Book reviews

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Here Be Dragons is a more serious story from Stella Gibbons, author of the delightful Cold Comfort Farm. Here Be Dragons is set in the 1950s. The main character is Nell Sely, who has recently moved to London with her parents after her father, a country vicar, lost his faith.

Luckily, Nell’s Aunt Peggy is a rich television star who houses the Sely’s in an apartment she owns and finds Nell a job as a typist. Nell meets her cousin John, Aunt Peggy’s pride and joy, and finds him to be a dirty, artistic Bohemian, who along with his artist friends, sponges off everyone he knows, parties hard and lives in squats, take lovers and looks down on people who abide by the rules of society.

Nell becomes infatuated with John but sees his grungy friends more clearly for what they are as she accompanies him around a succession of coffee shops, squats and dives, always looking for someone who will give him an opening into the art world.

Nell quits her boring job to become a waitress in a tea shop. She is aware that she will be looked down on for waitressing but her family need the money. After waitressing for a short while, Nell decides to save for her own tea shop. In her Aunt Peggy’s eyes, this ambition makes Nell into a cliché, but Nell knows her own mind.

Nell is a terrific heroine who is likeable, full of common sense and compassion, but I struggled to believe in her infatuation with her younger, grubby, selfish and manipulative cousin John. The plot had a few intrigues and there was a moral in there somewhere, but the story and characters just didn’t take my heart the way Cold Comfort Farm did.

A passage where the owner of the tea shop asks Nell to smell the cream to confirm it was good to serve for another day made me laugh and shudder all at once, and was typical of the humour throughout the book. The bohemian set were subtly exposed as selfish, pretentious twats, and certain other characters were delightful – here I’m thinking of Nell’s ‘managing’ friend Elizabeth, who is very like the wonderful Flora from Cold Comfort Farm. There were also horrid characters, including American Gardis, who is even more selfish and manipulative than John. Not surprisingly, John and Gardis hate each other.

I’ll continue to look out for more stories by Stella Gibbons, but will lower my expectations in future. There can only be one Cold Comfort Farm.

 

 

 

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Jane Austen, a biography by Carol Shields, left me feeling incredibly sad for the author’s version of Jane Austen. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was a sad and bitter woman who resented her restricted life.

The facts of Jane Austen’s life are probably well known even to casual readers. Born in England in 1775 to a rector and his wife, she was part of a large family living in a rural community. She was a daughter, sister, a friend, and later a sister-in-law and an aunt. Jane Austen never married, having been engaged once only to change her mind overnight. As an unmarried adult woman along with her sister Cassandra, she had little control over her the course of her life. When her father retired and moved to Bath, she went too. She wrote stories from a young age to amuse herself and her family but in Bath, she either did not want to write (having too much fun?) or was unable to (too miserable?), but after her father died she, her mother, Cassandra and another female friend moved to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire, where her writing ramped up again, revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, followed by writing Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane Austen was working on The Watsons when she died in 1817 at the age of 41.

Carol Shields’ biography tells the story of a grown woman who had little opportunity to make her own decisions. Writing must have been an escape from reality, an opportunity for Jane Austen to live a private life or to experience other lives. She was poor and wanted her books to be published in order to make her fortune, but also wanted her ‘darling children’ to go out into the world to be loved by others.

My sadness came from the feeling of suppression and unhappiness which Carol Shields suggests Jane Austen must have suffered. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was an unhappy, bitter woman for most of her adult life, that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and was suppressed by her sister Cassandra. Possibly so. I agree that mothers and adult daughters are better off not living together, and possibly the same could be said for adult sisters. As for being unhappy and bitter, maybe Jane Austen was sometimes. She did not write (or if she did, nothing survived) during the Bath years, she was poor and unmarried, and as a result, probably invisible in society. All of these are good reasons for being unhappy, at least occasionally.

However, I struggle to believe in Carol Shields’ ‘take’ on Jane Austen as a miserable and invisible woman. As a writer, she would have lived the lives her characters did, experiencing their sorrows and joys alongside them, then she would have had the amusement and enjoyment of experiencing her family’s reactions to her stories. Jane Austen’s writing style in much of her fiction and in her letters is amused and amusing and I don’t believe that someone who was bitter, unhappy and jealous could have sustained this particular writing voice. Later, she had the pleasure of her work being sold for publication, and of her works succeeding in the world. I’m not saying she was a little ray of sunshine all of the time, just that Carol Shields’ book felt unbalanced to me.

