Book reviews

Elevation by Stephen King

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Elevation by Stephen King is such a short novella that I packed a just-in-case book for my commute to work that day. Lucky, because I finished Elevation about half-way home (my all-up reading time was about an hour).

The story starts with Scott Carey, a divorced, middle-aged all-round good bloke visiting a friend who is a retired doctor. Scott is worried because he is losing weight on the scales, several pounds each day, without losing any bulk. Mysteriously, Scott weighs the same amount regardless of whether he is naked and empty-handed, or fully dressed and laden with coins, dumb-bells or other heavier items.

Scott is reluctant to formally visit a doctor for fear of being roped into a series of tests which will use up what is left of his life, as Scott believes he will either die or float away once his weight becomes lighter than air. As his weight loss continues though, Scott feels wonderful physically because he is the size of a tank and has retained the muscles to support his old weight.

At the same time, Scott is also having problems with his new neighbours and their dogs. The two women recently moved to Castle Rock (the fictional setting of loads of Stephen King’s stories) and opened a restaurant. The locals won’t support the restaurant because the women are married lesbians and understandably the women are becoming fearful, sad and embittered. Scott tries to be a good neighbour but Deirdre, a former top athlete, has too big a chip on her shoulder to recognise a friendly gesture when she sees one.

Castle Rock’s annual fund-raiser, a 12 kilometre fun run (huh?) is coming up, and Deirdre is expected to win it. Scott bets Deirdre that he will win the race and if he does, she and her wife have to come to dinner with him and be friendly. She reluctantly takes the bet, although she wants nothing to do with him.

Although the story is lightweight (get it? lightweight?) and the characters are stereotypical, I enjoyed this story up until nearly the end, when it seemed to me that the author didn’t know how to finish and just decided, ‘oh, this will do.’ I did enjoy the in-joke of Pennywise from Stephen King’s It making an appearance in the story though.

I’m always happy to revisit Castle Rock with Stephen King but in this case, I wanted a bit more from Elevation. No complaints about the writing quality though, and as always, Stephen King can continue to consider me amongst his ‘constant readers.’

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Stories: the Collected Short Fiction contains some of Australian author Helen Garner’s best known short stories. There wouldn’t be too many Australian readers of a certain age who haven’t read Postcards from Surfers or My Hard Heart, both of which are in this collection.

The only fiction I’d read by Helen Garner prior to this collection was Monkey Grip, which I found too grungy for my tastes. While I didn’t finish Monkey Grip, I appreciated the author’s unpretentious and honest writing style and after reading Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays and extracts from the author’s diaries I decided to try her fiction again.

Most of these short stories had an autobiographical feel, including A Happy Story. The narrator buys two tickets for her teenage daughter to see a rock band and is unwillingly roped into attending the concert when none of her daughter’s friends can go. Luckily, the narrator’s sister says she will take the other ticket and the narrator enjoys a happy trip home listening to classical music through her car’s radio. This story is set in Melbourne, and although the Entertainment Centre is now the Collingwood Football Club’s headquarters, the familiarity of the setting is there. The band playing was Talking Heads, which firmly set the story in a particular time.

Postcards from Surfers is from the 1970s and is an Australian classic. A woman flies up to Coolangatta to stay with her parents and her aunt on the Gold Coast, back when the developers couldn’t sell apartments in their brand new high rises. The woman’s backstory is told in a series of postcards to a former lover named Philip. Reading between the lines, I didn’t think the narrator was over Philip…

Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon also has an autobiographical feel. Little Helen is a fish out of water, too young to understand her mother and aunt’s conversation and humor. After being sent to play with her cousin Noah, Little Helen will probably be scarred forever after being shown horrific photos of maimed and deformed children.

The narrator in The Life of Art tells little stories about her friend which together make a whole story. The following one made me laugh, because it is true!

My friend came off the plane with her suitcase. ‘Have you ever notices,’ she said, ‘how Australian men, even in their forties, dress like small boys? They wear shorts and thongs and little stripy T-shirts.’

Civilisation and its Discontents stars another character named Philip. I knew I was right when I said the narrator (author?) in Postcards from Surfers wasn’t over Philip.

I preferred Helen’s Garner’s essays and non-fiction to her fiction so plan to read more of these in future. I don’t expect to agree with or like everything she writes, but I like that she is an author who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.

Ideal by Ayn Rand

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The edition of Ideal by Ayn Rand which I read included the previously unpublished novel followed by the play. I read them one after the other.

