Book reviews

Like many other readers during these uncertain times I’m struggling to concentrate on my reading, so was very happy to be taken out of my own thoughts while reading Sunburn by Laura Lippman.

Sunburn is the story of Polly, who is a woman on the run. Polly left her husband and young daughter midway through a beach holiday and hitchhiked to a small town called Belleville in Delaware where she met Adam, who was also passing through town. Polly wangled her way into a job tending the bar and waiting tables at the High-Ho, a local bar/restaurant. Soon after, Adam took a job at the High-Ho as a cook.

Polly and Adam eventually started an affair, but both had secrets. Some of Polly’s secrets were very soon known to the reader, although she didn’t tell them to Adam. By the time a woman who Adam was formerly involved with was killed, he was so deeply in love with Polly that even though he wondered if she had killed the other woman, he didn’t want to know for sure.

Polly’ past was desperately unhappy but she was hoping and planning for a brighter future. Adam was also secretive about his past and why he had stayed in Belleville but he hoped that Polly would one day trust him with her secrets. The story built up and up until something had to happen and when it did it was truly explosive (literally – Polly’s apartment blew up and with it, Adam’s former lover).

I found the story to be a little uneven (fast, slow, fast, slow) and some of the events stretched my credibility but I believed in the characters and loved the small town location. I was keen to find out how things would end up for these characters right up until the end of the book

I think I’ve read something by Laura Lippman before, but it must have been before I started blogging and I can’t remember what it was. I will read more of her books in future.

Basically, you know, I was totally like, not really into this story of millennials trying to like, literally, like make it in journalism in New York in Sociable by Rebecca Harrington.

The story of Elinor, who worked as a nanny because she couldn’t get a job in journalism and her struggles with her supercilious boyfriend, Mike, who did have a job in journalism, just didn’t engage me.

Spoiler alert. Elinor did eventually get a job writing content for a news website. Her employer was delighted when a piece she wrote called ‘Fifteen Things Only Coffee Drinkers Know’ went viral.

The Girl in the Painting is the first book I’ve read by best-selling Australian author Tea Cooper.

The story follows a young orphan, Jane Piper, who is a mathematical genius. Jane was educated and brought up by a rich brother and sister in Maitland, NSW in the early 1900s.

When Jane’s benefactor, Miss Elizabeth Quinn, had a mental breakdown at a local exhibition, Jane began investigating the cause of her reaction to a painting in the gallery.

The story flips back and forwards in time from around 1850, when Elizabeth sailed to Sydney with her brother Michael to meet their parents who had emigrated to Australia before them, to the present day story which is in 1913. Some of the scenes are set on the goldfields and others in newly settled towns. At the time Sydney was a rough and tumble place.

I was intrigued by Elizabeth’s early romance with a Chinese man, Jing, who worked for her brother. Michael separated Elizabeth and Jing very quickly when he realised they loved each other.

The characters were strong and the story-telling is good, but I felt as if the story was too long, possibly because historical sagas aren’t my preferred style of reading. I will however pass this book on to my mother and I expect she will enjoy it enormously. Mum loves books by Kate Morton and The Girl in the Painting had a similar feel about it to Morton’s books.

My purchase of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (March)

I first read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte as a teenager at which time I intensely disliked the story and the characters. Thirty-something years later I added the book to my Classics Club list as a re-read to see if I could work out what the rest of the world saw in this book.

While I still think that the characters in Wuthering Heights include the angriest and most miserable bunch of bullies and victims ever found in a novel, I’ve experienced a complete turn-around in my feelings towards this book. I do still think the story of Wuthering Heights is brutal, though.

The story of Heathcliff and Catherine is told by a narrator who rented a house in a remote area from Heathcliff. Although Heathcliff was clearly an angry and vicious man the narrator was intrigued by Heathcliff’s household at Wuthering Heights, which included his beautiful teenage daughter-in-law and an uneducated young man who appeared to be something between a family member and a servant.

When the narrator stayed overnight at Wuthering Heights he had a nightmare about a female ghost. Heathcliff’s reaction to hearing about the narrator’s nightmare was to try to entice the ghost, whom he believed was his beloved Catherine, to return to him.

On returning home the narrator asked his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, to tell him about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, which he in turn related to the reader as this story.

He learned from Nelly Dean that Heathcliff was a homeless child who Mr Earnshaw found and brought home to Wuthering Heights to bring up with his son Hindley and daughter Catherine. Hindley was jealous of Heathcliff, but Catherine and Heathcliff were dear friends from their earliest meeting. After Mr Earnshaw died, Hindley returned to Wuthering Heights with his wife and Heathcliff’s status in the household was lowered. He became an abused, slighted servant to the family, although Catherine continued to love him, recognising how alike she and Heathcliff were, particularly in their wild, passionate temperaments. The Earnshaw household under Hindley’s rule became an unhappy, unpleasant place for everyone, even after the birth of Hindley’s son, Hareton.