Jane Austen’s actual books and the heavily edited letters to her sister Cassandra and other family members are all we have of her writing. Memoirs written many years after her death by other family members provide further information, although these are difficult to believe in fully too, as they were written so long after her death by family who were presenting a particular image of their relative.

I also think the cover of my copy of this book is horrible, too. In my opinion, Jane Austen wouldn’t have liked it either.

Anyway, as a mad-keen Janeite, I’d love to know other people’s opinions on whether she was bitter and twisted, or full of fun and joy, or like most of us, a mixture of both. Carol Shields has her opinion, I have mine, and no doubt you have yours.

Also, if you were a writer, would you rather be poor and unknown for most of your life then become one of the world’s most enduring and loved authors for hundreds of years to follow, or to be rich and famous during your lifetime then quickly forgotten? Which do you think Jane Austen would have preferred?

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William Boyd is an author who I’ve been working up to for some time. I started with Ordinary Thunderstorms for the simple reason that this was the book my library had on the shelf.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller which I found so exciting that I didn’t want to put the book down. I read on the train to and from work, and this is one of those books that I could have stayed on the train with, travelling all over Melbourne until I finished the story instead of getting off at Flinders Street and heading into work, had I not been the diligent, hard-working person that I am.*

The story starts with the main character, Adam Kindred walking along the bank of the Thames River in London. Adam is a climatologist who has just had a job interview, (which went well, by the way), when he gets hungry and drops in to a neighbourhood restaurant in Chelsea. During his meal, Adam speaks with another man, a fellow scientist who is dining alone. After the other man left the restaurant, Adam realises the other man left a folder of paperwork under his table. Adam picks the folder up, finds the other man’s name and phone number inside and phones him. The man is Dr Philip Wang, and he gratefully invites Adam for a drink in his apartment when he returns the folder. When Adam turns up, Philip is lying on his bed with a knife in his chest. Philip is still alive and convinces Adam to pull the knife out, but when Adam does, Philip dies.** At this point Adam hears somebody outside on Philip’s balcony, so he takes the folder and bolts.

Instead of going straight to the police Adam returns to his accommodation where he has a lucky escape from the person who was on Philip’s balcony, then realising that he might not be safe with the police, goes on the run and disappears in London.

Adam is being hunted by the police for Philip’s murder and is also being hunted by the person who killed Philip, presumably because he has Philip’s folder. Adam makes enquiries and learns that Philip was trialling an asthma treatment for children in London hospitals called Zembla-4, which is being funded by a large pharmaceutical company.

The story of how Adam managed to disappear was fascinating. By not using his phone, passport or bank cards Adam became invisible, but the social ties he made as time went on (both wanted and unwanted) were dangerous to his ongoing anonymity. Adam turns out to be a sucker for women though, which is why he was in London looking for a new job in the first place. One woman Adam meets along the way provides him with shelter and her affection, although for a price. Rita, a policewoman who works on the Thames River, seems likely to catch Adam in his campout on the riverbank at any moment.

For a thriller, this story meanders along, constantly delving into fascinating asides such as how homeless and people in terribly low socio-economic circumstances live, cult religions, the ethics (or lack of them) in big business, policing on the Thames River and work options for former SAS soldiers. There were a few sections of the story that made me squeamish and other sections that I delighted in.

From time to time I became irritated with Adam. For a scientist he didn’t always think clearly, but I was always on his side, hoping against overwhelming odds that the bad guys would be exposed and punished and the good guys would win.***

I’m keen to read more books by William Boyd but don’t want to spoil these for myself by reading others too soon. Waiting to read another is going to be a little like being on a diet, but knowing there is chocolate out there somewhere. Highly recommended.

*If this last sentence sounds a bit sucky, it is because my boss occasionally reads my reviews…

**My First Aid Certificate is well out of date, but I do remember learning that if somebody has been stabbed or impaled in any way, First Aiders are supposed to wrap the implement so it doesn’t get bumped and call an ambulance, rather than trying to remove it, which can cause as much damage as sticking it in.

***You don’t always get what you want. Not saying whether things work out okay for Adam or not, read Ordinary Thunderstorms and find out for yourself.

