max Ravenscar, one of the richest men in England learned that his nephew wanted to marry Deb he stepped in with the intention of buying her off. Of course he fell in love with Deb himself, although it took him almost until the end of the book to realise she was not a fortune-hunter and had no intention of taking advantage of young Adrian.

Deb and Max, who is described as a hard-faced man who looks as if he would “strip to advantage” according to Deb’s doorman who was himself a retired boxer, argued and called each other names throughout this story. Doxy, Jade and Jezebel are a small sample of the names Max called Deb.

I was amused by the morals of Deb and Max, who had similar ideas of fair play that made little sense to anyone else. For example, Deb considered it reasonable to have her doorman kidnap Max and lock him in the cellar in order for her to redeem the mortgage papers on her aunt’s house, but she didn’t think it fair that he was hit over the head during the kidnapping. In return, Max refused to be freed from the cellar by Deb’s brother after he learned that her brother took the cellar key from Deb by force.

Faro’s Daughter is funny, completely ridiculous and one of my favourite of Georgette Heyer’s novels. Actually, they are all funny, ridiculous and they are all my favourites 🙂

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I added A Passage to India by E.M. Forster to my Classics Club list even though I didn’t really enjoy either Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread. The writing in both books is beautiful and the issues raised are thought-provoking but Forster’s characters irritate me enormously.

A Passage to India follows four main characters, three who are English and one who is Indian, all of whom were living in or visiting India during the 1920s. Miss Adela Quested was visiting India with Mrs Moore to decide if she wanted to marry Mrs Moore’s son Ronny when they visited local caves with Dr Aziz, a local Indian man. While they were exploring the caves Adela had a panic attack and accused Dr Aziz of assaulting her.

In court, Adela realised she had imagined the attack and so the case against Dr Aziz was dismissed, although of course by then his personal reputation had been savaged. Adela’s accusation against Dr Aziz also damaged the relationship between the Indian and British people which had become perilously close to becoming violent. After the court case was over Adela felt unable to marry Ronny, so Mr Fielding took her in until she was able to return to England. Fielding’s kind deed to Adela ruined his friendship with Dr Aziz.

The outing to the caves came about because as newcomers to India, Mrs Moore and Adela wanted to know what they called the ‘real’ India and Indian people. The other women living in British India (or British Raj) preferred to create a replica of their lives in England and viewed Indian people with an extraordinary amount of racism considering that the English were the outsiders in India.

It seemed to me that the Indian people weren’t friends with each other either as they were divided by their religions and castes. It seemed even more impossible that the Indian and British people, represented by Fielding and Dr Aziz could be friends, as they had an even greater divide between them.

Perhaps not surprisingly I felt irritable the entire time I was reading A Passage to India, but this time, as well as feeling annoyed by characters who I didn’t like or respect, the whole idea of the British Empire being in India when they had no business there at all irritated me enormously. While I understand that if the British hadn’t been in India another empire-building, thieving country would have been there plundering India instead, I don’t think that excuses the British.

I found A Passage to India hard-going. None of the characters in this book come out of the story covered in any kind of glory. As well as feeling irritated for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I also struggled with boredom and kept falling asleep while reading this story.

A Passage to India was book nineteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus came from Miss S’s bookcase. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself intrigued by this murder mystery featuring five teenagers.

The story begins with Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate, Addy and Simon attending after-school detention. All of them claimed to have been set up for punishment by an unknown person. While the teacher was out of the room Simon took a drink of water from the tap in the room and collapsed. One of the students recognised that Simon was having an allergic reaction but could not find Simon’s Epi-Pen amongst his belongings. The Epi-Pens in the nurses office had also vanished and Simon died.

The immediate investigation focussed on how Simon’s cup came to contain peanut oil and why the Epi-Pens had disappeared. As Simon was the creator of a gossip app that regularly exposed secrets about his schoolmates most of the student body had a reason to dislike him, but the police investigation soon discovered that the four students in detention with Simon had more particular reasons for wanting to kill him.

Bronwyn had cheated on her exams and exposure would have meant she was no longer a contender to attend Yale. Nate was risking jail by dealing drugs while on probation. Cooper was a baseball star whose pitching speed had sped up quickly enough for others to suspect he had been using steroids. The exposure of a past relationship threatened to derail Addy’s present relationship with her control-freak boyfriend.

Simon had somehow found out all of these secrets and had been about to post the details on his app for the whole school to read before he died.

I liked all of the characters, with the exception of Simon who was surprisingly venomous for a boy of his age. The remaining characters interacted well together and although they had made mistakes they had good hearts and I didn’t want any of them to be Simon’s killer. They reminded me of the mix of characters from The Breakfast Club (showing my age here) and before his death, Simon actually referred to himself and his fellow detainees as teen-movie stereotypes.