As a teenager Catherine developed a friendship with Isabella and Edgar Linton, a neighbouring family from Thrushcross Grange. After staying in their home for some time she learned some manners but at heart remained a willful, spoiled, tempestuous child. Heathcliff was jealous of Catherine’s relationship with the Linton’s and later ran away when he overheard Catherine saying she would marry Edgar, not realising that her intention was to use her improved status to better his own life.

When Hindley’s wife died Catherine married Edgar, who had taken on far more than he could handle with her strong will and terrible tantrums. Heathcliff returned to the district as a rich man several years later and Catherine was delighted but Edgar eventually banned him from their home.

Heathcliff stayed at Wuthering Heights with Hindley and encouraged him to gamble until eventually Heathcliff held the mortgage to Wuthering Heights.

Heathcliff continued to secretly visit Catherine but after another fight between him and Edgar she became terribly ill and died after giving birth to a daughter, also named Catherine.

At this point, Heathcliff declared revenge on everyone and started his reign of misery by eloping with Isabella Linton, who was by then a young and foolishly romantic girl. Heathcliff’s intention was to make Edgar miserable and of course, he succeeded. He didn’t care one way or another about Isabella but she soon realised she had made a terrible mistake and left Heathcliff to bring up their son alone, far from Wuthering Heights. When Isabella died their son, Linton, was about ten or eleven years old. Edgar brought Linton back to Thrushcross Grange to be brought up beside his own daughter Cathy but Heathcliff insisted on taking Linton to Wuthering Heights.

Cathy, Catherine’s daughter might have been the one to soften Heathcliff’s heart, but no. He engineered the marriage his sickly, crotchety son Linton (whom he also hated) to Cathy so she would also be miserable with him and Hareton at Wuthering Heights, along with the added benefit of furthur spiting Edgar. By this time Hareton had grown up to be an oafish farm-hand, seemingly unaware that Wuthering Heights would have been his if not for Heathcliff’s actions.

There are very few characters in this story, but despite this, I initially referred to a family tree so I could work out who everyone was and where they fitted in to the story. The two Catherine’s initially confused me.

Although Mr Earnshaw was a kind man, his children were not like him. Catherine was a spoiled, selfish bully who got her own way using the force of her personality and physical violence. Hindley was jealous, angry and violent and the Earnshaw family deteriorated terribly under his charge. As an adult, Heathcliff continued the pattern of cruel, abusive behaviour which Hindley had shown him. Very few of these characters had any redeeming qualities.

I think I disliked this story as a teenager because I thought it was a romance. Wuthering Heights is not a romance. It’s a story about the cycle of family violence.

I’m completely amazed that Emily Bronte recognised and wrote about this topic at such a young age, even more so as I believe she lived a fairly sheltered life. I’m feeling quite fascinated by the story of her family, too and am keen to learn more about the lives of her and her sisters who also wrote extraordinary books.

I also disliked Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights and have been known to call the contemporary dance style from her music videos ‘that roll around on the ground stuff’ but I found myself listening to the song on repeat as I wrote this review. Now I’m planning to learn the red dress dance so I can take part in Melbourne’s Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever (I’ll be amongst those wearing a red dress and singing “Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so cold, Let me in through your window,” as we dance to Kate Bush’s amazing song about Catherine’s ghost).

Wuthering Heights was book seventeen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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Picture this. There I was, on the train to work last week (before I started working from home due to Covid 19) with Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter in Paradise in hand. In my imagination I was at the airport with my suitcase filled with sun hats and beach towels as I waited to fly off on holiday to my beloved (but yet unvisited) Nantucket when I started reading the story and guess what????

This book was not set in Nantucket!!!!

I needed a moment to compose myself.

Okay.

It was okay.

Actually, it was good.

I went to the Caribbean instead!!!!

I’m back now.

And I had a really good time!!!!

Winter in Paradise is the first book Elin Hilderbrand has set outside of Nantucket but it had all the best elements of her stories. Strong, interesting characters, a gorgeous setting and an intriguing mystery.

Irene Steele is happily married to Russ who is never home because he is constantly travelling for work. Russ makes a lot of money though so Irene doesn’t complain (much). She is busy with her own career as editor in chief of a ‘house’ magazine, although on page one of this story is transpires that Irene is furious as she has recently been demoted in favour of a much younger woman. Irene and Russ have two adult sons.

When Irene receives a phone call from Russ’ boss’ secretary telling her that Russ is dead, Irene travels to the island of St John with her sons, where they learn Russ owned a beautiful, expensive property and had a secret life. Russ’ mistress, Rosie, died in the same helicopter accident as him and their pilot.

Luckily Russ was already dead because if I’d been Irene, finding out about my husband’s second family, I’d have killed him myself.

The story follows Irene, her two sons, and Rosie’s family on the island and their friends as they try to unravel the mystery of what happened and what Russ was hiding.

