Tag Archives: novel

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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After Sir Roger Moore’s death, Dad asked me if I had ever read any James Bond novels. He seemed disappointed when I said the only Ian Fleming story I had ever read was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so I bought a copy of Casino Royale.

I read the whole book one Sunday afternoon, sitting outside in the sun. The story is fast-paced and an absolute page-turner. I was surprised to find James Bond’s character to be much more human than the almost superhero-like character he is in the movies.

Casino Royale is during the Cold War and is quite dated, in that all of the men are think only about woman either in terms of how sexually attractive and available they are, or as nuisances who get in the way of the actual business. I am pleased to say that one female character cleverly uses these prejudices to her own advantage.

Most of the characters chain smoke and drink heavily. If they were real people they would smell like ashtrays, with tobacco-stained fingers and tongues, and be loud and slurry and fall over from all of the alcohol they drink. Personally, I wouldn’t trust anyone who drank that much with government secrets or with guns, but since this is fiction the characters dress glamorously, say witty, clever things, gamble enormous amounts of money at the Casino, drive fabulous cars (without smashing them while driving drunk) and physically, are devastatingly attractive.

In Casino Royale James Bond drives a Bentley, but in the James Bond movies, the character drives an Aston Martin. There was so much product placement in this book that it was noticeable while reading, Ian Fleming certainly didn’t leave his readers wondering about what brand of anything James Bond uses. I actually enjoyed all of the descriptions, which gave me a mental picture of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux, which is a fictional seaside resort in France based on real places. I know what Vesper Lynd, (the Bond Girl in this book) looks like and what type of clothes she wears. Most importantly, I know exactly what ingredients go into a Vesper Martini from the instructions James Bond gave to a barman when he ordered a particular drink which was to be “shaken, not stirred.”

There are some nasty torture scenes in the story and as previously noted, Ian Fleming provides a lot of description. I skipped over the parts that made me feel squeamish. However, James Bond escaped, and while he didn’t come out completely unscathed, at least he lived to die another day. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) The story and the torture scenes explain why James Bond went on to save the world from SMERSH baddies in all of the books that followed.

I’m glad I read Casino Royale but probably won’t rush out to read another James Bond novel. I am due for a re-read of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though.

 

 

 

 

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The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe

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My only excuse for reading, (or rather skimming through) The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe is that I’ve recently changed jobs and am taking the train to work again. If I had anything else to read, I would not have read past the first few pages of The Book Club. But I didn’t, and my train trip takes 40 minutes. Each way.

Five women. Book group.

Number One’s husband dies. Unknown to Number One, her husband had been having an affair. Number One sells up, moves and gets a job. Well done, Number One.

Number Two eats too much and is married to a bully. Number Two gathers her self-respect and gives her husband the boot. Well done, Number Two.

Number Three is in her forties when she gets clucky but has old eggs. The pressure is on Number Three’s husband to perform, which strains their marriage. Number Three gets cancer, beats it and says goodbye to her dream of motherhood. Well done, Number Three.

Number Four is hard-working and loyal. Number Four’s husband loses his job, so she mans-up and takes on more work to keep their household afloat. Well done, Number Four.

Number Five is **whispers** gay. And an artist. And has a difficult mother. Number Five is a minor character and I think I must have skimmed over how things worked out for her. But I expect she worked it all out, so well done, Number Five.

Now that you know what happens in The Book Club, if you find yourself on a train with nothing else to read, you can go to sleep. Or make conversation with the funny-smelling weirdo sitting next to you. Or just look out of the window at the graffiti until you arrive at your destination, I’ll leave it completely up to you. Happy travelling.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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I won’t lie, I think a lot of the themes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery went over my head.

I came across this book when a character in The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to another character who was lacking in self-confidence. I was intrigued by the theme in The Little Paris Bookshop that there is a perfect book for every reader’s emotional needs at any time and added quite a few titles to my wish list of books to read. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the first one I’ve found. *

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris. The heroine is Renee, a frumpy, ugly, and crotchety old concierge who hides her superior intelligence and taste from the rich and powerful people who live in her building.

The story is alternately told by Renee and Solange, a 12 year old girl who lives in Renee’s building. Solange is suffering from depression and plans to suicide on her 13th birthday. Solange also hides her intelligence from her family, who she judges as being superficial and unworthy of knowing her true self.

