Book reviews


I came to The Aviator’s Wife, the story of Anne Morrow, Charles Lindbergh’s wife by Melanie Benjamin after reading The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been by this same author. All are fictionalised accounts of real people.

The Aviator’s Wife is narrated by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who was a shy diplomat’s daughter when she met Charles Lindbergh. He had recently completed the world’s first transatlantic flight, travelling from New York to Paris in a single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis. From that moment on he was a hero, targeted by the press and unable to be anonymous or left alone anywhere except in the air.

Anne and Charles married, despite this story being unclear about whether or not they were ever in love with each other. Anne saw Charles as a hero and he saw her as good breeding material, unaware that her brother had mental health issues and that her sister was a lesbian. If he had known, it seems likely he would not have married Anne.

Anne learned to fly and became the first American woman to fly a glider. She also learned to navigate and acted as crew for her husband on many of his flights, and in addition, wrote best-selling books about their travels. Later, she published poetry, letters and diaries, and inspirational writing, of which she is best known for Gift from the Sea, a book of musings.

Anne and Charles’ first child was kidnapped for ransom and sadly, later found murdered. Later they moved to Europe to avoid the media who continued to dog them wherever they went. They went on to have another six children together.

Charles seems to have been an unpleasant man and is portrayed as being pro-Hitler, an anti-Semite, arrogant, cold and unemotional, while Anne, despite her accomplishments, appeared to be submissive and, particularly in comparison with her husband, unimportant. The author almost glosses over Anne’s long affair with the Lindbergh family doctor. Charles’ affairs with at least three women, resulting in his fathering an additional seven children is never explained satisfactorily either. Perhaps there is no explanation for either…

The Aviator’s Wife should have been fascinating, but wasn’t. The bare facts of this story tell of extraordinary lives but the narrator’s passive voice left me feeling uninterested and uninspired. My lasting impression is that Charles was a difficult man and Anne a doormat and that each would have lived a happier life married to someone else.

I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Melanie Benjamin. While I enjoyed the story of the real Alice in Wonderland, I didn’t like Tom Thumb’s or Charles Lindbergh’s Missus at all. If I read anything else by this author, I’ll look for pure fiction rather than fictionalised accounts of real people’s lives.



I believe the purpose of art; be it literature, film, painting, sculpture, music, dance or whatever is to create an emotional reaction. While reading Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room I felt sordid, distrustful, squeamish, sad, hopeful, horrified and angry. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

The story starts with a good guy, Richard, who is in his forties and happily married to Kristin. They have a nine-year old daughter. Richard works hard and while he doesn’t have many friends, he and his wife love each other.

When Richard’s younger brother Philip was to be married, Richard offered to host the bachelor party at his and Kristin’s home, while his wife and daughter spent the weekend at her mother’s house. Unfortunately, the bachelor party got out of control faster than a teenager’s bash which had been advertised on Facebook.

Richard, Philip and his friends were very drunk by the time the strippers arrived at the party with their Russian bodyguards. The women stripped, then performed some fairly graphically-described acts before having sex with some of the men.

Richard went upstairs with Alexandra, but at the very last moment remembered he was a married man and stopped himself. He and Alexandra talked for a while before returning to the party, when Sonja, the other woman, took a knife from Richard’s kitchen and killed one of the bodyguards as Richard, Philip and the other men watched in shock. Moments later, the other bodyguard was shot dead with his own gun. Alexandra and Sonja fled and Richard was left to deal with the dead bodies, the police and his wife.

The police determined that Alexandra and Sonja were Armenian sex slaves, owned by the Russian gangsters and that they were possibly underage. The remainder of the story was what happened next to Alexandra and Sonja, and to Richard, Kristin and their daughter.

Despite (or possibly because of) the awful emotions I felt while reading The Guest Room, I could not stop thinking about the story while I was at work and at home. I found myself looking around at the male passengers on my train in disgust, thinking and suspecting the worst of them after reading about the male characters’ behaviour and morals, and even worse, wondering what my male relations and friends would do in a similar situation. I decided I didn’t want to know. When it came out that the girls were possibly sex-slaves, my emotions ramped up even more. Just how greedy and wicked does a person have to be to kidnap and sell another person for their own profit? Some things are immeasurable.

