Tag Archives: novel

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks


After reading Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks’ homage to P.G. Wodehouse, I jumped on this author’s bandwagon, reading A Possible Life and A Week in December in quick succession.

A Week in December is told over the course of a week in December 2007, in London. A politician’s wife is organising a dinner party, a hedge-fund manager works to carry out a trade so big that it will take down a number of banks, a wealthy business man prepares to be honoured with an OBE, a Polish footballer tries to fit in to his new club, a young lawyer hopes for some clients, a teenage boy risks his mental health for his drug addiction, a jaded book reviewer allows his jealousy of fiction-writers to get the better of him, a young woman risks falling in love and a young Muslim man who should know better uses Islamic theory to justify belonging to a group who plan to bomb a London hospital.

You may be able to tell from my previous sentence that A Week in December had too much going on, too many characters and too many stories. I couldn’t keep track of them all and would have preferred to follow just one or two of the stronger character’s stories.

I also struggled to believe in all of the characters. For example, Hassan, the would-be suicide-bomber, is from a wealthy industrialist English-Pakistani family, has loving parents and has had an excellent (English) education. Really? Maybe my view of terrorists is stereotyped, but I don’t think they usually spring from this particular set of circumstances. Another character, a businessman who is to be awarded the OBE hires the book reviewer to teach him about books, in case he and the Queen get into a conversation about literature. Again, really? Where did that come from? Successful business people are usually socially adept and unlikely to do anything so silly. On the other hand, I did believe in Jenni, the train driver, who after work reads novels and plays an internet game where her alter-ego lives the life that Jenni wishes she lived.

While telling the story, the author gave pages and pages of explanations about hedge-fund trading, the mechanics of driving a train, the connection between drugs and schizophrenia, and how terrorists find each other, make and execute their plans. The research must have been interesting for the author, but I felt as if his learnings were too obviously used in this book.

I also felt as if one of the character’s lack of respect for the Koran was too clumsily used as a tool to disparage Islam. Maybe the author hoped a would-be terrorist would read A Week in December and be swayed by this character’s argument that the Koran was bombastic, sexist and unlikely to present a true version of what happens to a terrorist after death. If so, great. However, I expect most Muslim readers would be offended by the use of this character to undermine their religion. I don’t believe in much myself, but I do understand that faith is believing in something which can’t be proved to exist, which is not unique to any religion.

I loved Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, liked A Possible Life and disliked A Week in December. I’m going to give myself a break from Sebastian Faulks before reading Birdsong by this author, as this story has been highly recommended and I don’t want to spoil it for myself.





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In One Person by John Irving


I did not finish John Irving’s In One Person. After reading A Prayer for Owen Meanie, I wanted to love every other word he wrote, from his shopping list to his novels, but the main character’s sex life became far too explicit for me to enjoy reading about.

The story starts with Billy, the bi-sexual main character, as a child, falling in love with various people. Billy’s step-father gave him lovely advice, which was to enjoy his crushes and not to worry about the appropriateness of who they might be on. Billy’s first crush was on the town librarian, Miss Frost, who might have been trans-gender – I expect this query was answered later in the book. His next crush was on a boy at school, Jacques Kittredge. Billy’s best friend and pseudo-girlfriend Elaine is also crazy about Kittredge, despite Kittredge being a nasty bully.

The story then jumped to Billy as an adult, and while I had been enjoying the story up until then and liked Billy’s character very much, there were too many explicit details about his sex life for me to feel comfortable continuing.*

Billy’s family are theatrical and are a funny and interesting bunch of characters, although I did notice similarities between some of them and the characters in A Prayer for Owen Meanie. Billy’s grandfather, who played most of the female roles in local plays was a terrific character, and I would have liked to know how things worked out for him.

I’ll try another John Irving book instead, hopefully one which doesn’t offend my delicate sensibilities.

*I don’t care who does what with who (or should that be whom?), but I don’t like to know the details…



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Paris For One & Other Stories by Jojo Moyes


Well, the day has finally come when I can say I’ve read something by Jojo Moyes, whose name is everywhere after she wrote loads of best-selling novels which have been turned into block-busting movies. I started with a collection of short stories, Paris For One & Other Stories and found them to be enjoyable, in a completely forgettable way.

The title story, Paris For One was predictable and dragged on a bit. I think about a third of the story could have been shaved off. But, since Jojo Moyes is a New York Times bestselling author, and I’m just a reader, I might be wrong. (Maybe only a quarter of this story should have gone).

The next story, Between the Tweets, was better. It was very short, only five pages long, and the characters came alive. This story had a terrific twist which I did not see coming.

