The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

Published: 30th March 2009 (print)/10 September 2012 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Text Publishing/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 233/5 hours 56 minutes
Narrator: Deidre Rubenstein
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sydney in the late 1950s. On the second floor of the famous F.G. Goode department store, in Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks, the women in black are girding themselves for the Christmas rush. Lisa is the new Sales Assistant (Temporary). Across the floor and beyond the arch, she is about to meet the glamorous Continental refugee, Magda, guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women in Black is a classic.

This is a curious book. It was a decent read, the characters were all unique in their own way and yet have the wonderful conformity of the 1950s, and the era comes to life with St John’s words. I am caught between liking it and thinking it was just ok. Somewhere in the 2.5 star field because somehow I couldn’t give it a three.

If I stopped listening I found myself forgetting I was reading it at all. There was nothing in the story to get me back into it, and yet I didn’t hate it while I read it. I wasn’t bored per se, it’s just that nothing happens. I think it was the final third or even further when something happened that I finally got into it, and even then it’s not much. I think that was more the ending coming to a head so it felt conclusive.

This is a novel that is character driven, certainly more so than plot. I certainly have nothing against character driven novels, I think though that enjoyment comes from having characters that interest you so you want to read about their lives. I enjoyed Magda, and Lisa was endearing, but so few others piqued my interest. I felt two or three of these women took centre stage and felt more real than others which may have had something to do with it.

I did love the writing style. St John’s words are elegant and natural without being formal or unnecessarily complicated. The language puts you into this era and it separates the characters from one another with ease, almost so you don’t even notice it. This is emphasised by Rubenstein’s narration. Her use of voices and tone brought this story to life and highlighted St John’s beautiful words. There is slight humour but not enough to be a distraction, and the conversations are often humorous simply for their stark contrasts to modern times. This language was also why I enjoyed the ending. St John concludes this novel with style and it was a seamless ending that suited the characters she had created. There was a heartfelt sentimentality that gave extra meaning to all that had come before it, all through the characters she uses to bring this story together.

Oddly enough, I also found the obituary at the end of my audiobook quite enjoyable. I enjoyed listening about St John and her life from someone who knew her. It was interesting too because I learnt that the book was actually published in 1993. I was impressed because St John captures the language and the feel of the 50s remarkably well. It didn’t feel forced or over the top and there was class and charm in her words that she managed to recreate the era remarkably well.

I will be interested in the movie now (retitled Ladies in Black) because I would like to see how they portray this, if not for the story, but to see these wonderful cocktail frocks for myself.

You can purchase The Women in Black via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Published: June 29th 2000 (print)/1st April, 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Harcourt, Inc. /Bolinda Audio
Pages: 93/1 hours 59 minutes
Narrator: Humphrey Bower
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

It’s time for another installment of ‘This Classic Was Underwhelming, Why Do People Rave About It?’ I’ve given it a four but that is because it started out as a sweet story and I was open and willing to explore the universe with this little prince. I enjoyed the strange planets and the different people, and it was cute to follow the prince around the universe. Then it becomes heavy handed and weird. I was intrigued having never really heard about the plot, just that it was filled with inspirational quotes and filled with the allegory about life. I didn’t hate it, I was just underwhelmed.

I understood what de Saint-Exupéry was trying to do, but it didn’t grab me. I was interested in his approach and I managed to enjoy the story, but I got to the end and went ‘ok?’. So obviously I missed the grand impact that he was after. It’s not that I didn’t get it, I understand the big meaning of life that was being expressed but I didn’t care. The last part of the story ruined the magic of the first part, even though I know they were trying to tell the same story.

I’m glad I went with the audiobook because I think I might have disliked it more if I read it. Bower does a great job telling the story and even though I missed out on the pictures, it didn’t really impact on the story too much. Perhaps I wasn’t connected enough to the prince given his journey. Without that emotional attachment perhaps the impact of it was lost on me. At least I can say I’ve read it now.

You can purchase The Little Prince via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository Audible

Amazon | Amazon Aust | Wordery

Angus & Robertson | Dymocks

 Fishpond QBD

 

Long Lost Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Long Lost Reviews is a monthly meme created by Ally over at Ally’s Appraisals which is posted on the second Thursday of every month. The aim is to start tackling your review backlog. Whether it’s an in-depth analysis of how it affected your life, one sentence stating that you only remember the ending, or that you have no recollection of reading the book at all. 

Published: 6th November 2008Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Penguin Classics
Pages: 253
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Gothic Literature
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence. 

The famous Dorian Gray. I always was intrigued by this story and was very pleased when I finally made myself sit down and read it. Now of course, can’t remember much about it. I remember being very confused for the first part of the book because it is written in the old style, wordy and lots of odd conversations and language, but I do remember enjoying the obvious sexual attraction between Basil Hallward and Lord Henry which was a delightful read.

