Book reviews

Archive for August, 2016

My Real Children by Jo Walton


My Real Children by Jo Walton is an alternate reality story, where the main character has two possible lives which are told in alternate chapters. I have to say straight away, I love alternate realities stories, they get me every time. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite books of all time, also in this genre is Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, which is a ripper, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde had a literary twist, and then there are my favourite movies – Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day. I love that the characters in these stories usually get the opportunity to make things right again after other people’s (or their own) stuff-ups.

My Real Children is a worthy addition to my list of favourite alternate reality stories.

Patricia Cowan is the character in My Real Children who gets two cracks at life. She grew up in England and went to Oxford during World War 2, where she studied hard and met Mark, who provides the moment where her life splits into two distinct futures. As an old lady, living with dementia in a nursing home, Patricia is aware that she has two sets of memories and present day realities, but the problem is, she doesn’t know which of the two sets of memories are true.

Mark provided the tipping point for Patricia when he asked her to marry him, using the term “now or never.” When Patricia answered “Now,” she married Mark, became ‘Trish’ and had a family of four children. Her marriage was unhappy, but eventually she became active in a number of causes  dear to her heart. The world she lived in as Trish is similar to the world we know, although I have to admit to laughing out loud when there was a reference to Prince Charles and Princess Camilla, around 1974.

When Patricia answered Mark’s proposal with “Never,” she became ‘Pat.’ As Pat, she fell in love with Italy, and eventually with Bee, had a family of three children, and a large and happy circle of friends. Although Pat’s personal life was happier that Trish’s, the wider world she lived in is much sadder, as nuclear wars became a reality. Reading this made me realise that in our actual world we have escaped events with terrible outcomes by the skin of our teeth.

The story started slowly, but is well told and by the end I found the book very difficult to put down. Eventually I sat up late one night to finish the book, but in an alternate reality, I would have stopped reading and gone to bed at a reasonable hour, then woke up feeling better refreshed. Or, twenty years ago, I would have stopped eating chocolate and taken up exercise, and would now own a different sized wardrobe. The possibilities are endless…

The ending of the story is ambiguous, which was frustrating. If anyone else has read My Real Children, I’d love for them to tell me what they think happened next. What a choice…

Anyway, I am certain that there will be many more Jo Walton books in my future, however many futures there are.








A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick


A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick seemed strangely familiar, but it wasn’t until I got about half way through that I realised I had already read this book, unfortunately before I started blogging.

Thank goodness for blogging. At least in future, as I get older and more forgetful, I will be able to look back through my blog to make sure I’m not just reading (and blogging about) the same book over and over. Or if I do lose my memory, I hope my over-and-over book is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I love the movie, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray gets to live the same day over and over until he gets it right. If I read and review Persuasion over and over and over again, eventually I might write the perfect review. (Then I would forget I had already read the book, and start all over again… )

Anyway, back to A Reliable Wife. Early on, I thought this book seemed familiar because it reminded me a little of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. Both books are set in a similar time, in remote villages with weather conditions so harsh that the locals go mad in the winter snow and isolation, and both have a hero who is desperate for love and sex.

Then it hit me. I’d already read the damn thing.

Okay, for those of you who haven’t read A Reliable Wife at all, the story starts with Ralph Truitt advertising in a newspaper for a wife. Ralph is in his fifties, filthy rich, and desperate for human touch. As a young man he fell in love with and married an Italian woman who messed around on him, so he cast her out, then spent twenty years alone.

Catherine Land answered Ralph’s ad, and agreed to come to Ralph’s home in Wisconsin and marry him. From the moment Catherine throws away her red dress on the train and dons a drab, home-made sack, it is clear that she has a past which she doesn’t want Ralph to know about. Ralph sees through her right away, but luckily for Catherine, she has an opportunity to prove her worth when he has a serious accident. After she nurses him back to health, they marry.

Next comes the big twist, which I won’t tell you about. If, like me, you’re on your second read of A Reliable Wife, you’ll probably remember what happens next at about this point anyway. And if you haven’t, but decide to read this book, then what happens next will be a surprise.

I read Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick earlier this year. There seems to be a pattern to the morals in this author’s stories, that is; messing around on your spouse is not a good idea.

