Book reviews

Archive for October, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

godA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson might just be the best book I’ve read this year. I read Life After Life by this author last year and felt the same way about that book then. So far, Kate Atkinson is shaping up to be my author of the decade.

A God in Ruins uses the same characters as Life After Life, although it is not a sequel. Both books can stand alone, but read together they make an amazing whole.

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, who lives her life over and over and over through the first half of the twentieth century, with variations in how things turn out each time. Ursula’s brother Teddy, who was a fighter pilot during World War Two, appears in Life After Life, but A God in Ruins is his story. Ursula is a dearly loved minor character in A God in Ruins.

The chapters in this book flit back and forwards in time, telling the story of Teddy’s war, time spent with his grandchildren, episodes from his childhood, moments from his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, his precious pre-wedding romances and, unhappily, of his relationship with his and Nancy’s difficult daughter, Viola. The story is told through the eyes of most of the characters at some point or other, but it is always Teddy’s story.

Viola, Teddy’s daughter, is a horrible mother to her children, the ridiculously named ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’, who luckily, are known as Bertie and Sunny. Viola takes no responsibility for her mistakes of which there are many, and blames Teddy for all of the wrongs of her world. This turns the reader against Viola, as Teddy is always otherwise portrayed as a good man, a good husband and father and a brave war hero.

The chapters which tell of Teddy’s war as a bomber pilot defines his character, showing him to be a strong, brave leader of his crew. The last few chapters which tell of Teddy and his crew being shot down, built up and up to the point where the tension almost became unbearable for me.

I felt as if the author gently educated me about the war, particularly humanising the men of the RAF. Superficially, I know the young men who died in the war were people with real lives and loves and fears but, before reading A God in Ruins, to me they were just the 55 or 60 million. In A God in Ruins, these men became real, as Keith and Mac and Charlie and other characters, with pregnant wives and mothers and fathers and mates. Most of the men were superstitious, carrying lucky charms, or protecting themselves with mascots or rituals, whatever crazy thing they could use to ensure their lives continued. The men loved their planes and their fellow crew members.

The details of the RAF’s flights in this book are incredible. Beautiful words describe bombing enemy cities, and of then further destroying the cities with fire. Bombing people, women and children. The horror is terrible, but these parts of the book also have a slightly detached feel, almost as if the story was being told with a stiff upper lip.

The words and timing of this novel are perfect. There are a great many layers to this story, with secrets to be discovered. After finishing A God in Ruins, I couldn’t read anything else for quite a while, as I wasn’t ready to let go of the story. I wanted to think more about the characters, the possibilities of their lives, the reasons for their characters and morals and also about the title. “A God in Ruins’ comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tells us that men are gods in ruins. Godliness is hidden somewhere in men where they will never think to look, although they will spend their lives searching.

As a character, Teddy is one of my favourites of all time. He strives to be kind and to live a good life, and if we all did that, the world would be a better place.

My last point may seem trivial, but in this story, Teddy eats a dessert called ‘Far Breton’ while in France. On several occasions, he reminisces about Far Bretons, comparing this custard dessert favourably to a British ‘Plum Duff.’ Obviously I went straight to Google to see what a Far Breton might be, then wrote down the recipe. I wish I’d made a Far Breton to eat while I was reading the book, just to add another level of enjoyment to the story.

From the way A God in Ruins finishes, and due to the precedent set by Life After Life, I have hope that Kate Atkinson might take another character from the Todd family or community and write their story too.



The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey


I know Peter Carey is a ‘good’ writer, because he has won the Booker Prize twice and the Miles Franklin Award three times. A few years ago I tried to read Oscar and Lucinda, but I kept falling asleep. I couldn’t even watch the movie. However, knowing that his writing deserved a bigger effort from me, I tried his writing again with The Chemistry of Tears.

To sum up, the story is told by Catherine Gehrig, a horologist who works at the Swinbourne Museum in London. (Google kindly informed me that a horologist is someone who works with clocks and watches and other things used to measure time). The story begins with Catherine learning that her married lover, who also worked with her at the Swinbourne, has unexpectedly died.

Catherine’s boss recognises Catherine’s need to grieve privately and also her need for distraction, so gives her a project to complete in privacy. The project is to piece together a automated bird from the nineteenth century, which was commissioned by Henry Brandling for his dying son. Henry’s journals accompany the parts of the bird and Catherine reads his story.

