Category Archives: Fiction

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

This is my third in my classic french literature reading – I have read Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary. Once again, I was surprised by its modern feel.

Here is the blurb …

Guy de Maupassant’s scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power, “Bel-Ami” is translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmee in “Penguin Classics”. Young, attractive and very ambitious, George Duroy, known to his admirers as Bel-Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on La Vie francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt society in which he lives – the sleazy colleagues, the manipulative mistresses and wily financiers – and swiftly learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. Written when Maupassant was at the height of his powers, “Bel-Ami” is a novel of great frankness and cynicism, but it is also infused with the sheer joy of life – depicting the scenes and characters of Paris in the belle epoque with wit, sensitivity and humanity. Douglas Parmee’s translation captures all the vigour and vitality of Maupassant’s novel. His introduction explores the similarities between Bel-Ami and Maupassant himself and demonstrates the skill with which the author depicts his large cast of characters and the French society of the Third Republic.

This is an interesting novel as the main character – Georges Duroy – is vile; selfish and self-centred, he uses others (but mostly women) to improve his social and financial position. This is interesting as it is unusual (at that time – first published in 1885) to have such an unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel (the hero so to speak). What does de Maupassant mean bu it? At this time most novels (English at least) had a didactic purpose – to make us (the readers) better people. Is he showing us the world as it is (or was)?

This novel also highlights how linked (and therefore biased) journalism and politics were – and the manipulation of policy to enrich a few men.

One aspect of this novel that I love is the contemporary social detail – the metro is being built, France has soldiers in Algeria, etc.

If you are interested in 19th century France (or Paris), then I highly recommend this novel. It’s gritty (and a bit grubby) and shows are darker side of life.

Here is another review …

http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-bel-ami-guy-de-maupassant.html

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

 

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

As this is a beautiful book, I had to by a paper copy (full price $32.95, so clearly I liked the cover). I selected this for my book club because, for a while, it seemed to be recommended everywhere (and it was shortlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction).

Here is the blurb …

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This chance meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, a journey on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost…

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

I found the experience of reading this novel to be disconcerting – individual scenes and sentences were brilliant, but the whole novel was somewhat disappointing. I can’t quite put my finger on why the novel wasn’t amazing given that the individual parts were. I loved the setting – it was beautifully described (and clearly well-researched), the characters were nuanced and interesting – I think it was the plot (not that I need much of a plot). It needed tighter editing and some of the characters (and their stories) removed.

However, I enjoyed it, but my expectations were high and it didn’t quite reach them.

More reviews …

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The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart – Holly Ringland

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart – Holly Ringland

The cover of this book is so beautiful and I kept seeing it everywhere, so I had to buy it.

I particularly enjoyed all of the Australian flora references – Ms Ringland made the harsh outback almost seem inviting.

Here is the blurb …

The most enchanting debut novel of 2018, this is an irresistible, deeply moving and romantic story of a young girl, daughter of an abusive father, who has to learn the hard way that she can break the patterns of the past, live on her own terms and find her own strength.
After her family suffers a tragedy when she is nine years old, Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home. She is taken in by her estranged grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers, a way to say the things that are too hard to speak. But Alice also learns that there are secrets within secrets about her past. Under the watchful eye of June and The Flowers, women who run the farm, Alice grows up. But an unexpected betrayal sends her reeling, and she flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. Alice thinks she has found solace, until she falls in love with Dylan, a charismatic and ultimately dangerous man.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story about stories: those we inherit, those we select to define us, and those we decide to hide. It is a novel about the secrets we keep and how they haunt us, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. Spanning twenty years, set between the lush sugar cane fields by the sea, a native Australian flower farm, and a celestial crater in the central desert, Alice must go on a journey to discover that the most powerful story she will ever possess is her own.

I had a run of reading about domestic violence and this came at the end and I must admit I was over it by then, so the timing was wrong for me and I haven’t recommended this novel to anyone. I really enjoyed the parts about the flowers: growing them, harvesting them and the secret meaning of the flowers. Ms Ringland creates a fabulous sense of place; by the ocean, by the river, by the crater and her female characters are amazing – the men not so much, but I think that might be the point.

More reviews …

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-lost-flowers-of-alice-hart-review-holly-ringlands-dark-floral-fairytale-20180412-h0yogi.html

https://www.betterreading.com.au/news/australian-masterpice-the-lost-flowers-of-alice-hart-by-holly-ringland/

 

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Dear Mrs Bird – A J Pearce

Dear Mrs Bird – A J Pearce

I can’t remember where I first saw this – it was definitely somewhere online – and then the very next day I saw it at Boffins. I very much enjoyed reading this novel – it reminded me of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society possibly because they have a similar world war two feel.

Here is the blurb …

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

This is a charming and funny story about hope, friendship and the strength of the human spirit. It is mostly light-hearted, but it is set during World War Two, so expect some sadness.

This is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Another review …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/18/dear-mrs-bird-by-aj-pearce-review

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

This was the second French classic for my historical fiction group and once again I was surprised by how easy it was to read – much easier than an equivalent piece of English literature.

Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert’s acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

It was incredibly modern – concerned about consumerism and the role of women. I must admit that I didn’t find Emma at all sympathetic – melodramatic, selfish and self-centred, but she was stuck in a small rural community with no friends, married to a man with whom she had nothing in common. Her life lacked purpose, interest and romance, so of course she had to create drama and excitement.

Here is an article from the NY Times…

and here is the First Tuesday book club talking about Madame Bovary

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3165716.htm

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This book is everywhere – I think ReeseWitherspoon is going to make it into a movie – so I finally sucombed and bought a copy while we were in Sydney.