For a classic piece of literature I didn’t hate it which was a surprise in itself, but I think I realised that the idea of this novel is much more enjoyable than the actual book itself. It’s very much a novel of its time; wordy and filled with gentlemen having strange conversations that all sound like sexual innuendo. Though this was Wilde, maybe it was actual sexual innuendo.

With a four star review I must have liked some parts of it, I think once it finally got going and the story took off it improved much more. I don’t remember much about what actually happens, I might even endeavour a revisit so as to reacquaint myself because I did always think I’d enjoy this book, and with four starts I obviously did, I just wish I could remember a bit more about it.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Published: 1901 (print)/1st April 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
William Blackwood & Sons/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 319 pages/1 disc
Narrator: Megan E Rees
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction/Classic
★   ★  – 2 Stars

“I am given to something which a man never pardons in a woman. You will draw away as though I were a snake when you hear.” With this warning, Sybylla confesses to her rich and handsome suitor that she is given to writing stories and bound, therefore, on a brilliant career. In this ironically titled and exuberant novel by Miles Franklin, originally published in 1901, Sybylla tells the story of growing up passionate and rebellious in rural New South Wales, where the most that girls could hope for was to marry or to teach. Sybylla will do neither, but that doesn’t stop her from falling in love, and it doesn’t make the choices any easier.

It feels so strange to write this review when I am currently taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge that celebrates the female writers of Australia specifically with challenges named after Stella Miles Franklin, but, having just finished My Brilliant Career I have to say I am wholly unimpressed and I can’t help feeling slightly guilty about it.

I experienced such a roller coast of emotions about this, at one moment I was cheering on Sybylla as she stood up against the men around her, and at other times I was rolling my eyes at her indecision and her constant back and forward and self-pity.

When I began I thought it was wonderful; Sybylla was headstrong, she didn’t want to marry, she seemed like a feminist, she yelled at men who dared to touch her without permission when they thought they had the right. She knew what she wanted and didn’t let anyone dictate who she was or what she thought.  However, as the book went on, it started to waver. You’d have moments where there’d be a spark and Sybylla would be fiery and independent again and you expected that her grand moment had arrived where she’d do something, but then it disappeared as soon as it had arrived. She goes on A LOT about her looks. A casual mention is all we’d need but it is filled with her lamenting her ugliness and while she says she can pity herself, she hates it when other people pity her. No one probably does but going on about herself as much as she does it looks like she wants someone to pity her.

If it was written today I would be interested to see the response because reading it now she seems like such a complainer and it drags on with her indecision. She is the typical teenager trope, she is selfish and complains about having to do anything, and from the ages of 17 to 19 acts the same and thinks the world is out to get her and everything anyone does is to upset her life intentionally. She hasn’t got the sense to see what is right in front of her, she plays the ‘poor me’ card far too often for it to retain any sympathy in the reader, and the fact that she can’t see the best choice for her is infuriating. I’m surprised those around her don’t do more to stop her moaning. Of course it’s evident her parents aren’t the best, her mother can be unfair and harsh, but Sybylla doesn’t help herself either.

I did enjoy all the other characters though, Harold Beechum was enjoyable, he is nice and a little odd but likable. He puts up with Sybylla’s nonsense much longer than I certainly would have. I’m surprised he didn’t walk away from her given all the trouble she caused him with her indecision and changing her mind constantly about what she wanted.

The lack of clear conclusion in the novel makes it worse, Franklin makes the reader put up with all of Sybylla’s moping and carrying on but there’s no clear indication whether anything ever happened at the end. Surely a strong ending could have made up for the middle part where you wanted to yell at the girl and tell her to stop being such a whiner. Because I listened to the book as an audio I wasn’t sure how much longer it had to go and when it ended I actually said out loud, ‘is that it?’. I sat through all of that and wasn’t even granted a clear conclusion and instead given an unsatisfactory ending that is beyond tragic and just terrible.

For a classic of Australian literature that is so idolised, I am trying to see what all the fuss is about, considering it didn’t seem to have much in it. Is the fact that she didn’t want to marry? Or that she was headstrong and independent? Is that what it’s revered for, because she is a unique character of her time that goes against the grain of what everyone thinks she should do? Because she doesn’t do it very well, and it’s all very well being independent and headstrong, but if you don’t do anything with that, what’s the point? And if you do that you end up having a pretty unsatisfactory life and I’m pretty sure that’s where Sybylla has ended up.

You can purchase My Brilliant Career via the following

Physical

Amazon 

Dymocks | Booktopia

Bookworld | Book Depository

Audio

Booktopia

Bookworld | Book Depository


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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming

Birthday

Today marks the 106th birthday of author Ian Fleming, best known for his novels turned movies about 007 spy James Bond. However, writing novels is not how Fleming started out. Born in 1908, Fleming was the second of four bothers to parents Valentine and Eve. Valentine was a Member of Parliment for Henley in London and they lived in the wealthy district of Mayfair. Just before Fleming’s ninth birthday his father was killed in the First World War, and family friend and fellow officer, Winston Churchill wrote the obituary.

