Book reviews

Archive for February, 2017

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier


I was actually intending to re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or Mary Anne when I came across The House on the Strand, so thinking I had not read this story before, chose it instead. I got a few chapters in before realising I had already read The House on the Strand too, but since I couldn’t remember what happened, decided to continue. (This blog is going to be a blessing as I grow older, as I will be able to check what I’ve already read. If my review says I liked a book and I truly can’t remember it, then I may well re-read it anyway).

The House on the Strand follows the adventures of a fellow called Dick, who has thrown in his boring job  – lucky chap – who can afford to do that anymore? In the meantime, Dick is spending time at a friend’s family home in Cornwall thinking about what he wants to do next. His American wife Vita wants him to take a similar job to the one he has recently left and move to New York, but Dick is not convinced that living in New York with his wife and stepsons will make him happy.

The house Dick is staying in belongs to his long-time friend Magnus, who is a biophysicist. Magnus has invented a drug and has asked Dick to trial it. When Dick takes the drug (this is a man in his thirties, mind you, not some teenager bowing to peer-pressure), he is transported to the past, where he becomes an unseen observer watching the affairs of the people who lived in the area over 600 years ago.

Each time Dick takes a trip to the past he becomes more and more interested in what is happening, to the point where he begins to confuse the events of the present and the past and wants to be there more than he does in his own time, particularly after Vita and the boys turn up unexpectedly in Cornwall.

Dick always follows a steward named Roger who is in love with the Lady Isolda during his time-travels. I felt more engaged with the characters from the present than those of the past though, and became a bit confused with all of the political intrigues from the 14th century sections of the story. Regardless of this, I still enjoyed the book.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the Cornwall landscape, both present and past. The changes caused by the sea over the years to the area where the book was set was fascinating. I also enjoyed reading of a sailing trip with the present day characters, some relishing the wind and waves and others becoming violently sea-sick. Growing up reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, I already have a mental image of a rugged coast line (and smuggler’s caves) in Cornwall and the descriptions of the coast in The House on the Strand did not disappoint.

The House on the Strand was written in the late 1960’s when the author was in her sixties, and I was surprised at her ability to have her characters use a drug similar to LSD in order to time travel, and to do it convincingly. (Not that I was around in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, nor have I used LSD, or time-travelled if it comes to that, but you know what I mean. I’m middle aged and have no idea about the fashion of today, let alone so I’m impressed that Daphne du Maurier did not make a fool of herself by telling a story using characters living a life-style which must have been alien to her own).

I’ll save a re-read of Rebecca for another time.





Finders Keepers by Stephen King


Finders Keepers by Stephen King is more of the same. More getting so caught up in the story that I read until way past my bedtime. More being tired and cross all the next day at work. More racing through my jobs when I get home so that I can get back to reading the story. More anxiety over a bunch of characters who I come to care about after just a few pages. I know I say this every time I read a Stephen King novel, but I don’t know how he manages this.

Finders Keepers should be read after Mr Mercedes, as many of the characters have already appeared in, or are in some way connected with characters who first appeared in Mr Mercedes. The stories are quite separate though and would stand alone if you really can’t wait to read them in order.

Finders Keepers starts with a young man, Morris Bellamy, breaking into the home of a reclusive author. This author wrote a trilogy of books which became American classics, and while the Morris’s friends intend to steal cash from the author, Morris is looking for the author’s manuscripts, in particular, unpublished works, in order to feed his obsession about the main character in the books. The author and Morris have a literary argument about the plot, which Morris thinks was a cop-out, and in a fit of rage he kills the author.

Morris finds the manuscripts he was hoping for and cash, then kills his accomplices too. He hides the manuscripts and cash in a safe place, then is caught for an unrelated crime and goes to jail for 35 years before he can read the unpublished stories.

Years later, a boy finds the manuscripts and cash. He uses the cash to help his family, who have been down on their luck since being caught up in a horrific incident which was at the centre of the plot for Mr Mercedes, and goes on to read the unpublished manuscripts.

Things get scary when Morris gets out of jail and comes looking for the manuscripts after having waited 35 years to find out what happens next.

I love that Stephen King gets how much writers and readers love stories.

Finders Keepers is mostly a straight story, with very few of this author’s usual supernatural-type elements. I have to admit that a huge shiver ran down my back sometime during the last chapter, and I can’t wait for more with the novel that I hope is to follow this. If Stephen King doesn’t publish the third story in what has been promoted as a trilogy, I hope a crazed fan breaks into his house, steals the relevant manuscripts and then publishes them so we all find out what happens next. Just so long as the crazed fan lets Stephen King live…


Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez left me feeling enormously conflicted.