I did feel hope from time-to-time that things would work out okay for various characters, and that the gangsters and others connected with the sex-trafficking would be punished in a way that would leave them suffering for eternity. I also felt proud of characters who I had come to care about when they behaved bravely and honestly.

The Guest Room is fast-paced and I was unwilling to put the book down until I finished the story, despite the unpleasantness of the subject matter. Everything I’ve read by Chris Bohjalian has been similarly addictive and emotionally draining and I expect the emotions stirred up in me while reading The Guest Room will stay with me for some time.







The first line of The Girl Before, a psychological thriller by JP Delaney is thought-provoking;

1. Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.*

This question is asked of prospective tenants of One Folgate Street, an award-winning minimalist apartment. Edward Monkford, the enigmatic architect who designed the apartment, intended the space to transform the people who live there into the best version of themselves. Approved tenants sign a contract forbidding them from cluttering up the apartment, they are not allowed to have books, cushions, photos, or personal effects on display, and pets and children are also forbidden. Tenants are also obliged to regularly answer questionnaires to monitor any psychological changes they experience while living in the apartment.

The story is told in turn by two separate tenants, Emma, who lived in the apartment in the past, and Jane, who lives there now. The architect who designed One Folgate Street, the enigmatic and attractive Edward Monkford, has affairs with both women while they are the current tenant. Jane realises that Emma died in mysterious circumstances in the apartment about three years ago and is horrified to realise she and Emma are physically very alike. She queries Edward about the past but when he brushes her off, decides to investigate Emma’s death herself.

It was difficult to know who to believe when Emma and Jane were telling their stories and I was kept guessing almost until the end of the story. Neither of the tenants were particularly likeable and I struggled to see why anybody would find Edward, who was an obsessive perfectionist, attractive. (Clearly, I’m much more attracted to bearded, messy hoarders whose sheds are full of old junk).

The psychological questions continued throughout the story and I found them to be frighteningly thought-provoking and much more enjoyable than the actual story. For example:

5a) You have a choice between saving Michelangelo’s statue of David or a starving street child. Which do you choose?

The statue.

The child. **

The questions get even worse. How about this one?

16. A railway signalman is responsible for changing the points at a remote junction. Against regulations he takes his son to work, but gives him strict instructions not to go near the line. Later he sees a train approaching, but before he can change the points he spots the boy playing on the track, too far away to hear him. Unless the points are changed the train will almost certainly crash, causing multiple fatalities, but if he does change them the train will almost certainly kill his son. If you were him, what would you do?

Change the points?

Don’t change the points?***

I enjoyed the first section of the story but felt as if it fell down in the last few chapters. The loose ends came together, but with more of a fizzle than the bang the story had been leading up to. I have to admit though, I’m tired of unreliable narrators and thrillers with ‘Girl’ in the title.

Still, I will almost certainly go and see The Girl Before at the movies when it comes out. Ron Howard is to direct and I usually enjoy his work, but I am most looking forward to seeing how this life-changing apartment is physically portrayed, particularly the kitchen.

*At first I thought of lots of possessions which I considered essential to my life. These included a vegetable peeler, recipe books, the eyebrow tweezers I’ve been using since I was a teenager, a dictionary, my house keys and so on, then I thought about it some more and stripped my list down to two things. My library card and my much-loved Humphrey B Bear, who is in much worse shape than the Humphrey in the photo below. Mine has been through the washing machine many times, has only one arm and wears a very old ’21 today’ badge pinned to his chest. He’s a funny old fellow, is Humphrey. And no, he doesn’t wear pants. He is a bear and bears don’t need pants.


**First thought; I would save the child. Then I started to think like a psychopath, which is how this story wants you to think. There is only one statue of David and millions of starving street children… Then I went back to plan A and decided that if this actually happened, I would act without thinking to save the child. I think…

***I would save my child…

I would love to know anyone else’s answers to these questions. No judgement here…



Burial Rites is the first book by Australian author Hannah Kent. It is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for her role in the brutal murder of two men in Iceland.

