Book reviews

I found reading Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris to be a strange experience while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This story is about a group of employees who work together in a large office but for the past six months I’ve been working from home, carrying out my work via emails, phone calls and on-line meetings. I’ve had very few site visits and when I have, I’ve needed a permit to travel, but due to the nature of the industry I work in my working life has been busier than before the pandemic.

The majority of Then We Came to the End is narrated by an unnamed worker in an advertising agency, whose business is located in a large building in a city. He or she tells the story from the point of view of the workers in the plural, saying “Our information had come from reliable sources” or “We returned to our computer screens” after gathering informally in an office or hallway to gossip about whoever wasn’t presently with the group.

Some of the characters were named and their personal affairs discussed, such as Larry and Amber who were having an affair even though he was married, or about Benny’s strange legacy from another colleague who had recently died. Marcia’s new haircut was noticed and commented on favourably, while nobody knew what to do about Carl’s worsening depression. Everyone thought Tom was mentally deranged and after he was laid off, worried that he might return to the office with a gun to shoot them all.

The business was losing money and one by one many of the workers were let go. Lynn was a partner in the business and the rest of the workers, except for Joe Pope, her second-in-command, were alternately in awe of her, terrified by her or devoted to her. Much of the office gossip revolved around whether or not Lynn had breast cancer, particularly after they were given an assignment with the topic, What is Funny About Breast Cancer. The characters couldn’t think of anything, either.

A section in the middle of the book moved away from the ‘we’ narrator to directly follow Lynn. In this section it became clear that although Lynn cared for her staff and knew them as intimately as they knew each other, she also hated their group mentality and relentless gossiping.

I struggled a little with Then We Came to the End because it hit every single point about what is good and bad about working in a corporate office. The story is clever and witty but despite having been absent from my office for six months, I still connected too much with the petty irritations the characters experienced, to the point where I felt as if their workplace dramas were intruding too far into my personal life.

A joke I recently heard is that this is the year that instead of working from home, we’re living at work. Those of us lucky enough to still have jobs, that is.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is a collection of short stories written by female writers. All of the stories are psychological thrillers written between 1940 and 1970.

The collection began with The Heroine by Patrica Highsmith. This was the story of a young woman who took a job as a nanny for a family with two young children. It wasn’t long before the young woman became overly devoted to the children and wanted to demonstrate her worth to the family.

A Nice Place to Stay by Nedra Tyre told the story of a poor woman who lived on charity, earning small amounts by caring for the elderly and unloved. It wasn’t lost on me that this is a role which is not much better valued today. When the woman was sent to jail for a crime which she had not committed the silver lining was that she had at last found a safe haven.

I’ve been wanting something by Shirley Jackson for some time and was happy that this collection contained Louisa, Please Come Home. The main character, Louisa was a runaway who made a life for herself away from her family.

The next story, Sugar and Spice was by Vera Caspary. I had previously read Laura by this author and enjoyed it very much, so had high hopes of the short story, which did not disappoint. Sugar and Spice is the story of two female cousins, one of whom was beautiful and poor and the other rich and plain. When the husband of one was murdered and both women were suspected, a man living on the other side of the country who had known both women since they were teenagers instantly knew which of the women was the murderer.

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree by Helen Neilsen is about a woman who had an affair with a married man then went on to marry him. I can see two things the heroine should not have done in that first sentence. The ending was so ambiguous that I can’t imagine what the heroine did next.

Everybody Needs a Mink by Dorothy B. Hughes told of a woman out shopping who had a stranger in a department store inexplicably purchase an extraordinarily expensive mink coat for her. Surprisingly, the woman’s husband didn’t ask many questions, although both were mystified by the unknown man’s behaviour.

The next story, The Purple Shroud, was by Joyce Harrington. A weaver and her artist husband spent every summer at an art colony, where her husband taught an art class and had an affair with a different student every year. Finally having had enough of her husband’s infidelity, the woman wove a shroud for her him.

I had previously read the novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding so was eager to read the short story, The Stranger in the Car. This was the longest story in the collection and it also turned out to be my favourite. This story followed a husband and father who did his best to protect the women in his family after his daughter was exposed to blackmail. The man also tried to prevent his ill wife from learning what has happened only to learn that he was the one being protected by his wife and daughter.