I loved the author’s ornate, over the top, descriptive, and emotive writing style, which was perfectly suited to this story of love and romance in the Caribbean, although the style wouldn’t work for an Australian author. Some laconic bloke would say, “Putting on the dog,” and the writer would be condemned to the shelves for women’s fiction forever.

The plot of Love in the Time of Cholera is straightforward; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, will the boy ever win the girl’s heart again?

The story is set around the turn of the century and follows three main characters, the beautiful Fermina Daza, her first love, Florentino Ariza, who by the end of the story has loved her for nearly 60 years, and Fermina’s husband, Dr Juvenal Urbino.

Love in the Time of Cholera starts with the main characters in their old age. Fermina is in her seventies and her husband in his eighties when he dies, falling off a ladder while attempting to rescue his pet parrot from the high branches of a mango tree. Florentino uses the opportunity to go to Fermina’s home to assist her with the immediate necessities after a death in the house, and finishes the day by telling Fermina that he still loves her. Hopeless timing, but poor old Florentino couldn’t help himself.

Fermina and Florentino met in their youth, when Florentino fell in love with Fermina at first sight. He wooed her with love letters, which they exchanged frantically. Like most teenagers even now they were both in love with love, rather than with each other, as they rarely met or spoke to each other, but when Fermina’s father found out about the romance, he took Fermina away for several years to break the young couple up. They continued to exchange telegrams while she was away, but when Fermina returned to her home town and they met again, she fell out of love with Florentino, just like that.

Enter Doctor Juvenal Urbino, who first met Fermina when she was his patient. Fermina initially disliked him enormously, but eventually gave in to her father’s wishes and married him.

I loved the first part of the story, which was the sweet, innocent romance of teenagers, but the second half was a different story again, because the characters discovered sex. The remainder of the story tells of Fermina’s, the Doctor’s and Florentino’s romantic and sexual encounters, starting with the married couple on their honeymoon in Europe.

Despite swearing eternal love for Fermina, Florentino became the most promiscuous man around town. He particularly enjoyed spending time with widows, but he really wasn’t very picky. Not only that, his morals! In his old age Florentino was messing around with a very young teenager, who was his god-daughter to boot! And Florentino had the audacity to believe that this child was loving their time together as much as he was, or so the author said…

Surprisingly, Florentino didn’t die of a nasty STD.

Doctor Juvenal Urbino had his share of adventures too. He wasn’t a faithful husband, and hurt Fermina’s pride enormously when she literally sniffed out that he was having an affair. A large portion of the second half of the novel tells of the ups and downs of their married life, and how they eventually came to be dependent on each other in the way that people who have spent a lifetime together are.

Up until the point where Fermina and the Doctor married, reading this novel was making me feel happier than I’ve been in years. I don’t buy many books, but had decided that Love in the Time of Cholera was going to make it onto my shelves. I was seductively lured into the sex scenes on Fermina and the Doctor’s honeymoon and enjoyed them too. Nothing too descriptive, although by the time Florentino gave in to lust, a few practices made me raise my eyebrows (while laughing, because the writing is beautiful and funny). But then, bam! All of a sudden I’m reading about a woman who was raped, who says she will never have another lover who can measure up to her rapist. What? Then bam, again! Florentino and his very, very young god-daughter. Maybe things were different on this unnamed island in the Caribbean over 100 years ago, but I’m a product of a different age and found these affairs really distasteful. I don’t know if they were supposed to be funny, or tongue in cheek, and if they were, I’ve missed the whole point. If not, well, the ego of this writer is ridiculous, if he honestly thinks this is how things work.

My conflict about this story was the depravity of some characters versus the beautiful writing.

I felt uncomfortable and sordid while I was reading Lolita, which is the story of an older man’s affair with his step-daughter. I don’t feel sordid after finishing Love in the Time of Cholera though, despite the behaviours which are completely unacceptable in any day and age.

What I liked was that the characters live their lives fully. I like that in Love in the Time of Cholera love is for old people as well as for young. I adored the order of the words and the fullness of the sentences and how the detailed paragraphs and descriptive chapters built up to make the story live.

Say this sentence aloud; “But when it was indispensable she would, with sorrow in her heart, give free rein to a character of solid iron.”

Or, when someone intruded on a couple enjoying a private moment, the intruder congratulated the man, then said, “And you, Senorita, feel free to carry on. I swear by my honor that I have not seen your face.” Gorgeous.

The characters acknowledge truths which most of us try to ignore for the sake of a happy life, including the boredom of a stable marriage, the ridiculousness of falling in love with love and the indignities of growing older.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so clearly I’m not the only person who thinks he wrote some on the most beautiful things ever written. Despite my misgivings about the character’s behaviour, I probably will buy this book and will read everything else that I can get my hands on by this author.








