Comfort Reading, Review copies

Lizzy and Jane – Katherine Reay – 6/10

“The cake and I faced each other – the last two elements of a discarded celebration. I covered it, shoved it into a corner, and started to wipe down the counters.”

lizzy and janeElizabeth is making it in New York as a chef, but something’s not quite right and she can see the writing on the wall of her restaurant. She decides to fly home for the first time in 15 years to visit her widowed father and her sister, who’s struggling with cancer. Can Elizabeth cook the family back into happiness, and will prickly Jane let down her defences enough for Elizabeth to help?

This reminded me so much of The Love Verb, that it’s not funny. Also a little bit of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (although really the only connection there is the friend as impatient patient). The writing isn’t very demanding, but pleasant enough; it tugs on the heartstrings every now and again and there is the occasional plot twist, but much of it predictable and comforting. Like hot chocolate. What I did particularly like about this is that while it looks like it’s going to be an Austen retelling, it actually wasn’t; in fact, even though the two main characters are named for Austen’s most famous sisters, neither of them is (I thought) particularly like Austen’s Bennet girls. They are much more alike, both hot-tempered, proud and indignant, but capable of great compassion.

Instead, the Austen reference is about the experience of having read Austen – what the reader learns from Pride & PrejudiceSense & Sensibility and Persuasion (and I was glad to see some references in there to Persuasion which I think is a vastly underrated Austen novel!).

The New York setting doesn’t feel that strong – but we don’t spend very long in New York. Seattle felt very small-town – they seem to walk nearly everywhere or take very short car rides – is it really that small? That said, culturally it was a pleasant and consistent depiction of a relaxed way of life contrasting with New York’s hecticism (I may have just made up that word).

One niggle (and it’s possible that this is fixed in the print version, but it wasn’t in my eGalley): in The Love Verb and other cooking-related fiction (e.g. Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe), the author included the recipes. I would really have liked the recipes to be included in the book so I could replicate some of them at home!

Enjoyable, light; it won’t stay with you long but it’s a very pleasant read while you’re at it.

Additional information

Copy through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an an honest review.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages (hardback)

Order Lizzy and Jane from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

YA fiction

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green – 8/10

“Hazel Grace, could I, with my meager intellectual capacities, make up a letter from Peter Van Houten featuring phrases like ‘our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity’?”


From the blurb: Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

From my first post (about 150 pages into this book):

First impressions: these kids are witty, and I love their conversation, but so far, so another teenage cancer-ridden love story. See similar misery novels: My Sister’s KeeperElsewhereBefore I Die.

I like the humour, the conversations are funny, but then I had An Issue With This Book: Augustus. He talks like no 17-year-old I’ve ever met. He talks like no man I’ve ever met. I know some quite humorous young women who can get about that many words per minute in amusing streams of consciousness out, but no men. I’m not trying to generalise here, find me an erudite loquacious teenage boy, never mind teenage cancer-surviving boy, and I will eat my metaphorical hat. And when I cannot believe the conversational talent of one of the main couple, things are Not Going To Go Well. Or so I thought – I’ve another 70 pages and sort of accepted it but it still bugged me. But now they’re in Amsterdam and drinking the stars and falling in love but it’s cute and complex and not totally sugar-laden because Hazel thinks of herself like a grenade and… stuff. Themes. Things that English teachers like to discuss.

Now that I’ve finished the book…

Major Emotional Upheaval point was kind of obvious, but still neatly done and Green doesn’t shy away from the ugly tragedy of cancer; two of the three main kids go through some pretty awful, harrowing suffering. I ended up not crying after all (after putting the book down for a week because I didn’t want to take it on a commute and end up bawling in public), but I think those less stony-hearted than myself would weep.

The characters are solidly built and funny, clever kids facing their own mortality far too early. The parents and extended families struck me as a little light, but part of that will be because they were simply not the focus of the story.

