Book reviews

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Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy by Stephanie Barron


Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy is one Stephanie Barron’s ‘Being A Jane Austen Mystery’ series.

I’ve read a few others in this series and enjoyed them. Each story involves Jane Austen as a character, set in a known location that the real Jane Austen either lived in or visited during her lifetime, and have a mystery which Jane uses her detective skills to solve.

Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy is a sadder, darker story than the others I have so far read. Jane, Mrs Austen and Jane’s sister Cassandra have recently moved to Chawton Cottage in Hampshire. Jane is mourning Sir Harold Trowbridge, who she has known and loved since earlier books in the series. Sir Harold, who was known as The Rogue, left his diaries and letters in a bequest to Jane, with the intention that she write his memoirs.

Soon after they arrive at Chawton Cottage, Jane finds a dead man in the cellar. He was a local labourer, who had recently been boasting to his neighbours that he had information which would lead to him becoming a rich man. Jane attends the Coroner’s Court and of course, becomes involved in searching out the truth of the labourer’s death and other mysteries in the neighbourhood.

All the while Jane and her family are battling the dislike of the entire village, because Jane’s brother Edward removed the ‘widow Seward’ from Chawton Cottage, to make a home for Mrs Austen and her daughters. Sir Harold’s legacy has also tarnished Jane’s reputation.

I’ve believed the character of Jane Austen in each of the books I’ve read in this series, including Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy, although this is not the best book of the series, as the story was too complicated. It was interesting to have new characters introduced, such as Miss Benn, who the author advises was the role model for poor Miss Bates in Emma. Mrs Austen is also annoyingly similar to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, which I can’t believe she was in real life, but sadly, there was no sign of any characters resembling either Mr Darcy or Colin Firth.

I haven’t read the ‘Being a Jane Austen Mystery’ stories in order, but probably should have. While the books do stand alone, I hadn’t realised Jane loved Sir Harold from the books I’ve already read. I’m continuing to look forward to reading more of this series.


Mrs Harris goes to New York by Paul Gallico


Mrs Harris, Paul Gallico’s creation from the 1950’s, goes everywhere! In the first book of this series, Mrs Harris goes to Paris, a London charwoman goes to Paris to buy herself a Dior frock. The story of Mrs Harris falling in love with a dress, working and saving for the dress and finally getting to Paris, where she makes friends with models and marquises, before coming home with her frock, is lovely. The movie starring Angela Lansbury is gorgeous too.

Mrs Harris goes to New York, from 1960, has a similar, simple charm.

Mrs Harris and her friend and neighbour, Mrs Butterfield, are having a cuppa together one evening listening to the radio, when they overhear their neighbours, the horrible Gussets, beating a child in their care. The child, little Henry Brown, is the son of an American GI, who divorced Henry’s English mother before returning to America. Henry’s mother remarried and farmed out her son, as her new husband didn’t want Henry around.

When one of Mrs Harris’s customers asks her to go with her to New York to set up her household, Mrs Harris wangles a job in America for Mrs Butterfield also, then kidnaps Henry with the intention of reuniting him with his father.

Getting Henry out of England without a passport was no trouble for Mrs Harris, but smuggling him into America would not have been possible without the assistance of the Maquis, (from Mrs Harris Goes to Paris), who luckily, was also on the ship on his way to America to take up the post of French Ambassador to the United States.

George Brown proved harder to track down than Mrs Harris expected, but after a number of adventures in America, predictably, everything turns out for the best for little Henry, Mrs Harris, Mrs Butterfield, the Marquis and the rest of the crew.

Mrs Harris Goes to New York is an easy and happy read.


Chocky by John Wyndham


Chocky, by John Wyndham, didn’t terrify me the way The Day of the Triffids did, but the story still left me feeling uneasy.

