Book reviews

I pounced on Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon from the British Library Crime Classics series when I came across this book in the large print section of my local library.

As always for a book from this series, the cover art is beautiful. In my opinion the team who create these covers always get them exactly right. Golden Age crime novels are well suited to art-deco artwork and I can imagine that some people probably collect these books for their covers.

The story was introduced by Martin Edwards who teases the reader with a brief description of the plot before providing an interesting biography of the author, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, which included the details that Farjeon’s greatest worry was that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family financially. This fear spurred Farjeon to write prolifically.

Seven Dead started off with one of the most intriguing first chapters I’ve ever read. The first line, ‘This is not Ted Lyte’s story’ introduced a petty criminal who broke into Haven House on the coast of England with the intention of stealing silverware only to find seven dead people in a locked room.

When Lyte ran out of the house in terror, dropping spoons as he went, he was chased by a passer-by until he ran smack-bang into a policeman who, as expected, asked “What’s all this?” The passer-by was Thomas Hazeldean, a yachtsman and reporter who had moored his yacht in a creek near Haven House. Hazeldean accompanied Detective Inspector Kendall back to Haven House to discover what had frightened the thief. At Haven House, they found the seven dead bodies but could not discover who had killed the victims or why they had been killed.

Hazeldean was intrigued by both the mystery and by a portrait in the house of a young girl which had been pierced by a bullet that had seemingly come from the room with the dead bodies and on learning that the girl in the portrait was Dora Fenner, the neice of the owner of Haven House, Hazeldean set off in his yacht Spray across the channel to France to find and protect her, while Kendall carried on in England.

In France, all was not as it seemed. Hazeldean found Dora and realised she was being guarded by the mysterious occupants of the household where she and her uncle, John Fenner, were staying. Not only that, Fenner was acting strangely.

Unfortunately at this point, I lost some enthusiasm for the story. To begin with, the characters sometimes spoke French and since I couldn’t even guess at what they were saying I lost the gist of what was happening. The writing itself was very good, clear and descriptive enough for me to be able to imagine the characters, the place and to get a feel for the atmosphere, but the plot’s twists and turns once Hazeldean went to France became overly complicated and far-fetched. Not only that, I also found the idea of Hazeldean falling in love with Dora’s portrait from childhood to be creepy. When he met her in real life and she turned out to be someone who fainted constantly from nerves, I couldn’t understand what he saw in her. I guess some people just want to be the ‘protector’ in a relationship.

I had been reading the story with the intention of solving the case, but there was no way I could have done this and to be fair, Seven Dead wasn’t that kind of story. Instead, the murderer’s identity and motive became clear as the story continued. Despite my criticism, I would definitely read another book by this author based on the quality of his writing and that fantastic first chapter.

Kitchen Sink Drama by Paul Connolly and illustrated by Jim Pavlidis is one of my favourite sections in Australia’s Good Weekend magazine.

Kitchen Sink Dramas consist of a 100-word story and illustration and are based on normal people doing normal things in modern-day Australia. Some of the stories and pictures make me laugh, some cause me to nod with recognition and smile wryly, while other stories leave me teary-eyed with a lump in my throat.

The cover illustration goes with the story called The Trauma Cleaner and is about Jasmine and Omar. He cooks and while she appreciates his culinary masterpieces, he uses every pot, pan and spoon in the house to do so. Since the rule in their house is that the person who cooks doesn’t have to clean the kitchen, Jasmine would sometimes prefer beans on toast. This story is one that left me feeling empathetic towards Jasmine as He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers does most of the cooking at our house these days and while I love and appreciate him for it, I wish, just once in a while, he would cook the vegetables without them boiling over because cleaning the stove night after night gets me down.

No matter how many times I read Odd Jobs it brings a lump to my throat.

The father in this story who shows his daughters how much he loves them by bringing his tools and making repairs when he visits them reminds me of my own father, who used to do this for me. These days, HWEAoOL’s does the same for Honey-bunny and once Miss S is grown up and has left home, no doubt HWEAoOl’s will bring his tools with him when he visit her too.

