Book reviews

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I Amaving So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum



I Am Having So Much Fun Without You by Courtney Maum wasn’t for me. I got bogged down because I didn’t like the narrator, a married artist called Richard who has just been dumped by his mistress. I shouldn’t have started reading this book, because I hate stories about married people who have affairs*, they just make me miserable. I didn’t like Richard, I didn’t like his morals, and his whinging and complaining stopped me from getting get past Chapter Five.

Miss S, who is fourteen, commented that the title of this book is unkind. Out of the mouths of babes…

*Except for The Bridges of Madison County which I enjoyed enormously, judging by the amount of tissues required for me to sob my way to the ending. I liked Anna Karenina too, although that ended badly for the heroine, as did Nantucket Nights. Similarly, Heading Out to Wonderful ended badly for the characters who had the affair. I haven’t read Madame Bovary or The English Patient yet, but they are also on my list.

I love the movie Same Place Next Year, which is the story of a couple who, although they are married to other people, meet for an adulterous weekend together every year, for years and years.

I think I have to retract what I said earlier. On reflection, I do like stories about people who have affairs. I think Richard just got up my nose. I wouldn’t have married him in the first place.



The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks


The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the third novel I’ve read by Iain Banks, and my favourite so far of his books. I started with The Quarry a few years ago and nearly gave it up because I couldn’t get interested in the story, but by the end of the book I had been well and truly caught. Next for me came Espedair Street, the tragic-comic story of a one time rock-god.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the story of the Wopuld family, whose ancestor created an enormously successful game called Empire!, which is known as Liberty! in the USA. At the time the story takes place, the family run the business which has made them all rich, and are considering an American company’s offer to buy them out.

The main character is Alban McGill, who had worked in the family business before leaving, disillusioned, after the rest of the family voted to sell 25 percent of the company to the Spraint Corporation some years ago. Since leaving the family business, Alban had sold all but a token amount of his shares, and worked as a forester. Alban lives in a group house with friends whose low socio-economic status provide an interesting contract to Alban’s family’s fabulous wealth.

Alban is a man whose past has deeply affected his present. He is a good bloke, caring and kind, with good morals and values, but he cannot commit to his girlfriend, who doesn’t actually want much from him.

Alban’s commitment issues are caused by his mother suiciding when he was a baby, and a teenage romance he had with his cousin Sophie which he never got over. It doesn’t help that the Wopuld family act more like business partners than as a family. An example of this is Alban calling his grandmother, who is a controlling witch, by her first name, Win. (The connotations of his grandmother’s name are a clue to her character).

The present day story begins with Alban’s cousin, Fielding, tracking Alban down to ask his help to convince other family members not to sell their shares to the Spraint Corporation, in order that the business can remain a family business. Alban agrees to help Fielding and they start to do the rounds of the family. There are dotty Great-Aunts, black sheep and cousins, aunts and uncles galore.

The story moves around in time, telling of Alban’s childhood, the ill-fated romance with his cousin, travels around the world as a young man, and of his time working for the family business.

By the time I had read three-quarters of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I was busting to know the answers to the following questions;

  • Why did Alban’s mother suicide?
  • Why was Alban’s grandmother so cruel?
  • Why did I want Alban to end up with his cousin Sophie, when his girlfriend was so right for him?
  • Would the family sell Empire! to the Spraint Corporation?

I got the feeling that Iain Banks used his characters in this novel as a mouthpiece for various issues he feels strongly about, for example, the War on Terror got a caning as did American capitalism, which Alban likens in a speech to his family to Imperialism. The approach to religion was interesting too, as Alban recognises his love for Sophie has similarities to a cult religion.

By the conclusion of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I felt deeply satisfied with the way the stories and questions were resolved. The only things left to say are, I wish Empire! was a real game, and I’m looking forward to reading another Iain Banks novel.



Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick


I chose to read Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, based on the title. I think the great appeal was the word ‘wonderful,’ although I quite liked the cover too. The story is set in Virginia and after I finished reading I Googled photos of Virginian landscapes, which look surprisingly like the artwork on the cover.

Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of  Charlie Beale, who arrives in the little town of Brownsburg in Virginia shortly after World War Two. Charlie is a butcher, who, for some unexplained reason, has a suitcase full of cash. This suitcase full of cash annoyed me the whole way through the story. If any aspiring authors are reading this, remember the most important rule; if a character is shown to have a butcher’s knife in the first chapter, the reader has to learn why the character has the knife, and what the character does with them. In this book, Charlie is a butcher, so far, so good, there is a reason and a use for his knives. But the cash? I have no idea. Did Charlie rob a bank? Or did he win the money gambling? Was it an inheritance? I wish I knew.

Well, at least the author explained what Charlie did with his mysteriously gained money; he bought properties. If Virginia is truly like the photos I saw, then I can understand why, because the countryside is truly beautiful. Charlie fell in love with Virginia, the town and the people of Brownsburg, who also fell in love with him. Charlie was a charmer, which is a useful trait for a butcher. He could also play baseball better than anyone else in town, which made him even more attractive to the women of the town, acceptable to the men, and a hero to five-year-old Sam, his employer’s son.

Not long after settling in Brownsburg, Charlie fell desperately in love with the most beautiful woman in town, Sylvan Glass. Sylvan was a hillbilly, whose father sold her to Boaty Glass, Brownsburg’s richest man, to be his wife. For me the sale of Sylvan was a weak point in the novel. Sylvan’s father clearly loved her and I don’t think it was true to his character to have sold his daughter for the farm and a tractor. I can understand why Boaty bought Sylvan though. Boaty was much older than Sylvan, a Mama’s Boy, who had never been loved by anyone else. It made sense that he bought himself a wife.

Charlie and Sylvan very soon started an affair, which is consummated when Charlie stops by Sylvan’s house on the way home from the slaughterhouse. This becomes a regular occurrence even though he is nearly always accompanied by little Sam, who waits in Sylvan’s lounge room reading comics while Charlie and Sylvan go to bed together. Sam was extremely uneasy about the affair, which he knew he could not talk about even though he didn’t quite understand what was going on.

I found it hard to believe anyone would go to bed with a butcher on his way home from a slaughterhouse. If Charlie had showered, maybe. But he didn’t. Charlie would have smelled vile, like bloody meat, on every visit with Sylvan. My imagination only stretches so far, and Sylvan jumping into bed with someone who smelled like an abattoirs is beyond my understanding.

Smells aside, Charlie and Sylvan’s affair obviously couldn’t last forever. Sylvan’s husband eventually decides enough is enough and things go from wonderful to rotten.

Even though I’m complaining about the smell of the hero and the mysterious suitcase of money and the whole Charlie/Sylvan/Sam thing in this review, I liked the story and the characters. The townspeople are good and generous and Brownsburg sounds like a lovely place to live. I have to admit though, I like a happy ending and I thought I would get one from a story called Heading Out to Wonderful, but the story became a lot darker as it went along.

The title, Heading Out to Wonderful, comes from an expression a character uses when giving advice. “Let me tell you something son. When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand-new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.” 

For me, the first part of this book was wonderful, and the last quarter, just okay. Based on my enjoyment of Heading Out to Wonderful though, I would recommend this novel and will read A Reliable Wife by this author as soon as I can get my hands on it.




My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout



A Melbourne newspaper reviewed My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout yesterday and said wonderful things about the story. Exquisite. Masterful. Etc. I expect the reviewer is better qualified to write a review or critique than me, but I didn’t like the story or style at all. I loved Olive Kitteridge by this author, so I am feeling doubly disappointed.

The narrator, Lucy Barton, is in hospital recovering from a major operation or illness, (I forget which) and is laying around reflecting on her life when her mother shows up to sit with her.