The Splintered Monday by Charlotte Armstrong was another story I particularly liked. An elderly woman who had been staying with her nephew after the death of her invalid sister suspected she didn’t know exactly what had been going on in the household so she poked around and asked questions until she did.

Lost Generation by Dorothy Salisbury Davis was the only story in the collection that is entirely about men. It is a horrible story about the actions and values of a group of men in a small town who believe they act for the good of their town.

The People Across the Canyon by Margaret Millar contains a warning for readers to spend time with their children instead of watching television and ignoring them. If the story were written in this day and age I expect the plot would have revolved around excessive use of social media.

Mortmain by Miriam Allen Deford was about a nurse caring for an elderly dying man. Elderly people can be quite vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t know what is going on around them.

The final story, A Case of Maximum Need by Celia Fremlin featured an elderly woman who lived alone but refused to have a telephone because she said it would be too dangerous. Ha! I enjoyed the twist in the tail of this story very much, as would anyone who has ever been subjected to sexual harassment in any form.

I didn’t think there were any weak links in the collection.

I started Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas for two reasons, first, Aunty G told me she adored the book and second, it was short. Don’t judge me, my work has been horrendously busy and my concentrations levels are low.

So low that I read the first page in bed then fell asleep. The next morning I woke up ridiculously early and picked up the book again, only realising on my second read of the first page that the story was a play that had been written for radio. It was then that I had the brilliant idea of searching for a recording of the play and found, drumroll please, Richard Burton and a Welsh cast performing the play. So I laid back down in bed and read along with the recording.

Best. Idea. Yet.

To begin at the beginning.

Under Milk Wood is the story of a day in the life of various people who live in the Welsh fishing village of Llareggub (the name is a joke which you too can enjoy if you read it backwards) beginning with their dreams as they lay asleep.

Eventually the people of Llareggub wake and the day passes as they gossip and daydream, tease each other and argue, laugh and love and hate. Polly Garter cleans floors and dreams of her dead lover, Mr Pugh reads a book about famous murderers while his unpleasant wife berates him for breathing and no matter what else happens around him Organ Morgan has nothing in his head but Bach’s music.

Captain Cat, a retired blind sea-captain hears the voices of his drowned shipmates.

“Hold me, Captain, I’m Jonah Jarvis, come to a bad end, very enjoyable…”

The village children chant.

Girl’s voices: Boys boys boys

Kiss Gwennie where she says

or give her a penny

Go on, Gwennie.

I loved listening to this recording. The rolling, alliterative words were an absolute joy to listen to. Reading Under Milk Wood alone, at least for the first time, would not have done any justice at all to the poetic language. The story is so funny that I laughed aloud several times, but I also felt the sadness and passions of these characters.

By the end of the play I felt as if I had taken part in something bigger than me.

The Windfall by Diksha Basu

The Windfall by Diksha Basu revolves around the Jhas, a middle-aged Indian couple who had recently became rich after Mr Jha sold a website that he had spent years developing.

The Jhas left all of their friends and neighbours when they moved out of their apartment in a poor area of East Delhi into a luxurious mansion in an expensive part of the city. Mr Jha was keen to impress his new neighbours and amongst other things, bought a Mercedes Benz, a shoe-polishing machine and a new crystal-studded couch. In contrast Mrs Jha, who worked in social welfare, believed they were making the wrong decision by moving away from their past.

The Jha’s son Rupak was living in America where he was studying finance. Unknown to his parents Rupak was failing his courses, mostly because he was a procrastinator who was more interested in his blonde, American girlfriend than in studying.

Mr Jha constantly made himself ridiculous as he tried to guess what his new neighbours valued, both materially and in character.

I enjoyed the romance between Mrs Ray, a widow from the Jha’s old apartment block and the brother of one of the Jha’s new neighbours, and I liked watching Mr Jha make a fool of himself by copying his mega-rich neighbours who prided themselves on their children being useless because the parents could afford to support them. I enjoyed the glimpse of life for middle-class Indians, but on the whole found this story too light to be memorable.