All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld


All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2014.

The story’s narrator commented on crows singing on the first page of the story, while she was dealing with a dead sheep. Crows are a cruel bird. They will peck the eyes from a lamb while it is still alive, just because they can, and their so-called singing is a horrible noise. Consider this a warning about the sadness of this story.

The narrator is a lonely woman named Jake with a mysterious past. She is an Australian, living in isolation with her dog in a cold, wet, miserable part of England. Jake owns a sheep farm on the island, although it is unclear where she got the money to buy her farm. The story begins with Jake finding one of her sheep has been killed viciously, an event which has been happening more and more often.

The story swings back and forwards between Jake’s present in England, keeping to herself and avoiding the world, and her past in Australia. As the story unfolds it seems that Jake learned to shear from a man who was keeping her captive in the Outback, and that when she escaped she went around the shearing sheds, starting as a roustabout, then becoming a shearer, always looking over her shoulder for anyone who might have been looking for her.

I felt uneasy the whole time I was reading this story, and there is nothing in it to leave a reader feeling comfortable or happy. I actually started reading several times then stopped, and went to read something happier. Eventually I came back to All the Birds Singing in the right frame of mind to finish, and found that I couldn’t put the book down.

The story continues to unfold right up until the very end. The English part of the story is told in order of events happening, but the Australian sections are told the opposite way, ending up in Jake’s childhood. We learn where and why Jake got the terrible scars on her back and why she chose to live on the opposite side of the world, with no contact with her family apart from the occasional phone call to hear her mother’s voice but never speaking. A big mystery remains by the end of the story too, something we want to know from the start but don’t find out. While I would have liked to know the answer to this question, I can live without knowing. If the author wanted to tell me, she would have.

I felt for Jake. She is a strong character who has done everything she could to survive, regardless of why she was in the position of needing to.

All the Birds Singing is an intense novel, full of unhappy emotions, including loneliness, guilt, fear and anger. I’m glad to have finished it, because my shoulders have been up around my ears for days with the overwhelming tension of the story, but I’m really looking forward to reading more from Evie Wyld.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore


Helen Dunmore is a new-to-me author, who came to my attention because of a recommendation for her novel Exposure by Fiction Fan. I couldn’t find a copy of Exposure at my library, but happily settled on The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

The Lie is the story of Daniel Branwell, a young man who has recently returned to his village in Cornwall after serving in France during World War 1. While Daniel was away at the war his mother died, leaving him homeless, so on his return, he began living rough on a corner of a small property owned by an elderly dying woman, Mary Pascoe. Daniel cared for Mary until she died, then buried her on a corner of her property in accordance with her wishes, although without notifying the authorities of Mary’s death. Daniel went on to clean up Mary’s cottage and move in, then continued to eke out a living on her land.

Daniel suffers terribly from post traumatic syndrome caused during the War and is often visited by the dead, mostly his dearest friend, Frederick. Daniel and Frederick grew up together, and remained friends despite the differences in their mental abilities, social standing and wealth. Frederick’s and Daniel’s mother’s deaths left Daniel completely alone in the world, although as the story continues Daniel reconnects with Frederick’s sister, Felicia. Felicia is mourning Frederick as intensely as Daniel. The story slips back and forth between Daniel’s time in France and the present.

Felicia and other locals begin to suspect that something is not right with Daniel living at Mary Pascoe’s house and investigate.

The writing is simple and beautiful, even as the mud and deaths and horrors of war are described. The ongoing emotional trauma is devastating but also beautifully told, as is a complicated love story at the centre of the book. The sad ending felt inevitable.

The Lie is a gruelling story told in a poetic way. I’m looking forward even more to eventually reading Exposure by Helen Dunmore, which I believe is the story of the adults in The Railway Children.



The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott


The Holiday Murders by Australian author Robert Gott is set in Melbourne near the end of World War 2. I chose to read this book as the author has written another book called The Port Fairy Murders, and because I occasionally holiday in the actual Port Fairy, I’m keen to read this book. However, the two books appear to be a part of a series, and The Holiday Murders is first.

The Holiday Murders begins on Christmas Eve in 1943, with a phone call to Inspector Titus Lambert informing him of the vicious murders of a Melbourne father and son. The family are rich and influential, and the murders have been performed with a nod to unusual aspects of the victim’s personalities. A daughter of the family who is an up and coming radio star has been spared, and she goes into hiding.

