Book reviews

Archive for January, 2017

A Perfectly Good Family by Lionel Shriver


A Perfectly Good Family is by Lionel Shriver, who also wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lionel Shriver seems to specialise in stories about dysfunctional families. We Need to Talk About Kevin is chilling. I read it years ago, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, the horror of the story certainly stuck in my head. A Perfectly Good Family is about an equally dysfunctional family, although in there favour, they are not psychopaths.

The story is narrated by Corlis, an unsuccessful artist in her thirties, who has been living in England. Corlis comes home to North Carolina when her mother dies, for the funeral and for her inheritance. Corlis and her two brothers, Mordecai and Truman have been left a quarter of their family home, with the remaining quarter being left to a good cause, in this case, the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union.

In an interview with the author at the back of the edition I read, Lionel Shriver said that she modeled the family home in A Perfectly Good Family on a real house, the Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina. The actual house is a Reconstruction Mansion, built about 150 years ago, and has been vacant for decades. The interior is in a derelict condition, although some money has been spent restoring and maintaining the facade.

The siblings have an uneasy relationship. Underneath all of their bickering and fighting, they love each other, but when Corlis moves back into the family home, Truman, who has never left home, becomes resentful. Although Truman has married, and he and his bland wife, Averil, have the third floor and the dovecot, his main gripe is that he has been looking after their controlling, demanding and difficult mother for years, maintaining the house and keeping things ticking over, while Corlis and Mordecai been off having a good time.

When Mordecai moves back in to the house too, the family’s relationships become even move complicated. Mordecai is a hard drinking, three times married slob, who walks all over Truman. (Truman could be described as ‘passive-aggressive’). Corlis, who has spent her whole life taking sides with one or the other of her brothers, is put upon by Truman and Mordecai to take out a mortgage with them, to buy the house from the other brother. (My mother always says never to have three children, because two will always gang up on one. Possibly Lionel Shriver’s mother told her this too, which then formed the basis of this story).

While I enjoyed A Perfectly Good Family, I wish I had read this author’s books in order of her writing them. This is a perfectly good story, but I think Lionel Shriver’s writing has gotten better as she has gone along and it is difficult to compare earlier works with the later books.






Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Armstrong


In honour of Australia Day, which was yesterday, today’s book review is by an Australian author.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Armstrong won the 2009 Age Book of the Year. In Victoria, Australia, we have two main newspapers, The Age and The Herald-Sun. The Age has a smaller circulation, but the saying goes, ‘The Sun is for the masses and The Age is for the classes.’

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a dystopian novel, and just like many of it’s kind, starts off with a chapter set in a world the reader actually recognises; in this case, Melbourne on New Year’s Eve. The narrator is an only child, who is helping his parents pack the car for a trip to visit his grandparents in the country. It is never actually stated in the story, but it is clear that the story begins in the millennium new year, when we all wondered if the world was actually going to end because of computer glitches. This seems funny to look back on now, but I don’t mind admitting that in the week between that Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I bought a few extra tins of tomato soup and baked beans, just in case… Midnight saw us on the foreshore of our town watching fireworks with friends, by 1am we were tucked up in bed safe and sound, then waking up in the morning to find life had gone on as usual, with a pantry full of tinned food to get through.

The narrator starts the story in much the same vein as my story. His father fears the worst, but his mother thinks his father is a fool for worrying. However, it turned out the narrator’s father was right. The computers did not click over properly and the world as we knew it, ended.

Each chapter leaps ahead to  different time in the narrator’s life. The second chapter was set in a future nobody could have seen coming. The narrator is now a delinquent teenager, living with his grandparents. Food and resources are scarce for people who chose to stay in the city, travelling into districts other than your own is not allowed and the divide between city and country people is enormous.

By the third chapter, the narrator is in his twenties and working for the government, clearing rural people from their homes to protect them from the coming floods. Water levels are rising due to changes in weather patterns, (global warming is not mentioned, so it is unclear whether the floods are caused by that or by something else that went pear-shaped because of the computers). The narrator is now a petty thief, taking advantage where he can to get ahead.

Each subsequent chapter has the narrator a few years older and the world changing again, although some things are timeless. The narrator falls in love with someone who loves him less than he loves her. People still seek power. People hide their real selves behind a public persona.

