Book reviews

Archive for April, 2016

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor


When I picked up A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor at my library, I was confused. I knew the actress Elizabeth Taylor had written a diet book because I read my Mum’s copy thirty years ago*, but a novel? I have to admit, I was not surprised when this author turned out to be a different Elizabeth Taylor.

A Game of Hide and Seek is the story of Harriet and Vesey, who have known each other all of their lives. As teenagers, they are in love with each other but are so shy and uncertain and awkward with the world and with each other, that their romance never goes past their first kisses. Harriet’s awareness of Vesey in particular is almost like another sense, it is so strong.

They are separated when Vesey leaves to go to Oxford and over the next twenty years only see each other infrequently as they go on to live their own lives, but they remain in love with each other.

After Vesey’s departure, Harriet got a job in a shop, then married Charles, a solicitor much older than herself. They have a daughter and Harriet lives a respectable and ordinary life with him. Vesey became an actor, making a living but not much more. He never married.

In middle age, Harriet and Vesey meet again, and almost start a physical affair, although they stopped themselves before this happened in a spirit of self-sacrifice.

This is a story of ‘almost.’ Harriet and Vesey are ordinary to the point of boring, but their love for each other is not. I was sad reading this story, wishing for them they had settled their future together when they had the chance, although I suspect if they had in fact made a life together, their passion for each other would not have lasted. Not being able to be together made their love a much bigger thing than it might otherwise have been.

As a teenager, Vesey was selfish and inconsiderate, and as an adult, he was unable to take care of himself. He lived in a hand-to-mouth fashion, in dirtiness and squalor. Harriet probably had a lucky escape in not marrying Vesey. With Charles, she was well off, cared for and loved, although Charles was aware of and jealous of Harriet’s love for Vesey.

The writing in A Game of Hide and Seek is beautiful. The story is told quietly and slowly, although there are some very funny sections. One of my favourites was a couple going through their bookcases with the intentions of giving some to charity. Easier said than done, as the characters found good reasons to keep each book. One couldn’t throw out either of her copies of Little Women, which I well understand, as I have three copies which I will never part with. (One is my childhood copy and the other two copies have beautiful pictures. Don’t ask this of me).

A Game of Hide and Seek was a happy find for me. I am hoping to read more books by this author.

*In Mum’s defence, she never followed Elizabeth’s Taylor’s diet. She just loved Elizabeth Taylor (the actress) and especially, her jewellery.



Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen


I knew as soon as I saw Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen that I was going to love this book. The line, ‘#1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author’ across the top of the cover was a strong recommendation, and the cover art evoked in me a sense of place that suits the title. Mostly it was just a feeling, though, which usually expresses itself by my getting the urge to give a book a little hug when I pick it up.*

Miller’s Valley is a story about belonging. The narrator, Mimi Miller, understands the need to belong to a particular place and community as her family have lived and farmed in Miller’s Valley for generations.

Mimi’s story starts in her childhood, during the 1960s. Her story, which takes place over the next 60 years, includes that of her parents, her charming but troubled brother, an aunt who never leaves her house, friends and the Miller’s Valley community. Mimi knows who she is and where she fits in to her world.

Changes are coming because the town of Miller’s Valley is dying. The nearby dam is failing and regularly floods the town and surrounding farms. Eventually all of the properties in the valley will be bought by the government under eminent domain, which is known as compulsory acquisition in Australia, in order to create a bigger dam. Some of the residents of Miller’s Valley are actively fighting to keep their homes, while others are resigned to the fact that sooner or later, their town will be drowned.

Mimi’s parents are hard working and resilient, with Mimi’s mother particularly important in shaping Mimi’s character. Mimi’s mother has a strong character and high expectations of her daughter. She favours Mimi’s brother Tommy, although it is clear from the beginning of the book that he will break all of their hearts.

The story is quiet and slow, which suits the setting. Mimi tells the story in a series of truths that made me feel as if I knew the other characters too, as well as I know my own family and friends and community.

Mimi works hard, at home and at school, and when she is old enough, waitressing in a diner. She falls in love and finishes school. Life continues.

This book made me nostalgic for my own version of ‘Miller’s Valley’, which is the place where I grew up. This is where my heart is and where I dream about. Unlike Miller’s Valley, my home still exists, although there have been changes. Several paddocks on the edge of the town are now housing estates, and a few old fishing shacks pulled down with flashy new houses built in their place. I have a few family members and friends living there, but not many. Things change. I haven’t lived there in over thirty years and probably never will again, but it will always be my home.

I haven’t read any books by Anna Quindlen before, but as I enjoyed Miller’s Valley so much, I’m delighted to learn she has written quite a few others. I’ll be making my way through her list sooner rather than later.

* I must look around at other people in bookshops or the library sometime to see if anyone else hugs their books too.


The Sisterhood by Emily Barr


I found The Sisterhood by Emily Barr to be predictable, dull and far less sinister than the title, the cover art and the blurbs led me to expect. In fact, I’ve lost my trust in the blurbs entirely after reading this book.

