Book reviews

Archive for June, 2014

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin


The main character of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, Larry Ott, is an absolute victim. 

Larry’s character is quickly established as a friendless teenager. Time and time again he turns up at school or to a gathering of his peers like a hopeful puppy and each time he is treated unkindly or humiliated.

Everyone on this planet will have experienced bullying, or at the very least, a time when they were unpopular. A stage when they were picked on and laughed at and sneered at by the people who they wanted to be friends with. Sometimes there might have been a reason, maybe they smelled funny, or wore the wrong clothes, or sometimes there might have been no reason at all. 

The root of Larry’s problem is his father, who is a pig of a man. He belittles and undermines Larry, and his behaviour makes Larry an unconfident child who becomes a victim, constantly attracting bullying treatment.

Larry is not a bad kid, but not suprisingly, he lacks courage. He eventually makes a friend out of Silas, a poor black boy who has recently moved into a shack on Larry’s father’s property with his mother. Larry is white, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is set in a time and place where white and black boys were not friends. Despite his poverty, Silas is clever and brave and popular, everything Larry is not.

Somehow, miraculously, Larry eventually scores a date to take a girl on a date to the drive in. The girl doesn’t make it home after their date and Larry is suspected of her murder. Her body is never found and the murder is never proven.

As an adult, Larry continues to live in his parent’s house, working as a mechanic in his father’s business long after his father has died and his mother has gone to a nursing home. By early middle age, Larry still doesn’t have a friend in the whole of the world. He is shunned by the townspople, tormented by local teenagers and is the first suspect every time a crime is committed in the community. Reading is Larry’s only real pleasure.

Silas left town after the girl’s disappearance. He eventually returns to town as a constable. Silas is still the opposite of Larry, happy and successful in his work, with a loving girlfriend and a community who value him.

When another teenage girl goes missing, Larry is suspected. When Larry is found in a puddle of blood in his own house after being shot, no one knows if he tried to shoot himself or if some one else has tried to murder him.

Most of the present day action in the book takes place while Larry is in a coma following the shooting. Woven through this part of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter are a number of crimes, which Silas, through a combination of luck and good management, solves. I’ll leave you wondering if Silas is able to solve the mysteries of the two missing girls, either in a way that will incriminate or absolve Larry of the crimes, but will reassure you that this book has a clear resolution which ties up all of the loose ends.


The Darcy Connection by Elizabeth Aston

The Darcy Connection

Warning! Warning! Jane Austen is my favourite author. Like many other Jane-ites, I am a sucker for novels written by other authors who take minor characters from Jane Austen’s novels and use them to write their own books, although I draw the line at spin offs with zombies.

The Darcy Connection by Elizabeth Aston is a misleading name for this novel, which takes characters from Pride and Prejudice, as none of the Darcy’s appear as characters in the novel at all, despite playing pivotal roles.

The Darcy Connection is actually all about Eliza Collins, who is the youngest daughter of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice and his wife Charlotte. Eliza’s character is quite like Elizabeth Bennet’s, in that she is lively and clever and far more interesting than her older sister, Charlotte, who is extraordinarily beautiful. (Charlotte Collins must have been adopted, as neither of her parents, according to Jane Austen, were physically attractive. Mr Collins was described as tall and heavy and Charlotte Lucas as sensible and intelligent looking. I’m positive Charlotte would much prefer to have been described as pretty, but Jane Austen did not give her that gift).

The story begins with Eliza’s romance with Anthony Diggory, who is the son of the local squire. Mr Collins is now the Bishop of Ripon, but he is quite poor and Anthony’s father, Sir Roger Diggory, wants a richer wife for his son.  Instead of sticking up for his daughter when Sir Roger accuses her of trying to ensnare his son, Bishop Collins does his best to appease Sir Roger and agrees to send Eliza away somewhere where she can not make “sheep’s eyes” at Anthony.

Charlotte (Eliza’s sister, not mother) has a rich godmother, Lady Grandpoint, who has arranged to take Charlotte to London for a season. Because she is so beautiful, Charlotte is expected to find herself a rich and aristocratic husband. Lady Grandpoint agrees to take Eliza with them also, although she points out that she can not be expected to fund Eliza’s visit. Eliza goes along to London unwillingly as a poor relation to Charlotte.

The story borrows slightly from Cinderella at this point. Lady Grandpoint spends a great deal of money on Charlotte’s clothing and appearance in order to attend society functions, where she very soon begins to win the hearts of eligible suitors.