I didn’t like this story. I didn’t like Catherine or Henry or any of the other characters, who were all mad, mostly from grief. Henry seemed sane at the beginning of his journal but by the end he was journaling about all sorts of things which he seemed to believe, which I couldn’t. The Chemistry of Tears is probably full of morals or allegories or something like that which I didn’t understand, because they were too much of an effort for me to think about.

Also, I find automatons creepy. The automated duck in this book supposedly defecates. I can’t imagine why anybody would want to build one.

Still, I might try The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey sometime, which is the story of an actual Australian bushranger who robbed people, killed people, was captured in a shootout and eventually hung at the old Melbourne Gaol, becoming a legend in the process.

Peter Carey is a legend too, but I’m starting to think his writing style is not to my taste.


Love Anthony by Lisa Genova


I blubbered for a while after finishing reading Love Anthony by Lisa Genova. All through the last chapter I had gulping, hiccupping sobs and big, hot, wet tears rolling down my cheeks. I was lucky enough to be home alone at the time so had a very enjoyable cry.

Love Anthony is two women’s stories, which initially are quite loosely entwined. Both women live on Nantucket Island off Massachusetts, (as already mentioned in my review of an Elin Hilderbrand novel, I love reading stories set on this island, and I intend to visit one day). Both main characters also have enormous changes to deal with in their lives.

Beth is a mother of three, who thought she was happily married until she received a card in the mail telling her that her husband was having an affair. Beth’s husband Jimmy moved out of the family home when she confronted him about his affair and in my opinion, Beth was better off without him. However, what I think was best for Beth would have meant the end of her story in the first chapter, so Beth continued on, mostly finding herself.

The other main character in this book, Olivia, came to Nantucket to grieve the death of her son, and the recent end of her marriage. Olivia’s grief is further complicated by her struggle to understand her son Anthony’s purpose in life, as Anthony was autistic. Olivia’s struggles to communicate with and to understand her son are heart-rending.

Beth and Olivia begin as ships in the night, passing each other in Nantucket so casually they are unaware of each other’s existence, even though their first encounter eventually changes both of their lives in the most wonderful way. Gradually, they become more aware of each other, as Olivia overhears a conversation Beth has with a friend in a supermarket queue, then Beth employs Olivia to take her annual family photos. Part of Beth’s finding herself involves returning to writing fiction, which she gave up when her and Jimmy’s children were born. When she learns that Olivia is a book editor, Beth asks Olivia for her professional assistance with a story she has recently started writing.

Beth’s book is written from the perspective of a boy with autism. Reading the story is a gift for Olivia, who believes Beth’s story has come directly from Anthony. Gulp. Sob.

Love Anthony has taught me about autism and the struggles of parents of autistic children without the subject being dumbed down, or the more unpleasant details being glossed over. I believe Lisa Genova’s best known book is Still Alice, which also features characters with specific medical conditions. I expect I will be seeking out Still Alice and any other books Lisa Genova has written very soon.

If you’re a softie, read Love Anthony with a big box of tissues close by. If you live on Nantucket, you can buy your tissues at the Stop & Shop, which is where the characters in this book buy their groceries, along with the hordes of tourists who visit the island in summer. Please, please, please, let me be one of them one day.


Sarah Thornhill (Sequel to The Secret River) by Kate Grenville

sarahSarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville is the sequel to The Secret River, which I read earlier this year and enjoyed. I liked the story of Sarah Thornhill too, although at times I did feel as if the author was trying to force some points a little too hard.

The Secret River is the story of an English convict who made a success of his life in Australia after being freed. The Secret River highlighted the mass murders of Aboriginal people by the English colonists, which until recently, was not openly spoken of or acknowledged.

Sarah Thornhill, the character who the book is named for, is the child of the English convict and his wife from The Secret River. As the child of a convict, Sarah is known as a ‘currency lass’, and the story is told in her uneducated dialect, which are often fragmented pieces of sentences. Her voice is truthful though, and without artifice.

Sarah grew up on her father’s property, Thornhill’s Point on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, with her older brothers, a handful of distant neighbours and a few Aboriginal servants. From a very early age Sarah’s heart belonged to Jack, Sarah’s brother Will’s best friend. Jack and Sarah’s relationship was complicated because Jack’s mother was Aboriginal, however he also loved her and they planned a future together. Eventually, for reasons which no one would tell Sarah, Jack abruptly ended their relationship.

