The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

marigoldI saw the movie based on Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel years ago and loved it. The actors were first-rate, the story was gorgeous, the scenery exotic and I left the cinema feeling happy with the world. When I came across the book I was hoping for a similar experience.

The book’s plot was entertaining, but much uglier than the movie’s, and it didn’t leave me feeling full of joy.

The story starts with an old duck*, Muriel Donnelly, making the English newspapers after she fell in the street, went to hospital and was left untended for two days. What the newspapers didn’t report was that Muriel wouldn’t allow any “darkies” to touch her. The doctor interviewed to answer the newspaper’s claims was an Indian, Dr Ravi Kapoor. Ravi was married to an English woman, whose father, Norman, a selfish, sexist, randy old goat, had recently moved in with Ravi and his wife and was driving Ravi bonkers.

Other retirees are introduced and all of them have a different story, but they are all in the same position, in that they are living in England without enough money or companionship to enjoy their retirement. Most of the elderly characters are more or less neglected by their families.

Ravi’s cousin Sonny had the bright idea of turning a run-down guest house in his home town of Bangalore in India into the first of a chain of retirement homes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ravi was mad-keen to be involved in the project, mostly because he planned to send his father-in-law to India to live in the hotel.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attracted quite a few English retirees, one married couple and a number of elderly women, along with Norman and Muriel Donnelly. They all settle in (more or less) to life in India.

The book is written from the point of view of the English expats. The contrast between the English retirees, (who in England, are quite poor) and the Indian people who are living in true poverty (homeless, begging, scavenging for food), is shown, although glossed over in that the English retirees’ stories take precedence every time. The English characters are all racist to some degree, from Muriel Donnelly’s atrocious behaviour in hospital, to a younger character who chases exotic religions, looking for a sense of fulfillment which she never attains.

Most of the characters, particularly the elderly occupants of the retirement home, are nostalgic for a world which is in the past. This resonated with me and I suspect will more and more as I grow older.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a black comedy. All of the characters are flawed. Some are funny, some are endearing and some are the kind of people you would avoid if you came across them in real life. The funny sections in this book are often at the expense of some one else’s dignity, and in many cases, India’s.

The movie was a kinder, sweeter story than the book. I recommend the movie over the book.

*Old duck is a term of endearment. I am nearly one myself.

 

 

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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

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Trying to understand what was going on in Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a little bit like being underwater with your eyes open and trying to figure out what was going on out of the water. I suspect that was the author’s intention.

The story is set in Canada. The narrator, an un-named young woman, returns to her family home, a cabin on a remote island, to search for her missing father. She is accompanied by her lover and a married couple, all of whom she has met very recently.

The writing in Surfacing is good, particularly the author’s choice of words, although some parts are in my least favourite style; present-tense. My biggest problem was not likeing the plot. I also struggled to connect with the narrator and I didn’t like the other main characters, although to be fair, I don’t think the author’s intention was to create likeable characters. Superficially the character’s relationships with each other are swinging and cool, (Surfacing was written during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s), but beneath the surface, they hold grudges and judge each other and themselves. There are undercurrents everywhere.

Canadian nationalism is an important theme, but the characters’ struggles with this went over my head, although I suspect Canadian readers would ‘get’ this book.

The remoteness of the location, which requires locals to be almost complete self-sufficient, is intriguing.

Despite not appreciating Surfacing as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Heart Goes Last, I’m looking forward to working through her novels in chronological order, since I love Margaret Atwood’s fearlessness in writing the madder dystopian novels which she is best known for.

 

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Six Degrees by Honey Brown

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So, for those who don’t already know, I read on my hour-long train trip to and from work. This morning, I started Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown and was blushing before the train had left my station. I’m more than a little prudish, so I considered sliding the book into my backpack and looking out the window for the next hour. What if someone I knew saw me reading about threesomes and the like? But intrigued, I read a little more, with the book tilted into the carriage wall so that no one could see what was on the page, holding my coat underneath the book so no one would see the cover and realise that I was not reading a crime novel.

And don’t tell me no one cares about what other people are reading. All of the readers on my train try to see what other people are reading. Sometimes we even hold our books up to show each other. Just last week I tried all the way home to see what the bloke across from me was reading, only to find out his book was about Quantum Mechanics. Big disappointment…

Six Degrees is a collection of six short erotic stories, all set in Australia with loosely-linked characters. I read three and a half of the stories. The stories are quite well written, but I didn’t finish the book because it wasn’t to my taste. This is a reflection on me rather than the author because like I said, I’m a prude. I am going to find other books by this author and read them as soon as possible, as I believe she usually writes horror/thriller novels.