Eliza, when she does attend parties, is dressed in unsuitable and unfashionable clothing, and is snubbed by a new acquaintance, Mr Bartholomew Bruton, who Eliza overhears calling her a “provincial”  in a manner reminiscent of Mr Darcy calling Elizabeth Bennet “tolerable.” Luckily Eliza’s resourceful maid knows where to buy affordable fabric and creates dresses which show Eliza to her best advantage. Eliza wows Mr Bruton when she appears at a function beautifully dressed, something which would have been far more satisfying than being thought clever.

The story has adventures and scandals, love affairs and even a duel. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep things interesting, even though, let’s be honest, it is at heart a romance novel. There will be a happy ending, even though Caroline Bingley makes an appearance and guess what? She is still mean.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway.

The story of The Reader is told in three parts in the first person by Michael Berg, who is a fifteen year old living in a city in Germany in the late 1950’s during the first section. Hanna Schmitz, the other main character in The Reader, calls the narrator ‘kid.’

The story starts with Michael becoming ill and vomiting in the street. An unknown woman cleans him up and accompanies him home. When Michael recovers from his illness, which turned out to be hepatitis, he returns to thank the woman, Frau Schmitz, at his mother’s request with flowers.

As Michael is about to leave Frau Schmitz’s apartment, she asks him to wait while she changes her clothes to go out. When she catches him watching her dress through the slightly open door, he runs away in shame.

Predictably, fifteen year old Michael can not get the images of Frau Schmitz in her petticoat and garter belt out of his head. He returns to her flat in and he and Hanna, who is a 36 years old tram conductor, start a physical relationship. She guesses his age at seventeen and he doesn’t tell her otherwise.

Hanna dominates their relationship and is often physically and verbally abusive to Michael. He reacts to Hanna’s cruelty by begging her forgiveness, usually for things he hasn’t done. Hanna’s disappointment in Michael telling her he was neglecting his schoolwork to be with her, causes him to try to win her approval by working hard to catch up on what he missed during his illness. Eventually, their relationship evolves into a pattern of bathing together, followed by sexual relations, then Michael reading classic literature aloud to Hanna.

One day, Hanna disappears from her flat. Michael realises she has left the city, but doesn’t know why she left. Six years later he goes to university to study law and as part of his studies, attends the war trial of a group of female SS guards, who were guarding a camp near Auschwitz when the 300 Jewish women occupying the camp burned to death in an accidental fire. Hanna is one of the guards on trial.

During the trial, Michael realises Hanna is illiterate. She accepts sole responsibility for the 300 deaths rather than have anyone realise she cannot read and is sentenced to life imprisonment.

Michaels marries, has a child and divorces. Over the next 20 years, he records himself reading literature aloud and sends the tapes to Hanna. He never responds to the letters she sends to him after she learns to write in prison.

Neither Hanna nor Michael are very sympathetic characters, but regardless of this, it came as a shock to learn during the course of the book that Hanna had been part of the SS. I pitied her, which seems strange when you learn she did, because although she is a victim of her circumstances in the book, there were so many other victims who died as a direct consequence of her actions, or lack of. The other victims are much more deserving of pity than Hanna, but she is the character who the reader has come to know. During her trial, Hanna asks the judge what he would have done in her situation, a question he cannot answer either.

Michael is also a character to feel sorry for, as he spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with his love for someone who has turned out to be a war criminal, and searching for women who remind him in some way of Hanna. Michael is also representative of his generation, in that his parents lived through the war, either blamelessly or not, but he and his peers who were only children are blameless.

The English translation of The Reader is beautifully written and the book must be even more wonderful in German. The Reader feels like an ‘important’ book, one that will be remembered and discussed for years to come.

The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank


The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank will have you wanting the heroine, Leslie Green to summon the courage to leave Wesley, her controlling, bullying husband of years and years and get on with her own life from almost the very first page.

Les and Wes? Really? I knew a father and son once whose names were Eric and Derek, which I thought was a little strange. My father was named for his father (Dad says everyone called them ‘Big Ian’ and ‘Little Ian’). My husband works with a bloke called Junior, whose name is the same as his father’s and his grandfather’s and long ago, I worked for a couple who were Robert and Robyn, or Rob and Rob, but now I’m just getting side tracked. Les and Wes in The Last Original Wife got married because Les was pregnant. They made a life together and brought up two good for nothing children. During their marriage, Les never worked outside of the home. They have a circle of friends and a life together, where Wes goes out to work and Les makes a home for their family.

Things change in their circle of friends when one of the wives dies and the widower promptly marries someone 25 years younger. Soon after, another of their friends dumps his wife and hooks up with a bimbo of his own. (I am not saying that younger women who have relationships with older men are bimbos. In my opinion, and that is all it is, the combination of older men and much younger women is usually an arrangment which both get something out of, either money and prestige, or the envy of peers and a renewed flush of life, however long the arrangement may last. I don’t believe these combinations are generally love matches, for  the man or the woman). However, in the novel, these particular younger women are bimbos. Les calls them ‘Barbies’.