I understand a windfall to be good fortune (literally, fruit which is blown in from a neighbouring property which then becomes yours), so didn’t think the book title was very accurate as Mr Jha had worked long and hard for his success.

Regardless, The Windfall was a fun read.

The Singles Game by Lauren Weisberger is an enjoyable retelling of this author’s most well-known story, The Devil Wears Prada, only in this version the heroine’s world is tennis rather than fashion.

The story follows Charlie Silver, an American tennis player who was playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon for the first time when she slipped and suffered what could have been a career-ending injury. Six months later, Charlie had recovered and desperate to prove herself, engaged a notoriously difficult coach to take her to the very top.

Charlie was naturally a sweetheart but under her new coach’s regime she was styled as a Warrior Princess. She dieted, exercised harder, engaged a hitting partner and trained harder than she ever had before. Her image was also made over and when the media realised Charlie was dating Marco Vallejo, the hottest and most successful tennis player on the men’s circuit, her sponsorship earnings went ballistic. However, Charlie was torn between wanting to be nice and wanting to win.

Behind the scenes, not everything was as it seemed. Charlie and Marco only hooked up when their schedules aligned, which was rare. Charlie was in danger of losing her connection with her father, she was too busy to attend her best friend’s wedding and she was learning that there were very few true friendships amongst the players on the circuit. Worst of all, Charlie was finding it easier and easier to sell out her own values in order to win.

The Singles Game is enormously glamorous. Charlie travelled all over the world, hung out with all of the top tennis players, wore fabulous clothes and earned enormous amounts of money.

Things eventually went catastrophically wrong for Charlie when she found herself partying too hard.

My timing of reading The Singles Game was good considering that the US Open 2020 had just begun when I read this. Although I love tennis, I think Ash Barty’s decision not to compete so she or her team didn’t risk exposure to COVID-19 was the right decision.

I imagine most tennis fans will enjoy the froth and glamour of The Singles Game.

When I started reading Tracks: One woman’s journey across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback by Australian author Robyn Boyd, I wondered if by the end of the book I would feel inspired to take a momentous journey of my own. As it turned out, I wasn’t at all inspired. I’m staying home. And not just because of COVID-19 (as I write this Melbourne is in Stage Four lock down and I am limited to one hour of daily exercise within five kilometres of my home). I wasn’t very far into this book when I realised that walking half way across Australia through the heat and desert with a herd of troublesome camels was something I would much prefer to read about than do.

Tracks is the true story of the author’s arrival in Alice Springs in central Australia during the 1970s with the intention of making an extraordinary trip through the desert to the Western Australian coast. When she arrived in Alice Springs Robyn Boyd had six dollars in her pocket and no idea of what to expect. At the time Alice Springs (and possibly much of Australia) was a far more difficult place to be a woman travelling alone than it is now.

Robyn became an apprentice to a man who ran a camel business where she worked for food and board while learning to manage camels. The camel-ranch owner, a volatile German, agreed to sell her a camel after she had worked for him for a certain amount of time.

Robyn also worked at a pub in town where the patrons were rough. Her descriptions of the men that she served were that they were without charm, “biased, bigoted, boring, and above all, brutal.” Her experience at the pub were often frightening and the racism that she saw towards Aboriginal people was vicious. This attitude was echoed by the people of Alice Springs and the tourists towards the Aboriginal people in the area (and as Robyn pointed out long before this was a popular or even an agreed upon opinion, this was in those Aboriginal people’s own home long before anyone else came to Australia).

After a particularly nasty and frightening attack at the pub, Robyn left town to live permanently at the camel ranch, although life there wasn’t much better than in town. Although she was successfully learning to manage camels she was unable to get along with the ranch owner. Eventually Robyn left the ranch without the camel she had been promised and went to work for another camel man.

Two years after arriving in Alice Springs Robyn had her own herd of camels, a bull camel called Dookie, another bull called Bub, a female called Zelly and Zelly’s calf, Goliath. Despite owning the camels, Robyn was still too poor to set off on her journey until a photographer friend, Rick Smolan, helped her to gain sponsorship from National Geographic magazine.