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Wake in Fright was Australian author Kenneth Cook’s first novel. I read Eliza Fraser by this author at a very young age, not sure I was old enough for the story then but the only books which were forbidden to me on my parent’s bookshelves were a set of gruesome Crime and Punishment books because Mum said they would give me nightmares. Thank goodness Wake in Fright wasn’t on Mum and Dad’s shelves, because I would definitely have had nightmares had I read it then.

John Grant, the main character of Wake in Fright, is a school teacher in a one-room school at Tiboonda, a place with a school, a pub and a railway station in the back of beyond. When school breaks up for summer, John hops on the train to Bundayabba, from where he intends to catch the plane to Sydney to spend six glorious weeks at the beach chasing after the lovely Robyn. John in indentured to the Department of Education and owes them another year in the heat and dust of Tiboonda before he is free to get a job teaching back on the coast.

John has spent his school holidays at The Yabba as he hasn’t been able to afford to go back to Sydney, but on this visit, with 22 pounds in cash and a cheque for another 140 pounds, representing his year’s work less expenses (beer is expensive in Tiboonda, but at least it’s cold), he’s almost counting the minutes until he gets on the plane the next morning.

John books a room in a hotel for the night, then heads out to get a meal. From here, things go pear-shaped. John starts drinking with a copper (police officer) who takes him to The Game, an illegal gambling den where Two-Up is played. John plays and wins, then imagines himself winning enough to not have to go back to Tiboonda, and tries again. In a single toss of the pennies, he loses everything.

John wakes up hung-over and broke, facing six weeks in The Yabba with no money, no friends and no hope of getting to Sydney. He falls in with a bunch of drunken miners who share their beer and take him spot-lighting (shooting kangaroos). Reading about these idiots bouncing along a dirt track in the dark, all of them drunk and with their weapons loaded made me shudder. How none of them shot themselves or each other was a miracle.

I felt annoyed with John quite often, he had no common-sense at all and every time he had to make a decision, he made the wrong one, probably because he was mostly either drunk or so hung-over he would rather have been dead.

Wake in Fright was written in 1961 and is a fast, exciting read, although bloke-y and occasionally vicious. There were only two female characters, one a whore and the other, Robyn, an ideal, rather than an actual person. This isn’t a book for those who can’t stomach animal cruelty, there is also casual racism which was in keeping with times. The story is quite dark, too. Regardless of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t have liked this book though, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never been to Broken Hill, which The Yabba is based on, and now, I’m not sure I ever will.

 

 

 

 

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Sleeping Beauties was co-written by Stephen King and his son, Owen King.

The story is set in the present in a small American town where most of the townspeople work in a nearby women’s prison. An epidemic which becomes known as the Aurora Virus sweeps the world, causing all women who go to sleep to become wrapped in a cocoon. If woken, the sleeping women are so violent they kill the person who woke them before going back to sleep (huh? Isn’t that normal behaviour?)

Most women fall asleep eventually, despite their attempts to resist. A handful of women stay awake right through the story because they are insomniacs, or because they have access to drugs.

I fell asleep.

Sleeping Beauties was too long, had too many boring bits and went down too many rabbit holes.

I struggled to stay interested, even though the sleeping women went to another world with no men, no wars and with none of the drama that men have historically created. The real world, with men now running the show, wasn’t anywhere I would want to live, as with no women left, no one ironed, cooked or cleaned, while other men took the opportunity to burn sleeping women to death. A supernatural element in the story didn’t improve things.

I was disappointed such a long book by Stephen King could have told so much more of a story. I skipped the last 200 pages to read the last few pages and wasn’t at all surprised by how things worked out. Yawn.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve read (or re-read) Little Women or Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, but as a child I read these stories over and over. The cover is falling off my copy of Little Women and the feel of the book in my hands is familiar. I don’t think I could recite the actual words but the stories are deeply embedded in my memory.

I found Jo’s Boys at the library and opened it up out of nostalgia, only to realise I couldn’t remember what happened in this continuation of the March family, probably because I never owned a copy of this book myself.

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t like the picture on the cover of the edition I read (pictured above) because, although Impressionism was in its’ heyday when Jo’s Boys was published, the painting seems too pale and gentle to me to truly reflect characters who live their lives to the fullest, adventuring and frolicking and finding their way in the world.

