Book reviews

I have mixed feelings about The Old Lie by Australian author Claire G Coleman. The story is an allegory which informs readers about the worst components of Australian history using what I found to be an unsettling scenario.

The cons:

I probably wouldn’t have read this story if there had been an indication on the cover or in the blurb that the story was science fiction as I’m not a big fan of this genre.

The writing itself was not as good as it could have been. I thought the dialogue was particularly clunky.

The many plot lines were initially confusing although they all tied together at the end of the story.

The pros:

Despite my dislike of the genre, the creative plot was well suited to being told as science fiction.

There are good and bad lessons to be learned in the story with sexism and homophobia appearing to have been eradicated while racism continued to exist on a larger scale than ever before – at an inter-galactic level.

The Old Lie follows various indigenous Australian characters after Earth became embroiled in an inter-galactic war. The story began with one character fighting a war in barbed wire and mud, as people residing in outback Australia were becoming ill for no apparent reason while others were refugees on space stations at the other end of the universe, trying to find their way back to Earth by whatever means they could. One character was a prisoner being experimented on by scientists while others had left their homes and families to fight with the Federation after the Conglomeration tried to take over the Earth.

Disturbingly, the Federation valued humans as fighters with a higher aptitude for violence than other species in the entire universe.

I suffered through the first half of this book without taking much interest in the many descriptions of space ship battles or in the human character’s encounters with alien species but the story came together in the last third of the book to deliver a message about how indigenous Australians have been treated since the time of the First Fleet of British ships landing at Botany Bay which I thought was worth reading. The parallels with the nuclear bombs set off at Maralinga were frightening and the idea that all humans could be treated by other species the way other humans have treated and continue to treat indigenous populations was distressing. I think a reading group would find themselves with plenty to discuss after selecting this book as my review has only skimmed over the issues the story raised.

My purchase of The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (November).

Continental Drift is the first novel I’ve read by Russell Banks, but it won’t be the last. This book contains two stories which initially appear to be far removed from each other, but the two sets of characters and their circumstances eventually collided with devastating results.

The main story followed Bob Dubois, an oil-burner repairman in New Hampshire who wanted more from his life than the eternal grind of working in the cold and snow to pay off his boat, the small home that he, his wife Elaine and their two daughters lived in and the clapped-out family car.

One example of Bob wanting more from life was demonstrated by him also having a girlfriend. Bob professed his love for Elaine but didn’t appear to suffer any guilt over his infidelity.

When Elaine realised Bob was unhappy with life in New Hampshire she impulsively suggested they sell up and move somewhere warmer. Bob jumped at the idea and they decided on Florida, as Bob’s brother Eddie was already there. Elaine wasn’t happy about moving to Florida as she didn’t like Eddie as he was rude and disrespectful to most people, but he was a successful business man and Bob jumped at the chance to work for his brother in one of his liquor stores.

The family found themselves living in a trailer in Florida. Other than the weather being warmer, not much changed for Bob. He soon became bored with his job and to add some excitement to his life, started an affair with a black woman who seemed very exotic to him. Bob was convinced he was in love with Marguerite but was not prepared to leave Elaine for her.

When Bob started working at the liquor store he convinced Bob to carry a gun at all times to protect the business and as all readers know, when a gun is introduced into a story someone needs to get shot. Eventually Bob shot and killed a young black man who was robbing the shop.

I was surprised that Bob didn’t go to court for killing the man, in fact, he was barely even questioned by police over the event. Bob didn’t appear to suffer any regrets over the young man’s death either and later he actively tried to find the young man’s accomplice with the intention of killing him too, in retaliation for the accomplice urging his friend to kill Bob during the robbery. After almost killing a man whom he was later told was not the dead man’s accomplice, Bob told Eddie that he couldn’t work at the store anymore or keep the gun because he worried he might kill an innocent person in future.

In a twist in the story, Elaine had told Bob many years ago that she had slept with his best friend, Avery behind Bob’s back. Bob had forgiven Elaine but had never spoken of the affair to Avery. After leaving his job at the liquor shop Bob bought in to Avery’s fishing charter business and found himself earning less money than ever before. Avery was seemingly living an adventurous and glamorous life but was running drugs and had no financial problems while Bob, who was taking tourists out fishing in an old boat, was forced to move his family to a smaller, dirtier trailer.

In between the chapters that followed Bob’s life, the secondary story followed the lives of a young Haitian woman, her child and her nephew. After a disastrous event threatened their lives in poverty-struck Haiti they tried to get to America illegally by boat but were dropped off at the North Caicos Islands, 600 miles from America, where the young woman was forced into prostitution for them to survive. Eventually, they boarded another boat which was to take them to Florida but in the worst sort of tragedy at sea they and the other Haitians trying to reach America found themselves forced overboard when the US Coastguard spotted their boat.