I believe Things We Didn’t See Coming is or was on the VCE English reading list, meaning that Australian Year 12 students studied this novel in order to complete High School. The setting is grim, but the story finishes with some hope for a happier future, perfect for students finishing High School and about to start the next phase of their lives.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


I immediately rang my daughter to share the joy when I heard that a new book by Harper Lee had been found and was to be published, but on learning that the author’s understanding of what she was agreeing to may have been compromised when she approved publication of Go Set A Watchman, I decided not to read the story, which is supposedly an early version on To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, when my Dad, who as far as I know has never bought a copy of any other book for himself, bought Go Set a Watchman, read it and then forced his copy on me, my scruples were compromised. I held on to the book for over a year, trying to decide whether to read it or not – Dad wants me to, Harper Lee doesn’t, Dad wants me to, and so on, before I eventually succumbed. Once I had read the book, I found my original dilemma to be ironic.
Scruples aside, for anyone who doesn’t know, Go Set a Watchman is set in the 1950s. Scout is now an adult and is generally known as Jean Louise. She lives in New York City, but for the purposes of the story, returns to Maycomb for a visit with her father. Atticus, who will always look like a black and white Gregory Peck in my imagination, is now old and ill. Jean Louise has a flirtation going with her childhood friend Hank who wants her to marry him, but she struggles to see herself living happily in Maycomb after being exposed to a bigger world.
I don’t know if this book can be considered a sequel To Kill a Mockingbird or not. The story has Scout (Jean Louise just doesn’t roll off the tongue) discovering that her father is not the man she believed him to be. Scout is horribly disappointed in him but eventually learns that she can become (or already is) the person she believed Atticus to be, before he fell from the pedestal she placed him on. Scout’s character is a sledgehammer Harper Lee uses to address race inequalities, in an obvious attempt to force the world to be the way she wants it to be. The story acknowledges the history and the complications of these inequalities and it is clear that she believes there will be no fast, easy resolution to the issue, however much Scout wants there to be.
In my opinion, although Go Set a Watchman isn’t a great book, and nobody would name their child Scout or Jean Louise in honour of this character, the story does add something to the whole fairytale of To Kill a Mockingbird which for so long was considered one of the best ‘one-hit wonders’ of our time, although for the sake of my conscience, I do wish that Harper Lee had written an entirely different book with an entirely different set of characters.


Winter Storms by Elin Hilderbrand


Winter Storms is the third in the ‘Winter Street’ series by Elin Hilderbrand. I missed reading the middle story, Winter Stroll, but the characters and the story are familiar enough that I quickly caught up with what’s going on. (Much like missing a few episodes of a television soap opera).

The ‘Winter Street’ stories follow the Quinn family through life on Nantucket. When I left the characters at the end of the first book, patriarch Kelly Quinn was doing okay, despite his second wife, Mitzi, leaving him for someone she had been having a Christmas affair with for the past 12 years. Kelly’s ex-wife Margaret, a famous newsreader, was back in the picture with Kelly romantically, and their children were having a few financial or romantic adventures of their own.

Well, plenty of things must have happened in the second book, but just like watching a soapie, if you miss an episode or two you catch up again eventually. Kelly has been seriously ill, Mitzi came back, Margaret is marrying someone else, one of Kelly and Margaret’s sons is in jail for fraud, and Kelly and Mitzi’s son, a soldier, is missing in Afghanistan. For a bit of light relief, Kelly and Margaret’s daughter has two boyfriends whom she can’t decide between.

Similarly to the first story in the series, Winter Storms finishes up at Christmas time, which is a big deal in the Quinn family and on Nantucket apparently. There are happy endings for most characters and worries for others. I can imagine this story going on and on and on, in the style of Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Scotland Street’ series. Definitely a comfort read, and especially good for those of us who have their little dreams about life on Nantucket.



What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

whatI enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, loads more than his novels, Colourless Tsukura Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage or The Strange Library, as good as they were.

What I liked best about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was that it was real. It was the author’s own story, mostly about his experiences training for and running in marathons and triathlons, and a little about writing and how he lives his life.