Chocky is the imaginary friend of eleven-year old Matthew Gore. The story is told in the first person by Matthew’s father David, who is a very understanding man when it comes to Matthew’s imaginary friend, although he isn’t all that understanding, as he says he doesn’t understand women, and apparently, nobody does, “Least of all themselves.” David and his wife, Mary, are also far more critical of their daughter, Polly, who gets the blame for quarrelling with her brother, than they are of Matthew, who, in my opinion, must have been doing half of the quarrelling. Mary’s character is the type who says of herself, “I’m sorry to be so silly.” Maybe John Wyndham had issues with his own wife or sister.

Polly was actually the first one in the Gore family to have an imaginary friend. Polly’s was called Piff, and, as imaginary friend’s go, was not very unusual, more the type who Polly could put the blame onto when she did something naughty. When Polly made some real friends Piff was forgotten.

Eleven year old boys don’t usually have imaginary friends. When they first heard their adopted son Matthew talking to himself, separately of each other, David and Mary were both struck by the unusual subject matter of the conversations they overheard, where Matthew was seemingly explaining our natural world, time on earth and eventually, limited intelligence in animals to Chocky.

There is a conversation in the book about limited intelligence which I found very interesting, (possibly because I strongly suspect my own is limited). The subject arose when Matthew and his father were walking through a paddock, and Matthew asked why cows stop learning and understanding. The example he used was that cows are able to learn and remember milking time, because they make their way between the dairy and the paddock, but they never open the gate to get in or out of the paddock. If John Wyndham had not put that into Chocky, the idea of limited intelligence would never have entered my mind, (see? I told you mine was limited).

Anyway, Mary in particuar became more and more worried about Matthew’s mental health and eventually had David set up an informal meeting with a doctor who, after spending time with Matthew, horrified Mary by saying that Chocky was real, and worse, that Matthew was possessed by her/him. (Chocky’s gender is difficult to understand).

Chocky does go on to possess Matthew, although by his own choice and on quite a few occasions. While drawing, Matthew allowed Chocky to take over his brain, which allowed Matthew to create amazing works of art. The art was recognised as being brilliant, but bizarre by everyone who sees them, including Matthew’s art teacher. On another occasion, when Matthew and Polly were knocked into a tidal river in a freak accident, Chocky helped Matthew to rescue himself and Polly, even though Matthew had never been able to swim. The media picked up the story of the amazing rescue and turned Matthew into a hero, although he was such a fair and honest little fellow that taking credit for something Chocky did made him unhappy.

The dialogue in Chocky is terrific and the characters reveal themselves perfectly through their conversations. For example, Matthew told his mother, “I was fought at,” when she chided him for being in a fight, and the sarcasm of Matthew’s physics teacher, “no that we have established that nothing in the universe – with the possible exception of Matthew Gore’s mind – can exceed the speed of light, let us return to our lesson,” gave me a mental image of each character’s personality, strengths and weaknesses. Truly, I could hear their voices in my head while I was reading. (Please don’t say that is the first sign…)

Chocky is a surprising story which I highly recommend to those who enjoy science fiction.

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodrguez


The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez appealed to me after reading several books by Khaled Hosseini, which are also set in Afghanistan.

There seemed to be a cast of thousands in this story, with each of the five main female characters having a back story and something going on romantically. About half way through I got sick of trying to keep track of everyone, and considered not finishing the book, but by that point felt too committed, so continued. All of the stories became connected with the personal issues resolved by the end of the book, but I never became emotionally attached to any of the characters.

However, each of the female characters did show individual strength and together, they assisted each other and less fortunate women. The author highlighted that in Afghanistan, many women are in prison for crimes such as refusing their husbands, or being unmarried and pregnant, while others are enslaved as prostitutes, often from very young ages.

The book shows farmers growing poppies for opium as a way to provide a living for a family, with farmers telling of how they tried food crops only to find they had no market for their products. This was something I didn’t know about Afghanistan.

Despite all of the sorrows shown in this story, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is a cheerful and happy book, with the main characters enjoying friendships and romances. The women are resourceful and determined. There are weddings, and a birth, bravery and heroics, although there are also injuries and death caused by Taliban bombings.