Renee and Solange’s worlds expand when a Japanese man, Monsieur Ozu, moves into their building and befriends them both. He immediately recognises that he and Renee have a great deal in common, as both love Tolstoy and Art. They become instant friends and appear to be ideally suited in their tastes. Renee blossoms with this friendship, and with Monsieur Ozu, expands on her knowledge of Japanese culture, which she adores. She eats Japanese foods, drinks Sake and admires the way he has decorated his apartment. Monsieur Ozu is far too good to be true, but since this is a novel, I was able to suspend my disbelief. I also found it funny that the French characters fetishized about Japan, while the rest of the world feel that way about France.

Solange and Renee also become friends, to both of their benefits. These unexpected friendships show why the character in The Little Paris Bookshop used this book to press the point to the other character that everybody is worthy of being loved.

The language is very formal. The book was written in French and translated into English, and my understanding is that French is quite a formal language. (I only know a few French words and they are all words for nice things to eat). Renee’s character is also a stickler for the use of correct grammar which adds to the formality of the story.

A great many philosophies and big ideas are explored in this book, which attempts to educate the reader in a way which reminded me of the massively popular Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, although The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a more difficult read than Sophie’s World.

I enjoyed the last half of the story much more than the first, because by that time I had become fond of Renee. I didn’t much enjoy Solange or Renee’s philosophical meanderings, although if I were more interested in philosophy these sections might not have felt so heavy-handed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog probably deserves a re-read because I was too tired to appreciate the formal language and the ideas properly on my first read. I’m guilty of skimming over the parts where the characters banged on about philosophy, but think that a slow, careful read would be the best way to approach this story.

*My self-confidence is fine.

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End of Watch by Stephen King

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I don’t know.

I just wasn’t feeling it with Stephen King’s End of Watch, the last story in the trilogy which started with Mr Mercedes. 

Mr Mercedes was an excellent read, with great characters and a story that kept me turning the pages when I should have been doing other things, such as sleeping, doing housework or going to work. The second book in the set was Finders Keepers, which could have been read as a stand alone novel. Despite being unnecessary to the trilogy, I enjoyed Finders Keepers too.

End of Watch went on another adventure as well as adding onto and tidying up all of the loose ends from Mr Mercedes, but the story just didn’t grab me. I was finding it hard to work out why, because I always enjoy the feeling of familiarity of being in Stephen King’s world for a few days and I’ve become quite fond of the characters in this trilogy. Then I realised that the previous two stories were straight crime novels, but End of Watch had some supernatural elements which one of the characters developed as the story went on.

This seems to me to be a cheat. A crime novel should be a crime novel. Same for a supernatural novel. If you’re reading this, Stephen King, don’t add a different element at the end of a three-book story and expect me to like it. This is comparable to reading about a fantastic adventure which ends with the line, “and then I woke up,” which everyone knows is not playing fair.

However, despite my disappointment with the twist in End of Watch, Stephen King is still one of my favourite authors and I’ll be lining up for his next creation, along with his other Constant Readers.

 

 

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my first Anne Tyler book. Not sure why I’ve never picked up one of her books before, because she is good.  I think I was put off by watching The Accidental Tourist starring William Hurt. The story was terribly sad and I didn’t enjoy it.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of a very ordinary, unhappy family. The story goes back and forward in time, but starts with Pearl Tull dying as one of her sons sits with her.

Pearl was the mother of three children in 1944 when her husband, a salesman, left her. Somehow Pearl never got around to telling the children that their father wasn’t coming back, assuming that because he travelled so much they wouldn’t notice. Pearl found a job in a grocery store and got on with bringing up the children in their joyless home.

Pearl’s children are wildly different from each other. Cody is an attractive bad boy. Cody is horribly jealous of his younger brother Ezra who is a goody-goody, while their sister Jenny is unsettled and flighty. Pearl is disappointed by all of her children, wanting them to be whatever they are not. Pearl is a perfectionist with a nasty temper, and as adults, the children do not remember their childhood with pleasure.