Each chapter began with a pictorial compass, which reinforced the idea for me that this story is about people’s moral compasses. Bob was greedy for more than he had and wanted the success that Eddie and Avery had, but he glossed over how they gained their successes. Eddie and Avery both suffered as a result of their morals and as Bob’s own moral compass slipped further and further south things went bad for him too. Unfortunately, as he went he dragged others down with him.

Continental Drift is a good book. In the beginning I felt hopeful that Bob would become a better man and that he and his family would enjoy better times if he were to succeed to his aspirations but in the end the story turned out to be more of a warning against greed, particularly for those without good morals and values to guide them. As Bob firmly believed he was a good man, the lesson is there for all of us.

I’d already read The Shadow of the Wind and loved it enormously, so was very happy to find The Midnight Palace in the latest big bag of books that Aunty G shared with me.

The Midnight Palace had a children’s adventure story-feel about it. The story followed a group of teenage orphans living in Calcutta in 1932, one of whom appeared to be in danger of being killed by a supernatural, evil being called Jawahel.

The story began with an English soldier rescuing new-born twins, a boy and a girl from Jawahel after the death of their mother. The soldier took the twins to their grandmother who sent the boy, Ben, to an orphanage while keeping the girl, Sheere with her in an attempt to hide their identities. Growing up, Sheere lived a transient life with her grandmother as they hid from Jawahel.

Eventually Ben and Sheere met in Calcutta and discovered they were twins. With the help of Ben’s friends from the orphanage, who called themselves the members of the Chowbar Society, they sought to learn why Jawahel wanted to kill Ben or Sheere, or both.

I was very disappointed in this story and found myself skimming through the second half of the book. The writing was beautiful, as you would expect from the author of The Shadow of the Wind but the fantastical elements of the story didn’t make sense to me and a lot of the plot just seemed silly. I believe The Midnight Palace is the second book in a trilogy, but I don’t expect to read either of the other books in this series in future. If a stand-alone book for adults by this author comes my way in future though, I’ll gladly read it.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

I’ve read a few books by Emma Donoghue and have enjoyed all of them, including Akin, Donoghue’s most recently published book.

The story starts with 79-year old Noah Selvaggio, a retired widower living in New York as he plans a trip to Nice in the South of France. Noah had lived in Nice with his mother as a small child and was very much looking forward to revisiting his former home when he received a request from Children’s Services to take on the care of his eleven-year old great-nephew Michael.

Noah already knew that Michael’s father had died and that his mother was in prison on drugs charges, but had assumed that Michael was being cared for by his grandmother, which had in fact been the case until her recent death. Although Noah was scheduled to leave for Nice in just a few days he was railroaded by Child Services into taking Michael temporarily to prevent him from being sent to foster care.

Noah found himself in the company of a child who didn’t want to be with him either, but he pressed on with his trip and after hurriedly arranging a passport for Michael, they travelled together to Nice.

Noah’s main reason for the visit was to investigate the meaning behind a mysterious set of photos that had been found amongst his mother’s belongings. The photos seemingly pointed to her having collaborated with the Nazis during their occupation of Nice in World War Two. Prior to the war Noah’s grandfather had been a famous photographer and Noah’s mother had been his assistant but mysteriously to Noah and his family, during the war she had insisted on staying in Nice with her father, despite Noah, his sister and their father having gone to America.

During their stay in Nice Michael constantly challenged Noah, sometimes irrationally and at other times with the intention of being deliberately perverse, but despite being difficult Michael’s intelligence shone through. He swore constantly, wasn’t particularly interested in anything that Noah had to say and ran rings around Noah in their negotiations over his behaviour, bedtime and how much junk food and fizzy drink he should have, but as the pair spent more time together Noah realised how much Michael actually needed him. I will say that in real life I wouldn’t have had as much patience with Michael as Noah did, but as Michael had been the victim of very difficult circumstances and knew his future was just as uncertain, his behaviour was certainly understandable.

I did think that Michael was probably far more clever than most children his age but I gave the author the benefit of the doubt on this point as Noah was himself a chemist and intelligence seemed to be a family trait.

Noah often heard the voice of his dead wife Joan offering him support and advice as he cared for Michael, just as she would have if she had still been alive. I liked this trait and felt comforted by it, and freely admit to occasionally hearing the voices of loved ones in my own head.