I think the story would have been stronger if there had been less characters, and a bit less going on. I might also have enjoyed it more if I had not read A Thousand Splendid Suns and And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, both of which left me filled with sadness for the Afghan people.

Khaled Hosseini is a very hard act for Deborah Rodriguez, or any other author, to follow. The Little Coffee Shop in Kabul is a light and breezy read, although the danger to the characters and the tragedy of the war-torn country is constantly in the background throughout the story.

Joyland by Stephen King


For me, a visit to any place created by Stephen King is a visit to Joyland. So, how good a title is Joyland then?

Joyland is set in the late 1960s or early 70s and is told by Devin Jones, as an older man looking back at the summer he had his heart broken by his college sweetheart Wendy. (In my opinion, she was no good anyway. Devin is a sweetie, and did much better eventually than the horrible Wendy).

Working his way through college, just as people used to do, (sorry, couldn’t resist!), Devin had a summer job at Joyland, which as the name suggests, was a fun park, with hot dogs, ferris wheels, roller coasters, fortune telling and Howie the Happy Hound, Joyland’s doggie mascot. Working at Joyland, Devin learned carny language, (like ‘carny’), made friends for life with his fellow college-student co-workers and saved a few lives. Intriguingly, Devin also learned about the murder of a young woman, whose throat was cut inside the Horror House, several years before Devin’s summer at Joyland.

While this book is a crime story, it wouldn’t be a Stephen King story without a few touches of the supernatural. Several characters have the gift of ‘the sight’ and a surprising amount of characters were able to see the ghost of the woman who was murdered in the Horror House. (What I want to know is, how come nobody ever writes ghost stories set in hospitals? Surely there must be more ghosts hanging around hospitals than anywhere else. Nurses, doctors, cleaners, kitchen staff, visitors, not to even mention patients; they should all be terrified. But for some reason, nobody ever talks about seeing ghosts in hospital).

Anyway, despite his broken heart, Devin became interested in the mystery of the murdered woman and started investigating her death. He very cleverly figured it all out, before the book raced to an exciting conclusion.

As the narrator, Devin is quite a nostalgic type. His insights, which came at the end of each chapter or section, eventually became irritating. For example, after reflecting on the end of his relationship with that no-good Wendy, he tells the reader, “When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction,” and “Love leaves scars,” and “You have to remember, I was only twenty-one.” Etc. nd so on. And again. His insights were smart enough, but I got sick of them. Just like most heart-broken teenagers, Devin became boring and self-absorbed, although I’m sure he grew out of it. (All right, all right. I can remember crying over someone whose name I can’t remember. I was fourteen. He was ‘The One.’ Or the one after was, I forget now).

However, as a crime story, I actually forgot about trying to solve the mystery of the woman’s murder as I was more interested in the stories about the amusement park. (An evening visit to the beach carnival was the highlight of my summer growing up, a few hours of giggling with my friends, being slammed around on the Thunder-Bolt and riding the Dodgem Cars, checking out the cute boys who ran the rides and stuffing ourselves with fairy floss. Pure joy. That’s probably where I fell in love with ‘The One.’ I know I went on the Cha-Cha with him).

As a mystery, I figured out who-did-it without too much trouble. Stephen King gives you a few clues, but he also leads you astray here and there, and of course throws in enough of the paranormal to make the reader uneasy.

Just don’t go in the Horror House.


Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox


I chose Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox by mistake. If I’d known how irritated I was going to become with the main character, the supporting characters, their stupid situation and the ending, I would never have picked this book to read.

Friends Like Us is written in the first person, with the story being told by Willa, a 26 year old single woman who is almost unnaturally close to her best friend Jane. Willa and Jane, who share an apartment, have a weird amount of in-jokes and look so much alike that people assume they are sisters. They are both starting out in the world, working part time at crappy jobs and don’t seem to realise they are never going to meet men while they are joined at the hip.