The first thing I wondered about when I picked up this book was why an Australian author would write a story about an old murder on the other side of the world, but the author’s page says she learned of the story while on a Rotary Club Exchange program to Iceland as a teenager. I expect that particular Australian Rotary Club were very pleased they selected Hannah from that year’s batch of applicants for their Exchange Program…

When the story starts, Agnes is a condemned prisoner waiting for the King of Denmark to approve the Icelandic District Commissioner’s findings; that she, along with another man and woman, was guilty of murdering two men and was to be executed for her role in the crimes. Without a suitable place to house Agnes until her death, the District Commissioner decides she is to stay at the home of the District Officer of Kornsa, Jon Jonsson.

Jon’s wife Margret and his daughters Lauga and Steina don’t want a condemned prisoner in their home, but are forced to comply. While Agnes is with them she works as their servant inside their home and on their farm. Reverend Toti, who she has asked to provide her with spiritual guidance, visits regularly. Toti, although young and inexperienced, finds that Agnes does better telling him her story than when he tries to teach her, so along with the Jonsson family, Toti listens as Agnes tells him about her miserable childhood, how she became a servant on the farm of one of the murdered men and of the events which led to the murders.

Burial Rites takes the harshness of life in Iceland at that time for granted and while I was reading I felt grateful to live in a different time and a warmer place. The descriptions of the family and servants all sleeping and living together in an earthen croft were unappealing. The smells must have been horrible and the lack of privacy impossible. While I expected the story to feature the wonder of the Northern Lights I was surprised to find the descriptions of the landscape to be so beautiful.  I was also surprised to learn that Christianity was so dominant in Iceland at the time.

I was left wondering if the real Agnes Magnusdottir was guilty of the murders or not. In real life, Agnes was the last person in Iceland to be executed. I pitied the character Agnes, who was portrayed in Burial Rites as being clever and attractive. Not surprisingly though, the story is sad and does not leave the reader with hope for a better future for any of the characters.

The story is extraordinarily well written, especially so for a debut novel from a 28-year old author. Hannah Kent has followed up on Burial Rites with The Good People, which I expect to read later this year.


Mrs Osmond by John Banville


Despite the Viking (Pengiun) edition of Mrs Osmond by John Banville being one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever seen, with green marbling decorating the inside covers and signed by the author to boot, I would not have borrowed this book from my local library had I realised Mrs Osmond is the story of what happens next to Henry James’ characters from The Portrait of a Lady, which I haven’t read.

I struggled with this book because Mrs Osmond required more of the character’s histories to be told for the story to work as a stand-alone novel. In Henry James’ style, John Banville didn’t leave any conversation or event until it has been fully told, and I very often caught myself wishing the author would hurry up and get on with telling the story…

Mrs Osmond begins with Isabel Archer having been married to Gilbert Osmond long enough to have realised her mistake. Gilbert Osmond has shown himself to be an unpleasant man and Isabel has learned that he married her for her money. Most shockingly of all, he has passed his daughter Pansy off to Isabel and the rest of the world as his late wife’s child, when in fact, the sleekly unpleasant Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

Having learned the shocking facts of Pansy’s parentage, Isabel intends to separate from her husband, but she also wants an ‘accounting’ or a ‘reckoning’ from him and from Madame Merle. Isabel spends most of the book travelling back to Italy on her way to the showdown with her husband, planning how best to extricate herself (and her money) from his clutches.

Possibly fans of The Portrait of a Lady will go mad for Mrs Osmond but this book was wasted on me. To make matters worse, I’ve enjoyed other stories by Henry James but have no intention now of ever reading The Portrait of a Lady. I probably wouldn’t even watch the movie!

I will read more by John Banville but will look for a stand-alone story next time.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


I was so enraptured by the beauty of the language in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson that I picked up Gilead just a few weeks later. In the past I’ve been disappointed when I’ve read an author’s other works in such quick succession (and should know better than to continue doing this), but happily, reading Gilead added to my appreciation of Marilynne Robinson’s work.

Gilead is a small prairie town in Iowa and the hometown of the Reverend John Ames. The story is set in 1956 and is told as a letter from the elderly Reverend Ames to his seven-year old son. Aware that he will not live for much longer, he writes in his letter what he wants his son to learn as he becomes a man. Reverend Ames’ love for his son shows in every word he writes.