Each family member has a different view of the events that happened to shape the family. I found it fascinating that what Pearl remembered as the happiest times of her life were when the children were small, but Cody, Ezra and Jennifer have very different memories of particular occasions. This reminded me of a comment one of my sisters once made when she was living overseas and was receiving letters from all of us at home. (Yes, actual letters which had been posted, sent overseas by airmail and delivered into her letterbox. Way back in the olden days…) Anyway, my sister said we all wrote to her with the same news, however everyone had such different outlooks or points to make that each writer could have been describing a completely separate event.

Not much actually happens in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The characters live ordinary lives, day after day, but the story is so readable and the characters so real that I couldn’t put the book down. The dynamics between Cody and Ezra were particularly interesting, as Cody was so terribly jealous of Ezra that he could barely mention Ezra’s name without saying something mean, and Ezra was so bumbling and eternally hopeful that it was no wonder to me Cody hated him. Maybe an only child wouldn’t find these relationships so fascinating, but I’m sure I’m not alone in recognising some of my worst traits in these characters, particularly those which come out when I am with my siblings.

I hoped that the characters would eventually be able to eat a meal together as a family at Ezra’s restaurant, the Homesick Restaurant, without somebody leaving in a snit, but it wasn’t to be.

I’ll definitely read more Anne Tyler and might even try The Accidental Tourist sometime, although possibly with a box of tissues at hand.

 

 

 

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Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

inside

Lisa Genova has a distinct story-telling style. Pick a horrible disease, preferably something untreatable and fatal. Introduce a lovely character who is an asset to their family and community, make the reader care about the character’s fate and then boom! Give the character the disease and allow the readers to learn about it as the character does. Leave readers sobbing as the character realises how grateful they are to be alive at all, and how blessed they are to have their family and friends.

Inside the O’Briens follows the formula.

The O’Brien’s are an Irish Catholic family living in Boston. Joe O’Brien is in his forties and happily married to Rosie. They have four grown up children and a dog. Joe is a police officer, who, along with his workmates, is jittery after the Boston Marathon bombing. The whole family religiously follow the Red Sox baseball team.

Joe’s temper occasionally flares up and he is clumsy. Rosie gets fed up with him breaking things around the house and when she notices him wriggling constantly, she forces him to visit a doctor.

Joe is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.

I knew very little about Huntington’s Disease before reading this story, and neither did Joe or Rosie. Over the course of the story, the O’Brien’s and I learned exactly what a terrible disease Huntington’s is, which manifests as follows;

motor, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms that typically begin at age 35-45 and advance relentlessly until death. There is currently no cure or treatment that can halt, slow, or reverse the disease’s progression.

Most of the story follows Joe’s day to day life. He chooses to work until he is no longer physically able to manage, but unfortunately, when he does have to retire it is before he is financially ready. Early retirement affects Joe’s pension and Joe and Rosie are advised to take measures they find abhorrent to protect the family home.

Worst of all for Joe, Rosie and their children is wondering which others of them have the disease. There is a fifty-fifty chance for each of his children that they will have the disease. If they don’t have it, the disease stops with them, but if they do, then their children will also have a fifty-fifty chance of having Huntington’s Disease.

Other chapters follow Joe’s children’s lives. One of Joe and Rosie’s children is married, and his wife has just learned she is pregnant. One daughter’s is a ballet dancer and the other, a yoga teacher. Their youngest son is the one they worry most about, he works in a bar, gets in fights from time to time and might be using drugs. Some of the children choose to find out if they will develop Huntington’s, and others are happier not knowing.

For such a sad story, the book ends on a gracious and hopeful note, just as Still Alice and Love Anthony did. There is no hope that the characters (or real people) who have Huntington’s Disease will get a reprieve, but the O’Brien’s are accepting of their fate, grateful for their family and friends, and most importantly, aware they are loved.

 

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Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

 

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It is lucky that Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie features legendary detective Hercule Poirot, because none of the other characters in this novel had a clue who murdered their fellow character, sex-pot Arlena Stuart, and neither did I.

Evil Under the Sun is set on Smuggler’s Island, where a group of holiday makers, including Hercule Poirot, Arlene, her husband Ken and step-daughter Linda are staying at The Jolly Roger Hotel. Arlene, in her green Chinaman’s hat and white swimsuit is, to everyone else’s disgust, making short work of a fellow guest’s affections, young Patrick Redfern, while feeling sorry for Patrick’s heart-broken wife Christine.