The only part of this story I didn’t like was how the mystery was resolved. The loose ends were tied up neatly enough but I felt that the reason why the perpetrator acted as they did was far-fetched. Regardless, I enjoyed One of Us Is Lying and can imagine this story being made into a successful movie.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t yet read The Testaments and intend to, be warned that my review may contain details of the story that you might prefer to discover for yourself.

The story begins about fifteen years after Offred, whose narration made up The Handmaid’s Tale, tried to escape Gilead. In The Testaments the story is told by three narrators, Aunt Lydia, who also appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, Daisy, a teenage girl living in Canada and Agnes, the teenage daughter of a high-ranking Commander in Gilead. At the time Gilead and Canada were fighting over possession of Baby Nicole, an infant who had been smuggled out of Gilead many years ago.

Aunt Lydia’s story surprised me most. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she was the most powerful and feared of the Aunts, whose role it was to train the handmaids. The Testaments explains her background in her own words. Before the onset of the regime which caused her to lose all of her rights she was a respected judge. Along with other women of her age, education and status she was imprisoned and treated in a dehumanising manner before being given the opportunity to become an Aunt in Gilead, the only position a woman could hold and keep some autonomy over her own life in the new regime.

In contrast, Agnes had been born in Gilead and knew of no other way of life. She had a loving relationship with her adoptive mother but was thrown adrift after her death. When Agnes’ adoptive father remarried, his new wife had no affection for Agnes and brokered a deal for Agnes to marry the highest ranking Commander in the regime. Marriage to Commander Judd would have brought enormous prestige for Agnes and her family but was not without risk for Agnes as Commander Judd had previously married several very young women who had later died in mysterious circumstances. Surprisingly, it was Aunt Lydia who came to Agnes’ rescue by suggesting that the girl had a vocation to become an Aunt, which over-rode the marriage plans.

In Canada, Daisy was growing up in a way most girls in a contemporary Western world would recognise. Daisy studied Gilead’s current affairs in school but was unaware that her adoptive parents were involved in Mayday, an organisation that smuggled women out of Gilead. After her parents were murdered Daisy was smuggled away by Mayday operatives who told her she was Baby Nicole and as such had been hidden from the government of Gilead who were demanding her return.

The Mayday operatives convinced Daisy to return to Gilead as a spy. They taught her to fight and gave her some tips on how to manage, then sent her off as a convert to the regime while keeping her identity as Baby Nicole secret. When she arrived in Gilead, Aunt Lydia took Daisy under her wing and tasked Agnes with looking after her.

Aunt Lydia is by far the strongest character in this story and I would have liked to read more of her story and less about Agnes and Daisy, although their stories were vital to the plot.

For anyone wondering what happened to Offred after her attempted escape and what caused Gilead to fall, The Testaments has the answer. Most of the loose ends were tied up, possibly a little too neatly. The story is also enormously entertaining but for me it didn’t have the emotional punch of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was of course an extremely hard act to follow.

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green

I enjoyed The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Australian author Sophie Green, which I randomly grabbed in a last-minute dash to my local library when COVID-19 was initially threatening to close the library down. My library has now been closed for three months. I’ve got a few more unread library books to get through before I move on to the massive pile of books in the pile of books that I own.

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club was a more serious book than I initially expected it to be, although it would be fair to describe the story as ‘heart-warming’ so I imagine it would be filed under ‘women’s fiction,’ if there is still such a category. The story is set during the mid 1970s with most of the action taking place on an outback property about an hour’s drive out of Katherine in the Northern Territory. The stories of the five main characters are told alternately.

Kate was homesick for England when her mother-in-law, Sybil, came up with the idea of starting a book club. Sybil invited Sallyanne, a young mother of three children who she knew from the Katherine Country Women’s Association, also Della, a Texan who was working on a neighbouring station and Rita, a nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor Service who was based in Alice Springs to join the book club. Due to the large distances between their homes the book club only met once or twice a year.

The story reminded me of how limited women’s lives were during the 1970s. Sallyanne’s husband was an alcoholic, but she couldn’t financially afford to leave him and she was afraid of being judged adversely by her community if she were to become a single mother. Della was in love with an Aboriginal man but they had to hide their feelings because of the threat of him being beaten up or worse by anyone who might disapprove of their relationship. In contrast, as the white owners of Fairvale Station, Sybil and Kate had a high degree of autonomy in their lives, possibly because the men in their family allowed this. There were Aboriginal women living in a camp on the Station whose lives would have been very different to the white characters, but their existence was glossed over at a very high level.

The books which the characters read for their book club were also only touched on lightly. They read some fantastic Australian books, including The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and The Harp in the South by Ruth Park as well as bestsellers from the time such as A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford and The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. I would have liked to read a little more of the character’s opinions of these books, although these would not have contributed to the actual story at all. I was amused that this book ended with a series of questions about the book and the character’s motivations designed to be used for discussion by a book club.

The characters of The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club were a little stereotyped and there weren’t many surprises in the plot, however I enjoyed reading about the character’s friendships and the life of women in the Northern Territory during this time.

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