The themes of Love in the Afternoon, A Bird in the Hand, Thirteen Days With John C and Last Year’s Coat are similar; the tribulations of marriage, children and work when there isn’t enough time or money to enjoy life properly.

My favourite story was The Crocodile Shoes, where the heroine spent an interesting day wearing a pair of red-soled Christian Louboutin high-heeled sling-backs. My feet hurt just looking at these gorgeous shoes, but wouldn’t it be lovely to have somewhere to wear them?


I can see why Jojo Moyes is so popular. Her short stories are ideal for a little escape from real life and I expect her full-length books give readers the same effect. I might read a Jojo Moyes novel when I am next on holidays or looking for a lighter book to read in between more taxing works, but if not, will watch the movie of Me Before You with Miss S, some chocolate and a box of tissues one night.



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Summer at Mount Hope by Rosalie Ham


Summer at Mount Hope is by Australian author Rosalie Ham, who also wrote The Dressmaker and There Should be More Dancing. Unfortunately, Summer at Mount Hope lacked the cutting humour and style of the other two books.

The story is set in the 1890s. The heroine is Phoeba Crupp, who wants to run her father’s vineyard near Geelong alongside him. Other farmers in the district run sheep but are struggling due to the drought and depression. Phoeba’s family need the dry for the grapes, but they are also struggling financially and as a family. Phoeba’s parents are unhappily married and Phoeba’s mother hates the isolation of living in the country. The story’s theme is the lack of power that women have over their own futures.

Phoeba’s friend Hadley is keen to marry her, but she sees him as a friend rather than a lover. Phoeba’s mother wants her to marry Hadley to secure her future, but Phoeba is interested in someone else. Phoeba’s spoiled sister Lilith is doing her best to catch a husband and is aiming at the most eligible man in the district, the recently widowed squatter’s son.

Summer at Mount Hope, like this author’s other works, is a black comedy, but is not as polished or as enjoyable as this author’s other stories. The story is slow, jumps around, and I felt the slang and dialogue was wrong for the times. There were a few running jokes, such as Phoeba’s constant struggles with horses and the non-arrival of a peach-parer in the mail which got old quickly.

I also had issues with the timeline. The story starts on New Years Eve in 1893 and ends two months later, at the end of February, but during that time a character managed to catch a man, fall pregnant and drag him to the altar!

I was interested to read about the itinerant workers and the difficulties which arose when farmers tried to introduce machinery to their farms and thought that these sections of the book made it worth reading. I also enjoyed hearing about the characters going out one night to watch the electric lights being turned on for the first time in far-off Geelong.

The painting below is ‘View of Geelong’ by Eugene von Guerard from 1856. This hangs in the Geelong Art Gallery.


I hope Rosalie Ham publishes something new soon, as The Dressmaker left me wanting more and Summer at Mount Hope has not satisfied me. I know this author can do better!


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Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel


Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel has an unpleasant plot and nasty characters whose behaviour is mean. Fay Weldon’s comment on the front cover, “What a terrific book,” sucked me right in, causing me to expect fun and frivolity from the story. I should have known better though, as Fay Weldon’s own writing often features a mean streak…

Evelyn Axon is an old duck who lives in a once-grand English home with her mentally disabled, adult daughter Muriel. Evelyn is a highly sought-after medium (by her neighbours, anyway), but is struggling with poltergeists terrorising her at home.

Evelyn desperately needs help, but won’t admit it, and she won’t accept help when it is given (or forced) upon her. A barrage of social workers become involved in Muriel’s case and arrange for Muriel to attend Daycare Sessions, where she makes baskets and steals the tea-money. When the Daycare Sessions are temporarily closed without Evelyn’s knowledge, Muriel goes off during the days to goodness knows where and comes back pregnant.

Eventually Isobel Field takes on Muriel’s case after four or five other social workers have been involved over less than six months. Isobel genuinely cares about her clients and tries to do the right thing by Muriel and Evelyn, but she is overworked, out of her depth and is blocked by Evelyn at every turn. Isobel is also distracted because she is having an affair with Colin, an unhappily married man.

Every Day is Mother’s Day was set in the early to mid 1970s and it shows. The misery of marriage, the casual way that Colin and Isobel fall into their affair, ‘hip’ parties where guests ignore drunken sexual abuse, characters drink-driving, Evelyn’s snobbish attitude towards her neighbours and her uncaring, hostile behaviour towards her daughter all showcase the worst of these times.

The book is well written, but the story is bleak. I didn’t find anything funny in it.

I believe Every Day is Mother’s Day was Hilary Mantel’s first book. I will give this author one more try, but am hoping for a happier plot and some likeable characters next time.



