Book reviews

Archive for November, 2016

Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin


I frightened myself silly reading  The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child, so sensibly waited until I was an adult before reading any more of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ stories*. It seemed like a natural progression to read a story about Sherlock Holmes in his retirement when I came across Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin.

I never thought I would feel sad for Sherlock Holmes, the most well known fictional detective of all time, with his incredible brain and arrogant attitude, but Mr Holmes showed the man in a whole new light.

In this story Sherlock Holmes is 90 years old, and becoming forgetful. He lives in retirement at his farmhouse in Sussex, attended to by a housekeeper and her young son, tending to his bees, writing a little and snoozing a lot.

Mr Holmes isn’t the mystery story I expected when I started reading, although wherever Sherlock Holmes goes he is recognised and the public continue to request his assistance in various matters. These days he finds this intrusive and actively turns people away. There are deaths in the story, but the story gently reminds people that everyone is born, and so must everyone die.

The character study of Sherlock Holmes is fascinating. Unlike any of the books I read by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is telling this story, and makes comments from time to time about the unreliability of Dr Watson as a factual writer, although he does credit Dr Watson with being an excellent story-teller. However, after reading Mr Holmes, I believed Sherlock Holmes’ version of events, in that Dr Watson exaggerated and polished the stories for better sales. (I’m not delusional, I know these are fictional characters). There is also an intriguing glimpse of Sherlock falling in love after a fairly superficial involvement with a married woman when he was a much younger man, and in present times, of his affection for his housekeeper’s son.

His failing memory unsettles him, and I felt enormous sympathy for this lonely man who had never formed ongoing relationships with anyone other than Dr Watson and his brother, Mycroft.

The story is sad, but beautiful. I can recommend Mr Holmes to anyone who has enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ stories. I intend to watch the movie of the same name starring Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes as soon as possible.

*If I want to frighten myself now, my imagination is still capable of believing the horrible beast, glowing in the dark, as described and illustrated (shudder) in my abridged, child’s edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, is waiting in a hidden corner of my backyard to chase me when I take the rubbish out to the bins at night. Thinking about it now, 40 years later (and in the daylight), I can’t believe these editions were aimed at children.




Brooklyn by Colm Toibin


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is one of the loveliest books I’ve read this year. The story evoked a sense of nostalgia for Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s for me, even though I have never visited either place and wasn’t even born then. I’m blaming the emotions I felt on the writer’s skills.

The story follows Eilis, a young woman living with her widowed mother and glamourous older sister, Rose, in their family home in a small town in Ireland. Times are hard, and Eilis struggles to find anything other than part-time work. Her brothers have already left Ireland to find work in England. Eilis’ mother’s pension is supplemented by Rose’s income.

Rose arranges for an Irish priest to sponsor Eilis to go to America and work in a department store in Brooklyn. The priest also arranges for Eilis to live in a boarding house with a widowed landlady and a houseful of young female Irish boarders. Eilis is desperately homesick at first, but eventually settles into the routine of her work and life. Eventually Eilis starts studying to become a book-keeper and meets a young Italian man, Tony, at a dance.

The way the divide between the races, cultures and religions is portrayed in Brooklyn is interesting. It is an enormous change when the department store where Eilis works starts to stock items aimed at coloured women, and the only person Eilis meets who is not Catholic in the whole story is her teacher at her book-keeping course, who is Jewish. When Eilis starts going out with Tony, she doesn’t tell anyone he is Italian, as that would also be frowned on. This made me smile, as in my Australian family tree there were Irish-Italian marriages during the gold-rush times. Despite their language barriers and cultural differences, my ancestors had religion in common, which was enough to get their romances across the line.

Tony falls in love with Eilis and she is beginning to fall in love with him too, when she receives news from Ireland that means she has to go home to her family. At first Eilis only intends to stay for a short while, but she is soon drawn back into life in Ireland and becomes horribly conflicted over where she belongs. To say what she decides would spoil the story, but I felt very sorry for Eilis having to make such a decision.

I enjoyed Brooklyn enormously and intend to read more books by Colm Toibin.