Some of the sentences and phrases in A Reliable Wife are beautifully expressed, but I got tired of the characters being so desperate for sex. And when they got it, I got tired of hearing about how they did it. (Funny, but I never get tired of chocolate. I can eat it, smell it, read about it, cook with it, even look at pictures of it all day).

I think the idea of A Reliable Wife was good, but since it was the author’s first novel he probably needed more practice at leaving out the unnecessary parts of the story. Heading Out to Wonderful was better. I have high hopes of Robert Goolrick getting a third novel just right.



Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey


Elizabeth is Missing is the first novel by Emma Healey.

The story is told by Maud, an elderly woman who has either dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Maud can’t remember much from the present day except that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She has been forgetting little things, such as where she left her cup of tea or what she wanted to buy when she went to the shops, although lately she is also forgetting things that affect her safety, including where she lives and if she left the gas on when she started to cook. Towards the end of the story, Maud’s memory is deteriorating more quickly and she is regularly forgetting the names of common items and who her children and grandchildren are.

The only thing Maud is sure of from the present is that her friend Elizabeth is missing from her home. Maud constantly asks her daughter Helen where Elizabeth is, but she cannot get a satisfactory answer, either from Helen, the local police, or from Elizabeth’s no-good son, Peter.

Maud’s sister Sukey also went missing while Maud was a teenager, almost seventy years ago. The mystery of what happened to Sukey appears to be linked to Elizabeth’s disappearance. Maud seems better able to remember things about Sukey’s long ago disappearance than what she can from the present day. Her failing memory makes this story infuriating to read, because you are constantly almost getting to the bottom of a mystery, or learning some information which might help, then being sidetracked when Maud thinks of something else or forgets her train of thought entirely. Maud’s thoughts are all over the place, and even though she writes herself notes to remember things, they are of little use to her (or the reader) to help to figure out the puzzles.

The author has done a good job of getting inside Maud’s head. I had a great aunt who lost her memory and as children, we thought it was great, because she forgot she had already given us lollies and would offer them to us again and again. Her family must have been driven to despair though. Maud’s forgetfulness made it possible that she would burn her house down, or that she would get lost and not be able to remember who she was and where she lived. Helen, Maud’s daughter, obviously has Maud’s best interests at heart, although things didn’t seem that way to Maud, who felt as if she were losing autonomy over her own life.

I was surprised to learn that the author was only 28 years old when she wrote Elizabeth is Missing. It isn’t a great novel, but it is good start, and Maud is a believable character, although her forgetfulness made it hard to know her character fully, or even other present-day characters’ motives, except for those who could be judged by their actions. My sympathies in this book were with Helen, who has a big job ahead of her looking after her mother.

My main quibble with the story was to do with Sukey’s disappearance and why nobody figured out what happened to her at the time. It was obvious to me from about half way through the book, as was a mystery about another character, a ‘mad woman’ who was frightening Maud and Sukey when they were young, but I think these mysteries were supposed to be big reveals at the end of the book. The story was slow in the beginning too, although the pace improved about half way through.

I will look out for future works by Emma Healey.




A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby


A Long Way Down is the third book I’ve read by Nick Hornby. Funny Girl and High Fidelity by this author also hit the spot when I was looking for something fun to read.

I would never have expected a story about four people who are planning suicide to be funny, but A Long Way Down was laugh out loud funny. Miss S asked me a few times what I was laughing at, and very often it was hard to explain why. For example, me; “Well, these four people meet when they are planning to jump off a building, when it turns out that one of them can’t jump because the other people are looking at them.” Miss S rolled her eyes and went back to her own book. (Divergent, in case you’re wondering).

The four would-be jumpers are a diverse bunch. They include a minor celebrity who went to jail after having sex with an underage girl, a single mother of a severely disabled child, a teenage girl with mental health problems and a failed rock god. They met accidently at the top of a building colloquially known as ‘Topper’s House’ on New Year’s Eve, surprising each other as they prepared to jump.

The four ended up telling each other their stories, although one fellow greatly enhanced his reason for jumping as his real reason seemed to him a bit pathetic after hearing the others. After much discussion, they eventually all take the stairs back down together and spend the rest of New Year’s Eve together. The next morning they agree to meet regularly to provide emotional support to each other.