Robyn was conflicted about taking the money from National Geographic and frequently complained throughout the remainder of the book that she felt as if she had sold herself and her trip out. However, as someone who appreciated and enjoyed reading about her trip, I’m grateful she made the deal and wish she had left the whinging out of her book.

Robyn had arranged to meet Rick at intervals along her trip for him to take photos of her, the camels and her dog Diggety for the story. Robyn’s emotions towards Rick were connected with her feelings about selling out and she frequently expressed how resentful she felt towards him, although eventually she managed to move past this.

The story of the trip itself is fascinating. Robyn walked to various waterholes and stations along the way, sometimes by road and sometimes across country (although the roads were unsealed and were often no more than a track, leading the camels as she went. These tracks sometimes turned out to be dead ends, causing Robyn to have to backtrack to a previous point to set out again).

Robyn describes practicalities of the trip, such as setting out with an enormous amount of gear but finishing with only the bare essentials, and how long it took her to load the camels, or to find them when they disappeared during the night.

The trip itself was quite dangerous, which Robyn downplays. The camels frequently disappearing overnight despite being hobbled was just one example. Robyn chose to walk rather that ride a camel as a fall in such isolated surroundings would have been disastrous. The sweltering heat, the possibility of a waterhole being dry, of being injured by one of the camels or by a feral camel were all very real dangers.

The section of the story with the happiest tone was when Robyn was accompanied by Eddie, an elderly Aboriginal man who walked part of the trip with her and guided her to waterholes along the way. Generally, Robyn was irritated and angry with the people in her life and with those she met along her journey, particularly those who wanted to take her photo, but she seemed genuinely friendly with and empathetic towards the Aboriginal people she met along the way.

Robyn discusses racism and sexism quite candidly throughout this story and both subjects are difficult to read about. The racism is probably more difficult to read about because less has changed since Tracks was written. Some readers might also find the treatment of the camels distressing because although Robyn and the other camel owners in this book obviously loved their animals, they also beat them. Apparently the only way to get a camel to do something it doesn’t want to do is to beat it.

I’m keen to find a copy of the May 1978 edition of National Geographic to see the photos and story of Robyn’s journey as they were originally told.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is the third book I’ve read by this author. I didn’t like the story or characters as much as Great Expectations, but I enjoyed it better than Hard Times.

The Old Curiosity Shop is a long story but I found it to be a comfortable read because the chapters are short and full of action. My edition also contained so many illustrations by George Cattermole and Phiz that I got through this book much faster than I originally expected to.

The Old Curiosity Shop follows various groups of characters who revolve around Little Nell, an angelically beautiful child who lives with her elderly grandfather in his curiosity shop in London. Nell’s grandfather is a gambling addict who is convinced he will win Nell a fortune, but instead he loses their home to the worst of the bad characters in this book, a vicious and greedy dwarf named Quilp. After becoming homeless Nell and her grandfather leave London on foot to escape Quilp and several other characters who are convinced that Nell’s grandfather still has more money secreted away.

Nell and her grandfathers fell in with various characters as they journeyed around the countryside including a pair of puppeteers who make their living from Punch and Judy shows, a kindly old woman who owned a travelling waxworks show and a kindly schoolmaster. They would have stayed longer with some of the people they met, however Nell’s grandfather’s gambling caused Nell to force their departure, while with another group, their whereabouts were revealed to Quilp and they hurriedly left before he could find them.

Eventually Nell and her grandfather found a safe haven, although by this time Nell’s health had been ruined trying to protect her grandfather and keep him safe. During my research I learned that this story was originally told in installments and in New York, crowds surged the wharves in 1841 to learn if Little Nell had lived or died.

The other characters are a mixture of the best and worst of human nature. Kit, a serving boy who had worked for Nell’s grandfather in London, was amongst the best of characters. He was kind and honourable, a loving, generous son to his widowed mother and a good friend to Nell and her grandfather. The nastier characters included Quilp’s fawning solicitor, Sampson Brass and his sister, Sally, who falsely accused Kit of stealing so Quilp could have his revenge on the boy. Kit was almost transported to Australia for a crime he did not commit, but luckily, other characters were able to expose the truth before this happened.

