Book reviews

I’ve read several novels by Joyce Carol Oates previously but didn’t particularly connect with the stories, so started Cardiff, by the Sea with the intention of reading a few pages then discarding the book if I didn’t like it. Happily I loved each of the four short stories that make up this collection.

The collection began with the title story Cardiff, by the Sea, which was a story of suspense.

The main character, Clare, unexpectedly inherited a property from a grandmother she didn’t know existed. She had been adopted as a toddler and knew nothing about her life prior to being adopted so when she received a phone call from a Maine lawyer telling her she had two great aunts and an uncle living in Maine, she was keen to meet her family.

On arrival, Clare met a pair of squabbling, fusspot old maids who were reluctant to tell her anything about her parents but on searching newspaper archives, she learned that her mother, older sister and brother had been killed by her father, who had then killed himself. A small child at the time, Clare had been hiding inside a kitchen cupboard when the murder-suicide took place in the family home.

As Clare learned more about her past and visited her former home, long-forgotten memories returned raising doubts about what had actually happened.

Cardiff, by the Sea had an ambiguous ending which suited the uneasy tone of the story. I would have preferred a definite ending but think the author made the right choice of ending since I have continued to wonder about the events, whereas if the story’s ending had been clear cut I would probably have forgotten it by now.

Miao Dao was the story of a girl on the verge of puberty who was being tormented by boys from her class at school. Her parents had recently separated and her mother was seeing a man who Mia sensed was also a predator.

Mia’s story was entwined with that of the feral cats living near her home. When their habitat was destroyed Mia adopted a tiny white kitten, whom she named Miao Dao. The kitten became Mia’s fiercest protector as she entered her teenage years.

Miao Dao brought back unpleasant memories of being Mia’s age and trying to avoid similar attention from boys. I imagine most women have had similar experiences but I still felt a surge of anger when I remembered a particular event that I hadn’t known how to deal with at the time.

Phantomwise: 1972 also left me feeling angry. Alyce was a brilliant young poet who fell pregnant after having a secret affair with one of her instructors. At around the same time, she became friends with a much-older and very successful professor, Roland B, a successful poet. Alyce became indispensable to Roland B, who employed her to archive his works. Later, when Roland B realised Alyce was pregnant he offered to marry her, making her former instructor jealous.

I was angry with Roland B for leaning so heavily on Alyce, was angry with her former instructor and Roland B for their selfishness in using her talent for their own gain, but most of all I was angry with Alyce for giving up so easily on herself and her own work in order to serve these two unworthy men.

The last story in the collection, The Surviving Child was also the shortest. This was the story of Elisabeth, who had married an older, rich, controlling man whose first wife, a renowned poet, had killed herself and their daughter while sparing their son. As the story continued Elisabeth became more and more intrigued by her predecessor’s life and death.

The four stories in this collection were well suited to each other. Each had a female heroine and a suspenseful, uneasy atmosphere. Men in plain sight were the enemy, the predators, the bullies and the oppressors of women. The female victims were more different to each other in that some had no way to escape their situations, while others found ways to fight back against their tormentors and win.

I’m already looking forward to reading something else by Joyce Carol Oates.

I started The Natural Way of Things by Australian author Charlotte Wood with a strong sense of anticipation, having enjoyed The Weekend very much.

The story began with a group of women waking up at a remote, abandoned outback farm after having been drugged and kidnapped. Once awake, their heads were shaved and they were given clothing reminiscent of the outfits the handmaids wore in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, before being shackled together and beaten into submission by two seemingly ordinary young men whose job it was to guard them.

As the story evolved it emerged that each of women had been publicly ‘slut-shamed’ in the media before being taken to the dry, dusty, infertile farm, which was surrounded by an inpenetrable electric fence.

One woman had been humiliated after her affair with a government minister became known, another the same but with a high-profile religious figure. Several women had been the victims of gang-rapes, one on a cruise ship after which she had been left for dead by her rapists, while another woman had been raped by a group of footballers. One young woman had been a promising swimmer before becoming a victim of her high-profile sports coach. None of the women’s stories were particularly different to those that are in the media today, day in and day out.

The media not only slut-shamed the women, but they also victim-blamed them by presenting the events and the perpetrators’ behaviour as the women’s own fault.

The story particularly followed two of the women, Yolanda and Verla, who eventually became friends of a sort. There were friendships between other women too, as well as instances of the women turning on each other.

When the food stores on the infertile, dry dusty farm began to run out and it became clear even to the women’s captors that there was no escape for any of them, Yolanda took on the role of provider and trapped rabbits to keep all of them, including their captors alive. Over time each of the women and their captors fell into some degree of madness.

The early stages of The Natural Way of Things was so like The Handmaid’s Tale that I felt uncomfortable reading it, wondering if there was a case for plagiarism, however as the story evolved it went in a very different direction to The Handmaid’s Tale.

