Book reviews

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The Six Loves of Billy Bins by Richard Lumsden

The Six Loves of Billy Bins is the first novel by Richard Lumsden.

Billy Bins was born with the twentieth century in London. He began telling his story the age of 117 for his son Archie, from the nursing home he had lived in for decades. He wanted Archie to know the kind of man he was so included the story of each of the people he had loved during his life. Billy also hoped that telling his story would help him remember what falling in love felt like.

Billy left home at fifteen to join the army during WW1 and somehow survived being shot out of a reconnaissance balloon. Recovering in England, Billy had his fortune told which was when he learned he would have five loves throughout his life.

Each of these loves made Billy the person he became. Sometimes he made really stupid choices, even though he had a good sense of right and wrong, but as a result of his poorer decisions some of his life experiences were terrible.

Billy tells his story in a way that made me wonder if he fully understood what was happening around him. Due to his great age he was sometimes muddled and tired, and sometimes his memory failed in ways that seemingly protected him from knowing things he didn’t want to remember. I also wondered if Billy was on the autism spectrum as he seemed to lack understanding about what made a personal relationship, although this element of his character could also have been because he was a man from a different era. Either way, an autistic person from Billy’s time would not have been diagnosed other than being recognised amongst his community as being ‘different’.

Some of Billy’s loves were so brief and tragic that I felt very terribly sad for him, but his is a hopeful character, which explains why one of the reviewers on the front cover of the book calls this story “Heart-breaking” while another describes it as “Uplifting.”

The Six Loves of Billy Bins is gentle, funny and sad, although it is not sentimental and does not wallow in any way. I enjoyed watching the twentieth century go past in the background of Billy’s story.


The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club by Chrissie Manby

I’ve got to be honest, I finished reading The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club by Chrissie Manby a few days ago and can’t remember much of the story, although I enjoyed it well enough while I was reading it. In fairness, I’d just finished reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and thought that a light read would suit me next, and being a sucker for cover art with pretty pictures of cake this obviously appealed to me.

From what I can remember, the heroine’s husband left her, not because she couldn’t cook, but because he was a serial adulterer and his latest affair, a woman 20 years his wife’s junior, flattered him into thinking he was the ‘one’. Next thing is, the heroine goes to a cookery class, not to learn to cook, but to practise her knife skills… There she met some other people who couldn’t cook and a lovely chef who taught them to make Fish Pie and Beef Wellington plus some other things I can’t remember.

The heroine had a snarky teenage daughter, and one of the blokes at the cooking class was terribly sad because his wife had recently died. I think I’ve now exhausted my recollections of this book but I do recall that it all ended happily enough.

Anyone who likes novels with pink covers and cake will enjoy The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club. I can highly recommend reading it while sitting in a sunny, sheltered spot while nibbling on a slice (or two) of any type of cake that you like.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

I have to admit to not knowing what to expect from Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie when I added this book to my Classics Club list. I hadn’t read anything by this author previously and only knew that another of his books, The Satanic Verses, had provoked an enormous amount of angry attention from Muslim people.

The story of Midnight’s Children is told by Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy who was born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. Saleem story is entwined with that of India’s, and also with 1001 other children who were born in the same midnight hour. All of the children were born with a different telepathic power.

The story started with Saleem’s grandparents, who fell in love bit-by-bit, unable to see the whole of each other through the modesty sheet with a viewing hole which separated them. Not surprisingly perhaps, once they did see more of each other, they weren’t as enamoured as they had been previously. Saleem’s grandparents story is told against the background of India working towards independence in 1947.

Saleem’s own parents had their trials but hoped for great things after Saleem was born at such an important time in their country’s history. Saleem’s telepathic power was the ability to see into other people’s minds and to commune with his fellow Children inside his own mind. Later, when Saleem learned that he had been swapped at birth with Shiva, another of the Children, he closed off part of his mind to the other children who by then had began to resent and distrust Saleem, and they drifted away. After an accident, Saleem lost this power but gained another, the ability to smell the truth.