I enjoyed the theme of photography that ran through the story, from the selfies Michael constant took on his phone to the descriptions of the groundbreaking art of Noah’s grandfather’s work. I also enjoyed my armchair visit to Nice and learning a little about the area’s history. The story also showed how the 2016 terrorism attacks had changed the place and I felt gutted to learn of another attack just a few days after I finished reading Akin.

For the first time in ages, I felt totally immersed in my reading. Emma Donoghue fans will love Akin.

A Sweet Obscurity is the second book I’ve read by Patrick Gale after reading A Place Called Winter a few years ago.

The story has several main characters, including Eliza, a single mother to her nine-year old niece Dido. Eliza and Dido had been living in poverty in London after Eliza left her husband Giles for another relationship which hadn’t worked out. Since the separation Dido had been splitting her time between Eliza’s flat and Giles’ luxurious home where he lived with his new girlfriend Julia.

The story started with a shock as Dido found naked photos of herself amongst Giles’ things which had been taken while she was asleep. Giles maintained that the photos were innocent and that he had been thinking about how sweet Dido was in her sleep but this ambiguous event left me feeling suspicious of Giles and generally uneasy about the relationships between all of the characters.

Eliza had suffering from depression and she and Dido were living in poverty so Dido took charge, shaming Giles into giving her money which she used for food for her and Eliza.

Giles and Eliza had initially met as musical students. Giles was a counter-tenor (a male operatic soprano) with a successful career. At the time Eliza had been working towards an academic career but she had been unable to balance her work with Giles and Dido’s needs and had long ago given up on her doctoral research. Eliza’s particular subject was Elizabethan madrigals by a relatively obscure Cornish courtier from the late 1600s.

Giles, Eliza and Julia were individually disfunctional and didn’t fare much better as a family. Giles had had a terrible upbringing and Eliza, who also had family secrets, had been thrust into parenthood after the unexpected death of her sister. Giles, who seemed to mean well, had swept in to rescue Eliza and Dido but as a couple they were unsuited. Dido provided all of the adults with a connection, as well as a reason to live and strive for something better, but the weight of all of their needs overburdened her emotionally.

Eliza’s mother died and she and Dido left London for Cornwall where they landed in St Just, the town where the subject of Eliza’s obscure composer had lived. While in town Eliza joined a local madrigal singing group where she recognised one of their songs as a piece previously unknown to her by the subject of her study.

Eliza and Dido found their place in the St Just community and before long Eliza started a romance with one of her fellow singers, a shy farmer called Pearce. Before long though, Julia and Giles found themselves in Cornwall too, bringing the relationships between the adults to a head.

There was a lot going on in this story and I haven’t told the half of it. The characters living in Cornwall had their own issues but were generally in better emotional shape than the blow-ins from London. The chapters are alternately told by Eliza, Giles, Julia and Pearce.

What I liked most about this story was the location and the story of the subject of Eliza’s thesis, both of which were equally as important as the characters. The Cornish location led to bookish references such as Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and to other Cornish authors, which I loved. It was interesting to read about Pearce’s family farm and the trials and tribulations of farming in the UK in the modern era.

I enjoyed A Sweet Obscurity and hope to read more books by Patrick Gale.

You Belong Here is by Australian author Laurie Steed. The story begins in 1972 with Jen and Steven at the beginning of their married life. As the years passed everyday life overwhelmed them and their family fell apart.

Jen and Steven married young. Full of hope for the future, they moved from Melbourne to Perth when Jen was pregnant with their first child. The lack of family support for the young couple in Perth wasn’t touched on in the story but in real life, that would probably have been a reason why several years later when they had three children, Steven and Jen were feeling emotionally distant from both each other and their children and she was having an affair.

Soon after Jen’s affair became known to Steven he moved out of the family home and returned to the east coast of Australia for work. Like many children whose parents separated, Alex, Emily and Jay suffered terribly from the disintegration of their family.

Alex was a gorgeous boy whose heart was broken when his best friend suicided as a teenager. As an adult Alex struggled to remain emotionally connected to his family and other people in his life.

Emily seemly coped better with the loss of her father and her mother’s emotional distance, but as the story progressed she continually made poor choices in her relationships with family and boyfriends.

Jay, the baby of the family, needed professional help for his mental health by the time he was a teenager, something that at that time brought with it an enormous stigma, an aspect which was not considered in the story telling.

The story moved quickly through the years and passed from one family member to another.

I think a reader who knows and loves Perth would feel at home in this book. I liked that the story ended with hope for the characters and that despite their individual and family disfunction, they still recognised they were a family.