Parts of this book are genius. I could understand why each character wanted to jump, but was able to laugh with them too. The language is spot-on too. One of the characters is the type of person who other people apologise to every time they swear, and as three of them swear constantly, their sentences were peppered with, “Sorry Maureen.” Swearing generally annoys me, but with these characters, swearing is an integral part of who they are. I can’t imagine them not swearing

Each character’s despair was genuine too, regardless of whether their troubles were self-inflicted or because of their lot in life.

One of the characters doesn’t sugar coat her words, and while empathising with another, described his situation as follows, “You thought you were going to be someone, but now it’s obvious you’re nobody.” Harsh, but true, especially when fame and fortune are a character’s goal.

I won’t spoil this for anyone else by saying if any of the characters eventually jump or not, but I’m glad they took the stairs back down on New Year’s Eve. I loved this dark comedy, and look forward to reading other Nick Hornby books.




Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy


Maestro is the first novel I’ve read by Australian author Peter Goldsworthy, but it didn’t take long until the story of a boy in Darwin and his relationship with his piano teacher began to seem really familiar to me. Eventually I remembered that I read a memoir by this author’s daughter, Anna Goldsworthy, about five years ago. Funnily enough, Anna is a real-life concert pianist and her memoir was about her childhood relationship with her actual piano teacher.

Maestro is narrated by Paul Crabbe, whose parents live for music. Paul’s parents are overjoyed to find a worthy piano teacher in Darwin during the late 1960’s for their only child, who they hope and believe will become a concert pianist. At the time, Darwin was a remote town made up of pubs and people running away from their real lives in the southern states, the last place on earth they expected to find anyone who played the piano, let alone gave lessons.

Paul’s teacher is Eduard Keller, a Viennese refuge who shares the same name as a famous piano student of Leschetizky, who was in turn a student of Liszt, who was a student of Czerny. Paul and his parents spend the whole book trying to work out if Paul’s teacher is that Eduard Keller, who was believed to have died in the Holocaust, along with his Jewish wife and son.

Keller is an alcoholic, who is generally sad, angry or contemptuous, although over time, he and Paul recognise that they respect and love each other. From the beginning, Keller recognises that Paul’s talent is very, very good, but that he does not have the spark of genius required to make him a great pianist.

Maestro was one of the set texts for Year 12 students in some Australian states; (coming of age stories often end up on the syllabus), so there is a whole generation of Australians who would have read this book under sufferance. I read it because I enjoyed it. I liked the writing, I liked the setting and I liked the life lessons Paul learned as he got older.

Piano Lessons; A Memoir, by Peter Goldsworthy’s daughter Anna, is her account of piano lessons with her own teacher, Eleanora Sivan, published in 2010. Anna grew up to become a concert pianist and a successful writer.

Peter Goldsworthy has said he based his fictional character, Eduard Keller, on Eleanora Sivan. Maestro came first too, in case you were wondering, it was published in 1989. Peter Goldsworthy has won a swag of awards for his writing, which includes poetry and fiction. He is also a doctor and writes opera libretti. (He and his daughter are obviously extremely hardworking and talented).

I don’t ordinarily read poetry (I’m a lazy reader, so poetry can seem like hard work), but I’m on the lookout now for poetry by Peter Goldsworthy. Failing that, I’ll read some of his other novels, most likely Three Dog Night or The Kiss. What I won’t do is go and practise the piano, although I should. I don’t need Eduard Keller to tell me there is no genius in my fingers at all.




Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen


I think I’ve got a bit of a reading-crush on Anna Quindlen. I read Miller’s Valley earlier this year and loved it, then followed up with Still Life With Bread Crumbs, which I also enjoyed. I’m obviously not alone, my copy of this book says Anna Quindlen is a “#1 New York Times bestselling author.”

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a very different book to Miller’s Valley, although both stories are about what their homes mean to people. Still Life With Bread Crumbs is the story of a photographer, Rebecca Winter, who lets out her New York apartment and goes to live in the back of beyond in an attempt to survive financially.

Rebecca is 60 and feels as if she is a has-been. Her work, particularly a series of photos named ‘Still Life With Bread Crumbs’ which she took of the aftermath of a dinner party, was enormously successful, to the point of Rebecca almost becoming an icon, but of more recent years commercial interest in her photographs has dried up. Her husband has long since left her for another woman, (although he was no great loss in my opinion).