When I got home from work I sat up far too late to finish Winter in Paradise in one sitting. Unfortunately, I still don’t know what happened as the book is part a trilogy. I’m now on the lookout for book two in the series. I don’t believe that book three has been published yet.

I’ll Keep You Safe is the first novel I’ve read by best-selling Scottish author Peter May, whose books Fiction Fan has been strongly recommending for some time. After racing through this thriller I’ve now jumped on the Peter May bandwagon too.

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/category/by-author/m-o/may-peter/

I’ll Keep You Safe starts with a husband and wife whose Gaelic names would have been unpronounceable had the author not provided a guide. Niamh (pronounced Neave) and Ruairidh (pronounced Roo-are-ee, which sounds like Rory) were in Paris for business when Ruairidh was killed by a car bomb. A woman who Neave suspected her husband was having an affair with also died in the incident.

Niamh and Ruairidh own Ranish Tweed, creating and selling their fabric (a fictional variation of Harris Tweed) to high fashion designers around the world. The woman who died in the car bomb with Ruairidh was Irina Vetrov, a Russian designer. Terrorism was ruled out and the French Police initially suspected Niamh of ordering her husband’s death and detained her for some time, however Irina’s Russian gangster husband was also missing and so Niamh was released. Niamh returned home to the Isle of Lewis with her husband’s remains in a very small box.

Sylvie Braque, a French Detective was sent to the Isle of Lewis to investigate Niamh. Sylvie is a woman who can’t have it all, as her career makes demands of her that don’t accommodate her children’s needs. She was accompanied on her investigation by local Detective Sergeant George Gunn.

Niamh tells some of the story in the first person but the bulk of the story is in the third person. The first person sections left me feeling on edge and wondering if Niamh’s account of events was believable or not. The chapters told by Niamh detailed her and Rairidh’s history, from the time he save her from drowning in a peat bog as a little girl but only hints at events that caused their families to be enemies.

About a third of the way through the book I guessed who the killer was and suspected an upcoming twist in the story and wasn’t at all surprised when the ending unfolded as I had expected, but this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of I’ll Keep You Safe.

The story is set on the Isle of Lewis and has left me desperately wanting to visit. I want to see the cliffs and the peat bogs and the sea and the heather and the abandoned blackhouses. I want to shelter in a bothy from a storm. I want to hear the click of Hattersley looms as the weavers create Harris Tweed and listen to the people of the island speak Gaelic. I definitely want to read another Peter May book to experience more of this place.

The Rip by Mark Brandi

I read and enjoyed Wimmera by Australian author Mark Brandi some time ago so was happy to come across his next book, The Rip.

The Rip is set in Melbourne. It is narrated by an unnamed young woman who is a homeless drug addict. She has a bull terrier, Sunny, and not much else apart from a sleeping bag and some clothes. She usually sleeps in Princes Park and hangs around with another homeless man, Anton.

The narrator and Anton spend their days trying to get enough money to buy drugs.

When they hooked up with Steve, a friend of Anton’s, he invited them to sleep at his flat. The narrator was uneasy around Steve and recognised that he had something over Anton, but they went with him and settled into a pattern of getting money during the day and shooting up at night. Steve pressured the narrator into begging for cash, although she preferred prostitution, which in her eyes was a more honest way to make money. At the same time Anton was pressured into burgling houses with Steve.

A strange smell in Steve’s flat left the narrator anxious and curious. When Steve caught her trying to pick the lock to his bedroom door to learn what the smell was, he beat her badly. Another time he gave her drugs mixed with an unknown substance which would have killed her, had not an elderly neighbour called an ambulance for her.

I hadn’t expected this to be a story of friendships between homeless people or to learn that theirs is such a genuine community. I often walk past the Salvation Army Centre on Bourke Street which is featured in this story. It offers meals in the Lighthouse CafĂ©, showers, drug and alcohol services, assistance with accommodation and other services to people in need. There are always homeless people sleeping in nearby doorways or sitting on benches, having a chat and watching the world go by.

I also liked that a police officer in this story looked out for the narrator and that she wasn’t judged by hospital staff or people at the needle exchange.

The story doesn’t glamourise drug use, homelessness and the connected issues in any way but in some ways I felt as if the author let go of some events in the story too easily. For example, there were allusions to the narrator’s childhood and the pure misery of being in foster care, but clearly she didn’t want to dwell on these memories, and the same when she was beaten up by Steve. While it is understandable that the narrator did not to want to remember her bad times, it created the glossing over effect which I felt.

I was surprised to find that I liked the narrator. In real life, I would probably not make eye contact and would hold on to my handbag a little tighter than normal as I hurried past her, but as a character in a book I wanted to protect her from herself and from others. I was pleased to learn her name later in the story.

The Rip is not as bleak as it sounds. I think it is equally as good as Wimmera and am already looking forward to Mark Brandi’s next book.

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