Earlier this week when I was reading a book which I was not embarrassed to show anyone, I sat next to a woman on the train whose husband was sitting across from her. (At least I presume he was her husband, because they both wore wedding rings and they kissed goodbye when he disembarked at North Melbourne). Throughout the journey he continually tried to get her attention by patting her on the leg, but she was having none of it and kept swatting him away, in order to keep reading her book. My suggestion to him would be to employ some of the tactics the characters in Six Degrees used so that he might enjoy more of his wife’s attention…

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

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Anne Bronte may be a Bronte but in my opinion, her message is overly preachy in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

‘Marry at haste, repent at leisure’ is hammered home, because the man you marry well may turn out to be an alcoholic, abusive, unfaithful, no-good loser. In the heroine’s case in this novel, her husband was all of the above.

I read Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte last year and enjoyed it enough to add The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to my reading list this year. I’ve been hanging on to ‘The Tenant’ for ages though, opening and closing it, reading and re-reading the first few pages before putting it down in favour of other more interesting books.

Eventually, I tried reading the story aloud and thank goodness, this tactic worked. After a chapter I was able to hear the narrator’s voice in my head and managed to read the remainder of the story silently. My fellow train commuters don’t know what a lucky escape they had…

The story is narrated by Gilbert Markham, an English farmer who tells the story of Mrs Graham, a beautiful woman whom he fell in love with, as a series of letters to an old friend. I struggled to remember the narrator was a man, because to me his voice sounded feminine, although this may in part be because in some of the letters Gilbert used extracts from Mrs Graham’s letters and diaries to tell the story.

Mrs Graham was a widow with a child, who in the beginning of the story had recently come to live in Gilbert’s community. Mrs Graham was reclusive, so of course the neighbours were far more interested in her background than they would have been had she told everybody everything they wanted to know from the start.

Gradually, the reader learns that Mrs Graham was hiding at Wildfell Hall because she had left her husband, changed her name and taken herself and her child away from the harm he was doing them. When this story was written women had no rights, in that they had to live where their husbands told them they must, and they forfeited any money they brought with them to their marriage. Mrs Graham was almost completely powerless to change her situation.

Despite nasty gossip and speculation within the community about Mrs Graham’s circumstances, Gilbert fell in love with Mrs Graham and she with him.

There is a strong religious element to this story. Most of the characters consciously live their best life expecting to be rewarded when they die and go to heaven, while the villains do the opposite; living for the moment and heaven or hell be damned. I expect that when this story was first published, the religious aspect was more shocking to readers than what I could understand.

A hint to other readers, if you read the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, avoid the Explanatory Notes to the text at the end as these contain spoilers. Most are references to where certain phrases came from (and if you guess the Bible for most, you would be correct) but some contain explanations which refer to events earlier or later in the story.

Despite my criticisms of this novel, I am now feeling smug about having read Anne Bronte’s works (let’s ignore her poetry for now), and will move on to Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s books next. !

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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is an Australian coming of age novel. I thought this book was a ripper, which for non-Australians, translates as extremely high praise. The story was made into a movie earlier this year, and starred Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving. I am yet to see the movie but am excited to see how the story translates on film.

The title character, Jasper Jones, is a teenage boy who lives in a small fictional town in Western Australia in the mid-1960’s. Jasper is an underdog, a mixed-race Aboriginal boy whose mother is dead and whose father is a good-for-nothing drunk. One night, Jasper knocks at the window of Charlie Bucktin for help.

Charlie is the story’s narrator, and he is one of the most likeable characters I have ever come across in Australian contemporary fiction. Charlie is an only child whose father, an English teacher, encourages him to read good literature. Charlie daydreams of becoming a famous writer and being feted by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Charlie’s mother, like most married Australian women of the time, is a housewife. Her unhappiness with her situation is extreme.

Charlie doesn’t hesitate to go with Jasper when he knocks at his window, even though Jasper is the boy who everyone’s parents warn their children about. Jasper takes Charlie to a secret spot near the river, where they find Jasper’s young girlfriend dead, hanging from a tree in her nightie. Jasper says the girl has been murdered and that if the police come they will blame him for the crime. Charlie is certain that Jasper has not murdered the girl and together, they cut her down from the tree, weigh her body down with stones and throw her into the river.