I couldn’t stop laughing after I read Pillow Fights. A couple who bought a new mattress were sucked into buying $150 latex pillows but a week of no sleep later, she went back to her old pillow while he was determined to get his money’s worth out of the new pillow, “even if it meant never sleeping again.” The same thing happened to me, I bought a new mattress and in a fit of madness bought a latex pillow at the same time. When I get really tired and am desperate for a good night’s sleep, I swap the blasted thing for my old, squashy pillow.

I read Yellow Submarine aloud to Miss S who delighted me by recognising herself in the story. Yellow Submarine is about a teenage girl who was forced to go on a two-week holiday with her family. The girl told her friends she would prefer to make out with a creepy dude with bad breath than go on holidays with her family, but just thirteen kilometres later found herself humming along to Yellow Submarine playing on the car radio.

Kitchen Sink Drama would make a great gift but it is also a book that if bought for yourself, would bring joy to your life. I believe a range of Kitchen Sink Drama tea towels are also available.

I was intrigued by the idea of the main character in Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways having the opportunity to live two versions of her life in parallel.

In the beginning of both versions of her life, Dawn was a death doula and married to Brian, a quantum physicist. Together they had a daughter, Meret. As a death doula Dawn took on clients who were dying, assisting them and their families to tidy up their loose ends before their death. The loose ends were often practical, such as arranging a funeral or helping them to finish a task they had their heart set on, but other times they were to fulfill a more emotional need, such as finding someone the dying person had lost contact with or helping them to make peace with their impending death. Before her marriage, Dawn was a graduate student Egyptologist.

For Dawn, a man called Wyatt was the one who got away in both versions of her life. She had left him fifteen years before the story began, when he was on the brink of a major archaeological discovery in Egypt.

In one of the storylines Dawn survived a plane crash and when her life flashed before her eyes she saw Wyatt. She had recently lost trust in Brian and their marriage and when the airline offered her a plane ticket to anywhere in the world she impulsively decided on Egypt and travelled to the archaeological burial site where she had left Wyatt fifteen years previously. Dawn’s intention was to reconnect with Wyatt and complete her degree.

Dawn’s theory was that the artwork which was on, in and around the ancient coffins in the burial sites she was working on were a guidebook for the ancient Egyptians’ afterlives, or The Book of Two Ways. The descriptions of the tombs, their art and artifacts, the coffins and even the mummies themselves featured heavily in this story.

In Dawn’s parallel life she stayed with Brian and instead of her travelling to Egypt to complete her work, the story followed her life with her family in Boston and her work as a death doula, which I found to be more interesting than her Egyptian parallel life. Dawn’s backstory with Wyatt and her reasons for leaving him were addressed differently in this version of her life to the ‘Egypt’ version.

The Book of Two Ways reminded me a little of the movie Sliding Doors, where after an accident Gwyneth Paltrow’s character lived her life in parallel with both stories meeting towards the end.

I felt the story was bogged down by too many stories about Egyptian mythology. At first I found them fascinating but there were so many that I became overwhelmed and eventually lost interest, skimming past them to get back to the actual story, which was what was going on with Dawn. Funnily enough, Dawn’s character glazed over whenever her husband started talking about quantum physics!

I generally enjoy Jodi Picoult’s stories so am hoping for one I like better next time.

I enjoyed reading The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham, and adored the film starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth, so was excited to learn that The Dressmaker’s Secret continued Tilly Dunnage’s story.