Despite all of this over the top coupledom, Jane refuses to accompany Willa to her eight-year High School Reunion. (Yes, I know, eight year reunions are not normal, but someone was getting married and the groom changed his mind, so rather than waste the booking the bride who wasn’t organised a school reunion, as you do). Anyway, Willa, who was a dork in High School (no, really?) attends alone and meets up with her former best friend Ben, who she hasn’t seen in years.

Willa and Ben dump the party after about 12 minutes, then after maybe another 12 minutes, Ben confesses that the reason he hasn’t been around is because he loved Willa all through High School. They kiss and the kiss is weird. Apparently Willa had eaten onions and garlic earlier in the day and Ben’s passion for her died instantly. (Somebody should have told Bella from Twilight, she could have avoided those other two books in that series).

So, Ben comes to visit Willa and fell in love with Jane, Willa’s look-alike! Didn’t see that coming!!

Willa is unnaturally happy that her two best friends love each other. So happy that I kept wondering if there was going to be a twist where it turned out that she was also in love with Jane. But there wasn’t. Sorry to disappoint you.

The trio do nearly everything together, except for the things you hope they don’t.

Willa, as it turns out, has issues. Her parents had a terrible marriage and it seems that she and her brother have been scarred forever, and are unable to form normal, lasting relationships with good people. Jane seemed normal enough, although her parents were so normal that they were weird. Ben was also weird. And spineless. I think he secretly wanted Willa and Jane in a way I don’t want to discuss. I think Willa’s issues went some way towards creating the eventual blow up of this whole triangle, but really, it had to happen.

I’m not giving away secrets here, you know how the story is going to end, because the author TELLS you in the first chapter.

On the plus side, the writing was okay, but the story was dreadful. Friends Like Us? No thanks. I’d rather be a loner.


A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

godA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson might just be the best book I’ve read this year. I read Life After Life by this author last year and felt the same way about that book then. So far, Kate Atkinson is shaping up to be my author of the decade.

A God in Ruins uses the same characters as Life After Life, although it is not a sequel. Both books can stand alone, but read together they make an amazing whole.

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, who lives her life over and over and over through the first half of the twentieth century, with variations in how things turn out each time. Ursula’s brother Teddy, who was a fighter pilot during World War Two, appears in Life After Life, but A God in Ruins is his story. Ursula is a dearly loved minor character in A God in Ruins.

The chapters in this book flit back and forwards in time, telling the story of Teddy’s war, time spent with his grandchildren, episodes from his childhood, moments from his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, his precious pre-wedding romances and, unhappily, of his relationship with his and Nancy’s difficult daughter, Viola. The story is told through the eyes of most of the characters at some point or other, but it is always Teddy’s story.

Viola, Teddy’s daughter, is a horrible mother to her children, the ridiculously named ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’, who luckily, are known as Bertie and Sunny. Viola takes no responsibility for her mistakes of which there are many, and blames Teddy for all of the wrongs of her world. This turns the reader against Viola, as Teddy is always otherwise portrayed as a good man, a good husband and father and a brave war hero.

The chapters which tell of Teddy’s war as a bomber pilot defines his character, showing him to be a strong, brave leader of his crew. The last few chapters which tell of Teddy and his crew being shot down, built up and up to the point where the tension almost became unbearable for me.

I felt as if the author gently educated me about the war, particularly humanising the men of the RAF. Superficially, I know the young men who died in the war were people with real lives and loves and fears but, before reading A God in Ruins, to me they were just the 55 or 60 million. In A God in Ruins, these men became real, as Keith and Mac and Charlie and other characters, with pregnant wives and mothers and fathers and mates. Most of the men were superstitious, carrying lucky charms, or protecting themselves with mascots or rituals, whatever crazy thing they could use to ensure their lives continued. The men loved their planes and their fellow crew members.

The details of the RAF’s flights in this book are incredible. Beautiful words describe bombing enemy cities, and of then further destroying the cities with fire. Bombing people, women and children. The horror is terrible, but these parts of the book also have a slightly detached feel, almost as if the story was being told with a stiff upper lip.

