Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘novel’

The Beautiful Fall by Hugh Breakey

The Beautiful Fall is Australian author Hugh Breakey’s first novel.

Robbie is a 31 year-old man living a solitary life in Sydney. He spends his days setting up a run of dominoes that twist and turn through the apartment he rarely leaves as he counts down to a day when he knows he is about to forget everything. Literally. Every 179 days, Robbie’s memory is wiped clean of all of his memories including his own name, although luckily for him he retains the memory of how to carry out functional tasks such as the ability to read, write and look after himself.

Robbie prepares for what he calls his ‘forgetting’ by locking himself into his apartment and writing letters for his future self to provide the information he will need to continue living independently, having told himself in a previous letter that if he struggles to look after himself he will be institutionalised for his own protection.

The dominoes were left in his apartment for him by his former self without an instruction but Robbie’s plan was to set them up prior to his forgetting for his future self to knock down, in an action that he hoped would provide his future self with a link to his past.

Robbie’s plans were thrown into disarray when he accidently knocked down a large portion of the domino run less than two weeks out from his next forgetting. Feeling frantic to rebuild what he had lost, Robbie invited a young woman who had unexpectedly delivered his groceries to help him to re-set up the remaining dominos.

As Robbie and Julie got to know each other better during the twelve-day countdown to Robbie’s next forgetting, Robbie began to wonder who his former self had been trying to protect him from when he had set himself up to live like a hermit.

The story was full of twists and turns which frequently surprised me. I won’t go into these here since they would be spoilers for other readers but I will say that I enjoyed getting to know Robbie, Julie and learning both of their stories.

I hadn’t realised the story was a romance when I bought it even though the drawings of the two hands on the cover and the blurb describing Robbie’s impression of Julie as being “Young, beautiful-the only woman he can ever remember meeting,” should have given me a clue!

There were several times when I wondered why Robbie and Julie didn’t behave differently to how they did in the story but as I’ve said many times when reviewing books, if characters did things the way I think they should, then there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

Fans of the films Groundhog Day and 50 First Dates will probably enjoy this story as much as I did.

My purchase of The Beautiful Fall by Hugh Breakey continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (July).

Later by Stephen King

Later is the most recent book by one of my favourite novelists, Stephen King.

First of all, the cover. I love it. The book is a Hard Case Crime novel, with deliciously low-brow, pulp-fiction artwork featuring an impossibly long-legged beauty, a muscle car and a teenage boy in the background who you just know is going to tell the story.

Jamie Conklin tells the story as a young adult, but the events started when he was very young and on the very first page, he warns the reader that his story was a horror story. He was right. I got so scared reading this story in the middle of the night that I had to put the book down and crochet for a while so I could calm down enough to get to sleep. I finished reading the story the next morning when the sun was shining.

Jamie saw dead people although as he explained, he wasn’t like the little boy in The Sixth Sense because the dead people he saw went away after a few days.

His story began with the death of a neighbour in his apartment building. Jamie had several conversations with the dead woman, during one of which he asked her where she had left something that her husband couldn’t find. A few days after Jamie told his mother and the neighbour where to find the missing items the dead woman disappeared forever.

When Jamie’s mother used her young son several years later to talk to a client of her who had died for her and Jamie’s financial gain, I was more horrified by her using Jamie in this way than I was of many of the supernatural events which terrified me further into the story.

Unfortunately for Jamie, his mother’s actions began an unfortunate chain of events which stretched into his teenage years, causing Jamie to become involved in a case where a mass-murderer retained the ability to do harm to others after his death.

Later was a fast read and I struggled to put the book down, apart from the really scary bits in the middle of the night and the twist at the end gave me as big a shock as anything else in the story. Stephen King’s Constant Readers will enjoy this book.

The Ice-Cream Makers by Ernest Van der Kwast

I didn’t finish The Ice-Cream Makers by Ernest Van der Kwast.

I read about half of the book but gave it up because the story wasn’t holding my interest. The story seemed familiar and eventually I realised I had started reading the book a few years ago but didn’t finish it then, either. I’m reviewing the book this time so that I won’t forget and attempt it for a third time.

The story began with the narrator’s 80 year-old father falling in love with an athlete he is watching on television as she competed in the women’s hammer-throw final at the London Olympic Games. I could go along with that. I felt similar emotions when I watched a certain someone play Mr Darcy on the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice.

The narrator was a poet who was at a crossroads in his life, wondering whether to go home and help his brother in the family ice-cream business, or continue to travel the world, making and celebrating poetry. His life, family stories and his dilemma weren’t anywhere near as fascinating as that last sentence sounded, although I definitely enjoyed reading about how the narrator’s grandfather learned to make ice-cream using snow he harvested from mountain tops.