For women in Melbourne in 1953, wearing a beautiful dress to a ball to celebrate the queen’s coronation was the only thing that mattered. Tilly Dunnage had left Dungatar for Melbourne where she was working as a dressmaker for a would-be fashion house in the Paris-end of Collins Street.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Tilly’s secret was that she had a baby who she named Joe after the death of Teddy (played by Liam Hemsworth in the movie). As Tilly was a single mother Joe had been taken to a children’s home where Tilly visited him every Sunday. Sergeant Farrat, who had also left Dungatar for Melbourne, gallantly offered to marry Tilly in a marriage of convenience so she could bring Joe home but on their wedding day, he fell in love with another woman. Tilly encouraged Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance and in an unusual twist, he spent his wedding night with Julie.

As Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance blossomed, Tilly continued to battle the Child Welfare Officer, her small-minded employer and most of the residents of Dungatar who hated her because she was no longer around to make them dresses (and because that she had burnt the town down when she left).

The story jumped around between Tilly, Sergeant Farrat and Julie, plus other new characters and a cast of thousands from Dungatar. Although I remembered some of the Dungatar characters from The Dressmaker, I couldn’t recall all of them and felt confused about where some of them fitted into the story.

The Dressmaker’s Secret was completely over the top but did not have as strong a sense of fun and black humour as The Dressmaker. I would have preferred the sequel to have left the characters from Dungatar behind and followed Tilly in her fight for Joe and her career, plus better conditions for her fellow workers at Salon Mystique.

I think The Dressmaker’s Secret will only appeal (and possibly make sense) to reader who have read The Dressmaker.

If this book is also made into a film, I’ll definitely see it. I can’t wait to see the dresses!

My purchase of The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (February).

Louis de Bernieres’ short story collection, Labels and Other Stories was a delight from start to finish and left me the sensation of having spent time in person with an interesting and charming storyteller.

The collection began with the title story, Labels, which is told in the first person by a man who had been brought up in a time when people had actual hobbies. After trying and discarding a variety of hobbies for himself, the narrator eventually settled on collecting labels from tins of cat food but over time his hobby became an obsession. Eventually his wife left him, then he lost his job and perhaps not surprisingly, went broke. Luckily the man thought up a resourceful solution to his biggest problem, which was how to make enough money to continue to grow his cat food label collection.

Gunter Weber’s Confession returned to Greece and the characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin began with a hilarious story of a formerly deaf man who could hear again after a pea that had been stuck in his ear since childhood was removed and although I read this book many years ago, the ‘pea’ story still makes me laugh whenever I think of it. It was a pleasure to meet several of the characters again in this short story, which told of an event from the novel from another character’s point of view.

The Turks Are so Wonderful with Children was the story of a lovely couple who, for reasons unknown to everyone including themselves, had a child so horrible that even they could not love him.

Stupid Gringo was a funny reminder to readers not to generalise or stereotype people because of their race.

Romance on the Underground was one of my favourite stories in the collection. The narrator told his story of a romantic interlude from many years ago to his fourteen year old son in an attempt to warn him that he could expect to be perplexed by women for the rest of his life.

Mamacita’s Treasure, Our Lady of Beauty, The Complete Continent, Two Dolphins, The Man Who Sent Two Dead Fish to the President, A Night Off for Prudente de Moraes were all set in South America and were mostly set further in the past than other stories in the collection. Some of these stories used magic realism which I’m not a great fan of, although possibly because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books I am more accepting of this style when a story is set in this part of the world. The Complete Continent, which told of a woman who had baby after baby who she and her husband named after South American countries amused me enormously.

The Deposit told the story of an English junkie who sold his beloved violin so he could buy drugs. The stories in the collection were set all over the world but this was the only story set in the UK.

Andouil and Andouillette‘s adventures made me laugh. The middle-aged couple set off on a caravan holiday when she became tired and convinced Andouil to let her sleep in the caravan while he drove. This is of course illegal because it is dangerous and not surprisingly, things went terribly wrong for this couple, as they tend to do when stupidity is involved.

While I enjoyed some stories better than others the writing in each was excellent and I appreciated the humour and delighted in the immediate connection I felt with each of the characters. It has been some time since I’ve read a novel by Louis de Bernieres but I intend to rectify that soon.