I appreciated the points the story made, but much preferred The Weekend over The Natural Way of Things.

I was keen to read The Call of the Wild by Jack London after recently reading White Fang while the first story was still fresh in my mind.

The Call of the Wild introduces Buck, a half shepherd, half St Bernard as the favoured companion of Judge Miller and his sons, and a playmate for the Judge’s grandchildren at their home in California.

When a gold rush created an enormous demand for dog sled teams to carry mail and essential supplies in the Yukon, Buck was stolen because of his great strength and taken to the other end of the continent by train.

Once in the Yukon, Buck learned to obey club-wielding men, and to fight for his food, working position and for his very life. Much like people, Buck’s fellow sled-dog’s characters were depicted as either living to work, or happy-go-lucky fun lovers, while others sought out every opportunity they could to fight.

The team’s masters came and went. Some were kinder to the dogs than others and several were cruel and incompetent. Eventually Buck ended up with a master he loved and would have died for, but eventually his master’s death and the call of the wild led him to run the countryside with wolves.

The story is short and is told in a similarly detached style to White Fang in that the animal’s morals and values are generally less emotional that that of humans, while their actions are more to the point. For example, if two dogs hated each other they fought to the death rather than politely detesting each other human-style.

The Call of the Wild can be enjoyed as a straightforward adventure story with moral lessons for those who care to recognise them, noting that the story is also a product of its time and contains racist comments and cruelty to animals.

White Fang and The Call of the Wild are companion pieces, set in the same place at the same time, but the characters do not cross over. The stories are opposite to each other in that White Fang tells the story of a wolfdog that becomes domesticated during the course of the story while the domesticated dog in The Call of the Wild goes wild. I didn’t prefer one story over the other.

The Call of the Wild was book twenty seven in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Loner by Georgina Young

Loner is the debut novel of Australian author Georgina Young, who won the 2019 Text Prize for this book.

The main character, Lona, is a twenty year-old art school drop out who works at a roller skating rink in a Melbourne suburb. She has a massive crush on a former schoolmate and is overly dependent on her best friend Tab. She has no plans for the future, blue hair, loves to read and actively avoids social interactions and activities which she considers to be pointless.

When Lona’s mother insisted that Lona either return to university or get another job and start paying board, Lona got a job at a supermarket then moved out of home into a share house, preferring to sleep in a curtained-off section of the loungeroom than pay board to her parents. Lona then began a relationship with a medical student but despite him understanding her need for solitude, they broke up, then Lona lost her job and moved home again.

The story of Lona’s grandfather’s loss of independence as the story continued contrasted with Lona becoming more independent.

Not much actually happens in this story but the characters are so good, particularly Lona, that Loner reminded me how it felt to be a young adult, sometimes full of confidence and other times not, not knowing what I wanted or was supposed to care about but thinking that I should know, and often worrying that other people would know that I was only pretending to be an adult.

While I enjoyed the contemporary Melbourne setting, reading about Lona’s work at Planet Skate filled me with joy. I was reminded of being a teenager in the 1980s and the glorious sensation of speeding past little kids and wobbly adults on my navy and white Hang Ten skates while eighties pop songs blared out and the disco lights flashed on and off.

The story is broken up into extremely short chapters which suited the characters and the story.

Loner is YA, but I would happily recommend this book to adult readers.

The joyful cover art on Chasing the McCubbin by debut Australian author Sandi Scaunich depicting a garage sale wasn’t the only reason why I chose to purchase this book for my Australian reading/book buying challenge. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I like fossicking through other people’s unwanted bits and pieces, although I’m more likely to visit an Op Shop than attend a garage sale. Usually I’m looking for books so would probably bypass a painting by Frederick McCubbin in my hunt for books that I’ve been busting to read but unable to find!

Chasing the McCubbin tells the story of an odd couple, Ron and Joseph who teamed up to scrounge through hard rubbish collections and garage sales around Melbourne during the early 1990s. Ron had been buying and selling for years, but after the death of his wife needed assistance from someone to direct him to the advertised sales, then to help him to carry and load his purchases into his van for a percentage of the profits.

Since the death of his wife Ron’s health had continued to worsen but the possibility of finding valuable items in other people’s cast-offs had long been his obsession. The items Ron bought and sold supplemented his meagre income during the recession that Australia ‘had to have’.

Joseph was a troubled school-leaver from a poor area who had been unable to find a job when he unwillingly teamed up with Ron at the request of his mother. The recent death of Joseph’s older brother had left Joseph and his mother emotionally devastated and generally unable to cope with day-to-day life. Joseph’s tragic back story of family violence was told over the course of the story.