My purchase of You Belong Here by Laurie Steed went towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (September).

I ordered this book from Margaret River Press.

I was very excited to find a copy of Sherlock Holmes Investigates by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which had been illustrated by Sidney Paget. The stories are wonderful and the reproductions of the original illustrations added another layer of happiness to my reading.

The collection began with an excerpt from A Study in Scarlet which tells the story of how Dr Watson met Sherlock Holmes. At the time Dr Watson had only recently returned to England after being wounded in the Afghan War and needed to find somewhere to live when a mutual friend introduced the pair to each other as potential flat mates.

The next story, The Man With the Twisted Lip was new to me. Dr Watson had a patient who was addicted to opium and at the request of the man’s wife, retrieved him from a notorious opium den only to be accosted by an old man, who turned out to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise. The detective was on trail of a rich man who had gone missing, presumably into the Thames River by way of the opium den. All the clues are in the story for the reader to figure out what happened, but I needed Sherlock Holmes to explain it all to me (as did Dr Watson).

The Speckled Band is the story of a murder caused by greed. I’m happy to say that while I didn’t figure out exactly how the murdered committed the crime, I cam close to guessing correctly!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Red-Headed League which featured criminals and a victim with flame-red hair. In this case, the victim actually enjoyed a financial gain as a result of a crime against him and a bank.

The Engineer’s Thumb told of a poor young engineer who took on a job to repair a mysterious piece of machinery. The engineer did not expect to have his thumb amputated in a gruesome incident during his employment.

The Reigate Squires started out with Sherlock Holmes recovering from illness and exhaustion that had been brought on during another case and ended with him almost being murdered. Luckily, Dr Watson was nearby to save Holmes and to tell the story.

The last story was The Blue Carbuncle, a horrible but apt name for a diamond so valuable that had been the cause of murders, robberies, a suicide and numerous other crimes. When the diamond was stolen Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were in the right place at the right time to find and return the diamond to its rightful owner.

I enjoy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing style. Dr Watson is a descriptive and interesting narrator who describes what he sees and then later, what Sherlock Holmes saw in the same scenario. Dr Watson inserts some of his personality into the stories but Sherlock Holmes is always the star. I was amused by Dr Watson’s ability to leave his patients to their own devices while he did more interesting things with Sherlock Holmes and can’t imagine a doctor in this day and age having the same freedom.

I’m already looking forward to my next adventures with Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

Juvenilia by Jane Austen

What struck me most about Jane Austen’s Juvenilia or Catharine and Other Writings was the distinctiveness of the author’s voice even though she was a very young teenager when she wrote the first stories in this collection.

The first story, Frederic and Elfrida, is funny and ridiculous. Frederic and Elfrida are first cousins who are so much alike, apart from “the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose and the difference of the complexion” that no one could tell them apart. One of them was male and the other female, which didn’t occur to those who were confused! This story included a character who suicided after having accepted two marriage proposals while another couple aged 36 and 63 were convinced to wait until they were older before they married.

Jack and Alice started with the birthday of Mr Johnson, who “was once upon a time about 53; in a twelve-month afterwards he was 54, which so much delighted him that he was determined to celebrate his next Birth day by giving a Masquerade to his Children and Freinds.” The main characters were often drunk and one character died from alcohol poisoning. To further heighten the drama, the story ended with a murder.

The Beautifull Cassandra was dedicated to Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. It is described as a novel in 12 chapters, however the chapters are very short, some of them only a single sentence. The story tells of the adventures of a young woman who wore an elegant bonnet, ate six ices, knocked down a pastry cook, curtseyed to a Viscount, ignored an enemy and failed to pay a Coachman for his services during the course of her day.

The main character of The Three Sisters decided to marry a man she did not love for his wealth, as well as to deny either of her sisters the opportunity to marry him instead. This unpleasant young woman and her would-be husband bickered and appeared to dislike each other so much that it seemed as if they had been unhappily married to each other for years.

Love and Freindship was written when Jane Austen was fifteen. The story of the ill-fated Laura’s youthful romance and adventures were told in a series of letters to her young friend Marianne, warning to her not to make the same mistakes as she did in her youth. Not surprisingly considering the topics covered in previous stories, Laura’s marriage did not appear to be legal and she and her dear friend Sophia, with whom she went off adventuring, were a pair of thieves and frauds. There is enough fainting and running mad in this story to please anyone who enjoys dramatics, but the underlying warning is not to lie in the damp when you repeatedly faint lest you catch a chill and die.

