Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Book Review’

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

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The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is probably best-suited to die-hard Fannie Flagg fans. I loved Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café when I read it more than twenty years ago but these two stories were too similar for me to rate The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion as highly. Both use the formula of a present-day story and long-ago story with (mostly) likeable characters who have obstacles to overcome.

The ‘present-day’ story in The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion follows Sookie Earl, a fifty-nine year old woman who is a wife, daughter, mother and friend. Sookie lives in a small town in Alabama where keeping up appearances is important, particularly to Sookie’s elderly pain-in-the-you-know-where mother Leonore (this description is delivered in Sookie’s style, just so you know. I have no trouble saying the word ‘arse.’)

When Sookie accidently discovers she was adopted, she is shocked and anxious, although in some ways not surprised as she has never felt able to live up to her mother’s flamboyant style and over-the-top ambitions.

Sookie’s search to find out who she really is leads into the ‘long-ago’ section of the story, which follows the lives of Fritzi Jurdabralinski and her family during the 1930’s and World War 2. Fritzi’s father owned a gas station in a town in a small town settled by Polish immigrants in Wisconsin, which was managed by Fritzi and her sisters during the early part of the war. The girls ran a kissing booth, and organised dances and other fund-raising activities at the gas station to raise money for war efforts until they were forced to close the business. Later Fritzi, who had previously worked as a barnstormer performing daredevil antics and flying planes, worked as a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) for the US military, where she moved planes and taught male pilots to fly. I loved learning about the WASPs, who were largely unrecognised by the US government and people for many years.

Although I finished the story, it seemed to me as if the author’s writing formula is too familiar. Sookie’s role was similar to Evelyn’s in Fried Green Tomatoes, while Fritzi’s was the Idgie character.

Fannie Flagg is comfort reading and there is nothing wrong with that, but I am ready for a new story from her.

 

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Heroes of a Texas Childhood by Kinky Friedman

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Kinky Friedman’s collection, Heroes of a Texas Childhood made me think about who my heroes are.

My heroes aren’t as famous as some of the people Kinky Friedman writes about, but the thing we have in common is that our heroes have done or are doing extraordinary things because it is the right thing to do.

23 people, some famous and some completely unknown get a small chapter each in this book, with an explanation of who they are or were, when they did whatever they did and why they matter. The ‘where’ is obviously the Texan connection. Not all of Kinky Friedman’s heroes are Texan, but all have done something for Texas.

One of these was Ace Reid, an artist best known for his Cowpokes cartoon series which looked at the funny side of life on a ranch, particularly during times of general poverty.

Another was Lottie Cotton, who worked for Kinky Friedman’s parents and became a loved friend of the family.

Tom Friedman is the author’s father and another of his heroes and in an ideal world, all fathers should be heroes to their children.

Molly Ivins was a politician who told people the truth as she saw it, with humour. Barbara Jordan was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas senate, an underdog who believed in herself and her country. Ann Richards was a governor of Texas who saved the state six billion dollars by reforming bureaucracy.

I had heard of Audie Murphy but thought he was just an actor in Westerns from the 1940s and 50s. Now I know that he was also a war hero whose bravery made him one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War 2.

Sam Rayburn was a politician who could not be bought, and Heman Sweatt was a black man who paved the way for would-be lawyers discriminated against because of their race. Lady Bird Johnson got her own chapter because she was an environmentalist long before there was a name for environmentalists.

Willie Nelson gets a chapter. He’s a hero to Kinky Friedman because of what he and his music mean to people.

Juan Seguin was the last man to leave the Alamo, riding out to round up people to fight with him against the Mexican army. Emily Morgan, also known as ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, was a slave who distracted a Mexican General, allowing the Texans to win the Battle of San Jacinto. James Bonham died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett, whose story I knew a little of from watching the Disney features starring Fess Parker.

Quanah Parker was the last chief of the Comanches, guiding the Comanche people in the white man’s world after they had been forced onto a reservation.

I would like to read more about some of these people, most of whom were unknown to me before picking up this book. There must already be countless books about some of them, but others will never have any more written about them than their chapter in this book.

I enjoyed Kinky Friedman’s writing style in Heroes of a Texas Childhood just as much as I have the humour in his fiction.

 

 

 

A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

 

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I’d never heard of Australian author Sulari Gentill before picking up A Few Right Thinking Men because of the beauty of the art work on the cover. I love art deco and the cover of this novel reminds me of travel posters from the 1930s, the colours used by Clarice Cliff in her ceramics, and the beauty of Sydney Harbour and the coat-hanger. The story had a lot to live up to!