Each week Joseph and Ron met their fellow collectors at the garage sales, people who Ron had nicknamed according to their characteristics or by what they collected. They formed a community of sorts and consisted of The Crone, the Tool-Men, the Thief, the Record Men, Fritz the German and others. Over the course of a year Joseph began to learn from Ron which items were valuable and which were not, along with the more valuable lesson that families should value their own histories.

Viewing paintings by Frederick McCubbin gives me (and I suspect most Australians) a sense of belonging despite many of his paintings depicting an Australian bush life which very few people actually ever lived, except for in our romantic visions of ourselves. Since European settlement began in Australia more Australians have lived in cities than in the bush.

View of the Yarra River towards Richmond from below McCubbin’s House, Kensington Road

I loved that this story reminded me of scrounging through sheds on family member’s farms and hearing stories about the past generations who had treasured those items. I liked Ron and Joseph, the Melbourne setting and the period when the story was set. I’ll definitely read whatever Sandi Scaunich writes next.

My purchase of Chasing the McCubbin by Sandi Scaunich 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 (April).

I had a fair idea of what I was in for judging by the apocalyptic, blood-red cover of The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, but I was ultimately unsatisfied by the story’s lack of resolution.

Eric and Andrew were holidaying at an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter Wen, who was catching grasshoppers in the garden when a gigantic stranger unexpectedly arrived. The stranger tried to befriend Wen, but eventually scared her by warning her that bad things were about to happen, while stressing to her that none of the events would be her fault. When several other people armed with frightening home-made weapons arrived, Wen ran inside to her parents.

The strangers told Eric and Andrew that they needed their help to save the world, but Eric and Andrew weren’t so gullible as to let them into the cabin, although eventually the strangers forced their way inside and tied up Eric and Andrew.

To save the world, the strangers told Eric, Andrew and Wen that they needed to choose which one of their family they would sacrifice. If they didn’t choose willingly, then the world would be ruined by floods, plague before the sky would fall, dooming all of humanity.

When the family declined to choose, the strangers smashed one of their own group to death in a ritualistic killing watched in horror by Eric, Andrew and Wen. The remaining strangers then turned on the television to watch the news, which was showing terrible floods in various parts of the world.

Eventually my initial anticipation regarding the family’s situation fizzled out although I kept reading until the end of the story, despite not believing in the characters or their motives. I generally like horror stories and end of the world scenarios, but for me this story fell flat.

Jane in Love by Rachel Givney tells the story of what might happen if Jane Austen time-travelled from 1803 to present day Bath, then had to make a choice between true love and writing novels.

Despite watching Jane appear out of nowhere, Sofia Wentworth, who was preparing to play the role of Mrs Allen in a film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, believed that she was an actor playing Jane Austen as part of a practical joke similar to a Candid Camera scenario.

Deciding to go along with the joke, Sofia played along with the strange things Jane said and did as she reacted to modern life. For Jane, learning that six of her novels, most of which had not yet been written or conceived of in her own time, had been published and were enormously successful was overwhelming.

Realising that Jane wasn’t going to break character, Sofia took her home to stay with her at her brother Fred’s home.

Jane had already met Fred on the film set and chastised him for his lack of manners towards her when they were asked to dance together for a scene.

The story then followed both Sofia and Jane over the following months.

Sofia had recently separated from her husband who was the director of the Northanger Abbey adaptation and hoped that working together would rekindle their marriage. Sofia was also struggling emotionally with playing an older character rather than being the young, beautiful star of the film.

Although Jane and Fred found each other irritating they fell in love, however as Jane became more established in the present her novels started to disappear. Eventually Jane realised she had to choose between being a little-known writer who would only have small success in her own time and enjoying true love in the present with Fred.

Jane in Love is a story for romantics rather than for die-hard Jane Austen fans and my advice would be to read the book in the spirit of how it has been written, which is for fun.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells was a surprise to me, mostly because I thought about the things I would do if I was invisible and they were entirely different to what the Invisible Man did.

The joke of it is that as a middle-aged woman I’m reasonably invisible as it is, except when someone else (either at home or at work) wants something from me. But, ignoring that sad truth, if I was truly invisible I would lie around all day eating chocolate and reading novels, or crocheting, painting or drawing, all without being interrupted.

Instead of making the most of his situation though, the Invisible Man, who was filled up with hatred and anger (possibly as a result of poisoning himself with strychnine) went on a reign of terror.

The Invisible Man is described as science fiction but I thought the story could also be shelved in the horror section. The science of the main character becoming invisible was something to do with mirrors, jellyfish and refracting lights something, something, then something happening in a lab with little bottles, (apologies, I don’t do science or math very well) but happily for me the story wasn’t particularly scientific apart from those bits which I skipped over.

The horror was to do with the main character’s personality and how he dealt with the challenges of being invisible, none of which he had considered before experimenting on himself.