Living in the back of beyond after being a New Yorker all of her life, Rebecca befriends a dog, a chatty café owner and a roofer named Jim who regularly rescues her from rip-off artists, raccoons in her roof and, most importantly, supplies her with venison. Jim also gets Rebecca a job photographing birds for the state wildlife authority. Their friendship eventually becomes a love affair.

Also in the back of beyond, Rebecca rediscovers her passion for art, for life and for love. As a result, she sorts herself out financially and emotionally. This review is coming out a bit soppy, but Still Life With Bread Crumbs is not a soppy book. I’m just a soppy reviewer.

Still Life With Breadcrumbs had the same quiet feeling that I enjoyed so much in Miller’s Valley. The characters in both novels understand that life has slow moments and they don’t try to change that. There were things about the book which annoyed me, for example; Rebecca’s finances. She doesn’t know where her next ten dollars is coming from half the time, but she owns an apartment in New York. Maybe this is easy for me to say, but surely downsizing would have solved all of her problems. Also, there was the age thing between Rebecca and Jim. She is 60 and he is 44. Not a big deal I would have thought, but Rebecca carries on a bit before succumbing to Jim’s charms.

While reading, I realised that while I understood that I was reading fiction, I believed in the art work. I actually intended to ‘Google’ Rebecca’s work, ‘Still Life With Bread Crumbs’. I liked believing in the story and will continue looking out for other books by Anna Quindlen.



How it Ended by Jay McInerney


How it Ended is a book of short stories by Jay McInerney. By the end of the first story, I was hooked on this author’s writing style, and asking myself, does anyone know how anything ends?

The first story is called It’s 6 A.M. Do You Know Where You Are? The author makes an interesting point in this story about how hours go missing when you are out on the town, specifically between 2 and 6am. I remember this from when I used to get out and about, (back when the dinosaurs walked the earth, if either Honey-Bunny or Miss S are reading). Nobody knows where that time goes, including the unnamed narrator of this story. Anyway, the narrator and his friend have been out all night, only having one drink in each place they go because they are terrified of missing out on having more fun somewhere else. The narrator is the sort of person who always wants something else, other than what he already has, which seems a sad way to live a life.

Next was a story called Smoke. The moral of this story (if there is one) is that giving up smoking is difficult, and while you are giving up, you will be aggro with your partner and more likely to cheat on them with someone who will give you a ciggie. I’m always glad I never took up smoking.

Invisible Fences is a story where the lesson is for people whose relationships are broken – sometimes a divorce is best. Another story about a transsexual prostitute encountering his own father as a potential client in The Queen and I was enough to make me cringe.

Simple Gifts had a feel of that fantastic story where the woman sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, and he sells his watch to buy a comb for her hair.

Around the middle of the book, I started to feel a bit jaded with characters who were struggling with misery and emotional pain. All of the narrators until then were male, and had fairly similar outlooks. Sex with lots of different women is important to them, as is drinking and drugs. Quite a few were writers, there were a few stories with political themes, but the one thing they had in common was that these blokes all found being monogamous impossible.

At this point, I really wanted to tell Jay McInerney that not all stories need to have a sad ending. I’m not a child, I know that happy ever after only happens in fairy stories, but wow, leave me with some hope can’t you? Then I thought about this a little more. Not just about how his stories end, but questioning if there can be a story at all if nothing sad, adverse or disappointing happens.  I’m answering my own question here with; probably not. So then, my next question is, as a reader, does this mean I’m the sort of person who preys on and enjoys other people’s misery, for my own entertainment? Well, again, probably not, but only because of a technicality; these are made up stories, with characters who are not real. Hmmm.

So with a different outlook I kept reading, and enjoyed the rest of the stories in the collection, including a few stories told by female characters, who were every bit as disfunctional as the male narrators in the other stories.

Funnily enough, my favourite stories were both told by female narrators. These were Summary Judgement, a story about a woman on the hustle for a rich husband, and The Debutante’s Return, where a young woman returns to her home town to look after her ageing mother.

Despite the plethora of sad-sack, discontented characters who mess up their lives in stupid, stupid ways, I enjoyed How it Ended and am looking forward to reading a full length novel by Jay McInerney.


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