The Sisterhood is alternately narrated by three characters, Liz, Helen and Mary.

Liz is a pregnant woman in her late thirties whose ex-boyfriend recently revealed to her that he is gay. Liz isn’t sure if her ex-boyfriend is the father of her baby anyway, as she also had a fling with a trans-sexual man in his/her last days before having an operation to become a woman. (I probably should have stopped reading at this point).

Helen is a young French woman who is convinced that Liz is her half-sister, from a relationship her mother had when she was young. Helen has mental health issues.

Mary is Helen’s mother, and her part of the story is told in flashbacks.

The story follows Helen’s attempts to find Liz and form a connection, with the intention of eventually presenting Liz to her parents in order to complete their family.

Although The Sisterhood was published in 2008, the story felt quite dated to me. I didn’t feel a connection with any of the characters and the praise given to this novel by reviewers surprised me enormously. For example, Woman’s Day said, “Sparkling with charm and originality, it’s a tale to cherish.” What? Did the reviewer actually read this book? Or could Woman’s Day have mixed up this review with a review for another story?

Who writes the book reviews that end up in publications anyway? For example, The Sisterhood is described as “Thrillingly sinister” from a publication called Glamour. I suspect Glamour is a fashion magazine, so perhaps I was foolish to trust their advice, but The Sisterhood wasn’t at all sinister. The Cosmopolitan reviewer said the story is “Sleep-sabotagingly moreish,” but that wasn’t true either. I had no trouble at all putting the book down in order to go to sleep.

Anyone who couldn’t see the twist coming at the end of The Sisterhood is probably gullible enough to believe and buy whatever a fashion magazine tells them to, but in my opinion, sleep is better for me than lotions and potions anyway. I find book reviews by bloggers to be much more reliable than those published in fashion magazines.



When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson


After reading Life After Life, A God in Ruins and Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, I would probably shell out good money to read this author’s shopping list. Finding When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson made me very happy.

Dr Jo Hunter is the central character in When Will There Be Good News. At the age of six, Jo’s mother, sister and baby brother were violently killed in a random act of violence.

Jo grew up, became a doctor, married and had a baby of her own, which is when the present day story begins. Jo is kind, loving and charismatic, exactly the type of person everyone wants to be, or to be friends with.

Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe enters the story when she warns Jo that the killer is about to be released from jail. When Jo and her baby go missing, Jo’s nanny, Reggie, is the only person who seems truly concerned about Jo’s welfare. Jo’s husband tells everyone she has gone to visit her aunt, but Reggie is not convinced by his story.

Reggie is a 16 year old orphan. She is brave, smart and resourceful, although she is tested almost to her limits by her brother, who is the worst kind of petty criminal. When a major train derailment in which a number of people die, Reggie saves the life of Jackson Brodie. Also on the train was the man who killed Jo’s mother, sister and brother.

I realise I’m describing a cast of what seems like thousands, but they are all in the story for good reason.

Jackson Brodie is a former police officer who is now a private detective. Jackson lost his memory in the accident, but when he recovered, Reggie employs Jackson to help her find Jo.

If the name Jackson Brodie sounds familiar, it is because he was also the main character in Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, although When Will There Be Good News stands alone.

There are a number of other stories going on at the same time, with a woman and her children hiding from her crazy husband, a married couple who don’t appear to be well matched, an old love affair which the reader hopes will revive, several cases of mistaken identity and more.

The characters in When Will There Be Good News are connected and interconnected in a number of complex and sometimes surprising ways. Usually coincidences in stories seem to be an easy way out of a problem for the author but in this story the way the characters connected felt inevitable. All of the character’s stories are satisfyingly pulled together in the end.

Jo, Reggie, Louise and Jackson are wonderful characters, all of whom I instantly liked and felt sympathy for. Although the title of the book says it all, the characters are funny and endearing, while the story is uplifting and left me feeling hopeful that this set of characters would eventually experience good news of their own.



Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole


Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole is a novel which reads more like a diary or a memoir, (although without the bits you would normally snoop in someone else’s diary to find).

I chose to read this book because I have never read a story set in any part of Africa or with African characters. The only movie I’ve ever watched set in Africa is The Lion King. It was definitely time I expanded my reading list…

The story is told in the first person by an un-named narrator, a man who was born in Nigeria and grew up in the USA. At the start of the story the narrator is planning to return to Nigeria to visit family in Lagos.

The story begins with the narrator’s visit to the Nigerian consulate in the USA, which is where the corruption, which is the main theme of this story, starts. Although he doesn’t want to, the narrator pays a bribe in the form of a money order to expedite the granting of his passport. There is no mention of this special fee on the consulate’s web site and he does not receive a receipt for the money order. The narrator recognises that unless he pays this bribe, he will not be guaranteed his passport before he is ready to travel.