Confession – I used to run. I know the world is divided up into people who run and people who don’t, (just like or people who read and people who don’t, people who like chocolate and people who don’t, or even people who go to bed early and people who don’t), but either way, I like running (and reading, chocolate and going to bed early. Don’t get me wrong, I never ran a marathon. (I’m not stupid). I’m not built for long distance running, but I used to manage between five and eight kilometres three or four times a week and I did this for years. When I was running, I felt good. I fit into everything in my wardrobe and I could eat what I liked. I enjoyed the time on my own while I was running too, but the best thing was the sense of satisfaction I felt after a run. (Haruki Murakami also says that sometimes finishing a run is the best part, so there!).

I stopped running because the amount of free time I had changed and for some reason I never started again. This book makes me think about running again though.

In this memoir, which was written about ten years ago when the author was in his late fifties, and splitting his time between Japan, Hawaii and Cambridge. Haruki Murakami is clearly a busy man, strict in his habits and as a man who likes his company, well suited to the solitary natures of writing and running.

Haruki Murakami’s honesty is brutal. For example, when he talks about feeling jaded with running, he describes the sensation as being, “Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love.” Ouch.

He also points out that most writers burn out. “Some writers take their own lives at this point, while others just give up writing and choose another path.”

Haruki Murakami explains that he runs in part for his physical health and partly to extend his creative life, as he believes that writing novels brings out the writer’s emotional toxins, and that being in the best possible physical health helps authors to cope mentally. He stresses over and over that this view and his way of dealing with the mental demands of writing are his opinion only, but that they help him to do his best, or as he describes it, beyond his best.

He also comments that when he doesn’t feel like going out for a run that he tells himself how lucky he is not having to commute to work or to attend meetings. (He does recognise that some people would rather suffer a commute or meeting than go on a run!) He is honest about the pain of running long distances, about ageing and about the benefits of a routine.

The author’s story of how he came to be a writer is interesting too. He says he was sitting outside watching baseball, when the thought came to him he could write a novel. So he did. He sold his jazz bar and started writing, just like that. If he were to write another memoir about music and his former career, I would read it too.

I found What I Talk About When I Talk About Running to be inspiring. The idea of doing your best comes through loud and clear, regardless of how people feel about running, although I think I’m going to find time to run again myself.*

*Since writing this review a few weeks ago, I went on one very short run, which nearly killed me. I have eaten my way through several blocks of chocolate and found that to be much more enjoyable.


The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie


I guessed who did it before the end!

First time ever.

I didn’t get everything right (I missed the whole accomplice angle in this plot) but I knew who the murderer was. Woo-hoo.

I might have read The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie before (at least thirty years ago) but I can’t remember for sure. (If I’m not sure, it doesn’t count).

What I had definitely forgotten was how good Agatha Christie is a creating believable, likeable characters. And how good she is at writing dialogue which makes the reader feel as if they are also part of the gang. And how good she is at confusing the reader about who the murderer might be.

This story starts at a weekend party at a house called Chimneys, where a group of friends have gathered for a good time. The house guests are bright and cheerful and full of high spirits, when they decide to play a joke on one of the members, who is renowned for sleeping in later than the rest of them. (Even on working days, the men of the party don’t need to turn up to work at the Foreign Office until 11am). The house guest creep into the sleepy-head’s room and set a number of alarm clocks, planning to wake him up through the night, but in the morning, they find him dead in his bed, apparently having overdosed on a sleeping draught.

A bright young thing nicknamed ‘Bundle’ becomes involved in the mystery when a second fellow from the party turns up dead, and from there, things rollick along. The Seven Dials turns out to be a place in London, as well as a mysterious group who appear to be interested in a secret formula for manufacturing wire which is as strong as steel (ah, industrial espionage, a timeless reason to commit a crime…)

The slang used by the characters, their nicknames (Socks, Codders and Pongo, not to mention our heroine, Bundle) and the funny, at cross-purposes conversations reminded me of PG Wodehouse’s joyful style.

The Seven Dials Mystery has everything except a ‘why’ that makes sense. Adventure, romance, mystery, great characters, funny slang, a plot, mad-keen golfers, women who are interested in Politics (yes, with a capital ‘P’), butlers, difficult gardeners, beautiful countesses and wicked villians. I loved that when the murderer was caught, no one expressed any regret that he or she was going to swing for his or her crimes. However, I didn’t really get the reason why the villain committed their crimes as it all seemed a bit too far fetched. I don’t think I can explain why without saying who did it, but my lack of understanding didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the rest of the story.

The Seven Dials Mystery is loads of fun. Read it and enjoy it for yourself.






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