Book reviews

commonwealth.png

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good book, however I loved Bel Canto by this author so much that I can’t quite forgive Commonwealth for not being as good. My problem, not the book’s. I should have waited another year before reading it.

Commonwealth tells the story of the children of a blended family with six children over a fifty year period. The story starts at the christening of the youngest girl, Franny, when her mother is kissed by an uninvited guest who brought a bottle of gin to the party. This was in the 1960s, so having the words ‘christening’ and ‘gin’ in the same sentence wasn’t as odd as it would be now.

The two adults, Beverly and Bert fell in love and dissolved their families to start a new one with her two children, and his four. The story then follows the children as they grow up together, running wild all summer. Six children are too many for Beverly to manage and Bert takes no responsibility for them at all and tragically, the lack of supervision leads to the death of the eldest boy, Cal.

The children make it clear that their parents fell in love with the idea of escaping their real lives (and for Bert particularly, the responsibility of his children) as much as they fell in love with each other. Their marriage didn’t last either, as Bert eventually played around on Beverly too. They divorced and both went on to third marriages.

As interesting as I found the adult’s story, though, the story of Commonwealth belongs to the children. Beverly’s daughters are Caroline, the aggressive, bossy older sister who leads the pack, and Franny, who floats along, letting life take her where it will. As a twenty-something, Franny falls into a relationship with a much older celebrated author, who hears the story of her childhood and uses it to write a successful novel. Franny tells most of the story, although occasionally the point of view switches to another character. The story isn’t told chronologically, probably because if it had been there would have been nothing for the characters left to discover about themselves later on.

Bert’s children are Cal, who died as a teenager, Holly, who abandons life in the USA to spend her days meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette, who everyone thought was mentally deficient as a child but who turned out to be the most well-adjusted of them all and Albie, the youngest boy whose story was in some ways the saddest of all. Albie was such a painful child that no one could bear to be around him.

Two characters I would like to know more about were Father Joe Mike and Beverly’s sister Bonnie, but I suspect I never will. They go together like gin at a christening.

Ann Patchett’s writing has a feel of Jane Austen to me, in that she (or rather her narrator), is amused by her characters and their lives. I like this style enormously. I liked Commonwealth enormously too, but am going to wait longer before reading another book by this author so that I can enjoy it without comparison to Commonwealth or Bel Canto.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

happiness.png

Happiness for Humans by P.Z.Reizen is a clever and happy romance featuring likeable characters.

Jen’s job is to talk to Aiden all day. Aiden is an ‘artificially intelligent machine’ who is being trained during his and Jen’s conversations to be used in the workplace. The aim is for him to replace human staff in Call Centres and similar working environments. Unbeknown to Jen or to Aiden’s creators though, Aiden has gotten loose on the internet and has replicated himself 18 times. He is somehow also become capable of feeling emotions, is interested in movies, is desperate to taste cheese and has become very fond of Jen.

This sounds as if Aiden is creepy but truly, he isn’t. He’s a lovely, sticky-beaky sort of machine with a lilting Welsh accent.

When Aiden starts to interfere in Jen’s life (by causing trouble and disasters for her idiot ex-boyfriend), another AI, Aisling, is sent onto the internet to destroy Aiden’s multiples. Aisling, however, also develops emotions and starts watching various humans, in particular a lovely fellow called Tom. When Aiden and Aisling chat (in between her destroying his copies), Aiden discovers Tom, and thinks he would be perfect for Jen. He sets them up on a blind date.

Aiden was right, Jen and Tom are perfect for each other, but trouble strikes when a third AI, Sinai, is sent to destroy Aiden and Aisling. Sinai isn’t as kindly as Aiden and Aisling and causes all sorts of nastiness.

The AI characters in Happiness for Humans were as real to me as the human characters. Each of the characters, including the AIs tell the story at various times and their voices and personalities are quite different and discernible.

Happiness for Humans is a fun, well-told story. I enjoyed it enormously and have no fear of the machines taking over (as I look around at the gadgets which interface with the internet around my home and wonder if I should switch anything off….)

too.png

Too Much Happiness is a book of sad short stories by Booker winning author Alice Munro.

The first story, Dimensions, is about a young woman who visits her husband in the psychiatric ward of a prison after he murdered their three children. She lives an almost invisible life and is looking for answers which probably don’t exist. This story set the depressing tone for the collection.