Also holidaying on the island is a sensible dress-designer who grew up with Ken, a pair of oblivious Americans, several shady characters, a fellow who is best avoided once he starts telling long-winded stories about his time in India, and others who are only there to swim, boat and build sand-castles.

As always, Agatha Christie tells an entertaining story.

I did have a bit of a giggle to myself when all of the holiday-makers continued their holiday after Arlene was murdered. Never let a murder get in the way of a good day at the beach!

The landlady of The Jolly Roger was the most distressed person of the lot, worrying about what people would think when it got out there had been a murder on the island. The investigations continued around the holiday making, with Hercule Poirot asking questions and observing his fellow character’s behaviours, while putting together what had happened like a jigsaw until he had a clear case and could expose the murderer. When he did, I realised I had suspected every other character in the book, including the landlady*, while discounting the guilty party.

I did think that some elements of this particular murder were too far-fetched, but Evil Under the Sun has really good characters and the most appealing location of an Agatha Christie novels other than the Orient Express. I would love to holiday on Smugglers Island myself, but at the rate bodies turn up wherever Hercule Poirot goes, would have cancelled my reservation when I saw him just in case it was my turn to be the murder victim.

*It wasn’t the landlady.

 

 

 

 

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The Dress by Kate Kerrigan

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The Dress by Kate Kerrigan is told in a style which is popular right now, where there is a present story and a past story which meet at the end.

In the ‘past’ story, a charismatic young Irishman named Frank sets sail for New York, where he works hard to become rich and successful. Once Frank achieves his aims, he falls in love with a beautiful woman named Joy who is a leader of New York Society. Joy and Frank marry, and are mostly happy, except that they cannot have a baby. As time goes on, Joy’s drinking starts to become a problem.

In the ‘present’ story, we have Lily, a wildly successful Vintage Fashion Blogger (the story didn’t say if she uses WordPress but we will assume she does) who finds an old photo of Joy wearing the most beautiful dress ever created. Lily decides to re-create the dress and in doing so, gets involved in a competition with one of the best known designers in the world to create the most beautiful dress in the world. In doing so, Lily begins digging around to try and find either Joy, or Honor, the designer of Joy’s dress.

There is a bit more to The Dress than this, but for me, reading this story was simply a happy way to spend a few hours without thinking too hard. The large print was easy to read, and as I love vintage fashion, I was as happy as a cricket reading descriptions of gorgeous fabrics and Irish lace and sewing jewels into the skirt. I probably wouldn’t recommend the book as anything other than a very light, enjoyable read, but if vintage fashion is your thing, then add The Dress to your reading list.

 

 

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The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

good.pngGoodness, if He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers or I had read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford before we got married, I doubt we would have risked it. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappier group of connivers as the characters in this novel in all my reading days.

If you are planning to get married and have any niggling doubts regarding your choice of partner, then read this book and be warned! If you ever intend to read this book, then stop reading right now, as I am going to tell you everything…

The Good Soldier is set sometime before WW1. It is narrated by John Dowell, who is an oblivious fool. John tells the story of himself and his wife Florence, and another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Edward, who is unable to keep it in his pants, was formerly a soldier and is ‘The Good Soldier’ of the title.

The couples met at a spa in Germany where Florence and Edward, who have ‘hearts,’ take the baths and other treatments for their health. Things seem straightforward enough in the beginning, when the couples recognise each other as ‘good people’ for very superficial reasons; they all like their beef underdone, the men drink the same spirits and the women prefer the same wine. For nine years the two couples’ friendship continued with regular meetings at the spa, meals and conversations, but as the story unfolded, it turns out that things were not as they seemed to John.

John is a cuckold, to use an old-fashioned term. After his wife’s death, John learned that Florence did not have a ‘heart’ at all, and her supposed ill health was just a lie to prevent a physical relationship with him. Florence and Edward had been having a passionate affair under John’s nose for years. Florence suicided when Edward fell in love with someone else and became frightened that John would learn of her affair with another man before they married. Meanwhile, Edward’s wife, Leonora, was fully aware of her husband’s affair with Florence as she was with all of Edward’s previous affairs, but she was more interested in controlling their financial matters than making a success of their emotional relationship. Later, Leonora got her nose out of joint when Edward fell in love with their very young ward, and did the ‘right’ thing by her and sent her away.