I forgot that I disliked Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel when I started reading The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Happily for me I enjoyed this collection of short stories better than I did the mean streak that ran through Every Day is Mother’s Day.

Sorry to Disturb is the story of a woman living in Saudi Arabia in 1983. While her husband works she fills her days writing a novel and visiting women living in her building. When a Pakistani man knocked on her door and asked to use her telephone, she became saddled with a persistent and unwelcome visitor who she found difficult to get rid of.

Comma was told by a little girl who along with her friend from a lower social class, were fascinated by the love and care shown by a neighbour to a well-wrapped, comma-shaped bundle.

The Long QT was the story of a man whose wife unexpectedly walked into their kitchen during a party to find him canoodling with one of their guests. I found the shock ending of this story distressing.

The middle-aged, subtly-controlling husband in Winter Break was also a disappointment to his wife, although the story was troubling for different reasons than his character faults. As they drove to their holiday accommodation in Greece their taxi driver ran over and killed a kid. I’m not sure if the kid was a baby goat or a child. Since he had always refused to allow her to have a child this seemed symbolic, although of what I don’t know.

Harley Street told the story of a woman who worked in a medical centre. Although she didn’t have much in common with her colleagues, she still attempted to socialise with them. Some people say that work is work and home is home, and that the two should not be mixed. Having read this story I’m inclined to agree.

Offences Against the Person was told by another young woman, this time one who was working during her holiday in her father’s office. As it turned out, her father was having an affair with his secretary. As per my comment for Harley Street, work is work and home is home, and the two should not be mixed.

How Shall I Know You? was the story of a writer who agreed to make a speech to a literary group. After an uncomfortable trip with an overnight stay in horrible accommodation with nothing to eat I’m surprised she ever agreed to attend another. I wondered while I was reading this if the author had had similar experiences herself. and thought she probably had.

Family connections were explored in The Heart Fails Without Warning which told the story of two young sisters, one of whom had anorexia and in Terminus, where a young woman saw a man on a train who she thought was her dead father.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is the longest in the collection. The main character is a woman who inadvertently let a man into her home who intended to assassinate Margaret Thatcher from the bedroom window, which overlooked a hospital where the Prime Minister was due to be released from after a minor operation. Although surprised by her intruder, the woman was sympathetic to his cause and unexpectedly helped him to set up his weapon before suggesting how he could escape after the assassination had been carried out.

The stories in this collection are told in a fearless style which I admired, even though I didn’t like many of the characters or approve of their actions. I’m still on the fence about Hilary Mantel. Her writing is good, but her characters are mean.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan’s latest novel.

The story is set in Tasmania and follows Anna as she and her two brothers, Tommy and Terzo, intervene to prevent their ill and elderly mother from dying. The story was set between the middle of 2019 and the end of last summer, January 2020, when Australia burned.

When 87-year old Francie had a brain bleed she was sent to a Hobart hospital from where she and her children could hear cruise ships playing The Love Boat theme as they departed Hobart. Francie felt as if she was ready to die and Tommy, who was the kindest of the siblings and who had been caring for his mother for some years supported her wishes, but Terzo and Anna, who had ganged up on Tommy since their childhood, weren’t ready to let go of their mother and pushed for her to have life-saving surgery.

Francie survived the surgery but as often happens there were no better days ahead for her, and her health continued to decline despite being propped up by dialysis and a succession of medical interventions which destroyed her quality of life.

Anna and Terzo’s continued struggle to force their mother to live was not intended to be cruel, yet it was. As Francie turned into a living skeleton, Tommy’s stutter worsened, Terzo became more aggressive and Anna’s body parts began to vanish, first a finger, then her knee and so on. Anna noticed other people’s body parts disappearing also, much like the Orange-bellied Parrots whose story of impending extinction was woven into the story along with other examples of climate changes affecting the ecology.