The words and timing of this novel are perfect. There are a great many layers to this story, with secrets to be discovered. After finishing A God in Ruins, I couldn’t read anything else for quite a while, as I wasn’t ready to let go of the story. I wanted to think more about the characters, the possibilities of their lives, the reasons for their characters and morals and also about the title. “A God in Ruins’ comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tells us that men are gods in ruins. Godliness is hidden somewhere in men where they will never think to look, although they will spend their lives searching.

As a character, Teddy is one of my favourites of all time. He strives to be kind and to live a good life, and if we all did that, the world would be a better place.

My last point may seem trivial, but in this story, Teddy eats a dessert called ‘Far Breton’ while in France. On several occasions, he reminisces about Far Bretons, comparing this custard dessert favourably to a British ‘Plum Duff.’ Obviously I went straight to Google to see what a Far Breton might be, then wrote down the recipe. I wish I’d made a Far Breton to eat while I was reading the book, just to add another level of enjoyment to the story.

From the way A God in Ruins finishes, and due to the precedent set by Life After Life, I have hope that Kate Atkinson might take another character from the Todd family or community and write their story too.


The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey


I know Peter Carey is a ‘good’ writer, because he has won the Booker Prize twice and the Miles Franklin Award three times. A few years ago I tried to read Oscar and Lucinda, but I kept falling asleep. I couldn’t even watch the movie. However, knowing that his writing deserved a bigger effort from me, I tried his writing again with The Chemistry of Tears.

To sum up, the story is told by Catherine Gehrig, a horologist who works at the Swinbourne Museum in London. (Google kindly informed me that a horologist is someone who works with clocks and watches and other things used to measure time). The story begins with Catherine learning that her married lover, who also worked with her at the Swinbourne, has unexpectedly died.

Catherine’s boss recognises Catherine’s need to grieve privately and also her need for distraction, so gives her a project to complete in privacy. The project is to piece together a automated bird from the nineteenth century, which was commissioned by Henry Brandling for his dying son. Henry’s journals accompany the parts of the bird and Catherine reads his story.

I didn’t like this story. I didn’t like Catherine or Henry or any of the other characters, who were all mad, mostly from grief. Henry seemed sane at the beginning of his journal but by the end he was journaling about all sorts of things which he seemed to believe, which I couldn’t. The Chemistry of Tears is probably full of morals or allegories or something like that which I didn’t understand, because they were too much of an effort for me to think about.

Also, I find automatons creepy. The automated duck in this book supposedly defecates. I can’t imagine why anybody would want to build one.

Still, I might try The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey sometime, which is the story of an actual Australian bushranger who robbed people, killed people, was captured in a shootout and eventually hung at the old Melbourne Gaol, becoming a legend in the process.

Peter Carey is a legend too, but I’m starting to think his writing style is not to my taste.


Love Anthony by Lisa Genova


I blubbered for a while after finishing reading Love Anthony by Lisa Genova. All through the last chapter I had gulping, hiccupping sobs and big, hot, wet tears rolling down my cheeks. I was lucky enough to be home alone at the time so had a very enjoyable cry.

Love Anthony is two women’s stories, which initially are quite loosely entwined. Both women live on Nantucket Island off Massachusetts, (as already mentioned in my review of an Elin Hilderbrand novel, I love reading stories set on this island, and I intend to visit one day). Both main characters also have enormous changes to deal with in their lives.

Beth is a mother of three, who thought she was happily married until she received a card in the mail telling her that her husband was having an affair. Beth’s husband Jimmy moved out of the family home when she confronted him about his affair and in my opinion, Beth was better off without him. However, what I think was best for Beth would have meant the end of her story in the first chapter, so Beth continued on, mostly finding herself.

The other main character in this book, Olivia, came to Nantucket to grieve the death of her son, and the recent end of her marriage. Olivia’s grief is further complicated by her struggle to understand her son Anthony’s purpose in life, as Anthony was autistic. Olivia’s struggles to communicate with and to understand her son are heart-rending.