I thought I would like the story because I like ice-cream, gelato, icy-poles and slushies. I particularly like pistachio, chocolate, strawberry, lemon, caramel, fig, English Toffee, ginger and Christmas pudding flavoured ice-creams. However, I have sensitive teeth and I usually only eat a tiny amount then give the rest to He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers to finish for me. I probably should have known this book wouldn’t be for me…

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Reading The Trial by Frank Kafka gives the reader the feeling of being in a nightmare, one where strange things happen which they believe to be true and real even though they don’t make any sense, leaving them feeling frustrated and anxious and confused. At least, that’s how the reading experience was for me.

And yet, I liked it.

I have never read anything by Kafka as I thought his books would be full of clever ideas that I wouldn’t be able to understand. Instead, the writing was perfectly clear and I could easily follow the story, even if I didn’t understand why the main character was caught up in his living nightmare any more than he did.

Josef K (his surname was never told, which gave the story and the trial itself a surreptitious feel from the very beginning) began the story in bed on the morning of his thirtieth birthday as he waited to be served his breakfast. When it didn’t come he rang his bell, but instead of receiving breakfast a strange man entered his room and Josef K learned he was being arrested for a crime which was never explained.

Eventually the strange man and his colleague departed leaving Josef K free to go about his day. He continued to attend his job at a bank and live his normal life the following week, all the time knowing that he was under arrest and had a trial to face. The following Sunday Josef K travelled through his city to the address he had been given for the court, which he found in the attic of a confusingly maze-like suburban house. In front of the judge and a large number of onlookers Josef K protested that the trial and the accusation against him were silly.

As the story progressed it became more and more absurd, in the way of a nightmare. Josef K tried visiting the presiding judge in an attempt to try to sway him to end the case, but instead became amourously engaged with the wife of one of the court’s attendants, then the woman’s husband took Josef K on a tour of the court building where he became emotionally and physically overwhelmed inside the airless, hot rooms.

Eventually Josef K became mired in bureaucracy, working fruitlessly to bringing his trial to an end. All the while inexplicable and strange things continued to happen, none of which he questioned even though these events made no sense at all.

While I think a lot of the ideas that the author was trying to get across sailed right over my head, I’m glad I found the courage to put this book on my Classics Club list. Kafka created a nightmare which anyone who has ever been caught up in seemingly pointless and endless amounts of red tape will recognise. The Trial also reminds anyone who has ever been involved in a court case that there are no winners in court and that there isn’t an answer to every question, or a clear reason for everything that happens.

Even though I still think the ideas in The Trial were mostly too ‘hard’ for me to understand, I enjoyed the story and the author’s writing style very much.

The Trial was book twenty nine in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

Heather, the Totality was written by Matthew Weiner who created the television show Mad Men.

Heather, the Totality was a very fast read. The novella began with a New York couple who met late in life and had a daughter, Heather. As time passed their lives revolved more and more around their daughter, until they had very little else in common.

As Heather grew up a counterpoint story was told of a boy who was the child of a drug addict, being brought up in poverty. I’m not sure if Bobby was born bad or became bad, but either way, when he saw Heather and took an interest in her, he became Heather’s father’s worst nightmare.

While I didn’t particularly enjoy the story itself I was very interested in the way it told, using short paragraphs broken up with a large amount of white space. Each paragraph followed a single character for its entirety and moved the story along very quickly. The story itself reminded me of a fairy-tale, not that anything magical happened, but more because of the feeling I had of the threat of something terrible hanging over Heather and her parents. The feeling of threat wasn’t just from Bobby’s presence, but from other life events that occurred that have the ability to derail a couple or a family.

For me, the short length of this story worked in its favour. If it had been any longer I would have expected more from the story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was an excellent introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work.

The narrator was an un-named middle-aged man who had returned to his former hometown for the funeral of someone who must have been very important to him, although this person or their relationship to the narrator was not named either. Instead of attending the wake, though, the narrator escaped to visit the site of his old family home, before travelling further down to the end of the lane to the home of his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock.

At Hempstock Farm the narrator was greeted by Lettie’s grandmother, who remembered him from his visits as a child. He then went around the back of the house to the pond, which prompted memories of a long-forgotten, but terrifying episode from his childhood.

The narrator’s memories began with the suicide of an opal miner who had been boarding with his family. When the boy and his father arrived at the scene of the man’s death, the boy met Lettie for the first time, who took him back with her to Hempstock Farm. There he learned a magical, evil being was on the loose and was preying on people’s desire for money.

Lettie took the boy with her to confront and ‘bind’ the magical being to prevent it from doing further harm to their community but when he let go of Lettie’s hand it took the opportunity to enter his body and access the ‘real’ world.