Inspector Lambert calls in Detective Joe Sable and Constable Helen Lord to assist him in the investigation, which quickly ramps up to involve Military Intelligence, who work out of Victoria Barracks. Military Intelligence suspect that the murderer is linked with a political party which draws on National Socialism for inspiration. The party is alternatively named Australia First, Australian Patriots and Our Nation, which made me snort. I expect supporters of Australia’s current One Nation party dislike the similarity of the names ‘Our Nation’ and ‘One Nation’, which the author must have chosen on purpose. Since One Nation also stirs up trouble and hatred though, the similarity is apt. (Don’t get me started on Australian politics though, as I’ll get up on my soapbox and call the supporters of this type of party idiots, and worse).

Oh yes, The Holiday Murders. Where were we? The characters. Joe and Helen both have difficulties in life and in the investigation. Joe is Jewish, at a time when horrible political parties and gullible fools were attempting to emulate the Nazis and Helen is a woman working in a male field, which can be difficult enough now. Seventy years ago it must almost have been impossible for a woman to be a police officer.

I enjoyed travelling around Melbourne in this story, particularly the references to Victoria Barracks, the Manchester Unity Building and the Windsor Hotel, all of which I am familiar with. (High tea at The Windsor is a Melbourne institution, by the way). During the 1940’s, the Windsor Hotel was the place for the wealthy to stay in Melbourne. The Manchester Unity Building was only ten years old and was at the heart of Melbourne’s business and shopping district, and during World War 2. Victoria Barracks housed the Australian War Cabinet. I think the author chose these iconic buildings very well.

The reader knows from the beginning who carried out the murders, but we don’t know the whole story, (we know ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, but are missing ‘why’, the most interesting component). We are on the side of the police as they try to find out who the murderers are and what their motives are. I was starting to get a bit worried by the end of the book, as there weren’t many pages left and there was a lot of loose ends to be tied up, but it all came together quickly, with a motive that I didn’t see coming. Things don’t end happily for all of the characters either. The story was a lot darker than I had initially expected, too.

I didn’t enjoy the psychopathic angle of the story, because I’m bit squeamish about gory details. This may not bother other readers though. I didn’t enjoy was the constant sexual references from some very twisted characters either, because I’m a bit prudish, but eventually I got bored with these weirdos and their fetishes, and eventually started thinking, ‘not again’ when they became repetitive.

However, I did enjoy the writing, the familiarity of the Melbourne locations, the goodness of some of the characters, and most of all, that the story made sense. All in all, I’m looking forward to reading The Port Fairy Murders next.


About Grace by Anthony Doerr


My Aunty G, who is always reading something interesting, recently recommended that I read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I dutifully trotted off to my library only to find the book was already out, so instead borrowed About Grace, Anthony Doerr’s first novel.

About Grace follows the life of David Winkler, a hydrologist with a particular love of snow flakes. I found this character’s love of snow incredibly interesting and exotic. Living in Australia, I’ve rarely seen snow, and had no idea that each snowflake is different. I spent ages Googling actual photos of individual snow flakes while reading this story. In real life, I love sunshine and the beach, but from the safety of my computer screen, have developed an appreciation for snow flakes and weather at the other end of the scale to Melbourne’s more temperate climate.


Anyway, back to the story. As a very young child, David dreams about a man who is hit by a bus while he and his mother watch in horror, only for this event to happen later in real-life. For the rest of David’s life he suffers from repetitive dreams about harrowing events which later come true.

As a lonely man in his early thirties, living in Anchorage (Alaska) during the 1970’s, David dreamed about meeting the love of his life, Sandy. The actual event unfolded exactly as David had dreamed it would, although when they met Sandy was married to another man. David persevered, believing that his and Sandy’s love was inevitable and eventually she succumbed, although I never felt sure of whether Sandy truly loved David or if she wanted to escape her real life.

Sandy eventually fell pregnant, then she and David ran away together to Ohio. They married bigamously before their daughter, Grace, was born.

David was as happy as a cricket until he started to dream of a flood, where he tried to save baby Grace and failed. When heavy rain began to fall and David believed that his dream was about to come true, he panicked, and not knowing if Sandy and Grace survived the flood, ran away to live on a Caribbean island.

Twenty years later, David returned to the USA hoping to find Sandy and Grace still alive.

Perhaps not surprisingly since David is a hydrologist, there are a great many passages about snow flakes and descriptions of water in its many forms, running through the entire story. The story moves quite slowly at times, but it is worth reading carefully to enjoy the beautiful descriptions. The characters can be irritating, in that their actions very often seem ridiculous and implausible, but I fell for them and the story just the same.

It is always a pleasure to find a good new-to-you author, and to read their stories in the right order. I’m glad I started with About Grace, and am looking forward to reading All the Light We Cannot See. I’ll be recommending About Grace to Aunty G too.





Tag Cloud