Looking back, I think I glossed over the disappearing body parts plot line, as did Anna and the other characters, even though it was their parts that were disappearing. Anna was concerned about her missing parts and tried to talk about the problem with other people including medical professionals, all of whom downplayed or ignored her worries when she sought their advice. The missing body parts plot line made me feel uncomfortable so I generally ignored it, just like most of us do with climate change and other issues so big and seemingly insurmountable that we don’t even know where to start.

The family story also occasionally overwhelmed me in that I connected a little too much with the plot. Over the past few years my family have had the heartache of watching parents and grandparents die after suffering similar health issues to Francie. The only difference is, we didn’t try to hold on to them, having watched a previous generation of the family do this and cause further pain and suffering for the person who was dying.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams serves to heighten awareness of enormous issues, including family power battles, ageing, grief and drug abuse, to climate change, suicide as a result of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the use of social media and work as a prop to hide from the reality of our personal lives. Although there was a lot going on the story allowed each point to be fully absorbed and thought about by the reader, including another level of thinking and connecting because of the magic realism (missing body parts).

I also felt a connection to the story because the Orange-bellied Parrots are known to have fed in wetlands near to where I live, although I don’t believe any have been seen locally in several years. Orange-bellied Parrots are critically endangered.

The following photo shows the old Werribee water tower, which had a mural painted on it last year which features Orange-bellied Parrots. The water tower was painted by Hayden Dewar and forms parts of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

Despite The Summer Deal by Jill Shalvis being one of the most predictable stories I have ever read I enjoyed reading this contemporary, breezy romance on a Sunday afternoon. The sun was shining, the phone didn’t ring and I ate a pineapple-coconut ice-cream. Bliss!

The main character, Brynn had been duped out of all of her money by her former boyfriend when she returned home to her family in Wildstone, a beach town in California. It didn’t take Brynn long to realise that she couldn’t live with her Mums because they would drive her crazy, so she moved in to a share house with Eli who, as it happened, Brynn had had a crush on as a teenager.

Eli was a nice guy, but unfortunately for Brynn he was also best friends with her worst enemy from childhood, the bad-tempered and prickly Kinsey. Unbeknownst to Brynn before she moved in to the share house, Kinsey was also one of Eli’s house-mates.

Kinsey was equally unhappy about Brynn moving in, but for a far more dramatic reason.

While Kinsey’s mother had been married to her father, one of Brynn’s mothers had been inseminated with his sperm donation (although I don’t know why is it called a donation when he was paid for his deposit. If you do know, please don’t tell me why as I don’t really want to know. I was only making a comment). Kinsey knew (and Brynn didn’t) that she and Brynn were half-sisters.

Here the plot thickened even thicker. Kinsey had a kidney disease and desperately needed a replacement kidney but was determined not to accept a one from a living donor after her previous kidney donor died from complications.

Brynn and Eli started a relationship but when she found out that Kinsey and her were half-sisters and that Eli already knew, Brynn suspected she was being groomed as a possible kidney donor for Kinsey.

Guess what happened next. Go on.

Do you think the characters became a real family (with a kidney donation included) or did they go their separate ways, never to speak to each other again?

I don’t feel bad about outlining most of the plot because it was clear to me from the first couple of chapters how the story would unfold and how things would work out. Happily ever after. Obviously.

I had never heard of Jill Shalvis before reading The Summer Deal and was surprised to find an extremely long list of books by her listed on an inside front page. Despite enjoying my afternoon in the sun I probably won’t read more of this author but would recommend this book for those looking for a fun summer holiday read.

I’m going to re-read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf one day as I don’t think I ‘got’ the story during this first read.

I liked the first few sentences and was hopeful that Virginia Woolf and I would get along, but then came a long sentence which included six commas, two semicolons and two question marks. For the next thirty pages I was too distracted and intimidated by the author’s perfect use of punctuation to attend to the actual story. On reflection, I probably should have put the book aside and returned to it at a later date.