Although Nell was the central character, her actual character was probably the least interesting or realistic in the whole book. She was portrayed as beautiful, sweet-tempered and selfless but there was no depth to her character. To me she seemed to be a symbol or a flag that the other characters fought for.

I’ve enjoyed the fantastically descriptive names Charles Dickens has given his characters in each of his books which I’ve read. My favourite character (and name) in The Old Curiosity Shop was Richard Swiveller. His name and character matched in that he was sometimes good and sometimes bad although never wicked, good-humoured, rather lazy and looking for an easy fortune rather than one he had to work for. Swiveller generally meant well and behaved well so long as doing so didn’t inconvenience him, although eventually he acted as the hero to help Kit out of his predicament.

The copy I read was second-hand and I wasn’t very far into the book when I saw that the previous reader had underlined certain sections and written notes in the pages. I was horribly disappointed by not being able to read their writing! For example, the section saying that Swiveller was a member of the Lodge of Glorious Apollos was underlined with a comment that I couldn’t read. Why? Was it something to do with the fact that Swiveller would eventually become Kit’s saviour? Was the previous reader studying the book and if so, what were they looking for? I wish I knew.

There is plenty of humour in this story, but I didn’t find myself laughing aloud the way I did when I read Great Expectations.

I suppose a Dickens’ story wouldn’t be one without drama and moral lessons, in this case gambling, which is still a massive problem for society. I appreciated that The Old Curiosity Shop showed that gambling also affects the gambler’s families.

The Old Curiosity Shop was book twenty two in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Bruny by Heather Rose

Bruny is a cracking read by Australian author Heather Rose. I wasn’t very far into this political thriller before I felt as if I couldn’t put the book down. Being kept exceptionally busy by my work when I wanted to read it was a torment.

The story is set in the near-future on Bruny Island off the coast of Hobart in Tasmania. When a six-lane bridge that the Tasmanian government was building from the mainland to Bruny Island with Chinese funding was bombed by an unknown perpetrator, the Tasmanian Premier, JC Coleman asked his twin sister Astrid, a mediator for the UN, to come home from New York to negotiate a truce between the various factions who were either for or against the bridge. To further complicate the Coleman family’s dynamics, Astrid and JC’s half-sister Maxine was the leader of the Opposition party.

Astrid’s first question was to learn why JC’s government were building a bridge to Bruny Island at all. Although the island’s population swelled during holiday times, the island only had around 600 permanent residents and was already well served by a ferry. Astrid met with various groups on and off the island, from birdwatchers to Friends of Bruny, business owners, as well as sea-changers and climate-changers who had more recently moved to the island from the Australian mainland. She also met with politicians from all sides of state and federal politics and with the bridge builders. Everyone had a different opinion about the bridge and the future of the island.

After the bridge was bombed JC brought in a contingent of Chinese workers to work on it with the aim of having the bridge completed in time for the next State Election, despite the use of Chinese labour being unpopular with his voters. Astrid was convinced by this time that there was a much bigger picture that she was missing although she continued to work to keep all parties calm while carrying out her investigations.

The use of Chinese capital to build this fictitious bridge was topical with so much current scrutiny on Australian states partnering with China in belt and road initiatives.

I liked the family dynamics in the story. Despite being on opposite sides of politics the Coleman family were generally loving and were genuinely trying to do their best for Tasmania in their political roles. The sibling’s father, who had also been a successful Tasmanian politician until his retirement, had recently had a stroke when the story began and was only able to communicate using Shakespearean quotes, while their mother, a deeply unpleasant woman, was undergoing cancer treatment. There were also a younger generation of the family who were uninvolved in the political side of the plot although they added to the personal story.

Astrid was a terrific lead character. She was middle aged with grown-up children, divorced, extremely successful in her career and very, very clever. There was a hint of romance for her with one of the more down-to-earth characters which I liked too. This was a very full story with political intrigue, family drama, conspiracies and huge problems for Tasmania, Australia and the rest of the world, with climate change driving everything. When I finally got to the plot’s reveal, I was genuinely shocked.

Bruny has a very strong sense of place. The story made it clear that Tasmanians see themselves as Tasmanians first and Australians second. The story also raised questions about how Australians from the mainland see Tasmania.