Generally excellent writing, many witticisms and clever lines:

“It’s hard as hell to hold on to your dignity when the risen sun is too bright in your losing eyes, and that’s what I was thinking about as we hunted for bad guys through the ruins of a city that didn’t exist.”

“I was wondering what ontologically meant. Regardless, I like it. Augustus and I were together in the Improbable Creatures Club: us and duck-billed platypuses.”

Definitely a good read – sweet, romantic, emotionally upheaving, generally restoring faith in humanity and families and friends while ultimately sad… I foresee this appearing on required reading lists for schools in about 3 years’ time – there are stacks of themes to discuss here.

Additional information:
Copy borrowed, sort of, from The Book Accumulator at Mini-Me’s behest.
Publisher: Penguin, 313 pages (paperback)
Order The Fault in Our Starsfrom Amazon*
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Current Affairs

The Spare Room – Helen Garner – 8/10

“How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence.”

(from the blurb because I can’t say it better) Helen lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend Nicola who is coming to stay. For the next three weeks, while Nicola undergoes treatment she believes will cure her advanced cancer, Helen becomes her nurse, her servant, her guardian angel and her stony judge. The Spare Room is an unforgettable story about what happens to a friendship when the chips are down.

It transpires that much of the subject matter of The Spare Room did come from Garner’s personal experience (see interview with Dovegreyreader), and given its brutal honesty, it is part novel, part confessional.

While the focus of the book is very much the conflict between Helen’s pragmatic view (Nicola is dying) and Nicola’s idealistic/fantastic view (daily overdoses of Vitamin C will cure her cancer), I felt the issue of the friends’ behaviour towards one another was also a key theme: Helen is tirelessly caring but very sceptical and in one spectacular and brutal confrontation, demands that Nicola accept the inevitable and give up her belief in the expensive quackery; Nicola appears predominantly ungrateful and does not acknowledge Helen’s efforts. For such good friends (and I’m not certain that the book includes any references to the occasion of their meeting), their personalities seem oddly discordant.

However, both key characters and the support cast of doctors and family (especially Nicola’s niece Iris) are well-sketched and kept simple; the sparse writing (195 pages of well-spaced large font) does not need or permit space to be squandered on fleshing out the bit parts. Helen is not flawless, she seethes with resentment which can only bubble over once she has safety in numbers on her side of the debate. She bosses Nicola around (admittedly only after Nicola has proven unreceptive to gentler treatment) in a manner not entirely becoming of a long-time friend and current nursemaid.

I’ve read quite a few books this year chronicling a character’s last days (The Love Verb, Before I Die) and I was not as moved by Nicola’s plight as I was by the dying characters in these others. Perhaps because the tragedy is not Nicola’s illness but the conflict in the friendship and perspectives.

As regular readers of RFBT will know, I’m an Australian with a nationality crisis, and I was really touched to find reference to a part of the world I know very well:

“Nicola lived beyond the northern beaches of Sydney on a hillside that could be reached only by boat. For years she had chugged back and forth in a tinnie between Palm Beach jetty and the landing below her house, a ten-minute ride in fine weather… She sat at the tiller, erect and handsome as a duchess in loose garments that the wind ballooned and rippled, her silver hair streaming flat against her skull… The first time I went to stay a weekend, she dared me to climb the bush-choked escarpment that soared up behind her shack to Kuringai Chase. We clawed our way to the top, grunting and cursing, and hauled ourselves, two filthy, panting hags, out of the scrub on to a track along which at that moment came strolling a city couple in pale, freshly ironed sporting clothes, with a Shih-tzu trotting on a leash…”

Garner lives in Melbourne but she has nailed life on Pittwater perfectly.

A very good book, not as brilliant as I was hoping, but certainly not a waste of an afternoon.