The next day a beautiful young woman named Ursula Monkton was engaged by his parents to work as a nanny to the boy and his sister. The boy was terrified of Ursula and knew she was somehow linked with the magical being who Lettie had attempted to bind the previous day. The rest of his family, particularly his father, were entranced with Ursula.

Under Ursula’s control the boy’s father tried to drown him in the bath, but he outsmarted her and his father and escaped to Hempstock Farm where he was safe, leaving Lettie, her mother and her grandmother to deal with Ursula.

Usually I struggle to believe in magical realism, but in this case, I loved it. Lettie, her mother and her grandmother were wonderful, wise, strong women and the narrator’s emotions as he endured and witnessed frightening and confusing events were completely believable, even if I did think his vocabulary was too advanced for a child of seven. I felt sad and nostalgic, as well as being variously confused, frightened and comforted as the narrator remembered the events of the story.

I’m planning to go on a Neil Gaiman book-binge.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s latest book, Miss Benson’s Beetle left me feeling happy with the world.

The story tells of Miss Margery Benson’s trip to New Caledonia from England in 1950 to find a previously unknown golden beetle, something she had dreamed of doing her whole life.

Margery was a middle-aged home economics teacher at a girl’s school when one day, driven to despair by her miserable life in post-war England and by her horrible students, she stole her deputy principal’s new boots and quit her job, deciding almost on the spur of the moment to travel to a remote mountain region in New Caledonia.

Margery advertised for an assistant who could speak French, take notes and generally assist her in her travels but at the last minute employed Enid Pretty after she was let down by her first preference. Enid was a flirtatious and unlikely young woman who was incapable of many of the tasks Margery wanted in an assistant, but who was kinder-hearted than Margery at least initially deserved, tending to an extremely sea-sick Margery throughout most of the journey to Australia. However, when they arrived in Brisbane Enid told Margery she wouldn’t be continuing with her to New Caledonia, as she was desperate for a baby and intended to make a life with a man she had met on the ship.

When Enid realised the man she planned to marry was a cruel, unpleasant bully, she escaped him at the last minute and hopped on the sea plane to New Caledonia with Margery.

Once in New Caledonia Margery and Enid found themselves enmeshed into a social whirl of British expatriates who didn’t seem to appreciate living in paradise, and caught up in bureacracy, unable to obtain the visa they required to travel to the mountain until Enid eventually found a way to get Margery to the mountain.

I liked watching Margery and Enid learn and grow from each other. Their backstories were told gradually and added enormously to my appreciation of their characters. I particularly enjoyed reading about their sea voyage to Australia.

I would describe Miss Benson’s Beetle as an adventurous comfort read.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is a beautifully told story of misery.

The story was set during the American Civil War and alternately followed Inman as he surreptitiously travelled home to his farm on Cold Mountain after deserting the Confederate Army after being injured, and Ada, a minister’s daughter eking out a living on her father’s Cold Mountain farm.

Inman’s chapters began with him deserting his military hospital in the middle of the night. Gradually the reader learned that Inman had initially gone to war for adventure rather than because he believed in the South’s cause, but over the four years of the war he, like most of his fellow men, had had enough of death.

Inman’s journey was epic. At all times he had to hide from the Confederate Home Guard who were on the hunt for deserters, but he also had to fight and outsmart thieves who would have killed him for what little he had. At one point Inman prevented a preacher from killing a young woman whom the preacher had made pregnant. Later, the preacher caught up to Inman after being beaten by his community after they learned what he had done, and they travelled together until the preacher’s lust got him into trouble again, but throughout most of his journey Inman travelled alone. He starved most of the time but occasionally was fed or assisted by those with kind hearts, who usually had very little to share. Sometimes he had to watch out for bears.

Back on Cold Mountain, Ada had found herself completely unfit for living on a farm after her father’s death. He had always paid others to work the farm and when her money ran out, Ada starved for want of practical knowledge. Ada might have returned to Charleston to throw herself on the mercy of distant relatives, but when Ruby, a poor, uneducated woman arrived on her doorstep it was the saving of Ada. With Ruby’s knowledge they worked together to make the farm productive and in turn, Ada shared her ‘book’ stories with Ruby.

Before the war Inman and Ada’s relationship had been slight, although they had been attracted to each other and Inman had given Ada a photograph of himself as a keepsake. They had written to each other during the war years and during his long journey home, Inman had a sense that he was returning to Ada.

The Native American history of Cold Mountain was woven into the story, and the reader was made aware that the country these characters lived in first belonged to the Cherokee and Creek people who had been displaced from the area. Slavery was always in the background too and sometimes in the foreground, such as when a character asked if he thought the war to protect the plantation owners’ right to own slaves and become rich had been worthwhile to the many poor men who fought and died for the Confederate Army.