I enjoyed Bruny enormously and am very keen to read further novels by this author.

My purchase of Bruny by Heather Rose goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (August).

Rescue by Anita Shreve

Rescue is the first novel I have read by Anita Shreve. I enjoyed this story well-enough while I was reading it but didn’t find it to be particularly memorable.

The story follows the life of Peter Webster who was a rookie paramedic when he rescued a young woman from a car wreck. The woman, Sheila, had been drink-driving when her vehicle hit a tree. Peter visited Sheila in hospital the next day and fell instantly in love with her. I’m not going to comment on Peter falling in love with his patient or on the fact that she was a drink-driver other than to say that in his defense, he was only 21-years old at the time.

Sheila, who had been running away from an abusive boyfriend, stayed in town after her recovery and got a job. She and Peter started an affair which almost immediately resulted in Sheila falling pregnant, much to the dismay of Peter’s parents. She and Peter got married and moved in to a small apartment with the support of his parents who decided to dwell on the positives – they were going to be grandparents.

Sheila’s background had been tough and she was an alcoholic. After her and Peter’s daughter Rowan was born, Sheila’s drinking became more problematic and often endangered Rowan. When Rowan was a toddler Sheila had another drunken car crash and rather than see Sheila go to jail, Peter paid her to leave town.

The present day story picked up with Peter as a single parent to Rowan, who was by now seventeen years old and experimenting with alcohol. Sheila hadn’t been seen or heard of since Peter had sent her packing until a series of difficult events caused their lives to cross paths again.

I believe The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve was very highly regarded, so I might read that in future.

I recently read and enjoyed The Young Clementina by D.E Stevenson so was very happy to read Vittoria Cottage by the same author.

Vittoria Cottage is a romance set in England after World War Two which follows the life of Caroline Dering, a widow with three children. The Dering family lived in Ashbridge, a rural town where the locals knew each other’s family histories, their place in life and their business.

The story began with Caroline meeting and having a conversation with a stranger at a local beauty spot. Mr Shepperton was staying locally and as time went on he and Caroline developed a friendship. His reasons for being in Ashbridge were mysterious but eventually he told her he had only learned when he returned from the war that his wife had been killed in a bombing raid that had also destroyed their home. Adrift, he came to stay in Ashbridge after a fleeting conversation with a young woman in London who recommended the district to him.

Early in the story Caroline’s selfish and entitled elder daughter Leda became engaged to the local squire’s son, Derek, against Caroline’s wishes. Derek, who was lazy and stupid, wanted his father to let him marry Leda, drop out of law school and go into business. Leda’s aghast reaction when Derek told her he had an opportunity to work in a toothpaste business owned by a friend’s father was very funny to me, although her snootiness about the business was probably a normal reaction for the times.

Leda’s selfishness almost derailed Caroline’s stay in London to see the first night of a play Caroline’s sister Harriet was starring in. When the play failed Harriet returned to Ashbridge with Caroline. Harriet and Mr Shepperton became friends too and Caroline believed they would marry. Caroline acknowledged to herself that she also loved Mr Shepperton but she had such a generous, unselfish nature that she genuinely hoped her sister and Mr Shepperton would be happy together.

Towards the end of the book Caroline’s dearly loved son James came home from Malaya. James was like his mother in his nature and I believe there are several more book in this series which feature his character.

Like The Young Clementina, I found some of the slang and ideas in Vittoria Cottage to be dated. Several of the characters made the type of racist comments which must have been commonplace when the book was written. I found it interesting to read about the difficulties of feeding a family in England after World War Two from a housewife’s point of view, with parcels of food from relations in America and rabbits and pheasants from the squire supplementing the Dering family’s meagre rations.

I enjoyed the humour in this book. Some of it centred on the Podbury family who were so numerous they overran Ashbridge. I liked that every time Caroline, who was usually almost saint-like, met a certain woman she disliked, she behaved badly. Harriet also made me laugh when she advised a character who was complaining about getting fat to stick to her rations to avoid weight gain. As someone who has ate her way through several COVID-19 lock downs over the past year, that is still good advice.

I enjoyed the story and characters and the humour in this gently-told romance and will read the other books in this series if I can get them.

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