Fleming had a range of jobs, he attempted a career in the army, failing his officer’s exam and his attempt to get into the Foreign Office, he instead joined the Reuters news agency. It was here he learnt the basics of journalism and relished in reporting on the espionage trial in Russia. He left this position and worked in a bank in London before moving onto a stockbroker company. He soon changed jobs again and became, unexpectedly, the personal assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence, a job that transformed his life.

The first Bond novel, Casino Royal, was written in 1953, with one being released every year afterwards until 1966. Fleming had a major impact on British culture and there is a lot written about him. I could spent forever discussing all the things he did, especially about James Bond, so instead I suggest you check out the superb official website. Here you will find video, details information about Fleming’s life, his creation of the Bond novels, as well as his literary career, family, and even trivia.

Fleming is the kind of author I know of, but know little about aside from what he wrote. I have not read any of the James Bond novels, and I do not feel qualified to discuss them but there has been so much written about them it is worth looking up to find about the themes, ideas, and style through Flemings many books. I have however, read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I’m not sure how many people know that the creator of the suave spy James Bond is also the creator of the magical flying car that was turned into a wonderful movie with Dick Van Dyke but this little story is one that continues to delight. Three additions to the series were added by Frank Cottrell Boyce that carries on the magical adventures of the car, each having a new adventure and going new places..

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a story created for Fleming’s son Caspar. In 1962 when Dr. No was being turned into a film, Fleming suffered a heart attack and was under orders not to work, instead he hand wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the story of adventures with a family and their magical car.

 

Exciting Bits and Pieces

Website
More about Ian Fleming
James Bond
Fun Facts

Published: 22 October 19643349b-goodreads-button
Publisher: 
Puffin
Pages: 
113
Format: 
Book
Genre: 
Junior Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★   – 4 Stars

“Crackpot” is what everybody calls the Pott family. So when they go to buy a new car and come back with a wreck, nobody is surprised. Except for the Potts themselves. First, the car has a name. And she tells them what it is. Then they find out that she can fly. And swim…Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a car on a mission to stop a criminal gang in its tracks — and she is taking the Potts with her!

 

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang follows the story of a car and the Pott family. Comander Caractacus Pott is an inventor, husband to Mimsie Pott and father to two twin children Jeremy and Jemima. After selling his whistle-like sweets to a sweets factory owned by Lord Skrumshus, Commander Pott buys and renovates an old car. At first the car is just big, impressive and powerful, but the Pott family soon learn that the car is alive, and just a little bit magical.

This was something I enjoyed because unlike the movie version it is made clear that Chitty herself is alive, not that Pott made her special. Chitty initiates all her magical elements such as flying, and floating through various scenarios in the book, not all extraordinary circumstances either. She indicates to Pott which buttons need pushing and what levers need pulling and marvellous things happen.

After a mishap at a family outing the Pott family end up in France where their adventures really kick off. I can’t say many of my family outings included dynamite and blowing up criminal hideouts, but then again what the British did in their free time is not my concern.

Some parts of the plot are actually really interesting and well written. Being a true Fleming story there are marvellous cars and technology, danger, gangsters, and thrilling plots galore. It is definitely an intriguing read and one that you can tell has come from the mind of the great James Bond creator. There is a great story here if you accept some of its peculiarities and absurdness. I understand this is supposed to be a children’s book of magic and adventure but you can’t ignore that some parts are slightly silly. The fact that the Pott family thought they could just blow up a part of the French cliffs and nobody will make a fuss, “Probably even give us medals” I recall Mr Pott saying, made me smile. Nothing like a good old British stab at the French. And the proximity of small children to dynamite was an interesting turn, but being the 60s and from the mind of Fleming it just adds to the excitement.

Having grown up on the film I enjoyed seeing the Pott family as a whole unit, and Commander Potts as quirky but competent. The key here, as with most children’s books, or any books really, is don’t expect them to be exactly like the film. Characters are added, removed, all in the name of storytelling. Unlike in the film, there is a Mrs Pott in the book, which immediately rules out the chance of a romance occurring for dear Mr Pott with the Skrumshus daughter (who is also absent). They always seem to break up the families, either for pity or for love interest when these movies are made, the same thing happened with Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory if I recall.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a relatively short book, definitely an easy read, and one that has and will continue to delight. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series by Frank Cottrell Boyce, and I am not entirely sure I want to. I am quite happy to enjoy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a standalone book, but who knows, one day I may stumble across the others and give them a go. As I say, don’t come looking to this book thinking it is like the movie, aside from some vague similarities in the beginning the rest is not the same at all and in its own right it is just as good.

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