On arriving in Lagos he visits an internet café, where he watches young men creating and sending scam emails. These young men are known in Nigeria as ‘Yahoo Boys,’ and the crime a ‘491,’ after the Nigerian criminal code scam emails contravene. The narrator watches police and soldiers who is posted at the internet cafes to prevent these crimes, catching Yahoo Boys, then taking payment from them before releasing the criminal with a warning. (Who is the criminal though?)

The narrator’s disappointment with his country for having become a place where fraud, bribery, blackmail and theft are acceptable to society, is apparent on every page. Worse, the narrator believes there is no way of reversing the nation’s morals.

The narrator says surveys show Nigerians to be among the happiest people in the world and also the most religious, but he questions why they have “so little concern for the ethical life or human rights.” The narrator also touches briefly on Nigeria’s art having been stolen by the rest of the world and its people having been ravaged by slavery.

Teju Cole’s writing is clear and precise, easy to read and understand, but while the story reads quickly, the message in this story is more complex than it first appears. This is a sad story, filled with disillusionment and little hope for improvement.

The story’s title comes from a Yoruba proverb which is shown in full on the title page, “Every day is for the thief but one day is for the owner.” Reading this story, I’m not sure that the narrator (or the author) believe that the owner’s day will ever come.

Every Day is for the Thief also features black and white photos taken by the author.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett


Hmm. When one is given a book by a dearly loved aunt, one reads the book, then wonders whether or not to be honest when reviewing the book. If one doesn’t enjoy the book and says so, will the dearly loved aunt’s feelings be hurt? One wouldn’t want that to happen, but one is also obliged to be honest when writing book reviews.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is the first book I have read by this author, who has written a number of enormously successful plays, screenplays, novels and autobiographies, including The Lady in the Van.

The main character in The Uncommon Reader is the Queen. While walking the corgis in the palace grounds, she comes across a mobile library and borrows a book.

While the first book she borrows is not to her taste, the Queen borrows another and eventually, becomes a book worm. Her official duties start to suffer, but her opinions develop. Eventually, palace staff, politicians and equerries try to dissuade the Queen from further reading.

While The Uncommon Reader is clever, it wasn’t for me. I hadn’t read any of the books the Queen read, so couldn’t find a connection there, and the Queen was unfortunately put off reading Jane Austen by all of the people who told her how much she would enjoy her works, losing the one chance I had of being won over.

There were plenty of characters who are actual English politicians and society people in the story but as an Australian these were lost on me. Probably someone who knew of these people might have found humour where I didn’t.

I expect I’ll see the movie of The Lady in the Van sometime, but will probably not read another book by this author. This may be stupid of me, but life is short…

The last book I gave my aunt was about 15 years ago, Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie. Welcome to Temptation is a cheerful and smutty  romance which my aunt very kindly described as “great fun.” I doubt that Welcome to Temptation would make the Queen’s reading list though.



Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster

where angels

Where Angels Fear to Tread was E. M. Forster’s first novel, which seemed to me to be  good place for me to start reading this author.

The story begins with widowed Lilia leaving her daughter with her in-laws to travel to Italy as chaperone to her friend, Caroline Abbott. In Italy, Lilia falls in love with Gino, who is much younger than her and who, as the son of a dentist, is socially ludicrous in the eyes of Lilia’s in-laws.

Philip, Lilia’s brother in law, races off to Italy as instructed by his mother, to save Lilia from herself only to find that Lilia has already married Gino.

Lilia’s marriage turns out unhappily (was anyone really surprised to hear this?) and when Lilia dies giving birth to her and Gino’s son, Philip is sent back to Italy by his mother to bring the baby back to England. Philip’s sister Harriet, a cold fish who is more concerned with retrieving an inlaid box she loaned Lilia than the baby, accompanies Philip. When Philip and Harriet arrive in Gino’s home town they find Caroline Abbott there too, as she also intends to return to England with the baby.

Caroline visits Gino first and realises he loves the baby, then Philip visits Gino and realises the same thing. Caroline and Philip agree that the baby is best left with the father who loves it*, than returning it to England where it will be brought up properly in an English household, but will not be loved.

Harriet complicates things though by stealing the baby, which is then killed in a road accident. Philip returns to Gino to tell him of the tragedy.

When Philip finally realises he is in love with Caroline, he is too late, as Caroline had fallen in love with Gino, and there can be no future for them. I suspect Philip was a bit in love with Gino, too. In comparison to the reserved and proper English characters, Gino was full of life and emotion.

The only character I really liked or felt sorry for in this story was the baby. The adults were selfish and full of their own importance and the ‘rightness’ of their ideas. The English and the Italians patronised each other in their own way, and none really showed themselves at their best.

Based on Where Angels Fear to Tread, I would definitely visit Italy though. I will probably read more of this author’s work too.

*Sorry, I know the baby is not an ‘it’ but I can’t remember if it is a boy or a girl…

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