Book reviews

Archive for February, 2016

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

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It is said there are two sides to every story, and in The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce, which is a companion piece to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by the same author, Queenie gets to tell her side of the story.

In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Harold Fry receives a letter from his old workmate Queenie Hennessy, who tells him she is dying. Harold writes her a letter in return and walks to the post box to post it, but instead of posting it, continues to walk to Queenie, who is in a hospice on the other side of the country. Along the way Harold reflects on his life, his relationships with his wife and son, and on his friendship with Queenie.

In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Queenie writes her story, or song, with the help of a nun at the hospice. Queenie’s story moves back and forwards between her past, when she worked with and fell in love with Harold Fry in a brewery, and her present, of day to day events involving the other patients at the hospice, who have become Queenie’s friends.

During their time at the brewery, Queenie was an accountant and Harold a sales rep. They were thrown into each others company as they drove around the countryside auditing pubs. Harold was married, more or less happily and had no idea of Queenie’s feelings for him.

Unbeknownst to Harold, Queenie also knew Harold’s son David, first as a problem teenager then as a troubled adult. In a misguided attempt to help David and ingratiate herself with Harold, Queenie gave David money, allowed him to steal from her and take advantage of her in a number of ways which enabled him to live a selfish and unhappy life. When David suicided, Harold did something at the brewery which would have got him the sack, except that Queenie took the blame for Harold then left town, without ever telling Harold she knew his son.

As Harold walks to her, Queenie, with the help of the nun, writes her confession for Harold to read when he arrives.

The other characters at the hospice were the highlight of this book for me. Some were grumpy, others flirty or silly and most were annoying, but I actually cried several times, when the dignity and courage of the dying characters was highlighted. When the patients agreed that none of them would die until Harold arrived, I went to pieces.

Anyone who enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will enjoy and take something from The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. I think the books could be read in either order too, as they stand alone. I found this to be a very satisfying read.

 

 

 

 

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The Ex by Alafair Burke

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Hands up who would rather be widowed than divorced?

Thought so.

Not that the main characters in Alafair Burke’s novel, The Ex, ever married. Olivia Randall, a criminal defence lawyer, and Jack Harris, a novelist, were engaged to be married over twenty years ago but Olivia had commitment issues and gave Jack the best possible reason to break up with her.

Twenty years later, Jack is the main suspect in a shooting where three people have been murdered, when Olivia receives a phone call from Jack’s teenage daughter Buckley, asking, or rather telling Olivia, that she has to help Jack, because of how Olivia treated her father in the past.

Olivia isn’t a likeable person. She is good at her work but her people skills are terrible, which has been career-limiting for her, especially as she points out, that “court is a popularity contest.” Olivia’s first appearance in The Ex has her in bed with someone else’s husband, so it certainly surprised me that she felt guilty for wrecking Jack’s life by messing around on him all those years ago, and so took on his case.

I didn’t like Olivia at first. She is rude and brash and the sort of person who would walk all over everyone else to get her own way. I did like Jack though. As a widower, a single father and a novelist, he makes a romantic figure. In Olivia’s opinion Jack is too ‘nice’ to be a murderer, although as the book develops it becomes clear that he has a strong motive to have killed at least one of the victims in the shooting.

At first, Jack appears to have bumbled into a set up and been framed for the crime. Olivia gets him freed from jail and sets about preparing to defend him to the best of her ability, although eventually Olivia (and the reader) start to wonder if Jack is playing her.

The Ex taught me something else. Apparently there are women who chase police officers, in a rock-star groupie way, and are known as ‘Badge Bunnies.’ Who would have thought?

By the end of The Ex, I felt much more sympathetic towards Olivia and Jack seemed like someone I would feel sorry for, rather than a romantic figure. I figured out the twist in the tale before the end of The Ex, but sat up much too late reading until the end anyway. If you’re a fan of courtroom drama-suspense stories The Ex is probably for you.

 

 

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro is a collection of short stories, all with a musical theme and told in the first person. Some of the stories feature the same characters.

The first story, Crooner, is a bittersweet love story. The main character is a guitar player, making his living playing for tourists in Venice, when he spots legendary crooner Tony Gardner in the audience. The narrator’s mother was a huge fan of Tony Gardner’s, so the guitar player approaches Tony to pay tribute to him. After some conversation, Tony employs the guitarist to accompany him later in the day when he serenades his wife, Lindy, from a gondola. The songs Tony sings to Lindy are love songs, but it turns out that they are about to divorce, because, as Tony  explains, “Me and Lindy are getting to be a laughing stock,” after having been married for so long. Tony wants to make a comeback and to be successful, believes that he needs a new, younger wife.

Come Rain or Come Shine is the story of a visit between three friends. Emily and Charlie’s marriage is on rocky grounds, and Charlie hopes that a few days of Raymond’s company will remind Emily of the good times they shared when they were at university together. However, Raymond instantly notices that Emily’s face has grown “distinctly bull doggy” which does not make me think she is a happy woman. Charlie disappears, (it turns out he is having an affair) and the visit goes from bad to worse when Raymond reads Emily’s diary and reads, “Raymond coming tomorrow. Groan. Groan.” This story, particularly the section where Raymond is caught by Emily behaving like a dog in an attempt to destroy her diary, had me laughing until I had tears rolling down my face.