The next section of Saleem’s life tells of his family’s exile from India, and of him becoming a soldier in Pakistan. This part of the story is dreamy and confused, as Saleem has lost his memory and his ability to feel emotion or connect with anyone else. I was very interested in this part of the story having worked with a man some years ago who had been a soldier in the Indian Army during this time and in this place. Having heard some of my workmate’s war stories I feel sure that he would appreciate Saleem’s story, even though he and Saleem fought on opposite sides.

In the third section of the story Saleem returned to India with the assistance of one of his fellow Children, Parvati-the-witch, who used her power of invisibility to make the journey. Back in India, Saleem and Parvati-the-witch lived together in a slum, with the terrible tragedies they experienced being told beside that of India’s 19-month period called the Emergency. This event was declared by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and during this time slum-dwellers were sterilised and their slums razed.

Midnight’s Children is a massive story which I’ve only skimmed over in this review. Saleem’s narration style is to tell his stories in great detail, with intricate layers laid upon intricate layer which he rambles through. Initially Saleem’s meandering style annoyed me enormously but eventually I relaxed into it and allowed him to get to the point in his own good time. The book took me ages to read.

Midnight’s Children fantastical style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books. Mad things happen but the characters take them for granted and so as a reader, I accepted them too. In places I felt almost overwhelmed by the story which seemed to swirl around me, barely controlled, faster and faster. Sometimes the story was funny, with toilet humour that made me laugh aloud.

I read parts of the book aloud to myself (at home, not on the train) and think that a narrated version of this book would be a treat to listen to. I would also advise other readers to allow themselves plenty of time to read this book, because it is a complicated story which deserves to be concentrated on fully, as well as allowing yourself the time to research and learn about the real people, places and events which the story is told against.

A reader who has a better knowledge of India’s history during this period would have appreciated this story far better than I did, but I still found the book rewarding without having nearly enough background knowledge. I definitely didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.

Midnight’s Children was book ten in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

Preservation by Jock Serong

Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…

Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.

The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.

Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.

The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.

Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.

I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais might be the perfect novel for a foodie who knows what a Michelin star is.

The story follows the life of a Muslim Indian boy, Hassan Haji, who has a gift for cooking. Hassan begins his story by telling how his grandparents started a restaurant in Mumbai which after years of hard work developed into a thriving family business. After Hassan’s mother died during a fracas between Hindus and Muslims, his father moved the family to London for safety, then to a remote country town in France, where they opened a noisy, colourful restaurant serving the Indian dishes they loved.

While most of the inhabitants of the French town accepted the Haji family and loved the food served in their restaurant, their neighbour from across the road didn’t. The neighbour, Madame Mallory had a two-star Michelin restaurant, which had been her life’s work. Mme Mallory’s snobbish behaviour towards the Haji family was intimidating and bullying, and she tried her best to have their restaurant shut down. After she caused an accident which hospitalised Hassan, she came to her senses, however, and took Hassan, whom she recognised had more natural talent as a chef than she ever would, into her kitchen to formally train in the art of French cuisine.

The story followed Hassan as he went on to be a great chef in Paris. It touched on the politics of French restaurants, food trends, famous chefs and the Michelin star system, also the French tax and labour systems and how French restaurants were affected by the global depression. Hassan’s private life was put on the backburner during the second half of the story, however food was always bubbling away at the front of the stove. I don’t think a single page went by without a reference to ingredients, cooking methods, menus and wines, or the taste or smell of either an Indian or classic French dish. As a sweet tooth, I would have been happier if desserts (especially chocolate desserts!) been discussed more often, but I did enjoy the food references.