The story revolved around an English woman, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and at various times followed her, several members of her family and various friends, as well as a couple who she did not know and never met over the course of a day. It began with Clarissa, whose hair had recently turned white after an illness which also affected her heart (her illness is said to have been the Spanish flu as the story was set in the early 1920s), going out to buy flowers for a party she was giving that night. Clarissa believed her life’s work was to host parties where people connected.

Clarissa was visited in the morning by an old friend, Peter Walsh, who had wanted to marry her when they were young. After she spurned him in favour of Richard Dalloway, Peter went to India and at the start of the book had only just returned to England to investigate how the woman he wanted to marry could divorce her present husband. Another character later commented that Peter was always in trouble one way or another with women.

The Dalloway’s beautiful but passive daughter Elizabeth had a friendship with her tutor which Clarissa resented, and in turn Miss Kilmore, an angry, poverty struck middle-aged woman disliked Clarissa because of her comfortable, easy life, which was facilitated by what Miss Kilmore perceived as Clarissa’s unearned social class and wealth.

Another set of characters, Septimus and Lucrezia Smith floated around the story throughout the day. Septimus had been a soldier during World War One and had been experiencing disturbing hallucinations about a friend he had loved who died during the war. During the afternoon Sir William Bradshaw, who had so badly underestimated Septimus’ condition that he seemed incompetent, committed Septimus to a psychiatric institution at which time Septimus suicided by jumping out of a window onto railings below.

Clarissa came to learn of Septimus’ suicide during a conversation with Sir William’s wife that night at her party. Although Clarissa did not know Septimus she empathised with him and felt he had acted truly by suiciding.

Other attendees at Clarissa’s party included the Prime Minister, Peter Walsh and the former wild-child but now sedate Sally Seton, who Clarissa had been in love with when they were girls.

All of these characters, plus a few others who I have not mentioned, had their turn at narrating this story at some point during the day. All of the characters were either generally dissatisfied with their lives, anxious, resentful or in the case of Septimus Smith, desperately troubled. Regardless of their social status or wealth, none of them knew perfect happiness. Even Clarissa, who superficially appeared to have everything she wanted, had given up Sally to become Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway revolved around Clarissa, but the story was also about each of the main characters who appeared in it. I will re-read this book in future in order to learn what I missed on my first read.

Mrs Dalloway was book twenty five in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

I’m not ordinarily a self-help book reader, but found Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You by Julia Baird in the most recent big bag of books that was given to me to read by Aunty G and gave it a crack.

Each chapter provided life advice particularly geared to those who are seeking their own light within, or ‘phosphorescence’. Readers were reminded that they will find happiness when they are kind to others, and that joy is to be found in small, daily pleasures, particularly when they switch off from the modern world and enjoy silence, or the awe that comes from being in the ocean or a forest or natural setting.

My favourite chapter was titled Ert, or a Sense of Purpose. It discussed the joy that people feel when they have ‘ert’ (the opposite to ‘inertia’). Ert is defined here as having a sense of purpose.

I also appreciated Letter to a Young Woman, written to provide the author’s daughter with specific advice to be the best person she could by demanding respect, using her brain, finding friends with good hearts and not being blinded by good looks. The ‘good looks’ example used was Stalin, who was terribly handsome when he was young but who turned out to be a bad person.

The author drew heavily on her own learnings from several serious illnesses and difficult times to discuss what she had discovered was important to her and what was not.

There was a heavy emphasis on the importance of the ocean to the author, including her daily early morning swim with a swimming group and searching for phosphorescence. The ocean was where she felt all of the emotions she needed to feel at her best and I while I could relate to this, I also wondered if her advice (and possibly the book as a whole) would therefore be frustrating and off-putting for readers who live in areas without easy access to the ocean or parks, gardens or wilderness areas that are more accessible to the author.

Apparently all living creatures glow, even people to some extent. Although Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You wasn’t really for me, I imagine it will bring joy to many people and hope to those who are struggling with life and who can connect with this author’s life view.

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