Lucy has not seen or been in contact with anyone in her family in years. Her family lived in poverty when she was a child, partly because her father was traumatised during the war. Growing up, Lucy felt different to her peers, always dirty, hungry, and with no knowledge of popular culture, as her family did not own a television. They lived in the garage of her uncle, (or great uncle, again, I forget which) until he died and they moved into his house.

The visit gives Lucy and her mother the opportunity to talk and reconnect, however they never manage to talk about anything more important than what happened to a neighbour who left her husband for another man.

At the time of her operation, Lucy is married with two young daughters. She doesn’t work outside of the home but knows herself to be a writer on the strength of having had two stories published in magazines. Somehow she then manages to write and have My Name is Lucy Barton published, but I didn’t believe in her character as a person or as a writer.

Lucy tells her story in sentences which are short and undescriptive. I was left hanging whenever I wanted to find out more about her past, such as the ‘snake in the truck’ episode during her childhood, which to me was a story that needed to be told in more detail. Lucy’s father shot two Germans in the back during the war, but we don’t find out any more about that either, or the nature of his trauma. These are events that shaped Lucy’s life, but despite the advice she is given to be honest in order to be a writer, the character holds back, teasing the reader with a story but never telling it.

If there is more to My Name is Lucy Barton then the message is too cryptic for me, because I didn’t get it.


A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor


When I picked up A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor at my library, I was confused. I knew the actress Elizabeth Taylor had written a diet book because I read my Mum’s copy thirty years ago*, but a novel? I have to admit, I was not surprised when this author turned out to be a different Elizabeth Taylor.

A Game of Hide and Seek is the story of Harriet and Vesey, who have known each other all of their lives. As teenagers, they are in love with each other but are so shy and uncertain and awkward with the world and with each other, that their romance never goes past their first kisses. Harriet’s awareness of Vesey in particular is almost like another sense, it is so strong.

They are separated when Vesey leaves to go to Oxford and over the next twenty years only see each other infrequently as they go on to live their own lives, but they remain in love with each other.

After Vesey’s departure, Harriet got a job in a shop, then married Charles, a solicitor much older than herself. They have a daughter and Harriet lives a respectable and ordinary life with him. Vesey became an actor, making a living but not much more. He never married.

In middle age, Harriet and Vesey meet again, and almost start a physical affair, although they stopped themselves before this happened in a spirit of self-sacrifice.

This is a story of ‘almost.’ Harriet and Vesey are ordinary to the point of boring, but their love for each other is not. I was sad reading this story, wishing for them they had settled their future together when they had the chance, although I suspect if they had in fact made a life together, their passion for each other would not have lasted. Not being able to be together made their love a much bigger thing than it might otherwise have been.

As a teenager, Vesey was selfish and inconsiderate, and as an adult, he was unable to take care of himself. He lived in a hand-to-mouth fashion, in dirtiness and squalor. Harriet probably had a lucky escape in not marrying Vesey. With Charles, she was well off, cared for and loved, although Charles was aware of and jealous of Harriet’s love for Vesey.

The writing in A Game of Hide and Seek is beautiful. The story is told quietly and slowly, although there are some very funny sections. One of my favourites was a couple going through their bookcases with the intentions of giving some to charity. Easier said than done, as the characters found good reasons to keep each book. One couldn’t throw out either of her copies of Little Women, which I well understand, as I have three copies which I will never part with. (One is my childhood copy and the other two copies have beautiful pictures. Don’t ask this of me).

A Game of Hide and Seek was a happy find for me. I am hoping to read more books by this author.

*In Mum’s defence, she never followed Elizabeth’s Taylor’s diet. She just loved Elizabeth Taylor (the actress) and especially, her jewellery.


Vision in White by Nora Roberts


Vision in White by Nora Roberts is the first book in The Bride Quartet, each of which, I believe, is a romance starring one of the four main characters in the series.

I read Vision in White on the recommendation of Sarah from The Aroma of Books and am glad I did. Sarah reviewed all four books in the quartet as per the following link.