Lesley Castle is also written in letter form, but this time there are a number of female characters writing the letters. The story is deliciously gossipy and includes completely different evils to previous stories, this time divorce and adultery. One female character insulted another with a disguised compliment, which was funny to read but also a sad reminder that some elements of human nature never change.

The author inserted her own opinions about the royal families into The History of England, which is famous for containing very few dates and a strong bias towards the Stuarts.

The final short novels are Evelyn, where all the inhabitants of the district are far too generous for their own good and Catharine, which appeared to be the beginning of a longer, more serious novel. The heroine of Catharine was a young woman who had been brought up by an aunt too diligent of her niece’s reputation to allow her the opportunity to mingle in society. The story began with the heroine’s sorrow in the loss of her dearest friends from the neighbourhood after the death of their parents which set a sadder, more realistic tone than the previous stories. A visit from relatives gave Catharine an opportunity for romance with a frivolous young man, however he unexpectedly left for France and the story ended soon after with no indication of what might have happened next.

The collection also included sections containing fictional letters, scraps of writing, poetry and prayers.

Each story is dedicated to one or another of Jane Austen’s friends or family, for reasons such as Martha Lloyd having assisted the author to finish her muslin cloak, or to encourage her brother Francis Austen to encourage him in his career as a sailor.

It seemed clear to me that Jane Austen’s family didn’t censor her work or attempt to guide her away from some of the unseemly subjects she wrote about. Instead, I felt that they encouraged her to poke fun at topics that are usually considered too serious to joke about. The books she wrote as an adult certainly weren’t as fantastical as her Juvenilia but I’m grateful she continued writing books which allowed us to laugh at the things she found ridiculous.

My edition of this book included a lengthy introduction, a chronology and explanatory notes all of which I enjoyed and appreciated.

Catharine and Other Writings was book twenty three in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Mrs by Caitlin Macy

I had high hopes of Mrs by Caitlin Macy but I was sadly disappointed.

My hopes were high for three reasons. First, I liked the hot pink cover design. Second, Kate Atkinson, who is an author whose books I enjoy, was quoted on the cover saying, “Brilliant… I absolutely loved it.” Third, Dad always called elderly women whose names he couldn’t remember ‘Missus’. These days calling someone Missus just isn’t done, but back then, Dad did and people opened up to him, despite (or perhaps even because of) him calling some of them Missus. Hearing the word Missus reminds me of Dad.

I got about half way through this story about a group of privileged mothers whose young children attended an exclusive and expensive school before I gave it up. The story bored me and I found the relationships between the mothers (all of whom were fascinated by one of their number who was a former model), the couples (the women mostly stayed at home while the men were either lawyers or stockbrokers) and the parents and children to be unvaryingly cold and disjointed.

Since I couldn’t connect with any of the characters or the story, this Ms decided to give Mrs a miss.

I usually enjoy alternative history novels but I felt uncomfortably sad, anxious and angry reading Fatherland by Robert Harris.

The story imagines how the world would be after Hitler won World War Two. Berlin, where much of the story is set, in 1964 is a grand city with a Arch of Triumph that is bigger than the Arc de Triumph in Paris, a Palace that Hitler resides in that is bigger than the Palace of Versailles and a Great Hall so enormous that the dome generates its own climate.

Xavier March is a Homicide Investigator with the Kriminalpolizei who took on a case to investigate the death of an elderly man found dead in a lake just a week before the American President, Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father) was scheduled to make an historic visit to Germany. Xavi, whose investigation was more diligent than wise, soon discovered that the dead man had a number of Nazi colleagues who had also been murdered recently. Instead of giving up the case as he was ordered to, Xavi continued trying to work out what the murdered men had in common and why they had been murdered.

Xavi teamed up with an American journalist, Charlotte Muguire during his investigations and although he didn’t entirely trust her, he found himself travelling with her to Zurich to visit the murder victim’s Swiss bank to view the contents of his bank vault. There, Xavi discovered priceless art presumably pilfered during WW2.

Eventually Xavi and Charlie learned that the murdered men had been instrumental in planning and carrying out the Final Solution, the extermination of Jewish people from Germany and throughout Europe. This came as a shock to Xavi, who along with most German people believed (or wanted to believe) that the Jewish people had been relocated to eastern Europe.

Xavi and Charlie’s lives were endangered as the Gestapo realised they might tell the world what they had discovered about the Jewish people, particularly with the upcoming visit from Kennedy looming.

The story which cleverly mixes real people and events into the fiction, is very well written and plausible. I will read more books by Robert Harris in future, but I found the plot of Fatherland distressing. I was very glad to finish this book.

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