The story was very eventful and I liked how Inman’s more adventurous journey was balanced with Ada’s domestic hard work and learnings.

Frazier’s writing is very good. Although I didn’t like the punctuation style of dashes being used for dialogue, the dash style did suit the time the story was set and the character’s dialect which was usually brief and very direct.

I’m glad I hadn’t seen the film of the same name before reading Cold Mountain, as I can’t imagine Nicole Kidman as Ada, Renee Zellweger as Ruby or Jude Law as Inman. I’m sure I’ll watch the film sometime and that I will enjoy it, but I liked reading the book and imagining these characters in my own way.

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar was a fast, enjoyable read.

The story began with two American women, Amy and Wilma on holiday in Mexico City after Wilma’s second divorce, where they drank too much, argued constantly and bought drinks for attractive men who hovered around their hotel bar in hope of getting something from a rich, female tourist, be it cash or otherwise.

Not surprisingly, Wilma had been miserable during their stay but it still came as a surprise to everyone when she suicided by jumping over the balcony of her hotel room. Amy’s husband Rupert travelled to Mexico to bring Amy home to California, but when she disappeared soon after returning, her brother Gill suspected that Rupert had killed Amy in Mexico then faked her return to the USA.

The remaining characters included an eavesdropping maid from the hotel in Mexico, Rupert’s extraordinarily efficient secretary (who was also overly attached to Rupert), Gill and his elegant wife, Helene, and a private investigator who was employed by Gill to find out where Amy was.

In short, I suspected everyone of everything while I tried to figure out what had happened to Amy, all the while enjoying the snappy slang of the era, the glamour and style of the female characters and the many twists and turns in the plot.

The story was written in 1959, so the male characters worked in the city where they enjoyed daily two-hour lunches (!!!) while the female characters regularly travelled to the city in their fabulously expensive sable coats to shop and drop in on their husbands at work, while mysterious blondes regularly and clandestinely visited other women’s husbands. While there wasn’t any overt racism, characters were also racially-stereotyped.

In some ways though, the author was ahead of her time. I particularly enjoyed reading the comments from an air hostess who had recently lost her job because the airline she worked for learned she was married. She said:

They fired me when they found out I was married. It’s a crazy rule. If marriage interferes with efficiency, why doesn’t the Air Force discharge my husband and all the other married pilots.

Indeed!

I wasn’t crazy about how the story ended but think that fans of vintage crime or mystery will enjoy The Listening Walls.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

I was attracted to the tattoo art on the cover of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (a Penguin Ink edition) even though I don’t want a tattoo for myself. I always said that if I ever got a tattoo I would have a sailing ship on my upper arm so that when I flexed my muscles it would look as if the sails were rippling in the wind, but at my age, that ship has definitely sailed… *

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a collection of stories told during different stages of the main character, Jane Rosenal’s life.

Each story began with a quote from a self-help or instructive book. The first was a warning from a typewriting-course manual that a person shouldn’t take advantage of their family’s love and affection, which related perfectly to the first story which introduced teenage Jane, her parents and her older brother Henry, who had brought his girlfriend with him to stay with the family at their holiday house during the summer. During that summer Jane saw and commented on events which she might have kept quiet about had she been older. Despite her youth Jane was smart and prone to making pithy comments, such as when she visited a museum with her mother and wrote in the guestbook, “Bored nearly to death.”

In the second story Jane was a young adult holidaying with her first serious boyfriend. Again, had she been older Jane would have known better than to vacation with her boyfriend’s former girlfriend and her husband in the Caribbean, but she didn’t and so learned an important lesson. The former girlfriend, who was of course wildly beautiful, used Jane’s boyfriend to make her husband jealous, while the husband was busy cracking on to Jane. Jane was uncomfortable with every aspect of the situation and called it out, but when her boyfriend said she was over-reacting, she successfully set out to make him jealous by setting up a similar situation.

Jane’s much older lover was introduced in the third story. By this time Jane was an associate editor at a publishing company and her lover was a well-known and respected writer who was also an alcoholic. Jane had fallen madly in love with him and moved in to his home, bending to his whims and living an older person’s life with him.

The stories continued to follow Jane as she negotiated a series of relationships, including a worrying chapter where she dumbed down her sense of humour to follow The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider in an attempt to catch a man. I liked Jane better when she was being herself and as it turned out, so did the pursued man.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is a clever book with a likeable, entertaining main character.

*The reality is, I get sick of the pictures on my walls. I can’t imagine being stuck with a sailing ship tattooed on my upper arm for eternity.

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