Although I’m not a fine diner, I enjoyed reading about a world I’m unlikely to ever to actually experience (I’ve got as much chance of going to a Michelin-starred restaurant with He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers as I have of going to the moon, probably less, in fact as HWEAoOL would love to go to the moon). If anyone is interested, I’m planning to make Chicken Curry with Rice followed by a Crème Caramel for tea tonight.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay is by Australian author Markus Zusak, who also wrote The Book Thief and The Messenger.

It took me a while to connect with the story in Bridge of Clay but once I did, I was unable to put this book down. Even now, a week after finishing the book, I haven’t quite let go of the story’s characters.

The story of the Dunbar family is told Matthew Dunbar who is the eldest of five boys living in a ramshackle house next to a racecourse in Sydney. Matthew tells the story of the Dunbars through the eyes of his brother Clay, who knows all of the family’s stories and secrets. It includes the story of their parents, Penelope, sometimes called the Mistake-Maker or the Broken-Nosed Bride and of his father Michael, otherwise known as the Murderer. It is also Matthew’s own story of looking after his brothers, Henry the scammer, Rory the ferocious, Tommy the baby and of course Clay, who binds the family together when things went terribly wrong from the family.

Matthew tells his family’s stories in great detail, with descriptions that initially seemed corny to me. His voice is occasionally abrupt and the story is told in bits and pieces, which jump around in time and place. I think my initial dislike of Matthew’s voice was what took me so long to connect with the story, however once I figured out that Penelope taught all over her children to love Homer’s works, Matthew’s narration style made sense. It also explained why all of the family’s animals were named after Homer’s characters, including Achilles the mule who had figured out how to get into the kitchen from the backyard.

The stories eventually link together to make a complete family saga. I formed enough of a connection with the characters and their lives to need tissues as I sniffled through their sorrows and I also laughed aloud a couple of times too, never a good look on a crowded train… I also loved how Australian Bridge of Clay is and that the characters share a love of Australian stories and legends, including that of Phar Lap.

I plan to re-read Bridge of Clay eventually to pick up on anything I missed the first time.

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance novels are amongst my favourite comfort reads. I started reading them in my teens and recently reread Arabella, enjoying the story as much as I did the first time (too long ago to think about).

Arabella Tallant is the beautiful daughter of a poor country clergyman, whose clever mother arranges for her to go to London for a season to find a rich husband. On the way, Arabella’s carriage breaks down at a hunting lodge owned by Robert Beaumaris, the richest, handsomest and most eligible man in London.

When Arabella overhears Mr Beaumaris tell his friend that he suspects her of knocking on his door in order that he will fall in love with and marry her, she pretends to be an heiress who wants to remain incognito in London. Of course Mr Beaumaris’ friend tells all of London that Arabella is rich, so it isn’t very long until she is inundated by offers of marriage.

One of the things I most like about Arabella is her social conscience. Arabella saves an abused child from a cruel master and a mongrel dog from children who are tormenting it and of course, Mr Beaumaris is at hand to assist her as required.

Mr Beaumaris is a hero with enough of a past to be interesting. It’s hard not to compare him to Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Darcy, although Mr Beaumaris is a more relaxed character than Mr Darcy. There is a sub-plot concerning Arabella’s brother Bertram, which is probably too predictable to surprise anyone. Thinking it over, the whole plot is very like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Arabella was written as a homage to that book.

Georgette Heyer’s style is delightful. The writing is good, the story is clever, the characters are funny and likeable (and in this case, Mr Beaumaris is also swoon-worthy). The dialogue is gorgeous, whether it is Mr Beaumaris talking to the dog, snobbish members of the Ton discussing Arabella’s wealth, or a friend of Arabella’s brother’s speaking in an almost indecipherable slang.

I’ve been collecting Georgette Heyer’s books for years, snapping up the Pan editions whenever I spot one at an op-shop or book fair. The covers are garishly 1970s, and the orange and purple colour scheme on Arabella should be horrible, but somehow it all works and is pretty in a way reminiscent of the old Quality Street tins.

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