These changes to their circle of friends leave Les socialising with a new group of women her daughter’s age while Wes spends time with his old friends. A series of events makes Les realise she is not all that important to her husband except as a housekeeper. When she accidently realises they are very, very rich, a fact Wes has been hiding from her while keeping her on a very tight budget for all of their married life, Les goes to visit her brother in Charleston without telling Wes where she is going.

While she is in Charleston, Les hooks up with her old high school boyfriend. The big questions are, will Wes change for the better and will Les go back to their marriage, or will she dump him and start again with the old boyfriend?

I liked the setting of The Last Original Wife, (Charleston especially sounds beautiful), but the story had loads of possibility without delivering. I found the characters disappointing and frustrating. Les, the heroine, didn’t engage me. I’m from a generation where women work, in and outside of the home. We have an opinion and we voice it. We have a say in what goes on in our households.

Les turned 60 in the book. A great many women from my mother’s generation didn’t work outside of the home either, but most of them volunteered or had hobbies or contributed more to society than making dinner for their husbands and keeping the house clean. Les didn’t seem to do anything except drink, gossip with an old friend and moan about Wes and their children. (As a non drinker, I might be a bit harsh about the drinking, but the characters in this novel drink constantly). Regardless, Les didn’t have any substance. I found it really hard to understand how her old boyfriend would find her interesting, especially since he was a doctor. (Okay, I can imagine meeting up with an old boyfriend and finding him attractive because of a shared history, but only up to a point. You can only reminisce abut what you did when you were 17 for so long. Eventually you are going to run out of conversation).

I chose this book because I loved the cover art, which shows a beautiful red and white sun hat and a beach. I probably won’t read any more books by Dorothea Benton Frank, although hopefully one day I can visit Charleston for myself.




And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains

I recently read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and couldn’t rest until I found another book by the same author. And the Mountains Echoed is Khaled Hosseini’s third novel.

This story starts with two children, Abdullah and Pari, begging their father to tell them a story. The story he tells them is of a terrible giant called a ‘div’, who once roamed Afghanistan stealing children from their families. One grieving father whose child had been stolen eventually hunted down the div, who, instead of killing the man showed him his child, living a rich and happy life in the most beautiful place imaginable. The div then gave the father a choice, either take his child away and never return, or leave the child with the div where he would grow into a man who would one day be able to touch a great many lives in ways that would benefit them enormously. The father chose to leave his child with the div, and the div rewarded the father with a magic potion which made him forget his child and his grief.

I don’t know if Khaled Hosseini’s stories are typical of storytellers from this part of the world, but his stories certainly don’t shy away from telling of the most enormous griefs imaginable.

Although neither Abdullah or Pari realise it, soon after their father tells them this story, Pari is given to a rich childless couple in Kabul. Pari’s father and his family are so poor that the baby of the family died in the cold the previous winter, and his choice to give Pari away is heart rending. Abdullah’s heart is broken when he leaves his sister, while Pari, who is very young, eventually forgets that she ever had another family than Suleiman and Nila Wahdati.

The story then moves to that of Nabi, who is the Wahdati’s driver. Nabi is in love with Nila Wahdati and it is he who arranged for the Wahdati’s to adopt Pari. Nila is a glamourous poet, who is unable to have children. She and her husband are unhappily married, despite their wealth and the eventual adoption of Pari, who at least provides them with a common interest. When Suleiman has a stroke, Nila and Pari leave Afghanistan to live in Paris. Nabi cares for Suleiman Wahdati for the next fifty years.

Each chapter in And the Mountains Echoed is almost a short story. The chapters moves from character to character, telling of their lives and loves in an enormous circle, travelling all around the world. There is a heroic nurse who cares for children with horrific injuries, families who have left Afghanistan during the war but who return to Afghanistan to try and reclaim their property, war lords and many more characters and stories, all interwoven with each other, before the story eventually returns to Abdullah and Pari. 

 There are plenty of joys in the stories too, with dear friendships and love and enormous sacrifices and kindnesses. Each pair of characters (who are very often siblings), sometimes disappoint the reader enormously, but they are also capable of and very often do behave in ways that are inspiring and wonderful. Even though I had enjoyed A Thousand Splendid Suns I had no idea this book would be so wonderful. Now I’m on the lookout for The Kite Runner.

Without a Backward Glance by Kate Veitch


Without A Backward Glance is the first novel by Australian author Kate Veitch.