The story begins by bringing us up to date with Mrs Jo and her Professor, Laurie and Mrs Amy, Mrs Meg and their families, as well as the boys who grew up at Plumfield. Tommy Bangs is still unsuccessfully chasing Nan, wild Dan has not been tamed, beautiful Bess is now a budding artist, Daisy sews and knits, Nat fiddles and Demi writes. Franz has returned to Germany to take a bride and Emil has gone to sea. Josie, who I couldn’t remember at all, is a budding actress. Young Rob and Teddy, Jo and Professor Bhaer’s sons, are loved by all. Some of the smaller characters from previous books make short appearances too, but this story concentrates on the better-loved characters from Little Men.

Following a get-together at Plumfield, which is now a thriving college after a bequest from Mr Lawrence senior, the young men scatter around the world to gain the experiences which will turn them into the people they will be for the rest of their lives.

I found Jo’s Boys preachier and more sentimental than I remembered. Characters constantly lectured other characters about their faults in an attempt to improve the other person, while others freely admitted and rued their failings. Sinners were forgiven and lessons learned and all went on with the intention of doing better in future. The moral lessons in Jo’s Boys were given with a much heavier-hand than in Little Women.

I enjoyed finding out what happened to everyone, but Jo’s Boys will never replace Little Women in my heart.

 

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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman is a love story that will stay with me forever.

The summer Elio is 17, his family host Oliver, an American student in their home on the Italian Riviera. Every year the family have a young academic stay with them who spend a few hours day assisting Elio’s father, a professor, with his work, after which they are free to revise their own manuscript, improve their Italian, go to the beach or in Oliver’s case, charm Elio, his family, their extended household and community.

The story is narrated by Elio and he tells the reader everything of his joys and hopes, and of his failures, shame and embarrassment. He is precocious, a musical prodigy wise beyond his years after having been exposed to people from all walks of life as a result of his parent’s open door policy. Precocious or not, though, Elio is also 17 and at the mercy of his hormones. He has a girlfriend, Marzia and is sexually experienced (with girls), but as Oliver’s six week visit continues, Elio find himself more and more attracted to Oliver.

Elio is a typical 17 year old. His emotions swing and sway between joy and despair in reaction to a single word and his hopes and dreams are bigger than his reality. His behaviour is sometimes playful, sometimes petulant. He doesn’t know what he wants but he knows he wants Oliver. Oliver is 24 and seemingly has no idea of Elio’s infatuation.

Elio believes Oliver has four personalities which are in alignment with his four bathing suits, wearing red when he is adult, abrupt and ill-tempered, yellow for his funny and buoyant tempers, green when he is sunny and eager to learn from Elio, and blue only occasionally, but Elio notes Oliver’s kindness when he wears his blue swimming trunks. At first, Elio wants Oliver to be ‘green’ all of the time.

Eventually Elio tells Oliver how he feels and at first, Oliver, although kind, tells him they cannot act on his feelings. Despite Oliver’s words, he and Elio kiss while overlooking a local lookout to the sea called Monet’s Berm. Their kiss is followed by their feet touching under the dinner table, and in no time at all Elio and Oliver’s physical relationship ramps to match their desire.

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When I said Elio doesn’t leave anything out of his narration, I meant that he doesn’t leave anything out. There were moments that made me cringe and sections that depict their sexual relationship so frankly that in the hands of a lesser writer I would not have finished this book. But not leaving anything out means that Elio shares all of his feelings of confusion and desire and joy and sadness and curiosity and hope. He lives in the moment and his first romance is as intense as most teenagers’ first love.

Call Me By Your Name made me remember (briefly, thank goodness) what it was to be a teenager and at the mercy of emotions I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. I remember several short-lived crushes on wildly inappropriate people who didn’t know I existed, slamming doors at home to show my frustration with my family and lots of wishing I was someone else, older, more sophisticated, more something without knowing what the something was.

Elio’s 17th summer had almost a fairy tale quality in that the person he loved also loved him, his parents were understanding and urged him to feel his sadness after the affair ended and he had a bright and happy future ahead.

The writing in Call Me By Your Name is beautiful and the story deserves a slow read in order to appreciate the story and language. My one criticism of the story is that the barely six-weeks becomes Elio’s defining relationship for the rest of his life. I appreciate that this was Elio’s first adult love affair, but to continue loving that person more than anyone who came after seems to me to be a tragedy.

Call Me By Your Name could be called a coming of age novel, although it seemed bigger than that to me. I rate this story of first love as one of the most beautiful and unforgettable romances I’ve read.

 

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