This takes place in the first chapter of the book. The story isn’t a murder-mystery, although it is satisfying to learn the truth about the girl’s death before the story finishes. The story is about what happens afterwards, as Charlie learns of small-town secrets, family violence, racism and poverty, the value of friendship, experiences first love and learns resilience.

Charlie’s best friend is Jeffrey Lu, who with his parents came to Australia from Vietnam as refugees. From my memory of growing up in a small community a little later than when this book is set, the degree of racism that the Lu family experience from the town’s people is not over-exaggerated.

Jeffrey is a gorgeous character who is mad about cricket. The author’s use of cricket and Jeffrey’s hero-worship of Australian cricketing legend Dougie Walters really set the time and the scene for me, as I read about the boys listening to Test Matches on the radio. This made me remember my own childhood when the cricket was on the wireless and it was considered safe to let the sun beat down on bare shoulders. Children ran wild without anyone’s parents knowing or caring where they were, so long as they turned up for meals.

I loved reading about Charlie and Jeffrey’s arguments about which super-hero was the best, and about Charlie’s fear of insects. Their in-jokes were hilarious. Jeffrey swearing in front of his mother because she didn’t understand enough English to clip him over the ears brought me to tears of laughter, and I howled again at the way Jeffrey’s mother eventually caught on to his crime and gave him the punishment he deserved.

The story reads like Youth Fiction, but with enough literary references and big themes to be satisfying for adult readers. Just ignore the blurb on the front cover which says that The Monthly reviewer likens Jasper Jones to “an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird.” I always think that comparing books to other books is unfair and that this practice often sets a good book up to fail in a reader’s expectations.

I think Craig Silvey is a writer whose work will get better and better, and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

 

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Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

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The title characters of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey are the most self-absorbed, posing pair who I have ever come across in fiction. Honestly, Franny and Zooey never shut up, and annoyingly, when they speak, they italicise constantly. Sometimes, they even italicise just part of a word.

Franny and Zooey were originally published a couple of years apart during the 1950s as short stories. Franny came first, and told the story of a young woman in college who visits her boyfriend for the weekend at his college. (Incidentally, the boyfriend is also a self-absorbed, posing, italicising bore). During their Friday night meal at a fancy restaurant, it becomes apparent that Franny is on the verge of a nervous breakdown brought on by her constant repetition of a mantra which she discovered in a novel.

Twenty-five year old Zooey is Franny’s brother, and his story, Zooey, starts with him in the bath, reading a letter from his brother. Zooey’s mother comes in and talks and talks and talks to him (and before I forget to mention it, she italicises at least one word in every sentence too). Zooey pulls the curtain around the bath and listens to his mother, argues with her, and regularly suggests that she leave him to finish his bath privately, but she is having none of it. Eventually his mother gets to the point, which is that she is worried about his sister Franny, who appears to be in the grip of a religious mania and won’t drink her chicken soup.

When Zooey gets out of the bath he goes and talks at Franny, and then he telephones her and pretending to be another brother, talks at her some more.

Franny and Zooey’s family are mentally disturbed, individually and as a family. They are all geniuses who have become unhappy with the world around them as they have recognised that everyone is selfish and self-absorbed. (I don’t remember if Franny or Zooey discover they are the same as everyone else in the world in this regard or not).

The characters’ conversations drove me crazy. I’m too old to politely listen to privileged, know-it-all teenagers and twenty-somethings spouting off about their disillusionments with the world as they see it. I just wanted to tell Franny and Zooey to get a job and work for thirty-plus years, and during that time bring up some children, pay off a house, care for elderly parents, take part in the community and do their best to contribute something worthwhile to the world, rather than moaning about having to live within the confines of society. I read The Catcher in the Rye years ago and had exactly the same reaction to Holden Caulfield. Teenage angst? Tell another teenager, because I’m not interested…

I just don’t get J.D. Salinger’s writing. I know other readers consider him to be a genius, but if I don’t read any more of his writing, I will be perfectly happy.

 

 

 

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Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg

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Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg is a feel-good book full of characters who are mostly too good to be true. For those who are interested, Fannie Flagg also wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café, the book and movie of which are much the same style as this story, and full of small-town, nice people who have small-town adventures. (I know, I know, people aren’t ‘nice,’ but in this author’s and story’s case, no other word is right).