The Lake House by Kate Morton


My mother recommended Australian author Kate Morton to me ages ago, and I ignored her recommendation. Mum only ever read beauty books by Sophie Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, biographies about old film stars, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Queen Mother, and Agatha Christie novels. I love Agatha Christie’s stories, but the rest of Mum’s reading matter I can do without. (I’m fairly sure Sophie Loren was blessed with wonderful genes, and no matter how much spaghetti I eat, I am never going to look sultry or glamourous. Sometimes you just have to accept that what works for one of the most beautiful women in the world may not work for you). Anyway, I’m not sure what made Mum start reading novels, but after she read one book by Kate Morton, she promptly went out and bought every other book she had written.

Eventually, under sufferance, I picked up The Lake House by Kate Morton and sat down to read, fully expecting to roll my eyes and sigh like a petulant teenager at my long suffering mother’s choice of novel, before recommending a much better book to Mum. (I know, I know. I deserve a smack).

Half an hour later I was completely absorbed in the story of a family living in a lovely country house in Cornwall during the 1930s, and the mysterious disappearance of their child. There is also a present day story involving a disgraced detective becoming absorbed by the mystery of the now abandoned house and the child’s disappearance and of course, she sets out to solve the mystery. The story moves easily across the timeframes.

The characters in The Lake House are lovely too. They are believable and on the whole, good people. Even when their behaviour is immoral or suspect, the reader still sides with these characters and wants the best for them. And while I liked the characters, particularly Alice Edenvale, I loved the family’s home, Loeanneth. The house is charming, with secret tunnels, beautiful gardens, a swing in a tree, a boathouse, lake and river. What more could anyone want?

My only criticism is that the story’s central mystery, which kept me going for nearly 500 pages, was tied up in the last few pages with a string of coincidences. (I tried to discuss my dissatisfaction regarding the ending with Mum, but she wasn’t having any of it. She said the ending was perfect).

I actually have a great idea for how the story could have ended, but can’t go into details here without spoiling the book for other readers as my idea involves some changes to the earlier part of the story.

I’m planning to read more books by Kate Morton and can happily recommend The Lake House, particularly as a comfort or holiday read. Thanks, Mum.



Life of Pi by Yann Martel


If somebody told me a week ago I would read a story about a shipwrecked Indian boy who survives for the better part of a year on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger, and that I would believe every word, I would have ridiculed the idea. Obviously loads of other people besides me also loved this book, as Life of Pi by Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize.

The story is told by Pi, a boy who lives with his parents and older brother in Pondicherry, India. Pi’s father kept a zoo in Pondicherry, with orang-utans, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, birds, bears, tigers, lions and other exotic animals.

Pi is an unusually bright child, who is interested and drawn to the three religions which dominate in his home town, and eventually he becomes a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim, all at the same time.

The story moves along quite slowly in the beginning, and follows Pi’s life as he goes to school, learns to swim with a family friend and is tormented by his brother. No doubt Pi leads a similar life to most children, apart from his interest in religion and the family’s zoo.

However, when Pi’s family decide to sell the zoo and move to Canada, the plot speeds up enormously. They travel on a cargo ship, along with many of the animals from their zoo and other animals to sell. When their ship is wrecked on the Pacific Ocean, Pi is thrown into a lifeboat along with a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Later, an Orang-utan named Orange Juice finds its way to the lifeboat also. At this point I would probably have jumped overboard and let the sharks eat me, but Pi is much braver and far more resourceful than me.

The language in Life of Pi is wonderful. I felt as if I experienced Pi’s emotions with him, particularly those he felt while in the lifeboat. His (and my) experiences included fear, panic, hunger, seasickness, occasional joy, and worst of all, constant thirst.

This is a book which should be read and enjoyed without the plot being spoiled by reading someone else’s review, so if you haven’t already read Life of Pi, I strongly recommend you do so. I can’t wait to read more by this author, particularly The High Mountains of Portugal which has been on my list for a while, and to watch the movie Life of Pi.



The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien


The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien opened my eyes to the power of teenage girls over silly old men.

The story is narrated by Caithleen Brady, a schoolgirl in a country village in Ireland during the 1960’s. Caithleen’s father is an alcoholic wife-beater, who drinks away any hope the family have of a better life. After Caithleen’s mother drowns in an accident, Caithleen wins a scholarship to a boarding school. Baba, Caithleen’s best friend, is a paying student at the same school.

Caithleen and Baba have a co-dependent relationship rather than a true friendship. Caithleen loves spending time in her best friend Baba’s comparatively affluent household, and Baba likes having Caithleen around so she can feel superior.