The introduction tells the story of the McDonald family, Mum, Dad and their four children who live in suburban Australia in the 1960’s. On Christmas Eve, 1967, while Dad was out watering the garden, Mum tells the children she is going out to get lights for the Christmas tree and never comes back.

The story shifts to the present, and Dad (Alex) is in the early stages of dementia. The children, Deborah, James, Robert and Meredith are all grown up, with careers and families of their own. They each have their joys and their demons.

It turns out that Mum (Rose) fell pregnant at the age of 17 to the much older Alex and leaving behind her family,  moved to Australia from England. Rose was desperately homesick for London, which was portayed as the most exciting place in the world during the 1960’s. Rose also wanted to make the most of her talent for fashion, but was put in her place by her and Alex’s conservative friends, who told her that her plan to label the clothing she was making for friends and neighbours would be seen as “big-noting” herself.

As the mother of a grown up child, I can hardly remember feeling like Rose, wanting to escape parenthood in order to feel young and free and have fun, but just because I can hardly remember that feeling doesn’t mean I didn’t feel it. I expect most parents feel exactly the same sometimes and the ones who don’t admit to wanting to be footloose and fancy free again occasionally are probably lying. However, my point is, the endless minutes of parenthood turn into hours, and then days and months and eventually years, and one day you turn around to find that your baby is older than you were when she was born and somehow you have forgotten most of the terrible things and are left with all of these funny, happy memories. (Like the time when Honey-bunny played her first game of netball and six little girls and one boy in the Shiners Netball Team all jumped up and down with their hands waving in the air for someone to throw them the ball, or the time when she asked me ‘why’ 6533 times on a two hour bus trip, and let’s not forget the time she said a very rude word at the age of 18 months after dropping her dinner plate face down on the floor).

Ok, back to the novel. When Rose left Australia and her husband and children behind, she got the instant gratification of being able to do what she liked when she liked, but she missed out on so much. It is a credit to Kate Veitch that she was able to make Rose’s character likeable, because a mother leaving her children is somehow worse than a father leaving his children. This perception is unfair, but that the perception exists is still true.

All of the characters in Without a Backward Glance are likeable. Alex is a gentleman, and will probably remind most readers who grew up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s of their own elderly father or grandfather. Deborah is bossy and driven (typical eldest daughter, and I should know). She is married to Angus, who the reader will have enormous sympathy for and is the mother of the most self-possessed child in a novel ever.

James was and is the golden child of the family. He is an artist who is married to the frumpy, charismatic Silver. Again, every family has a child who can do no wrong, one who is clever and good looking, who can get around parents when they say “No”, charm grumpy neighbours and who has boyfriends or girlfriends at their fingertips.

Robert is anxious and correct, happily married to a loving wife and with lovely children. Robert’s anxiety is at the obsessive stage.

Meredith is an alcoholic who still plays the role of the baby of the family in order to avoid responsibility.

When James visits London, by chance a friend realises that she knows his mother and puts them in touch with each other. At this point, the whole family’s lives start to change, although not all of the changes are to do with Rose, as James keeps their meeting and  growing relationship a secret from his brother and sisters for over a year. James, Deborah’s, Robert’s and Meridith’s characters have been shaped by having their mother leave, without a backward glance as per the title of the novel, and all of them change as the book evolves.

For me, Without A Backward Glance has the familiarity of Australia both now and as I was growing up in the 1970’s. I am also one of four children, so found it was interesting to read about the family dynamics in another family of four. The characters, plot and writing are good too. A novel which makes you think about morals and values is always a good thing too.


Sleep Walkers by Tom Grieves


Sleep Walkers by Tom Grieves is a really clever story.

The hero of Sleep Walkers, Ben, is a kind, fantastic husband and father and an all-round good guy. However, Ben has nightmares, and in his nightmares, he isn’t a good bloke at all. The terrible things Ben does in his dreams prey on him long after he wakes up.

Then there is Toby, a gorgeous 15 year old boy who, like Ben, is truly lovely, but he is bullied mercilessly by kids at school. Like Ben, Toby has terrible nightmares.

The other main character is Anna, Toby’s English teacher. Anna notices Toby being picked on, and realising he is constantly covered in bruises and scars, suspects Toby’s parents of abusing him. When Anna starts investigating Toby’s home life, she discovers mysteries that can’t be explained.

I’ve been sitting at my computer trying to think of how to write about this story and I can’t. Sleep Walkers is unlike anything I’ve read before, and I don’t want to give away the plot.

What I can say is that Ben, Toby and Anna have a lot of adventures separately, as individuals who are unknown to each other in the beginning of the book and after they team up to try and solve the mystery of their lives. Some of the characters even get to live happily ever after.

I highly recommend reading Sleep Walkers if you like mystery thrillers.

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