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven starts with a terribly old woman, Elner Shimfissle, falling out of her tree and dying. Elner shouldn’t have been in the tree in the first place, but she wanted the figs to make fig jam and didn’t want to bother anyone. (I would love to know if the author knows the ‘FIGJAM’ acronym, it is widely used in Australia, but don’t know if it is commonly used in other places around the world).*

After falling from the tree, Elner was taken to hospital where she died. Word got out and the news flew around town, devastating her family and neighbours.

While she was dead, Elner was lucky enough to go to heaven, which turned out to be in an old friend’s kitchen (and there was Caramel Cake). Elner was also happy to find that heaven was a place and time from her past when she had been happiest. This particular friend also starred in a Fannie Flagg novel of her own, Standing in the Rainbow, which I read years ago and enjoyed. If I remember correctly, Elner appeared as a minor character in that novel.

However, Elner didn’t stay dead, but came back to life and frightened hospital staff and family who were in saying their good-byes. By the time this happened though, her neighbours had cleaned out her fridge, another friend had written her obituary and her death had been announced on the community radio. Luckily, Elner’s ratty old brown dressing gown hadn’t already been thrown out.

The story is full of loveable characters, funny characters, slightly annoying characters and characters who could have gone bad but thanks to Elner, turned their lives around. My favourite character was a chain-smoking, whinging hairdresser called Tot, whose “children had been nothing but trouble from the very beginning, even more so after they hit puberty. If there was a fool within fifty miles they had either married it or had numerous offspring with it.”

The story is full of funny little sentences in the same style as the example above. For example; Elner’s mother’s name was Nancy Nuckle, “and she married a man named Knott, so her full name was Mrs. Nancy Nuckle Knott.”

For those who like to eat whatever the characters are eating, there are recipes in the back of this book for Caramel Cake, Deviled Eggs, Corn Bread and other yummy things.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is light and sweet, the sort of book you finish and forget. I laughed aloud a couple of times while reading, and found it well suited to read between more serious stories.

*In case you’re wondering, FIGJAM stands for; F*** I’m Good, Just Ask Me.

 

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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I added Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal to my list after reading Fiction Fan’s glowing review of this book last year, but started my own reading of this author with The Life of Pi, and found this to be such an enthralling and unusual story that I still think about the plot and the characters a year after finishing the book.

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/the-high-mountains-of-portugal-by-yann-martel/

The High Mountains of Portugal is beautifully written and is in much the same style as The Life of Pi, with strange, impossible things happening throughout. These crazy events seemed perfectly reasonable and believable while I was reading, though.

The story is made up of three quite distinct sections, named ‘Homeless’, ‘Homeward’ and ‘Home’, with each set in different times but overlapping geographically, with each story set at least in part in the High Mountains of Portugal. The central theme of each story is grieving. Each section answers or raises questions for the other sections of the story.

The first section, ‘Homeless’, starts in Lisbon in 1904 with Tomas, a young man who is grieving for his father, his lover and his son, all of whom died within a week of each other. From then on, unless he is running from a dangerous situation, Tomas walks backwards to show God and the world that he objects to everything he loves being taken from him.

Tomas works in a museum and becomes interested in a religious artifact which he believes would redefine history if found. Tomas’ uncle loans him an automobile, teaches him (more or less) to drive and sends him out on his quest.

The second section, ‘Homeward’, tells the story of a pathologist who conducts an autopsy on New Year’s Eve in 1938. The pathologist’s wife visits him at his work and tells him how stories about Jesus Christ were used to instill and spread faith, then likens Agatha Christie’s stories to reading stories about Jesus. (Reading this sentence back makes me wonder why this book made such good sense to me while I was reading, but I assure you, it did. I might have to read it again to understand precisely how this worked, though). Anyway, after the pathologist’s wife left him to finish his work, he carried out an autopsy on a man whose wife was insistent on learning from the autopsy how her husband had lived. The autopsy was extraordinary, completely surreal but also completely believable.

My favourite section was the last, called ‘Home’. ‘Home’ is set in the 1980s and tells of a politician grieving for his dead wife. He moves from Canada to the High Mountains of Portugal with a chimpanzee that he rescued from a research facility.