Malvern Hills is the story of a middle-aged guitarist who spends a summer living with, (in other words, sponging off), his sister and her husband. One of the male characters is described as having “ABBA style hair.” These three simple words provide a mental image of a character which may never be wiped from my memory.

 Nocturne is the story of a sax player who is talented, but too ugly to be successful (!). When his wife leaves him, she asks her new lover to pay for plastic surgery for him. After the surgery, the sax player finds himself recuperating in a hotel room next to Lindy Gardner, who is the ex-wife of legendary Tony Gardner from the first story in this collection, Crooner. Lindy swans around with her head completely bandaged, wearing a dressing-gown “she could have worn to a movie premiere without too much embarrassment.” I had serious dressing-gown envy reading this, since my dressing-gown shouldn’t be worn with the light on, let alone anywhere that movie stars and paparazzi gather. Anyway, Lindy and the sax player have a few adventures while they are recuperating, and an incident with a turkey and a trophy which I defy anyone to read and not snort with laughter.

Cellists is the story of another musician in Venice, playing in cafes to entertain tourists. On their “third time playing The Godfather theme since lunch,” he notices a fellow musician who used to play with his band. This fellow left the band for bigger and better things after being mentored by a mysterious woman. Cellists had a twist I didn’t see coming.

The Remains of the Day by this author is one of the best books I have read in the past few years. Nocturnes has the same understated style, but is much funnier, although the stories are all bittersweet. The stories all seemed to me to be the perfect length, with no padding or details that didn’t belong. I liked the musical theme which tied the stories too.

Kazuo Ishiguro is an author whose work I am looking forward to reading more of.

 

 

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

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The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan is the story of a couple, whose relationship status is uneasy.

Clever – this book is written as if it is a dictionary, with words from ‘abyss’ to ‘caveat’ to ‘dispel’ to ‘zenith’ amongst the entries. For example, ‘Kerfuffle,’ which in my opinion is an excellent word and should be used more often, is used in The Lover’s Dictionary as follows; “From now on, you are only allowed one drink at any of my office parties.”

Enigmatic – the reader doesn’t know the names, or ages, or even where the characters in The Lover’s Dictionary live. The characters are very often referred to just as ‘you’ or ‘me’.

Erudite – I needed to use my own dictionary to check the meanings of some of the words used in The Lover’s Dictionary, but enjoyed this book so much that I was happy to do so.

Failings – as in any relationship, the characters in The Lover’s Dictionary sometimes disappoint each other. Some of their faults mildly irritate the other, while some of the character’s failings are huge and potentially spell the end of their relationship.

Honest – sometimes brutally.

Readable – I read The Lover’s Dictionary in one sitting. It isn’t a very big book, but even if it had been longer, I wouldn’t have wanted to stop reading until I had finished.

Unique – great idea. I bet other writers have looked at The Lover’s Dictionary and thought, ‘I wish I had thought of that.’

 

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

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The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, an Australian prize for novels set in Australia of the highest literary merit. I haven’t read the other novels in the 2015 field, but The Eye of the Sheep is a good story, and well told.

The Eye of the Sheep is set in the west of Melbourne during the 1980s, in a blue collar suburb. The main character’s voice, the people around him, the locations, even the pastimes are so Australian that this story makes me feel nostalgic for a place ten minutes from where I already am and people I feel I already know.

The story is narrated by Jimmy Flick, who is a primary school aged child throughout the novel. Jimmy is unusual, he has a condition is never confirmed but which is probably on the autism spectrum. Jimmy asks a lot of questions, repeats what he is told over and over, and he becomes overloaded when too much is happening and gets out of control. Jimmy’s mother, Paula, is the only one who can control him when this happens. Jimmy’s questions and behaviour drive most people around him mad, including his father Gav.

Gav works at the Altona Refinery. When Gav gets drunk, which is often, he beats Paula. Their relationship is complicated, as Paula loves Gav unconditionally, and she uncomplainingly suffers his abuse. When their older son, Robby, is old enough and big enough, he steps in to defence Paula during a drunken beating. He beats up his father, all the while telling his father he has hurt Paula for the last time. Later, Jimmy calls this incident, ‘the last time.’

There is an uneasy truce in the Flick household until Robby leaves home to work on fishing boats. Gav loves his family and appears to be a broken man, avoiding the family by sleeping in his shed. Eventually Gav takes Jimmy with him to visit his Uncle Rodney at the beach for a few weeks, and the visit seems to heal Gav. Through Jimmy’s eyes we learn why the Flick brother’s behaviours and feelings are so complicated.