Beth and Olivia begin as ships in the night, passing each other in Nantucket so casually they are unaware of each other’s existence, even though their first encounter eventually changes both of their lives in the most wonderful way. Gradually, they become more aware of each other, as Olivia overhears a conversation Beth has with a friend in a supermarket queue, then Beth employs Olivia to take her annual family photos. Part of Beth’s finding herself involves returning to writing fiction, which she gave up when her and Jimmy’s children were born. When she learns that Olivia is a book editor, Beth asks Olivia for her professional assistance with a story she has recently started writing.

Beth’s book is written from the perspective of a boy with autism. Reading the story is a gift for Olivia, who believes Beth’s story has come directly from Anthony. Gulp. Sob.

Love Anthony has taught me about autism and the struggles of parents of autistic children without the subject being dumbed down, or the more unpleasant details being glossed over. I believe Lisa Genova’s best known book is Still Alice, which also features characters with specific medical conditions. I expect I will be seeking out Still Alice and any other books Lisa Genova has written very soon.

If you’re a softie, read Love Anthony with a big box of tissues close by. If you live on Nantucket, you can buy your tissues at the Stop & Shop, which is where the characters in this book buy their groceries, along with the hordes of tourists who visit the island in summer. Please, please, please, let me be one of them one day.


Sarah Thornhill (Sequel to The Secret River) by Kate Grenville

sarahSarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville is the sequel to The Secret River, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed. I liked the story of Sarah Thornhill too, although at times I did feel as if the author was trying to force some points a little too hard.

The Secret River is the story of an English convict who made a success of his life in Australia after being freed. The Secret River highlighted the mass murders of Aboriginal people by the English colonists, which until recently, was not openly spoken of or acknowledged.

Sarah Thornhill, the character who the book is named for, is the child of the English convict and his wife from The Secret River. As the child of a convict, Sarah is known as a ‘currency lass’, and the story is told in her uneducated dialect, which are often fragmented pieces of sentences. Her voice is truthful though, and without artifice.

Sarah grew up on her father’s property, Thornhill’s Point on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, with her older brothers, a handful of distant neighbours and a few Aboriginal servants. From a very early age Sarah’s heart belonged to Jack, Sarah’s brother Will’s best friend. Jack and Sarah’s relationship was complicated because Jack’s mother was Aboriginal, however he also loved her and they planned a future together. Eventually, for reasons which no one would tell Sarah, Jack abruptly ended their relationship.

Will and Jack had long been travelling to New Zealand to work in the sealing trade, and after Jack broke off the relationship with Sarah, he and Will returned to New Zealand. Tragically, Will drowned in New Zealand, and Jack returned to Australia to tell the Thornhill family of Will’s death. Jack also told the Thornhills that Will had a child in New Zealand from his long term liaison with a Maori woman. Sarah’s father insisted that Jack bring Will’s child to him, to be brought up as a Thornhill and Jack obliged, although against his better judgement.

Will’s child, who is renamed Rachel because the Thornhill’s were unable to pronounce her name, was desperately homesick for her family in New Zealand. She never settled in Australia and after having been desperately unhappy and homesick for several years, died tragically. By this time Sarah had married another man and had a child. Jack returned to Australia after learning of Rachel’s death and insisted that Sarah return with him to New Zealand, to explain to Rachel’s family how and why she died, as a mark of respect and to take responsibility for the wrong which was done to Rachel.

I felt that Jack and Sarah gave up on each other too easily. The reason they parted became known and it was a strong reason for them to part, but after this event, the story felt as if it got lost.

Rachel’s story could have become the focus when the romance between Sarah and Jack ended, but unfortunately Rachel seemed only to exist in order for the author to make a point about the difference between the experience of the Aboriginals and the Maoris. The respect shown to Maoris in New Zealand and to Aboriginals in Australia at a time when both countries were being colonised by the English was in stark contrast.

I believe there is a third book by Kate Grenville called The Lieutenant, which concludes this story. I expect I will read it at some time.






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