A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A treasure I had no idea existed. A Town Like Alice combines a war novel with a western/frontier story and then wraps the whole thing round in a lovely romance. It was published in the 50’s so it has the attitudes about race and pre-marital sex (referred to as “a fate worse than death” on page 198) from those times; when the setting moves to Australia and they mention the Aborigines things can get cringy. The book actually starts in England, in 1905, and is told from the point of view of an estate lawyer. Certainly not what I was expecting based on the cover picture of a young couple and their dog, standing outside with a prairie landscape behind them. Shute is setting up the story and after a chapter or two we meet the main character, Jean Paget, and as she shares the story of her death march in Malaysia – for by now we have moved past the end of the second world war – with our narrator Noel Strachan, we get to know her a little better. It was there that she met Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who was also a prisoner of war, and whom we think is the love interest mentioned on the back cover. But the war and tragedy intervene, and she returns alone to England. It is when Strachan’s client dies and Jean inherits his estate in trust that circumstances and coincidences conspire to place her on a ranch in Australia and bring to her the man she loves. The plot is laid out creatively and I was hooked before I was 30 pages in. Definitely add this book to your collection.

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Seducing Abby Rhodes by JD Mason

Seducing Abby RhodesSeducing Abby Rhodes by J.D. Mason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here’s a hot read for those sultry summer nights. Abby Rhodes is a contractor who makes a living flipping fixer-uppers across the United States. Her most recent purchase in Blink, Texas; owned by business tycoon Jordan Gatewood comes with unexpected inclusions – ghosts. And romance. But Jordan has secrets. And an ex-girlfriend who will do anything to get rid of that prefix.

It’s pretty fast paced. I found myself flipping addictively through it, despite knowing exactly how it was going to end. I was not wrong. But you know, there are times when you just want an easy read that’s going to give you the ending you want, but still have some mystery in the details. Plus
bizarre quirks: Mason has the characters alternate between describing someone as a “fucker” and a “fucka” but almost religiously uses “gotdamn.” It got under my skin really fast. Furthermore following an f-bomb with a curse modified for palatability seemed incongruous.

There is some racism in this novel. Gatewood ends his relationship with Robin Sinclair to pursue Abby, and Sinclair does not respond well, to put it mildly. Occasionally Jordan just lets her vent, and the vitriol she spews at Abby is misogynoir in all its hateful glory. The only good point is that it’s obvious what Sinclair is doing is wrong, and the reader empathises with Abby. There’s also depictions of murder and suicide, discussions of drug and arms dealings, misuse of the justice system, and adultery. On the upside, the story isn’t about Abby saving Jordan. He’s saved himself by the time they meet. I’m delighted to read a story where the male love interest isn’t a tool who is reformed into a decent human being by the woman’s physical affection. That being said…

My copy is an advance, uncorrected proof which I won in a draw. It includes acknowledgements by the author, who comments that one of the characters, “has been emotionally abusive to me for years, but I stay because he’s my heart and soul.” I really hope that when they publish, that comment is gone. The sentiment gives me the willies. It completely justifies staying in abusive relationships because of love, an attitude which fortunately isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel. And the last thing society needs is more books muddling romance with toxic relationships.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for ChocolateLike Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Esquivel has created a succulent book stuffed with romance and drizzled with fantastical happenings. Her unnamed narrator takes us through the life of Tita De la Garza, whose brilliance in the kitchen is legendary. Tita struggles against the restrictions tradition and family place on her. Her longing for love and desire to be a whole person are an undercurrent to the delicious cooking she does. She shares a recipe per chapter. The story is told in monthly installments but takes place over decades, giving a sense of connection across generations and tying the beginning to the ending, but also reinforcing how little life varied on a daily basis. One April hardly differed from another. But when they do! Esquivel speckles the plot with magical occurrences: meals that spread the cook’s emotions to all who partake. A woman lights a rustic outdoor shower on fire with nothing but lust. Chickens make a poultry hurricane. Overall the whole novel has a tone of distance – akin to someone recounting a memory – that makes the few disturbing parts easier to handle and imparts a sense of peace to the plot. Speaking of disturbing parts: sensitive readers should be aware of a few things. The ranch setting means some scenes of animal butchering/castration, though they are very rare. There are a couple of rapes, which are not described, and the use of slapping/beatings (also not described) as a disciplinary tactic. And a teensy bit of slut-shaming. Standard for the pre-automobile era. Like Water for Chocolate is equal parts passionate, wonderful, and surreal. So satisfying. Like any good meal.

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I got into this book, I completely devoured it. While typically I shy from romance, I found myself entranced by Newland Archer’s secret love for Countess Ellen Olenska. Wharton masterfully represents the constraints society imposed on its members, and the slavish, blind devotion so many of them had to maintaining those standards. Their willingness to accept and keep male adulterers in their glittering circles, thrown against their rejection of the countess for escaping a monster of a husband, illuminates the separate standards held up as acceptable behavior for men and women. It did my heart good to hear Newland proclaiming that “women ought to be free, as free as we are,” even if his generosity of spirit mainly stems from his love of the Countess. Few people come out of this novel looking good. It was equal parts amusing and disturbing to watch the characters in the story completely reverse their attitudes and behavior towards Ellen after Newland persuades a few of the wealthiest families to accept her into their circles. Their thoughtless rejection of her at the beginning is only slightly more reprehensible than their mindless acceptance of her a few chapters later. Decisions are rarely made after rational thought. Why think? The only acceptable behavior is exactly what everyone else is doing. Someone is constantly bemoaning the collapse of society or quivering in horror over a new trend in acceptable social behavior, an attitude not unlike the one we frequently see today. It’s rarely accompanied by an articulate explanation of just how these new attitudes are ruining humanity, or why keeping these arbitrary barriers in place is so vital to the survival of mankind. Nearly 100 years after it was first published, The Age of Innocence is as relevant as when Wharton first wrote it. I wonder what she would say to us today?

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