The story tells of a beautiful, tormented and elusive Hollywood actress, Kay Gonda, whose character was inspired by Greta Garbo. Kay Gonda is presumed to be a murderess (I’m using the term ‘murderess’ because the story was written in the 1930s) after a man with whom she dined was found dead and she couldn’t be found. While the police, studio bosses. movie producers, scriptwriters, publicists and journalists are looking for her, Kay Gonda visits six fans who have written a fan letter to her. Each of the letters writers tell Kay Gonda that she represents an ideal to them.

The first fan, George S. Perkins is a middle-aged married man willing to hide Kay Gonda until his wife tells him that she will pack her bags and take the children if George doesn’t tell the actress to get out of their home. George complies with his wife and Kay Gonda leaves.

In the second fan letter, Jeremiah Sliney tells Kay Gonda that he and his wife wish she was their daughter and they willingly offer her shelter when she arrives at their home. The Slineys are about to lose their home because they can’t pay their mortgage and when Kay Gonda hears them whispering that they would earn a monetary reward if they were to turn her in to the police, she sneaks out of their home.

The third fan is an artist who recreates Kay Gonda’s face and figure in every artwork he creates, but he does not recognise her when she comes to him in person. He turns her away when she asks him for help.

The fourth fan is a failed minister of religion who tries to convince Kay Gonda to turn herself in, knowing that the glory of her seeing the error of her ways will reflect well on him.

The fifth fan is a playboy, a failed dreamer who says he will protect her, then tries to rape her.

The sixth fan is Johnnie Dawes. He is the only fan whose behaviour is true to his fan letter to Kay Gonda. Johnnie believes he has a purpose in life, but he does not know what it is, but realises it when he believes Kay Gonda is in danger and he acts to protect her.

Ideal is a terribly cynical story. I couldn’t understand why Kay Gonda’s fans both loved and hated her, and since this idea is so central to the book, felt that another rewrite or two might have made a massive difference to the story.

The play is different to the novel in that several of the character’s storylines were altered or condensed. Reading them together was interesting. I haven’t read anything else yet by this author, but if it turns out that I love her better-known works, I won’t have to come back to Ideal and be disappointed…

 

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Force of Nature is the second novel by Australian author Jane Harper featuring likeable good guy Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, who was introduced to readers in her first book, The Dry.

Aaron become involved in the story of Force of Nature after a whistleblower, Alice Russell, failed to return from a team-building exercise hiking with work colleagues through the rugged and isolated Giralang Ranges. Before going missing, Alice had been surreptitiously collecting information for Aaron’s case against the firm she worked for.

Alice and four other women, including the company’s CEO, went into the bush Friday afternoon. They carried with them their tents, sleeping bags and a limited amount of food and water. One of the women had a compass. They were supposed to surrender their mobile phones before they went into the bush, but Alice, an aggressive and argumentative rule-breaker, kept hers. At some point over the weekend the women’s group became lost and Alice tried to phone Aaron, although because of the remote location and poor signal, all he received was part of a voice message asking for help. After the women’s group got lost Alice become separated from the group, for reasons that made me feel anxious for her wellbeing.

A men’s group from the company did a similar hike along a different route over the same weekend but reached the finish safely. The difference between the dynamics within the two groups was obvious, with tensions within the women’s group playing a part in them being unable to effectively work together to find their way out of the bush.

The story flicks back and forward between the women’s time on the hike and while they are lost in the bush, as well as afterwards as searchers look for Alice. Aaron and his partner, Carmen Cooper, assist with the search but are also required back in Melbourne when they learn that Alice’s teenage daughter’s boyfriend has released sexually explicit footage of her onto the internet.

I’m grateful that my company stick with barefoot lawn bowls*, city scavenger hunts and other relatively safe events for our end-of-year parties and team building exercises, instead of sending us to trek through the bush, kayaking through rapids or jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes.

The idea of spending a weekend hiking with my workmates doesn’t appeal to me and I’m sure it wouldn’t appeal to many of them either. Being lost in the bush is a particularly Australian fear, as most of us would have experienced school camps in similar locations to Force of Nature‘s fictional Giralang Ranges, or day or weekend hikes through national and state parks that are bigger than some European countries. There are often news stories about lost hikers, some of whom are found and some who are not. In the bush there are snakes, bushfires, extreme heat or cold just to name a few of the factors hikers contend with. In Force of Nature, the characters were also in an area known for its links to a serial killer reminiscent of Ivan Milat, who was responsible for the deaths of at least seven people later found buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW.

The two groups were underprepared for the hike, but as the manager of the company who ran the exercise constantly reiterated, they’d never lost anyone before… In hindsight, providing flares to groups along with compasses and tents would probably have been a good idea.