The next story, Fiction, tells of a marriage breakdown. He fell in love with another woman, she moved on. Years later she meets the now adult child of the other woman, who has written a memoir of her childhood. The woman features in the memoir but the author doesn’t recognise the woman when she lines up to have her copy of the book signed.

Wenlock Edge is sad and creepy. Two young women share a room in a boarding house while one attends university and the other seeks life experiences. One of the women is being kept by a old man who would be described as a pervert if he weren’t so rich.

My favourite story was Child’s Play. It features two girls at a summer camp whose behaviour is as unexpected as it is terrible. I can’t say more without giving the plot away, but I was shocked by the outcome.

The title story, Too Much Happiness is the longest in the collection. This story was set in the 1800s and features a Russian female mathematician who lives a bohemian life. Like all of the women in this collection she doesn’t live a fairy-tale happy life either, but she had more choices than most women of her time, partly because of her education and brains, and partly because of her personality.

I expected a happier read from this book – clearly I was led astray by the title. The writing itself was lovely but the stories were too depressing for my tastes. I’ll probably read a novel by Alice Munro sometime but will know to get in truckloads of chocolate in advance so I can endure the misery of her character’s lives.

 

 

holding.png

Yes, the Graham Norton who wrote Holding is ‘that’ Graham Norton. I could almost hear Graham Norton’s voice in my head as I read his novel. I found his writing style to be as amusing and likeable, and the voice much as he is on The Graham Norton Show.

graham.png

Holding is the story of a murder investigation in Duneen, an Irish village. Duneen is the sort of place where everybody knows each other and each other’s business, so when human remains are found by property developers, village gossip goes into overdrive. Although Sergeant PJ Collins is a diligent police officer he has never been required to do any serious police work in the years he has been in Duneen and is initially at a loss to know what to do. Luckily PJ’s housekeeper shares some old gossip with him to start off his investigation, which is being driven by a smart-alec city detective who is in Duneen for the case.

Locals believe the bones belong to Tommy Burke, a young man who disappeared from Duneen years ago. As a result, PJ’s investigation starts with Tommy’s former fiancée, Brid Riordan and another local woman, the lovely Evelyn Ross. PJ’s housekeeper told him that the women had a public fight over Tommy around the time he went missing.

Despite being a middle-aged bachelor the size of a haystack with very little experience with women, PJ falls into bed with Brid, who is an alcoholic, married mother of two during the investigation. He also has Evelyn bringing him freshly-baked bread and inviting him on outings and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the two women, twenty years on, had reprised their fight in the street, this time over PJ.

PJ plodded along, investigating the case and fending off women and eventually resolved the old mystery. I had an inkling of how things would turn out but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this entertaining story. I would be happy to read more stories featuring PJ, who has a heart of gold.

 

truly.png

I suspect that in conversation, Australian author Liane Moriarty is able to keep her audience hanging on her every word, waiting for a punchline or an unexpected twist to a story or anecdote, however Truly Madly Guilty kept me waiting so long to find out what actually happened to the characters in the story that I became more irritable than usual.

Page 1. Something happened at a barbecue Clementine went to.

Page 56. I’m still happily reading away, waiting to find out what happened at the barbecue that Clementine, her husband and children and two other couples attended in suburban Sydney.

Page 81. Whatever happened at the barbecue (I still don’t know what) has affected Clementine and Sam’s marriage. Clementine and Sam seem like a lovely couple, she plays the cello, he is a good bloke, and they have two little girls together.

Page 145. Erika, who is best friends with Clementine, also went to the barbecue, but she can’t remember what happened. Erika is obsessive-compulsive and really, really annoying. She knows everything (and has an opinion about) everything else that ever happened to Clementine, but she can’t remember what happened at the flaming barbecue. Sigh. I still don’t know what happened at the barbecue either.

Page 198. I’m still waiting to find out what happened at the barbecue…

Page 222. Still waiting to find out what happened at the barbecue (wishing the characters had all stayed home instead).

Page 232. The thing that happened at the barbecue is finally revealed. It’s bad, but the result could have been worse. They were lucky.

Page 307. Everyone who attended the barbecue continue to struggle with the fall out.