It reminded me of a dark version of the Rosie Project – here’s the blurb …

Smart, warm, uplifting, the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open her heart

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of a quirky yet lonely woman whose social misunderstandings and deeply ingrained routines could be changed forever—if she can bear to confront the secrets she has avoided all her life. But if she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

There were some laugh out loud moments, which is a good thing because clearly something bad had happened to Eleanor. Although, I felt the laughs were a bit easy on the part of the author (just playing off Eleanor’s autism/aspergers?).

Despite Eleanor’s unpleasantness we do warm to her and want the best for her, which I think is a credit to Ms Honeyman. It is quite an achievement to create a sympathy for an unpleasant character. This is a novel about human connection and kindness and trauma (or more particularly recovering from trauma), but it has a light touch and leaves us feeling hopeful for Eleanor’s future and for all of our futures – it is not too late to make connections and live happily in the world.

More reviews

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/04/eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine-by-gail-honeyman-review

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/eleanor-oliphant-is-a-most-unusual-and-thought-provoking-heroine-1.3157828

 

 

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Dustfall – Michelle Johnston

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston

This book was mentioned by a friend and then I received an email about a literary high tea (where Michelle would be speaking), so of course I had to read it. I even bought a paper copy.

Here is the blurb …

Dr Raymond Filigree, running away from a disastrous medical career, mistakes an unknown name on a map for the perfect refuge. He travels to the isolated town of Wittenoom and takes charge of its small hospital, a place where no previous doctor has managed to stay longer than an eye blink. Instead of settling into a quiet, solitary life, he discovers an asbestos mining corporation with no regard for the safety of its workers and no care for the truth.

Thirty years later, Dr Lou Fitzgerald stumbles across the abandoned Wittenoom Hospital. She, too, is a fugitive from a medical career toppled by a single error. Here she discovers faded letters and barely used medical equipment, and, slowly the story of the hospital’s tragic past comes to her.

Dustfall is the tale of the crashing consequences of medical error, the suffering caused by asbestos mining and the power of storytelling

This book has a wonderful sense of place – in particular Wittenoom (and the Pilbara). I could feel the heat, see the red dirt and the blue sky.

I also learnt quite a bit about Wittenoom and the criminal mining practices – I like to learn history through fiction. As a Western Australian, I know about Wittenoom and Asbestos (and all of the health issues), but I thought the mining company was incompetent not criminal (you know no one paid attention to safety in those days).

Personal responsibility is juxtaposed against corporate responsibility – both doctors make a mistake (of attention more than negligence) – feel terrible remorse and have the career paths altered. Whereas the mining company denies, deflects and delays.

I couldn’t find any other reviews, but I found this …

2, 2 and 2: Michelle Johnston talks about Dustfall

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Bodies of Light – Sarah Moss

Bodies of Light – Sarah Moss

I read Tidal Zone  and loved it, so when I saw this at the library I was keen to read it.

Here is the blurb …

Bodies of Light is a deeply poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous nineteenth century upbringing set in the atmospheric world of Pre-Raphaelitism and the early suffrage movement. Ally (older sister of May in Night Waking), is intelligent, studious and engaged in an eternal – and losing – battle to gain her mother’s approval and affection. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a religious zealot, keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally wins a scholarship and is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn’t seem good enough. The first in a two-book sequence, Bodies of Light will propel Sarah Moss into the upper echelons of British novelists. It is a triumphant piece of historical fiction and a profoundly moving master class in characterisation.

Completely different from Tidal Zone although there are similar concerns – medicine and motherhood. This one is historical fiction set in the late 19 the century – women are finally entering universities to study medicine, the industrial revolution is well underway, trains, factories, squalor, poverty and prostitution.

There is a fabulous review here – much better than I could write -and it has made me aware of more novels. I will definitely be tracking them down.

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

There seemed to be a lot of talk about this one – although I found it quite hard to find. In the end my local book shop ordered it for me.

Here is the blurb …

Summer,1976

Mrs. Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.

But as doors and mouths begin to open  and as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…

This is told from the point of view of a child (Grace) whose innocence makes her an ‘unreliable narrator’. By that I mean we learn more about the people and actions around her than she does. This technique allows the novel to stay light and quirky (Jesus’s face on a drain pipe) while still covering some dark territory: alcoholism, murder (or at least an accidental death – manslaughter?), mental illness and serious physical illness.

Mrs Creasy has gone missing and Grace (and she drags Tilly along with her) are determined to get to the bottom of it. They decide to find god because he is every where, and looks after everyone, and knows how to separate the sheep from the goats and therefore must know the whereabouts of Mrs Creasy.

There is another mystery involving the older members of The Avenue, a fire, and a missing child.

This novel is about people living extraordinary ordinary lives – neighbours forced by proximity to be a community.

I am looking forward to reading her next book Three Things about Elsie

More reviews

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/28/the-trouble-with-goats-and-sheep-review-by-joanna-cannon

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

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Brooklyn – Colm Tobin

Brooklyn – Colm Tobin

I broke my hand …

and it is a family tradition that you get a ‘broken’ book, so I selected this one.

I have seen the film and love it – the costumes, the knitwear …

Here’s the blurb …

Colm Tóibín’s sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America — to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood “just like Ireland” — she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

As is often the case, the book was better. I watched the family again immediately after the reading the novel and I had a much better understanding of the film.

It is a beautifully written story about migration and yearning to be in two places. I creates a snapshot of life in Brooklyn in the ’50s and in a small Irish town.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/09/colm-toibin-brooklyn

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/22/AR2009052201123.html

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