Will and Jack had long been travelling to New Zealand to work in the sealing trade, and after Jack broke off the relationship with Sarah, he and Will returned to New Zealand. Tragically, Will drowned in New Zealand, and Jack returned to Australia to tell the Thornhill family of Will’s death. Jack also told the Thornhills that Will had a child in New Zealand from his long term liaison with a Maori woman. Sarah’s father insisted that Jack bring Will’s child to him, to be brought up as a Thornhill and Jack obliged, although against his better judgement.

Will’s child, who is renamed Rachel because the Thornhill’s were unable to pronounce her name, was desperately homesick for her family in New Zealand. She never settled in Australia and after having been desperately unhappy and homesick for several years, died tragically. By this time Sarah had married another man and had a child. Jack returned to Australia after learning of Rachel’s death and insisted that Sarah return with him to New Zealand, to explain to Rachel’s family how and why she died, as a mark of respect and to take responsibility for the wrong which was done to Rachel.

I felt that Jack and Sarah gave up on each other too easily. The reason they parted became known and it was a strong reason for them to part, but after this event, the story felt as if it got lost.

Rachel’s story could have become the focus when the romance between Sarah and Jack ended, but unfortunately Rachel seemed only to exist in order for the author to make a point about the difference between the experience of the Aboriginals and the Maoris. The respect shown to Maoris in New Zealand and to Aboriginals in Australia at a time when both countries were being colonised by the English was in stark contrast.

I believe there is a third book by Kate Grenville called The Lieutenant, which concludes this story. I expect I will read it at some time.






Doctor Sally by P.G. Wodehouse


This is the first time I’ve read Doctor Sally by PG Wodehouse, after years of enjoying characters such as Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and a variety of Aunts saying and doing things which made me snort with laughter.

I don’t think Doctor Sally is as good as some of Wodehouse’s other books, but it is still an amusing read, as Wodehouse’s worst is probably still funnier than most other writers at their best. Doctor Sally has only five main characters, who include the golfing-mad Sir Hugo, Sir Hugo’s nephew Bill Bannister, Doctor Sally of the title, Mrs Lottie Higginbotham, who is recognised by all as being no better than she ought to have been, and Lord Tidmouth, who is usually known as Squiffy. As his name suggests, Squiffy has the happy knack of being able to mix a whisky-and-soda to most people’s satisfaction.

The story starts with Sir Hugo on the golf course, after having been “at Bingley only two days and had played the 18th hole only six times.” I don’t play golf and I won’t be taking up playing anytime soon, but reading Doctor Sally let me experience the game at its very best, plus fours and all.

Doctor Sally very soon impresses Sir Hugo with her superior golf shots and they form a fast connection when they realise they are both members of the medical profession. Sir Hugo tells Sally of his greatest worry, that his nephew Bill, (Wodehouse is very fond of Aunts and Uncles and nephews and nieces), has become entangled and possibly engaged to Lottie Higginbotham, who Sir Hugo believes is most unsuitable for a Bannister to marry.

Regardless of Lottie’s many charms, Sir Hugo needn’t have worried, because Bill took one look at Sally and fell in love. Unfortunately Sally saw Bill as a wastrel and her heart was unmoved.

After the usual number of adventures, misunderstandings, hair-brained schemes and ridiculous events, things turn out happily for Bill and Doctor Sally. (I did not just spoil the ending for anyone, this was as inevitable as having a happy couple at the end of a Mills and Boon romance).

Squiffy add light relief to the book. He has already had a number of wives, including Lottie, who was his first wife. After he and Lottie parted, Squiffy had a second wife who ran off with a Frenchman, a third wife who ran off with a Spaniard and a fourth who ran off with a Brazilian. In my opinion, Squiffy should probably avoid having wives, but he and Lottie eventually decide to have another crack at matrimony together. No doubt their union will end when Lottie runs off with someone from India or Canada or New Zealand, but she and Squiffy will be happy while it lasts.

The plot of Doctor Sally is thin, but Wodehouse’s dialogue is, as always, brilliant and I laughed all the way through this book. I don’t know if the following examples are as funny out of the context of the book, but the following were my favourite lines from Doctor Sally:


Squiffy to Lottie, “I don’t know if you remember me. We used to be married once.”