Mac is the main character in Vision in White. She is a wedding photographer who works for Vows, a wedding business she and her three best friends own and run. Mac hides behind her camera most of the time, after having been brought up by selfish and immature parents who continue to take advantage of her as an adult. When Mac meets Carter, he immediately confesses he had a crush on her in high school, and you just know how this story is going to end. (This plot is genius. Everyone secretly wishes that their high school crush thinks fondly of them instead, don’t they? Sure they do. Everybody who read that just thought of someone).

Weddings, romance, wedding cakes, cute guys, flowers, more cute guys, beautiful brides, gorgeous, feisty heroines, shoe shopping, large print… Vision in White is comfort reading at its best.

There is slightly too much information in some areas of the story for my prudish tastes, (ahem), but Vision in White is fun and light-hearted. Vision in White would be perfect with lots of chocolate* when you’re feeling jaded with everyday life. Just go with the flow and enjoy all of the wedding fuss and preparations, dramas and averted disasters without having to wear uncomfortable shoes and an itchy dress to someone’s wedding to a highly unsuitable partner in real life. There are no boring speeches, guests wearing the same dress as you or ex-husbands to avoid in fictitious weddings either. Perfect.

*Not sure what happened, but I finished a block of chocolate writing this review… Cadbury Salted Caramel, in case anyone is interested. Sigh. If I ever get another invite to a real wedding I’ll never fit into my ‘good’ dress.




There Should Be More Dancing by Rosalie Ham


There Should Be More Dancing is by Rosalie Ham, the Australian author who wrote The Dressmaker.

The Dressmaker is on my list of books to read, but I enjoyed There Should Be More Dancing so much that it will probably get bumped up a few spots on the list. This author has a sense of humour and a style that is recognisable from The Dressmaker movie.

There Should Be More Dancing is set in Melbourne, and is the story of a dysfunctional family, told in turns by the matriarch, Margery Blandon and an omniscient third narrator. After a lifetime of doing the right thing, Margery is thinking of throwing herself off the top floor of the hotel where her family took her to celebrate her 80th birthday.

The last straw for Margery was when her family foisted Florence, an old barmaid on her, to live in the family home. According to Margery’s values, (which she cross stitches onto everything in sight), Florence is an old floozie, a “thief, a liar and an adulteress.”

Prior to Florence’s arrival in Gold Street, Margery’s daughter Judith, (who in my opinion is a cow), wants to put Margery into an old age home in order to sell the family home and reap the financial rewards, along with her no-good, wheeling and dealing husband. Margery’s eldest son, Walter, otherwise known as ‘The Brunswick Bull’, took too many hits to the head during his career as a boxer, and her other son, Morris, disappeared in Thailand and hasn’t been seen for years. Don’t ask Margery why Morris won’t come home, because while the rest of the neighbourhood know, she doesn’t. Margery’s husband, Lance, died years ago when he lit a cigarette and blew up his oxygen tank at the local pub. The explosion decimated the pub and killed another character’s husband.

I laughed my way through this book. Walter and Morris had a stand up brawl at Lance’s funeral, Margery knocks a motorcyclist off his bike driving to the local shops, (she goes the long way, in order to avoid turning right across the busy traffic on the main road), Margery and her neighbour Pat fight with each other for thirty years after Margery accidently pulled off Pat’s wig at the 1976 Ladies Legacy Luncheon. Not to mention that the neighbours steal power from Margery’s house for their drug lab.

None of these things, including the difficulties of ageing, should be funny, but the way the story is told by Margery is darkly funny and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious. Some of the time the story is sad.

Margery tells her story of the past and the present to her long-dead twin sister Cecily, who is the person she has always loved the most. She keeps saying, the truth will out, and eventually it does. The reader sees the truth long before Margery does, but the story is about how Margery deals with the truth, rather than waiting for revealing twists and turns in the story.

There Should Be More Books by Rosalie Ham is a motto which I want to cross stitch on to something.



The Dinner by Herman Koch


The Dinner by Herman Koch is a thriller of the nastiest kind.