A Few Right Thinking Men is the first book in a series of eight books to date in the Rowland Sinclair mysteries.

The main character is Rowland Sinclair, generally known as Rowly, who is an enormously rich young artist who lives in his family’s mansion, Woodland House, in a beautiful part of Sydney. The Sinclair family money comes from a sheep farm out near Yass in country New South Wales, where Rowly’s older brother Wilfred lives with his wife and young son. The Sinclair’s wealth during 1931 is a huge contrast to that of most Australians during the Depression.

Rowly has filled up Woodlands House with fellow artists who are poor but talented. He is in love with Edna, a sculptor who occasionally models nude for him. Edna also lives at Woodlands House.

When the story starts, Rowly seems to be the only person left in Australia who doesn’t care about politics. His friends are Communists while his brother and most of the blokes around Yass belong to the Old Guard. Both groups are suspicious of each other, but when Rowly’s Uncle Rowland is found murdered, the Fascist New Guard are suspected. Rowly, with the assistance of his friends, infiltrates the New Guards by asking party leader Eric Campbell if he can paint his portrait for the prestigious Archibald Prize. Rowly takes his friend Clyde’s name to prevent Campbell from making the connection to the Sinclair name.

I liked Rowly, Edna, his friends, their life style, reading about their art, Sydney, the time the story was set, the way the story was told, everything really except for the politics. Poor Rowly seemed to feel the same way, stuck between extreme groups who wanted to beat each other, tar and feather people, or discriminatory brand names on the foreheads of those who held different political ideas to their own.

I’ll give the second book in the series a go, but hope to find A Decline in Prophets is more of a mystery and less of an Australian political history lesson.

 

 

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

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I’ve been looking out for Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith at my local library without success, so was delighted to find The Price of Salt by this author.

The Price of Salt was published in 1952 and tells the story of Therese Belivet, a young woman who is working in the toy department of a large New York store during the lead up to Christmas. Therese is saving and working to become a stage set-designer. She has a boyfriend, Richard and a handful of arty friends. Therese was abandoned by her mother while she was at boarding school and her closest relationship during her teenage years was with a kind young nun.

Therese sells a doll to a glamourous customer, then impulsively sends the woman, Carol, a Christmas card. Carol responds by asking Therese for a drink.

As they get to know each other Therese learns that Carol is going through a nasty divorce and is fighting her husband for custody of their daughter Rindy. Carol invites Therese to take a road trip with her to help pass the time until her divorce is finalised and Rindy is returned to Carol. During the trip Therese and Carol realise they have fallen in love.

The trip and their love affair is soured when they realise a private detective has been following them and that their hotel rooms have been bugged, with the recordings to be used against Carol in the divorce proceedings. Carol tells Therese she can’t see her any more and returns to New York to fight for her daughter, leaving Therese behind in the Mid-West.

The story is a gently told romance, but I have to admit that I struggled to see why Carol and Therese were attracted to each other since they were of such different ages and backgrounds and had so little in common. The story does make it clear how courageous the women were to consider living together openly at that time. Not surprisingly, Patricia Highsmith chose to publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid discrimination.

I feel the need to comment on how much all of the characters smoked, which was constantly! Carol’s teeth and fingers must have been yellow, if she didn’t already have deep wrinkles around her mouth she will soon, and her beautiful blonde hair and elegant clothes must have smelled like a dirty ash-tray. If one of them had been a smoker and the other a non-smoker, the non-smoker could never have fallen in love with the smoker… And don’t even get me started on how much they drank! Of course, this is a reflection on the time the book was set rather than on the quality of the writing and story-telling.

The Price of Salt was re-released as Carol, the same as the movie starring Cate Blanchett. I prefer the name The Price of Salt because it alludes to the flavour the character’s love for each other gives their lives  and them having to pay for it. I’ll probably watch Carol sometime, and am now even keener to find other books by this author.

 

 

 

 

 

Year One (Chronicles of The One Book 1) by Nora Roberts

 

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I usually read Nora Roberts when I’m after a romance fix, but spotted Year One (Chronicles of The One Book 1) and thought I’d give this fantasy story a whirl. Stories two and three in this set are as yet unpublished.

A nasty virus is activated when the a sequence of events take place at a mysterious circle of stones in Scotland. Most of the world’s population is quickly wiped out. People who are left after ‘the Doom,’ as the epidemic is called, include ordinary humans, some good and some bad, as well as others who are called the ‘Uncanny’, people with various magical powers which strengthen over time. Some of the magical people are elves, some are faeries, some can light fires and some can see into the future. Again, some of the Uncanny are good and some are bad.