I suspected nearly every character in the book of having a hand in Alice’s disappearance and of course, was completely wrong about what actually happened. I loved watching Aaron’s character develop and I liked his relationship with his partner, Carmen, who I hope returns in future books. I enjoyed Force of Nature even better than The Dry, and that’s saying something.

*Although, let’s be honest, barefoot lawn bowls and alcohol probably shouldn’t be mixed. An Escape Room, anyone?

 

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The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green is exactly the book I always hope for from this author.

Likeable characters? Tick.

Interesting trials and tribulations? Tick.

Satisfying resolutions? Tick.

Ronni Sunshine was a famous Hollywood actress who had three daughters, serious, I-can-cope-with-anything Nell, anxious, bury-my-head-in-the-sand Meredith and indulged, get-out-of-my-way Lizzie. Ronnie’s career was more important to her than her children, whom she bullied, ignored and eventually alienated. By the time they were adults the sisters had lost touch with each other. Nell, Meredith and Lizzie told themselves they didn’t really care, but later, when Ronnie learned she was dying, she summoned her daughters to her and they came.

Each of the sisters had problems which could be traced back to their upbringing. Nell was a hardworking single mother, unwilling to allow herself to love anyone other than her child. Meredith had supressed her artistic nature and was about to marry a controlling, pompous bore. Beautiful Lizzie was busy repeating her mother’s mistakes.

I was reasonably sure the sisters would resolve their differences and come to terms with their own character flaws by the end of the story, but happily read on to make sure…

Perfect beach read? Tick.

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My goodness, other people live such interesting lives don’t they? Australian author Sarah Krasnostein’s biography of Sandra Pankhurst, The Trauma Cleaner, was a fascinating read.

The subject, Sandra, was working as a funeral director in Melbourne when she noticed a gap in the market and opened a business as a trauma cleaner. Trauma cleaning includes murder and accident scenes, but the business she started and continues to run also includes cleaning up deceased estates (this includes the specialised cleaning required when a person dies and is not found for some time), cleaning up drug labs after busts and crime scenes. A large part of Sandra’s business is cleaning and clearing out the homes of hoarders.

Various stories of Sandra’s clients are woven into the telling of her personal story, and while reading about people with mental illnesses so terrible that they cannot throw anything out is fascinating, Sandra’s personal story is even more interesting. She was born a boy, adopted as a baby and brought up in a violent and difficult home, then as a young man married and became a father. Eventually she discovered Melbourne’s gay scene and left her wife and children, eventually having gender-reassignment surgery to become a woman. She worked as a prostitute before becoming a funeral director, then married a much older man. Now, Sandra runs her own business where the physical work she does is equally as important as the emotional assistance she provides to her clients.

The Trauma Cleaner has been all over the news in Australia all of this year, having been nominated for and winning a swag of prizes, although my feeling is that the prizes were won because of the strength of the subject matter rather than because of the writing. Sandra’s personal stories are balanced with her work stories, both of which are interesting enough to have stood alone. The author lets us know that Sandra is an unreliable narrator, but she clearly feels affection and respect for her subject. On occasion, she brushes over Sandra’s version of events which I felt could have been questioned more closely, but as the story of a life, this one is certainly more interesting than most.

 

 

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I was frustrated reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson, because I want everything she writes to be as brilliant as Life After Life. Transcription was good but not great, although, to be fair, I might have been better satisfied with Transcription if I hadn’t known she was capable of so much more.

Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, who was an 18 year-old orphan in 1940 when she was recruited by M15 to transcribe the recordings of meetings held between M15’s spies and traitors who believe they are aiding England’s enemies.

Juliet is an intelligent young woman who is bored by the vapid conversations she transcribes, but still naïve enough to imagine herself to be in love with her boss, who is happy to take advantage of her feelings. Eventually Juliet becomes a spy too and is directed to infiltrate a social group whose members a British Fascist sympathiser who is believed to have a copy of the ‘Red Book’.

After the war ended, Juliet worked for the BBC producing educational radio programs for children, alongside several of her former M15 colleagues. When she receives a threatening letter telling her she will pay for what she did, Juliet believes it may have be from someone she spied on during the war. Juliet was still working occasionally for M15 by providing a safe house for people being surreptitiously shuffled around the world.

Juliet is an interesting and likeable character with a sense of humour that read well, although I didn’t connect with her emotionally. The story itself though was slow and at times I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters. There was a twist at the end that I guessed at about half way through the story. As already mentioned, I was hoping for much more.

Kate Atkinson remains one of my favourite authors, so perhaps my expectations of Transcription were too high.

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