The story began with a heavily muffled man arriving at a village inn during a snowstorm and renting a room. The man soon annoyed his landlady by demanding complete privacy but since business was slow, she put up with his increasingly rude and offensive behaviour for some time.

When a strange theft took place in one of the village’s houses it was obvious that the Invisible Man had done the crime, even though no one could understand how he had managed it. After another fight with his landlady he became invisible, then before he could be arrested, took off all of his clothes and escaped.

The Invisible Man had a series of adventures before taking shelter with an old friend, Dr Kemp, to whom he explained how he had learned to become invisible and told him how he had been living. The Invisible Man told his story honestly, with no idea that Kemp would no longer be willing to hide him after he learned just how violently he had behaved towards others (and animals) in order to further his own interests. Not surprisingly, things didn’t end well for the Invisible Man.

I was amused by the reaction of Kemp being particularly horrified by him breaking into another man’s home. I don’t know why this seemed worse to him than any of the other things the Invisible Man did, but think it might be along the lines of an Englishman’s home being his castle. About the only thing Kemp didn’t say was, “It’s just not cricket!”

I’m still surprised that the Invisible Man didn’t spend his time doing fun things instead of feeling hard done by and attempting a Reign of Terror, but we’re all different.

I had a feeling that I’d already read something by Elizabeth Buchan when I came across The Museum of Broken Promises so searched my blog’s archives and found that I’d previously read The Good Wife Strikes Back. According to my review I enjoyed The Good Wife but thought that I’d forget the plot sooner rather than later.

I also enjoyed The Museum of Broken Promises but think it has more depth than The Good Wife.

The Museum of Broken Promises‘ story is told across three timelines, a style which I’m a little tired of but will say that it worked well for this story. In 1985 the main character Laure Carlyle was a teenager working as a nanny in Prague for a privileged family, by 1996 brief glimpses into Laure’s life show her working as a cultural attache to the British Embassy in Berlin and in the present in Paris, Laure’s creation of a Museum of Broken Promises is a runaway success.

Coming from safe, free England, Laure found Czechoslovakia in 1985 to be drab, but once she fell in with a group of puppeteers and a rock band who were flirting dangerously with political dissidence her life became far more exciting. When Laure fell in love with the band’s lead singer Tomas, they were both exposed to danger.

In present-day Paris, one of Laure’s responsibilities was curating objects for the Museum which were displayed to illustrate stories of broken promises. Some objects represented the failure of government’s promises to their citizens, while others were children’s toys representing broken promises made to the children by their parents. Not surprisingly, items representing failed relationships featured heavily. Several of the displays featured items from Laure’s time in Prague and related to Tomas.

While I enjoyed the story I had to suspend my disbelief over certain plot lines which glossed over some fairly big issues.

I knew very little about Czechoslovakian history prior to reading this story and have since skimmed the surface to read about the Velvet Revolution. I’d love to read a novel set during these times by a Czech writer.

I also liked the idea of a museum devoted to broken promises although in the story many of the visitors found themselves grieving in front of objects that triggered their memories. In real life I would probably prefer a museum devoted to reminding me of the joys of life. I will probably read more fiction by Elizabeth Buchan eventually.

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans became a New York Times bestseller and was loved by readers all over the world.

After World War One, war hero Tom Sherbourne became a lighthouse-keeper, eventually working his way up to a posting on isolated Janus Island where he managed the (fictional) lighthouse station. On a trip ashore to the south-west corner of Western Australia Tom met Isabel Graysmark, the two fell in love and eventually married, despite Tom’s misgivings about how Isabel would adapt to life on the island.

At first, Isabel thrived but after she suffered multiple miscarriages over a period of several years it seemed unlikely that she and Tom would ever have a child of their own. When a boat washed ashore carrying a baby sheltered beneath a dead man, presumably the baby’s father, Isabel convinced Tom not to report the event so they could keep the baby for their own. Almost against his will Tom agreed, buried the man and set the boat adrift again.

Although Tom’s conscience bothered him, Isabel was convinced the baby they had named Lucy was an orphan.

During a trip ashore for Lucy’s christening, Tom and Isabel learned that the baby’s heartbroken mother lived nearby.

Isabel somehow convinced Tom that Lucy was better off with them than with her mother and they returned to the island. Lucy grew up to be a happy and inquisitive child but Tom, who knew they had done the wrong thing, eventually contacted Lucy’s real mother anonymously to let her know her child was safe and well.

Eventually their secret came out, leaving everyone’s lives upended again.

While I found the plot to be slightly predictable, I loved reading about the main character’s lives on the island, the town on the mainland and the characters who lived there. I especially enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of how lighthouses work, which obviously led me to daydreaming about living on a deserted island, with or without a lighthouse.

The Light Between Oceans wasn’t really for me, but I can see why so many people loved it.

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