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After the Quake by Haruki Murakami


I’m a fan of Haruki Murakami’s writing, but I was unable to connect to any of the characters or plots in the six short stories in the collection After the Quake. I’m struggling to express why exactly, the closest I can come to is that I think these stories need to be read in their original language (Japanese) by people who experienced the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which the stories are centered around.

In the first story, UFO in Kushiro, a husband and wife separate after soon after the earthquake. The wife tells her husband there is nothing inside of him that he can give her. He is devastated, but eventually gets a glimpse of his future self, which leaves him with some hope.

The second story, Landscape with Flatiron, tells of two suicidal people who live to have bonfires on the beach. If there was a moral or a point to this story, it went over my head.

All God’s Children Can Dance is the story of a man whose mother led him to believe he was like Jesus, in that he was the result of a virgin birth, although eventually the man sought out a person who he believed was his father.

Thailand tells the story of a spiritually-tired business woman who swims her way to peace while on vacation. Her chauffeur offers her guidance and enlightenment, both directly and indirectly.

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, like many of this author’s stories, has super-natural elements. The hero of this story is able to help save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake with Frog, by dreaming and believing while Frog fought a terrible battle with Worm.

I enjoyed and related to Honey-Pie best of all the stories. Three friends from university, two men and a woman, almost lost their friendship when two of them fell in love. The pair married and had a child, but the other man was the better match for the woman and long-term, theirs would be the relationship that lasted. The child dreamed of ‘The Earthquake Man’ which is something I imagine many Japanese children who lived through the Kobe earthquake did.

After the Quake isn’t my favourite of Haruki Murakami’s works, but his ‘okay’ is still better than most writer’s ‘best’.




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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


Just like Ann Patchett’s kidnapped characters in Bel Canto, I never wanted to leave the beautiful world I found myself in. I wish this book had gone on and on and on…

Bel Canto is set in the home of the Vice President in an unnamed, poor Latin American country. The story starts with the Vice President hosting a dinner party for a Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, to entice him to build a factory in their country. The guests include a who’s who of business people and their wives, along with Mr Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer, American Roxanne Coss, who is engaged to sing after dinner.

Just as Roxanne finished performing the lights went out and when they came on again, the guests realised that a band of kidnappers had snuck in and taken them hostage. The intended target was the country’s President, but unbeknownst to the kidnappers the President ditched the party at the last minute to stay home to watch his favourite soap opera.

The rest of the story takes place over the next four months. Some of the guests and staff were freed, but the most important guests remained as hostages in the Vice President’s living room. Mr Hosokawa, his translator, Roxanne, a priest, the Vice President and a bunch of Russian businessmen make up the main characters amongst the hostages, while the kidnappers include three self-appointed Generals and a motley group of teenagers; both boys and girls with guns.

Because of the many language barriers amongst the parties, Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, becomes the most important person in the room. Gen translates the negotiations between the kidnappers and a Red Cross negotiator, for different groups of guests and between the hostages and the kidnappers. He translates for Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne as their friendship begins and develops during their imprisonment, and he translates a delightful declaration of love from one of the Russian businessmen to Roxanne. After the declaration, Roxanne comments to Gen that “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.”

Every day Roxanne sings while a Japanese businessman accompanies her on the piano. Mr Hosokawa and a General play chess. Gen teaches one of the kidnappers to read. The Vice President discovers the joys of cleaning house. Various parties fall in love. Businessmen learn how to relax. Kidnappers and hostages become friends. As time passes, most of the kidnappers and the hostages realise they do not want their life in the Vice President’s house to end.

I am not a fan of opera but I enjoyed the way that singing and music brought these characters together, although I suspect that in real life some of the guests would have their fingers stuck in their ears for a bit of peace and quiet, rather than everyone falling under the spell of the music. I almost brought myself to listen to some of the pieces sung in this book, but I couldn’t quite manage it… I would quite like opera if nobody sung.

I loved Bel Canto. Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer whose skill and craftsmanship show in every word of this story. I didn’t like the ending of the book, but although I have been thinking and thinking of how else it could have ended, I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

I’m a newcomer to Ann Patchett’s writing, having only recently read her collection of essays and memoirs in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, but am looking forward to making my way through her works.




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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

marigoldI saw the movie based on Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel years ago and loved it. The actors were first-rate, the story was gorgeous, the scenery exotic and I left the cinema feeling happy with the world. When I came across the book I was hoping for a similar experience.

The book’s plot was entertaining, but much uglier than the movie’s, and it didn’t leave me feeling full of joy.