The narrator warns the reader in the first sentence and throughout the narrative that ‘this is the saddest story,’ although John isn’t heartbroken when his wife dies and is quite matter of fact about Edward’s many affairs, romanticising him as a sentimentalist. John takes it for granted that a man’s passion will ebb and that when this happens, his love will end.

The pages of the book will become familiar, the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.

Edward also suicided and his young ward went mad, Leonora ended up married to an ordinary bloke who she seemed to be happy with, and John finished up nursing Edward and Leonora’s ward, who he was also in love with. By the end of this complicated and unhappy tangle of affairs it was difficult to believe anything that John said, except for his wish that he had lived his own life more like Edward lived his.

The character’s morals in The Good Soldier are dreadful, but they all seemed to get what they deserved. The language is beautiful, the story is extraordinarily well told, and best of all, the characters became real to me, but if Ford Madox Ford’s works are all on similar themes, then I don’t want to read any more of his work. I much prefer fairy tales where nice people live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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If I had to describe The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in just one word, that word would be ‘charming.’

Elizabeth Von Arnim was born in Australia but returned to England with her parents at the age of three. Her family must have been quite well off, because she lived a glamorous life, touring Europe, marrying a Prussian aristocrat, then having an affair with H. G. Wells after her husband’s death. (I believe loads of women had affairs with H. G. Wells, but still…) Eventually Elizabeth Von Arnim re-married an English Earl, but in between marrying, travelling, bringing up five children and having affairs, she wrote 22 books.

The Enchanted April was published in 1922. The story begins with Mrs Wilkins having lunch at her club, when she reads an advertisement in The Times.

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

Mrs Wilkins is a retiring woman married to a bullying solicitor, however she immediately pictured herself spending April in Italy enjoying the Wistaria and Sunshine. Looking around her club, she noticed another woman, Mrs Arbuthnot, seemingly reading the same advertisement. Mrs Wilkins introduces herself to Mrs Arbuthnot, then in an behaviour entirely unlike her usual self, raises the possibility of the two of them renting the castle during April. Mrs Arbuthnot is initially hesitant because she is a self-denying type of person, but in a move which is entirely out of her character, contacts the owner and pays the required 60 pounds to take the castle for the month of April. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot advertise to find another two women to come to Italy (and split the costs) and find Lady Caroline who is a beautiful young woman looking for solitude, and Mrs Fisher, a grumpy and lonely old woman.

The castle is everything that Mrs Wilkins has ever dreamed of and under the influence of its’ charms, she becomes happy, outspoken and confident. She is so happy that she invites her husband out to join her in Italy. In due course he arrives and is involved in an embarrassing incident with a temperamental bath which made me laugh so hard I woke up my own sleeping husband, who didn’t see the funny side…

Mrs Arbuthnot’s self denying behaviour has caused issues in her own marriage, after her husband became a best-selling author of scandalous stories. She felt morally unable to spend and enjoy the proceeds of her his work which caused them to live separate lives, however a series of funny misunderstandings brought them back together.

I was less enamoured of Lady Caroline’s character and problems, as it is hard to feel sorry for someone who is rich, young, well connected and so beautiful that everyone who crosses her path falls at her feet in servitude.  Mrs Fisher is also a lesser character although easier to feel sorry for than Lady Caroline, as she is bored and lonely and has no one to love. For these characters too, enjoying sunshine and wisteria during April in Italy bring them long-term happiness too.

What I most liked about the writing in this book, is that even though it was written nearly 100 years ago, the characters, their behaviour and their wants and needs are still quite real. Mrs Arbuthnot’s morals are a little dated, but the characters are likeable and believable, and I had no problem imagining them enjoying their holiday.

Mrs Wilkins argument to convince Mrs Arbuthnot to go to Italy won me too. She said over and over again that being good at home was not bringing them happiness and that they would be better off enjoying themselves elsewhere;

“Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we would come back so much nicer.”

Count me in. Reading The Enchanted April felt like a little holiday to me and with 22 other novels by this author I’ll be sure to have other charming little holidays soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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