P 367. I look up the recipe for Cremeschnitte, because Vic made it for everyone at the barbecue and Clementine in particular, loved it. Imagine a sort of vanilla slice with a puff pastry base, and a creamy, custardy filling. Yum. I’ve kept the recipe and will make it sometime soon. I can’t understand why Tiffany, Vic’s wife, isn’t the size of a house.

Pages 392 and 411. Other thing that happened at the barbecue are revealed. (I didn’t see either of those things coming).

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty was similar to Truly Madly Guilty in that all of the characters knew something that was not revealed to the reader for some time. I enjoyed both stories, but sometimes you just want to know what is going on. I like this author’s writing style and the familiarity of the Australian setting (although let’s be honest, Sydney-siders are different to Melbournites) but some of the characters were a bit too much to take. One couple were overly hip and angsty, another couple so obsessive and needy that in real-life you would go out of your way to avoid them and the last couple, who I liked best of all, were cashed-up bogans who didn’t care what anyone thought of them, but weren’t on the page enough for my liking.

I’m think I’ll have to be in the mood to read another book by Liane Moriarty because a third story where everyone except me knows what is going on might be one too many…

 

 

 

 

 

roar.png

I recently read Reginald Hill’s A Cure for all Diseases which made me feel that my life won’t be complete until I have read everything this author ever wrote. I get most of my books from the local library and so borrowed the only other Reginald Hill book they had, The Roar of the Butterflies. This turned out to be part of a series, which luckily for me also worked as a stand-alone story. To my absolute joy, The Roar of the Butterflies was a tribute to PG Wodehouse’s style and wit (and love of golf, which I don’t share).

To sum up, Joe Sixsmith is an unlikely Private Investigator who often has the solution to his client’s cases fall into his lap. The client in this story is Christian Porphyry, who Joe secretly christens an FYG, short for ‘Fair Young God’. Christian comes to Joe with cash and a case to solve. Christian is facing expulsion from the Royal Hoo Golf Club in Luton because of a cheating mystery. Joe knows nothing about golf but doesn’t let that stop him from taking on the case.

In what may be a coincidence, Luton’s most powerful businessman, who is known as King Rat, offers Joe a surveillance job in Spain.

Between faking it at the golf club, falling unexpectedly into the arms of young girls, avoiding being beaten up by thickheaded boxers, sweet-talking his girlfriend Beryl, trying to stay on the good side King Rat and living up to the Fair Young God’s hopes, Joe is busy from the start to the finish of this light but amusing story.

The title, The Roar of the Butterflies, refers to a golfer who took himself so seriously he couldn’t play when there was noise or distractions and the roar of the butterflies in a nearby paddock was enough to put him off his game. I don’t know much about golf and don’t really care to, but I love reading PG Wodehouse’s stories which are set around golf and his characters who love the game. Reginald Hill’s story is a fitting tribute to PG Wodehouse.

Here’s hoping my library can scratch up more books by Reginald Hill.

 

people.png

After reading People of the Book, I can now see what all the fuss is about Geraldine Brooks. I didn’t like March and although I enjoyed Year of Wonders slightly more, I was starting to think this author wasn’t for me. Happily, I found the actual background of People of the Book to be enormously intriguing and I also enjoyed the sections of the book which were set in contemporary times.

This story is based on the actual past of a book known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This is an old and extremely rare illuminated Jewish prayer book which has survived destruction many times.

In People of the Book, an Australian book conservator, Hanna Heath gets the job of her dreams when she is employed to go to war-torn Sarejevo to restore the book. During the restoration, Hanna discovers clues in the book, each of which are used as a tool for the author to go back to a time in the book’s past and tell of how certain elements of the book came into existence, or how it survived times when Jewish people were being killed and their religious artifacts destroyed.

At the end of the story there is an afterword where the author says which of the stories were based on fact and which were fiction. Since then I’ve looked at photos of the Sarajevo Haggadah and read up on the facts of its history, along with looking into elements of Jewish religion, particularly Passover Seder, when this book would have been used to retell the biblical story of the freeing of Israelite slaves in ancient Egypt. I’ve enjoyed my research as much as I enjoyed reading the story.

Sarajevo 2.png

Each of the historical sections of the story were well developed and gave me an actual sense of fear or at the very least, anxiety, depending on the circumstances the characters at that time. I was also interested to learn that the people of various religions at different times got along the way people should, and enjoyed seeing the respect and affection and tolerance they had for each other.

An illustrated version of People of the Book would go down a treat.

Tag Cloud