As Caithleen grows older she falls in love with the local toff, a man nicknamed ‘Mr Gentleman’ by the locals. Both Caithleen and Mr Gentleman exploit each other. Caithleen is in love with love, and doesn’t give Mrs Gentleman’s happiness any consideration at all. Caithleen’s innocence is debateable. Mr Gentleman grooms Caithleen from a young age, but due to Mrs Gentleman getting wind of the affair, they are stopped from going away together.

I believe The Country Girls is quite highly regarded, however I found the romantic adventures of Caithleen to be boring, and her life to be sordid and sad. The older girls at the school showed kindness towards the younger girls, but otherwise, there isn’t much good in any of the characters. The story ended abruptly, although I believe the book is part of a trilogy. I hope things work out well for Caithleen, however I won’t be reading on to find out if that is the case.




The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is a fantasy novel, and is completely different from the two other books I have read by this author, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

The story follows the travels of an elderly Christian couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in England just after the time of King Arthur, along with ogres and dragons and other mythical beasts. Despite being of an age where their knowledge would traditionally be valued, Axl and Beatrice are tormented by children and are not permitted to have a candle in their room, which is a long way from the community’s fire. Both Axl and Beatrice are concerned about their own and their community’s forgetfulness about matters that have previously been important to them.

Axl and Beatrice clearly have a great love for each other, although Axl calling Beatrice ‘Princess’ every time he spoke to her was irritating.

Beatrice and Axl set off on a journey to visit their son, although at times they are not even sure if they ever had a son, as they cannot clearly remember their past. Early in the journey they met with a boatman whose role is to ferry people to an island, either together if their love is true, or if not, alone.

Axl and Beatrice arrived at a town where the townspeople were in a panicked frenzy over a boy who has been taken by demons. When the boy was rescued by a visiting warrior and returned, the superstitions of the townspeople endangered the boy’s life, so he and the warrior left town with Axl and Beatrice, and continued their travels together.

I stopped reading at about this point, because I couldn’t figure out what was going on, or what anything meant. Plus, I kept getting distracted, and thinking things like, ‘I must go and make the bed’, or ‘The bathroom really needs cleaning’, which I think actually meant, I should find another book to read instead of The Buried Giant, as it wasn’t for me. I didn’t even flick through to the end, to see if Axl and Beatrice made it back to the boatman to take their last journey together.

The Remains of the Day is one of the best books I’ve ever read and I loved Never Let Me Go, so I won’t be put off reading other books by this author. I don’t usually enjoy fantasy, so I’m putting my disinterest in The Buried Giant down to that.


The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle


The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle isn’t very long, but it packs a huge punch. The story is based on the author’s own experiences as a soldier in the Australian Army during the Vietnam war.

The action starts at the Richmond RAAF base (near Sydney), with the narrator about to hop on a plane to Vietnam. The narrator has just celebrated his nineteenth birthday with a party in the backyard of his family home with 80 people, where his girlfriend gave him the traditional gift down behind the shed, where nobody would surprise them. The narrator is crude and unsophisticated, a stereotypical Australian man of the time.

On landing in Saigon, the narrator comments on the amount of corpses going the opposite way to him and his squadron, however he and his mates soon get used to the death and blood and vomit and constant rain and boredom and gambling which makes up their days.

He watches his mates die around him as they fight a war that they know many Australians condemn, while looking forward to going on leave where they will drink themselves senseless and spend the remainder of their money on prostitutes. The soldiers arrange fights between pet spiders and scorpions, criticise the Army cooks, make fun of bureaucracy and the military hierarchy. They shoot Vietnamese women’s sons and beat up the Vietnamese men who try to rob them. They suffer from tinea and they miss their mothers and wives and girlfriends, even though their girlfriends break up with them while they are away. Eventually, if they are lucky, they get a plane ticket home again.

The Odd Angry Shot is all the more powerful for not going into the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War. The story was made into a movie of the same name in 1979, and starred a who’s who of Australian actors of the time, including Bryan Brown, John Jarratt, John Hargreaves, Graeme Kennedy and Graeme Blundell, amongst others. The book won the National Book Council Award in 1975.


The character’s language is very Australian and the swearing rife (also very Australian). The Odd Angry Shot is funny and tragic and probably should be taught in school, although the crudeness of the humour and language would probably make the book unsuitable for children. I expect this is a story I will remember in years to come (which is my definition of a classic).




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