The story starts with the release of the virus, then introduces the reader to a handful of characters. Lana is a chef in New York who is pregnant to Max, a famous writer and practitioner of witchcraft. Arlys is a journalist who tells the truth about how many people have died and just who is left in the White House before she is rounded up to be tested for her immunity to the Doom. Katie is pregnant with twins and Jonah is a paramedic. And so on…

As civilisation collapses, the bad people and bad Uncannys turn on the good people and good Uncannys, mostly for the fun of it. Lana, Max, Arlys, Katie and the other good characters work their way out of the city to find a safe haven with other people who are like them. Some of the characters whose side we are on die on the trip.

I was irritated by the witchcraft in this story being called ‘magick.’ That extra ‘k’ really got up my nose… If I had magical powers, I would have removed them all from this book.

I also struggled to connect with the characters. There were too many of them (even though some get killed) and the story hopped back and forward between the various plot lines too often for me to have gotten to know and care about any of the characters in particular.

My biggest irritation though, was the similarity of the plot to Stephen King’s The Stand. Year One (Chronicles of The One Book 1 isn’t as good as The Stand and I didn’t enjoy this story enough to go back for books two and three.

 

 

The Collector by John Fowles

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The Collector by John Fowles is creepy, compelling and convincing. I could scarcely put it down.

The story is set in the early 1960’s and the narrator is a socially awkward young English man who is fascinated by a young woman he occasionally sees around his neighbourhood. The young man daydreams about the life he thinks they could have if they were a couple; him looking after his butterfly collection while she admires and respects him. Having her would also enhance his status amongst his fellow butterfly collectors because they would envy him.

When the young man won a large amount of money in the Pools, he quit his job as a clerk and gave the aunt who brought him up enough money to take an extended trip to Australia. Then, he bought himself an isolated cottage with a crypt underneath the house and in what seemed to him to be normal behaviour, the young man, Frederick, turned the crypt into a hidden, locked room.

Frederick then kidnapped the young woman.

Frederick treated Miranda, his captive, as if she were a living butterfly in his collection. He struggled to know or understand her, but he bought her anything she wanted, happy that she was now his. Frederick was hopeful that in time Miranda would come to love him.

I don’t know what this says about me, but during this first part of the story I also wanted Miranda to accept that she was Frederick’s prisoner and stop trying to escape. I wanted her to fall in love with Frederick, and somehow transform him into the person he wanted to be.

About half way through the story, the point of view changes to Miranda, as told to her diary. Miranda is a completely different person to whom Frederick believes her to be. She is only 20 and is a self-obsessed art student who is in turn obsessed with an older and successful artist, GP. Miranda’s diary tell of her attempts to live up to GP’s values and ideals, which to me seemed selfish and pretentious but appeal to the more naïve Miranda. She is almost in love with GP, but is physically unattracted to him and struggles with his history of having been married several times and having had other lovers. Miranda seemed to me to be very much a young woman of her time.

Miranda rarely refers to Frederick in her diary, but when she does, she clearly despises him for his middle-lower class correctness and lack of imagination. As time passes she begins to pity Frederick, who she calls ‘Caliban’.

Of course, after reading Miranda’s version of events, I swapped over to her side and wanted her to be freed from Frederick’s prison to become the person she wanted to be.

The ending of the story didn’t surprise me, but The Collector has left me keen to read more of John Fowles’ work.

The Collector was book one for me in the Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

 

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Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen

 

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Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen is a light and happy story about nine women whose lives change after wearing the same Max Hammer little black dress.

The dress itself is the ‘it’ dress for the season and the first woman to wear it is Sally Ann, who wears it on the runway and becomes an overnight success as a model.

From the runway, the dress is sent to Bloomingdales, where Natalie, a salesgirl who has just been dumped by her slimy boyfriend, wears it on a date with a movie star who has just been dumped by his cheating girlfriend.

Next to wear the dress is Andie, who started a detective agency after her husband did the dirty on her, then Felicia, who has loved her boss for twenty years. Also to wear the dress is a young woman who fakes every event in her whole life (we’re all whoever we want to be on-line), a young Muslim woman whose suitcase was accidently swapped with a that of a famous actress and a woman who ends up in hospital as a result of wearing the dress.

Some of the women’s life-changing moments are told in a few short paragraphs, but Natalie, Andie and Felicia’s stories are told intermittently with the shorter stories. The story of the dress’s pattern maker, 89-year old Morris Siegel, who has worked for Max Hammer for 75 years is also told.

I enjoyed this romance very much. The story left me feeling happy and full of hope that one day, I too will find the perfect dress.

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