The story is narrated by Paul Lohman over the course of an evening, while he and his wife Claire have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette, at a ridiculously fancy and expensive restaurant.

Paul knows in advance that everything Serge says and does during the evening will infuriate him. At first this appears to be the usual case of sibling rivalry. Serge is a politician who is in the running to be the Netherlands next Prime Minister, while Paul is a former high school history teacher, who has not worked in ten years because of his anger management issues.

However, despite Paul wishing he were anywhere else, the two couples have agreed to meet for dinner to discuss a secret. Their teenage sons have committed a crime, which is so far only known to themselves.

I can understand Paul and Claire wanting to protect their son. But what Michel has done is not something that he or Rick should be protected from facing the consequences of, but the lack of humanity in the characters in this novel is frightening. The actions of the characters does not even compare to the type of people they are though, what they are capable of and how undetectable sociopaths are from other people in society.

At times the words were stilted. I’m not going to criticise the story for this, because the edition I read had been translated from Dutch to English, but I believe The Dinner would read better in the original language. I found the first half of the story, Aperitif and Appetizer slow (and the food itself disappointing), but by the time I got to the Main Course and Dessert of The Dinner I couldn’t read quickly enough to find out how things would work out.

The Dinner left me feeling uncomfortable. I would go back for another serving from this author though.



I Will Marry George Clooney (By Christmas) by Tracy Bloom


I Will Marry George Clooney (By Christmas) by Tracy Bloom was a light and mostly entertaining read, apart from the heroine’s issues with her horrible teenage daughter.

The title of this novel was the only reason I picked the book up. This title would have worked equally well using any number of other actors,* but at the time this book was written, George Clooney was probably the most well known bachelor in the world. Now, of course, he is married and not nearly as interesting as he used to be.

Michelle, the 36 year old single mother of the afore-mentioned horrible teenage daughter, works in a chicken factory. She gave up her dream to be a chef when she fell pregnant with her daughter Josie, who is now 15. Michelle has never disclosed to her parents, her best friend or her daughter, the name of Josie’s father. Who Josie’s father is, is a complicated matter. To set you straight from the beginning, it wasn’t George Clooney. Michelle obviously has a bit of a crush on George Clooney, or at last the character he played in a movie called One Fine Day.

Josie is a pain in the neck. She and Michelle constantly butt heads, very often over Josie’s attachment to her loser boyfriend, Sean. (My advice to Michelle would be to pretend to love Sean as a future son-in-law, in a type of reverse psychology thing, as then Josie would have realised Sean was a loser much sooner than she actually did).

Michelle is horrified when Josie announces that she intends having sex with Sean at Christmas, when she turns 16. Michelle makes a deal with Josie that if Michelle marries George Clooney, then Josie will abstain from giving Sean this particular present.

Josie ridicules Michelle’s likelihood of marrying George Clooney, but agrees to the deal. (I’m with Josie on this one, as short curvy women who work in chicken factories don’t seem to be Mr Clooney’s type). However, Josie spends most of her time ridiculing Michelle and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. (My next piece of advice to Michelle would be not to buy into Josie’s ridicule, as it only encourages her to continue behaving badly).

Michelle pursues George Clooney by organising a charity event for Not On Our Watch, which is actually a real charity founded partly by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon for the purposes of providing relief and humanitarian aid to the victims of human rights violations. Michelle sends an invite to the charity event which is being held on a day when George Clooney is in London for a movie premiere. The event raises a significant amount of money, however George Clooney does not attend Michelle’s fundraiser. (Don’t think too badly of him. Obviously he couldn’t attend, because Michelle is fictional).

During the course of the story Josie’s father turns up, and Michelle, Josie and an old boyfriend of Michelle’s drive to Lake Como in Italy to hand over the cheque to George Clooney. The characters also manage to resolve some family issues.

I probably wouldn’t read another book by this author. The heroine’s delusion about marrying George Clooney was funny but not strong enough to carry the whole novel. Plus, Josie’s behaviour was terrible. Her character would seriously put would-be-parents off having children. However, if the author writes I Will Marry Johny Depp I may rethink my decision.