Gav returns home from the beach swearing he is a changed man, but despite his best intentions, when he loses his job at the refinery, he gets drunk and beats Paula again. When Gav hurts Jimmy, Paula fights back. Paula is a big woman, bigger than Gav, and Jimmy describes her emotions as catching on fire and sparks flying. At the end of this incident, Gav is the one on the ground physically hurt.

Gav leaves and Paula falls apart. From here the story takes a completely different turn when Paula dies of an asthma attack and Jimmy is left to navigate the world on his own.

Jimmy’s insights are priceless. He describes people and most things by their internal workings and his favourite reading is manuals for the household items. He calls school ‘enemy territory.’ His ‘cells spin uncontrollably’ when his emotions overloaded.

At all times the reader has empathy for all of the characters, including Gav. Thinking about this a few weeks after finishing the book, I still find this surprising. In real life I would struggle to feel this for Gav or someone like him, but through Jimmy’s eyes I have gained an understanding of a troubled person.

Jimmy’s circumstances could have made him a victim, but his strength of character ensures he is not.

The Eyes of the Sheep is sad but uplifting.  Sofie Laguna has written books for children, young adults and one other book for adults, One Foot Wrong, which I hope to read soon.

 

 

 

There Should Be More Dancing by Rosalie Ham

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There Should Be More Dancing is by Rosalie Ham, the Australian author who wrote The Dressmaker.

The Dressmaker is on my list of books to read, but I enjoyed There Should Be More Dancing so much that it will probably get bumped up a few spots on the list. This author has a sense of humour and a style that is recognisable from The Dressmaker movie.

There Should Be More Dancing is set in Melbourne, and is the story of a dysfunctional family, told in turns by the matriarch, Margery Blandon and an omniscient third narrator. After a lifetime of doing the right thing, Margery is thinking of throwing herself off the top floor of the hotel where her family took her to celebrate her 80th birthday.

The last straw for Margery was when her family foisted Florence, an old barmaid on her, to live in the family home. According to Margery’s values, (which she cross stitches onto everything in sight), Florence is an old floozie, a “thief, a liar and an adulteress.”

Prior to Florence’s arrival in Gold Street, Margery’s daughter Judith, (who in my opinion is a cow), wants to put Margery into an old age home in order to sell the family home and reap the financial rewards, along with her no-good, wheeling and dealing husband. Margery’s eldest son, Walter, otherwise known as ‘The Brunswick Bull’, took too many hits to the head during his career as a boxer, and her other son, Morris, disappeared in Thailand and hasn’t been seen for years. Don’t ask Margery why Morris won’t come home, because while the rest of the neighbourhood know, she doesn’t. Margery’s husband, Lance, died years ago when he lit a cigarette and blew up his oxygen tank at the local pub. The explosion decimated the pub and killed another character’s husband.

I laughed my way through this book. Walter and Morris had a stand up brawl at Lance’s funeral, Margery knocks a motorcyclist off his bike driving to the local shops, (she goes the long way, in order to avoid turning right across the busy traffic on the main road), Margery and her neighbour Pat fight with each other for thirty years after Margery accidently pulled off Pat’s wig at the 1976 Ladies Legacy Luncheon. Not to mention that the neighbours steal power from Margery’s house for their drug lab.

None of these things, including the difficulties of ageing, should be funny, but the way the story is told by Margery is darkly funny and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious. Some of the time the story is sad.

Margery tells her story of the past and the present to her long-dead twin sister Cecily, who is the person she has always loved the most. She keeps saying, the truth will out, and eventually it does. The reader sees the truth long before Margery does, but the story is about how Margery deals with the truth, rather than waiting for revealing twists and turns in the story.

There Should Be More Books by Rosalie Ham is a motto which I want to cross stitch on to something.

 

 

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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The Dinner by Herman Koch is a thriller of the nastiest kind.

The story is narrated by Paul Lohman over the course of an evening, while he and his wife Claire have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette, at a ridiculously fancy and expensive restaurant.

Paul knows in advance that everything Serge says and does during the evening will infuriate him. At first this appears to be the usual case of sibling rivalry. Serge is a politician who is in the running to be the Netherlands next Prime Minister, while Paul is a former high school history teacher, who has not worked in ten years because of his anger management issues.

However, despite Paul wishing he were anywhere else, the two couples have agreed to meet for dinner to discuss a secret. Their teenage sons have committed a crime, which is so far only known to themselves.

I can understand Paul and Claire wanting to protect their son. But what Michel has done is not something that he or Rick should be protected from facing the consequences of, but the lack of humanity in the characters in this novel is frightening. The actions of the characters does not even compare to the type of people they are though, what they are capable of and how undetectable sociopaths are from other people in society.

At times the words were stilted. I’m not going to criticise the story for this, because the edition I read had been translated from Dutch to English, but I believe The Dinner would read better in the original language. I found the first half of the story, Aperitif and Appetizer slow (and the food itself disappointing), but by the time I got to the Main Course and Dessert of The Dinner I couldn’t read quickly enough to find out how things would work out.

The Dinner left me feeling uncomfortable. I would go back for another serving from this author though.

 

 

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