Other reviews: The Guardian; A Salted; a book group discussion with Elizabeth Baines; Neel Mukherjee; Savidge Reads; Other Stories; Dovegreyreader; New York Times; Biblioklept

Additional info:
This was borrowed from The Book Accumulator.
Publisher: Text Publishing, 195 pages (paperback)
Order The Spare Room from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this, which goes towards giveaways.
Comfort Reading, Fluff

The Love Verb – Jane Green – 9/10

“It is about women remembering who they were before they had children.”

Callie Perry has it all: a handsome, successful, although not flawless husband, wonderful children, a slightly wayward little sister, a successful photography business and generally a life full of love and wonder and laughter. So when her breast cancer returns as neoplastic meningitis (brain-related cancer), those she loves are shattered, but rally around her.

Normally I wouldn’t pick this sort of book up, being a bit of a romance/chick lit snob, but I’d seen it positively reviewed around the place and it was just the ticket for a brain-free read. As you know, I didn’t fare all that well with that bastion of chick lit, The Horse Whisperer. This, as you can see from the 9/10 rating, was a whole different receptacle of aqueous-dwelling vertebrates.

I loved pretty much all of the characters. Callie was a bit perfect, Stella was a bit bratty younger sister-ish, Mason clearly had an agenda, but I cared about them, I wanted their lives to keep being fluffy and pink. I loved the crazy earth mother Honor, and was pleased that Green chose to include enough back story that we could see where she came from.

And Green does not hold back with the heartbreak when the plot gets going. In a sense, there isn’t much plot – lovely woman gets sick: effect on family. But Callie’s illness is chronicled in enough detail to be very credible (it did not surprise me that Callie was based on a real life woman known to the author), but not so much that it’s gory. Think Before I Die.

Plus it gets several extra points out of ten for including a recipe at the end of every chapter: Chocolate Chestnut Truffle Cake, Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle, Ginger Almond Chicken. Seriously, I’m going to have to hold onto this book for a while just so I can try out the recipes!

Additional info:
This was a personal copy bought, against all my principles, at the supermarket. In my defence, it was not Sainsbury’s, who won this year’s Chain Bookseller of the Year.
Publisher: Penguing, paperback, 401 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

A Wedding in December – Anita Shreve – 9/10

This is the second “reunion” book I’ve read
this year (the other written by a dear family friend and thus specifically not
reviewed here, although she is enjoying commercial success in her native Australia)
and I love the concept. This time it is a wedding between two high school sweethearts
who should have married at 21, and married other people instead. A
25-year-reunion brings them together again and destiny is set straight – and so
the high school friends return for the wedding.

There is the classic cast for such a novel –
the widow, the happily married man with his boys and a hankering for the past,
the spinster with a secret, the now enormously successful and happy gay man,
the cancer victim and the brash bully with a trophy wife – but Shreve appears
to have specifically only spent time inside three or four of the characters’ heads,
not everyone’s, which is a wise choice; any more background and I would have
felt torn around between them.

There are of course scandals to be revealed
and preconceptions to be unravelled – and a shadow from the past following all
the characters around all weekend.

Highly recommended.

Current Affairs

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris – 10/10

Then We Came To The Endis written for everyone who has ever calculated the psychological effect of taking lunch an hour later on Fridays, so that the end of the week is that much closer upon returning from lunch. For those who have established countdowns in hours until they have reached the number of hours necessary for a qualification/promotion/escape. For those who have put sticky tape over the trackball of a colleague’s old-fashioned computer mouse in order to provide the office with entertainment for a few minutes.

Joshua Ferris encapsulates the tedium of daily life in a faceless, soulless corporation, rivalry with colleagues, the pervading fear when lay-offs are rumoured, loyalty born of affection to a terrifying boss and the importance of the right kind of tea. His office workers are obsessive, arrogant, insane, depressive, tortured by tragedy, incompetent, orthographically challenged and aloof. There is no plot – the characters render it unnecessary.

My only criticism is that it has not aged well – the lay-offs are in late 2001, after 9/11 and the dotcom bust, but seem anachronistic given the financial chaos in 2008-09.

Reviews by other bloggers: Of Books and Bicycles