The story starts with an old duck*, Muriel Donnelly, making the English newspapers after she fell in the street, went to hospital and was left untended for two days. What the newspapers didn’t report was that Muriel wouldn’t allow any “darkies” to touch her. The doctor interviewed to answer the newspaper’s claims was an Indian, Dr Ravi Kapoor. Ravi was married to an English woman, whose father, Norman, a selfish, sexist, randy old goat, had recently moved in with Ravi and his wife and was driving Ravi bonkers.

Other retirees are introduced and all of them have a different story, but they are all in the same position, in that they are living in England without enough money or companionship to enjoy their retirement. Most of the elderly characters are more or less neglected by their families.

Ravi’s cousin Sonny had the bright idea of turning a run-down guest house in his home town of Bangalore in India into the first of a chain of retirement homes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ravi was mad-keen to be involved in the project, mostly because he planned to send his father-in-law to India to live in the hotel.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attracted quite a few English retirees, one married couple and a number of elderly women, along with Norman and Muriel Donnelly. They all settle in (more or less) to life in India.

The book is written from the point of view of the English expats. The contrast between the English retirees, (who in England, are quite poor) and the Indian people who are living in true poverty (homeless, begging, scavenging for food), is shown, although glossed over in that the English retirees’ stories take precedence every time. The English characters are all racist to some degree, from Muriel Donnelly’s atrocious behaviour in hospital, to a younger character who chases exotic religions, looking for a sense of fulfillment which she never attains.

Most of the characters, particularly the elderly occupants of the retirement home, are nostalgic for a world which is in the past. This resonated with me and I suspect will more and more as I grow older.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a black comedy. All of the characters are flawed. Some are funny, some are endearing and some are the kind of people you would avoid if you came across them in real life. The funny sections in this book are often at the expense of some one else’s dignity, and in many cases, India’s.

The movie was a kinder, sweeter story than the book. I recommend the movie over the book.

*Old duck is a term of endearment. I am nearly one myself.




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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


Trying to understand what was going on in Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a little bit like being underwater with your eyes open and trying to figure out what was going on out of the water. I suspect that was the author’s intention.

The story is set in Canada. The narrator, an un-named young woman, returns to her family home, a cabin on a remote island, to search for her missing father. She is accompanied by her lover and a married couple, all of whom she has met very recently.

The writing in Surfacing is good, particularly the author’s choice of words, although some parts are in my least favourite style; present-tense. My biggest problem was not likeing the plot. I also struggled to connect with the narrator and I didn’t like the other main characters, although to be fair, I don’t think the author’s intention was to create likeable characters. Superficially the character’s relationships with each other are swinging and cool, (Surfacing was written during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s), but beneath the surface, they hold grudges and judge each other and themselves. There are undercurrents everywhere.

Canadian nationalism is an important theme, but the characters’ struggles with this went over my head, although I suspect Canadian readers would ‘get’ this book.

The remoteness of the location, which requires locals to be almost complete self-sufficient, is intriguing.

Despite not appreciating Surfacing as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Heart Goes Last, I’m looking forward to working through her novels in chronological order, since I love Margaret Atwood’s fearlessness in writing the madder dystopian novels which she is best known for.



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Six Degrees by Honey Brown



So, for those who don’t already know, I read on my hour-long train trip to and from work. This morning, I started Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown and was blushing before the train had left my station. I’m more than a little prudish, so I considered sliding the book into my backpack and looking out the window for the next hour. What if someone I knew saw me reading about threesomes and the like? But intrigued, I read a little more, with the book tilted into the carriage wall so that no one could see what was on the page, holding my coat underneath the book so no one would see the cover and realise that I was not reading a crime novel.

And don’t tell me no one cares about what other people are reading. All of the readers on my train try to see what other people are reading. Sometimes we even hold our books up to show each other. Just last week I tried all the way home to see what the bloke across from me was reading, only to find out his book was about Quantum Mechanics. Big disappointment…

Six Degrees is a collection of six short erotic stories, all set in Australia with loosely-linked characters. I read three and a half of the stories. The stories are quite well written, but I didn’t finish the book because it wasn’t to my taste. This is a reflection on me rather than the author because like I said, I’m a prude. I am going to find other books by this author and read them as soon as possible, as I believe she usually writes horror/thriller novels.

Earlier this week when I was reading a book which I was not embarrassed to show anyone, I sat next to a woman on the train whose husband was sitting across from her. (At least I presume he was her husband, because they both wore wedding rings and they kissed goodbye when he disembarked at North Melbourne). Throughout the journey he continually tried to get her attention by patting her on the leg, but she was having none of it and kept swatting him away, in order to keep reading her book. My suggestion to him would be to employ some of the tactics the characters in Six Degrees used so that he might enjoy more of his wife’s attention…


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