*How about, I WILL Marry Colin Firth Tomorrow. That’s true, I would. Or I would if I knew him and he wanted to marry me too and I wasn’t already married. I hope he isn’t already married too, because then it would get messy. I would also consider I WILL Marry Brad Pitt if He and Angelina Jolie Get a Divorce, although I wonder what the magazines would make of that. I don’t think photos of me alongside Angelina Jolie would do me any favours at all. Probably my ego couldn’t cope with the criticism which would likely come my way from stealing gorgeous Brad from the beautiful Angelina. I WILL Marry That Gorgeous Fellow Who Was in that Movie With Whats-Her-Name, You Know the One? might be more suitable. We’ll see.



Frog Music by Emma Donoghue


Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue was an interesting story, although as I read I continually wondered why the author was allowing her characters to complicate their lives so badly. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised the book was based on a true story. Emma Donoghue was obviously hamstrung by the facts.

I read Room a while ago and loved it. Frog Music was good, but for me, never reached the same levels. I think I stayed up all night reading Room until I finished the book, but read Frog Music over a week.

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876 and tells the story of Blanche, a French exotic dancer and prostitute, who befriends (or is befriended by) Jenny, a pants-wearing frog-catcher. (Before you ask, Jenny sells the frogs to restaurants. Yes, to be cooked for people to eat. No, I haven’t eaten frogs, but I hear they taste like chicken. Enough about the frogs already). Jenny croaked, (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), after being shot by an unknown person early on in the story while hiding out with Blanche.

Blanche’s lover, Arthur, is also the father of their child, P’tit, who has been in care since he was a few weeks old. Arthur is nasty, and has an equally horrible friend, Ernest, who idolises Arthur and barely tolerates Blanche, although her ‘leg dances’ and prostitution bankroll all of them. I consulted Google to see what a ‘leg dance’ is, and still am not sure, but think a leg dance must be something like a can-can. The description of another dance performed by Blanche, reminded me of Lola Montez’s Tarantula, where the dancer strips, supposedly unaware of her audience as she tries to get a spider out of her clothes.

Blanche’s dancing and prostitution meant she was successful enough to have owned the six story Chinatown building she and Arthur lived in when Jenny ran Blanche while riding her bicycle, a Penny-Farthing. Somehow Blanche and Jenny, who has been in and out of jail for cross-dressing and is far and away the most interesting character, become friends. Jenny’s nosy questions caused Blanche to rethink some aspects of her life. In particular, Blanche seeks out the now one-year old P’tit and finds him living in squalor. She brings P’tit home, which throws all of their lives into a different kind of chaos.

The story, which goes back and forward constantly in time, becomes even more complicated at this point. By now I was feeling annoyed with Blanche for not booting Arthur and Ernest out of her home and hiring someone to look after P’tit while she got on with earning money. Even at the very worst times, Blanche had options which she did not take. Sigh.

Arthur caught smallpox and Ernest faithfully nursed him, while Blanche did her best to care for P’tit, all the while avoiding Arthur for fear of catching smallpox herself. Arthur survived, but fought with Blanche once he recovered, causing her to flee in fear of her life, leaving P’tit behind with Arthur and Ernest. Arthur sold Blanche’s apartment building out from under her, Jenny was killed by an unknown person, and Blanche suspected she was the intended victim. Meanwhile, Arthur and P’tit disappeared.

Frog Music started really well but the story quickly became far too complicated. I would have preferred to read more of Jenny than Blanche, and for Blanche to have made better choices. The sex was constant and unappealing. I get that Blanche was a prostitute and exotic dancer, but it was still hard to understand Blanche’s attraction to Arthur. Based on how good Room was, I would read another book by this author, but I wouldn’t recommend Frog Music unless you are very, very interested in the history of this particular unsolved crime, or of San Francisco during the gold-rush.



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