You and your mother were making sandwiches with peanut butter and apple butter on raisin bread. I consider such a sandwich a great delicacy, as you are clearly aware, because you made me stay on the porch until everything was ready, the milk poured and so on. Children seem to think every pleasant thing has to be a surprise.

The letter also describes how the Reverend Ames fell in love his son’s mother even though he was old and she was young, and the couple’s life experiences and education were vastly different from each others’. It also tells the story of the Reverend Ames own father and grandfather, both of whom were preachers, one a pacifist and one who “preached men into the Civil War.” The letter also tells the story of the Reverend Ames’ namesake, John Ames Boughton, the troubled adult son of Reverend Ames’s dearest friend, Reverend Boughton.

Reverend Ames’ first wife, Louisa died, along with their baby, in childbirth. Reverend Ames was hurt and offended when one of the Reverend Boughton’s enormous, healthy family was named after him. Reverend Ames and John Ames Boughton have an uneasy relationship from the boy’s childhood and Reverend Ames’ mistrust worsens when John Ames Boughton becomes friends with Reverend Ames’ wife Lila and is kind to their son.

Reverend Ames’ life work was preaching, and he leaves behind him every sermon he ever preached. He is a loved and respected member of his community although he admits he struggles with his temper. This fault is not evident in the letter he writes, rather it is a fault which he owns up to and cautions his son to be aware of in himself.

Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.

Reverend Ames is humanised by stories and pranks from his youth, such as putting a hay wagon on top of the Gilead courthouse roof with his friends one night.

Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform. Now, I may be wrong here. No such distinction appears in Scripture. And repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge. But, in my experience, dishonor is recalcitrant. When I see it, my heart sinks, because I feel I have no help to offer a dishonorable person. I know the deficiency may be my own altogether.

I’m not religious but knew that the name of the town where this story is set, Gilead, has Christian connotations, so investigated and found that one of the meanings of Gilead is ‘hill of testimony.’ The aptness of this carefully chosen name is reflective of this author’s work, every single word is considered, with no other word so meaningful or suitable in its place. The story is told slowly too, and I read Gilead slowly and carefully in order not to miss anything by skimming or racing ahead. I felt worried about various character’s motives and morals during some parts of this book, but was ultimately left with a feeling of hope and the sense that life is indeed a gift, regardless of any religious overtones. Non-religious types reading Gilead should be able to suspend disbelief as they would when reading science-fiction, as this is Reverend Ames’ story, and his own faith is an enormous part of his story.

Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, is followed by Home, which I intend reading soon. The third book in the trilogy is Lila, which I believe is the story of Reverend Ames’ wife.


Wimmera by Mark Brandi


Wimmera is the debut novel of Australian author Mark Brandi, who won the 2016 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award for this novel.

To begin with, for non-Australian readers, the Wimmera is a district in the north-west of Victoria. It is mostly flat, except for the Grampians mountain range, with a handful of remote small towns. Summers in the Wimmera are harsh and these days the towns are dying as they become less viable in their farming communities.

Wimmera is the story of two primary school-aged boys, Ben and Fab, who were friends growing up during the late 1980s in Stawell, one of the larger towns in the Wimmera district.

There is a strong sense of unease around the normality in this town. A girl from Ben’s street suicides by hanging herself on the clothesline in the backyard, and very soon after a creepy bloke who likes Ben a bit too much moves in to her old house. Fab is bullied at school, and although Ben is able to protect him at school, he is unable to help Fab at home when his father belts him and his mother.

I’m not all that familiar with teenage boys, and it is a long time since I was a teenage girl who thought teenage boys were great, but I found the portrayal of Ben’s growing sexuality to be sordid and confused, and the shadow over him left me feeling unhappy and disturbed.

Ben and Fab grow up and go their separate ways, but when a body is found years later their paths cross again. There are two time-lines in this story, the first of the boys as children and the second of Fab as an adult, trapped in Stawell but dreaming of a better life.

The story brought back a lot of memories for me from the 1980s, from watching The Wonder Years on television to the prestige which came from owning certain types of sneakers, although these happier memories didn’t make up for the terrible things that some of the adult characters did to the children. While the violence and cruelty is not explicit, Wimmera is not a story for those who cannot stomach cruelty done to children by evil men.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Mark Brandi’s works in the future, but would prefer him to write a more palatable class of crime.

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