Lottie, “If anybody’s been telling you I’ve a family, it’s not true.”


Sir Hugo to Squiffy, “What do you suppose is the matter with him?”

“Not been eating enough yeast,” said Lord Tidmouth confidently.


The only thing I really disliked about this book was the cover. Doctor Sally was written in the 1930s, and the edition I read was printed in 2008. The title is printed in an art deco font, and the colours and art are of the period, but the picture wasn’t quite right, with the characters depicted not matching my mental images of Sally and Bill.

Still, whinging about the cover art of this particular edition in no way reflects on the story, and it won’t put me off going back to Wodehouse again soon.



A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley


A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.

The story is told by Ginny, the eldest daughter of an Iowa farmer during the late 1970s. Ginny and her husband Ty, live and work on Ginny’s father’s farm, along with Ginny’s sister Rose, her husband Pete and their two daughters. Ginny and Rose’s other sister, Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny and Rose brought Caroline up after their mother died of cancer.

The trouble starts when Jess Clark, the black sheep son of a neighbour returned home to the Clark farm after spending years in Canada avoiding the Vietnam war.

At a barbecue to celebrate Jess’s return, Larry Cook, Ginny and Rose’s father, impulsively decides to sign the farm over to Ginny and Rose, cutting Caroline out of her inheritance. Up until this time, Ty and Pete have farmed the Cook farm way Larry has always farmed, growing crops. In fact, everything in this family has been done the way Larry wanted. Larry is a tyrant and Ginny and Rose are victims, although in different ways. Ginny takes the easiest course of action in order to avoid conflict, while Rose is a fighter. Caroline’s way of managing her father was different again, she had always teased and cajoled her father as well as standing up to him, which brought her a level of respect which Ginny and Rose never received from their father.

After the farm was signed over, Ginny, Ty, Rose and Peter borrowed money to go into hog farming.

The families spend a lot of time socialising with Jess, who adds something to all of their lives. Their conversations are more interesting, their gatherings are funnier and Ginny and Rose particularly enjoy his company. Ginny, who has been struggling with years of childlessness, has an affair with Jess. After their affair ends, Jess has an affair with Rose, who has spent the last year being treated for breast cancer.

As the story evolves, plenty of secrets emerge, many of which are hidden from their community. After Larry, whose behaviour has become increasingly erratic, goes to Caroline and starts a law suit to have the farm returned to him, the neighbours also judge Ginny and Rose.

The story is likened to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I have never read. While A Thousand Acres is a good book, I couldn’t truthfully say I enjoyed it. The story has madness, incest and rapes, bullying, cruelty and violence, affairs, suicide and attempted murder, serious illness and sadness at every turn, not to mention the tribulations of farming, which can go bad very quickly.

A month after reading this book, the standout lesson for me is, don’t drink the water from the well if chemicals are being used on the crops. Don’t have affairs with the neighbours either. Or hang around the farm trying to make your father happy, particularly if he is as mad as a cut snake. Move on. Life doesn’t have to be terrible.

Last Day in the Dynamite Factory by Annah Faulkner


Annah Faulkner, the author of Last Day in the Dynamite Factory, was previously shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, which is Australia’s most prestigious award for stories of high literary merit presenting Australian life.

The main character is Christopher Bright, a successful conservation architect in his forties. Christopher is married and has two grown up children. Superficially, Chris’s life looks wonderful, but underneath things are more complicated. Chris was brought up by his aunt and her husband, after his mother was killed when he was a baby. After his aunt dies, Chris stumbles across a secret about his father which changes everything for him.

Chris loves Dianne, but finds his marriage unsatisfying, and feels unwanted by his wife, Dianne.

This book is full of family secrets, most of which I found to be predictable. I think the author used the saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ as inspiration for the plot, with Chris following in the footsteps of his father, particularly in his passion for a woman who is not his wife.

I kept hoping for more from Last Day in the Dynamite Factory, but never quite getting what I wanted, which is a bit like the relationship between Chris and Dianne. Nor did I get the strong sense of place I was hoping for from this novel though, which is set in Queensland and Melbourne.

I’m actually struggling to find anything more to say about the story. I almost stopped reading this book about half way through because I got bored, but finished because it was quite an easy read. I don’t even feel enough emotion about Last Day in the Dynamite Factory to write a cutting review, which, although not very kind, can be much more fun than reading a dull book.


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