Readers who are more familiar with Bible stories will probably get more from this book than I did, and readers of Agatha Christie will no doubt enjoy the second section, ‘Homeward’, enormously.

I preferred The Life of Pi, but The High Mountains of Portugal is an extraordinary story.

 

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Ludmila and The Lonely by Paul Gallico

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I found Ludmila and The Lonely by Paul Gallico to be slightly too soppy for my taste. I loved Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico and overlooked the soppiness in that story because I loved the movie starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs ‘Arris, but this time around the overblown sentimentality made me cringe.

Ludmila is a story about a poor little cow who doesn’t have much milk, who comes good and proves her worth to everyone after a miracle. The blurb on the back says the story is the retelling of “a charming pastoral legend of old Liechtenstein.” At least the story was short and the drawings by Reisie Lonette were sweet. (I know, I know, I’m such a cow for saying this. Moo to you too).

The Lonely is also a short story, and was the most unlikely match for Ludmila that I could have imagined. I expect they were only published together because of the suitability of their length.

The Lonely tells the story of Jerry, a young American man in England during WW2 who was forced by his superior officer to take leave. Jerry asked Patches, who was in the WAAF and who conveniently had leave due to her at the same time, to holiday with him in Scotland. The arrangement was that at the end of their holiday Jerry and Patches would wish each other good luck and go their separate ways, after their couple of weeks of ‘fun.’

This story was more complicated, as Jerry had a fiancé at home in the USA whom he thought of as a goddess. Patches was in love with Jerry, but like a good sport, hid her true feelings from him. In my opinion Jerry was an immature idiot, who needed a few more years to grow up before he launched himself on any woman.

Paul Gallico also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, the movie of which gave me nightmares for years afterwards. The scene where a character jumps and swings from a burning-hot wheel to open or shut something, I forget which, in order to save the other characters before falling into the fire below is something I have never managed to forget.

The Snow Goose is held up to be this author’s best work. I haven’t read this, but plan to some time.

 

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was so interesting to me that I could not put the book down. The story uses characters from the novel My Name is Lucy Barton to create a world where the character’s stories connect and entwine with each others’ in surprising and interesting ways.

Funny, because I didn’t enjoy My Name is Lucy Barton at all. I felt as if that story was too subtle, with nothing much happening to the characters in terms of their emotional growth. Anything is Possible was the exact opposite. So much happened that it was if a whole new world had opened up to me.

Anything is Possible is set in Amgash, Illinois, where Lucy Barton grew up, dirt poor and rejected by her peers. The characters are all loosely connected with Lucy in some way, although she only appears in one of the chapters. Some of these characters are happy, innocent and good, while others are sordid and depraved, with the rest falling somewhere in between.

Each of the chapters could almost be read as a short story, but the constant connections between the protagonist of each chapter add together until all of the parts together made a novel.

The opportunity to get to know Lucy Barton through the other character’s eyes was wonderful to me. She was variously shown as a poverty-stricken abused child, a sister, a successful author, a cousin, and as a shining light for a teenage relative to emulate. There was the same sense of wonder for me in getting to know each of the other characters too.

Amongst my favourite characters were Tommy, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a child hiding in classrooms to avoid going home, and Lucy’s brother Pete, who was emotionally undeveloped for the same reasons as Lucy but who was still a good, loving man.

I had no respect for a character who supported her wealthy husband’s immoral behaviour so that her lifestyle was not compromised, and disliked her and her morals intensely. The remaining characters fell somewhere in between being good, honest and true, and being nasty, rude and as earlier mentioned, depraved.

When I read My Name is Lucy Barton, I struggled to believe that Lucy was a writer. In My Name is Lucy Barton, we got to know Lucy as she recovered from a serious illness with her mother by her side. In this story, we learned that Lucy had written several short stories, followed by a best-selling memoir. The conversations Lucy had with her mother and other characters in this novel did not give me the sense that she was capable of writing well. In Anything is Possible, I enjoyed the chapter where Lucy actually appeared and interacted closely with other characters, but again her conversation left me with the same sense of disbelief that she was a good and capable writer.

I’m thinking of re-reading My Name is Lucy Barton, because after reading Anything is Possible, I’m wondering I missed the point in the first novel.

Anything is Possible is probably best read after reading My Name is Lucy Barton, although it does work as a stand-alone novel. Elizabeth Strout fans will enjoy this book.

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